RMAF 2018 Show Report -- High-End Home Audio
Using an all-out Omega Audio system, all designed and hand-crafted in Italy, including the DNA Timeless CDP, two box CD player ($10,920), the DNA Timeless two box converter ($8,740), and a pair of the DNA Timeless Mono Amplifiers, a four box, solid-state, 100Wpc ($20,150) system, all cabling was from The Element.
One of the most impressive systems at this years event featuring all-Italian designed products from Omega Audio and AlsyVox Audio Design.
You may see some resemblance to a speaker formerly known as Leonardo. However, created by the same designer, Daniele Coen, he is using significantly updated technology, and this entirely new company is now called AlsyVox Audio Design. The products are still designed in Italy and built in Spain, and the model on hand was the AlsyVox Botticelli, a three-way full range ribbon, ($87,000/pr.).
This was one of the most captivating systems I heard at RMAF; liquid, rich tone, a huge and accurately sized soundstage, remarkable bass extension, and they pulled a complete vanishing act. The presentation was finely layered, with vivid dimensionality, and an almost scary natural presence. I was very impressed with their blistering transient attack and dynamic abilities, especially with percussion. Daniele Coen of AlsyVox has been trying to get me to review these panels since my first listen in May of 2017. We should see if we can't make that happen this year...
The Conifer 1 Room is located in the group of suites between the Tower and the Atrium, and this all Constellation electronics chain was sourced by either the Continuum Audio Labs Obsidian Turntable ($35,000) with Viper Tonearm ($10,000), using an Ortofon A-95 Cartridge ($6,000), or the Constellation Audio Cygnus Media Player/DAC ($38,000) w/DC Filter ($6,000).
Irv Gross was on hand to serve up a large dose of the Constellation magic with an exceptional pairing to the Rockport Avior II loudspeakers.
The phonostage was the Constellation Audio Andromeda Phono Preamp ($18,000) w/DC Filter ($5,000), handing off to the Constellation Audio Pictor linestage ($18,000) w/DC Filter ($5,000), with a pair of the Constellation Taurus Mono Amplifiers ($39,000/pr.) rounding out the chain, driving what were the second pair of Rockport Technologies Avior II Loudspeakers ($38,500/pr.) I heard at RMAF. All equipment was isolated with Artesania Audio stands, the Esoteryc 4 Rack with Krion Turntable Base and a pair of Aire Floor Platform amp stands. All cabling, including power cords, was Transparent Audio Ultra.
This was one of a handful of rooms that seemed to have it all, relevant musical detail, transient snap and speed, an unrestricted instrumental bloom, broad spectrum balance and coherence, powerful extension at the bottom, and that airy, unfettered, Constellation treble.
Doug White, of Philadelphia's "The Voice That Is," had a Tidal Tour-de-force showing in room 7018. While I was in the room, the source was the TW-Acustic Raven AC-1 Turntable ($15,500), using their TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 Tonearm ($5,500), fitted with the Transfiguration Proteus Cartridge ($6,000). As I suggested, everything else was pure Tidal, including the Preos Preamplifier ($32,000), Impulse Dual Mono Amplifier ($33,000), and Tidal's new, more affordable, but wholly uncompromised Vimberg speaker line, featuring the new Mino Loudspeaker ($29,000/pr.). The system was wired throughout with Tidal cable.
An all Tidal system from The Voice That Is, featuring the new Vimberg Mino Loudspeaker.
This room was an absolute knock out, with very nice weight and surprising accurate scaling from speakers of this size. They offered very convincing authority, all the while rendering rich, liquid, and balanced tone with engaging textures, especially notable with massed strings. The system was markedly transparent, seductively liquid, and maintained a remarkable balance between a highly neutral and organic mantle, and engaging resolution.
Axiss Audio's Arturo Manzano had set up several system options in the Blank Peak room on the Mezzanine. The main system featured the Transrotor Rondino Nero Turntable ($15,000), with Transrotor TR 5012 Tonearm ($6,300), and the new Air Tight Coda Phono Cartridge ($8,500). It replaces the PC-1S, with a similar motor and the body of the pricier Opus One. The phonostage was the Air Tight ATE-2001 Phono Preamplifier ($30,000), handing off to the Air Tight ATM-2001 Reference Amplifier ($80,000), and everything rested on Joe Laverncik's Critical Mass Systems Sotto Voce Equipment Racks, (starting at $3,500). Joe also pointed out that his Critical Mass Systems Center Stage Audio footers were liberally placed under system components as well. Speakers were the gorgeous Piega Master Line Source 2 ($88,000/pr.).
The Transrotor / Air Tight/Piega combination created some undeniable magic.
There was some serious magic in this room, as the inescapable sense of instrumental texture, correctness of tone, the individuality of instrumental locations and the space of recordings just felt natural, cut after cut.
Finally, we come to the system that has set a new standard for achievement at an audio show, the Maroon Peak room, sponsored by Marietta, Georgia's, The Audio Company. This stunning room had no less than two world premier products; Kevin Hayes' new Valve Amplification Company's Statement 450i iQ integrated Amplifier ($150,000), and Von Schweikert Audio's second flagship launch, the ULTRA 9 ($200,000/pr.).
The Audio Company's tour-de-force; Esoteric digital, Kronos analog, VAC electronics and Von Schweikert loudspeakers, RMAF 2018's Best of Show, and by no small margin.
Make no mistake, this was an all-out assault on the senses, and the pocket book! Fronted by either the exemplary Kronos Pro turntable, with Black Beauty tone arm, carbon fiber arm board, and SCPS-1 power supply ($51,500), fitted with the Air Tight Opus 1 cartridge ($15,000) or the Esoteric Grandioso P1 transport ($38,000), Esoteric Grandioso D1 monoblock DACs – you need two ($38,000/pr.), the Esoteric G-01 rubidium clock ($20,000), and the Esoteric N-01 network audio player ($20,000). All the equipment was centered between the speakers and sitting on a Critical Mass Olympus Luxury rack ($61,500). This system uses Masterbuilt cables throughout and the room was treated with Acoustic Sciences Corporation (ASC) Tube Traps.
Stunningly sexy, in its world premiere, the VAC Statement 450i iQ left no doubt about its abilities or heritage.
As mentioned, making its first public appearance anywhere, amplification came at the pleasure of the über sexy, sublimely versatile, and unflinchingly powerful VAC Statement 450i iQ integrated amplifier ($150,000). Essentially this is an attempt to combine the performance of the VAC Statement Phono($80,000), the VAC Statement Line ($75,000), and the two-chassis VAC Statement 450iQ amplifier($120,000), into one very large, frightfully beautiful integrated amplifier. Spoiler alert – this beastie offers to-freakin'-die-for performance.
The latest in the VSA Flagship series, the ULTRA 9, shown in a stunning red, is essentially the bottom half of their current flagship, the ULTRA 11.
Where the ULTRA 11 employs 14 drivers per side in a concentric array, the ULTRA 9 is essentially the bottom half of an ULTRA 11, using two 9" reinforced ceramic mid-bass drivers, a 7" reinforced ceramic midrange, a beryllium tweeter, and a 5" aluminum ribbon super tweeter on the front baffle. The back features a 15" sealed subwoofer powered by its own 1,000-watt amplifier near the base, a horn loaded Magnesium tweeter and a second ribbon super tweeter, identical to the one used on the front baffle, near the top. There is also a suite of controls to manage the subwoofer's level, frequency, and phase, the front tweeter and super tweeter level, and the rear ambience driver array level control.
To "decode" the original soundfield, VSA uses a unique crossover approach called the Global Axis Integration Network. In following their basic philosophical design approach, that it is, after all, the microphone's voltage signal that is recorded, not actual music, this crossover network is engineered to recreate a dispersion pattern that simulates the pickup pattern of an omni-directional microphone. Von Schweikert Audio has used this unique crossover methodology, which includes that integral ambience retrieval system (fed a specifically derived signal for a driver, or group of drivers, on the rear baffle of the enclosure) since the original VR-4 was released in 1993. Even before that, with the ongoing development of the original Vortex Screen, Von Schweikert has continually advanced this technology, which it has termed Acoustic Inverse Replication.
This pair of the Von Schweikert ULTRA 9 loudspeakers ($200,000/pr.) were shown in a stunning looking metallic flake red that just happened to match the top plate color of the VAC 450i iQ! Serendipity rulz! This system also used two Von Schweikert V12XS Shockwave subwoofers in the rear of the room that were phase adjusted to manage room loading. ($23,000).
Over the past 18 months, on three separate occasions, The Audio Company has been kind enough to let me program the room during the traditional after-hours listening sessions on Saturday nights. I show up with some of my favorite recordings, and they just let me play. It was during this extended listening session that I was able to draw these conclusions.
This system brought me closer to the sensation of live music than any other system I've ever heard, save perhaps for a very similar collection of gear that these same cats have previously taken on tour over the past 18 odd months, starting at AXPONA 2017. The big difference was that previous system featured two pair of the VAC Statement 450 iQ Monoblock Power Amplifiers ($120,000/pr.), and the 7' 6" tall, 28-driver, ULTRA 11 ($300,000/pr.) loudspeaker system.
Honestly, in this room and configuration, save for the ULTRA 11's incomparable sense of dynamic prowess and unrestricted, utterly unhindered ability to accurately scale with any music I've heard them recreate, and at any volume, this pairing was more expressive, even more realistic and engaging.
The first thing that stood out for me was an unfettered and unrestricted sense of immediacy; an otherwise enormous and indefinable degree of emotional connectivity, of unrestrained musical expressiveness and communication. This level of emotional engagement and involvement was well above and beyond what I had heard with any previous iteration of this system, or of any other for that matter, in memory.
One of the many enthralled visitors to this room, retired San Antonio Spurs David Robinson is rapt in the music during one of his repeated visits to this room.
This system portrayed tone color, or instrumental timbre, with an accuracy that I have only witnessed a handful of times previously. The system voicing was full bodied and replete with the complex harmonic structure, including the texture, of instrumental voices, rendering a voiced tonal balance that was more faultless than I've previously experienced.
For a loudspeaker communicating with the blended voices of so many drivers, its coherence was extraordinary. I've mentioned that sense of presence, the realism, scale, and vitality of the music, was simply more truthful. There was a vividness, lifelike and organic, to the entire presence region of the musical envelope that was beyond magical, and may actually supersede that of the ULTRA 11.
I heard an adeptness at maintaining proper loudness across the spectrum of each instrument, from its lowest to highest registers, its broadband accuracy, combined with the essential non-existence of any notable additional coloration or loss of harmonic body across the entire audible spectrum that was captivating.
Further, the degree of stark transparency to the recordings, its ability to reveal any nuance in detail or scale, replete with musical relevance, was completely disarming. Its ability to resolve so lucidly the subtle differences between recordings, and the nuances of each, to reveal staging cues and differences, is exceptional, unmatched in my experience, and only approximated by a very small handful of other speakers.
Transients were spectacularly fast and so clearly defined and cleanly delineated that the silence between musical impulses was distinctly resolved. There is a sonic representation so immediate and palpable, so vivid and articulate in detail, and so utterly correct in voice, that you simply must hear this extraordinary system to even begin to understand.
Where the ULTRA 11 exhibits the most superb and unfettered dynamic performance I've yet experienced, the ULTRA 9 does not fall far behind. As much subtlety as they expose in the microdynamic realm, they are no less stunning in their macro capabilities, revealing not only impressive weight and impact, but arguably unsurpassed pitch definition. This system renders the clear, unyielding, and fully articulated weight and attack of torturous drum or bass tracks. This system had the ability to clearly evoke reptilian fight or flight responses with musical drama like that served up with the powerful conclusion of "It's a Miracle," from Roger Waters' masterpiece, Amused to Death.
All these extraordinary attributes combine to present an unsurpassed degree of soundscaping; layering, image specificity, size, and shape. The overall spatial presentation, hall dimensionality, instrumental placement and interrelationships, the space between and around those remarkably defined voices, and reverberant cues, clearly compete with the high-water mark of performance set by the remarkable ULTRA 11. This is really no surprise to this listener, as this has been a hallmark of Von Schweikert Audio products since I first heard the original VR-4 in the mid 1990's. It is in fact one of the reasons I've owned seven different pair of Von Schweikert Audio speakers over the past two decades.
Finally, this systems ability to almost utterly dematerialize, to vanish from your awareness, to disappear in service to its purpose, and transparently render a persuasively musical gestalt, may surpass that experience as rendered by the ULTRA 11! It is the most intimately communicative, authentically musically expressive system I have had the pleasure of sitting down in front of in over three decades as a professional reviewer.
What set this system apart from every other system at this event (or any event in recent memory for that matter) was its ability to convince you that you are in the presence of live music. What I'm referring to can be very hard to explain, but every one of you would know it the moment you heard it. This system delivered enchantment! It accomplished an unqualified and inexplicable suspension of disbelief that can only be achieved when that perfect storm of electronics, speakers, cabling, software, and room set up align. It is a most miraculous and infrequent occurrence, one that will allow you to completely forget that what you are listening to is a recreation, a wholly contrived and reconstructed sonic event. When the illusion is so real that you are completely transfixed by an entirely fabricated deception so convincingly that you are unaware that the time and space of the event unfolding before you are only auditory induced illusions, all generated by this complex reconstruction engine, a conglomeration of electro-mechanical devices.
To merely say that this room earned Best Sound of Show would somehow diminish and detract from the unqualified allure it accomplished. This was a benchmark setting performance, one that has been seared into my heart and mind, and that will remain with me for the rest of my life. This is going to be one very difficult bar for anyone to top anytime soon. I can't wait to see what they do to try to best this performance.
Till next time, music lovers... enjoy the music!