RMAF 2018 Show Report -- High-End Home Audio
The Denver Chronicles Part 2
Vaughn Loudspeakers and Wavelength Audio were new and familiar names to me, respectively, and I've had virtually no experience with either of them. It turns out there is a symbiotic relationship between them in that Gordon Rankin, the industry beacon of low powered tube amps and tube DACs, consulted with Jim Jordan on the original speaker designs that have evolved into the Plasma Signature model I heard in 9022 — powered by Wavelength Audio electronics. At 8 Ohms and 96dB/W/m efficiency, this speaker, as well as all Vaughn speakers, is meant for low powered tube amps. They didn't have a press sheet, but Jim drew out a flow chart of the rig. The source was a MacBook Pro connected by USB cable to a Wavelength Crimson DAC ($9000), to their Sine Preamp ($7500) feeding Napoleon monoblocks (8 Watts, 300B power tubes, $30,000/pr) to drive both the Plasma Signature speakers with subs ($20,000 or $14,000 without subs) and MJ Acoustics Kensington subwoofer ($3995). The MJ subwoofer from Great Britain was making its North American debut. It features dual 10" drivers, a 550 Watt MOSFET amp, a sophisticated remote control from a smart phone app, 10Hz to 200Hz frequency response and impeccable furniture grade construction. That said, I don't recall seeing the MJ sub hooked up. The subs at the bottom of the Plasma Signature speakers in the photo were interesting with the protective horizontal bars across the front facing driver.
The bamboo plywood cabinet seemed to visually clash with the carbon fiber outer layer of the front baffle, but I've seen bamboo used on speakers before and this is the way it's done — leaving the layers exposed on the edges rather than attempting a mitered edge. Perhaps a darker stain on the wood would improve the looks, but maybe the light finish here is what sells. On top of the speaker a rectangle was cut out of the plasma driver compartment, presumably for cooling. While I might quibble with the visual appearance here, there was no denying that acoustically this was one of the Best Rooms at the show. It was a real treat to chat with Gordon Rankin briefly. I encountered him later in the show in the DeVore Fidelity room where he was discussing various tubes with John DeVore. As much as I consider myself to be a tube guy, his knowledge is truly humbling.
Klipsch had a pair of rooms. In the smaller 9017 was this system with the copper cones driven by Primare CD35 Prisma CD player, and I35 Prisma integrated from Sweden. With the high efficiency of these speakers there is little reason to break the bank for a high-power muscle amp. This worked nicely. Across the hall in 9014 was the LaScala II model ($8000/pr) from their Heritage Series. Aside from the CD player below the integrated tube amp and the subwoofers beside the LaScalas, this was pretty much an updated time capsule from the 1960's. As efficient and dynamic as the large Klipsch speakers were back in the day, they still didn't get deep into the subwoofer range. The efficiency is 105dB/W/m with maximum output listed at 121dB, but the frequency response is only 51Hz to 17kHz (+/-4dB), an acceptable range to keep the turntable from being affected by deep bass, but not up to modern demands of digital music hence the need for the subwoofers. Head bangers beware: the clean, loud music can be addictive and dangerous to your hearing. Mature audiences suggested. That was the new Mobile Fidelity turntable here and I liked the sound a lot in this room.
Over in 9013 an all-Ayre rig on a rather minimal-looking rack was driving a strange looking speaker that presented no flat surfaces. On the top shelf was the CX-8 CD player ($4450) to which you can add USB and/or Ethernet inputs for $500 each. The preamp is the KX-8 (also $4450) to which you can add a digital platform with a variety of digital inputs to augment the standard analog ones. The stereo amp was the VX-8 with analog inputs only for $5500. These units all feature balanced circuitry. And all these units should ship before the end of the year. At least that's what the press kit said. It was a bit confusing, though, as the banner filling the wall behind the equipment rack proclaimed their new EX-8 integrated hub (integrated amplifier) which looks identical to the preamp in the photos. No model labeling was on the faceplates to clarify the issue, and there was no helpful host in the room at this time — late Friday afternoon.
The EX-8 features zero feedback, fully balanced discrete circuitry, an ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip, custom digital clock, S/PDIF input and a headphone output jack among other features. Lots of digital inputs, and 100 Wpc output. It is further evidence of consolidation of function into a single chassis. I would expect it to be priced in the neighborhood of their separates. The speaker is the K45, a three-way, four-driver speaker coming from the new Kaya series from Vivid Audio. At $18,000/pr. it appears to be the middle model in the Kaya line-up. Like all speakers from Vivid, visually, it will take a while to warm up to this one. I noted the protective grille on the tweeter and the under-side speaker connection, thinking that this must be targeted at homes with small children. The shape is so non-descript that it must be perfect for internal sound waves and totally non-diffracting on the exterior.
I avoided touching it, fearing I might tip it over, but I expect it has a low center of gravity. It is easy to visualize it as a piece of contemporary sculpture, as well as a blank slate for a graffiti artist, though it comes in other colors from the factory. Obviously, it is a very arresting speaker and I look forward to hearing it again. I loved Vivid when they first came out, but feared they were too Avant Garde for the marketplace. A decade or more later and they're still at it. The cables were CardasClear balanced interconnects ($3750/m), Clear Light speaker cables, and Clear Beyond power cords ($920/m). My, how quickly this room adds up.
Studio Electric loudspeakers teamed up with ModWright Instruments for a very nice sounding rig in 9010. Their speakers always seem to have a visual design twist to them as if being unique is a prerequisite. The m4 model shown here was in figured maple for $3150 with the optional stainless steel grill. Other finishes are available. The ModWright amp shown here was said to be a "concept piece" integrated amp with a tube input stage that would price out in the $6000 neighborhood, give or take. I've always loved the machined top plates of their gear; in this case designed for high ventilation. The Fern & Roby turntable here was their Montrose model ($7100) and was fitted with a Hana SL cartridge. A ModWright PH 9.0 Phono Stage ($2900) featured a two-box design with tubes that allows you to vary the MC cartridge loading on the fly. It also handles MM cartridges and features adjustable gain in addition to having an external power supply. Very nice. Cables in this rig were all from Zu Audio, coming from their Mission Mk II series costing just a few hundred dollars/pr, not thousands — a refreshing change.
Jern (pronounced "yearn") speakers harken from Denmark. They are the cannonball version of novelty speakers I remember from the late 1990's — small pod-like monitors . Those were made of fiberglass or plastic; the Jern are made from gray cast iron with high graphite content. The story goes that this iron quells the ringing that is so prominent in wood and especially aluminum that requiring extensive (and expensive) internal bracing to reduce. To prove the point they had samples of MDF, aluminum and iron on hand along with a hammer to strike them. I did, and the results were, um, striking — which is to say "convincing". The internal surfaces of these iron snowmen were a honeycomb of small domes to further break up the internal sound waves. The speakers are of the acoustic suspension type with no ports, a feature that facilitates mating them with an external subwoofer. A large rubber "O"-ring facilitates placing them at a proper angle on a flat surface and a Vibrakill pedestal and a tripod-type stand are offered for more free-standing placement away from your walls.
The Jern w8000 starts out at a reasonable $499 each with modest drivers (in case you wanted to do a surround system with an odd number of speakers). It can escalate in steps to $6249 each for the Jern 16AH coming out in 2019 with an Audio Technology woofer and Hiquphon tweeter. Variations in crossover components, interior damping materials and binding posts also account for the price spread. It is a much more serious loudspeaker than it first appears and it sounded quite good driven by a PrimaLuna Dialogue Premium HP integrated tube amplifier. Also intriguing was the equipment rack utilizing conical legs of different heights made from the same Vibrakill iron. The wood shelves are available in custom sizes and different thickness made from different wood species. Butcher-block construction with the use of finger joints allows them to achieve solid wood shelves without major blemishes at a more reasonable cost. Very nice, indeed, in room 9009.