RMAF 2013: Show Report – Our Favorites

[The photos are coming along for the Ultimist RMAF 2013 Show Report . Slowly. Got about half the first day done, several hundred photos but not several thousand – this year we are trying to be a wee bit more slightly sane.]

The show report is back by popular demand. We’ll try for a positive overview of the show – trying not to describe exactly and in excruciating detail why each particular system, most of them in fact, failed to reproduce something that sounds like music – instead focusing on the positives and comparisons.

[But we’ll see what happens in our rejoinder to JV’s report of the rooms with $20+ speakers – a forth-coming post. If his report is totally off-the-wall wrong about most of the rooms then we will just punt until next time. If his report is spot on then we will just do a ‘what he said’ congratulatory post. If, however, his report just mucks up the description of a few rooms, well, we might just feel obliged to write what our impressions were, kind of balancing the books a little and letting people hash out what to think for themselves from the two contradictory impressions.]

There were a lot of rooms this year with that fake, artificial ‘sounds-like-a-stereo’ sound of the 80s and 90s that one could find at most dealerships. Even exhibitors with lots of financial resources [so it seems from the outside, anyway] have taken this approach to system building at this show, and presumably in their showrooms. You know what I mean, right? Kind of a tinka-tinka-tinka decay-free, harmonic-free midrange, often quite compressed, along with a boom-boom-boom bass also harmonics free and often compressed into 35-40Hz. We are really quite taken aback by this development. It seems too prevalent to be ‘accidental’.

We’re going to try something new here, and rate each room’s sound using the Heart/Mind rating system, assigning a number from 0 to 10 to indicate how much the sound was targeting the intellectual / mental mind of the listener (sophisticated, high-resolution sound) and how much the sound was targeting the heart (emotional, involving sound). Hopefully this will communicate more to a person reading this than vapid descriptions of how tight the bass was, for example, on an unknown track in these rooms walled with thin paperboard drum membranes. The ratings are just to give you an idea of the sound and are not really necessarily all that precise [but they should be accurate enough that one should be able to predict the favorites of various reviewers out there based on their quite strong preferences they have shown over the years for one or the other of these types of system sounds].

No ratings will be given for the systems where one or the other rating might be equal to zero as they are apparently appealing to as yet unrated aspect of human desire [oh! oh! Horshack says we should add a rating for Bling! and Style. and Machismo. and Technical Wizardry. Although we should be wary of these as they are all fashion-centric and subject to change as high-end audio fashion changes, unlike the heart- and mind-centric ratings, which should be timeless].

Favorites [heart, mind] (see overviews of these rooms in previous posts):

The EMM Labs / Sony / IsoMike room [8, 8]
The PranaFidelity room [6, 4]
The NVS [modified YG Acoustics, McCormack] room [4, 7]
The Magico S1 / Krell room [4, 5]
The Zu Speakers, Peachtree room [6, 2]

=== Neli’s favorites (but my ratings, for consistency’s sake) ===
The EMM Labs / Sony / IsoMike room [8, 8]
Rockport speaker on Absolare electronics [3, 6]
Tidal speakers and Audio Power Labs [3,7]
Vivid speakers, Luxman amp and Brinkmann turntable [2, 5]
The PranaFidelity room [6, 4]

The Acoustic Zen room was good as always, and really belongs in the middle of the list – well, probably second – but it wasn’t quite as good as last year, I think, and so we’ll give the list a rest as Acoustic Zen / Triode Corp has been on the list for the last many, many years… [6, 5]

Similarly the Audio Note room had good sound and I spent several hours there enjoying the music – but I just want more bass. Unfortunately putting the speakers deep in the corners where they belong generated too much bass with the paper-mache-like walls. The bigger AN/E speakers really do a better job here – even though my first impressions were to the contrary. So we’re giving the list a break from this room too – or you can mentally tack it on if you want. Not going to stop you. [6, 2]

The room with the Vittora [old-fashioned looking horn speaker with the sold sign on it] and Border Patrol electronics did sound pleasant – and would probably be on the list if I had paid just a little more attention. [7, 3]

The big Cessaro horns in the High Water Sound room did not seem to have those wonderful dynamics one expects from horn speakers, which put me off the sound here [although our good friend in crime Kevin O. had one of his most wonderfully emotional listening experiences of the last few years here on Sunday]. [6, 2]

Now for some of Neli’s favorites. She often enjoys a more polite, sophisticated sound than I do – and in general a more mind-centric sound whereas I prefer a more balanced mind- and heart-centric sound [although I do enjoy over-the-top unbalanced mind- and over the top unbalanced extreme heart-centric sounds as well].

Neli liked the Brinkmann turntable, Luxman amp and Vivid speakers room. [2, 5]

Neli also liked the Tidal speakers and Audio Power Labs amp room. [3, 7]

Neli liked the Rockport speaker on Absolare electronics room, too – [I do think it sounded better here than in their room at THE Show at CES 2013 – this sound being a little tighter and deft sounding – and in a much smaller room!]. [3, 6]

There were fewer attempts at the upper reaches of the high-end this year at RMAF. The big Magico speakers weren’t here. The big YG Acoustics speakers were being driven by a modest amp and front-end. Kharma hasn’t been here for years. Acapella wasn’t here. Avalon just brought Eidolons [or Eidolon-ish-sized speakers] but they were also driven by a modest front-end.

The rooms at the Hyatt, including the Scaena speaker, Vapor speaker, and Wilson speaker rooms, although attempting to reach the higher reaches of the high-end, were not in my top … 20 [or 30?].

Scaena speakers and Audio Research amplifier

Vapor Nimbus speakers

Wilson Alexandria XLF speakers on VTL Siegfried amplifiers

I didn’t get to hear the big Venture speaker system being driven by their analog rig [doh!] – and the sound with the digital source is too digital for me.

Nola brought really quite small speakers for their quite large room. Same with MBL.

Smaller NOLA speakers on Audio Research amps and Nordost Odin cables in a very large room. [2,4]

The MBL room with smaller MBL speakers in a very large room [5,3]

Coincident’s room sounded good this year: dynamic and clear sounding, decent separation [4, 5]. I listen closely to this room every show – but this year they were noticeably one of the better rooms.

Let’s see. There were more unlistenable systems here than at the last few RMAFs. Perhaps it helps to get away from shows a little bit, as we have lately, to be able to put the relative historical quality of things into perspective.

Mainstays like Merlin were not here. Didn’t see Revel either [though JBL / Levinson was here]. The Esoteric room was not here, although various instances of their gear was. Evolution Audio was not here. Occasional exhibitors like Avantgarde and Quad weren’t here. As for high-end analog sources: the Walker turntable wasn’t here. The Continuum turntable wasn’t here. The big Clearaudio turntable wasn’t here.

Rooms, in general, weren’t as loud this year as they usually are. A good thing, I think.

We did enjoy this show way more than we thought we would. Before the show it was like UGH! another show. We have shown at the first 7 or 8 and attended all of them and this is getting old. But we really enjoyed seeing all our friends and tuning up our ears – hearing just what can go wrong is unfortunately as important as hearing wonderful technological leaps into the future of music reproduction – all of which so far share a common approach: herding inherently lazy electrons to modulate magnetic fields in order to vibrate various kinds of very thin membranes [taking poetic licence and excluding the two plasma tweeters at the show, of course :-)]

The big hit, for us, were the EMMLabs MTRX amps in the IsoMike room. Think thick, fresh, juicy icing on a slightly stale cake of a show with lots of friends around who are just as crazy as you are. That was this show.