Our traditional critique of JV's (Jonathan Valin) RMAF 2013 Show Report

[This is all great fun, and I hope you all are enjoying this. It is somewhat unfair, to JV, in that we always get the last word here (always counterpoint to his point) but I do try and be as fair as I can, while still fully communicating what I heard at this show.]

There is a serious and woefully under-appreciated problem at shows. If you, as a show-goer, are just interested in a single piece or two in a system, you are kind of SOL [that is Sorry, Out of Luck for you kids] in many cases. Unfortunately the average show-goer is trying to do just this. So, you component exhibitors take note, it would be good for you to get the other exhibitors in your room to help make the whole system sound good, because people are evaluating That Whole System as representative of YOUR component’s sound, like it or not. This is true for rooms that cost close to a million dollars as well as those under 10 grand.

So,,, about JV’s personal preferences… 🙂 When JV goes off the deep end, he really goes for serious macro-dynamics, constipated midi- and micro-dynamics, and somewhat soulless sound. Nothing wrong with that, but seriously, there ought to be a sign at the top of his report, with a picture of a soulless zombie with a big poo-eating grin chewing a vinyl record or something 🙂 [no. wait. chewing a vacuum tube. and the tube is lit up like it is on and like it is playing music that is being enjoyed by people who like music. Or is this too snarky? 😉 ]

Seriously, though, we agreed on the overall sound quality of the vast majority of rooms – the main difference is that he felt like giving out Best of Show Contender awards to what seemed like half the rooms.

A couple of the comments on JV’s show report on the AV Guide website [link below] were interesting [to me. and I’ve only read 2 so far, so YMMV] and the concept of the sound of a system being ‘exciting’ [along with its opposite: not exciting or boring] is intriguing and we will explore this later on this blog as it is peripherally related to drug-like sound, I think, and directly related to the buying habits of audiophile gear addicts.

The link to his report is here:

JV’s RMAF 2013 Show Report

First off, JV states that this is the biggest RMAF ever. Then he suggests that in his neck of the woods, $20,000 speakers and above, the sound was the best ever for RMAF, and possibly at any show.

Agree. Disagree. Disagree.

First, I did not think the show was larger in terms of number of exhibits. When we looked at the room allocations before the show – it looked like there were several empty rooms. But now I think perhaps JV is right. We will see once the show report on Ultimist is done, but it looks like it is going to be about 160 rooms [which is the number bandied about each year but the show never quite made it to 160 before. And there were a LOT of booths this year]. There are, also, more speakers that cost over $20K as rampant inflation continues in the high-end audio marketplace. So that means JV has to review more rooms, making the show seem even larger for him, and this must be getting ridiculous. Suggest raising the bar to $50K.

Second, at the high end… there seemed to be a certain lack of effort in several rooms. The better the gear is, the more attention has to be paid to what one is using in the system. It is easy to make good gear sound bad. And if it does sound bad, perhaps one might not ought to crank it up to ear-splitting levels? Most rooms had reasonable volume levels but some of the most pricey were the worst offenders in this regard.

Third, CES always sounds better than RMAF – manufactures bring better gear and they care more about how it sounds. Better turntables (Continuum, Air Force One, etc.), better speakers (big Magicos, big Sonus Faber (this year, not last year!), Perfect 8, etc.) in addition to all the standout products here at RMAF this year (big Wilson, Venture, YG Acoustics etc.). And the rooms at the Venetian are better sounding than at the Marriott, even with large random pieces of furniture strewn about the rooms. Why do the exhibitors seem to care more at CES? Perhaps because 140,000 peers and potential customers are nearby and this makes one want to step up to the plate and do something righteous.

==== Wilson Audio Alexia powered by Doshi Audio ====

JV: “I was smitten with the Doshi gear and for the most part liked the speakers, which were quite realistically robust but also a bit bright, edgy, and forward…”. “I’m not sure, but the system’s upper midrange and lower treble got a bit ragged on fortes. ”

Uh oh. Have to agree with JV [I wrote this review of JV’s report As I Read His Report. I did not realize we were going to agree on the sound quality for most of the rooms at this point]. I really wanted to like this system and hear what the Alexias could do but… what he said. Anemic and edgy. Perhaps something was not broken in before they took it to the show. Perhaps, it is that the Alexias are notably harder to drive than many have expected them to be.

“…the Alexias didn’t have as much room-shaking deep bass as I’m used…”

Seriously, it might make sense to point this out if the Alexias were gargantuan Godzilla-like speakers – but they are not.

JV makes comments like this several times in the early parts of his show report. I know he is trying to get us all excited about having dumped the Magico speakers for the Raidho speakers as well as remind us he has the latest Walker turntable and a Soulution amp. But…

Just throwing this out there but I do not think show reporters should go around taking a poke at exhibitor’s systems by saying [not out loud, anyway 🙂 and certainly not in print] stuff like “Hah! Suckerrrrs! Our system at home blows this away! Let me count the ways…” I know some forum trolls do this – but don’t you all find that annoying? Especially as we can’t just go and plop down in their listening chair and check out if they are full of [exaggerating their systems attributes and minimizing their systems faults]?

And comparing “deep bass”? The hardest thing to get right at a show with wobbly bass absorbing walls? Puh-leeze.

==== Focal Stella Utopia powered by Soulution ====

We’ll have to agree with what JV said, I guess, as far as it goes: “…big, full, solid, and gorgeous on full orchestra in Kije, though … not as room-shaking on the explosive timp and bass drum strikes … [as JV’s own system again]”.

But this is such a small part of what I personally call music. Big dynamic swings. Yes. Cool. Awesome even. What about the rest of the music? Hmmmm….

==== Tannoy Kingdom Royal statement floorstanders powered by VAC ====

JV: “…sounded extremely detailed and robust through the Tannoys, with a very prominent upper mid and treble that managed to hold detail on the swooping strings and winds throughout the very loud bursts of brass and percussion…” “There was, however, a little loss of bass/power-range color, extension, and drive on Janis… left her voice sounding a bit too “exposed” and shouty. … they added a slight granular roughness to the sound”.

Have to agree with JV with his general impressions except he is glossing over real problems or he did not play a CD. Another system we wanted to love. VACs are great. Big efficient Tannoys are great. We hear awesome things about the big Esoteric 3-peice digital. What’s not to love? But on the CD [we did not hear vinyl here, unfortunately], it sounded very ‘digital’ to us, digital in all its wonderful unglorious ungoodness [or, as we thought it through, figuring none of the filters on the Esoteric could be THAT bad – un-broken-in-cableness in all its glaringly sharpishness]. I came here several times and spent more time here than in 96% of the other rooms. Hope they find what was wrong and bring this again next year.

==== Classic Audio Reproductions powered by Atma-Sphere ====

“…the T-3.4 had lovely color on solo violin, showed surprisingly little horn coloration on “Long and Winding Road” with better foreground focus on Paul’s voice than CAR horns usually have (although the speaker did seem to lose focus and resolution on background instruments and chorus). A little dry and bright on crescendos, the T-3.4 suffered from a marked lack of top and bottom end on all music”

Agree with JV here. BTW Classic Audio Reproductions (CAR) is now just Classic Audio. They have been steadily improving these speakers and, last I heard, were making sure low-powered Audio Note amps sounded their best on them.

==== Venture Grand Ultimate MkII powered by Thrax ====

JV: “The sound was doubtlessly the best I’ve heard from any Venture loudspeaker. Kije was terrific—realistic tone color, excellent staging, with very good bass, dynamics, and resolution. Keb’ Mo’ ditto, though his voice lacked a little focus (but then I was sitting a mile away). The presentation may have leaned slightly to the dry side, but only slightly…”

JV seemed to like this room [but no nomination for BOS?] saying it was the best Venture room he has ever heard. I myself was only able to hear the digital source here in this room, and on the end of the first day, but I thought the Venture room at CES sounded better with a rounder, more harmonic and musical presentation. Should have gone back to hear the system on the Spiral Groove table – a table which Neli and I both like a lot. Doh!

Darrin and Gene were highlighting the Thrax gear, an amp and phono pre. These guys often run across interesting gear and the gear looks like potentials but they can get kind of overwhelmed [it being a very large room] by the rest of the gear, the speakers, and the room itself, so it is hard to hear what they sound like.

==== TAD Evolution One powered by Zesto ====

JV: “I found nothing special to rave about here-and nothing to complain about, either. I’ve always liked TADs and I liked these littler numbers, too.”.

It makes sense that JV likes TAD speakers, being focused on tight dynamics and accuracy the way he is. People seem to like the name ‘Zesto’ and you could easily hear the name pop up against the background chatter [such as it was at this quieter show] in the hallways and rooms. But this room sounded just like you would expect it to with any decent standard issue amp driving medium sized TAD speakers. Zesto could be great – but we didn’t hear it here.

==== Lawrence Audio Double Bass powered by Jeff Rowland ====

JV: “The sound was rich, beautiful, and full-bodied, albeit with just a hint of hollow, cupped-hands coloration on male voice.”

I did not necessarily hear the “cupped-hands coloration” but there are several issues of this kind that are commonly on speakers at this price point. These are definitely the best Lawrence Audio speakers, and best sound, I have heard from them, and they are definitely trying to reproduce Music as opposed to just dynamics or resolution or detail or accuracy. I think these might be real contenders at their $28K price point if they put excessively expensive gear around them like, you know, a lot of other rooms do :-).

==== Rockport Technologies Avior and Absolare ====

JV liked this a lot “Thesimply wonderful texture and tone color with an unusually open soundfield and genuinely realistic power-range weight, richness, and body. Lt Kije was almost as good as I hear it sound at home. Janis Joplin was phenomenal. ” … ” full and smooth without loss of resolution, fast without aggressiveness, rich and sweet without being syrupy….”, “…only thing missing was that last octave of bass that I hear at home”.

Surprised he doesn’t always like Rockport speakers as in my mind they are close to TAD [though TAD does pay much more attention to sound at shows, usually taking great care to pair the TADs with appropriate quality gear. Rockport please take note. And SoundLab you too].

Anyway JV loves it. Neli loves it. Me? Maybe I just had a mental glitch in this room? I kept thinking about and dividing the sound I heard into two parts: that contributed by the lovely tube amp, and that contributed by the super accurate speakers. This did not happen to me with this same system at THE SHOW in Las Vegas last January. That sound I felt was muddy and harmonically drab [in a way, WAY larger banquet-sized room]. This sound here was much tighter. But because of the muddy sound at THE SHOW I did not expect much here and did not spend much time here. So, I will defer to Neli who feels strongly about this (and JV) [hey, I have to live with her. You don’t :-)]

==== MBL 116F powered by MBL Corona electronics ====

JV: “Although the MBL system may not have had quite the same focus and density of tone color as the Avior/Absolare combo, the 116F came close, plus (being an omni) it had just a tad more openness and air on top”…

Comparing this room with the previous one, the Rockport / Absolare which seems nuts to me. Essentially he just punted and apparently didn’t have anything to say. No problem. I was also taken a little aback by this room.

Typically MBL scales the size of the speaker to the room. In a room this size they would have much larger speakers and larger amps. As someone who goes to these shows a lot there is a ‘MBL Effect’ one expects to hear in their rooms. Loud, very enveloping, very dynamic music. But this year it there wasn’t an ‘MBL Effect’ and it was more a normal type of hi-fi show presentation. I thought it was pretty good, but with all the problems incurred by speakers that have tight, powered, ported bass with omni speakers radiating energy in all directions when driven by less than humongous amps. Kind of a refreshing change of pace for them, all told. Just a little surprising for us old timers.

==== Volti Audio Vittora powered by Border Patrol ====

JV: “…unusually neutral-sounding for a horn (even better of-axis in this regard). Very focused, a bit forward, and a little supercharged in the mids (as horns often are), it was still pretty smooth and powerful overall with a better-than-decent blend between the horns and the outboard dynamic subwoofer.”

JV doesn’t like horns so he spends a lot of his time talking about how this was better than expected. It was indeed.

it was indeed unusually neutral-sounding for a horn paired with a SET amp. JV thinks it is a bit forward because he listens to a lot of efficiency-constrained ergo constipated speakers and over-damped amps. Just sayin’.

Now that he mentions it, that blending with the subwoofer was indeed pretty darn good. This sound was quite good in a general way, though missing some air and resolution and it was a little uneven top to bottom. But these were really minor things are were not getting in the way of the music – things that people who just want to listen to and enjoy music and not be anal about their hifi system just might want to seriously consider as being worthless anyway.

==== YG Acoustics Kipod II powered by Veloce ====

JV: “…very good air, separation, and definition top to bottom, though timbre was a little dry and bright. I thought it might be the record pressing that was thinning out color, but my copy of Acoustic Sound’s soon-to-be-released (and quite voluptuous) remastering of Kije sounded the same. Likely the room was a factor.”

I was also disappointed in this system. Perhaps the speakers were a little under-driven [a perennial problem with YG Acoustics speakers]?