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

==== Tidal Piano Diacera powered by Audio Power Labs ====

JV: “…truly gorgeous, with Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre simply phenomenal through the Tidals and the Aurender/dCS source. This was another BOS contender: extremely sweet string tone, superb depth and resolution, and fantastic bass for a two-way”

Neli liked it a lot too. I liked it too, although in the final analysis the sound was just a little too pretty for me and not quite as dynamic top to bottom as I might wish for. I remember really liking the Audio Power Labs on the Tidal at CES’s THE Show a few years ago a heckuva lot, almost the same exact system… [Can’t find which show. Argh. Memory Player? Perhaps the larger Audio Power Labs amps? … ah yes, here it is at Stereotimes. Oh, and here it is on this very blog: Audio Power Labs, Tidal, Memory Player at CES 2012’s The Show]

==== Brodmann Acoustics Vienna Classic 2 powered by Electrocompaniet ====

JV: “…dark and rich in timbre, but somewhat boxy (Brodmann, a piano maker, deliberately uses material resonances as part of its enclosure design) with a forward presentation and little stage depth (this could’ve been aggravated by my close listening seat). That said, the timbre of Kissin’s piano was lovely with a nice sense of the ambiance surrounding it.”

Yeah, these guys are going for a different sound than most speaker manufacturers. The speakers are designed to resonate with the music, like Audio Note speakers do, and with a similar focus on the music as opposed to audiophile check-boxes, but – I think they are going for something different.

==== Neat Acoustics Ultimatum XL10 powered by Audio Flight ====

JV: “…very high resolution and superb transient response, with just a little suckout in the upper bass and power range thinning color somewhat. Nonetheless, this was an good presentation with outstanding definition and surprising deep bass.”

These speakers are light on their feet with high resolution and good separation. I liked these speakers way back when Jay Rein had them and still think they need someone to really put a top notch system [something wildly inappropriate, price-wise] around them to show off what they can really do [and, you know, so you and I can hear it :-)].

==== JBL M2 powered by Levinson ====

JV wants to review these speakers. Sounds like a good idea, but that doesn’t necessarily make the sound in this room work. I would love to hear these speakers on something besides these amps. These amps need speakers that are supremely detailed and delicate to match their classically dark disposition. Those are not these speakers. These speakers need a small, colorful, dexterous tube amp.

And when I say ‘needs’ I mean that I would really love to hear these combinations someday soon or my life will have this hole in it – and that this hole just can’t be filled any other way [come on, you all know what I mean! It is not just curiosity. It is more like a vitamin deficiency :-)].

==== Cessaro Liszt powered by Tron ====

JV: “…tremendous dynamics, very rich dark color; bass that is well integrated (though still not quite as fast or full as the horn midrange and tweeter) it was far and away the best horn at RMAF. Along with the Rockport Avior and another we will come to it reproduced Lt Kije with greater beauty, realism, and power than anything else at this excellent show. Obviously, a BOS contender.”

JV also talks about how horn speakers sound like a [often disconnected] collection of different speaker technologies. This effect can happen on many kinds of speakers – many times due to cables that mess with the frequencies or amps that are unable to control the speaker at various frequencies. I think he needs to close his eyes and ignore the fact that they are horn speakers.

Not sure what he means by ‘rich dark color’ which he is starting to use in several of these write-ups. I am thinking he means dense sound with liberal but over-damped harmonics mixed in. There are some people who prefer this sound [although we, to be clear, do not. preferring an open sound with lots of separation and clear as a bell harmonics. For us, dense sound reminds us of the wall-of-sound that occurs when a system cannot handle the complexity of the music it is trying to play or, similarly, when the music has been compressed].

We always root for Cessaro, really appreciating what good horn speakers can do better than any other speaker design. But here in this room we thought that perhaps the Tron was not up to driving the speakers or, conversely, that the horns had been so attenuated to mate with the bass drivers that they no longer had the dynamics and open sparkle of a horn speaker anymore.

I heard this the end of the 2nd day – but Kevin tells me that it sounded better on the 3rd day. I am envious of anyone who got to hear these play anywhere near as good as they look.

==== Von Schweikert VR-100XS Universe powered by Constellation ====

JV: “In the large tricky room it was in, with conventional sources, bass and power-range response were problematical—as was image focus.” … “At lifelike levels [on reel-to-reel] (which is to say about 90dB average SPLs with well-over-105dB peaks), nothing else at the show—and this was, once again, a great show—came as close to sounding real as the Universe/Constellation/UHA playing back The Doors’ L.A. Woman”…

JV liked this Von Schweikert speaker system when they used the reel-to-reel and played it very loud. I, however, just heard it playing quiet classical music and decided after several minutes that A) this was not going to change anytime soon and B) although I like quiet classical quite a bit, this was not doing it for me. The mastery, the emotion, the raison d’etre for listening to the piece, much less for the musicians to play it, was not present. And it just wasn’t loud enough for me to evaluate any other aspects of the playback. I like many of the Von Schweikert speakers and how they sound, and like the sound in many of their rooms at shows [even if their speaker designs seem a little crazy sometimes]. I wish I could have heard these, their statement speakers, in different circumstances. Perhaps at CES.

==== YG Acoustics Sonja 1.2 Passive powered by Mola-Mola ====

JV: “A BOS contender, even if the YGs were a little ragged at very very loud levels on sax.”.

The sound was a little ragged at not so loud levels too. There were also issues with unevenness in several areas as well. How I miss the old days when Bill just brought state-of-the-art gear and kicked butt [I know. I know! Things are supposed to be more affordable in this economy and shipping delicate stuff is a pain and a half. Still miss those days though].

==== Magico Q1 powered by Spectral ====

JV: ” …you can be sure that the Q1/Spectral/MIT room will be a finalist.”. Uh. Really?

When I heard this they were playing it quietly and were in a deep conversation with each other and it did not look like a good time to ask them to move a little out of the way so I could take more photos, or, you know, turn up the volume.

==== Nola Metro Grand Reference Gold on ARC ====

JV: “…dark and beautiful in timbre, with well defined bass on “Autumn Leaves” and lovely reproduction of vocals and piano, and spectacular staging, resolution, and dynamics on the Mercury Romeo & Juliet. There may have been a smidge of room resonance here…” … “Certainly yet another BOS nominee.”

I feel like JV is tossing Best of Show (BOS) Nominee awards around like the way most people throw eggs at the zombies.

It appears that

a) almost all speakers at the show are above $20K now and

b) the criteria for being a BOS nominee is only slightly more difficult than just showing up at the show and plugging things in.

I feel JV’s show report is degrading here as we near the end. If this continues we will have to do something else so we don’t just start ragging on the whole thing.

I feel these particular Nola speakers were not as able to hide the flaws in the upstream components as the larger ones they usually bring. The larger speakers in this very large room had, at the very least, compensations like scale, dynamics, bass, ease and stuff like that which I, at least, like quite a bit.

==== Scaena Dominus on ARC ====

JV: “…bass had a slightly different quality (slower, less defined) than the ribbon/cone columns.”

Essentially this is his only comment on the sound. This made me laugh. Yes, it is extremely hard to get the big depth charges to mate perfectly with the line array. They do a pretty darn good job at it though. But, no, it is not absolutely perfect.

That was not the problem in this room, though.

Neli also wanted them to play an LP on the Kronos turntable here. Maybe that would have fixed the issues. But you know that sound you get when there are no micro-dynamics, no ability to render subtleties of notes so, like, say a trumpet, being played really LOUD, makes notes that, instead of encompassing several nearby frequencies that all kind of rise and ebb a little differently creating a wonderful colorful sweeping brassy call to attention, instead just compresses it all into a single even louder frequency blast that creates a tsunami-like effect on the ear drum? If they had just turned it down some…

==== Wilson Audio XLF + Thor’s Hammer s powered by VTL ====

JV: “in spite of its many obvious virtues (color, speed, impact) “… “there was something not completely refined about the presentation—call it a want of very low-level texture—that bothered me just a bit. It was as if the XLFs got the big things really right but slightly (and I mean slightly) short-changed the littler ones. ”

He then goes on to blame it on Thor’s Hammer subwoofers and still grants it a “a BOS nomination”.

Wrong. Well yes. But why blame it on the subwoofers??? Pretty safe to throw stones at them, I guess, since they have the weakest constituency. Personally, the XLF are speakers we wouldn’t mind having here [and I am very picky. And Neli is even pickier than me (seriously. if I want to really annoy the heck out of her I just have to suggest with a straight face that we try a modestly excellent speaker here sometime. ouch.)] and the subwoofers? They seemed to integrate exceedingly well and get out of the way, in my opinion.

There were many more things wrong here and much more serious [and I feel for JV trying to put it into words and keep his job. The normally meticulously honest JA just bailed with a feel-good review] .

Still trying to decide whether to do a real review of this room. Some of the sound was so bizarre, I am still trying to figure out just what was going on.

The short description is this: The first track, which sounded like what I think of as the wooden mallets hitting copper Tibetan bowls on the American Beauty sound track, was awesome. Rich harmonics, detailed, awesome resolution and separation, swirling dynamics as the sounds ebbed and flowed. I had never heard anything better than this albeit unfamiliar music. It was lacking nothing.

Then we heard more traditional kinds of music. On these the imaging was all over the place, (for example, many notes would start in the center between the speakers and then gravitate immediately to one or the other of the speakers. And things on the soundstage would just move around all over the place), and, except for one track (!) of the demo the timber was off; every note sounded a little ‘sharp’ [a little higher in frequency – as opposed to ‘flat’]. How could this one track sound OK and the rest not? This is what has baffled me for several weeks now and the whole experience had me doubt my sanity. Whenever I heard systems that had imaging or timbre issues for much of later that day my response was to back slowly away and seek temporary refuge elsewhere.

[my current explanation to myself is that because the one track with realistic timbre was a recording off of an LP recording of a jazz session – it had 2nd harmonic distortion that filled a void somewhere in the system signal chain – and when that void was not filled, as it was not on the other tracks, then it would get filled by somewhat random harmonics. My previous explanation was that there was 3rd harmonic distortion on the other tracks that my ears were interpreting as an elevated frequency]. As for the soundstaging and imaging issues, perhaps something was wired backwards [but not everything, because we all know what that sounds like, and this was not that].

Because of my surprise and obsession during he demo with the above issues, I did not get down to the point about caring about the lack of texture / micro-dynamics / inner-detail, whatever you want to call it. Kudos to JV for pointing it out, though.

But… weird huh? Kevin pointed out the lack of soul in the sound of the demo – and we have to agree wholeheartedly – but as we all know soullessness does not perturb our reviewer friends much [JV, JA, Fremer…] nor some percentage of listeners apparently [oh, but if they only knew! :-)].

Missing: JV did not review the two Sony speaker rooms: one with Pass Labs and the other powered by Emmlabs. Nor the Vapor room powered by Atre Forma.

OK. Hope you all enjoyed the show.