New Stereo Products from Rocky Mountain Audio Fest

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01
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Sadurni Acoustics Speakers

Sadurni Acoustics speakers
Brent Butterworth

I spent last weekend in the best possible way an audio enthusiast could: by attending the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver. RMAF this year included more than 170 demo rooms, all with various high-end (and not-so-high-end) audio products up and running for your listening pleasure. It also incorporated the CanJam headphone show, which I reported on a couple of days ago.

Now let's take a look at the coolest home stereo products I saw at the show....

RMAF is so big that I have to skip many demo rooms, but I can't resist one with a picture of a really wacky speaker out front. That's how I was lured into the Sadurni Acoustics demo. That bass horn measures 90cm (3 feet) across, and each one is turned from a giant hunk of MDF to a wall thickness of about 3 inches. Mounted above the bass horn is an MDF midrange horn and a tweeter with a brass horn. A bank of four tube-shaped subs provides the deep bass. The system costs $25,000 to $40,000, depending on configuration and finish.

Honestly, the reason I usually go in the wacky-speaker rooms is because the sound is often amusingly strange, but the Sadurni stuff sounded great. The tonal balance was natural and the sound was far more coherent than I expected from such an exotic assortment of drivers. Power came from a 2-watt tube amp. That's no typo -- it really was 2 watts! But when your speaker delivers a rated 110 dB sensitivity from just 1 watt, you don't need much power.

02
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Benchmark AHB2 THX amplifier

Benchmark AHB2 THX amplifier
Brent Butterworth

The AHB2 is the first amplifier to use THX's new all-analog high-efficiency amp technology. The technology employs a super-compact DC-to-DC converter and a tracking power supply that delivers only as much power as required by the music, so it doesn't have to burn off excess power as heat the way most amps do. The amplifier's "error feed forward" design is said to deliver extremely low noise and distortion.

Although the amp measures just 3 by 11 by 8 inches, it delivers a rated 100 watts into 8 ohms. During Benchmark's demo, with the AHB2 driving Studio Electric speakers, I placed my hand on top of the amplifier and it was just perceptibly warm, like the side of a cup of Starbucks black coffee after about 10 minutes. Price hasn't been set yet but figure about $2,500.

03
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Bluesound Wireless Audio Products

Blue Sound wireless audio products
Brent Butterworth

From the audio masters at NAD and PSB comes Bluesound, a high-end alternative to mainstream wireless audio products from Sonos and others. Like Sonos, Bluesound uses its own wireless network for audio transmission while relying on your home WiFi network to access Internet streaming services and tunes stored on your computers and hard drives.

At left is the $699 Pulse, a full wireless speaker using NAD's Direct Digital amplification and acoustical design tuned by PSB founder Paul Barton. Other components in the system include the $449 Node, which has line-level outputs to connect to any amplifier; the $699 PowerNode, which is basically the Node with a 50-watt-per-channel amp built in; and the $999 Vault, a media server with a 1-terabyte network-attached storage (NAS) drive and a CD ripper built in.

04
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Sony TA-A1ES integrated amplifier

Sony TA-A1ES integrated amplifier
Brent Butterworth

Stop right there, audiophiles, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking Sony just pulled the circuit for the new TA-A1ES out of a generic receiver, slapped a silver faceplate on it, marked the price up and called it a day. Nope. The $1,999 TA-A1ES, Sony's first new integrated amp in 14 years, employs a radically innovative amplification technology intended to combine audiophile-pleasing sound with high efficiency. In the photo above, it's the bottom component in the rack, right under the HAP-Z1ES high-resolution audio player.

Basically, the 80-watt-per-channel TA-A1ES uses a Class A amplification circuit hooked up to a tracking power supply that delivers only as much power as needed, so almost none is wasted as heat. Yet as in other Class A amplifiers, the transistors conduct signal at all times, so there's none of the crossover distortion caused when the transistors in a conventional Class AB amp shut off.

05
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Audioengine A2+ Powered Speakers

Audioengine A2+ speakers
Brent Butterworth

Audioengine hasn't changed its A2 powered speakers for six years. And why should it, when it continues to get raves from noted audiophiles? The new $249 A2+ bumps up the price by $50, but it adds a built-in USB digital-to-analog converter, which will probably deliver better sound quality than the DAC built into your computer. There's also a new variable-level output that can connect to a wireless transmitter (for multiroom audio) or subwoofer.

While the acoustical design didn't change (and didn't need to), the power supply has been upgraded, so maybe the amp will deliver a little more headroom. The A2+ will be available in black or white, and the stands cost $29 extra.

06
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Thorens TD 209 Turntable

Thorens TD 209 turntable
Brent Butterworth

The visually stunning TD 209 is a cost-reduced version of the TD 309; it costs $1,499 versus the original's $1,999. The differences, though, are fairly subtle. The drive mechanism is the same, and both models feature an acrylic platter with an aluminum subplatter. The big difference appears to be that the TD 209 features a new TP-90 tonearm. Thorens U.S. rep Norm Steinke detailed further differences for me, but they were so minor I can't find them in my notebook.

If the TD 209's triangular plinth is too out-there for you, the otherwise identical TD 206 features a traditional rectangular plinth.

07
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Music Hall Mooo Mat

Music Hall Moo Mat
Brent Butterworth

In Music Hall's $50 Mooo Mat, a natural product becomes a technical tour de force. Yep, that's real cowhide on top. On bottom is a 1.5mm cork mat. The dual-layer mat is said to absorb vibration and exhibit natural static-neutralizing properties. And of course, every mat is unique.

If you're curious, that's the new Music Hall Ikura turntable supporting the Mooo Mat.

08
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Dynaudio Excite Speakers

Dynaudio Excite speakers
Brent Butterworth

Based on what I heard, the second-generation versions of Dynaudio's Excite line live up to their name sonically, if not visually. The line -- which includes models ranging from the $1,500/pair X14 bookshelf speaker to the $4,500/pair X38 tower speaker shown at rear -- pretty much sticks to the Dynaudio playbook, with slim, minimalist designs and gorgeous wood veneer finishes. Advantages over the previous models? New drivers, new crossovers, and according to Dynaudio's Mike Manousselis, "a more open sound with more punch in the bass." Manousselis said they're also easier to drive, and thus better for use with home theater receivers.

09
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Volti Audio Vittoria Speakers

Volti speakers
Brent Butterworth

These classic-style speakers aren't new per se, but RMAF 2013 was the first time I heard them. I might have ignored them completely, but from hanging out at Vancouver's vintage audio megastore Innovative Audio, I've developed a greater appreciation for some of these designs. The $17,500/pair Vittoria is obviously modeled on the classic Klipschorns; many audiophiles crave that vintage sound, partly because the speakers are so efficient they can be driven to loud levels with very low-powered tube amps such as the Border Patrol models you can see at lower left.

The speakers are designed for use in the corners, but still, even with them spread out across the room, I got a rock-solid center image. They may be classic, but they sure didn't sound old.

10
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DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96 speaker and LM Audio Gold Series 518IA amp

DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96 speaker
Brent Butterworth

Technically, neither the DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96 speaker you see in the foreground nor the O/93 you see in the background are new; what was new in the room was actually the Line Magnetic 518IA integrated amp. But I wanted to include this room in my RMAF because DeVore Fidelity founder and Chris and Dale Shepherd from Eugene Hi-Fi put on what might have been the best stereo demo I've ever heard.

The music they started with -- singer Jenny Hval's Viscera LP, played on a Versalex turntable from Well Tempered Lab -- struck me with its stark beauty. Hval's voice sounded not only natural, but perfectly "mouth-sized"; some high-end speakers tend to make singers sound super-sized. The sparse instrumentation spread out across the room and deep beyond the wall behind the speakers, with each instrument well-defined in the soundstage but never having the phony, pinpoint-precise imaging so common in hi-fi systems.

"Don't Give Up" from Peter Gabriel's So LP was even better. Not that the recording was better -- it still had that somewhat cheezy, hyped-up character of the '80s -- but the system delivered so much resolution that it completely drew me in, waiting impatiently to hear what new details and nuances each vocal line would reveal. Overall, the sound combined the character of vintage components with the precision of the latest audio gear, and none of the downsides of either.

The Orangutan O/96 is hand-built in DeVore's factory in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard, and costs $12,000/pair. The $4,450 LM 518IA amp delivers 22 watts per channel from two 845 tubes. Expensive, yes -- but at a show where components costing $10,000 to $50,000 are commonplace, this system seemed underpriced.