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- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Monthly Column Monthly Column
- Created: 01 November 2018 01 November 2018
In 2013, Jeff Fritz and I reported on the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, held annually in Denver, Colorado. We’d made flight and hotel reservations so that we could attend all three days of the show, but found it so lacking in new and interesting products that we left halfway through Day 2 to see Captain Phillips at a nearby movie theater. We returned on Day 3 but wound up aimlessly walking the halls, finding little worth our while. We’d watched attendance at RMAF dwindle before 2013, but it had never been this bad. Is it any surprise that I didn’t return in 2014 -- or in 2015, 2016, or 2017?
But in 2017, Brent Butterworth attended RMAF on the SoundStage! Network’s behalf, and told me that the show had gotten good enough that I should give it another chance. Hesitant, I nonetheless took his advice, and this year booked flights to Denver, planning to attend two of the show’s three days -- I didn’t want to end up in a movie theater again.
That turned out to be a mistake. RMAF 2018 was really good, with significant numbers of attendees, and more new-product introductions than I remembered ever seeing there. We had to rush around to see everything, then report on it in our on-the-spot coverage on SoundStage! Global. Admittedly, attending only two days of the show meant that we missed some stuff. But Brent and I were able to report on a lot of products -- not only in the hi-fi exhibits, but also in the CanJam area, which is dedicated to Brent’s beat: headphones, earphones, and related products. We got out a good report that we were satisfied with, and it was from that coverage that Brent and I picked our favorite products for this list of the Best of RMAF 2018. The products appear below in alphabetical order of manufacturer name; all prices are in US dollars.
Benchmark Media Systems LA4 preamplifier
Led by engineer John Siau and based in Syracuse, New York, Benchmark Media Systems has built a sterling reputation for making compact, well-engineered, moderately priced electronics that challenge the state of the art, both on the test bench and in the listening room. The prices of their well-known DACs hover at around $2000, depending on features, while their AHB2 power amp costs $2995. So when Benchmark brings out a new product, it’s pretty much mandatory to take a look.
Debuting at RMAF 2018 was Benchmark’s LA4 line-stage preamplifier ($2495). Its dimensions are similar to those of their DACs and amp -- they’re easily stackable. The LA4 has two pairs each of single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) inputs, a volume attenuator with 256 steps of 0.5dB each, and a front-panel touchscreen with which you can select such options as channel balance, screen brightness, naming inputs, etc. What I took notice of were the specifications: total harmonic distortion of less than 0.00006%, and a signal/noise ratio exceeding 135dB from 20Hz to 20kHz. The THD spec for the built-in headphone amplifier is the same, with a signal/noise ratio exceeding 131dB. If those claims are true, and there’s no reason to believe they aren’t -- Benchmark gear has always performed as specified on the test bench -- the LA4 should be about as transparent-sounding a line-stage and headphone amp as you can find at any price. The LA4 is shipping now -- I want us to get one to review.
Cambridge Audio Alva TT turntable
There was much talk at RMAF 2018 about Cambridge Audio’s new Alva TT turntable ($1699), whose name pays homage to the inventor of the phonograph, Thomas Alva Edison. The Alva has more features that anyone could ask for, and from what we saw it looks very well built, as it should be for the price. (Anything above $1000 can’t really be considered “entry-level,” as that’s more than most people pay for their entire sound systems.)
The Alva TT has a direct-drive platter made of a very dense composite, a tonearm that appears to be made by Rega Research (though Cambridge is keeping mum about this), and Cambridge’s own Alva MC high-output moving-coil cartridge. It also has its own built-in phono stage, should the integrated amplifier or preamplifier lack one (as does the Benchmark LA4, above), as well as Bluetooth aptX HD streaming -- you can wirelessly output the Alva’s audio signal to a Bluetooth streamer or speaker(s). While hi-fi purists may turn up their noses at the notion of digitizing their vinyl-derived analog signals for transmission through the air, I suspect that many will appreciate that and the Alva TT’s many other features.
Campfire Audio Equinox earphones
Brent was really jazzed about Campfire Audio’s Equinox earphones ($1499), which possess something few, if any, other earphones have: a single, 10mm, diamond-diaphragm driver in each earpiece. According to Ken Ball, Campfire’s president, designing that driver cost them $100,000 in R&D -- you can assume that the use of it in these earphones is probably the start of a new trend in products from this brand.
Besides those diamond diaphragms, the Equinoxes’ earpieces have solid, 3D-printed bodies whose sound tubes are built into their one-piece structure. As Brent reported, he liked them because “The sound tube is much shorter than the ones in the custom-molded earphones I’ve tried, which Ball says is to make it less invasive and more comfortable -- and which should solve the big discomfort problem I and many others have had with custom-molded earphones.” Commensurate with the high price are high-quality stainless-steel cable mounts. I have no doubt that Brent has already requested a sample for review; we’ll see these on our SoundStage! Solo site in the months to come.
European Audio Team Prelude turntable
If you’re a turntable fan, the name Lichtenegger is probably already familiar to you -- Heinz Lichtenegger owns Pro-Ject Audio Systems, one of the world’s largest makers of turntables. Well, another Lichtenegger is now taking the turntable world by storm: Heinz’s wife, Jozefina, the president of European Audio Team. I’ve been watching EAT for several years now, and have been impressed by their high-quality turntables, which also appear to exhibit very high value.
The new EAT Prelude ($1195) carries on that reputation. It comes with a solid-aluminum platter, a motor that’s detached from the plinth so as not to transmit vibrations, a bespoke carbon-fiber tonearm, and an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge. Looking at this turntable, it’s easy to think it costs two or three times its actual price. Downside: It comes only in high-gloss black. I would have preferred a choice of colors, particularly white or red. Upside: The black finish looks great, and the Prelude seems like a lot of turntable for the money. I want to get one for review as soon as it becomes available.
iFi Audio xCan headphone amplifier-DAC
Brent really liked iFi Audio’s new xCan headphone amplifier-DAC -- for its small size, its reasonable price ($299), and, as he said in his report, “truly extraordinary output for a portable device, with the balanced output rated at 1Wpc into a 32-ohm load.” It actually has balanced (2.5mm) and unbalanced (3.5mm) outputs, a built-in ESS Sabre DAC, and a stepped volume attenuator. iFi says that the xCan’s internal battery, charged through its USB port, will play for more than eight hours -- pretty generous.
There’s more: AAC and aptX Bluetooth support, as well as XBass II and 3D+ buttons, to add some sonic effects to playback. XBass II has three settings: Bass, Presence, and Bass+Presence. Turning on XBass II gives a little boost to whatever you’ve selected. 3D+ is said to “re-create live stage atmosphere,” which probably means some added reverb or some phasey effect. I doubt purists will much like any of these effects -- I’m one of those purists, and if I got my hands on an xCan, I doubt I’d turn either of those on. But I’d still be happy to have it -- its small size, high power, and compatibility with balanced and unbalanced headphones makes it the perfect low-priced companion for headphone listening on the go. I’d be surprised if, in the next few months, Brent doesn’t review it on SoundStage! Solo.
Mark Levinson No.5805 and No.5802 integrated amplifiers
In the past, Harman International -- owner of JBL, Mark Levinson, Revel, and other brands -- has confined itself to the more mainstream American shows: CEDIA, for instance, and the Consumer Electronics Show, back when that was worth attending. So when Harman exhibits at an audio show, as they did at RMAF 2018, you know that show has become a pretty big deal.
From Mark Levinson, Harman debuted the No.5802 ($7000, above) and No.5805 ($8500, below) integrated amplifiers, priced far lower than the Levinson integrateds that preceded them. They’re also distinctive in being very similar on the amplification front, with pretty much identical casework. It makes them tough to tell apart, but their feature sets differ, depending on what you want an integrated to do.
Both models have the same class-A preamplifier circuit, the same class-AB amplifier capable of outputting 125Wpc into 8 ohms or 250Wpc into 4 ohms, as well as a PrecisionLink DAC and Main Drive class-A headphone amp. But it’s the lower-priced No.5802 that’s better suited for digital-only systems: it has six digital inputs to the No.5805’s four, and no analog inputs. The No.5805 has fewer digital inputs, but its price is increased by its analog circuit board and rear-panel analog inputs: one pair line-level balanced (XLR), two pairs line-level single-ended (RCA), and another single-ended (RCA) for the built-in moving-magnet/moving-coil phono stage. The settings for the phono stage can be adjusted with DIP switches on the rear.
Usually, a company offers a single model, with additional features as add-ons. In this case, Harman has given the same basic design two different model names and offered no add-on options for either -- you get what better suits your system, and either way, at a price far lower than Levinsons used to cost. This seems a wise move.
MrSpeakers Ether 2 headphones
Wearing big headphones is popular these days -- but big usually means heavy, which can be a pain in the ass and a literal pain in the neck. Enter the MrSpeakers Ether 2 planar-magnetic headphones ($1999.99), which, Brent reported, “were designed specifically to be far lighter and more comfortable to wear than any other audiophile headphones on the market.” He also “found it initially disconcerting, but ultimately delightful, to have a big set of audiophile headphones that felt as light as an inexpensive set of mass-market headphones.”
The Ether 2s weigh only 10.23 ounces (290gm). According to Brent, that’s only about 26% heavier than Sony’s MDR-7506 dynamic headphones, introduced in 1991 and a favorite ever since for professional monitoring, and 2.68 ounces (76gm) lighter than the original Ether headphones, which were pretty light to begin with. To get the Ether 2s lighter than the originals, MrSpeakers redesigned and replaced almost every component part, including the type of driver used. Big and light appeals to me -- I definitely want to try a pair.
Paradigm Premier 200B loudspeaker
On both our days at RMAF 2018, Brent and I split up in the morning, met for lunch to compare notes, went our separate ways again for the rest of the afternoon, then retired to our hotel rooms in the evening to write and post our reports.
At lunch on Day 2, Brent asked me, “Did you hear those little Paradigm speakers?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing!”
That little Paradigm was the Premier 200B, a stand-mounted, two-way minimonitor ($998/pair). The Premier models comprise Paradigm’s newest series and include their latest tech: a midrange-woofer with Paradigm’s Active Ridge Technology surround, and Perforated Phase-Aligning lenses on the midrange-woofer and tweeter. The Premier 200Bs looked good in their Express Grain finish (Gloss Black and Gloss White are also available), but what bowled over both of us was the sound. Powered by an Anthem STR Integrated Amplifier, connected to their binding posts with AudioQuest speaker cables, the 200Bs sounded so incredibly smooth and, at the same time, oh, so detailed in the mids and highs, that they put to shame speakers costing many times their price. Low bass was absent, of course, as you’d expect from a two-way minimonitor, but in every other part of the audioband, no other speaker at RMAF 2018 impressed Brent and me as much.
Sonus Faber Electa Amator III loudspeaker
Few speakers grab the attention the way models from Sonus Faber do. The company was founded by the late Franco Serblin, credited with making loudspeakers into luxury furniture, and with the design flair Italian craftsmanship is known for. For Serblin, appearance and sound went hand in hand -- and Sonus Faber continues that tradition today.
The Electa Amator III costs $10,000/pair, including stands. I was told that, loosely translated, its name is Latin for “selected lover.” On Sonus Faber’s website, industrial designer Livio Cucuzza describes it as “not a simple reinterpretation of an icon, but the respectful evolution of it.” Indeed. The first Electa Amator was launched in 1987, the II in 1997. The Electa Amator III was launched at RMAF 2018, to celebrate Sonus Faber’s 35th anniversary.
The Electa Amator III is a two-way minimonitor with a 1.1” (28mm) Damped Apex dome tweeter crossed over at 2.5kHz to a 7” (180mm), paper-coned midrange-woofer ported to the rear. These are all new parts, of course -- much has happened at Sonus Faber since the launch of the Amator II, 21 years ago. Aesthetically, there’s leather on the front baffle, and most of the cabinet is clad in solid walnut -- materials now as closely associated with the Sonus Faber brand as blue meters are with McIntosh Laboratory. The wood looks particularly stunning. Brand-new to Sonus Faber for this model is Carrara marble, used in the bases of the cabinet and stand. I wonder if this elegant touch will appear in future Sonus Faber designs.
The Electa Amator III was not all about appearances. The brief demo I heard revealed a robust yet smooth, clean sound, with well-fleshed-out bass for a stand-mounted two-way. Looks and sound are what Sonus Faber has delivered now for 35 years -- the Electa Amator III carries on that tradition.
Next year, next RMAF . . .
The 2019 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest will take place not in October, as it has each year from the beginning, but on September 5-8. Will those dates make a difference in its success? We’ll see, but I’m taking no risks -- I plan to attend all four days.
But long before that, we’ll have covered plenty of other shows, including one that runs November 18-20: Audio Video Show 2018, in Warsaw, Poland. I attended AVS 2016 and 2017 and was impressed by what I saw, so I’m really looking forward to AVS 2018. As I’ve reported before, AVS has become one of the two largest, most important annual audio shows in Europe, second only to Munich’s High End, and it’s now one of the top five shows worldwide. And from what I’ve heard, AVS 2018 promises to be the biggest yet. In 2016, I attended alone; in 2017, Brent Butterworth came along. This year, vinyl guru Jason Thorpe will join me -- so you can be sure there will be more turntables and other analog products in our SoundStage! Global coverage of AVS than in previous years. On top of that, I’ll post a “Best of Audio Video Show 2018” article in this space on December 1.
. . . Doug Schneider