Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2009, Day One—Speakers up to $20K
It can take a while to get a feel for the rhythm of the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, in part because the show is so big and the general quality level of demonstrations so high that the normal audiophile’s instinct is to stop and listen carefully to, well, everything—which there really isn’t time enough to do.
My product category for RMAF is sub-$20k loudspeakers, and for my first RMAF blog, I’ll try to capture three highlights from Day One: first, some of the better high-priced speakers I heard in my category; second, some of the better value-priced speakers I heard in my category; and third, mention some not-really-new for RMAF models that were producing very good sound.
Speakers under-$20k: Higher-Priced Models
Eficion F300, $14,900/pair
From Eficion designer Peigen Jiang comes one of the most impressive debuts I’ve heard in a long time: the F300 full-range speaker offering a hybrid blend of Heil-type air motion transformer, ribbon, and dynamic driver technology. Loosely based on what I’ve come to think of as the Watt/Puppy configuration, the F300 is split into a top tweeter mid-range section that is coupled, via included Stillpoints feet, to a lower bass module. The top section features a forward-firing Heil-type air motion transformer tweeter, a rear-firing Raven-type ribbon tweeter, with a 6.5-inch non-woven carbon fiber mid-bass driver. The lower section features a 12-inch non-woven carbon fiber woofer. The sound: well-balanced, almost unbelievably dynamic, and blessed with blazingly fast transient speeds.
Naim Ovator S-600, $10,450/pair
I began my day with a pre-show press briefing on this fascinating loudspeaker, which features an impressive blend of advance technologies, including a main speaker cabinet that is decoupled from its own floor plinth (which doubles as a crossover housing) by a system of leaf springs, two very high-quality paper cone woofers with low distortion motors, a spring-isolated mid-range/high-frequency driver housing, and a so-called Balanced Mode Radiator (BMR) combo midrange/tweeter driver that—get this—features a decidedly high-end reinterpretation of NXT technology (although designer Karl Heinz Fink does jokingly say the BMR diaphragm features a “singing cardboard” diaphragm).
Raven Bard, $6000/pair
Raven is best known for its very high-quality ribbon drivers, but in the Bard desingers Kimon Bellas and Alan Hulsebus have given us a hybrid piston-driver/ribbon-driver stand mount monitor of exceptional build quality that is capable of a terrific degree of sonic finesse. The Bard feature two 5-inch Focal mid-bass drivers, a 1-inch square waveguide loaded ribbon, and an unusual laminated cabinet design with extensive (and quite artful) internal bracing, plus a venture-loaded slot-like port. The sound is beautifully balanced and serves up a remarkable amount of inner detail. Raven is a company to watch.
Rethm Maarga, $6995/pair
For RMAF, Rethm—best known for its beautiful single-driver/full-range speakers--showed the almost-finalized version of its striking new Maarga speaker, which offers a new take on the single-driver loudspeaker concept. The main top section of the Maarga houses a heavily modified Lowther full-range drive, while a pleasingly integrated lower section houses two powered 6-inch woofers in an enclosure that provides isobaric loading (actually, the Maarga on demonstration had just one woofer, but the final product units will have two). The upshot of this design is a speaker that preserves the singular sonic purity for which sthe best single-driver/full-range speakers are famous, but with a level of bass extension and power few others can equal.
Snell Phantom, $20,000/pair
On demonstration at RMAF was a nearly-finalized pre-production prototype of Snell’s new Phantom floorstander, designed by Dr. Joseph D’Appolito, which is essentially a downsized version of Snell’s flagship Illusion loudspeaker. The Phantom features a D’Appolito array—what else would you expect?—to handle mids and highs, plus a pair of (I believe) SEAS/Excel woofers. The sound: very refined, yet robust and full-bodied; especially in the area of bass extension and clout, the Phantom’s demonstrate the benefits of a true full-range design.
Speakers under-$20K: Value-Priced Models
Audioengine P4, $250-$325/pair
A simple, well designed two-way monitor with a 4-inch woofer offering smooth, pleasingly engaging sound at a bargain basement price.
A DSP-corrected, self-powered, and—get this—self calibrating two-way stand mount monitor. Once DSP correction is applied, the sound becomes remarkably holographic, and the good news is that the DSP system can overcome what would normally be problematic room placement issues. Just add a preamp and source components and you’re good to go.
Emotiva ERT-8.3, $1598/pair
Emotiva sells direct via the Internet and, as a consequence, is able to offer astonishing value for money. A case in point would be the ERT-8.3 floorstanders, which are a five-driver three way design (two woofers, two midrange drivers and a fabric dome tweeter). The emphasis, here, is on achieving a fairly rich, reasonably well-detailed, full-range sound. Though perhaps not the last word in refinement, this is a lot of speaker for the money.
Three previous-announced models that sounded great.
Three speakers that were not-new-for-RMAF, but that sounded wonderful were these:
Avalon Ascent ($8500/pair, as recently reviewed in our British sister magazine HiFi-Plus), which was making its US debut at the show.
Gradient Helskinki 1.5 (about $8000/pair, as reviewed in The Absolute Sound)
Von Schweikert Audio Unifield 3 ($15,000/pair--watch for an upcoming review in The Absolute Sound).