Rocky Mountain Audio Fest: The Best of the Best

Show report

The combination of Border Patrol electronics and the Volti horn speakers have been a highlight at RMAF for a few years now, to the extent that stepping into their room has an almost déjà vu/time slip feeling to it – like they just kept the room on from last year, preferring to pay for the space rather than remove, ship, re-ship and re-install the seriously heavy and cumbersome equipment involved. Even on the first day the mighty Vittora horns and the BP amp delivered a settled, relaxed sound that had all the familiar dynamics and impact but a significant extra slice of textural resolution and intimacy. Closer examination revealed a volume control on the front of the S20 EXD EXS amplifier, backed up by an extra gain stage, creating a true single input integrated amp. Adding a CEC TL-3N transport won’t have done any harm either and one of our few regrets from the 2015 RMAF experience was that we didn’t get to spend more time enjoying this brilliantly engaging and communicative set up.

Which brings us, finally, to two serious surprises. Finding great sound in the Wavelength room is hardly a shock. Finding it delivered by a pair of Vaughn Plasma II loudspeakers, sporting newly manufactured versions of the Dukane Ionovac plasma tweeter – better known as the Ionofane in the UK – now that’s a surprise. The high-efficiency speakers, sporting a Fostex driver array and bamboo cabinets offered a perfect match to Gordon Rankin’s superb single-ended tube amps. But what really impressed was the sheer musical integrity of this system. Listening gave no hint as to the nature of the source: analogue, CD or file replay. The fact that it was being fed by computer is a stunning testament to Rankin’s acknowledged position at the forefront of computer audio thinking and execution. This is another system we re-visited on multiple occasions, but still wanted more.

Our final (very nice) surprise was delivered in the Alta Audio room. Alta’s own modest yet attractive two-way floor-standers (the Rhea, $4495) were paired with the Nuprime DAC-10 pre-amp ($1500) and REF20 mono-blocks ($7600). If the electronics and speakers were definitely approachable, the source wasn’t: the Grand Prix Monaco v1.5, Triplanar Ultimate 12” tonearm, Lyra Scala cartridge and the latest Tom Evans Groove+ phono-stage. Roll that lot together and it adds up to around three times the rest of the chain, but you couldn’t argue with the musical results. Relaxed but clearly structured, with the explicit tempi and explosive dynamics that characterize the GPA ‘table, this system was both extremely engaging and expressive. Rhythmically secure and musically articulate, capable of great delicacy and fluid phrasing, this set up made the Alta Audio room a welcome oasis of musical calm amidst the hustle and bustle of the show.

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