Most rooms with ’tables featured stereo cartridges. But Robin Wyatt, who was using an OMA Anatase turntable ($8500) with a Thomas Schick 12** tonearm ($1475), was an exception. He insisted that I hear Ben Webster on “Soulsville” rendered by a Miyajima Labs Shilabe Premium Be mono cartridge that costs $2800. $2800 for mono! You bet. Mono cartridges have made a big comeback and the Shilabe, which I will review, sounded very promising indeed. It reproduced Webster’s fat saxophone with excellent tonality and a lavish sense of space. The cartridge is available in either a .45mV or .9mV version. Sonically, they are said to sound identical (though usually fewer windings seem to sound more elegant and precise).
One stereo purveyor, Gold Sound, simply had too many turntables to even begin to judge them. VPI Classic, Rega P3, Thorens TD158, Pro-Ject Debut II—the list is seemingly endless. Gold Sound was also premiering the Thorens TD309. I can’t say what they sounded like, but they sure looked awesome and offered further testament to the boom in vinyl.
A ’table that I did get to hear playing the wonderful Chad Kassem/Acoustic Sounds 45-rpm reissue of the Staples Singers belting out “I’ll Take You There” was Steve Dobbins’ “The Beat Mag/Drive” ‘table, which costs $24,000. His ‘table featured an ultra-sophisticated-looking Reed 3Q laser-guided 12** tonearm that runs $6500. This equipment is so outrageously good that it deserves some explication. The Reed tonearm has a four-point bearing system and is available in rhodium, gold, black, and seashell white editions. The armtube comes in a variety of exotic woods, including cocobolo and zircote. “The Beat” ‘table relies on a magnetic field between the stator and the rotor—the idea being to dispense with belts, idler wheels, and the like. The rest of the system was all-Allnic, which hails from South Korea and, like Ypsilon, features transformers in its preamps and amps. The Allnic Audio Puritas MC cartridge costs $4950 and, via the MBL 111F loudspeaker, produced a very smooth, perhaps somewhat recessed, but remarkably coherent soundstage, not even a hint of that old-time rising top end that moving-coil cartridges often display.
One of the more attractively priced turntables was the new Clearaudio Concept at $1400. Acoustic Sounds’ Chad Kassem was in his element as he prepared to play a new 45-rpm pressing of Elvis’ Greatest Hits. The Sony SS-AR1 and the Clearaudio sounded smashing together. Elvis’ voice was voluminous and the background choir perfectly placed in space. One of the best rooms at the show, bar none. How Clearaudio managed to produce a ’table that cheaply that produces so much sound is a mystery to me. In fact, I would wager that it’s one of their better ’tables overall.
This isn’t to take anything away from Audio Unlimited’s nifty display of the Hansen Emperor loudspeakers, driven by Accuphase preamplifiers and amplifiers courtesy of Axxis Audio’s Arturo Manzano. Clearaudio’s $150,000 Statement turntable was the starring attraction and sounded phenomenally dynamic via Jim White’s Aesthetix Eclipse phonostage. The Hansens are unequivocally one of the best speakers I’ve heard in several years.
Another exhibitor that deserves to be singled out is TTWeight’s Audio, which introduced its new “Black Onyx” ($15,900) and “Gem” ($6500) ’tables. Once again, the gorgeous Talea tonearm manifested itself as well as a Miyajima Waza MC cartridge ($1800). For those feeling frisky, or simply the pull of vinyl, both were available for a slight discount at the show, and it wouldn’t be hard to understand why someone would spring for them, given the sound quality they can produce. Particularly noteworthy is the “Black Onyx,” which features DC Servo and a direct rim drive. It’s fascinating to see how the older technologies have made a comeback in new dress (the VPI HR-X is available with a rim drive as well, which some aficionados swear by). The rim drive can provide superb transient attack that belt drives sometimes lack.
Not every speaker needed to be a powerhouse to produce stellar sound, which is what was emanating from the Gamut rooms. The Acoustic Signature turntable sounded impeccable, warm, and smooth on a Diana Krall cut. The Omega ZYX cartridge is clearly a winner and the Gamut S3 loudspeaker was very enticing. It sounded extremely coherent, full, and relaxed. In fact, it’s surprising how smashing, to use a Britticism, the sound was in many rooms this year. One big reason was the return to analog sound, whether in tape or vinyl form. It will be interesting to see if next year’s RMAF demonstrates an even greater preponderance of vinyl. One dealer told me that without vinyl “the high end would be dead,” by which he meant that turntables, tonearms, and cartridges have become his biggest sellers. If RMAF 2011 is any indication, that isn’t about to change any time soon. Vinyl hasn’t just come back. It’s here to stay.