The two â€œbiggestâ€ introductions were both in the Maroon Peak room, where Focalâ€™s $180k Grande Utopia EM made its stateside debut and Clearaudio finally allowed the rest of us (Don Salzman and HP excepted) to actually hear (rather than merely look at) its massive, gorgeous $150k Statement record player.
I wish I could report that opening night was a complete success, but the room proved problematical. These are very big, very tall loudspeakers and I think the relatively low ceilings in this otherwise giant room were responsible for a slight bloom in the midbass (60-80Hz) that disguised the deep bass (and perhaps for a bit of aggressiveness in the upper mids). I would not say that the Utopia EM sounded â€œbadâ€ (or close to it) on first listen; it just didnâ€™t sound as great as I think it must be capable of sounding from the reports of other knowledgeable listeners and past experience with Focals. For instance on something like the first movement of Schoenbergâ€™s Five Pieces [Mercury/Speakerâ€™s Corner], it cast a very wide and open stage but the strings (usually gorgeous) sounded a mite wiry, the brass a mite aggressive, and the plucked doublebasses didnâ€™t have the depth of pitch, the definition of pitch, or the dynamic bite they should have had because of that midbass bloom. When I returned to the room late on Saturday night, for a private listening session, the sound had turned buttery in the upper mids (perhaps adjustments had been made to the EMs or other parts of the system, or perhaps these huge speakers were just â€œsettling inâ€). The Utopias sounded quite impressively big, rich, and dynamic on Bredemeyerâ€™s SchlagstÃ¼cke 5, but once again the lack of pitch depth and definition in the deep bass made the â€œbigâ€ dynamic moments of this piece (and, brother, they are big) slightly more congested than they usually sound. It seemed to me as if the speakers wanted to â€œgoâ€ without limits, but that the room didnâ€™t. In any event they were losing a bit of clarity and dynamic scale on ffff, although they certainly werenâ€™t losing sheer SPLs or impact. This said, the sound was still pretty impressiveâ€”particularly to those who arenâ€™t as familiar with the recording as I am. Like all big Focals, the Utopia EMs have weight and authority galore and a midband richness of timbre that is quite beguiling and beautiful if a little overdone for my taste. What they didnâ€™t have in this hotel room was quite the right pace and speed and clarity in the low end (or on the very top). Though I hate to say it, the Focal/Clearaudio room would also qualify as a disappointment if only because the Maroon Peak room didnâ€™t let either product really strut its stuff. (One reason Iâ€™m sure that the room was the problem was that the big Wilson Alexandrias, which were parked in a similar room last year, had virtually the same sonic problems. Plus the two-way $12k Focal Diablo Utopias, which were fed by a Clearaudio Anniversary AMG table and Helios arm, sounded real good in Room 2013â€”making Marc Cohnâ€™s cover of Willie Dixonâ€™s â€œ29 Waysâ€ [MoFi] very rich and full-bodiedâ€”perhaps a shade too much soâ€”but still quite lively, with excellent staging and reproduction of that burbling Hammond organ.)
If the Utopias and The Statement proved a bit of a disappointment in the Maroon Peak room, Da Vinci Audio Labsâ€™ new $27k Unison turntable and $7.75k Nobile arm (equipped with Da Vinciâ€™s $7.3k Reference mc cartridge) in Room 9021 sure didnâ€™t.
Feeding the $25k two-way Deco 10 Signature loudspeakers from A.R.T. Loudspeakers of Scotland by way of a $57k Da Vinci Preziosa 300B preamp/line-driver combo and a $19.5k AcousticPlan Sarod phonostage and $12.5k Santor amp, the new Da Vinci table, arm, and cartridge sounded purely great on Cohnâ€™s â€œ29 Waysâ€ with almost perfect neutrality and focus, not a hint of darkness or hoodedness, great Hammond organ, and bass that was very fast and clear (albeit a mite thick--probably room/port-related--on â€œSaving The Best For Lastâ€). Clearly a contender and one of the better sounds at RMAF.
Pioneerâ€™s Andrew Jones introâ€™d the latest (very close to production) version of his TAD Reference Two mini-monitor, although there is nothing particularly â€œminiâ€ about this large, stand-mounted two-way, either physically or sonically. At CES an earlier version had been parked against a wall in a tiny space. At RMAF the TAD had room to breatheâ€”and to produce some shockingly deep bass for a two-way. Probably priced at or near $30k (putting it squarely up against the king of two-ways, the Magico Mini II), the new TAD is likely to turn more than a few heads when it comes to market late this year or early next. Though Iâ€™m not wild about the Bel Canto electronics Andrew seems to favor, which seems to me to add a darkish caste to the soundfield, the smaller TADs had enough coherence, detail, timbral beauty, energy, and, once again, deep bass to make an even more favorable impression than the highly favorable impression their earlier incarnations made in Vegas.
Shown for the first time in the states in Room 2009, the $31k Montegiro Luso turntable sounded swell with a $11.6k Da Vinci Grandeeza tonearm (but then what â€™table doesnâ€™t sound swell with this superb arm [soon to be reviewed in TAS by moi]?) and Koetsu Coralstone cartridge, feeding a pair of $17k Chario Sovrans (three-way floorstanders that employ a â€œreversed vertical alignmentâ€ configuration). On â€œ29 Ways,â€ the Charios and the Montegiro/Da Vinci sounded exceptionally neutral and lively; bass was excellent though not particularly deep-reaching in this smallish room. Again on Norah Jonesâ€™ â€œCome Away With Me,â€ both speaker and turntable/arm were exceptionally neutral and alive; the combo sounded particularly pure and lovely on a Joan Baez cut. All in all, a very successful launch and one of the better sounds at RMAF.
In Room 518 Krell introduced its two-piece, aluminum-bodied $65k Modulari Duoâ€”a 3.5-way with a two-way head unit and three woofers in a separate cabinet. Bass was, not unexpectedly, terrific. The entire sound was quite impressive, clean and a shade dark with tremendous soundstage width and very good depth and image focus. Like the Magico Mini II, you got absolutely no sense of a box with Krellâ€™s thick aluminum enclosures. These new Krells could easily have gone in my surprise section, since they sounded better than any Krell loudspeaker Iâ€™ve previously heard. One of the better sounds at RMAF (but at a price, Ugarte, always at a price).
In Room 9004, Audio Machinaâ€™s $49.8k Maestroâ€”a larger, more elaborate, more highly perfected version of the PURE System loudspeaker that so impressed me several years ago at RMAF (with its gorgeous hourglass shape, black-anodized aluminum body and yellow Fostex midrange, incredibly thin profile, and incredibly deep bass)â€”was introduced. I think the speakerâ€™s designer, Dr. Karl Scheumann, is a greatly gifted fellow with a genuine love and feel for music and for loudspeaker design. Unfortunately, the smallish room and warm, overly ripe electronics didnâ€™t serve his cause so well this time around. The Maestros did the same disappearing act that the PURE System pulled off, all right, but on cuts like â€œKeys to the Highwayâ€ or â€œRainy Night in Georgiaâ€ the overall sound was just a bit too dark and recessed and polite for my taste. Anything but unpleasant or unattractive, mind you, but just not very â€œalive.â€ Having heard the PURE System in my own listening room, I have every confidence that the Maestros are much better than they showed in Denverâ€”and was told by a party I trust that, after the room was reordered and the speakers put on the long rather than short wall late in the show, the sound livened up. This is a speaker I will keep an eye on and that I believe has the potential to sound as great as it looks.