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This was my third consecutive year attending RMAF. As impossible as it may seem, it just keeps getting bigger and better every year. The hotel showrooms are divided into four regions: Lobby Level, Mezzanine, Atrium (fourth and fifth floors) and the Tower (floors two, eight, nine, ten, eleven). I got through every floor except the 2nd floor of the Tower. Helping me get through this audio expedition were two friends: Dean Beckwith, fellow Connecticut Audio Society member, and Roger Swiatek, salesman for Music Direct. There was no way I could cover as many rooms as the print magazines which used a divide and conquer team-coverage approach. Some rooms I left out of my report either because I was unable to draw any firm conclusions due to various circumstances or because I just was not interested in the brands and skipped the room.

When possible I noted the music being played in the room, but for retail prices and exact models of all of the components you will need to Google or check other show coverage. It was all I could do to take photos and make notes on the sound. The normal caveats apply. If I walked into a room when they happened to be playing a less-than-excellent recording, then obviously my impressions were not going to be as favorable. I am sure this was true in some rooms especially when the exhibitor might have been playing a visitor’s requested music. Such are the vagaries of audio shows. A growing trend in show coverage technology was the use of iPads and their like for instantaneous uploading to websites and discussion forums. While this might the prize for the fastest draw in the West, it does not provide the perspective that comes from sitting down with listening notes after the show is over and sorting it all out in your head.

The other seemingly unstoppable trend was the ever-increasing sticker shock on high-end audio equipment. Perhaps the Occupy Wall Street movement will be picketing audio shows soon? There was certainly an ample portion of excess on display. It seems many manufacturers are purposely targeting the 1%ers since the 99%ers are probably not buying much these days. Obviously if a manufacturer or retailer can make 500% on a single sale to a fat cat, then they don’t have to move as much product. Frankly there were many products for which I failed to see justification for their exorbitant price. I got a head start to listening on Thursday evening in two Laufer Teknik rooms as I was invited to come up as soon as I arrived.

Laufer Teknik – German Physiks, Memory Player, Shuhgetsu, Stillpoints, Novum PMR, Stein Music: The German Physiks Unlimited MkII speakers ($15.000 per pair) were featured in this Laufer Teknik room (they had three rooms).  Music selections were made from a monitor screen and retrieved from the Memory Player. They included James Taylor, Steamroller Blues and Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3 and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. As one would expect with the omnidirectional German Physiks speakers plus Stein Harmonizers in the room, the soundstage was wide open. The system had a very clean low-distortion sound perhaps attributable to the Shuhgetsu Model P-1120 amps with their patented NRF circuitry, with exemplary tone on upper midrange instruments. However I felt that the system was a litte lacking in the midbass/power range. For example the cannon shot in the 1812 Overture lacked sufficient impact. I did not get a chance to revisit this room in the following days so it is possible that speaker placement was not fully dialled in yet for optimal bass.

Laufer Teknik – Behold: The Behold Tanara 3-way, partly-powered speakers, are designed by an obviously ambitious German engineer. They were being driven by a Behold Gentle G192 integrated amplifier and the Memory Player. The speakers’ in-room frequency response can be tailored by the DSP-based active crossover in the amplifier. I saw a response curve that had been taken in the room prior to correction and the electronics were able to correct a sizable room acoustics problem in the midbass. As a result the in-room response was smooth and evenly balanced. The midrange and tweeter in this speaker are planar magnetics in the black area at the top of the speaker. The woofers are internal. Vocals were very naturally portrayed. What stood out most was the ability to maintain good tonal balance and detail even when played at very low volume. When pushed to higher volumes there was no sense of strain. 

The next morning some rooms were allowing visitors in a little before the official start of the show. We started out in the larger Lobby Level rooms. Classic Audio Loudspeakers, Atma-Sphere Music Systems, Stahl-Tek, Purist Audio Design: John Wolfe of Classic Audio Loudspeakers was playing a Johnny Cash record on his SME turntable when we entered. It sounded pleasing but not terribly dynamic as one might expect from a horn speaker with field-coil drivers.

Soon the source was switched to the expensive and beautifully engineered CD transport and DAC combination from newcomer Stahl-Tek  ($35K and $36K for the transport and DAC respectively). 

I spoke with the Stahl-Tek representative who explained to me that his company felt there was still more performance to be extracted from Redbook CD and that they made an all-out assault to prove it. The first minute or two of music played from this combination convinced me. The dynamics and presence improved greatly and there was a level of detail that I rarely hear from the tired old compact disc. It will be interesting to see how these products fare against the tide of computer/server-based high-rez digital audio. People still own a lot of their music on CD but this is a lot of money to spend on playing them!