RMAF 2018 Readout

The following are the insights that I had over the course of the RMAF and what I thought was noteworthy. I will state that I am not a professional audio person, nor have I been in the hifi hobby for long; but I know what I enjoy, and I know that not everything is for everyone. Please feel free to add your own insights in the comments, I would love to hear what you all think!

Headphones: Hifiman Jade II - Very good electrostatic headphones with an amplifier that supports 2 of the jades without trouble. 8Hz-126kHz response, so you get pretty much everything your music has to offer.
Focal Elegia - Amazing for a closed back pair of headphones. Very nice imaging (positioning), and a larger than expected sound stage makes for a very enjoyable listening experience. The best way I can describe these is as basically a Focal Elex with a wider sound stage.
Focal Utopia - A bit brighter than the Elex, but overall I felt they were very similar. Considering that the Elex is the most recent release of Focal's open-back headphones, I will say that they have improved a lot (at least in my opinion) in getting the price down to something affordable while maintaining high levels of quality... sadly that also means that I don't believe the Utopia is worth the pricetag in comparison to the Elex.
Sennheiser HD660S,
Sennheiser HD800S,
Sennheiser HD820 - Seemed a bit bland to me. People say that Sennheiser is easy listening and more "relaxed" than other headphones, but overall I felt that the crisp clarity I was expecting in my music was missing... overall I would say that the Sennheisers felt "muffled" to me.

AMPs: Benchmark LA4 - Nice and clean with a built-in touch screen and lots of settings. The ability to drive speakers and headphones at the same time and control the volume of each separately or together is a nice feature, though something that I personally will not likely make much use of.
dCS Bartok (AMP/DAC) - This is quite a beast. I was listening to it with the Focal Elegia and can say that it is a nice piece of equipment. It is an AMP/DAC, which I can understand turning some people off. This is a big piece of equipment that is also fairly hefty, so desk space may be a constraining factor.
Questyle CMA 800R - Nice and powerful. Paired with the Focal Elegia, this makes for a very rich sound that I quite enjoyed.
Schiit Mjolnir - A nice amp that has tubes in it, it didn't seem to be too terribly hot while I was listening, though obviously the tubes are things you shouldn't touch. Sadly, because of the tubes, you shouldn't plan on being able to place anything on top of it... which can make it difficult with the large footprint as well. The fact that it offers balanced and single-ended inputs is nice, though I would have liked the chance to try it out with two pair of headphones to see if it was capable of driving them at the same time.

DACs: Foreword: None of the DACs I tried out were bad, they all got me the music and all sounded nice with their headphones. It is, at least for my ears, difficult to truly discern much difference between them at the price range over a couple hundred dollars, so I will keep the statements short and sweet for each. If you have further insights on them, feel free to post them!

Questyle CAS 192D - When paired with the Focal Elegia, this makes for a very rich sound that I quite enjoyed.
Benchmark DAC3 B - This guy had good sound as well.
Schiit Gungnir - Sounded nice, though it does have a fairly large footprint that will require quite a bit of desk space.

DAPs: Hifiman R2R2000 - These little beasties are... well... beasts. At about the same size as a pack of playing cards, they provide extremely good audio quality over bluetooth. In fact, many people around the Hifiman booth didn't even realize that they were listening over a wireless protocol. With this puppy feeding a full-size AMP, you will be more than happy listening to... well whatever. When you combine that with the fact that you can also use this as a USB DAC, or a DAP via micro-SD card, it get very intriguing. I will say that there are still some firmware issues with the R2R that I saw, and there were a few times where people would pair them with their phones, walk off, and the R2R would refuse to pair with any other device (I am assuming the booth reset them to get them working again, but I don't know for certain as they would just swap out the device with another one to get the headphones back up and running ASAP). Further, there are apparently some issues with the firmware decoding and displaying IMEI track information. For that reason, Hifiman isn't advertising the R2R as a DAP, but a USB and Bluetooth DAC. Overall, I found it to be a very impressive device, though at $2500 it is also outside the pricerange I would personally pay.

Powered Speakers: Vanatoo Transparent Zero,
Vanatoo Transparent One Encore - These surprised me, quite a bit. The amount of sound, and fairly good sound, that you get out of a powered speaker that is going for < $600 (for the pair) is impressive. Overall, they have a bit of trouble with the lower end as which they try to make up for, but just can't get the lows there without a subwoofer involved. I will say that, to my ears, I actually liked the Zero more than the One Encore as it used a cloth tweeter instead of a tin tweeter; and as such didn't have the super bright spots at times that the One Encore did. They are powered, so you just need a power cord going to the speakers, and you can run over a number of interfaces, including bluetooth if you wanted. When a subwoofer is plugged in (which can be done hot without any pop - a very nice feature), the speakers get a 5dB boost and cut the low bass out of their output - feeding it through to the woofer instead. As you can tell, these left an impression, and I think they would make great gym or garage speakers.

Floor Speakers: MartinLogan Neolith - These puppies are beasts! Planar magnetic floor speakers have grown to be on my list of "probably can't go wrong"; I leave it at "probably" so that there is room for someone to come and crush my expectations with a horrible system, but the MartinLogans aren't them. A little pricey, and they don't quite offer as much of the lows or highs as I would like, but the lows can be easily compensated for by adding a subwoofer to the party.
MartinLogan Renaissance ESL 15A - Just like the Neolith, these are very good speakers. They don't go quite as high, and you won't get the same amount of bass out of them, but they were enjoyable to listen to and in a more digestable price range (though still require budgeting).
Focal Kanta N3,
Focal Kanta N2 - Both of these speakers are very good, and are much more along the lines of something that I could see putting in my living room for general listening. I was also pleased that they didn't come across as too bright. The amount of bass that they can produce has me still a little puzzled, I spent a few minutes looking around the room trying to find the subwoofer, but to no avail; it was either hidden beyond my ability to find, or non-existent.
McIntosh XRT2.1K - Another very good floor speaker good range and nice sound. Not much to say here other than I enjoyed listening to them as well and they would go well in a home.

Loud Speakers: Focal Utopia III Evo - These beasts a _big_ both in sound and stature. They are definitely something that would be at home in a dance hall; but for your standard house they will be out of place. A bit bright for my liking, but other than that they can hold their own.
ESD Acoustics Dragon - I put these in the loud speaker category because I don't believe they can really do themselves justice in small rooms. If you had a dance hall, ballroom, etc. these would really shine. I spent probably 2 hours listening to them (across the 3 days) and can say that I wasn't able to find any much that I thought they didn't do justice to. They aren't too bright, not too bassy, great mids and vocals. All-around, they do an amazing job.

Buy List Here are the things that I expect I will be purchasing over the next year or so:
  1. Hifiman Jade II
  2. Focal Elegia
  3. A better AMP/DAC combination (I haven't decided what that will be yet, probably between the Benchmark, Questyle, or Schiit side of things currenly).


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