I am a student of DACs. To me they are like phono cartridges—each sounding quite different from the other—and I just need to know which I like most.

A close friend of mine uses the top MSB DAC, and his system seems so natural and relaxed and consistently alive. His system is always full of deep, wide-space magic. So I was not surprised when the first room I encountered—the MSB room—felt like it would probably end up being the best sound at the show. I was impressed with every second of what was presented.

The room was dark and shadowy; the soundstage was deeeep, and filled with breathy shadows everywhere. The YG Acoustics Sonja 1.2 loudspeakers ($72,800/pair) sounded better than ever, but I felt the real star of the show was not the MSB Reference DAC ($39,500) with MQA USB input module ($1595) and Femto 33 clock ($9950). Nor was it the MSB Universal Media Transport V ($6995) with Signature Transport Bass ($4995). The Analysis Plus Micro Golden Oval interconnect and Golden Oval speaker cables ($10,560) might have helped—likewise the Ultimate Power Oval power cords ($2051) and Isotek Mosaic Genesis line conditioning ($9995).

But! While I was sitting there I could feel it: The M204 Monobloc amplifiers were driving—I mean really driving—the YG Sonjas in a way that seemed powerfully expressive yet gentle and elastic.

First Day. First room. Best (cost-no-object) sound at show? Seemed likely.

While visiting rooms at RMAF 2016, beautiful genius and show organizer Marjorie Baumert invited people to sponsor a series of RMAF 2017 rooms with complete systems at predetermined price points of $500, $1000, $1500, $2500, and $5000.
How cool and smart is this? I loved the concept, so I started at the bottom, with the room designated as having the $500 system. (Please note, because cable prices weren’t provided for these systems, they’re not listed here.)

The fine, audio-grade, powered Vanatoo Transparent Zero loudspeaker ($359/pair) is a conspicuous choice for any beginning system, and it was used to great advantage with the $120 Pioneer PL-990 turntable (with phono stage).

Dear reader, please stop for a second to imagine how I could go from the above-mentioned MSB room to the $500 setup without feeling pain. Then imagine me sitting, slumped in my chair, grinning happily. Life is good, and so was the effectiveness of this very modest system.

Because the clear and well-textured sounding Vanatoo Transparent Zeros have a built-in DAC, the digital setup allowed for a $110 Polk PSW10 subwoofer, which really opened up the soundstage and made the presentation sound like a real genuine audiophile system. Imagine: BIG, smooth, and vibrant.

The $500 Headphone rig (not pictured) featured a 1More Triple Driver in-ear headphone ($99) and a FiiO X5 (third generation) portable player. But this made no sense to me. We all have smart phones, so I would have lost the player and put my money into the astoundingly good $200 AudioQuest DragonFly Red USB DAC and the HiFiMan HE400S headphones at $299. Or, the insanely wonderful Audeze iSine 20s (with their own built in DAC) at $549 with standard cable, $599 with standard and Cipher cables.

Doubling the price (from $500 to $1000) made the sound way more than twice as good—at least for the $1278 analog rig, which was founded upon the Audioengine HD6 powered loudspeaker ($749/pair), which features both analog (phono) and digital inputs (DAC) and (to my ears) is a genuine high-end audiophile product. These were coupled to a U-turn Orbit Special turntable ($529, w/cartridge).

I am old and can remember the day when you had to spend at least $5K to get a system this good.

Incidentally, the $1000 digital system made up for the analog system’s overcharge by featuring only the $749 Audioengine HD6 and my own iPhone. Rock me, baby—I love it.

The $1000 headphone rig (not pictured) featured the absolutely musical, always-enjoyable Sennheiser HD650 headphones ($499) and the JDS Labs Element headphone amp/USB DAC at $349.

With its KEF Q350 loudspeakers ($650/pair), the $1500 room was a definite sweet spot in the budget-system experience. The sound was fast and pretty clean, with excellent imaging, but also a little dry and un-sensual sounding. I don’t know which component to blame, but I am working on a review of the KEFs, and I doubt they are the cause. I am also certain it was not the $130 Schiit Mani phono stage or the Music Hall MMF 1.3 turntable ($300)—or the PS Audio Sprout integrated amplifier ($499): I reviewed the Sprout and remember it being on the moist and open side—so I guess it must be me, the old man, who at the time desperately needed water to hydrate my senses.

The $1500 headphone rig was crazy good: MrSpeakers AEON Flow ($799) and the Chord Electronics Mojo headphone amp ($529). This may have been the best of all these budget systems.

The $2500 room was a mind-expanding experience. My reviewing practice has taught me that $2-3K is where the remarkably good sound kicks in, and the fine demonstrations in the $2500 room only validated my experiences with products at this level. Of course, the super quality all-around do-everything Elac Debut B6 loudspeakers ($269/pair!) allowed the designer of this room to employ the rich, fast, musical sound of Peachtree’s decco125 SKY integrated amp ($1199) and the VPI Cliffwood turntable with included VPI cartridge ($895).

This system was audiophile-deluxe in every way: it was lush, yet clean and enjoyably detailed. It played every type of music the presenters and the audience threw at it. I could easily live happily ever after with this $2500 analog and digital scheme.

This is the system price level I try to review for. It is, in my experience, a level where, to do obviously better, you would have to jump up $20,000. I participated in the RMAF 2017 panel “Affordability: How Low Can You Go,” and as a group we declared $5K as the beginning of true high-end.

The $5000 room was all about the excellent Aurum Cantus Melody M-103 SE loudspeakers ($2499) and their ribbon tweeters; the VPI Cliffwood turntable ($895); and the 80Wpc Music Hall a30.3 integrated amplifier ($999)—and, last but not least, the cables by Dana Cable (marketed exclusively by Gingko Audio).

Appropriate $5K room adjectives: fast, clean, easy, free moving, danceable, with life and bustle; and obviously a genuine perfectionist system.

This room was produced by Audiophile Direct LLC and Gingko Audio.

Are you strapped in and wearing your helmet? You must—because we are now accelerating from Vanatoo Transparent Zeros to Wilson Audio’s Alexia 2 loudspeakers ($57,900/pair) in the Nagra room.

When I walked in, I stopped and stared in awe at the cornucopia of Made-in-Switzerland Nagra products displayed under the tightly-focused overhead lights. Then I listened closely to some big classical piece (that I couldn’t identify) via the $30,995 Nagra HD DAC. I expected I could skulk in the shadows and listen incognito, but Nagra’s Matthieu Latour and René Laflamme stepped over and shook my hand while asking, “So Herb, what do you want to hear?”

I told them how impressed I was with the digital, then said, “…but hell! Let’s try a black disc on that shiny chrome Kronos.” I am a Rat Rod Rust sort of guy, so every time I see the $40,000 Kronos turntable, my aesthetic dander gets up. But quickly, it goes right back down, slipping into deep admiration for the silent power of its forward momentum. In case you don’t already know, the Kronos record playing system is among the two or three most elite turntables on the planet today.

If any of you think analog is inferior to digital: you simply have not experienced black disks at this level of sublimity. I simply cannot imagine any digital capable of playing Ben Webster better than he sounded here. This LP seemed completely unmasked and 100% unveiled. It seemed like all the usual (for LP) fuzz, distortion, haze, and Doppler waveform-bending were removed. The sound both stunned and relaxed me—simultaneously. The Kronos turntable and the new $8000 Nagra VPS phono stage delivered forward momentum at a level of force and power I never imagined possible. This is not your father’s Linn or Rega.

But my full Nagra initiation was not yet over. With a subtle grin, René fired up the Nagra professional T-Audio reel-to-reel deck, playing Sonny Boy Williamson’s “The Sky Is Crying,” at 15ips.

It only cost $10 dollars to enter RMAF 2017, and that’s like free when you realize you can compare full-on top-of-the-top level digital to Kronos-level LP playback followed by melt-you-to-a-puddle 15ips tape. Even if you add airfare and hotel, this type of audio experience would be a good value.

The rest of the Nagra system consisted of the above-mentioned Wilsons; the Nagra HD Preamp ($59,500) and HD amp ($86,000); some Kubala interconnects and speaker cables…and no power conditioning!