Rock Mountain Audio Fest 2006

It all started last September. I was writing my audio buddy, Bob Cordell, to ask how we could somehow talk our wives into letting us go to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF) in Denver. Bob was in the same boat as me: no funding, too many audio excursions, out of frequent flier miles, needing a fix. We brought Darren Kuzma into the mix and started discussing options. We needed something new and different, something we could build a case for and more than just spending more money on audio and taking a weekend away from the wives. We came up with the idea of putting together a set of clinics and seminars. This would be a lot more interesting than simply attending the show and might shed some light on just what the people at shows are up against.

We put an abstract together with six clinics, including a comparison between a tube amp and solid state amp (what this article is about). We floated it to the RMAF people and they liked it, but politely declined because they could not afford to give away rooms. Paying for a room put us dead in the water: way too expensive. We knew we had a good idea but we needed help. We proposed the idea to a number of potential sponsors. Ray Kimber, whom we had met at other shows, stepped up and offered to cover the room. Ray has always been a great guy and supports the whole idea of public experimentation. This moved us from out-of-reach to losing-our-shirt, but we were hooked.

The drive to Denver took two days. We arrived Wednesday evening and were pretty wired about getting into the demo room Thursday morning. We easily took all the available time to set up and we were moving pretty fast. We saw a number of other rooms being set up in fever mode, even some of the big boys who do this all the time. We only had a few failures but noted some people had their prize piece fail or some part of the setup was dead or never showed up in Denver. One guy was roaming around with a story about his entire room of equipment being shipped to South America.

There was a lot of tension in the halls on Friday morning. It was show time and you could feel it. Many people were still pouring through problems and figuring out alternatives. We went to the room and fired up the amps and then went to breakfast. We were first in line at the restaurant and met the RMAF directors, Marjorie Baumert and Al Stiefel, as they were getting ready for the big day. They are both really great people. We know there are a million issues that arise on a show like this but they never missed a beat or got upset or angry. I think out of 15 interactions with them over the weekend, the worst I got was “Please excuse me, I need to take care of something”. This is part of the attitude that makes RMAF a special show. It is accessible and put on by people like us, just having a good time and doing what we love.

We got into the room and did a final tuning of the system using a pink noise disk and a voltmeter. It was important that the AB between the two amps was perfect. I used Thomas Quastoff (B00006577-02 The Voice) “Jazz Improvisation” for centering and then an instrumental quartet for imaging. The guys in the next room were using a laser system which drew lines on the floor for speaker placement: pretty cool, but I will stick with my ears, thank you. We did have to contend with a bass hump problem many rooms had. There was a boom around edges of the room and a null in the middle. We figured we could go nuts on this or leave it since we were not selling anything. We also felt that the boom on the edges was muddy and the bass in the null was tight. So it was more than just volume variance. On top of that, there would be a constant flow of people in the room which would change the room dynamics every minute, so the idea of a perfect audition was lost no matter what we did. Better to move on and not worry about it. All in all I think we had a pretty good sound.

Our next concern was if we would get any traffic at all. I cannot imagine the tension of a small business person investing in a show like this with sales at stake. And trying to define what makes you just a little different from the guy in the next room: I would not know where to begin. For us, there were five people waiting outside the door at show start and we were off. The room only held 10-12 and we filled it for almost every session. There were only a few slow moments during the whole show. When there was a slow moment, Darren or I would head to the hallway and start acting the barker. That was fun. I would simply state that we were an educational room and not selling anything. That alone stopped most people in their tracks. “Not selling anything?”

The amp comparison was a simple listening test between a classic design KT88 tube amp (with all new parts) and a Denon 250 watt solid state amp. The listener would sit in the hot seat and switch between the amps at will. A green light came on for one amp and off for the other so that everyone could see the switch. All they had to do was tell us if they could hear a difference and which they thought was the tube amp. How hard can that be?

Most people entered the room convinced they would easily hear a difference. We encouraged people to play their own music and I kept a very unscientific tic marks on a pad to record results. People started with a very casual stance and then suddenly got serious when they realized it was not going to be easy. Many people did feel they could hear a difference, but could not say which one was the tube amp. In fact, when people came to “if I had to guess,” most chose the solid state amp as the tube amp and said it sounded better.

We made some effort to find cuts that would help people in the comparison. Our goal was not to stump people but to act as facilitators. We even searched for pieces with significant low notes to work the idea that tubes have trouble with bass. We went through all the usual suspects: Holly Cole’s Temptation, Bella Fleck’s Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, Ray Brown, organ pieces, and others. None brought out a difference, much to everyone’s surprise.

On Saturday morning we did some minor listening to verify everything was in order. About noon, Darren noticed the tube amp was just a little louder than the solid state. Perhaps someone touched a pot or something, but it was audible. Since the afternoon was booked with other sessions, we decided to leave it for the last hour. We have all read about how people will think a louder system sounds better, and on Saturday afternoon, my tic marks were skewing to the tube amp for the first time.

Also about this time, someone asked for violin music and I pulled out the Biber Sonata I in A major (ECM 1837, B0003445-02). For the first time at the show, I could hear a difference between the two amps on every switch. I was not sure if it was a combination of the skewed volume control or the track, but we found our chink in the armor. I couldn’t even put my finger on why it was different, but it was. Maybe a little extra fullness in the reverb.

On Sunday morning we used the noise disk to reset the volume levels to within 0.1 db. Again, the difference between the tube and solid state was hard to find except on Biber. Hmm, how could any number of test cuts from all music genres be taken down by one lowly violin and organ duet? This is a mystery, but we modified the sessions on Sunday to end with the Biber piece so everyone could hear some difference. Even with this cut, only about 2/3 of the people said they could honestly hear a difference and almost everyone thought the solid state amp was the tube amp, perhaps even more than before.

There were maybe ten people throughout the weekend who picked the tube amp right away and were sure of themselves. For these people, it did not seem to matter what music we played. This very well may be simple statistics as the odds are 50/50 on a correct guess. Perhaps it is simply there were 20 people who were sure they heard a difference and half were right. A few Bohemian/hippie/artist type audiophiles were sure they picked right and left the room in pompous confidence, but they were usually wrong. Maybe they were the other side of the 50/50 group who were right. It seemed the more sure someone was, the more wrong they were. I ran into one person in the hall who proclaimed we simply found two amps that sounded alike and seemed angry we were fooling people. This couldn’t have been farther from the truth as the tube amp belongs to Bob who lives in NJ and the solid state amp is mine and I live in DC. They were never played side by side until the in-room test at RMAF. If they had sounded very different, we were prepared to change the experiment to show how easy it was to tell the difference between amps. It is amazing how open minded one gets when sales are not involved.

The press arrived about midday Sunday in the form of Jason Victor Serinus from Stereophile. I like Jason. He is opinionated and he is-who-he-is and he is a walking party. I offered to keep him off the hot seat and let him watch so he would not get thrashed if he guessed wrong. He loudly proclaimed that reviewers need to be challenged and he would live with whatever the results, then plopped into the hot seat. I thought this took a lot of guts; a reviewer who misses this mark (however un-scientific) would take a pretty good beating on the Internet boards. We went though our usual run of music including the Biber and Jason’s personal track. After about ½ an hour he said he proclaimed he was 90% sure the green light was the tube amp and he was right. His virtue remains intact.

I feel confident we really added to the overall show experience and I hope we can take it to NY in May for the Stereophile HE show. It is important to bring listening experiences to these events which are not geared toward sales.

Epilogue: Common questions at shows revolve around what was “best in show”. I only got a couple of hours to roam, so I didn’t get an authoritative listen to anything. I think the Wilson Sophia’s were best. I have heard these about ten times and have been very impressed every single time. A few others were pretty good. I was disappointed in the Pioneer/TAD speakers this time, as they had sounded excellent in LA last year, but they were bad at RMAF. This shows how stressful it must be to sell at a show like this; everything comes down to sound in an environment you cannot control.

Those who know me know I don’t do tubes, I don’t do vinyl and I don’t do horns. But for me, the best moment at RMAF was Friday night about 11pm. I was exhausted and went to bed about 9pm but could not sleep. I got up and wandered the show and heard someone in the bar say that room 9000 was open. It turned out to be the Welborne room. The room was totally dark with about ten people just sitting quietly listening to Muddy Waters and other old pressings. We were on vinyl, tubes and some giant 1930’s rebuilt theater horns. There was great peace in the room. I just sat back and let the music flow about me. I didn’t have to think about sound quality, equipment, cables, what to listen for. It was pure pleasure.

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Copyright Peter Jay Smith 2005 Return to helarc.com