Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2010

Day 1

I spent the long flight from Geneva to Denver trying to come up with an opening line that does not include "Rocky Mountain High". Denver is not really in the Rockies and does not stimulate that “high” magic at all. Denver is more like the "Gateway to the Rockies" or the "Gateway to the plains" depending on which direction you are going. I have gone both ways and both titles fit. Don’t get me wrong, Denver is a very nice place. Just not what anyone would call “in the Rockies”. Going west just a short distance up highway 70 are the Rockies with many places that elicit a "high": Aspen but not Vail, Ouray but not Silverton, Glenwood Springs but not Grand Junction, Telluride and nowhere else on Earth. That “high” feeling is a yen and once you feel it you never forget it. It is like the first time you kiss girl and then miss her when she is gone. It is a yen to stay in the mountains, to live near nature, to connect with the outdoors, to abandon the past.

I spent this past summer vacation right up here in the Rockies and that “high” came to me the moment we drove up into the mountains. My kids also got it the first day and both want to move here. I told them they could move here anytime. Just move out of *my* house, pack *your* car and leave. I might even throw in a $20 or two. I once did throw everything I owned into a car and moved here - many years ago. I lived in Aspen and washed dishes at night and skied every day. I even met Mr. “Rocky mountain high” himself. I dropped into a ski store to buy a pair of the red-white-and-blue sunglasses everyone was wearing in 1976 and heard the unmistakable “Annie!” called in that nasal tone from the back of the store. That was a long time ago in a galaxy far away . . .

Right in the here and now and in this galaxy we have an audio show. I love RMAF. I love the energy just before the show opens with all the people milling about, some wanting to get into the rooms, others running about trying to solve some last minute problem. Some just re-aquainting. I like getting to the show on Friday so I can roam without a packed house. The estimate this show is about 4000 tickets sold so tomorrow will be busy.

I did get to a lot of rooms today but had to skip a lot. Many I just opened the door and unless something specific grabbed my attention I moved on. Many times simply playing the wrong music or the loudness kept me out. Sometimes there were a lot of people talking in the room and I skipped it. It must be very hard for the dealers to pick music and volume level that will not alienate someone. And they have to talk to the potential customers and that chases away others. Tough job.

I would say overall the quality of rooms has been higher this year than any other. Most of the rooms had decent sound and many have excellent sound. It also seemed this year the show is bigger than ever. There are rooms in two towers and all through the conference areas. There was a whole section behind the restaurant with maybe 5 large demo rooms I almost missed.

I rolled through the large room with vinyl and SACD dealers. I have not seen anything interesting yet but the day is young. Vinyl just gets bigger and bigger. LPs are tempting but $50 for an LP is steep when I can get an SACD for less. Plus I have not gotten my TT set up to a point where I really like it. Every room had a TT and this year everyone is ready for vinyl action. Also this year almost every room was using some type of server software and there are a lot of iPads. I remember a few years back when it was just a few servers, then a few more. Now it is the standard.

Ray Kimber’s room is always interesting. He usually really pushes the envelope and tries something wild like he did a couple of years ago with the 12 10-foot electrostatic speakers. Or the first version of the TAD speakers five years ago. This morning I wandered in and was immediately awed by the realism in the piano recording. It was just two speakers and solo piano. Ray was using his huge Pass Labs amps driving some Sony speakers set up in a very conventional fashion. I was surprised at how simple it was and I could not get over that these were Sony speakers. Amazing. I wondered out and ran into Ray who was explaining to John Atkinson the recording was his best ever and Robert Silverman was right there signing CDs. I don’t have a set of the Mozart sonatas so I took the plunge and bought the boxed set at $100. Got them signed too. This is a little steep for me but I know Ray gives all the proceeds to charity. So my first star-of-show goes to Ray’s recording on Sony speakers with Pass amplification.

The next star-of-show room I think is the Sonus Faber room up on the 8th floor. It was inviting right from the start and the guy running the show seemed to be having fun. I got to play my demo disk and he played a number of high resolution files from the server. The room sounded great and was a fun place to be. Sonus is a little on the warm side of things but a very pleasant listen.

I spent some time in the Linkwitz room. I know the guy running the room, Dan Berringer, as he lives near me. I listened to the Orion speakers at his home and they were for a long time the best speaker I have ever heard. Today in the hotel room here in Colorado they sounded pretty good but not up to the level I recall in Dan’s home. Hotel room acoustics can be brutal. This room is still worth a visit. The sound is pretty good and Dan will play, if asked, one of his personal recordings that are very high quality and not compressed at all. Be sure and ask as it is an experience not to be missed.

I made a short stop in the Wilson Sophia room, still my all time favorite speaker. It just sounds right to me in every way every time.

I also made a quick stop in the Dynaudio room, another fabulous speaker that impresses me every time.

Stopped into the Music Hall room just because I like to say hi to Roy. He has lots of toys are reasonable prices. I may need to go back to take advantage of a show special.

After the show we had drinks and dinner in the bar. A lively place and Harry Pearson et’ al was at the next table. It was like he was holding court. People came up and introduced themselves and almost bowed, a little too much pomp for me. It is interesting the number of people who have flown in for this show. I thought this was a regional show but there are a lot of people in hotels and from far away places. I guess that is a good thing – drawing more people from a broader region.

That is it for me tonight, I have no idea what time my body thinks it is at this point. Geneva on Wednesday, Washington DC on Thursday and Denver Thursday night. That Geneva chocolate is starting to look pretty good and maybe my wife does not need that much. All I know is that I am tired. More show tomorrow and I am psyched!

Day 2

Another great day RMAF. It was crowded but never got log-jammed. I got a good listen in a number of rooms and I hope I can recall them all.

Zu Audio is interesting in that they are the Apple Computer of the audio world. They are different and people like them and they go their own way. I heard a couple of Zu rooms today, the main room was ok and I did not connect well with the music or environment. I got to the Red Wine room with Zu speakers early in the morning and the guy was grooving to some music all by himself. This was odd in that this guy was showing gear all day yesterday and where most people would be burned out, he turns on the system and relaxes. For me, Zu is not the last word in detail or clarity or balance. I don’t think the sound stage was that good either. But whenever I am listening I really enjoy it. This is really what it is all about, right? Just enjoying music?

I made a second stop to the GR Research room. On the first stop they had some music playing that should never have entered the building. This time was a better experience and the person in charge let me turn the volume down to a reasonable level, always a good thing. I cannot tell you the number of rooms where my first words are “can you turn it down a little?” The name of the speakers was something like SuperBee. They look a lot like the Linkwitz Orion with open baffle but a quick check at the rear of the speaker and you can see this similarity is co-incidence as the designs are very different. Overall a very good sounding speaker. I wish I could have played my test tracks. They need to work on making the room more welcoming and encourage people to run their own tracks. It was a good sounding system.

The NAD room was cool because I got to hear their new high end digital amp. I wish I could recall the technology description, something like a direct couple digital drive. The speakers were PSB. I am a real fan of the PSB alpha but these floor standers in the NAD room were not working for me. This is a disappointment as I really want to hear what the new NAD amp can do.

There was one room which shall remain nameless that had some small company hocking their new high end turntable. They were very excited about it and it was nice to see a young team so enthusiastic about the first product. I am not a big vinyl guy but I took time to listen to them. So they put on a pleasant orchestra LP and about 30 seconds into it I hear a definite warble in the speed. At this point I am thinking it must be me, this simply would not happen on a high end TT. But I heard it again two or three more times. Something was amiss. I hope they discovered it and worked it out before the crowds arrived.

The McIntosh room is always a pleasure palace of audiophile lust. It was early and they let me play my test disk. Right off I found the image was way off and told the guy I thought the phase was off. He gave me the “yeah right” (mental middle finger) signal but then offered to do a quick check to appease “the customer”. He called off “Red-red, black-to-black, red-to-black WHAT!!” He was all red faced as one speaker phase was reversed. He should have picked that up. Shows he is not paying attention to his own sound. Once that was resolved the whole system sounded great.

The Marantz room was good. They kept it simple and clean and it worked well. Not the last word in perfection today but good. I don’t recall the speakers.

Speaking of paying attention. If any company has the resources to build a great room it is Harmon. They get the Fickled Finger of Fate award for outright failure. They have three rooms with equipment and all three sounded terrible. What a disappointment. Sitting in the Mark Levinson room was depressing. Come on guys, if 200 other small companies can sound good you should be able to as well. And the worst part was that none of the reps in any of the rooms seemed to be aware of the sound quality. They show up and put all this expensive gear in the room and assume it will sound good. Ugh! Someone needs to do a reality check on that team.

On the other end of the spectrum, Jeff Joseph shows up by himself, sets up the right sized speakers for the room, smiles the whole time and passes out M+Ms. Awesome speakers and probably the tightest and deepest bass I have ever heard from a 6” bookshelf. Overall a great listen.

I took a short trip into the Salk room and they were great. I have heard these before and liked them. Story time: The prototype of Salk’s base unit is sitting in the living room of a guy near me in Bethesda MD. So one day a bunch of us are over there having some audio fun and he fires up this prototype (which never went to production). It is a huge woofer with a 6” port facing front. We listen for a minute. Then he says he is going to show us the reason this never went to production. He put on the tone generator and for fun starts at the bottom to show just how low these go. When he hit the speaker Fs, the port went nuts and pushed enough air to blow the toupee right off the average audiophile. It was amazing to be 6-8 feet in front of a speaker and feel wind. The production unit uses a passive radiator.

The Esoteric room was also a winner. Great sound from smallish speakers. I have not heard the TAD room yet as the room is hidden somewhere on the main level. I always like the TAD room because Andrew Jones has cool music and the speakers sound great.

I finally got a good listen in the Magico room. This is my third show where Magico has had a room and I had yet to get a decent listen. The speakers sounded great. But talking later with my audio buddy Bob, he noted they were about the same level as the Wilson Sasha in sound. Maybe a different texture but in the same ultra high end range. The Magicos are $68000 and the Sasha’s are $28000. Not a lot of thinking needed here. I would take the Wilsons. Maybe if I heard the Magicos for a longer time I would pull out the added value and I would change my mind. This was, after all, a 30 minute session in a hotel room (don’t let that statement get out of context).

I heard the YG Accoustics in three rooms and all were wrecks. Don’t know why they had so much trouble but this was not their day. I know a lot of people consider them the top rung so I will give them another go at some other venue.

The Avalon room was fabulous as always.

I hit the Quad room twice. The first time I thought it pretty good. The second time it was not speaking to me. Not sure what was going on there but not the day for them.

When I walk into a room and see speakers with lots of drivers all over the front baffle, I prepare for the worst. A lot of people think they can plaster a bunch of drivers together and the more the merrier. I have heard very few successes in this type of design but Daedalus Audio seems to have pulled it off. There were three rooms with these all hardwood speakers (no MDF). Two of the rooms were ok but the third was a smaller room with what seemed like a less complex setup, I think it was some integrated amp and a CD player. It sounded great.

I had to poke into the Jumping Cactus room since they got the lead Stereophile blog from yesterday. They were interesting and engaging.

Once again there were a number of annoyances. So many rooms blast the music and I just cannot enter the room. The big room with the Wilson Sashas was playing some drum track so loudly they were bottoming out the woofers. What was that rep thinking? Does this really sell speakers? One room smelled of recent cigarette smoke. Many rooms had music that was just plain poor quality. At the end of the day I was in some room just pulling my test CD out of the player and some guy walks in and says “I would like to hear some none-audiophile music. I have been hearing audiophile music all day long and I want to just sit and hear normal music if you have it”. I chuckled at first but they I realized he was right. I was tired of all this power listening and I would just like to relax and hear something that would move me. Like the Zu guy in the first room I went to this morning.

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Copyright: Peter J. Smith 2010 Return to helarc.com