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Rocky Mountain Audio Fest
I just returned from the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF) and if all the media ads and urgings from your audio friends have not convinced you to attend one of these events yet I'm here to say you are missing out on a piece of audio heaven. Nowhere else will you have the opportunity to listen to such a wide variety of high quality audio gear in one place. And I do mean listen since it's not uncommon to have a listening room to yourself for several precious minutes. Nor can you elsewhere meet some of the pillars of the audio community such as Harry Pearson, founder of The Absolute Sound and lucid describer of audio nuances, vinyl wizard Michael Fremer, mastering genius Steve Hoffman, or brilliant audio designers Frank van Alstine, Steve McCormack, Carl Marchisotto and many, many others. The show offers much to both beginning audiophiles and the veterans. I thought I would report on some industry trends gleaned from happenings at the show.
First, the malaise in the economy was evident through the smaller number of exhibitors this year—everyone squeezed into the Marriott this year whereas last year there was spillover into the Hyatt Regency. On the other hand, although a few stalwarts from previous years were missing, several new companies exhibited for the first time showing there is life in our hobby still. Attendance seemed to be good though I did not get the official stats from the show organizers. Also heartening was the debut of several new products including major speaker introductions from Vandersteen and Naim. The software and accessories sales rooms, which have always been very active at previous shows, were sparse of vendors this year, but the ones who were there seemed to be quite busy on the several occasions when I ventured in. I also spoke to several distributors and dealers who most commonly said they were doing “decent” despite the rough economy. Apparently music and music systems are not the first items eliminated from shopping lists when money gets tight.
Tube gear continues to proliferate with many new and inventive designs coming to market. Keep an eye out in particular for Veloce Audio. Equally good designs using solid-state technology were also in evidence, but at this show new tube and solid-state developments are near equal in number. And, although the march to computer-based music continues on (more about that later), companies continue to produce new CD player designs, although fewer than in previous years. Nowhere is the inventiveness of our hobby more evident than in the display of new and unusual speaker designs at this show. I can't say they all sounded good, but it was refreshing to see so many new looks at reproducing music in the home. Editor Dave Clark's photo journal of the show documents some of the new efforts unveiled this year.
This year RMAF set aside one large room, dubbed CANJAM, just for headphone audio. This provided a way to highlight a growing market serving both the portable audio world as well as personal home listening. In-ear reproducers were big, plus this special exhibit gave makers of dedicated headphone amps a chance to shine. Headphone listening is a way to experience the high end, albeit with some compromise in spatial perspectives, with a smaller investment than most room systems, plus you can take it with you on the road. Since the room was quiet potential buyers had a good opportunity to evaluate various designs. I hope the show organizers continue this dedicated area in future years.
At last year's RMAF there was a definite push towards computer-based audio wherein one's music library gets stored on a computer hard disk and interfaced with the audio system through wireless devices or proprietary wired interfaces. I actually expected to see more of this at this year's show, but instead there was less. This technology has moved so fast, aided by the growing presence of high-resolution audio files on the internet, that it is already accepted by many audiophiles. The one product sprouting all over was the USB DAC, that is, an outboard digital-to-analog converter that can be connected between your computer and audio system using a USB port. Devices ranged from small handheld units costing a few hundred dollars to elaborate multi-thousand dollar units containing state-of-the-art high-speed digital processors running proprietary algorithms in real time. Of course most of the audio cable suppliers introduced their own versions of top-notch USB cables at multiple price points to go with these devices.
Many rooms demonstrated their gear using music stored on computers, indicating confidence that this approach allows the equipment to be heard to good effect. However, why did it take so long to find something to play? I was frustrated several times by the silence while the room proprietor searched for a particular recording. In fact, this often took as long as the time it takes to extract a vinyl record from its sleeve, clean it and cue it on a 1950's style turntable. To me this means there is still a ways to go in software for computer-based audio, but it pointed out another problem I noted at the show. Many exhibitors don't know how to demonstrate their own gear! Given all the time and investment it takes for an equipment maker to attend one of these shows, the extra effort to select and have at hand some music that highlights the best points of the gear on display should be a no-brainer, but not everyone does it. Here's something I experienced at a room that shall remain nameless. This exhibitor was using vinyl to demonstrate his unusual speaker design, but he had only about 20 albums and almost all were classic instrumental jazz recordings. I was enjoying the sound quite a bit but asked to hear a vocal recording. It took some time, but he eventually came up with the Harry Belafonte recording done at Carnegie Hall, the only vocal he had in the room. This excellent recording sounded just terrible on these speakers indicating they were tuned up for a particular type of music. I exited the room quickly.
In addition to all the equipment to be heard, RMAF also featured live music in the evenings and a series of informative seminars covering everything from turntable setup to room correction and much in between. I only attended one seminar this trip, a talk by Harry Pearson, one of the fathers of high-end audio, about “The High End: Past, Present and Future.” Harry made many fine points during his talk and following question and answer period, but one topic stood out for me. He noted that today almost everyone, and especially young people, carries a huge music library around with them either within their phones or in separate players such as the iPod (It should be noted that HP actually gave recognition to our own Michael Mercer who championed this in a recent PFO article. Michael was passed the microphone during HP's speech to explain this in his own words, so follow the link to read the original message - Ed.). This means that for the average person, music is as important today as it was in the 1970's when the high end was born, in fact probably more so. The way for the high end to live on in the future is to leverage this unbridled enthusiasm for music by the larger public and demonstrate how fine music systems can make the emotional connection between the ear and the brain that we all seek when we turn to recorded music. This is quite a challenge. Shows like RMAF play an important role in extending the life of the high end so I hope you will have the chance to attend next year and that you will encourage acquaintances to do so as well.