THIS WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE JAN/FEB ISSUE OF THE AUSTRALIAN HIFI MAGAZINE
I have been visiting Colorado since the 1980s when I was working for the Test & Measurement Division of Hewlett-Packard which morphed into Agilent then more recently Keysight Technologies, but I never had a chance to attend the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest since its inception 14 years ago. It is one of the five shows around the World that fellow journalist Ken Kessler – of Hifi News fame - tries to attend every year, but not this year, as it somehow collided with the Paris Hifi Show where we last met in 2010.
RMAF 2017 is a relatively small show with about 5000 attendees and about 50 journalists visiting according to Marjorie Baumert, the organizer, who bravely took over when her husband Al Steifel – who started it - died unexpectedly. She is doing a very fine job let me tell you. The venue is nice at the Marriott Tech Center and newly refurbished in style. Even the food is gorgeous!
This is what I call a end-user show, where mostly potential buyers come and listen to equipment they fancy, or only can dream of, like most of us mere mortals. There were still a number of low-cost systems on display, in fact five rooms were dedicated to them, and some were quite amazing for the money. But let’s get into the meat of it, should we?
I am publishing this article in stages, so you can enjoy it earlier! Here is Episode 1: the sources
Well, there were a lot of iPads around and servers and all sorts of digital files toys, and I will certainly talk about some.
Obviously there were tons (and I mean tons…) of turntables…
I was lucky enough to meet Canadian cousin extraordinaire and co-founder of Oracle Audio, Jacques Riendeau, Clearaudio and Pro-Ject had almost their entire range on display, Rega, EAT, Kronos, SME, Marantz, Luxman, Technics, Brinkmann, Analogueworks, Kuzma, VPI, Mark Levinson (made by VPI), Gem-Dandy, Reference Analog, Audioengine, NAD, McIntosh, Merryl-Williams equipped with two arms, one fitted with an Ortofon Mono cartridge I have been willing to listen to for ages and didn’t disappoint, and my dream Bergmann with a linear tracking arm. There was even an old refurbished Garrard 301 brought by my friend François Saint Gérard who I met at the Paris Show last year. And then the beautifully crafted JWM Acoustics, crafted out of exotic timbers.
The big surprise though was the number of fancy professional tape recorders, some playing master tapes recorded days before specially for the Show! Sonorus, Technics, Tascam, Sony, Studer, Nagra, Ampex, to name just the ones I saw and photographed…
There were comparatively few CD players with the exception of a number of OPPO players, including one modified with a tube output amplifier, and the the French contraptions from Metronome, bien sûr.
We were treated to some live music as well with Robert Silverman, a famous Canadian pianist, who played Chopin for our sheer pleasure, and an artist very interested in the recording process, having recorded a number of SACDs and vinyl with IsoMike, a company dedicated to record straight to DSD256 with the help of Merging Technologies ADCs. The IsoMike is an evolution of the “artificial head” invented by André Charlin in France in the 60s and which was also the inspiration for the DECCA “tree”, all designed to keep the original phase of the instruments to be able to reproduce their timbres as accurately as possible.
In the digital world, all talk was about TIDAL, MQA, Roon and other esoteric acronyms that I don’t pretend to fully understand. The “War of the DACs” was in full swing as well and there were so many on display and to listen to that I kind of just tried to enjoy the music… I will just get a brief mention of DACs/Headphones amps at this stage, as some definitely caught my ears: SPL with Focal, Chord with 'final', a relatively new Japanese planar titanium dynamic headphones manufacturer and Sonoma Acoustics is using a new electrostatic transducer developed in the UK, called HPEL, which essentially dispenses with the front grille of a traditional electrostatic one. I did like the ‘final’ a lot as it was extremely detailed and smooth and not at all metallic (I usually dislike titanium membranes in speakers..). The Sonoma had more dynamic range but was slightly less detailed, although I am a great fan of the ESS SABRE DAC used in the dedicated powering unit. The ‘final’ was also more confortable to wear. Both are open designs.
Robert Silverman is an acclaimed Canadian pianist who was invited for the Show to play Chopin, his favourite artist and one he has recorded most of his music. Steinway flew, installed and tuned his piano for the event and we were regaled to hours of bliss, a welcome treat at the end of each very tiring day, having walked miles and talked to dozen of people....
A good third, if not more, of all electronics on display were tube based and some were mighty like the Audio Research Reference 750SE, some just amazingly sweet and gorgeous like the Zesto Audio range, or the minimalist and brand new ModWright Ambrose A30 monoblocks. Then one cannot pass the hybrids from NAGRA, paired with the new Wilson Audio Alexia II, probably one of the best sounding systems at the Show. And myriad of others including a number of new contraptions from Dan d’Agostino, Moon, or the more affordable NADs. Special mention to French Micromega for trying successfully to give Devialet a run for their money!
My good friends at Bryston were there too, but more on them in the next section…
I have to admit of being a serial monogamist, both in real life and when it comes to amplifiers... Once you find a good one, keep it and keep it warm, on all the time, like my vintage Bryston 3B which worked perfectly for 23 years, went to hospital a couple of weeks then as fatigue came in, and came out all refreshed and upgraded, and has been even sweeter since, now we have been happily married for more than 33 years! I am still considering buying a preamp to match, but so far my NAD C326BEE has been our perfect little slave...
If you know me, you will not be surprised if I tell you this is my area of expertise and my real passion. There is still some black magic and intense research and innovation in this field and I am always amazed that thousands of companies, or individuals like myself, consume an inordinate amount of time and resources to create new speakers. This show was no exception, from the huge monoliths to the minuscule and the “out of the square” designs.
The palm will be awarded to Danish outfit JERN for making cast iron cabinets for their speakers in the ultimate form follows function way. Small is beautiful and these sound amazing!
You may also know that I like open baffle speakers and a great fan of Kyron Audio. So it was with some excitement that I went to check the latest installment of the modular design by PureAudioProject, an Israeli company I met in Melbourne a couple of years ago. They are now including a horn speaker as their midrange/tweeter, coupled to 4 15inch bass drivers in their new QUINTET15 HORN1. These sounded effortlessly sweet and mighty, considering they were driven by a 4w tube amplifier! And at less than 10K$ a pair, a real bargain…
In the same category, one could include all the Martin Logan speakers who were in various rooms, the most spectacular one being the full Neoliths driven by Audio Rearch Reference 750SE and fed by the money is no object Clearaudio Master Innovation with linear tracking arm and Statement phono cartridge with not much change out of a 300K$ US for the whole system…
Another surprise was the Ultra Stat Panel from Sanders Sound System which uses a transmission line to load the woofer and an electrostatic panel apparently more rugged than Martin Logan. It sounded very good, but the designer insisted to line listeners in the sweet spot, which makes it a tad of an indulgence in my book…
As far as I know, there were very few French companies apart from Focal and Metronome already mentioned and one Aussie, with DEXQ showing off their amazing technology that I was acquainted with through Kyron Audio.
Now, it might be a good time to mention the new active speakers from Bryston. I like active speakers, I like Bryston amplifiers so I had great expectations from this new range, and it didn’t disappoint, certainly one of the best sounding systems at the show.
I would also like to mention three brands that make speakers that are sticking out of the crowd for various reasons: Neat Acoustics for their unconventional cabinets and speaker placement, Tekton Design, for making multiple tweeters work and JWM Acoustics for not only making some of the best sounding speakers at the show, but also beautifully crafted cabinets made entirely by hand, all three companies making speakers that are well under 10K$ a pair!
Another revelation came from Acoustic Zen, definitely in my top 5 listening experiences at the show, and Bang & Olufsen for finally designing a speaker I could live with, although the adjustable motorized lens on the tweeter is more a gimmick than real value, as I would only use the narrow mode, but that is a very personal opinion and taste.
Finally, I will mention two companies that makes incredible affordable and good products, Audioengine and Vanatoo who manage to produce a pair of active speakers for less than 500$US a pair! The performance label probably goes to Vanatoo, the design label to Audioengine.
The Show was well worth flying around the World for it and I wish it were a day longer as I couldn’t see all the exhibits in the two and half days I was there. I met a number of great people and was reacquainted with some I knew already and had a great time overall.