Greatest audio show in the USA? Many of us think that and rightly so.
This was my 4th year attending, the venue again at the Marriott Hotel Tech Center, in Denver Colorado. So well-organized, friendly, down-to-earth, and with very high attendance of exhibitors, press, and public visitors, RMAF certainly has been the show to go to for me. I was not let down, yet again. And the weather was exquisite: sunny, clear and with a bright blue sky.
But this year the hotel was massively renovated.
And although there had been talk about the renovations not getting completed (true), what awaited us was very carefully thought out to ensure that all went well nonetheless. The part of the renovation that is now completed is absolutely gorgeous, tasteful, modern and spacious. Instead of looking like the 80s, it looks like the future.
The front desk/lobby (entirely new) was staffed by smiling and helpful ladies and gents who knew a lot about the layout of the show. A new large cafe was to the left of the front lobby and a new self-contained restaurant (simply named `RESTAURANT' in black letters) was to the right (and as my first dinner can attest to--of pan roasted bass--the food quality was raised to a high level too). I was kindly greeted and welcomed shortly after checking in by the delightful Marjorie Baumert, Director of the show.
The Summit Tower (to the right of the lobby) was used entirely for all the exhibitors, by using all its 11 floors for this purpose.(The Front Range Atrium left side, was still under renovation). Staying in a room on the 3rd floor, this was most convenient for me!
Perhaps the most substantial innovative change (because of the renovation not getting completed): CanJam was moved into a huge tent out in front of the hotel-and it worked out splendidly; I had a bird's-eye view from my hotel room.
As usual, Baumert and her team threw a very successful press/industry reception the night before the show opening. The drinks and conversation were flowing. And, also as usual, a great success. The perfect ice breaker to the show.
Welcoming you right in the Lobby level was Anticables showing off, in particular, their new high-end Level 5 Signature Series speakers wires (recently reviewed in Audiophilia) at $2800 for 8 feet, per pair. These cables yielded outstanding clean/transparent sound in the Alta Audio room 1104 (see later in this show report). Ever so kind and cheerful CEO Paul Speltz was on hand with his lovely wife Judy and his son.
One of the most impressive rooms by far: PS Audio had a large, spacious suite showing off (world premier) their newest baby: The `DS Memory Player (DSP)’ ($6000), a disc player that can handle all types of optical discs. Of particular note, the DSP can accept SACD discs and send its raw DSD layer directly to the PS Audio Direct Stream DAC ($6000) or Junior DAC ($4000) using I2S; quite something!
For speakers they went for the highly unusual both visually and sonically; the enormous `Scaena La Maitresse Ultimes’ ($120,000 per pair) with stacked black barrels of subwoofers as a separate part. Other supporting equipment included the BHK Signature Preamplifier ($6000), BHK Signature 300 Power Amps ($7500 per mono block), and P10 Power Pant Regenerator ($5000).
Hospitable CEO Paul McGowan, Direct Stream DAC designer Ted Smith, and Bill Leebens were all on hand (with Bill serving as bouncer). McGowan played an SACD of Pink Floyd, as well as one of their in-house Sonoma Master series. I sat smack in the sweet spot seat up front; the dynamic and detailed sound was stunningly good.
Around the corner from PS Audio was the cozy and small room 1102 of Burwell & Sons. Fun and agreeable Gorden Burwell was showcasing the $80,000 "Mother of Burl" loudspeakers utilizing a $21,000 VPI Avenger Reference turntable. The turntable sat on top of a very fine-looking vertical audio cabinet made by Audio Vault (expect an Audiophilia review of Audio Vault soon). The other pieces included the PS Audio NuWave Phono Stage among other PS Audio equipment. Of particular interest as well, was the exceptional little bar for “Room Treatment” included in the corner of the room that Burwell allowed one to sample from!. The room attracted a lively crowd and the sound was smooth and musical.
Down the hall in Room 1118, Wyred 4 Sound had a system set up with bi-amped PureAudio Stellar12 speakers ($25,000 per pair), supported by four of their (Wired 4 Sound) new SX-1000R class D mono block amps ($1499 each, 4 total used), their new Roon-Ready music server ($TBA), new PS-1 Modular Power Supply ($499+), Recovery USB Reclocker, and cabling.
The preamp/DAC/phonostage was an SST Theobe II ($5,350).
They were streaming from Tidal. I listened to Bill Frisell’s album Ghost Town; the sound was spacious and clean with a wide sound stage.
When walking into the main room where LPs are sold, I came across a fascinating sight: numerous beautiful wooden loudspeakers of various sizes stacked side-by side; all in several natural wood options and using high-quality drivers. These were the handmade product of Lowry Audio, a new company, and master craftsman Daniel Lowry was on hand to explain. They are local (Colorado), and use local natural lumber for hardwood, and use no screws in the assembly of the cabinet. From very small single-driver to several drivers with horn, the prices run from $800 — $7,500 per pair (flagship). I can only assume these will catch on soon.
Entering the CanJam tent was a real trip, kind of like camping!
There were so many vendors my head was spinning. I decided to focus on two vendors for now and go back again.
I first came across a most exotic looking setup by HIFIMAN: They were showing off their new stellar combo: Shangri-La electrostatic headphones and tube headphone amplifier (only sold as a combo, $50,000). Truly extraordinary sounding—and in looks! As player, they used their HM-901($900), with Dock 1 docking station ($500).
I then spotted Astell&Kern. They were showing off the new Tidal-ready feature of their portable players (AK30, AK320, AK300, and AK70), and their newest in-ear buds called the Michele ($499) which are a 3-D printed model at a lower price than their others. In addition they were exhibiting an amazing tiny black disk AK-XB10 ($189) which actually is a Bluetooth transmitter amp/DAC enabled with aptX HD technology, the latest Bluetooth codec, and a 24/192 DAC. It is equipped with both 3.5mm unbalanced & 2.5mm balanced audio outputs. Yes, amazing.
Even outside of the tent, there were headphones galore.
While wandering around near the hotel lobby, I stumbled across Santa Cruz Audio, from Santa Cruz, California; a new start up by amiable and down-to-earth Frederick DeKalb who worked previously at Plantronics for 25 years. They were debuting their SC1000 in-ear headphones ($1150) which come with a built-in power amp and (really cool) a microphone for adjusting ambient sound; instead of taking off the buds to hear and talk, just adjust the mic volume—brilliant. Plugged directly into an iPad, they sounded very nice—and I could converse with Mr DeKalb whilst listening by turning up the mic volume!
Back on the 11th Floor, was the Alta Audio room showing the Rhea Speakers ($4500 per pair), with Anticables for all cabling, but now with Anticables new top-of-the-line speaker cables, Level 5 Signature Series ($2800 per 8 foot pair). One of the best sounding small roomsat RMAF, with a soundstage, air, transparency and bass response expected from systems costing well above their price mark. Friendly and energetic Mark Sossa, of Well Pleased Audio was on hand, and as accompanying equipment: Aqua La Scala MKII Dac ($6600), Clones Audio Host music server ($2300), Clones Audio AP2 Preamp ($1200), Clones Audio 55PM mono blocks ($1500 per pair).
On the 10th Floor, I came across the small peaceful/tastefully decorated room of Devore Fidelity, teamed up with Sugden Audio. Surrounded by dimmed lights and plants, the star of the room was in play: the unique-looking Orangutan 0/93 speaker ($8,400 /pair).
Hospitable John Devore played a classic LP by Miles Davis, `Round About Midnight’ (originally recorded in 1957) revealing a lovely, sweet , transparent and natural sound. Supporting equipment included:
Sudgen A-21SE Pure Class A Integrated Amp ($3,250), a Well Tempered Amedeus Turntable and Tonearm ($2,850) with EMT TSD75 MC cartridge ($1,950), Sudgen Masterclass PA-4 Phono Preamp ($2,500), and Well Tempered DPS power supply ($400). Cabling by Auditorium 23.
Legacy was introducing the new Calibre Monitor ($5,500 per pair), a 3-driver model at 50 pounds each, with the bass driver on top, and with a sub-bass radiator on each side. A pleasant change from their larger models, and with a clear dynamic sound. Supported byRaven Audio Shaman MK2 mono block amps ($49,995 per pair), and Legacy Wavelet DAC/Preamp/Processor/Correction unit ($4,950).
Back on the 10th Floor, for my first time I gotto hear some MQA digital files—on the newly upgraded Mytek Manhattan II DAC/Phono Stage/Headphone amp ($5995). The Mytek was playing with the robotic-looking Aluminous Audio Gravitas loudspeakers ($39,900 /pr) that come with 2 external subwoofers, BAT VK33SE Preamp ($9,995), BAT VK255SE stereo amp ($8,995), Shunyata Research cabling, and a Shunyata Research Denali power conditioner ($4,995). There also was on hand a Madera Handcrafted Anchor Turntable (from $10,500).
The room looked very modern and minimal. The MQA sounded nice, detailed and clear to me; playing was a Willie Nelson and Judy Collins piece. I was motivated to check out more MQA at other vendors —stay tuned!
Back up on the 11th Floor, I was eager to visit the DEQX room (speaker and room calibration), hosted by the friendly, fun and talkative Alan Langford, and with David Higginbottom on hand too. They had customized a pair of VAF i93 Signature loudspeakers to allow them by the flip of a switch to be run both passively (A), as they come from the manufacturer, versus actively using their now Roon-Ready flagship HDP-5 ($6,500) (B) triamped and with their signature digital crossovers and calibration technology. Alan played for me using Roon, a beautiful Bosa Nova piece by singer Ana Caram; the difference between (A) and (B) was immediate and obvious: With (B) much more dynamic range (and better balance) was exposed, the bass in particular was more real and better integrated. These guys do magic! Other supporting equipment included REDGUM stereo Audio amps (3 of them for tri-amping the speakers, hence 3 total): RGi35 ($2,500) for tweeter, RGi60 ($3,500) for midrange, and RGi120 ($4,500) for the bass driver unit.
To lure people into the room, they displayed a sign `Get Forked in Room 1124 at RMAF `16’.
Need to mount your high-end turntable on a wall? Check out the Kanso Audio Furniture “Tana” Wall-Mounted Turntable Shelf ($5,425). Natural Walnut wood with a semi-gloss lacquer. Beautiful, practical, and apparently extraordinary at stopping resonance in its tracks.
Walking past the Lobby area, I spotted what I thought was a wooden turntable. Nope! It was an LP cleaner, with two arms: One for cleaning the LP (using thread and solution groove by groove), and the other for suctioning off the dirtied solution. It is the Pristine Vinyl ViVacRCS ($2,400 and comes with a dustcover), made in the UK. This `table' could sit in your audio cabinet as a nice looking addition (as opposed to keeping a cleaner in the garage or closet); a conversation piece at the very least. Friendly and knowledgeable owner Jason Walker was there to demonstrate the ViVacRCS in action.
I finally had some time to visit the Mezzanine Section of the hotel.
There I at first found VAC in the Maroon Peak Room, with Fidelis Music Systems. Vinyl was on the menu, and VAC’s Kevin Hayes put on the LP `Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan’, a 1983 live recording. A real treat. The speakers were the Harbeth Reference Monitor 40.2 ($14,795 a pair), and the turntable was an Acoustic Signature Ascona MK2 ($33,999) with 12” TA 9000 tonearm, and MC3 Cartridge ($1700). VAC powered things up with 2 VAC Signature 200iQ amps ($14,000 each), and a VAC Master Preamplifier with phono option ($40,000). Speakers cables were the Tellurium Q Black Diamond 3M ($4,200 per pair).
In addition to the deep, earthy and natural sound, I was particularly taken by the soundstage; all was in the center area wide, deep and high, but with the speakers themselves seemingly having vanished. Quite a feat!
Down the hall from VAC, in the Pikes Peak Room, was the Peach tree Audio/Zu Audio.
Geri Koer of Zu (see photo) was playing his huge prototype 7 `Experience Speakers’ ($30,000 per pair when out soon). Remarkably, they were driven by a Peachtree Audio Nova 300 Integrated amp (includes a DAC and phono stage) at only $2,300! I was impressed. They saidthey will be playing vinyl later tonight; time permitting I will check it out.
By chance, I had the luck to come upon a VPI Avenger Turntable fitted with 3 arms, just as it was to play a 45rpm LP of the classic `Time Out" by The Dave Brubeck Quartet. (Dynamic Sounds Associates, Room 7018.) Extraordinary, nothing like it.
Although the Avenger Magnetic Drive model ($30,000) had three 3D arms, it used the one fitted with an Ortofon MC Anna ($9000) for this special LP.
Passing by Room, 407, I heard exceptional sound quality emanating; so in I strolled. It was the Voss Audio Room, and on hand were both the modest and talented Robert Lee from Acoustic Zen, and the energetic and passionate John Dormandy of Voss Audio, both from California. I listened to the CD, Branford Marsalis (saxophonist), `Trio Jeepy’.
The Powering was by Voss (Auquus UltraClassA/B (TM) ST Reference stereo Amp ($54,000), and Liquus UltrsClass (TM) Reference Line-Stage ($44,000), while the speakers were the Acoustic Zen Crescendo II in Rosewood ($22,000).
Supporting equipment included an Aesthetic Romulus Eclipse CD player ($14,000) and Jellabas Model 2 AC Filtering ($2,000). The timber and natural textures of the saxophone were incredible as were that of most midrange/bass instruments.
When I stood close by the right speaker, it really sounded like Marsalis was playing next to me. Very impressive.
One of the newer additions to the RMAS is the "Entry Level Room" showcase.
The purpose is to show off whole systems that cost as little as $500.
I jumped to it:
Remember those interesting, Lowry Audio natural timber speakers I came across earlier? Well, they were only on display then. I found a pair of their small `Law HiFi Sentinal Towers' ($800) playing in the $1000 Entry Level Room (Room 2007), being shown off by the very sweet Aly Sotiros (of Lowery Audio Woodworking).
As an integrated amp she used a Lepai LP7498E ($100), and for turntable a Audio-Technics AT-LP60 ($119), and with some inexpensive in-house cabling.
I was quite taken by surprise by the sound quality; confirms my belief that it is very instructive to listen to inexpensive systems from time to time to rebalance ones ideas about high-end audio. Well done.
As many high-end components at this year's RMAF were `Roon Ready', I decided that so was I: I wound down/ended my journey to RMAF late Saturday afternoon with some great discussion and local craft beers with Enno Vandermeer, President/CEO of Roon Labs, maker of my favorite player software for digital media.
Even with a struggle to deal with the hotel renovation problem, RMAF 2016 was yet again a great success in a line of successes. The mix of innovative vendors, music, nice people, food and drink made this a fun, entertaining and enlightening show as usual. Certainly by next year, the renovation will be complete and the RMAF will continue to shine.
Audiophilia hopes to see you all next year.
I'd like to add a few comments.
First, a huge thank you to Karl Sigman who undertook the enormous task of covering this enormous show by himself for our magazine. Listening objectively, then photographing and writing about what he'd heard. An unbelievable achievement on behalf of our readers.
Audiophilia usually has three or four writers covering the show, which is tough enough. This was the first RMAF I've missed in six years, due to unforeseen circumstances. So, Karl's efforts are very much appreciated.
This was the year to miss, we were told. Doom and gloom and Denver contractors who couldn't get their shit together. The Marriott Tech Center, RMAF's hotel of choice was undergoing a huge renovation. Promises were made to RMAF and not kept. No problem, blame RMAF's organizers anyway! Ridiculous. Yet, if anybody knows Marjorie Baumert, RMAF's owner/organizer, you know problems would be solved. And elegantly. By the report, looks like it was a tremendous show. I wont be missing next year.