Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2015

This is our fifth year attending the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. It has grown bigger and better every year. The bigger speaks for itself, but the better is in its ID, promotion, attendance, many more new and legacy manufacturers, social media connection, and community outreach. What has remained is the warmth that nestles within the show and the superb organization of founder Marjorie Baumert and her team of volunteers from the Colorado Audio Society. Stability, too, in its place of business. The almost perfect-for-audio-shows, the Denver Marriott Tech Centre.

Denver was the stopping off point for Audiophilia’s move out west from Toronto to Victoria last October. The show coincided with the moving dates — everything that could be shipped, including my BMW, was on a long train ride, and we used Denver as a ‘rest’ stop. Some rest. For the Audiophilia team, it’s five days of listening, meetings, and writing in preparation for our Monday morning show report publication. Many of our readers enjoy the ‘strolling’ report — ‘you’re there’ type of deal.

Getting to Denver is easy from most places in North America. Be warned, the Denver airport is massive, the security lines long and the walk between gates/terminals, invigorating. Once settled in the taxi queue, the wait is short and the $70 taxi ride about 45 minutes to the suburban hotel. Uber is available.

Marriott Tech Center

Marriott Tech Center

The show was very large — 9 floors filled to the brim, including large convention spaces on the Mezzanine level and the huge Lobby. Delights at every turn. If you can’t find something to fall in love (lust) with here, there’s no hope for you.

In keeping with previous shows, some boss seminars were organized. The most popular hosted by the indomitable Michael Fremer on turntable/cartridge setup. John Darko was here talking about the cost of high end audio and ‘Legends of Hi Fi’, Robert Harley, Paul McGowan, Arnie Nudell and Bob Stuart also held court.

Live music performances by the wonderful Eleanor McEvoy and Juilliard grad pianist, Fanya Lin kept the music/audiophile conduit alive.

The line up for the beginning of the show was by far the longest I’ve seen. The press was lucky to have two hours before the show to check out the rooms. Very much appreciated.

The morning began early with a breakfast meeting with my colleague, Karl Sigman. Karl was looking after CANJAM, the Lobby and some rooms that looked very interesting to him, and I would cover the towers. I can tell you that two people into hundreds of rooms on nine floors into three days does not compute. If we missed your room, our sincere apologies.

My audio exhibitor checklist:

1. Setup and sound dialed in before show. Hint, arrive a day early.

2. Look professional

3. Water available

4. A ‘one sheet’ with correct names and prices

5. A warm and welcoming environment

The checklist was adhered to far more this year. So many rooms last year missed the memo. This year, what an improvement. The best looking room by far was PS Audio and YG Acoustics. It felt like the lounge at the W Hotel in Times Square. The equipment looked sexy, too. The sound was also superb. So refined and featuring PS Audio’s new BHK Signature Preamplifier (Price TBD) and YG’s Sonja Loudspeaker ($106,800/ pair).

Sexy look, sexy sound

Sexy look, sexy sound

  Karl Sigman of Audiophilia and Ted Smith of PS Audio

 

Karl Sigman of Audiophilia and Ted Smith of PS Audio

  A beautifully staged room and tweaked to perfection

 

A beautifully staged room and tweaked to perfection

A lovely musical surprise was heard in the Dynamic Sound Associates/Joseph Audio/VPI room. There was a lot of vinyl spinning at the show, none sounding better than the mighty VPI Avenger Magnetic Drive Turntable with two 12.7″ Classic 4 Arms and one JMW 12″ 3D printed arm ($30,000) and looking like a prostrate Vishnu but sounding like Nirvana. Janet Baker’s magical mezzo singing Elgar’s Sea Pictures with Barbirolli/LSO on EMI (yes, that one) was magnificent. Her voice has such life and character, and was matched on side A with the great performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto with du Pre. This was very emotional — vinyl is the best way to experience the world’s most enigmatic and brilliant cellist. Her playing exceptionally vivid through the excellent Joseph Audio Pearl 3 Loudspeaker ($31,500/pair). The fit and finish, let alone superb sound of the Dynamic Sound Associates’ Phono II ($13,500) was superb. The phono stage was effortless in its replication of a full throttle London Symphony Orchestra. So many poop out when the going gets tough.

Vishnu AND Nirvana and Made in America. VPI Avenger.

Vishnu AND Nirvana and Made in America. VPI Avenger.

Douglas Hurlburt of Dynamic Sounds Associates

Douglas Hurlburt of Dynamic Sounds Associates

  Inner workings par excellence

 

Inner workings par excellence

Founder Marjorie Baumert adds new initiatives in keeping with the needs of audiophiles. Price is always an issue. This year, three rooms of ‘affordable equipment’ were presented — $500, $1000, $1500.

$500 Analog Setup: Speakers: Emotiva Airmotiv3B ($200), Turntable: Music Hall USB-1 ($250). Total: $450.

$500 Digital Setup: Speakers: Emotiva Airmotiv3B ($200), USB DAC & Preamp: AudioQuest Dragonfly ($150), Streaming Service: TIDAL/year ($220). Total: $570.

$500 Headphone Rig. Headphones: Pendulumic Stance T1 ($249), Amp: Schiit Magni 2 ($99), DAC: Emotiva Little Ego ($170). Total: $518.

$1,000 Analog Setup. Speakers: Audioengine A5+ ($400), Phono Preamp: U-Turn Audio Pluto ($89), Turntable: U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus ($310). Total: $799.

$1,000 Digital Setup. Speakers: Audioengine A5+ ($400), Bluetooth Receiver: Audioengine B1 ($189) DAC: Audioengine D1 ($169), Streaming Service: TIDAL/year ($220). Total: $978.

$1,000 Headphone Rig. Headphones: AudioQuest NightHawk ($600), DAC/AMP: Wyred 4 Sound uDAC-HD ($500). Total: $1,100.

$1,500 Analog Setup. Speakers: Vanatoo Transparent One ($500), Subwoofer: MartinLogan Dynamo 300 ($299), Pre-amp: Pro-Ject Head Box S ($149), Turntable: Project Debut Carbon DC USB ($549), Speaker Stands: Tweak Studio 24in ($50). Total: $1,547.

$1,500 Digital Setup. Speakers: Vanatoo Transparent One ($500), Subwoofer: MartinLogan Dynamo 300 ($299), Hi-Res Wireless Streaming Music Player: Blue Sound Node 2 ($499), Streaming Service: TIDAL/year ($220), Speaker Stands: Tweak Studio 24in ($50). Total: $1,568.

$1,500 Headphone Rig. Headphones: Audeze EL-8 Open ($699), Amp/Dac: Audeze Deckard DAC & headphone amp ($699). Total: $1,400.00.

Attendees were encouraged to bring their own devices for demo (computer, phone, mobile player etc.). These were popular rooms, with audiophiles eager to hear if the gear matched their expectations. Everything was well thought out. Synergy was apparent and care was also taken to give fans of different topologies a starting point to begin their audiophile journey. This was a great idea!

Alta Audio Rhea Loudspeaker

Alta Audio Rhea Loudspeaker

Michael Levy of Alta Audio

Michael Levy of Alta Audio

Our old friend, Mike Levy now making his splendid speakers under the Alta Audio name, had his new Rhea Loudspeaker ($4500 /pair) playing beautifully with an Italian maker new to me, aqua acoustic quality — their La Scala Mk II DAC ($5600) is a superb tubed unit that played the music so sweetly. Storing and serving the music was the Antipodes DS Server ($2600). This was a musically potent combination. The Monaco v1.5 Turntable ($23,500 without arm) was excellent, but surprisingly, the digital is what caught my ear, especially Mozart played by the Trondheim Soloists. At a comparatively meagre $4500 a pair, the Alta Audio Rhea is a must hear for any audiophile with a sub 5K budget. Same for the DAC and Server.

Our readers asked us to check in on the DeVore Fidelity room. In the speaker business for over fifteen years, the charming designer, John DeVore was showing his new gibbon X Loudspeakers ($15,890 /pair). I’m a big fan of his Orangutan O/93 Loudspeaker ($8,400/pair). The gibbon X had the same DNA but did seem to have a more punchy presentation — but just as refined and musical as the Orangutan. There is buzz in the audiophile world about the excellence and value of John’s speakers. Check and see if there is a dealer near you.

John DeVore and his gibbon X Loudspeaker

John DeVore and his gibbon X Loudspeaker

Albuquerque’s Mojo Audio came packing with their new Mystique DAC v2.0 and CAT Server. Recently reviewed by Audiophilia, this pair has a wonderful musicality while digging deep into the harmonic canvas. Along with the wonderful Magneplanar 1.7 Loudspeakers and the ZOTL40 amplifier ($4,500), the combination left no doubt of designer Ben Zwickel’s mastery of the topology. He gets the work ethic of digital and the essence of analogue.

Eggleston Works was playing its newest speaker, The Camilla ($17,200/pair) along with Rogers High Fidelity PA-1A Phono Stage ($7,300) and their EHF-200 MK2 Integrated Amplifier ($16,000). This setup was remarkable for both its transparency and power. I’m not a huge fan of the Rogers look but they sound wonderful. And oh my, the Eggleston Camilla Loudspeaker was both gorgeous and dynamic.

Avantgarde Acoustic had two rooms along with Bergmann Audio Turntables. The rooms demonstrated not only the wonderful sounds of both the ‘entry level’ self amplified Zero 1 Loudspeaker and the $63K XD Series Duo Mezzo, but the exquisite workmanship of both. Readers of Audiophilia know of our admiration for the fantastic Bergmann turntables. The magic conjured by Bergmann’s wonderful designs was amplified majestically by the imposing speakers. And if ease of use is what you are looking for, the Zero 1 is that personified. Audio pathways also imports Sutherland Engineering. Ron Sutherland’s Argentum phono stage ($14,000) was a perfect partner to the Bergmann Magne Turntable ($18,000 incl. arm).

Avantgarde’s Zero 1 ($15,000/pair) was mighty impressive. Dynamism and power in one enclosure. ‘The ZERO 1 opens up this new road with a revolutionary size, simplified shape, hassle-free setup and fully integrated processor and amplifier technology.’ Cabling in both Avantgarde rooms was by Transparent.

Ottawa’s Muraudio shipped their massive and very sexy Domain Omni PX1 Loudspeaker ($63,000/pair). Bookending a lot of Moon Audio electronics, these imposing but elegant speakers were effortless in producing sounds that captured the essence of what the composer or artist intended, both musically and with dynamics. These are for well heeled audiophiles, but a long chat with designer Murray Harman suggested that a few surprises are in the works. Stay tuned.

Murray Harman of Muraudio

Murray Harman of Muraudio

A perfect respite to the day’s electronic onslaught was a Kimber Cable sponsored recital by Juilliard pianist Fanya Lin. I’ve listened to her progress over the years and the Juilliard machine has certainly honed her technique but the sensitivity and lovely tone remains. Lin has the opportunity to go far and I urge any music lover to listen to her CDs or catch a recital. The hour rushed by while listening to superb renditions of sonatas by Scarlatti, Mozart, Scriabin and the mighty Prokofiev 3rd Sonata. The large audience was truly appreciative.

Fanya Lin, piano

Fanya Lin, piano

So, before Karl takes over with his CANJAM thoughts, I’ll offer what I thought was the best sound of the show. Remembering that I did not hear every room and there were some magnificent systems on offer, my nod goes to the Constellation Audio/Wilson Audio room. Interestingly, I heard Wilson Audio Alexias in another room and they were eclipsed by the set being driven by Constellation Audio. Irv Cross who reps Constellation put on an MA Recordings CD of a viola da gamba. Holy Mother of God, this was bloody brilliant. Flesh, tone, superb musicality and displayed with absolute aplomb by the Constellation Electronics and one of my all time favourite speakers, the Wilson Audio Alexia. No less down the musical food chain, cabling was by magnificent Nordost.

The best I heard at the show. Absolutely beautiful and utterly involving

The best I heard at the show. Absolutely beautiful and utterly involving

Wilson Audio Alexia Loudspeaker ($52,000/pair)

Wilson Audio Alexia Loudspeaker ($52,000/pair)

Constellation Audio Virgo III Linestage ($30,000)

Constellation Audio Virgo III Linestage ($30,000)

Until next year. And thanks especially to Marjorie Baumert for once again putting on a fabulous audio show.

Karl Sigman offers his thoughts on CANJAM and other kit.

This year was yet another great year for personal audio equipment. Headphones, headphone amps, headphone DACS, and players were all on display. The venue was on the Lobby level (in back); one huge room filled with a mind-blowing array of companies large and small, showing off their ware and kindly allowing attendees to listen to their hearts content. Many even had their company President on hand to answer questions.

Moon Audio was in fine form showing off their Dragon Inspire IHA-1 tube headphone amp ($1695) designed by Dennis Had (Founder of Cary Audio). Drew Baird, President of Moon Audio, kindly set it up for me to listen to using the really elegant looking and sounding HIFIMAN HE 1000 over-the-ear planar magnetic headphones ($3000), and the modern, portable Cord 2Qute DAC ($1795). Among other things, I played the Doors, ‘Light My Fire’, and I assure you this set up would light anyone’s fire. The amp contains 2 x 6SN7 tubes, and 1 x 504 rectifier tube; the tubes can be exchanged with a variety of options in sound, and the amp contains no capacitors or conductors.

Dragon Inspire AMP

Dragon Inspire AMP

Cord 2Cute DAC

Cord 2Cute DAC

Karl Sigman wearing the HE 1000 headphones

Karl Sigman wearing the HE 1000 headphones

Moon Audio President Drew Baird

Moon Audio President Drew Baird

Next I came across Questyle showing their CAS 192D DAC ($1999) used with two of their powerful CMA 800R stereo amps (one for each channel of a headphone) ($1999 each), using Audeze LCD-3 (open) headphones ($1945). The DAC can play either pure DSD or pure PCM; quite something. Gary Barker (Questyle North America) kindly explained the workings of each component. What a treat all that was; my first time hearing such high quality sound via using two amps; not all headphones can handle that much power nor need it! Barker also showed me their tiny beautiful and stylish QP1R High Resolution Portable music player (DAP) in gold color ($899) endowed with an aluminum body and Gorilla glass; it can handle both DSD and PCM up to 24/192: Anyone who sees that will want one for a gift [review forthcoming – Ed].

DAC with 2 amps beneath

DAC with 2 amps beneath

Portable music player

Portable music player

Gary Barker (Questyle North America)

Gary Barker (Questyle North America)

By chance I came across some amazing sounding small and portable gear; all by the Taiwanese based company Obravo, and represented by Mr. David Teng and Ms. Christina Pan. Their website boasts: ‘I am unbelievable, I am incredible, I am Obravo’. Just so; in particular their just released tiny in-ear EAMT-3 (IEM) headphones ($2400) were astonishing in sound quality. They were attached to the very small portable battery-powered Obravo HPA-1 player ($500) controlled by a smart phone. This set up could be slipped into your pocket for travel. These tiny headphones contain an 8mm AMT tweeter, and a 10mm dynamic driver. Although not the most stylish in looks, the sound quality was stunning. I also was able to use their excellent over-the-ear closed HAMT-1 headphones ($1900) with the very same small player.

Karl Sigman using the IEMs

Karl Sigman using the IEMs

Obravo HPA-1 player

Obravo HPA-1 player

HAMT-1 headphones

HAMT-1 headphones

Ms. Christina Pan and Mr. David Teng

Ms. Christina Pan and Mr. David Teng

Talking about stylish IEM headphones, Noble had a gorgeous display on hand with several listening stations. Their jewelry-looking IEM models run from ($350 to $2599), and sound wonderful with detail and rich bass. They also customize the fit for you (molded for your own ears) if you so wish, from among a variety of beautiful options. Brannan Mason, Co-Owner, set me up with a new pair of their flagship Kaiser 10U ($1599) using a Astell and Kern AK 240 portable music player/DAC ($2499).

Display case of various models

Display case of various models

Designer Alex Cavalli

Designer Alex Cavalli

Cavalli had a most exceptional lineup on display of their headphone amps; from powerful to portable and in between. Elegant black casing on all, and with such a variety of different technologies used in each. A MacBook Air was being used as a digital source. Of particular interest, they were showcasing for the first time their new remarkable portable Liquid model (exact name soon to be determined by a contest); price to be under $700. At 130mm (L) x 75 mm (W) x 22 mm (H), its charged battery can last for 15 hours, and it has a totally discrete audio circuit. Designer Alex Cavalli set me up using it with his own pair of Nobel Kaiser K10U in-the-ear ($1599), as well over-the-ear MrSpeakers’ Ether C (closed) headphones ($1600). This little portable amp has immense power for its size, and outstanding sound. I would say this was my favorite portable at the show, and if used with the Nobel Kaiser K10U (IEM), you could throw this combo in your pocket and off you go.

Cavalli’s highest-end amp model is the Liquid Gold ($3950), and Cavalli had it set up with ABYSS AB1266 Headphones ($5500). These (bizzare-looking) headphones, while quite awkward to use (kind of like placing a vice on your head), sounded divine with this powerful amp. I listened to the live version of Hotel California, from the album ‘When Hell Freezes Over’, and man this won me over for its detailed smooth, full and sweet sound.

Cavalli Portable Player

Cavalli Portable Player

Liquid Gold with ABYSS AB1266 Headphones

Liquid Gold with ABYSS AB1266 Headphones

Florida USA based Wireworld Cable Technology were right outside the CANJAM area, with President David Salz and National Sales Manager Larry Smith proudly showing off their super cables, and were allowing one to compare their top-of-the-line Nano Platinum Eclipse headphone cable ($900 for a 2 meter cable customized for the Sennheiser HD800 headphones) with the HD800 stock cord. The two pairs of headphones were both connected to the Sennheiser HDVD 800 amp ($2200), and a Brysten BDP-1 digital player ($1795) so you could just swap back and forth to compare. I played Norah Jones, ‘Don’t Know Why’ for comparison and was greatly impressed by the higher 3-dimensional quality and air revealed by the Wireworld cable. I am planning to review their Platinum Silver Starlight 7 USB cable ($700, 1 Meter) soon. They also make superb lower priced versions of their cables.

President David Salz and National Sales Manager Larry Smith showing their wares

President David Salz and National Sales Manager Larry Smith showing their wares

The comparison set up

The comparison set up

Other things besides CANJAM

GamuT Audio, from Denmark had a perfectly balanced and so tasteful/elegant vinyl set up (brilliant for the small size of a hotel room) of their exceptional Monitor speakers RS3 ($19,990/pair), D200i Dual-Mono power amp ($13,990), D3i Dual-Mono pre-amp ($8,290), all cabled fully with their Wormhole Reference series cables. For turntable they used the Pear Audio Blue-Kid Thomas/Cornet 2/ turntable/tonearm & optional power supply ($9,995), with a Ortofon Cadenza Black cartridge ($2,729), and a Pear Audio Blue Reference 2 Box Phono Stage ($4, 495). Lively and knowledgable President Michael Vamos was on hand to explain the fine workings of his remarkable equipment.

GamuT -- the room set up

GamuT -- the room set up

The new RCA analog interconnect that Paul Speltz of AntiCables was debuting at RMAF: Absolute Signature Level 6.2 ($420 for 0.5 meter). Our reviewers have his cables and will report shortly. Speltz is absolutely convinced that great cables may be had for less. Stay tuned.

Paul Speltz of AntiCables

Paul Speltz of AntiCables