by Anthony Kershaw
Denver, CO – After last year’s audiophile love in, the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF) was my number one iCal Work Calendar appointment for 2012. The 2011 show was that good. 170 rooms filled to the brim with everything new and old in high end audio. That the show takes place in Denver, CO, one of the loveliest, cleanest cities in the US, is a very pleasant benefit.
Now in its ninth year, RMAF continues to be organized in the most professional and indefatigable fashion by the amazing Marjorie Baumert and her army of dedicated volunteers.
The flight from Toronto’s YYZ was smooth and bump free, captained by an affable fellow who looked like he was just out of short pants. ‘DEN’ is a huge airport but is navigated easily. I was in the rental car and arrived at the hotel an hour after landing.
I was just in time to do a quick check in to the Denver Marriott Tech Center, an 80’s looking, solid hotel, with comfortable rooms and large, open convention spaces, before the opening party started. Other than the ‘industrial’ location (no good local restaurants — the hotel’s atrium restaurant is pretty good and is a nice place to chill with other audiophiles), it’s picture perfect for an audiophile show. After a quick recce around my room, it was straight downstairs to the RMAF party. Baumert knows how to throw a shindig. It was a lovely time with lots of drinks (a very good Cabernet) and a warm, convivial atmosphere.
One of the pleasures of the show is meeting up for dinner. It’s a special time to unwind, discover new people and discuss everything audiophile (we’re worse than teachers and doctors for ‘work talk’ after hours). I bumped into Benjamin Zwickel and Hilary Klein of Mojo Audio, Pittsburgh’s finest cables! We had a lovely time and after dinner I was invited into the Mojo Audio room to hear the system being used. It had been warming up for sometime. Zwickel, always the perfectionist, was not too happy with the sound (the same as most exhibitors at the beginning of the show — Saturday and Sunday are the days many rooms begin to sing), although I was really enjoying the Mojo Audio DAC and Media Server with the superb Volti Audio Veretta loudspeakers (a company that debuted at the show only last year!). By the start of the show, the sound was to Zwickel’s liking. It was a very musical room.
Over the course of the three days, twenty seminars were offered that were very well attended, live performances by audiophile favoured songstress Anne Bisson and concert pianist, Fan-Ya Lin, and, once again, ‘CanJam@RMAF’, a trade floor dedicated to all that’s new and hot in the headphone and computer audio world.
It was on the CanJam floor where a lot of exciting developments in personal audio was in evidence. Companies like CEntrance and Audeze are producing very exciting products that are priced reasonably and bring high end sound to your desktop and even to headphones. Long time Audiophilia readers will know that I’m not ‘headphone guy’. I find them claustrophobic and usually unmusical, at least in the replication of spatially correct musical experiences. That said, a new company, Audeze, has a headphone called LCD3 ($1.9K). This gorgeous full size headphone is made of Rosewood with sheepskin or suede ear covers. I felt I could have had them on for hours as the sound was refined, ’spacious’ and extremely comfortable.
Interestingly, CDs were in short supply at this year’s show. LPs and active turntables, yes, but the computer file was definitely Denver de rigueur. And the good news is that many examples sounded great. Lots of companies, both startups and legacy are doing USB DACs, and others doing music servers. Exciting times. I enjoyed the well executed DAC from Light Harmonic, the $20K Da Vinci 384K USB DAC — a futuristic monster of a DAC that looks amazing and sounds exquisite. Antipodes Audio highlighted its new Music Server. It is a fanless, standalone digital audio transport system, with SOtM USB output for USB DACs.
As usual with this show, there were lots of turntables playing. A company new to me is George Warren. These $5K ‘tables are made of exotic wood and are a wonderful match with Moerch tonearms. I heard some Bach organ music through Dynaudio speakers and the music was incredibly dynamic with exceptional rhythmic thrust. Beautiful to look at as well as to listen, and for a relatively reasonable price.
The most impressive room as far as analogue visuals was from KT Imports. It was festooned with brass turntable mountains. At $16.8K, the Triangle Art Reference turntable is among the most impressive looking I’ve seen. This massive turntable weighs in at 275 lbs! It was rocking the Kuzma 4 Point Tone Arm arm (5.8K). The sound was smooth with jet black background.
Talking of arms, Tri-Planar (photographed below) was in attendance as well as seen and heard used by turntable manufacturers. They can be difficult to set up, but the sound is sophisticated, dynamic and very refined. It’s a legacy arm and looks the part. Splendid.
Hans Henrik Mørch was in attendance in the George Warren turntable room. I’m a big fan of his tonearms. I remember my first experience in a review setting and was taken aback at Mørch’s ‘wobbly’ uni pivot arms. But, they work so well and adapt to so many ‘tables. Moerch has produced a new tonearm which is non pivot called the DP-8 Anisotropic. ‘Anisotropic because the effective mass for the horizontal mode of motion is many times higher than the effective mass for the vertical mode of motion. – No matter the effective mass of the armtube used’. It looked spectacular attached to the George Warren ‘table.
Electrons are great, but people are better. As usual, it was the people that made the show so enjoyable. The exhibitors presented their kit very professionally, were incredibly welcoming (and patient) with the punters (and trade). Below are some photos with captions of a few of the wonderful folks making up the show.
Our standard comment about show sound and conditions. Even though the hotel is pretty good as far as solid rooms, ambient sound, hallway noise, crowd chat, and small rooms really impede our ability to offer anything but general comments. That said, the best sounds continued above the noise. The combinations were so musical that even the drone of excited audiophiles couldn’t harm them.
My first room visit was one of the most enjoyable. I heard a Shostakovich Violin Concerto (the stupendous Lisa Batiashvili, violin) coming from reasonably priced speakers from Jean-Marie Reynaud (the Abscissa Loudspeakers $5.5K). Surprise, surprise, the best sounding rooms chose appropriate, quality repertoire for the speakers.
My comment in our recent TAVES report regarding the never ending choice of Diana Krall and a million other mediocre female vocal talents was repeated here in the Mile High City. Sadly, many of the exhibitors added gravelly voiced male singers accompanied by a few acoustic instruments. Yes, the instruments sounded good, but the voices singing their puerile music have got to go. As in Toronto, if a punter requests something, fine, but represent your amazing speakers with equitable repertoire and talent. Please.
It is not a coincidence (and certainly not because of my predilections) that the Best Sound of Show winners played amazing music that highlighted the equipment and understood the vagaries of room acoustics.
As you’ll see from the photos below, many manufacturers teamed up with other makers and created little oases of calm. Good lighting (with a couple of rooms lit like a tart’s bedroom), acoustic and power treatment, lots of paper information and kind smiles were the norm. A wonderful feeling in every room I visited. The sound did vary considerably, but we’ll give all the less-than-good sounding rooms a pass under these conditions.
We usually have several writers and our photographer at CES/Montreal/Toronto, but for Denver it was just me. I did manage to visit each room twice, once informally for chat and photographs (for the quality of which I’ll apologize for now as the iOS6 on my iPhone 5 gave me nothing but trouble. Never again!), and a second time for focused listening. If I missed your room in this report, please accept my apologies. We will be adding ten new photos each day Tuesday through Thursday. If not in the main body of the report, maybe then. Thanks.
None of these lovely speakers could sound the way they did without the very best in ancillary equipment. I mentioned that DACs, media servers with iPads (and other tablets) ruled the day over CD players. But, there were some very special electronics.
The Vitus Audio CD player and pre/power amplifiers driving a speaker to be named later were beautifully made components from Denmark. Each piece of the audio puzzle was $10K. The Zanden Audio CD Player Model 2500 was extraordinary in its looks and information resolution. The hand made Stradivari Reference Power Plant exuded class. Why can’t a power conditioner look good and be effective? Cary Audio had its beautiful Classic Series on show an introduced its new line of lower price point Audio Electronics products. Cary mentions on its website that ‘…by providing a modern design and excellent sound quality in lower price-point products, Audio Electronics is promoting the future of the high-performance audio industry while preserving the heritage and integrity of the Cary Audio brand.’. They look great and we have requested products for review.
Tubes were well represented, 300Bs and SETs, included. Superb Audio Research kit was everywhere but there were some lovely, smaller scale amps that sounded superb. Examples by deHavilland, Wavelength and Border Patrol jump to mind. And, monsters like the AirTight monos and the stunning looking Audio Power Labs were there in force.
We will format it a little differently for this mountain of a show. There was so much that was worthy. You’ve already seen photos of excellent equipment that sounded great, but the following manufacturers really got their act together. Whether system synergy, a lucky room in a quiet corner where the ambient noise was minimized, a larger room with better acoustics, snake oil or pixie dust, I very much enjoyed the sounds in the following rooms.
Audiophilia’s Best Sound Value
Mojo Audio/Volti Audio
Mojo Audio and Volti Audio are a value added marriage made in audio heaven. If you love a true musical connection, this system should be on your audition list. The intimacy created from Mojo Audio’s DAC and Media Server, driven by Border Patrol amplification into Volti Audio’s single driver, Veretta Loudspeaker was almost tactile. I listened four times and each time the sound was very refined, pure of spirit, and felt like a cool stream on a steamy day. Absolutely lovely.
Most Auspicious Debut
Light Harmonic Da Vinci 384K USB Digital to Analog Converter
Not really a debut, but close enough. This angular component exudes style and exquisite workmanship. But, for 20K you’ll want more than the Starship Enterprise in your rack, and you get it. Filled to the brim with high art engineering, the sound delivered to the speakers was very dynamic, but it was the refinement of sound listening to a Haydn String Quartet that really wowed me. If you are ready to take the digital leap of faith and have the scratch, the Light Harmonic Da Vinci 384K USB Digital to Analog Converter is a must listen.
Audiophilia’s Best Sound of Show.
We have three runners up and a clear winner.
With it’s primary ‘Dicks Dipole Driver’ loosely based on the famous Walsh driver, this German speaker is smart in your listening space, images like mad, throws a wide/deep soundstage, even in the small Marriott room, and delivers real music. They’re not flashy, look a lot different than your run of the mill boxes (I love the look), and will give years of musical pleasure.
Paired with Vitus electronics from Denmark, my CD show purchase of Illinois Jacquet’s ‘Swings the Thing’ sounded wonderful. The timbres of the instruments from the gem of a mono was very accurate. I returned to this room several times. I’d like to thank German Physik’s Robert Kelly for his patient and very professional explanation of the products’ technology. This is how the ‘front of house’ in the ‘new audiophile world’ (more of that later in Audiophilia) should be presented. Quality representing quality.
This famous German company produces expensive behemoth components. Here, as in many other shows, the products were a unified whole and sounded completely in concert. And, with amazing power and refinement. You pay lots, but you get lots. On show was the Reference Line. Featured were the Radialstrahler mbl 101 E MKII ($68K) and the massive 9011 monoblocks. Very impressive visually and aurally.
Power, power, power was handled easily by the mighty Focal-JMLabs Stella loudspeaker. I’ve reviewed the whole line from Focal except the Stella. But, I’m thinking this fantastic speaker is the sweet spot in the series. The AirTight Monoblocks (the final product as the chief designer is retiring) offered the sweetest sound in addition to their seemingly unlimited power. The Trans Rotor Appolon TMD turntable added to the delights. A superb system. I’ve heard the Focal speakers in concert with many different manufacturers’ ancillary kit. Interestingly, they always sound wonderful. This is rarely the case with many speakers.
Audiophilia’s Best Sound of Show
This was a clear winner. Always full of Wilson Audio admirers, the large room was set up perfectly. The gear was professionally presented by Luke Manley of VTL and Debby Wilson of Wilson Audio. Mr. Wilson attended the show on Friday.
I’ve never been a fan of the Wilson sound world. Tuned very successfully for a specific audiophile demographic (I call it ‘ziss, boom, bah’ — ultra resolved, kaleidoscopic with never ending power), Wilson Audio speakers for my taste looked as cold as they sounded. This sound ‘design’ was modified by Wilson (after a six month world tour of the greatest concert halls) in his smaller Sasha loudspeaker and has continued in spectacular fashion with the new Alexia Loudspeaker ($48K).
It’s a fabulous speaker, especially as heard here accompanied by the wonderful VTL Siegfried mono block amplifiers and a phalanx of digital dCS gear. The Alexia’s retain all that is good in Wilsonland — power and incredible resolution, but they play music so beautifully. Instruments and voices are fleshed out and the timbres are so accurate.
I heard some of Wilson’s personal recordings (by Peter McGrath) and they were very good (but one did remind me that capturing a great soprano on full throttle can be difficult), but the Sony recording of Schubert piano music played by Arcadi Volodos was unbelievably good. Some of the best sounds I’ve heard from a speaker and certainly the best piano tone, both attack and the decay, in my experience. Superb, and on that alone, the magnificent Wilson Audio Alexia’s won the day.
There, you have it. Three days of fun, camaraderie and great sound. My second RMAF was even better than last year. The people in this business have endless energy and endless passion and to hear the sounds they convert from electrons into music is truly humbling. That said, there are wonderful folks that I will have missed in this report. Please accept our apologies. It is no reflection on your company. For this show, I was flying solo. And though I had about five hours sleep in three days, I’m not complaining. I’d do it all again today if I could (after eight hours sleep!). If you are an audiophile and music lover, the Rocky Mountain Audio Show should be your one must attend event.
Still want more? We’ll be publishing more photos with caption info Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week. Please check back. And, we’d love to read your comments. Thanks.
Tuesday photo update. Tomorrow? Turntable Wednesday.
Wednesday photo update. ‘Turntable Wednesday’.
Final photo update. Thank you for reading. We hope you enjoyed our coverage. See you next year in Denver for RMAF, Oct 11 — 13, 2013.