The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is a small show, but a popular one. Jean Marie-Liere tells us why…
The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest—or just ‘RMAF’ as it’s usually called—is a relatively small show. The recent 2017 event drew around 5,000 attendees and about 50 journalists according to show organiser Marjorie Baumert, who bravely took over after her husband—AlSteifel—died unexpectedly. She is doing a very fine job let me tell you. The newly-refurbished venue (the Marriott Tech Centre) is very stylish and even the food was gorgeous! And I particularly liked that five rooms at the show were dedicated to low-cost systems… some of which sounded quite amazing. My only wish is that it ran for longer… a long weekend was simply not enough time for me to see everything on display…
There were a lot of iPads and servers around, as well as all sorts of toys for playing digital files, and I will certainly talk about some of these, but it was turntables that stole the show, with tonnes (and I mean tonnes…) of turntables on display, from Oracle Audio, Clearaudio, Pro-Ject, Rega, EAT, Kronos, SME, Marantz, Luxman, Technics, Brinkmann, Analogueworks, Kuzma, VPI, Mark Levinson, Gem-Dandy, Reference Analog, Audioengine, NAD, McIntosh, Merryl-Williams and others, including a beautifully crafted one from JWM Acoustics built out of exotic timbers. The Merryl-Williams was equipped with two arms, one fitted with an Ortofon Mono cartridge I have been wanted to listen to for ages and it didn’t disappoint. I was also able to listen to my dream Bergmann, with a linear tracking arm.
The big surprise for me was the number of fancy professional tape recorders being used, some playing master tapes recorded only days before especially for the show. Models from Sonorus, Technics, Tascam, Sony, Studer, Nagra, and Ampex were just some of the ones I saw as I moved from room to room.
On the other hand there were comparatively few CD players being used as sources, and the few that I saw were all made by Oppo, including one modified with a tube output, plus there were some French contraptions from Metronome, bien sûr.
Live music was supplied by famous Canadian pianist Robert Silverman, who played Chopin for our sheer pleasure. Silverman is very interested in the recording process, having recorded a number of SACDs and vinyl with IsoMike, a company dedicated to recording 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 maintain the original phase of the instruments so as to be able to reproduce their timbres as accurately as possible. In the digital world, the talk at the show mainly concerned Tidal, MQA, Roon… though other acronyms were mentioned. The ‘War of the DACs’ was in full swing at RMAF, indeed so many were on display that I ignored the ‘war’ and just tried to enjoy the music.
Comparatively few CD players were being used as sources, and the few that I saw were all made by Oppo...
A few headphones definitely caught my ears, particularly the new models from Final and Sonoma. Final is a relatively new Japanese manufacturer that is using planar titanium diaphragms in its headphones, while 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. I liked the sound of the Final a lot as it was extremely detailed and smooth and not at all metallic (I usually dislike titanium membranes in speakers), plus they were more comfortable to wear than the Sonomas. The Sonomas had more dynamic range but were slightly less detailed, although I am a great fan of the ESS SABRE DAC used in the dedicated powering unit.
A good third, if not more, of all the electronics on display used tubes—either exclusively or in combination with solid-state. Some were mighty (the Audio Research Reference 750SE), some amazingly sweet and gorgeous (all those from Zesto Audio) and some minimalist (such as the new ModWright Ambrose A30 monoblocs). Nagra’s new hybrids, paired with the new Wilson Audio Alexia II, produced one of the best-sounding systems I heard at the show. Also impressive were the new models from Dan d’Agostino and Moon by Simaudio, with French company Micromega deserving of a special mention for trying (successfully) to give Devialet a run for their money! At the more affordable end of the spectrum, I was impressed by the new models from NAD.
Anyone who knows me knows that the field of loudspeakers 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 by the thousands of companies—as well as individuals such as myself—that expend such inordinate amounts of time and resources creating new speakers, and RMAF 2017 was a good example of this, with models ranging in size from miniscule to monolithic, and with many ‘out of the square’ designs.
I had to award a palm to Danish outfit Jern for its cast-iron cabinets, which enabled the ultimate ‘form follows function’ way. Small is beautiful… and they sounded amazing! I like open baffle speakers (and am a great fan of Kyron Audio) so it was with some excitement that I went to check the latest instalment of the modular design by Israeli outfit PureAudioProject. Their Quintet15 Horn1 design now includes a horn speaker as a midrange/tweeter, which is coupled to four 15-inch bass drivers. These speakers sounded effortlessly sweet and mighty, particularly considering they were being driven by a 4-watt tube amplifier… and at less than $10k per pair, a real bargain!
In the same category, one could include all the Martin Logan speakers exhibited in various rooms at the show, the most spectacular of which being the full Neoliths driven by Audio Research Reference 750SE and fed by the ‘money-is-no-object’ Clearaudio Master Innovation with linear-tracking arm and Statement phono cartridge. Buy the whole system and you wouldn’t get much change out of $US300,000.
Another surprise was the Ultra Stat Panel from Sanders Sound System which uses a transmission line to load the woofer and an electrostatic panel that designer Roger Sanders claims is more rugged than those used by Martin Logan. They sounded very good.
Bryston showed its new active speakers and since I like active speakers and I like Bryston amplifiers, I had great expectations of this new range, and it didn’t disappoint… it was certainly one of the best-sounding systems at the show.
Several companies exhibiting at RMAF deserve special mention for a variety of reasons. Neat Acoustics for its unconventional cabinets and driver placements; Tekton Design, for making multiple tweeters work; JWM Acoustics not only for making some of the best-sounding speakers at the show, but also for its beautifully crafted hand-made cabinets; Acoustic Zen for being one my top five listening experiences at the show; Bang & Olufsen for finally designing a speaker I could live with and to Audioengine and Vanatoo for managing to build active speakers that retail for less than $US500 per pair (with the ‘performance’ prize going to Vanatoo and the ‘design’ prize to Audioengine). Special mention too, for Aussie company DEQX, which demonstrated its amazing technologies at RMAF. Jean-Marie Liere
Nagra’s new hybrids, paired with the new Wilson Audio Alexia II, produced one of the best-sounding systems I heard at the show...