• Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2010 Review

    Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2010 was the best audio show I've attended. Not only did I have a great time meeting Computer Audiophile readers I had a great time discussing the limitless future of computer based high-end audio with many attendees and industry insiders. Music servers and computer based sources are the highlight of the high-end industry right now. Call me biased, but the facts don't lie. The number of rooms using computer based sources was more than I could count without conducting a census. The dealers and manufacturers embracing computer audio are succeeding and drawing new customers. I talked to one well known manufacturer whose sales have increased over 200% this year. One really nice thing about this explosion in computer based high-end audio is it's not taking away from other parts of the industry. Manufacturers used to selling CD Players are now selling DACs instead of physical disc spinners. Many consumers are getting back into HiFi because of music servers. These enthusiasts are jumping back into this wonderful hobby, realizing how fun it can be with a music server, and purchasing other items like loudspeakers and amplifiers because of their reignited passion for great sound and great music. It's a great time to be a computer audiophile.
     

    Sound, Technology, & Music

    Sound

    It's a fact that everyone walking around the show and everyone writing and reading online show reports is talking about sound quality. I'm guilty of this myself. Assessing sound quality is one of the funnest parts of any show. Where else can people hear such a vast array of high-end components and recordings and get together with like-minded individuals to shoot the breeze? The simple answer is nowhere. However, we all must remember that unless we live in a hotel room the sound quality heard at a show is not likely to equal the sound in our homes. The sound quality at a show will, 99% of the time, be very underwhelming compared to a dealer show room or in home audition. This year more than any other year I realized the importance of system planning and the skills, willingness, and ability of each exhibitor to execute the plan in order to achieve the best sound under the given circumstances. There were plenty of exhibitors who put together systems by selecting the "best" or most expensive components yet they didn't achieve satisfactory results. There is a craft to system setup and component selection that takes skills, willingness, and ability to do right. All exhibitors have about 24 hours to setup their audio system(s) in the hotel. Some exhibitors spent months prior to the show studying room dimensions with acousticians and staging complete audio systems from power outlet to speaker output. Others have had the same room for a few years and know the acoustic ins and outs like their own listening room. I'm not saying that all less than stellar sounding rooms are the fault of the exhibitor. What I am saying is it takes good skills, willingness, and ability to pull off sound that garners the attention of press and consumers alike at an audio show. No exhibitor walks into an acoustically acceptable hotel room and plops down any old system. A mix of room treatments and careful system selection are two of many items required to achieve above satisfactory sound quality.

    I didn't make it to every room over the course of the three day show. I'm sure I missed some great sound and some forgettable sound. With this in mind I present my three favorite rooms of RMAF 2010 in alphabetical specific order.

    Magico, Tim Marutani Consulting, and The Audio Salon (Room 9022)
    This room had the most accurate sound of the show. Magico Q5 loudspeakers powered by Spectral DMA-360 Series 2 amplifiers, Spectral DMC-30SS preamp, Pacific Microsonics Model Two DAC, Windows based fanless computer with all solid state storage, and a Mykerinos digital audio card with Pyramix playback software. Extensive system setup involving Audio Precision power analysis, computer analysis for loudspeaker placement, and room acoustics by JSX Audio. No matter what music I heard on this system it was linear from top to bottom. For another opinion of this room see Jason Victor Serinus' report on Stereophile's website [Link].

    Disclaimer regarding my involvement with this group of exhibitors. I built the music server used by them at RMAF. I've also worked with the two dealers on events such as the Computer Audiophile Symposium and individual computer audio related projects for which I received compensation.

    Quad (Room 1026)
    The Quad room had the most seductive sound of the show. There was nothing offensive to be heard the whole time I sat there in the front row. The legendary Quad mid-range was showcased very well using the ESL-2805 speakers and Quad tubed electronics. Unfortunately the only playable music in the room was right in the Quad sweet spot. I really wanted to hear what these speakers don't do well and push them to their high and low frequency limits as well as hear how loud the speakers would play before the protection circuit shuts the panel down. My 64 GB USB device full of great music from 16/44.1 through 24/192 was no help with only a turntable and CD player in the room. Next time I make it to Chicago (nearest Quad dealer) or at RMAF 2011 I hope to put the ESLs through the wringer with all types of music at all different levels. If all goes well I can see myself listening to a pair of ESL-2905s here in the CA listening room.

    Wavelength Audio (Room 9007)
    Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio had his formula working very well this year. Wavelength preamp, DAC, and power amplifiers powering Vaughan loudspeakers with all the music coming from an Apple device of some sort (iPad or computer). Every time I hear one of Gordon's systems I try to figure out how I could switch to an all Wavelength system. If I didn't receive numerous DACs and other components for review every year I would certainly love to have a Wavelength based audio system. The sound really must be experienced in person to appreciate. Many people entering the Wavelength room have problems believing such impressive sound can come from such a minimalist low powered tube system. In addition, viewing the build quality and aesthetic appeal of the Wavelength components in person is highly recommended. The photos on Gordon's website don't do these beauties justice whatsoever. Here is what The Audio Beat thought of Gordon's work at the show [Link].

     

    Technology

    Blackfire Research (Room 491)
    At RMAF 2010 there were a few neat technology advances on exhibit, some wireless, some ultra high sample rates, and some new spins on old turntable technology. The best by far and wide was that from Blackfire Research. I talked to the nice people representing Blackfire Research via email before going to Denver. I was very skeptical of Blackfire's claims but I agreed to meet them for a demo at RMAF. My skepticism stemmed from purported wireless support for 24/192 streaming audio using almost any playback software on a PC. Once I the demo began and Blackfire Founder Ravi Rajapakse started providing details upon details about how the system works I was hooked on this technology.

    The demo I heard used a PC running iTunes to send audio over a standard 802.11 network directly to a pair of Blackfire monoblocs. Each monobloc contains a wireless receiver, Digital to Analog Converter, and class AB 100W amplifier all in one chassis. The playback application on the PC believes it's sending audio to the local output device, but Blackfire software is really directing the audio signal to its wireless devices. The Blackfire wireless DAC/AMP can connect to any passive loudspeaker in the world.

    Blackfire also touted the system's ability to playback from a PC or iPhone type device completely via wireless. This is similar to Apple's new AirPlay that allows media to be sent directly from an iPhone to a playback device, but the Blackfire implementation goes ten steps further.

    Another strength of the Blackfire solution is its ability to switch wireless audio sources instantly. During the demo Ravi switched from PC based playback to iPhone based playback without any noticeable audio drop-out. One reason the Blackfire system works this well and supports all these features is because Blackfire built the communication software from the ground up. This allows high resolution audio to stream around one's house using an existing wireless 802.11 network. RMAF, like many other shows, can be a terrible environment to operate a wireless device. A quick scan of available wireless network usually produces a list long enough to make any computer savvy audiophile cringe. Thus, I was very surprised to see and hear the Blackfire solution work flawlessly during the complete demo and during subsequent demonstrations attended by colleagues. It's possible to wire this solution using Ethernet, but according to Ravi there's really no need for wires.

    The simplicity of this system was wonderful and the enthusiasm of the Blackfire Research representatives was refreshing. I hope Blackfire offers an online video of it presentation one of these days. Plain text like this simply doesn't do this product or these people justice. This isn't a solution looking for a problem. Ravi is a long time music aficionado who enjoys great quality sound. Hi technical background is also very impressive. This combination of skills and passion for music does not come around often. I'm excited to see that Blackfire is licensing its technology to other manufacturers. This may lead to great wireless solutions from manufacturers audiophiles have grown to love over the years.

    The price of the Blackfire Research monoblocs is $6800. Blackfire has also implemented less expensive solutions that were on static display at the show.

     

    Music

    Bill Schnee & Bravura Records (Room 9022)
    Like many audiophiles I've heard enough Diana Krall and Patricia Barber to get me through the next few decades. I've also collected my fair share of enjoyable, popular, dynamically compressed recordings comprised of questionable talent and more computer editing than musical instrument mastery. The combination of great music and great sound quality is as rare as Pearl Jam's Columbian release of its Vs. album on Blue Vinyl. In other words it doesn't come around often.

    Thanks to Grammy winning Recording Engineer, Producer Bill Schnee audiophiles may finally get what they want. Bill recently started Bravura Records to produce recordings of incredible musicians playing great music captured digitally at 24 bit / 192 kHz. Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2010 attendees fortunate enough to take in Bill's presentation in the Magico, Marutani Consulting, Audio Salon room know exactly what I'm writing about. Everyone in the room was blown away when Bill played a couple Bravura Records tracks through the Spectral, MIT, Magico system in the acoustically treated room. Not only were the "lay-people" amazed but industry icon Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings was ready to place an order for the yet unreleased albums.

    Bill is still working out the details with content delivery and file formats. He is considering all options such as Blu-ray, DVD Data discs, downloads, etc… One thing is certain, since Bill has 100% control over the final product there won't be any compromises. Currently he has a few different recordings with different types of music in the can including a wonderful sounding hard rock band. During RMAF weekend I spent a few hours with Bill and interviewed him before his flight back to Los Angeles where Schnee Studio is located.

    In the coming days I'll publish my interview with Bill and share his fascinating accomplishments. If two Grammys for Steely Dan's Aja and Gaucho aren't enough, how about working with all the Beatles before age 26 and being on the Jackson 5 tour bus.

     

    RMAF Wrap Up

    It's a great time to be an audiophile. Better quality sound has never been as inexpensive as it is now. The future of high-end audio is really limitless for those embracing computer based sources. At RMAF 2010 I talked to representatives from some of the best companies in the industry. Many of them are either on the bandwagon or are about to embark on the computer audio journey into the next phase of high-end audio reproduction. It was very nice to meet audio dealers exhibiting at RMAF 2010 and to restore some faith in the power of a good audio dealer. The best sound quality doesn't appear out of a box full of components. The process of obtaining great sound involves a synergy of components, skill, and experience setting up the audio system as a whole. I've heard some components on display at the show sound ten times better than they did in the Marriott at RMAF this year. Consumers leaving the show with a bad impression of any component owe it to themselves to obtain an in-home or dealer audition before coming to any solid conclusion.

    Computer audiophiles looking to support RMAF's spirit of inclusiveness are encouraged to donate to The Al Stiefel Legacy Room fund for 2011. I also encourage all RMAF 2010 attendees to send a quick note to Marjorie Baumert who does an incredible amount of work to make Rocky Mountain Audio Fest a reality. We all owe her a big Thank You for putting on such a great show year after year and being one of the nicest people in the industry. Thanks Marjorie!

     

     

    Related Links

    Rocky Mountain Audio Fest
    RMAF 2010 Seminar Videos
    Magico
    Tim Marutani Consulting
    The Audio Salon
    Spectral Audio
    JSX Audio
    Quad
    Wavelength Audio
    Blackfire Research
    Bill Schnee (credits)
    Bravura Records


     

     
    Comments 12 Comments
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Scot - Great talking to you as well. I'm on the same page as you (generally) when it comes to Blackfire Research. The clear strength is with the software and ability to get music wirelessly from point A to point B without issues. The hardware will have its uses for many people I'm sure. Plus, licensing the software to some well known manufacturers will be a good thing.<br />
      <br />
      Hope to see you there next year :~)
    1. dallasjustice's Avatar
      dallasjustice -
      Although it's tough to setup a system effectively in a hotel room the following would be tremendous a setup anyplace:<br />
      <br />
      1. Vivid/Luxman <br />
      2. YG Carmel/Synergistic Research <br />
      3. Dartzeel/Playback Designs/Evolution Acoustics <br />
      4. Wilson Sashas in the Powderhorn room <br />
      <br />
      I was underwhelmed with the Magico room. The room was way too small for those Q5s. That room wasn't showing 1/10th of what they can do. Maybe it was the music I was forced to listen to when I was in there. J. Valin was in command of the playlist and precise gain for the 20-30 minutes I was in there. He had some very strange tunes on his playlist; some ancient mono recordings of unknown blues artists. I didn't get it.<br />
      <br />
      I was also surprised by how many exhibitors/attendees don't really listen to music. Too many times I heard film scores, sound effects and bizarre avant-garde "music." I thought it was just about the music.<br />
      <br />
      I saw a lot of professional studio gear, e.g. Korg recorders and Mykerinos sound cards. <br />
      <br />
      <br />
      <br />
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      so I won't dwell...They were overpowering the room when I listened...but that could have been a fluke...dunno.<br />
      <br />
      Bill Schnee's stuff is amazing! I heard his demo and spoke with Bill during CES 2009, with Chris's server, Berkeley Alpha Dac and TAD speakers. Incredible. At the time Bill talked of BluRay, but since then the medium has not progressed much audio-wise (still only a couple of hi-end players, and/or those with dedicated HDMI audio ports, etc) and still no real way (other than my inexpensive HDMI de-embedding solution) to get BD audio to your favorite DAC...so my understanding is that Bill is being convinced to lean toward DVD-Rom or maybe hi-speed downloads. Time will tell. Regardless, the music is so well done I will be early in that line too!!
    1. manisandher's Avatar
      manisandher -
      Hi Chris,<br />
      <br />
      Thanks for your thoughts on the show. I'll have to see if I can get to auditon the Magico setup at some point.<br />
      <br />
      I was really interested in your thoughts on the Quad 2805 speakers. After many years of searching (and spending small fortunes), I've settled on these myself. They are <em>very</em> far from perfect, but they do something that few other speakers do, IME. <strong>They are totally coherent and extremely fast</strong>, just as sound is in real life. And I believe this is more important than having a totally flat frequency response between 20Hz and 20KHz, created artificially with reflex enclosures and the like.<br />
      <br />
      If you do get to review the 2805s (or their larger siblings), I recommend that you use a reasonably powerful but very fast amp. I know that many would suggest tube amps, but I wouldn't discount ultra-fast SS amps like the Spectrals.<br />
      <br />
      <strong>EDIT:</strong> Really looking forward to the Bill Schnee interview...<br />
      <br />
      Mani.
    1. Wavelength's Avatar
      Wavelength -
      Gang,<br />
      <br />
      Thanks again Chris and everyone else who stopped in. Again for those that did not attend the show was really better than ever!!!!<br />
      <br />
      I know a lot of people wanted to hear the Brick, Proton and Cosecant in the main system. I am sorry for that but it's just to hard to change up the system on the fly. Also... one year we were asked to do this and stupidly I swapped R&L outputs. Luckily someone caught it really fast.<br />
      <br />
      Dallas,<br />
      <br />
      Jonathan lives down the street from me. I know the music you are talking about as he used that back in 1994 when he gave me Product of the Year for my Cardinal v3 amplifiers. These were I think recordings done by Levinson. They are not mono but stereo 2 track recorded no eq, limiting or compression. You know... everyone has their 10 tracks they play for system testing.<br />
      <br />
      Heck that's why Jim would not let me handle the music or I would have been playing XTC, the new Devo album and some Joe Strummer favorites.<br />
      <br />
      ~~~~~~~~<br />
      <br />
      You know I just wish there was more time. I only made it to like 4 rooms this year. Funny story... I was wearing my badge (only time) and went to get some lunch on Friday. It took 2 hours as people were asking me all kinds of questions about CA.<br />
      <br />
      Good thing is I think next year for the CA forum we are going to try 2 hours.<br />
      <br />
      Thanks again!<br />
      Gordon
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      SSD last year). Wow, had I known you are an Andy Partridge and company fan I would have insisted. I knew there was something I liked about you. Great room, btw. Those Vaughn's (sp?) were a nice complement to your stuff.
    1. AudioDoctor's Avatar
      AudioDoctor -
      I agree re: Wavelength products sounding wonderful. I have a Cosecant with the 24/96 Numerator DAC module plugged into my iMac and it sounds absolutely wonderful. I will, when it becomes available, be upgrading to the 24/192 DAC module.
    1. mikemercer's Avatar
      mikemercer -
      Chris!<br />
      <br />
      I was so psyched to see you right before our seminar kicked off.<br />
      Thanks so much for comin up front and givin' the ol skool handshake,<br />
      I wholly appreciated it sir!!<br />
      <br />
      I had product for you, that I didn't get a chance to hand over!!!!<br />
      <br />
      I'll email you soon - and nice article about RMAF.<br />
      <br />
      I loved it this year, even more-so than last, and the energy was ALL positive!!<br />
      <br />
      Yours in Sound,<br />
      <br />
      Michael
    1. Wavelength's Avatar
      Wavelength -
      Ted,<br />
      <br />
      http://www.wavelengthaudio.com/wwws-fano.jpg<br />
      <br />
      This is the guitar Andy used for Nonsuch. I have 2 other Fano models made by Dennis but this one I scored on eBay. Andy gave it to the vervepipe group when he worked with them on their first album. Then the band had all their instruments taken by the bank and I bought this one for $800.<br />
      <br />
      My Phonisphere from Dennis is my favorite fano. Then I have a dual humbucker that is also a wraparound design. Love the man! what he does for cords is amazing.<br />
      <br />
      Thanks<br />
      Gordon
    1. mnofman's Avatar
      mnofman -
      I have to admit, one of my best of show votes goes to Rogue Audio with its turntable set-up. (I did not make it to the Magico room.)<br />
      <br />
      I also enjoyed listening to the TAD Reference One's powered by Bel Canto Design, again. Thank you to Andrew Jones and John Stronczer for allowing me and a couple others to chat with you and listen to the system even as the show was closing on Friday night.
    1. AudioDoctor's Avatar
      AudioDoctor -
      Was Rogue using their new tubed Ares Phono Stage?
    1. untangle's Avatar
      untangle -
      Nice report and kudos for mentioning your relationships with TimM, et.al.<br />
      <br />
      Would that more journo's were as forthcoming....<br />
      <br />
      Bob