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
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].
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.
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!
Rocky Mountain Audio Fest
RMAF 2010 Seminar Videos
Tim Marutani Consulting
The Audio Salon
Bill Schnee (credits)