October 17, 2011
| by Grant Clauser
Last week’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, in Denver CO’s Tech Center neighborhood, gathered audiophile consumers with ultra-high-end manufacturers and dealers for three days of Hi-Fi indulgence.
This is the show where attendees don’t bat an eye at $6,000 for a pair of speakers or a similar extravagance for an amp or turntable (those things that spin the big vinyl discs around).
At the RMAF an attendee was likely to get shushed by a manufacturer for interrupting a Karrin Allyson song. While on the surface, vendors were there to sell (or at least promote) their products, some went out of their way not to talk about them, instead depending on the gear to be its own best spokesperson.
Things you didn’t see (or see much of) at RMAF:
One thing I found fascinating was the polarizing effect of physical media on the audiophile crowd, at least the crowd at this event. In some circles you’ll hear people bemoan the rise of digital music files files designed for iPods and the decline of CDs, but here, the CD was virtually dead. It’s replacement however was not the convenient MP3 or even AAC file. Instead attendees more often than not were treated to either vinyl or PC-based music, usually recorded in FLAC format. A few demos I heard played SACD, but not many.
Most of the music was provided by computer—lots of Mac Minis and Windows laptops, plus a few direct USB flash drives. Of course one of the reasons for this was purely practical; it’s easier to quickly select tracks when you’re browsing through digital files than when sorting through a stack of CDs. The other reason is that digital formats, FLAC and DSD, can deliver high-resolution music. In fact, a seminar on PC-based music was filled to capacity with attendees standing in the isle and sitting on the tables to participate.
The other major format was vinyl. These were the demos that moved a lot slower and sometimes involved men with bow ties methodically cleaning needles after each album. But it was always worth the wait.
What about music servers? Unless you mean laptops or Mac Minis, there weren’t a whole lot of them there. There wasn’t a Sooloos, Kaleidescape or Autonomic server anywhere to be seen. There were a few hand-built servers, but nothing that the custom home electronics market would generally recognize.
The only exception to that I saw was Olive, a company that designs its servers specifically to cater to the audiophile crowd not the multiroom audio buyer. Olive was showing off all its systems, but primarily the company highlighted the O6HD system that up-samples signals to 348kHz
While there were a handful of iPods, etc. around, they were few, and in most case were just used control the actual source. In a few cases small, but high-end, digital transports connected to high-end DACs were demonstrated as ways to make the most out of your Low-Fi portable. NAD did show an iPod/iPhone speaker system, but that was the only one I encountered.
Well, this is no surprise. Not once did anyone mention Pandora, satellite radio or vTuner. Even Spotify’s premium service, which includes some tracks streamed at 320 kbps, was sneered at. Does this put the audiophile crowd outside of the mainstream? Duh, of course it does. That’s the point.
RMAF is a two-channel show, sometimes 2.1 or 2.2, but surround sound was not a feature. There was a time when the consumer electronics industry believed high-resolution multi-channel music had a chance of catching on in the form of SACD and DVD-A, but we know how that went. Two ears, two channels. That’s how we roll.
That said, I found it a shame to hear all this good equipment without the option of hearing what a couple of surround sound speakers could add. And what about home theater? No way, this show is about the audio. In the 400+ exhibits I didn’t see one TV.
The RMAF is a market for people who don’t mind showing off their gear. In fact, most of it looks like modern art. Turntables ground out of solid blocks of metal and speakers built with exotic woods ruled. Plus, in-wall speakers just don’t have the chops to cut it in the this crowd.
Check out the slide show for some of the product highlights.
Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had audio training from Home Acoustics Alliance and Sencore. He's also the author of the book The Trouble with Rivers
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.