Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2014
Publisher's note: Okay, why is this report so delayed?
There's a couple of reasons. First, Linda and I both long ago scheduled eye surgery
shortly after RMAF because we were assured that we would be able to see
well enough after a few days. Wrong. They also didn't tell us about the five appointments
that were necessary, three before and two after surgery, for each person AND for each eye.
That's 20 doctors visits over four weeks! If everything goes perfectly. It didn't.
When we finally did publish the report November 1st, we discovered a problem. No matter what we tried,
the links for the pages went to the 2013 report pages instead of the new 2014 pages. We still haven't resolved
all of that, but we do have the first two pages up and working.
Thanks for your patience and all the concerned emails. Everything's cool now.
If you're not familiar with what an audio show is like and what it's like to cover one, this is the Marriott Tech Center Hotel in Denver. Now imagine taking the all the furniture out of 300 to 400 rooms and replacing it with high-end stereo systems from hundreds of designers/manufacturers/distributors from around the world as well as several local dealers.
Our job is to go into a room, find out what's in there and if there is there is anything new and exciting worth mentioning to our readers or not and then talk to the persons who are there to hawk their products, get details, specs, prices, features, try to discern the marketing hype from the reality in what they say, gather brochures and business cards, take copious notes and attempt to get great pictures in positions and lighting conditions that are abysmal, and then - maybe - even get to listen to as much worthwhile gear as possible. Then, if it's deemed worthy, seek out the person who is responsible for scheduling reviews and make those arrangements. Oh yeah, all the while negotiating the hoards of other people who pack the rooms and hallways.
This year, the weather was mostly cloudy with some rain, but the temperatures were in the 50s and 60s, a nice relief from the 90° temperatures in South Florida. Stereomojo celebrated our 11th anniversary at this year's show. Congratulations to us!
There were also clouds of a different type surrounding the Fest itself. Attendance was down significantly, not only by audiophiles but also the exhibitors. We don't have official numbers and we don't want to speculate, but crowds were definitely thinner and several major names were no shows. Why? It's the proliferation of more and more audio shows across the country. Today there is huge competition in LA (Newport), Chicago and New York. Of course, there's also CES in Vegas which is also becoming less and less popular. Remember CES is not open to the public. Like everyone else, business owners have to get the most bang for their bucks for promotion, travel, shipping, accommodations for themselves, the cost of the room to exhibit as well as their valuable time. By the way, it's the same for audio publications like us. In this economy, very few can afford to participate in every audio show. Choices must be made and priorities must be set. More and more the shows in Newport, Chicago and New York, as expensive as they are, are becoming more popular because that's where the companies make the most money. Audiophiles who shelled out big bucks to attend one of those are less likely to attend Rocky Mountain, too. It's as simple as that. At least that's what we were told by about a dozen audio company owners or presidents we interviewed. Several said that they are reevaluating their participation in the Denver show next year. So, we'll keep an eye on things and let you know what's up.
Speaking of prioritizing, this year we adopted a different strategy. We would walk in a room, find the head guy and ask if they were debuting anything at the show this year. Many of them said "No, but…" and would then proceed to direct us to something that came out six months or a year ago. We'd just say thanks and move on to the next room. If they said yes, we'd take pictures, pick up brochures and take notes while they gave us their spiel.
IMPORTANT NOTE: When we make comments regarding how something sounded, keep in mind that these are just impressions, NOT reviews. Show conditions are are usually abysmal for judging anything, but after you've been to dozens of them and thousands of rooms, you do get a sense for some things. In addition, exhibitors are constantly tweaking their systems during the show, so if we hear something on one day, chances are good that it's going to sound significantly different the next day. Just keep that in mind.
Last year it was all about DSD. This time, not so much, though its presence was felt.
This year there were a couple of trends that stood out. One is the proliferation of headphones and dedicated headphone amps, A.k.a. "personal audio". It seemed like everybody was jumping into that game. Not really everybody, it just seemed like it.
We are not big "cans" fans (assuming "cans" refers to headphones… And there was a separate area for CanJam, the headphones show). The reason is, they just can't overcome the "sound is all in my head" syndrome. Even with soundstage enhancers in some amps, the sound is small. Instead of Linda Ronstadt standing 6 feet in front of you with the band or orchestra 6 feet behind her, you get her voice in the center of your cranium with very little on either side or depth behind. Doesn't matter if they're electrostats or conventional, single or multi driver, Audeze or HifiMan, to one degree or another the results are similar in that one regard.
There was one pair we tried that sounded different and actually did have some soundstage.
The JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266 is an over-ear, open, planar-magnetic headphone. A pair costs $5,500.
The Legacy V (That's V as in Victoria, his daughter's name, not "5") is so new that speaker guru Bill Duddleston hasn't even set a firm price yet,
but he hopes to bring them in just under $50,000. These will replace the current top-of-the-line.
You may know that our publisher's reference speakers are the smaller and much less expensive
($18,000) Aeris by Legacy. You should read his review to learn what constitutes reference quality.
On display was our Maximum Mojo Award for the Legacy Aeris
The V is much larger and incorporates new technology like a new DSP unit
that is said to be much cleaner, more dynamics, etc.
These were easily the most musical (Most realistic) presentation at the show and among a small hand full we could
consider as best of show, regardless of price. We should say that most companies did not bring
their big artillery to the show, choosing to bow to economic conditions which dictate less expensive models.
The V logo seen in the middle is dimly lit and there is a small pool of blue light underneath that gives them
a suspended in air appearance. Notice the beautiful word in detail on the sides. Certainly one of the coolest
looking speakers we saw.
MG AUDIO CABLES
This is Greg Graff, the "G" in MG audio cables. They were debuting their new
Planus IV Speaker Wire
6 foot pair- $2,700; 8 foot pair- $3,600; 10 foot pair- $4,500
And their new super cable
Planus IV AG Speaker Wire
6 foot pair- $4,800; 8 foot pair-$6,400; 10 foot pair- $8,000
There's a story that goes along with this product I like to share with you. I was talking to Greg at the rear of the room about their new cables when somebody in back of me butted in over my shoulder, "They are the best cables in the world!" I turned around to look at the guy and told him I thought they were certainly one of the best values in high-end cables, but he once again yelled, "They're the best cables in the world at any price!"
Please note that the statements have quotes around them because they are direct quotes. We wrote them down.
That's when I looked at his name tag. It said:
THE ABSOLUTE SOUND
I felt like responding that I have no way of knowing that since I haven't listened to every cable in the world, but I do know that Stereomojo did the worlds first review of them so you and everybody else know who they are! But I didn't. Its not our way. I politely smiled and returned to my conversation with Greg...
Now I want you to listen to me carefully because this dramatically illustrates one of the many major differences between us (Stereomojo) and pretty much everybody else out there. Think of nearly every cover of The Absolute Sound and/or Stereophile you have ever seen. Most times the covers scream "Sets A New Standard!" or "The New Ultimate!" or "The Ferrari of Amplifiers!" or some other ridiculous hyperbole. Hyperbole, by the way, that is bought and paid for. It costs money in most cases to get your product featured on the cover of these magazines, somewhere in the neighborhood of $70,000 last I was told.
Mr. Norton, I believe, was just reflecting the mindset of many of those in what we call "The Elitist Audio Press". You have never seen a headline or a review that pronounces anything to be the best in the world at Stereomojo. To do so would be a lie, simply because none of us have heard every, say, cable in the world. While Mr. Norton is unquestionably a very knowledgeable man, he may have heard many cables, but we think the odds are that he has not heard every single cable in the world either. Much less actually having listened to every cable in the world for a month or so in his own system as opposed to at a show which are two very different things. By the time anybody listened constructively to every cable in the world, it would take so much time that by the time he was finished, many new cables would have been introduced thus nullifying his current knowledge of what used to be all the cables in the world. Common sense.
The point is that we don't have to resort to misleading if not downright unethical and unrealistic claims because Stereomojo nor any of its reviewers does not tie its reviews to any advertisers. We don't charge companies to have their products featured on our front page. In fact, if you look at our front page you will see that there are very few advertisements at all! That's because the vast majority of other review journals, audio or otherwise, depend upon income from advertising to put food their tables and/or keep their stockholders happy. They want as much advertising as they can get and charge as much for it as they possibly can. Make sense?
No one at Stereomojo depends on a dime of income from advertising to sustain themselves or increase their standard of living. Our reviewers don't get paid, so it matters not to them whether their reviews are raves or pans or something in between. There's no pressure on them to do anything but to be accurate, timely and honest. Tell the truth, but don't be mean spirited about it.
Example: a review was submitted to me that called the plasticky remote control "a piece of garbage". To me, that's over the top and just plain mean-spirited, so I changed it to something like "the remote control with its poor materials and construction doesn't live up to the overall quality of the amplifier". It says the same thing without being ugly.
It is the written policy of several high-end review publications to spike or not publish a negative review. Two of them, off the top of my head, are Positive Feedback Online and Six Moons. And virtually everything Stereophile reviews ends up in their "Recommended Components" issue, published twice a year because it's their biggest selling issue. Let me interject here that I have the highest respect for David Robinson at PFO. He's a gentleman and a scholar in several fields. His review philosophy which is to only publish the "Gold" and not the junk simply differs from mine. I believe it is just as important, if not more so, that our readers know about inferior or even dangerous products as it is for them to know about the good stuff.
Example: we reviewed an Omaha tube amplifier that had been raved about in both TAS and Stereophile I believe. When I received it, put in the tubes and hooked it up before I fired it up, it literally fired up! I'm talking sparks and smoke. The provider originally denied that he knew anything about it until I pointed out that the owners manual specifically says that if you turn it on and see sparks and smoke, to turn it off immediately. He later said that he was going to fix the problem so I told him when it was fixed to send us the improved amp, which he did about six months later after I kept after him, telling him that I would hold the review until we got the second one, but I would report on the original's dangerous self-destruction. I had the second amp sent to a completely different reviewer with a different system and didn't tell him about my experience so as to not influence his opinion. Guess what. When he plugged the second amp in it did exactly the same thing! We published that review.
Do you think we should have spiked that review or publish it?
Another little dirty secret is that when a reviewer artfully contrives a headline type statement about a product such as "it's the Ferrari of amplifiers!", That line will usually end up in the product's advertisement with the name of the reviewer and the publication. It is a "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" unspoken arrangement. The product benefits from the endorsement and the endorser benefits from the free promotion in the ad.
It goes the same for awards. The product can claim it got an award and the awarding publication gets free publicity in the ad. Several publications have multiple levels of awards simply so they can hand out more them and get more recognition.
if you look at our front page, we have only a handful of advertisements and they only appear on that page and never appear within a review. Never. Personally, I hate having to read around advertisements when I'm reading a review or skipping from page 12 to page 36 to read a complete review.
Do you ever find yourself hunting for the price of the gear being reviewed? Who knows. Anything could be priced at $1000 or $100,000. You often can't tell the difference by a single picture. I detest that, so the price of everything we review is in large print right at the top.
You will also never see "highly recommended" at the end of our reviews. First, it's trite and everybody else uses it, second no one product can be "highly recommended" for every buyer. Highly recommending a very inefficient speaker to someone who uses a 6 Watt SET amp would be stupid and would amount to malpractice in any other profession. We have the "Stereomojo Specific Recommendation" at the end of every review. You will also never see political commentary in a review, such as "The mid range was like Barack Obama - it sent chills up my thighs!", or "The front layout was more confusing then George Bush's foreign-policy!" There's plenty of places to get political punditry. We don't think audio journals should be one of them.
So there are just a few differences between us and them. Oh yes. We also highly value our reader's input. See something new that needs to be reviewed? Many if not most of our reviews have originated from our readers. We've made several changes because of reader input. Keep that in mind.
Thanks for listening. We hope you learned something.
Also vying for Best Sound at Show where these Stella Utopia EM behemoths by Focal in Garth Leerer's Musical Surroundings room. Garth is one of the sharper arrows in the quiver of hi-end retailers, we think.. $95,000
In addition to true full range sound, the dynamics were startling. Literally. The first huge orchestral crash
made us jump. Rare. All the more impressive, the source they were using was a re-issued vinyl LP of Symphony Fantastic
at 45 RPM that lived up to its title big time.
It didn't hurt that the speakers were fronted by about $400,000 worth of amps, DACs, cables etc.
Still, compared to the Legacy V above at half the price, the sound was overall a bit sterile, academic and less musical to our ears.
The Legacy's seem to invite you in while the big Focal system tends to blow you away.
Not everything was megabucks. The Sprout is a top contender for Best Value"
Full featured integrated amplifier
50 watts per channel power amplifier
Drives any size loudspeaker
192/24 high end fully asynchronous DAC
Passive EQ moving magnet phono preamplifier
Low output impedance headphone amplifier
Coaxial digital input
Built in AptX Bluetooth receiver uses Sprout’s internal asynchronous DAC
True analog stepped volume control
Analog input selector for all inputs
Headphone output 16Ω 500mW, 300Ω 425mW (drives all headphones)
Analog output: variable 3.5mm line, for subwoofer or otherwise
Signal-to-Noise Ratio (A-weighted) >90dB
THD <0.025% at normal listening levels
Dimensions: 6″W x 8″L x 1.75″H
New DAC from Mytek
At $5k, the new Manhattan DAC can also serve as both digital and analogue pre-amp
Our old friend Duke Lejeune of AudioKinesis showed his new Zephrin 46 speakers
According to Duke, the speakers have a very clean, controlled-pattern first arrival sound
followed over 10 ms later by an unusually strong, diffuse, spectrally correct reverberant field,
resulting not only in spaciousness and sense of envelopment, but also temper and even clarity.
The speaker is said to be uniquely designed to work with the room rather than against it.
At $4900 per pair, they do sound different and are worth a listen.
The new VR-55 Aktive by Von Schweikert are priced at $49,995.
Clean and fast with lots of bottom end
Last year we were the first to rave about a new company and speaker, the Endeavor E3. They had premier electric bassist Dean Peer
playing through it live and it was impressive, especially for its $4000 bargain price.
This year, there's a new Endeavor badged the E5. At over 6 feet tall, they are monsters. While they aren't cheap at $29,850/pr,
they are certainly equally impressive. If you want a big sound for a big room, definitely worth a listen.
New line stage from Aesthetics - the METIS - $20,000