RMAF Best of Show (IMO)

By Douglas Weinstein
Published on: October 12, 2018

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This year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was held last weekend at Denver’s Tech Center (Marriott Hotel) and was quite interesting on a lot of levels. Personally, I haven’t been to a dedicated hi-fi show in over a decade and little has changed in the way demos are conducted throughout the hotel rooms. There just isn’t enough space in most cases, to really give you a proper sense of dimensionality. But, what you can take away is an appreciation of the timbre and tonality of the systems – do they actually sound like faithful reproductions of the instruments and voices on display.

What was refreshing was that there were lots of women in attendance (who didn’t seem like they were being dragged there against their will!) and lots of Millennials. The Can-Jam space (a huge ballroom with various headphone products) was a beehive of activity on both Friday and Saturday, the days I attended. In fact, some of the best sound came out of that space – more on my faves in just a bit.

Technology-wise, most of the vendors have embraced streaming technology. While turntable rigs dominated the landscape, there was probably an equal amount of laptops delivering the news. And on a lot of the headphone demos, I just pulled out my phone and dialed into music I am familiar with and can reference against what I personally have in my arsenal.

So, here are a few thoughts based on notes I made as I went from room to room, floor to floor. Keep in mind that these are just my thoughts – everyone has a different set of ears and our brain pans are hardwired uniquely, so what you like I might hate and vice versa. There was really only one system that was so abysmally awful, so heinous, that everyone got up en masse and exited the room. It was if the new guy, recently put into a position of authority, really didn’t get hi-fidelity. And it showed. And that one, if you’ll allow me the courtesy, I’ll keep to myself because I’m not here to offend.

Best emerging software under development. Ryan Redetzke of Redscape Audio was demonstrating his 3D headphone software. Now, there are a few 3D headphone models out there. But the interesting part of Ryan’s emerging solution was his 7.1 application. I won’t go into details about the tech, since we discussed how he has to move that from Windows to a Linux solution, but in essence, when you watch a movie, the center channel comes directly from in front of you as if you were sitting listening to speakers. The front channels appear across the bridge of your nose, instead of on the outside of your ears. I hope I’m getting that across properly. I told Ryan he should just license the technology and be done with it – let an established headphone manufacturer incorporate the tech into their existing headphones. Anyone out there who wants to contact him and pursue this conversation – his link is above.

Sexiest pair of speakers I’ve ever seen. Raidho Acoustics out of Denmark (naturally!) was demo-ing the D-3.1 speakers and they were putting out some of the best music I heard, but it was the D5.1 towers sitting in the back of the room on display that were a vision of beauty rarely seen in speaker design. There are really just a handful of speakers that qualify as art objects – Sonus Faber is elegant always, the new Kanta line from Focal are gorgeous, and there are many examples of speakers with exotic finishes that might qualify – but the Raidho Acoustics, up close and personal, were stunning.

Best In-Ear experience. RHA out of Glasgow (I know, Glasgow! That hotbed of in-ear speaker design.) is bringing to market the CL2 planar magnetic in-ear wired or wireless earbuds at a cool $900. Boasting a 16hz-40Khz range – and the bass, for an earbud, was amazing – these are formidable little tykes that really wowed. I had the recently re-mastered Shawn Colvin’s A Few Small Repairs on my droid and I was stunned at the sheer beauty of the sound.

Best headphones period. I love headphones. And I have a lot of them. And they’re all really good. While my own preference is described as studio reference (uncolored), I was particularly taken with two headphones that could not be further apart as far in design principles. The Focal Utopia is as elegant and refined of a product as you will find as it relates to music reproduction. It is a standard over-ear headphone using sophisticated technology and materials. Yes, $4K is an awful lot to pay for a set of headphones, but from a price-no-object perspective, they are magical. Equally compelling was the Warwick Acoustics Electrostatic Sonoma headphone system. OMG good, if you catch my drift. At $6,500 the complete headphone amp (dedicated to driving electrostatics, these headphones specifically) and headset were effortless in conveying all of the richness and finesse in a superbly recorded song. In this case, the new Ry Cooder Gentrification was sublime and elegant. Breathtaking.

Great sound rooms. I started near the top of the hotel and worked my down, floor by floor. So, starting from the top, for those with the site map in their hands – it will come as no surprise that I still think MBL puts out about as good of sound as there is on the market. I already mentioned Raidho Acoustics and their effortless projection. ELAC’s little AM 200 powered speakers, at $2K, were very sweet. The Sound United room offered a pair of Focal Sopra No.2s coupled with a Classé front end and that was magical. Gayle Sander’s new Eikon Image 1 speakers and associated amplification was about as good of a room – at $25K for components and speakers – as there was at the show. The built-in room correction technology compensated for being in a hotel room, so they had that big advantage over others. The depth of the soundstage extended well into the parking lot. The Gershman Acoustic’s room was quite tasty. Always love their sound. The complete array of Tidal Audio speakers I heard, in various rooms, were stunningly lovely and beautiful to look at. Masterfully crafted. Finally, the grand ballroom Focal Grand Utopia setup was pure, unsaturated ear candy that illustrates completely what is possible when money really is no object. If you got to catch a demo, you know what I’m talking about. I imagine that just the power cables (much less the interconnects or speaker wire, much less the bloody speakers (4 total)) would put a kid through Stanford for four years! But it was pretty cool to sit and listen.

Best budget speaker. Hands down, the B & W 606’s, at $800 a pair, stole the show. Wow!

Best speaker, just because it was so overpriced. The teeny, teensy, Kiso Acoustic speakers – no bigger than a breadbox. At $20K, I’m not sure where they fit into the grand scheme of things. Great sound for a little speaker. But $20K?

Best sound, performance and price combined. Hands down, the Sonus Faber Electa Amator III speakers coupled with McIntosh electronics was spectacular. Depth, width, fidelity, effortless projection and among the most beautiful loudspeakers on the market. As they say, “The essence of our heritage enclosed in a musical instrument.” I’m seriously considering them for our great room.

So, in closing, there were certainly many more rooms that deserve mention that I haven’t got to. Great sound embraces so many elements in any enriched life. Music itself is such a gift. Thank you RAMF for the show, you exceeded expectations.

Great to see everyone and if you don’t have good sound in your living room, whatsamattaforyou?

Douglas Weinstein

Douglas Weinstein

Doug is the managing editor and co-founder of the Technology Insider Group. He is also the executive editor of the forthcoming Technology Designer Magazine, that debuts January 2019. Previously, he was the co-founder and Executive Director of the Elf Foundation, a non-profit organization that created Room of Magic entertainment theaters in children's hospitals across North America.

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