Saturday, 14 September 2019

MUSINGS: Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2019 - Reflections...

Assorted RMAF 2019 items... Dr. AIX book, demo disks. Collectable MQA brochure and the beautiful 135-page Wilson Audio catalogue! :-) In retrospect, should have also grabbed a T-shirt.
Beyond memories and photos - many of which already shared on Day 1, 2, and 3, the picture above are a few items I've kept from RMAF 2019 now that I'm back home in Vancouver. Each room that one goes into, one can pick up all kinds of interesting pamphlets, specifications sheets, colorful brochures. Most of these I have discarded as these days almost everything can be readily found online and in updated form.

The only thing I bought at RMAF was Dr. Mark Waldrep of AIX Records' book Music and Audio: A User Guide to Better Sound. It's 850 pages, contains a Blu-ray disk of samples including multichannel material, audio format comparisons, videos, etc. accompanying the text. Over the years, I have crossed paths with Mark online and it was finally great to meet to chat about his book, current sabbatical (and interest in conducting another hi-res listening test), and general desire to elevate the standard of knowledge and discourse among audiophiles as an educator/professor himself.

Along with Mark I had the opportunity to speak with Chris Connaker from Audiophile Style about the biz, chatted about his new sound room, and factual inaccuracies in Neil Young's recent book To Feel The Music. I also met up with a dude named Rt66indierock who contacted me while I was in Denver to meet to discuss various audiophile-related topics and accounting numbers :-). [He's the person who started this very long-running thread on AS.]

I said last year that one day I might just visit RMAF as a consumer which is what I did this time. It was nice to meet people like Andrew Jones, the Wilsons, Paul McGowan, Richard Vandersteen, and even shared some pleasantries with Ray Kimber. Plus it's good to have context now having met and spoken to people like Ted Denney III to see what happens in shows like this and how audiophile magazines report his products compared to my own observations of the event.

I passed by Jason Victor Serinus a few times and saw Michael Fremer frantically running around with his shaky video camera. I saw Lee Scoggins roaming the halls. Since there appears to be little philosophical (and perhaps even perceptual) agreement on much of how I seem to view audiophilia, I figured there was no point chatting with these gentlemen.

As I reflect on the show over the last few days, I wanted to end off on some general comments and impressions of RMAF 2019:

1. The Venue

Having opened just since December 2018, the Gaylord Rockies is new. It looks new. It feels new. And it even smells new. Since I have not been at the previous venue, I obviously cannot compare how that place was compared to the glitz and magnitude of the Gaylord.

There were a few issues I suspect we'll hear about with this new locale. First, for out-of-towners, the hotel is expensive. It's a 4.5-star joint with the price tag to boot. Depending on room of course, we're talking a starting price of $250-400/night. Included in that price is a >$20 resort fee which is rather ridiculous if all one is doing is hanging out at the conference/show rooms all day! Parking is also around $20/day. The restaurants were also more expensive (although I must say the 28oz porterhouse was delicious ;-).

While close to the Denver airport, being new, it's located in a less developed part of the town out in Aurora about 6 miles from the airport and 22 miles from town center. I picked one of the closest, more modestly priced hotels about 2 miles away to stay at - a refreshing 30-40 minute walk every morning, wander the halls during the day, and possibly grab a Lyft to go back in the evening if it looks like it's going to rain.

I did hear from a few vendors that the showrooms and wired internet access for streaming have increased in price for them. It will be interesting to hear if this is an issue (eg. compared to the cost of attending other audio shows through the year).

Otherwise, I think the acoustics were generally good and a few vendors told me it was significantly better than previous years. Some of the rooms had 2 systems going, one in the sitting area and another in what would be a bedroom. With the door closed, there was little sound leakage. Furthermore, in the hotel with about 6-8 audio rooms set up per floor, each room felt isolated from the others and the hallways were quiet for chatting with friends or asking questions of the company reps. The big conference rooms were well carpeted and in a few of the displays, more acoustic treatments would have improved the sound further; I'm sure they'll learn and adapt over the years if the show stays here.

I would not be surprised if this venue provides some of the best sounding rooms of all the audio shows nationally or even internationally; certainly a worthwhile goal the RMAF organizers can tout if so!

2. "Best Of"?

Unknown in the Day 3 post's comments asked if I had a "top 10" list of the systems heard. As I responded, it's hard to know what I heard would translate well to other venues (specifically my own home). Certainly the systems I thought sounded forgettable would not be on my "best of" list. And realistically, the kilopound multi-hundred-thousand dollar systems would not make sense for the vast majority of consumers (only those with mansions need to seriously consider these!) although I appreciate the opportunity to partake in some listening.

Having said this, I would consider auditioning these systems again given the chance if I wanted to buy something for my home (I'll list the speakers but have a look at the room and associated electronics of course). I chose these based on subjective listening, aesthetics, and my perception of value:

Day 1:
PS Audio AN3
Salk 6M
Joseph Audio Pearl3
Bryston system

Day 2:
Tekton Moab
Wharfedale Evo 4.4
Dali Epicon 8
Paradigm Persona 7F
Vandersteen Kento Carbon

Day 3:
B&W 804 D3
Sonus Faber Electa Amator III
B&W Formation Duo
Dali Rubicon 8
Sonus Faber Olympica Nova V
B&W 800 D3
Revel Performa Be F226
Elac Debut Reference DBR62
Polk Legend L800 (need to check quality of soundstage off-center)
That's my "top 19". I think it's an honest list of speakers/systems which I would be proud of owning. Relative strengths and weaknesses will depending on budget and room size one intends to put the stuff in.

If we step back to appreciate that 2-channel audio has been under development and refinement for decades, it only makes sense that there should be many examples of good quality/sounding products out there! Unless one were to insist on anachronistic techniques and technologies, it would be rather incompetent with today's engineering and tools to produce a terrible sounding ~US$1000 speaker, IMO. What is more challenging is to incorporate new features, novel designs that benefit the user, smaller packages and lower price points. Speaking of anachronistic, remember that vinyl-only playback in some of the systems did not make the sound quality shine for me and therefore I could have missed some gems.

I've seen "listening impressions" from other reporters like this one which I quite disagree with.

3. Innovation

As Steven alluded to, the systems on display are essentially all 2-channels. I don't expect that to change any time soon among audiophiles despite the fact that I do like multichannel. Audiophile shows in general have not been the place to see innovative use of surround audio.

However, we're seeing the maturation of digital streaming as vendors routinely play Qobuz and Tidal, with more capable devices over time becoming less expensive, easier to use. Also, DSP technology for room correction is becoming more prevalent whether it's McIntosh's MEN220 in one of the big demo rooms or the little Elac Discovery allowing measurement-based room adjustments. DSP is a powerful tool for the hobbyist pursuing fidelity. I've heard some disparaging remarks (at times even a little heated) when the topic gets raised! Nobody says one must/should use it and I believe more traditional techniques like fine-tuning speaker position, tweaking crossover points, and room treatments are important to optimize first. Regardless, I believe audiophiles and companies alike should never disregard potentially powerful tools.

I have to admit that I found the B&W Formation wireless system with their Duo speakers very nice. Other speakers like the Devialet Phantom have already been capable of wireless digital audio transmission for a number of years, but as a package, what I heard sounded great, the interface looked intuitive, the speakers will fit nicely in most modern decor, and the 24/96 no-nonsense wireless hi-res is certainly a rational choice. For a "wireless lifestyle" oriented audiophile system, this is worth checking out and I think the wireless-high-fidelity ("Wi-Hi-Fi?") segment of the industry should grow in the years ahead. Another system of this nature worth checking out is the KEF LS50 Wireless or the smaller and less expensive KEF LSX (I did not see either at the show). As I noted when I spoke of the Formation system on Day 3, execution of the user interface and stability of the wireless transmission are key to usability.

4. Price (of products)

Yes, there were plenty of very high priced systems at RMAF. But for a show, you need those "aspirational", exotic products that draw in the audiophiles. An auto show without "cost no object" sports cars and luxury vehicles would not be very exciting either!

As you can see in my reporting on the show, there were many affordable products there. From Fostex headphones to Tekton speakers to inexpensive Kanto monitors to well-respected Elac devices to reasonably priced Pro-Ject components to Klipsch, KLH, and very nice Wharfedale speakers, plus a room full of very reasonably priced stuff the guys at Z Reviews / HiFiGuides put up.

As usual, within reason (ie. let's discount poor quality scams, and snake oil rip-offs), prices should be filtered through the lens of the audiophile's income, net worth, and one's "luxury multiplier" to account for the non-utilitarian benefits one might desire. It's great to see the variety of gear and the opportunity to listen to each of these systems. Doing this helps calibrate an audiophile's expectations around sound quality, workmanship, and ultimately value.

Personally, I'm quite happy with the balance of price points found this year and congratulate the RMAF organizers for mindfully including rooms targeting the various price points.

5. Snake oil

It's audiophilia after all :-).

Notice in the pictures of the systems how in many (most?) rooms, the cable manufacturer included their brand name on a plaque or post a slogan like "Cardas Audio", or "Wired by AudioQuest", or "Nordost - Making the Connection". While we all need cables, plausible explanation for sonic differences and empirical evidence of such remain absent compared to decent generic cables (ie. copper, reasonable lengths and gauge). Insinuations of major audible differences gained from "high end" cables therefore IMO fit into what I see as "Class B" or "Class C" snake oil.

There were some "Class A" oil to be found at RMAF 2019 of course. The Nordost QPoint "Resonance Synchronizer" demo was silly. And worse was the ridiculous Synergistic demo dance. How Part-Time Audiophile can publish what it did regarding Denney's demo with these Synergistic Research products is incredible; IMO delusional if they truly believe what they say at face value! Seriously? Cable risers that cost US$350-700 can bring the system sound to "truly unbelievable heights"? To me, this is an example of foolish snake oil regardless of the prospective buyer's net worth.

It has been claimed that Mark Twain said: "It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled." This observation of human psychology is probably true. I do believe it is up to the wise audiophile to be vigilant and the press has a responsibility to likewise examine claims and evidence if they are to be respected.

6. MQA?

You knew this was coming :-). Well, I saw little evidence of activity, and certainly no evidence of excitement. Yeah, there were some MQA brochures; I picked up a nice one in the picture above which opens up to the graphs showing the "origami" and "deblurring" processes we've all seen online over the years. The MQA logo could be seen here and there among the showrooms (Mytek, NAD, Technics, Mark Levinson). I heard one person ask a question about "What tube amp should I get to play MQA?" (!). And there was supposed to be an MQA comparison demo announced for Saturday (Day 2) which apparently failed to materialize.

Otherwise, there wasn't any sign of life for something that was supposedly "revolutionary" as we approach the 5-year mark since the great unveil in December 2014. Furthermore, Tidal's claim of "hi-res" seemed to be playing second fiddle to Qobuz's true hi-res FLAC streaming as well. Compared to last year, it was all rather tame with nobody banging on tables from what I saw. :-)

And so, I think this is all I need to say about RMAF 2019. If you're wondering, absolutely, I had fun! Time and opportunity permitting, it would be great to visit another year...

Have a great weekend and enjoy the music everyone.


  1. I sometimes wonder a bit why I'm not more enthusiastic about surround sound for music. It's not like I don't have a good system for it. I carefully chose my L/C/R speakers for music quality and built the rest around it. And I've had people who design and install home theaters tell me I had one of the more cohesive surround systems they've heard. And it does sound great - I have listened to lots of music in surround (upmixed! Not discrete aside from movies).

    And yet I simply find my two channel system more compelling. I have 2 channel speakers that image really well, set up wide and between 6 1/2 to 7 feet from my listening sofa. The sound is so immersive I just don't miss the multichannel experience. And while surround systems create an immersive bubble, I've yet to hear a multichannel system that images with anything like the precision and density and holography of my 2 channel speakers. Not that it isn't possible in principle if you go to the effort in multichannel, but the type of out-of-the-box imaging and precision I'm talking about is relatively effortless to achieve using just two decent speakers.


    Archimago, there are the usual reports of "amazing differences" heard in the dubious-product-demos you listed. If you saw those demos, did you notice any opportunity for...ahem...shenanigans....beyond merely switching in/out their devices? Or would you put the reactions down to the psychology of the audiophiles who hear a difference (e.g. power of suggestion)?

    Both those companies do a hard sell on their product before the demo.

    1. Hey there Vaal,
      I think surround is definitely a different experience for music listening and in my go with it, depends very much on the multichannel mix. While I do like it when I have a good discrete mix compared to stereo (for example, some of the new Beatles remaster/remixes like the "White Album" are a great direct comparison), I can certainly agree that a good stereo mix is usually enough.

      In that, I guess often multichannel is more of a "nice to have" feature rather than "must have"... And when the mix is not great, then even less than "nice to have" :-).

      Yeah, the dubious-product-demos I suppose could have been affected by shenanigans although I didn't personally witness any issues. For example, one of them was a standard "play music"- make changes - "play again". In between sometime I noticed the music volume was faded out so it's possible that volume was not exactly the same with the second playback or the track was not the same, etc... Not saying this was done, just that a possibility.

      In any event, it wasn't like I heard any "amazing difference" I thought I needed to rush out and spend $700 on cable risers :-).

    2. To no surprise, the Nordost Qpoint-resonance-synchronizer has already been reviewed by the tweak-loving Positive Feedback mag, and what do you know? It works! It somehow made the reviewer's system sound "more noble."

      As per the review, the theoretical basis for the product is not given, being "knowledge protected." Awfully convenient.

      A manufacturer can literally make any claim, no matter how unsupported, and an audiophile writer will hear a difference. If there is a problem with the fact no actual objective basis is given for the device? Don't be so close minded, don't you know science can't explain everything? (Literally the trope every fringe belief system uses).

      It's dispiriting to see so many audio reviews that read essentially no differently than one can find in an astrology magazine, or any New Age or Pseudo-Science rag.

      I want to enjoy audio equipment, high end audio, without having to make special pleading for my hobby. Why in the world would I want to stop thinking skeptically and rationally ONLY when it comes to the claims of high end audio, where I'd want good evidence everywhere else?

      The problem I find is in navigating high end audio is that I both love all the flora and fauna in the hobby, really enjoy the wild west quality of the crazy gear (especially speakers, where I concentrate most of my interest), but don't want to submit to accepting B.S. So I seek a rational approach to the claims made. However, it's tough to find those actually occupying this same middle-ground; enjoying high end audio, but maintaining a healthy skepticism based on a scientific mindset. It seems people tend to divide more in to camps of the subjectivist and the objectivists who are so put off by the nonsense in high end audio, they dismiss most of it and don't even care to discuss it. Why bother with that boutique nonsense when far cheaper gear can be found with appropriate specs?

      There seems to be some middle ground on your blog, where you appear to be able to enjoy some of the high end audiophile gear - speakers in particular, like me - while being appropriately critical and demanding of dubious claims.

  2. Innovation. I have had my own dealing with self-described audiophiles on forums about something as simple as tone controls, as well as DSP. It’s funny how the same audiophiles who will ooh and aah at the latest DAC that has the innovations “guaranteed” to improve the fidelity of their systems (decode 32bit/768kHz PCM, MQA, “clock design we have managed jitter rates of unrivalled 100 Femtoseconds”) are the same who disparage tone controls and DSP, presumably because it alters what the artist intended us to hear. I’m sure the artist didn’t intend me to hear the harsh sibilance that I hear on some of the crappy recordings I own, and I’m glad my vintage Yamaha receiver has tone controls so I can tame them a bit by knocking the treble response down a few dBs.
    As for DSP, I’m sure I’m not unlike many other music lovers in not having a dedicated listening room. I have art on the walls and a less than perfect room layout. What I understand from my research on DSP, is it would help compensate for some of those shortcomings and allow me to actually come closer to hearing what the artist intended. The ELAC Discovery amp is just the type of innovative device that may finally get me to retire my over 30-year-old Yamaha with its variable loudness and tone controls.

    1. Hi Unknown,
      I think the "purist" audiophile who has a problem with tone controls and DSP is unnecessarily limiting him/herself. As you noted, unless we have great dedicated rooms with speakers perfectly aligned, severe peaks (and mild dips) controlled by room treatments, and only listen to very good recordings without any harshness, sometimes a music listener must do for themselves what the studio has failed at doing.

      Big numbers like 32-bits, ultra high sample rates, and minuscule jitter are nice to have I suppose... But comparatively insignificant once one sits down and have a listen to the music!

  3. As I'm seriously considering to purchase the LS50 Wireless, I'd be thrilled to hear your take on those.
    Too bad KEF wasn't at the show.

    Yeah, the benefits of a t-shirt over a MQA brochure could not be described with words :)

    Kudos for a great write-up and cover of the RMAF experience.

    1. Thanks Turrican,
      Alas, KEF was a no-show at RMAF (unless one of the dealers brought in a product I missed). Unfortunately I haven't had a listen to the Wireless even though over the years I have crossed paths with the standard LS50 and liked the sound.

      I went back on the last day but it looked like they sold out on the T-shirts :-(. An MQA brochure would be a good memorabilia of the "days when questionable products were easily accepted by audiophile magazines essentially without question". Assuming, that ever changes!

  4. Talking innovation, you did not talk about any active system configured with a DEQX digital crossover and EQ. Were they participating to the show ?

    1. Hmmm, I didn't see any DEQX DColby.

      There were active DSP crossovers like the Bryston system and PranaFidelity showing of course. Would certainly be interesting if in time we see more of this along with DSP being active in the show rooms.

      BTW, what would be fun is a demo where the DSP gets turned on and off in realtime for listeners to experience the difference for themselves. I would not be surprised if some people did not like a flatter frequency response. But maybe do this "blind" with average volume controlled so listeners can't be biased when they see the screen say "DSP ON" :-). Certainly compared to dubious snake oil "room resonance" products, a demo like that would be "ear opening" in how different the sound could be - and a demonstration of the power one could have to shape how we like to hear our music!

  5. Dear folks, my apologies for piggy-backing on this but if anyone can help, I'd hugely appreciate it. Over the past year I've been using XLD and Ocenaudio - the former for converting FLAC files into Apple Lossless and the latter for checking audio spectrums or sometimes tweaking the gain.
    Recently though, I noticed something I don't understand. For instance if I have a FLAC file, I can look at it using Ocenaudio and confirm the sample rate and bit depth etc. The thing that confused me is that if I take a 24-bit/96Khz file and use XLD (with output sample rate and bit depth set to match the source file) to convert it to Apple Lossless, when I look at the output file using Ocenaudio, it's reported as being 16-bit.
    There's also another conundrum. If I take the output file, Apple Lossless, and adjust the gain up using Ocenaudio, the file size almost halves! But if I do the same thing to the FLAC file, its size goes up slightly.
    What the hell is happening?