TRELJA in Denver - 2008
Usually, I write about the HE Show in NYC. But, being that didn't go off this year, and the Rocky Mountain Audio Festival now has achieved the position as the preeminent high-end audio show in North America, why not put forth my impressions of the 2008 rendition? Remember, all of this is my opinion, and mine alone. Nothing of what I say is infallible, let alone probably even correct. Discussion and even disagreement, is not only invited, but welcomed.
More than anything else, RMAF is about the experience. It's about audio and friendship and the high-end audio community. Even if you go alone, you're destined to build real relationships there. Normally, I list all of the people I spent time with at a show, and though I'd like to do so here, if I tried, there'd be a list in the hundreds. So, instead of taking up even more space than I have, this time, I'll just throw out an all encompassing thank you to everyone I hooked up with on whatever level we did. For those 3 or so days folks are together, time almost seems to stand still. We're in our element, and there is nothing else like it. At least, in audio. CES doesn't even come close. The combination of front ends, amplification, speakers, but most of all the fun and the company we're with, proves to be the recipe for a euphoric experience. Denver is a beautiful, fun, and friendly place, and everyone seems to take on that vibe. In short, the idea I hope to pass on is that if you haven't yet attended, definitely get there. I personally guarantee that you will never regret it.
One thing I have to get off my chest is this whole digital thing. Most of us audiophiles are genuinely trying to look towards the coming technology, and retire the silver disc players in our systems. I've said it until I'm blue in the face, the CD transport is the achilles heel of audio. I'm sorry, but the folks who are trying to take us to the promised land are failing miserably. We're clearly fumbling towards something that is workable here, as opposed to pointing to a real endpoint. My take is that unless and until we come to a place where we have something that is not anywhere near as convoluted as the current so-called solutions, the critical numbers of people are still not ready to make the jump. I know I'm not. Note to designers - I have a computer and I have a stereo system. They're in different rooms, and I want to keep them that way. And, no, I don't want to go wired/wireless. Guys with pocket protectors can solve a lot of problems when it comes to technology, but so far, they're doing a poor job on this one. Somebody with some horse sense needs to think about things.
As far as the music goes, one thing that made me happy was at least in my experience, you didn't hear the same music in each and every room. Yes, I chuckled when I heard Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary" while walking past a room, but it seemed as if you could actually go most places and not get hit over the head with Diana Krall or Norah Jones this year. And, enough time has probably gone by that even a Patricia (or Pat, as my main man Dennis calls her) Barber song thrown in here or there this year was welcome.
There wasn't a lot of bad sounding rooms this year. Good sound was the norm. Not that there weren't bad rooms to be found, there were. In that vein, no sense in beating around the bush - WORST SOUND OF SHOW, by far, the Acapella room. And a well deserved honor it is. Not sure how anyone involved in high-end audio could ever let that go off, but it was truly beyond awful. If we set their negative score at 100, the second place contestant would struggle to achieve a 28. Yes, it was that bad, rivaled only by the ridiculous room treatments. Overall WAF? Well, if you're shooting for a divorce, this is the brand you should be looking at.
So, who would have scored that 28? There's no quicker way to destroy a system for me than to insert a pair of Nordost cabling in it somewhere. Again, that proved to be the case, as their room had that thin, whited out sound that I always am able to hear. But, I'm of an open enough mind to want to give them a listen with something like a Conrad Johnson preamplifier to see what kind of love child comes of it.
OK, on to things of a more sunny nature. Let's get the best of show out of the way first, to me it was clearly the Audio Note room featuring the phenomenal Kegon 300B PSE amplification. Yes, they're $95K, and no, I don't think I would ever be able to write the check, but man alive, was that ever incredible. I've become notorious for melting down in a puddle when it comes to Audio Note gear, but I'm not sure there's another brand out there that deserves the title of destination gear. That being the case, I see Audio Note stuff as perhaps the ultimate in value. Why would one ever need to upgrade? Congratulations Mike and Neli!
Before I get off Audio Note, the kits were also pretty darned special. The $1800 EL34 integrated that was playing made the case for sitting down with the soldering iron.
Second place was the Highwater Sound room manned by my good friend, Jeff Catalano. Again, people must get tired of me trumpeting the Horning loudspeakers show after show after show, but is there another loudspeaker out there capable of sounding as perfect? At least in my mind, the answer is clearly, no. Have no idea why they don't sell 100 times more of them, but they don't.
Boy, if I didn't have as much of a fetish for the Hornings as I do, I'd buy a pair of Reference 3A Grand Veenas tomorrow. I still might. Not that either of the two rooms they were in allowed them to fully spread their wings, but I've heard them in other venues so I was listening through rose colored ears. Definitely one of the finest products in high-end audio today. The fact that they're at a reasonably attainable price only makes them all the better.
Atma Sphere was truly like horse crap at this year's RMAF. By that, I mean, they were everywhere. Something like 5 rooms, including Ralph's own, ours, Duke's, and the Galibier. Don't want to say anything about the room I shared with Vinh, but I was happy with as much as we wrung out of a stand monitor speaker and an S30 stereoblock/MP-3 pre. Duke, on the other hand, truly deserves accolades for what he was able to come up with by pairing his own loudspeakers with the Atmas. In fact, last year, I was so blown away by what he accomplished, that I almost didn't know what to say to him. The sound was just as good, but at least I was prepared for it.
One room I hope folks checked out was Serious Stereo. A really engaging guy in Montana, hand crafting transmission line loaded loudspeakers and truly beautiful looking/sounding tube power amplifiers. The sound he was able to achieve was first rate, and I truly encourage anyone interested in low powered tube amplification to look him up. You will not be sorry.
I can't write the check, but if that wasn't the case, I might start thinking about getting a pair of Classic Audio Reproductions horns. While I'm on the record for criticizing them at past shows, they've really grown on me of late. Is it my own evolution as an audiophile or the field coil technology, probably more the former than the latter, but who knows? I felt the pair in the Galibier room needed to up the bass a notch or three to fall inline with the mids/treble, but I'm told that's simply a function of dialing in the knobs.
Total disclosure here - Marc Conti and Vytas Viesulas are REALLY close friend of mine. Still, their new Veloce line sounded incredible to me - not that I haven't been around the prototypes for a while, and we even used an early version of the preamp in our room at CES2008. All I can say is that the Kharma folks would be wise to begin falling all over themselves to partner up with them in future shows, as I've never heard their loudspeakers sound remotely as good at any show as they did in the Veloce room.
Jolida is a company that needs no introduction, though some might feel the word "venerable" probably deserves to hang around their neck like an albatross. While I might agree with them on the CD player, which has grown a bit long in the tooth, the 801 tube integrated looked better than I have ever seen it before, with great sound to match. If compact size, cute looks, affordability, and good sound accounts for anything, their little $399 EL84 integrated should be destined to be one of their best sellers ever.
Moscode's room didn't come close to what they achieved last year, even if George Kaye looked more svelte this year. Perhaps it was the Quads he brought in 2007?
Acknowledging I'm definitely in the minority on this one, Usher loudspeakers don't hold much in the way of redeeming qualities for me beyond their good looks. They kind of serve as a good indicator that audiophiles sometimes listen more with their eyes than their ears.
The fact that I can't get past the name "Von Gaylord" says more about me than the company. Change the name back to Legend, and bask in knowing that you make nice audio gear that no one would be uncomfortable in talking about.
If I come off as a difficult grader, perhaps my liking the Quicksilver room more than most I spoke with will even things out. Thumbs down from most I encountered, thumbs up from me.
Likewise, I've torched Robin Wyatt's Robyatt rooms pretty strongly in past reports. Not so this time. In fact, the Tektron Italia and Ridge loudspeaker combination was downright splendid. This was one of my more favored rooms of the show. Just goes to show that I try not to bring any preconceived bias into a room, even if it sometimes does happen.
OK, one more time while I'm at it. I've had some previous experience with Selah Audio speakers, and found them bad. I mean, I really and truly disliked them. However, at the show, I found the sound pretty good.
All right, I lied, one more... Maxxhorn speakers didn't impress everyone, but I sure liked them. They require a unique buyer on various levels, but put me down as a definite fan. In this snippet, I'm talking about the Feastrex version, in the 10th floor of the tower.
Daedalus loudspeakers were in two rooms, the smaller of which I judged to be splendid, and the larger of which to be merely good. That Daedalus is a pretty good loudspeaker there.
One of the products I was foaming at the mouth to check out this year was the Emerald Physics. Unfortunately, the model playing while I was there looked to be sporting a more upmarket set of clothes, though it looked like it possibly was running the same hardware. Call me stupid, but I was thrown off enough by the different look that I really wasn't in the mood to evaluate them as I intended.
While I'm on the subject of my own stupidity, it beats me why Lowther America would pair up with a solid state amplifier company, even if the First Watt project is a low power player. Pretty good sound, but I sat there wishing they and Audio Note would recreate the Reese's "you got peanut butter in my chocolate, you got chocolate in my peanut butter" moment.
Vinni Rossi and Red Wine Audio were cursed with one of the worst rooms imaginable at the show, and proved that it's difficult to overcome being dealt such a bad hand. Hope to hear more of the Red Wine stuff under better circumstances.
Last year, through happenstance, I ended up forming a partnership with Lucid Acoustics. Their speakers seemed to be a good match for the amps I brought to the show and vice versa. This year, I was equally impressed with their loudspeakers. Nothing was changed in terms of the product, though it certainly did not need to.
There was an abundance of speakers that dared to be different. Some of them reminded me more of E.T. than anything else, even if their sound was nice enough. One that impressed me both cosmetically and sonically were the horns in Jonathan Weiss' Oswalds Mill room. As a former attendee of the annual Tube Tasting, I am a big fan of Jonathan. I guess the WAF is irrelevant in my situation, as I'd never be able to afford them. I have no idea how much they cost, and I didn't even bother to ask.
The Apogee Divas sounded pretty uninvolving. Not sure it was the nature of the Divas or the fact that they were too much for the room, but the smaller model used last year seemed to be a far better fit.
Heaven knows how the BD horns fit through the doors, and they looked to be far too much speaker for the room they were in. Still, the end result was not as dreadful as one would have predicted. In fact, it was not too bad at all in the quick moment I spent there.
Studio Electric loudspeakers come off a lot larger and more powerful than one would normally expect a loudspeaker of that size to. They definitely punch way above their weight class. I found them pretty commendable on the list of other sonic criteria as well.
Symposium brought their one of a kind loudspeakers again. Definitely a novel exercise. I didn't spend enough time with them this year to really form an opinion, though I found their looks a lot better than their sound last year. That being said, you have to admire their uniqueness and the statement made therein.
Class D amplifiers don't really hold much attraction to me. Personally, I don't believe in many facets of conservation, electricity being number one on my list. I'd rather burn a few more watts and dollars getting sound that makes me happy. That being said, apart from Veloce, Spectron seems to be a Class D product I'd give a second listen to. I doubt I'd ever go as far as considering a purchase, but it's good to know there's a Class D amplifier out there that doesn't immediately have me dismissing it.
Audio legend Frank Van Alstine really was miffed by my comment that the four hundred and some odd dollars his version of the Dynaco ST70 driver board sounded like a lot of money (knowing that I got what many consider a better sounding unit for $125), but his room must have made him proud. With the Salk Sound loudspeakers, the AVA electronics made a good match.
One of the show bargains to me looked like the $3999 Ayon KT88 integrated. Personally, I don't feel push-pull tube amplification is the ideal means to drive a backloaded horn like the Maxxhorn, but each of the products were interesting enough in their own right.
HalfNote Audio's rooms with the Tidal and Xavian loudspeakers offered a lot in terms of sound. I spent a lot more time with the Xavians, and came away more than impressed with the level of performance they offered, especially, at their price points.
One speaker that has always intrigued me were Sigfried Linkwitz's Orions. They won some shootouts and awards, and were designed by one of the more respected people in the industry. Count me as a fan. I have no idea if they mate well with tube amplification, but they get my recommendation for a listen, if possible.
The Krell room on the 5th floor was far better than I expected going in. Then again, with $65K loudspeakers, you hope not to be disappointed. People talk about the importance of rigid loudspeaker cabinets; Krell seemed to have nothing to worry about there.
The Sanders room was again quite good, but for whatever reason, maybe it's just me, I am finding myself wanting for just a bit more romance and emotion in the sound. Likely Roger would take me to task for that. So be it.
Jacob George's Rethm Saadhanas were making particularly nice music. The AMR CD player seems to be worthy of a lot of the hype, though I personally am a bit scared off by the modified Sony laser/transport assembly. If I'm spending 5 digits for digital, you better throw a Philips transport or better in there.
Nice to finally get a chance to hear the Tylers. Ty proved to be a real down to earth, friendly, engaging, honest, and straightforward person. The speakers were also deserving of those adjectives. Combine the two, and it seems obvious how he's now been in business 10 years.
I'm usually a big time Merlin fan to the point of awarding them Best of Show previously. I've decided that there is a definite correlation between the amplification Bobby uses at a show and my opinion of the sound. When he's using the Ars Sonum tube integrated, it's pure heaven. With the Joule Electra, I find the sound a bit too lean. Since the Joule Electras were in play this time, I wasn't as enamored with the sound as I sometimes am for the reason laid out in my last sentence. My advice, definitely buy the Merlins, but save your money on amplifiers by going with a good tube integrated like the Ars Sonum.
I guess I don't need to mention their name, because we all know what "the best loudspeaker on earth, period" is right? Anyway, they were there in two rooms. The larger room downstairs, with larger speakers, was pretty bad. I personally found the more modest room and system upstairs much better. I'll leave my not awarding either a Best of Show, or even being in the running as my comment on whether I agree with the company's assertion of the ranking of their product.
Overall, I'm obviously biased, but it seems like the Chinese invasion of the North American high-end audio scene has to be considered a failure. Yes, the stuff is nice and sounds good enough. But, with prices climbing as high as they already are, and believe me, they're going higher, their ability to sell much of anything is in serious question. Where they do seem to still have the upper hand is in CD players, but as the market turns to other forms of digital playback, as it is fumbling towards, even that position will dry up. I can't understand how the Chinese will survive in this market trying to sell their tube amps at the prices they try today with nice tube integrateds from the likes of Triode Corporation of Japan, but who knows?
Special thanks to Roy Hall for a shot of very nice scotch. As Roy mentioned, he's the bartender of high-end audio shows. Special thanks also to Ralph Karsten and those who put on the best party of the weekend Saturday night. Boy, was that ever fun!
Note to Rives - try smiling once or twice during the weekend. These are the 3 most fun days in audio.
Missing in action: Cayin, Coincident, Jadis, Rogue, Zu.
I know I've missed a few rooms during the weekend and also here in this report, but for now, that's all she wrote...