RMAF 2013: This is the End
Wow. What a show!
Before anything else, a doff of the cap to the fine folks that put this paroxysm of audio joy together. Marjorie, what a way to celebrate 10 years!
In case you missed it, this year, RMAF had over 160 rooms stuffed full of gear. That is … a lot. A lot to see. A lot to hear. A lot to learn about, visit with, catch up on, and try and open a window onto.
It is, quite simply, pretty much impossible to do. Such is life. I did what I could, went where I had time to go, and generally had a ball. A ball, I tell you. It’s been a month, and I’m still reeling.
All in all? This was easily my favorite RMAF yet. It was huge, yes. CanJam was a happy zoo. Sound quality was way up. People were clearly having a great time.
RMAF did feel full on Friday. Lots of attendees and long lines for sign up. That was good. By Sunday, most of the crowds had evaporated. That wasn’t not so good. Kind of a typical attendance-pattern, actually, and one that kinda speaks for some kind of altered schedule. Of course, being in Denver on a Sunday during NFL season when the Broncos were at home and generally kicking ass probably didn’t help anything, either. Oh well.
I heard that the attendance numbers were actually up from last year. That’s good news. I also heard that CanJam was disproportionately well-attended — the crowds in the big headphone expo area were consistently high, dropping only slightly on Sunday. This was good and bad — and outright perplexing to the demo rooms up stairs that only saw light traffic throughout. On the other hand, I also heard anecdotally that the top of the Tower saw “good traffic” all weekend, so perhaps there were some natural traffic patterns at work, too. Honestly, this is all beyond me, but attendance is the secret sauce. The first audio show to figure out a formula for an attendance bonanza is gonna get rich.
I’ve suggested in the past, to anyone who’d listen, that the larger audio shows (anything over 80 rooms) would really benefit from “an extra day.” Something that’d make it easier for folks with weekend-plans to work around. Might help? Maybe a Thursday-Sunday schedule with one of those bookending days a “special invite day” for customers, dealers, press, whomever. As it was, given the pressure for time, any room running a closed-door “scheduled demo” earned an instant do-not-return penalty flag. It just couldn’t be helped.
Knowing the sheer scope of what I was heading into, I very cleverly arranged (in advance, even!) for some pros to help out — thanks again, Mal and Kirsten! But even the three of us couldn’t hit the entire event. Sure, we did what we could — but to those of you we missed, you have my profound apologies. It wasn’t for lack of love or desire. We love you all … but maybe you could pass along that “extra day” idea? Ahem.
Lemme break it down for you. There’s about 22 hours worth of “show time” at RMAF — a half-day on Friday and longer days on Saturday and Sunday. Seems like “enough” but you have to actually travel — between rooms, demo areas, and even between floors. And don’t forget jockeying for the “sweet spot”. Be generous and call that 4 minutes of “transition time” to get through, to, and situated in a new room. At 160 rooms, that’s 640 minutes of transition time. Which leaves about 4 minutes of actual look and listen time — per room. And too bad about CanJam and the Marketplace or any of the lectures, special events, or live music. But add another day and that available in-room time doubles. Just a suggestion!
Anyway, this now concludes the RMAF 2013 coverage. Hope you liked it. What follows is a bit of a recap, some highlights, and of course, the blooper reel.
Hope to see you all in Denver next year.
This was a very tight event, with a good space, plenty of room to stretch out, and enough vendors to fill up all the major nooks and crannies. Just guessing, but I bet the organizers can probably stuff another dozen booths in there without feeling the pinch, but after that, well, maybe we could start building scaffolding or something. I mean, it was a very tall room, so why not? Ha!
If I were in a confessional kind of mood, I’d have to say that this was the audio show that firmly turned me around on head-fi. I heard some things at CanJam this year that were figurative leaps beyond what my experience with headphones to date had prepared me for, and I want more of that. The energy, the curiosity, and the overall feel of this crowd is also utterly at odds with what was going on elsewhere in the Marriott, and had there been the time, I could easily have spent the bulk of my time wandering the tables here, listening, chatting, and learning.
Note to self: apparently no one likes it when you sit slumped in a demo chair for an hour or so with drool coming out of the side of your mouth, completely unmoving, except for the occasional violent twitch. Apologies to all concerned.
Some of the things that really turned my head at CanJam this year? That little Schiit, the upcoming Vali. I cannot get over how good that little guy sounded. At $120, this has “box store” written all over it — hope the boys are ready for mad volume. That performance, at that price, was just sick. An early, and easy, Best In Show contender.
Sony wowed me with their new PHA-2 DSD-capable head-amp/DAC. The bells and whistles in this doodad are impressive, but it was the luscious sound that blew my doors off. I want one. Badly. I’d call that a winner! Another Best In Show contender.
Some honorable mentions include the crazy ALO Island. Beautiful styling and a nuanced sound. I have one here and will be writing more about this gem post-haste. Auralic’s new Gemini is hot — leveraging Auralic‘s superlative technology and marrying that to a tasty treat of a headphone stand was a devastatingly great idea. With some luck, one of those will also fall into my gaping maw at some point, so stay tuned there. Other things that caught my ear were the Alpha Dogs from Mr Speakers (I ordered a pair), some sweet custom in-ear monitors from Ultimate Ears (my at-show order showed up this past week!), and a pair of stunning masterworks from JH Audio, their new Roxannes (review pair will be showing up next month). I can’t tell you how psyched I am to move into the custom in-ear space.
With a nod to the big daddies, I have to say that I’m completely thrilled with what looks to be some of the most exciting new headphones to hit the market in … um … a while … are the LCD-X/LCD-XC from Audeze and the many-time more expensive biker-chic Abyss headphones. I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll get some more personal time with both, but all I can say is that this is a terrific time to be looking at personal audio.
Which brings up another point. I am by no means the only hi-fi’er getting interested in head-fi. The Abyss, my personal vote for Best In Show at RMAF this year, is the first headphone I’ve ever been able to spend time with that actually made me seriously reconsider whether or not I needed loudspeakers. That’s revolutionary-style thinking, kids, and I don’t offer it lightly. But here’s my bet — this is only the first salvo in what will become a fusillade of absolutely insane products that head-fi’ers are going to be either thrilled with or scratching their collective heads at. With hi-fi’ers looking for more ways to make ends meet, head-fi looks like a wide-open “greenfield”, replete with players that are old and established and complacent — and ready for some disruption. JPS bringing the Abyss is just the start — I’d lay dollars against donuts that we’ll see our first “mainstream” $10,000 headphone in the next year. And the first “serious” $20,000 headphone amp around the same time. Will this be a Renaissance for hi-fi? Or a new Dark Age for head-fi?
So, back to the Big Show — there were a lot of rooms that really turned my crank. Interestingly, a lot of them happened really early on, up in the Tower.
I was thrilled by what I heard coming out of the big Volti Audio Vittora loudspeakers, here paired with the brand-new uber-amps from Border Patrol. 8 watts have never sounded so insanely powerful, controlled, and top-to-bottom cohesive. Just wow. This was one of the first rooms I went into and the bar it set was never topped — my second Best in Show vote.
Continuing in the low-power trend, both rooms from High Water Sound made incredible impressions — the giant Liszt horns from Cessaro driven by Tron and the “little” Aristotles from Hørning driven by Puresound gear. Both were incredibly moving and terrifically memorable.
On the other end of the techno-spectrum was a tour-de-force room fronted by the Joseph Audio Pearl 3. Driven by Jeff Rowland electronics and fronted by the new Classic Direct from VPI, my outright lust was unseemly. I just love how hog-wild VPI went with this mag-lev turntable, and here paired with a cactus-cantilevered cartridge from Sound-Smith, the sound was just to-die-for. Me me me me! An easy, effortless, Best In Show contender.
I don’t want to be too redundant with what I’ve already offered over at The Absolute Sound, so I’ll probably leave this, there.
Some Honorable Mentions go out to Ayre and Roksan for putting together destinations and not just demos. Stunning work — and oh-so-welcome oases in the middle of the sonic desert. Please, please, please — I would love to see more rooms like this.
And last but not least — a shout-out to Positive Feedback and the evil genius putting out the gourmet coffee. Talk about oasis. Wow. For me, those cups were absolute lifesavers — and just smashingly delicious. Well done!
Best In Show
The Abyss headphones, paired with Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold and Da Vinci DAC from Light Harmonic. An incredible headphone with equally incredible amplification and source. This is a high water mark in head-fi and, I hope, a harbinger of good things to come.
BorderPatrol S20 with upgraded EXS power supplies, paired with Volti Audio Vittora loudspeakers. I’m intimately familiar with both these amps and speakers, but these new EXS power supplies have revolutionized my expectations of what an SET can do. I’ve never heard a 300b sound this good!
- Schiit Vali
- Sony PHA-2
- ALO Audio The Island
- Auralic Gemini 2000
- Alpha Dogs by Mr Speakers
- Audeze LCD-X & LCD-XC headphones
- High Water Sound “Big Room” with Cessaro Liszt and Tron
- High Water Sound “Little Room” with Hørning Aristotles and Pure Sound
- Joseph Audio Pearl 3 with Jeff Rowland and VPI Classic Direct
- Vaughn Loudspeakers Triode/Plasma
- Trenner & Friedl Pharoah loudspeakers
- Odyssey Audio
Sadly, I wasn’t able to visit every room, and for many of those, I wasn’t able to do much more than take a few pictures. So, here’s some of those images that I did capture — and a few other things, just for good measure.