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RMAF 2014: You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here

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Logo - Blue VectorYou’d think that attending so many audio shows so very, very regularly would start to do some pretty serious damage to anyone’s enthusiasm. How exciting can it be to repeatedly trudge through crowded hallways for a weekend just to sit in front of a hundred or so stereos? How many speakers can you stand to photograph before you start thinking about subcontracting to a police sketch artist? How much novelty can there really be? How much beer can one man drink?

You’d be on to something. The routine quickly gets tiresome. Except for the batteries in my flashgun trying to catch fire while taking pictures, the process of covering a show for The Audio Traveler or Part Time Audiophile can be fairly tedious. That’s why we changed up our process this year.

With five writers broken out into four groups, we split our coverage on geographic lines. Scot Hull took the tower rooms. Kirsten and I hit the Atrium as a team. John Stancavage listened to the big systems in the big rooms downstairs. Darryl Lindberg wandered everywhere and gave us a broad perspective. Meanwhile, our good friend and associate Brian Hunter of Audio-Head.com took over most of the CanJam coverage for his site, relieving our five folks of the burden of covering so many more dozens of exhibits.

Even with that duty roster, we argued about what needed coverage. The scale of RMAF is such that we quickly abandoned any hope of a comprehensive survey. That left only two basic rules.

  • First: If you write about something, you should either like it or hate it. If you couldn’t be moved enough by what you heard to have an immediate emotional reaction, it didn’t need to be covered.
  • Second: If anything surprised you, you had to write about it.

Given those rules, the biggest surprise of the show is how close to comprehensive our coverage turned out to be. We found something to say about fully half of the exhibits we experienced. Rather than giving us a weekend filled with some sense of been-there-done-that boredom, the exhibitors at RMAF managed to move us and surprise us every few minutes.

That’s really something when you think about it. In fact, it’s downright spectacular.

It’s also the reason why I hate the idea of a “Best in Show.” When so many people work so hard, when so many of them manage to cut through what could be a terrible slog with great music and constant amazement, it’s difficult — if not outright dishonest — to claim that one, single setup at one, single moment was a star.

There were stars, though, and some of them deserve a specific mention.

George and Carolyn Counnas of Zesto Audio had some Basie ready when we dropped by on Sunday morning. They couldn’t have picked a better record to show off just how much more energetic their new Andros 1.2 phonostage is compared to the previous model. I’ve always felt that the previous model was just a smidge too laid back for my taste. The new baby doesn’t have that problem. The music leapt out of their system as though it had finally had a big enough cup of coffee. It’s a huge step forward for Zesto, and it elevates their phono stage from a “completely solid” ranking in my mind to “holy crap this is good.”

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Schiit’s upcoming Yggdrasil DAC provoked a similar response. Schiit’s been working on common sense affordability for so long that it’s easy to forget that Mike Moffat is a legitimately crazy person with extraordinary engineering chops. A brief audition of the Yggdrasil left me desperate to get a review sample. Unless the production version is significantly worse, this is likely to be a solidly reference-grade PCM DAC. At its projected price point, the Yggdrasil is shaping up to be the giant slayer.

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Kirsten has written more than a few words about Charles King’s tape demos. I’d like to echo her sentiments. Mr. King’s tapes played through the Audio Note system simply brought more music to the table than anything else I heard that weekend. I want to thank Mr. King and Audio Note’s David Cope for being considerate enough, at least, to hold these demonstrations after hours. It would be simply impossible to hear that sound and then go into some other rooms without feeling an overwhelming sense of loss. There would be no way to listen fairly. That sound comes very close to being the Holy Grail wrapped in a Golden Fleece. If you ever have the chance to experience it, you’d be a fool to do anything else.

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Speaking of after hours… I have to mention that Zu and Peachtree threw an open-door party, with loud music, buckets of free beer, and plenty of dancing on all sorts of furniture. I spent the bulk of Saturday night in a blissful haze. Sometime after three in the morning, I found myself sitting on the couch, scrounging through back records with the die-hards, and thinking, “I f***ing love this music.” If there’s anything more joyfully representative of this hobby than staying up too late because you’re listening to music, I’m not sure that I want to know about it.

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And so another audio show is in the bag. You might think that attending so very many audio shows so very, very regularly would be so very, very boring. It turns out that nothing could be further from the truth. I’m already looking forward to the next one.

I hope I’ll see you there.

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