Or, an Introvert Goes to Denver
I’ve attended a few audio shows in the last 5 years. Okay, that’s not true. I’ve attended a lot of shows in the last 5 years. Every one of them is different in some fundamental way. Every one of them is also the same in other, also fundamental, ways.
The same, but different. I tend to think of them — all of the shows on what I call “the circuit” — as all one thing. A big, geographically challenged, party.
While I’ve managed to make this punctuated jubilee into work, the fact of the matter is that I really enjoy them. Part of it is the energy that they bring to the hobby. I’ve said it before, but it shouldn’t be a stretch to think of “audio shows” as the fourth leg of the stool that audio’s high-end current rests on — with the other three being the rise of high-resolution audio, the resurgence of vinyl, and the explosion in headphone-based audio. Of those four, only the audio show actually brings like-minded players together, both with each other and with the artists that drive the industry forward — and no, I’m not talking about the “recording artists”. Music might be the black hole that our corner of the galaxy spins around, but I’m talking about the designers, the builders, the sellers, the pundits, and the critics and all of the rest of us. The soup that is the audio show is, to my mind, unique. It’s also hilariously fun.
But this year, I realized something about these audio shows. Or rather, I realized something about myself at these shows.
I am terrible at them.
No. Really. While some of you are snarking up your sleeves, I will offer that I’m completely serious. What I realized, about myself, bears directly on why audio shows are important. Why we need them. Why the industry relies on them, but also, could do so much more with them.
It’s not a big thing, really, but it was a bit of a surprise. To me, at least. Turns out, I’m an introvert.
I’d never really thought much about it, or assumed that it would mean anything for how I interact with the world — and just to be randomly specific, how I interact with the audio show world. Guess what? It does. Duh. Hugely. Double-duh. Honestly? I’m baffled I haven’t noticed it before.
Like how I tend not to introduce myself. At all. I kinda creep in. If someone looks like they’re looking at me, I’ll start taking pictures with my giant don’t-talk-to-me camera. Of course, this means I rarely ask questions. Or get names. Or shake hands. I’ll leave my card, sure — but on the way out the door, when the room staff can’t seem to find another sheet listing all the prices on the gear in the room. I practically throw the card at someone and almost dive out the door. This also means I tend not to meet many folks at a show. Or have plans for after-hours, which is a bummer. I’m skipping like a stone across the surface of the show. The bitch of it is that I’m completely unaware that I’m doing anything like this! I’m completely engaged with the task at hand. I’m focused. I’m stressed, but I’m also happy as a friggin’ clam, wrapped up in my head even as I bob and weave and marvel. But engage with people? Not so much. Unless … Unless I’m stopped and talked at. And not once. Repeatedly. Over the course of several shows. Until that person is no longer a blank face in my little mental rolodex. And then, maybe, I’ll linger. Maybe.
But here’s the thing — I like to linger. Hang out. Shoot the bull. I do! But my mind slips past that and automatically comes up with very clever, relevant and pressing reasons to keep moving. To get moving again, if I’ve come to a halt. In short, to bolt. Sitting still is really hard. And I can’t seem to help it. Being with and around people, people I don’t know, and in places I’m unfamiliar with, well … lets just say that it doesn’t exactly relax me.
It’s not that I’m shy. I’m really not. I’m loud. I’m crass. I’ll stand right up and talk to a crowd of one or 1,000 and I totally don’t care. I get buzzed from that. But after spending an hour or two presenting or working with a client (something I do rather regularly in my day job, for example), I just don’t chat when the time is up. The electricity stops flowing and I am out.
Turns out, I’m just terrible at small talk — I can’t seem to make myself do it — I automatically assume you don’t want to, either, so I’m off. It’s like I’m ADD (which I’m not … I don’t think so, anyway). But I am terrible at the little things that other people do in social situations — and now, I’m aware of it. I saw myself doing it. Over and over and over at this year’s RMAF. And I couldn’t seem to help that, either.
I’ve had some intuitions banging around, of course. I’m not an idiot. Saw a few Facebook memes on “How to talk to an introvert” and laughed at how bizarre “those people are.” Then, I stopped. Thought about it. I mean, that’s what introverts do. We examine, turn over, obsesses. Then, I did the uncharacteristic thing — I asked someone else about it.
My wife nearly snorted coffee out of her nose when I suggested that I thought I might be introverted. She pulled herself together, got all moon-eyed and said, totally deadpan, “You think?”
I had thought she was introverted (she is), but that I was the extroverted one. Sharing this led to hysterical laughter, some sputtering, and her calling her sister and a couple of her friends just to laugh at how funny that was. I may not be an idiot, but I’m clearly not winning in the whole “Know Thyself” challenge.
So, I went into RMAF with a bit of an experiment in mind. I just kinda “did my thing” on Friday, but on Sunday, I woke up and stopped myself before I flung forth. I went over my “how to interact with humans” routine. God help me, I practiced small talk (I’m never doing that again). Gah. The whole thing made me itch. But, loins girded, I set forth to do battle with my inner reflexes.
Even now, a month later, there’s a voice in my head telling me how much more efficient I could have been. How many more rooms I could have covered. How I could have prepared more thoroughly. How, next time, I’ll be doing it differently.
I kinda want that voice to STFU. Because I had a ball on Sunday. I met people. I chatted them up. I shook hands. Kissed babies. Encouraged others. I was outgoing. Well. Sort of. On the 10-point scale of “massive introvert” to “massive extrovert”, I might have taken exactly one whole step to the right, but whatever. I felt like I was doing something more. Even if it hurt me. By the end of that day, I fell over and didn’t move until it was time to catch my plane the next morning. But still.
Look at me, Ma! I’m growing.
This isn’t to say “woe is me” … gimme a break. I’m not not wandering even within hailing distance of that. But I am aware of one of the ways I’m interacting with the world around me (or failing to do so). That is, I am now. Wasn’t before. It was all kinda subliminal and now I feel a bit like Schrödinger’s Cat.
Anyway, if I didn’t introduce myself, shake your hand, or seem to take sufficient time to get to know you, your history, or the ins and outs of your story, product, or innovation, please accept my apologies and rest assured that it wasn’t you. Okay, it might have been you, but chance are, it was because I’m not wired that way. Next time, tackle me. I mean, if you want. You don’t have to. But if you shout “INTROVERT” at me as I’m running toward the door, I will probably freeze or look blank, or perhaps even flinch, but that’s okay. I’ll talk, I promise.
Now, all of this is a long way to go to make a point about the audio show thing, generally, and it’s this: I think there are a lot of folks like me in this hobby. Introverts! Unite! Separately, in our own homes!
I think this reflex is exactly why going to an audio show is something you need to do. Even if you’re a holed-up-in-the-man-cave introvert. Even if you’re saying to yourself, “I don’t need to go to something like that to hear gear, or listen to music, or [fill in randomly generated complaint here] — I have all that right here, and without all the fuss and bother of [fill in randomly generated set of potential or imagined irritations here].”
I want you to consider — just consider — the fact that an indelible part of your personality is tricking you into not experiencing something bizarrely magical. That being at an audio show may well be the only time you, the audio enthusiast, are the average. Everyone around you at an audio show shares something with you. All of those strangers are your people.
And if you do — try to step outside of your comfort zone (all I’m asking is for a conscious attempt!) and talk with some of the folks you meet there. They’re fascinating. And there are a lot of them! Do this and you may have the realization that you’re not as weird as you think you are.
And that’s a strange and heady feeling. It helped me. I mean, you’re way weirder than I am.
Each audio show is an opportunity to see and hear something novel, and acknowledging that feels like I’m being a bit head-scratchingly obvious. So, here’s two that stood out for me.
Streaming media is not new and it’s not a fad. According to all manner of recent studies and prognostications, it’s going to eat downloads as a viable market in pretty much the same way that CDs nearly wiped vinyl off the shelves. I will admit that I am a big fan of Pandora and that I loved MOG to pieces. But even with the strengths of those services, neither really sounded terribly good.
As CNet’s Steve Guttenberg would be quick to point out, the format is almost irrelevant if the material is crap. But given that the material isn’t, format becomes incredibly important — and that’s where Tidal HiFi comes in.
Launched at RMAF this year, streaming media just went full-resolution.
Redbook, or CD-quality, streaming has been something of a Bigfoot — the assumption has been that MP3-quality audio was “enough”, and most online services have been built with that delivery in mind. Tidal takes that up a notch. A big notch. CD-quality can be a radically better experience.
It’s not the first to do it, of course. It probably won’t be the last. But for $20 a month, I get access to a huge catalog of music and I can get it streamed, on demand, right into my Hi-Fi rig. And it sounds good. That, my friends, is a first.
Ultimate Ears 3-D printing
The problem with custom in-ear monitors, over their more common universal versions, is that they’re difficult to make. Which means delays. Anything that speeds up that process, and also improves the fit, is an unqualified win.
Ultimate Ears is addressing that with 3-D printing.
Impressions can be taken and immediately scanned. The digital renderings sent on for construction. The 3-D printer does that flawlessly. And they’re out the door. They whole process is very new, so they’re inspecting the daylights out of it just to ensure that the process is as reliable as they think it is.
I received a pair of UE Reference Monitors in two weeks, and ⅓ of that was due to UPS. I’ve been told that, once the process gets the full green light, UE is aiming for a total turnaround time of less than 1 week.
3-D printing, FTW.
Of all the nifty things down in CanJam this year, it was the stack of high-res micro-SD cards holding the entire Blue Note library that had me wringing my hands, mumbling to myself, and actively scheming.
Apparently, this library comes loaded on the Astell&Kern AK240 Blue Note Edition.
I want it. I want it all. With a most powerful wanting kind of wantingness of Want.
It may be silly, but the ability to eat and eat well without having to get a ride from a cabbie or an Uber driver is a huge improvement to the overall show-experience. I never want to leave a show — I barely have enough time as it is, and taking 2 hours to sneak in a reasonably enjoyable meal doesn’t seem wise or viable. Rolling in a set of non-staurants for an awesome grab-and-go experience was the single best improvement to RMAF this year.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Based on the media response to marijuana legalization in Colorado, I was expecting the Marriott to have converted into an Amsterdam “coffee-house”, with slumped forms of burnouts face down in mountains of weed, pretty much everywhere you looked.
I was disappointed.
In fact, I didn’t see a single bong. Or a even a lonely doobie — much less “mountains of weed”. I’m sure there were partakers, but wherever they were, they were discreet and out of sight.
All in all, the lack of obvious “drug culture” on display was something of a let down. Damn you, FOX News!
The liquor and cigars, however, were on full display.
Sometimes, you just have to make do.
This was a tough year to pick winners at because a lot of players brought their “A-Game”, and that’s a win all around. That said, it’s worth taking a moment to single out those demos that I found particularly compelling.
Whether it was the gear or the incredible skill of the set up team, doesn’t really matter.
These rooms “did it” for me this year.
Sandy Gross is a legend in high-end audio and for good reasons. But while you might catch a glimpse of Sandy at some of the regional shows, chances are low to actually catching him showing off gear. RMAF this year was different — and that was a very good thing.
The new Triton One from GoldenEar is a monster. It’s tall, it soundstages like a cranked up demon, and whenever needed, will reach down into the abyss for your bass response. For $5k/pair, this is the best value I know of when it comes to high-end loudspeakers. Absolutely astounding.
Endeavor Audio, with YFS and Constellation Audio
Leif Swanson of Endeavor Audio is not a newcomer to audio’s high-end. He’s been building speakers for decades, having graduated some years ago from VSA. His E-3 loudspeakers that I heard early this year remain one of the front-runners for “Best of 2014”, but what he brought to RMAF this year was nothing short of a monster. Tall and slender, the new E-5 was a stunner.
The other half of the story came from Your Final System and Constellation Audio. Together, the triumvirate proved devastatingly effective here at RMAF.
Playing quality music on such a system is not only a joyous exploration of what the SOTA has to offer, but a clear statement of what the new players can bring.
Keep an eye out for these guys.
Zesto Audio, with WyWires and TAD
George and Carolyn Counnas of Zesto Audio have ever right to be giddy. Their electronics have been universally praised in the press, and their show demos have been wickedly enjoyable. Their analog-only formula, with partners TAD and WyWires, seems to leverage the best of all of the designs and I am completely convinced — this is game-ending gear.
At RMAF, we got to see the new Andros 1.2 phono stage, which has seen significant internal tweakery and taken the products in whole new directions. The new formulation of the WyWires cabling has seen a similar evolution, and the newest “Diamond” formula is the best yet to come from them. Combined with the crushingly transparent TAD loudspeakers, everything in the recording was laid out for inspection. But instead of a dissection, I was treated to a sonic feast. This was the best I’ve heard this gear sound and it was one of the most thrilling at the show.
Viva HiFi, with Daedalus, ModWright, Skogrand
What a difference a few weeks makes!
The last time I heard the Daedalus Audio Muse loudspeakers, I was very impressed. Hearing them here, at RMAF, it was as if an already great loudspeaker had been completely transformed. Yes, that’s hyperbole, but in this case, there really is no other way to capture the delta between the two presentations. I was not prepared!
Shown with ModWright electronics and cabling from Skogrand, this not-inexpensive system beat the snot out of systems ten times the price.
Synergy. It’s whats for dinner.
If I had to vote, today, for the most impressive loudspeaker at RMAF, I’d probably have a kitten. I can’t do it. Several of them completely unzipped my head and stuffed awesome inside — the question would quickly devolve to “what can I afford” and “what can I pair them with” and “where would they go”.
But I’ll offer this — the new Gibbon X from DeVore Fidelity is, in my opinion, the best thing designer John DeVore has done to date.
To be fair, it’s been a long time coming. I first heard this speaker over a year ago at CES, and while the current speaker bears resemblance more in intent than in actual execution, the result is so good I don’t really care. If I was starting over, I’d buy them in a heartbeat. In fact, they’re good enough to make me reconsider my reconsideration.
Love. Love. Love.
Walking in to see Legacy Audio’s Bill Dudleston this year, I knew he’d have something interesting to show. I mean, he’s been muttering under his breath for the last couple of months about his new speaker.
Face to face with the reality, however, was quite another thing than merely “surprised”.
This was one of the first rooms I walked into at RMAF, and the immediate impression — of huge sound — stayed with me the entire weekend, spoiling me completely for many of the rooms that followed.
It’s really hard to distill the new V into something concise, but this is another case of an expert designer at the very top of not only his game, but of the industry as a whole. This is game-changing sound. It was insane.
The challenge of an audio system — to successfully get the listener to suspend disbelief — is usually contingent on the illusion being suspended in front of them. To recreate, in real-time and local space, the performance. The V takes that idea, and turns it on its head — it took me to the performance. And to borrow a phrase — that, my friends, is audio winning.
High Water Sound
With all of these spectacular audio visions to immerse yourself in, it’s hard to choose a winner, so I won’t bother. But if I had to point at the system that caused me to completely loose my composure and undo an entire year’s worth of projected spending, it was the High Water Sound room.
Jeff Catalano’s room, once again, featured Hørning Hybrid loudspeakers, this time driven by 3 watt amps from TW Acustic. Tron and TW shared the rack, with fancy cables from Zen Sati, power conditioning from Silver Circle, isolation from SRA, and the whole thing cost more than a little.
But the sound … oh. Oh. Oh, my.
To me, this was what “it” was “all about”, and I lost myself for a very pleasant half-hour. I’ve been circling Jeff’s sonic aesthetic for years now, but I think I’m pretty much done at this point. Jeff is my hero.
And that’s a wrap. More or less.
There’s a few more to come from the various and sundry, but I’m done with my coverage of the 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.
I want to thank Marjorie Baumert for her kindness, her assistance, and for just being awesome. RMAF is what it is because of her, and she’s an absolute treasure.
I want to thank Warren Chi of Audio360 for his help getting me ready for the show and for his assistance with all the graphic work to launch The Audio Traveler in time to carry all the RMAF coverage.
Thanks to Mal, Kirsten, Darryl and John for their help carrying the lantern and for contributing to the show coverage.
And so it goes.
Here it is, your Moment of Zen.