Every year, I plan to wrap RMAF coverage up early. Every year, it goes later and later.
It’s because I’m cursed.
But this year, we were able to pile it pretty high and deep. 90 (nine-zero) show reports is a sh*t ton of words and photos. Many thanks to Noble Audio for making the coverage happen. Thanks to Rafe Arnott, Lee Scoggins, John Stancavage, and Darryl Lindberg for pitching in. And special thanks to Marjorie Baumert and team for running a great show.
For me, RMAF is special. It was my first “big show”, and it opened my eyes to a world that I hadn’t really explored before. Yes, I had been “into audio” for some time, but it was RMAF where I was first able to peer around the corner and meet the magicians themselves, instead of just bearing witness to the magic they made. That experience lent depth and color to the photo I had in my head of what this “industry” was, and in many ways, helped me understand that this industry — like many “cottage industries” — is built by and run for passionate individuals. People, in other words, doing what they love. That is magnetic.
I don’t want to make too much of it, because I’m not saying that it has to be this way or that it should be this way or that you’re somehow less for not indulging, BUT — all of this really gelled after the day was over. When everyone retired to the bar or a restaurant and the tasty adult beverages were passed around. When the stories were told. When we shared. And laughed. And gesticulated wildly. Someone would tell a whopper and someone else would call BS. More laughter. More beverages. Food, sometimes. It was a party. And somewhere, over beer or wine or whiskey, it all became real. We bonded. Created, if you will, our tribe. I was hooked.
I’ve had this discussion with John Atkinson at Stereophile, several times, about the “audio show circuit” as being the “fourth leg” of the stool propping up high-end audio (the other three being headphones, vinyl and high-resolution audio). I suppose he understands where I’m coming from, but it’s hard to articulate the real value there. It’s not a product. It’s not a marketing trend. It’s an event, a coming together, a participation that’s fundamentally different from the gear yet utterly instrumental to the enjoyment of the musical act. Music, like most emotional experiences, is best shared. And no, that’s not just me, you can Google that.
I keep harping on this particular theme because I believe in it. Growth, to my mind, can be the only result from evangelism, and this big-tent revivalist series of events is custom tailored to deliver. Assuming we can connect the message with those that want and need to hear it.
Obviously, there are challenges. Elitism. Unapologetic commercialism. Fear. But these are challenges. They’re not insurmountable. I have confidence that someone will figure the formula out and these shows will become the fixtures that they ought to be.
In the meantime, there’s still the party. And that’s not nothin’. I ate hugely, drank voluminously, was loud and brash and joyous.
In short, I had a helluva time. Maybe we’ll see you there, next time.
Personal Audio and CanJam
CanJam is a thing apart. Unfortunately. Honestly, I think having “them” all stuffed into a single room way off the beaten path is a logistical mistake that breaks the continuity of the show experience and does a disservice to the attendees. It’s just too easy to miss, or conversely, too easy to get lost in and then miss everything else.
Look, I “get” the thing that the Head-Fi organizers are trying to do: establish a brand that has independent value. I even appreciate the attempt. To be fair, that’s how they’re going to make money — and there seems to be a lot of money to be made. At the far end of the Spectrum of Bad Ideas, CanJam could just wander off and host a competing show. I think that’s what they’re probably angling for, honestly, as there’s a whole lot more money in it for the organizers (at least in the short-term) if they’re the whole enchilada. To be blunt, this would be a mistake — I just think it’s too late for that.
Personal audio, at least, the personal audio vendors that show up at CanJam shows, is increasingly not mainstream commercial. Apple, with Beats, for example, wouldn’t bother to show. And even if they do show up, who cares? The attendees that flood the rooms at a show are looking for tables with all the odds-and-ends that the mainstream high-volume/low-margin vendors could care less about. And who’s making that stuff? More and more, it’s not “pure” personal audio vendors. CanJam, like it or lump it, is becoming more and more audiophile — that is, expensive. Quite frankly, this is the “growth engine” for this segment, and it’s nothing to be scared of. And given that, if personal audio vendors are looking to expand beyond their first-try offerings, or break out with something they can actually make money on, and/or get access to a big-spending customer base, well, guess who’s heading to an audio show (as opposed to “just” a CanJam) in the first place?
This means that having personal audio “off to the side” is kind of pointless.
Bring ’em into the mix, says I. If you absolutely must have some kind of themed continuity, which I think is completely unnecessary, devote one floor (or even two) to all things personal audio. Let the vendors stake out tables in a room. Run those floors like every other floor. I guarantee traffic flow will be better.
Best in Show
This year, I asked the team to pick out a few things to highlight from their grab-bag of experiences. Interestingly, everyone had a different take on what they liked best — which is why I put them out differentially (if more follow, I’ll put them out too).
So, buckle up, buttercup. Here are my picks for Best In Show.
Best New Product
For me, this was a no-brainer.
Andrew Jones’ demo of his new F5 floor standing loudspeakers from the ELAC Debut Series was far better than the $580/pair price tag suggested. Far better than I expected. Far better, I fear, than many other (far more expensive) loudspeaker manufacturers had expected.
I’m going to shy away from terms like “game changer” and “disruptive”, but the fact that I’m flipping them around says something.
Affordable Audio doesn’t have to be horrible disease. I think we all need to be reminded of that, occasionally, and who better to grind our faces into that particular meringue pie than the wise-cracking Andrew Jones?
Winner winner, chicken dinner.
Best in Personal Audio
There was a lot of nifty gear littering the tables in CanJam this year, but very little of it stood out and barked for attention, if you know what I mean.
Audeze launched a $4k flagship headphone, which sounded remarkable. Austell&Kern showed their portable-audio dominance with their $3,500 AK380 player. Fostex showed that just because it’s “personal” doesn’t mean a headphone amplifier should not be awesome. Cavalli Audio went fully portable. Woo Audio’s massive 300b-based flagship was an epic match for MrSpeakers’ epic new Ether headphone.
But for me, it was HiFiMAN teasing a less-expensive version of their genre-crushing flagship that caught my imagination and eye. The HE-1000 headphone is a candidate for Product of the Year, and if they can retain that sonic signature and deliver it in a wrapper that’s ⅔ the price, that would be amazing. Fingers crossed.
For me, this was a toss-up as there were three rooms that I hit that, for whatever reason, completely erased the fact that I was hearing reproduced sound in a hotel room. They were, in order of occurrence: Odyssey Audio, Vinnie Rossi with Harbeth et al, and Volti/BorderPatrol et al.
Klaus Bunge’s Odyssey demo is always good, and often amazeballs. This demo at RMAF, with a new VPI Avenger turntable at the top of the in-house-made audio rack, was definitely of the latter sort. The new, big Odyssey speakers, set far apart, with quality (but not horrifically expensive) equipment in between, wove a tapestry of sound that was dimensionally stupefying. I could not believe what I was hearing. An out of body experience; my first at RMAF this year.
Vinnie Rossi‘s new amazingly customizable LIO system driving Harbeth‘s newest masterpiece, the big 40.2, wired with Tellurium Q cables and a suite of hidden tweaks (including Stein Music’s Harmonizer system, if I recall correctly) and an Acoustic Signature turntable up top, produced a sound stage that was akin to stepping into a Star Trek transporter room. Such big speakers, playing ever so gracefully, and all in the near near-field. I was rocked back on my heels with the thought that this setup, this exact setup, I could have in my home — even in my wildly suboptimal “listening room”. That thought was breathtaking. I mean that literally. I was hyperventilating at the end of that demo.
Last, but not least, was the Volti Audio Vittora demo, powered by the stunning (and familiar) BorderPatrol S20 EXS integrated amplifier and wired up with cables from Triode Wire Labs. This room, set up rather typically-for-them/atypically-for-everyone-else along the long-wall of the room, pulled the big horn speakers way apart and toed them in for a surprisingly narrow sweet spot. Ensconced, I nearly lost my head. The bass precision and sheer explosiveness nearly gave me an aneurism. Holy sh*tballs.
Of the three, however, the most unexpected was Vinnie Rossi’s room, so that’s where the nod goes this year.
This category is a bit of an exercise in suspension-of-disbelief, because it entails an “if cost was not an issue” clause, but the hope is to capture the widget I most wanted to take home with me, following the show.
There were, as usual, several that I got all hot-and-bothered for.
I am very tempted to finagle a way into a pair of Harbeth 40.2 loudspeakers. For me, that room was magical. Paired with the new Vinnie Rossi separates, I was gobsmacked, and several times in the weeks following, I’ve been tempted into doing something horribly rash.
Then there are the Volti Audio Vittoras. I love those speakers! Insert a big, sappy, slack-jawed sigh, here. This isn’t a new problem, however. I’ve been
drooling over eyeing them for years. I just wish I could shoe-horn them into my house in a way that won’t have me “needing” to build a special room for them.
But let’s be wack-a-doo for a moment. Did you all see the Stromtank? Holy cow! Now that is a power conditioner!
And there’s the GamuT stereo amplifiers, or their lust-inducing RS7 loudspeakers for that matter. Take your pick. Big money, big sound, and oh my that sound ….
But that which I most wanted to walk away with, following RMAF, well, that was something else. Somethings else, actually, as there were two. Two that had me actively (as in, “sitting down with pen and a napkin” over one hurried lunch) creating a list of things I could sell in order to afford them. The first, sadly, will remain out of reach of even the most fevered scramblings, but boy do I wish things were otherwise. Because if they were, I’d have me a Saskia II turntable.
That turntable is cray-cray and at $54k, that’s probably to be expected. A slate plinth that weighs considerably more than I do is only the beginning, however, of the madness that is this turntable. But oh what delicious madness it is. Insert longing sigh, here.
The second, which seems almost absurdly affordable by contrast, was the new DeVore Fidelity Gibbon X loudspeakers. That room, shared with some exciting new electronics from Spec Corp of Japan, was easy-going and entirely engrossing.
I’ve been watching these speakers grow up for several years now, and each iteration has proved more seductive than the last. The impedance curve is beguilingly easy and tempting to my low-output tube fetishism, with a deep-bass performance that exudes quite confidence towards the wide-ranging taste in music I’m liable to throw at them.
And they’re made (relatively) locally, up in Brooklyn, NY.
With luck, I’ll get a crack at them this Spring as John DeVore has indicated that “it’s within the realm of possibility”. I’m paraphrasing, as he mentioned that after a very long night of whimpering and longing stares. Yep, that’s me. Labrador-level patheticism!
Whatever works, kids. And ss to whether or not they actually leave chez moi after that extremely extended, protracted, and thorough review period … well, that remains to be seen. Heh heh.
Very entertaining read. Succinct writing: love it. Overall, show coverage here is in a higher league (of retaining my attention) than all but one other publication. Thanks for your work!☺