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RMAF 2016: Preamble to my RMAF amble

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Setting up the day before the opening.

By Darryl Lindberg

Another year, another Rocky Mountain Audio Festival.  I’ve been to every RMAF and always found its friendly, low-key atmosphere makes for a pleasant experience.  And this year was no different.  However, while there was the usual bonhomie in full measure, the Marriott Tech Center Hotel was in a fair degree of disarray due to a delay in completing the refurbishing of the atrium section, where about half (or more) of the exhibitors had their setups in the past.  That meant some annual attendees didn’t get their usual allotted space—and some, sadly, opted out—while events that had been in the atrium in past years were relegated to tents and industrial mini-buildings.  It’s a tribute to Marjorie Baumert and all the folks who work so hard to make each year’s RMAF a success that this year’s show managed to come off without any hitches—at least any hitches that were noticeable to this old campaigner.  And, luckily, the construction didn’t appear to affect the attendance, which seemed to be about the same as previous shows.

This RMAF also turned out to be a bit challenging for me because I’d just returned from a month of hiking and generally annoying the locals in Europe, only to make the five hour drive from Santa Fe up to Denver the very next day.  So I was still a bit ragged when I arrived on Thursday.  But my undying commitment to PTA knows no bounds:  I’d told Scot I’d do my best to make it and I figured that any contributions I could make, however pathetic, would be welcomed—or at least tolerated.

As usual, a well-managed Day One.

20161007_103537But on with the show.  As usual, my comments reflect what I heard of a system’s sound, rather than attempt to attribute that sound to a particular component or subset of component, unless there’s an undeniably obvious prime suspect.   Why?  Well, let’s be honest:  it’s the system that produces the sound.  So many show reports I’ve read will attribute the quality of a room’s sound to a specific component or even a specific part, “. . . it was clear that the Lemming Signature cartridge’s new depleted uranium cantilever made a phenomenal difference!”  Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but not that much.  What I find troubling about such commentary is that the systems—and, importantly, the rooms—in which the putative wunder-gear are typically ensconced, even those featuring components individually familiar, are usually combined in unfamiliar ways.  It’s one thing to plant a component in your own system, a system you know intimately, and determine its effect; it’s quite another to determine the relative impact of a component in a system and room that’s unfamiliar—especially this year in the newly remodeled Marriott tower rooms.  Of course, the sonic effect of some sort component change/reconfiguration within the context of an exhibitor’s system is another story, in which case there’s a before and after comparison to be made.

20161007_110458And when I describe the sound I heard, it’s almost always the result of more than one visit.  You see, I always stay for the full three days, so I usually get a chance to revisit rooms that, early on, may not have stimulated the old audio organs as much as I’d hoped they would.  I’ve found more than a few times that a room that sounded so-so on Friday was sonically spectacular on Sunday.  Maybe a component wasn’t totally broken in—or broken—or the speakers’ position needed tweaking or some other audio gremlins required exorcism.  I’m always inclined to give the exhibitors the benefit of the doubt, because I believe that no one wants to have bad to mediocre sound at an audio show.  Doh!  Maybe I’m naïve, but I like it that way.

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RMAF 2016 coverage courtesy of Noble Audio

Music-wise, I noticed fewer mega-decibel demos (thankfully!) this year and more of what I’ll call easy listening audio fluff:  very well-recorded and generally vapid fare that certainly highlights a system’s capabilities, but sure wouldn’t be my choice for personal listening.  However, as always, I brought along a few of my own LPs so I could hear what a system could do with stuff I actually know and listen to (what a concept!).

The Voice That Is

I’ll start out with a room occupied by The Voice That Is and presided over by the ever-gracious Doug White.  And it was a honey:  really excellent sound from a “room appropriate” set up.  The system I heard consisted of the Kuzma Stabi M turntable ($19.2K), 4Point tonearm ($6.7K), and Car-40 cartridge ($2.9K), connected to a Zanden 120 phono equalizer ($7.5K) and Zanden 6000 integrated amp ($23K); the sound emerged from an absolutely beautiful pair of Tidal Piano Diacera G2 speakers ($42.9K).  The sound was natural and, for lack of a better term, organic.  It was also dynamic, yet relaxed, with outstanding sound staging and tonal accuracy.  It sounded as good on unfamiliar material as it did on my own LPs.

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And speaking of my LPs, certainly the most ear-opening demonstration I had at this year’s RMAF came courtesy of Zanden’s U.S. Eric Pheils when he demonstrated the difference between the Zanden 120’s various equalization curves on my LPs.  First, we played a cut (Scheidt-Psalm 103) from “Voices and Brass” (Argo ZRG 576; oval label), which features a full instrumental complement along with the magnificent Purcell Chorus of Voices.  We listened a bit with standard RIAA equalization—the EQ I would have assumed to be the used for this 1969 recording—then changed to the Decca curve.  The improvement in the sound was amazing.  Just as spectacular—and even more curious—was the change wrought on the Spring movement of Respighi’s Three Botticelli Pictures on EMI (ASD 3327).  20161015_101838This cut features a great deal of delicate, low-level information as well as some full-on orchestral romps.  When Eric switched the Zanden 120 from RIAA to the unit’s EMI curve, everything became noticeably more realistic.  Now this record was released in 1977, long after the RIAA curve was supposedly the industry standard.

I used to be skeptical of folks who claimed the RIAA curve wasn’t uniformly adopted by record companies, but not anymore!  There’s one word in my notes that is the most accurate and appropriate summation of my reaction to this demonstration:  “wow.”  You can bet that I’ll be keeping Zanden on my radar.

Get your Occasional now

4 Comments on RMAF 2016: Preamble to my RMAF amble

  1. James Romeyn // October 17, 2016 at 7:14 PM //

    Not to pile on, especially after the above post.

    “…the system…produces the sound…,” mentioned to support the appropriate preference not to assign aspects of the sound to specific components. Some would say, that below the Schroeder frequency (around 300 Hz), the largest ratio of perceived sound quality comprises not the system itself, but rather the distances described between the speakers, the listener’s ears, and the boundaries of a domestic room (a commercial space is different).

    The above is easy enough to prove. Whatever the bass sounds like at your sweet spot, get up and move around in a three foot radius, and you’ll almost certainly notice a wide range of different spectral effects in the bass range. FYI: middle C is 261 Hz. (If three foot radius does not work, stick your head in one of the room’s corners.)

    Below about 150 Hz, wavelength ratios are so long relative to boundary distances that the wave must bounce between two boundaries prior to human perception, leaving multiple boundary “thumbprints” on the wave, which EQ can not wipe away.

    In addition to modal effects described above, domestic rooms have a natural EQ of about +3 dB/octave <100 Hz (about +7 dB @ 20 Hz).

  2. I am sorry that you’ve bought into the BULLSHIT about the Decca curve. You are serving up to your readers grotesque misinformation. DECCA switched to the RIAA curve in 1958 PERIOD. I have that directly from one of Decca’s original mastering engineers George Bettyes. If it sounds better using the Decca curve on past 1958 stereo Decca records (including Argo) it’s just that you prefer that EQ. In other words you like the “tone control” better. I have a great deal of respect for Zanden products but not for the misinformation they spread about EQ curves. Zanden will tell you that Prestige and Blue Note Rudy Van Gelder cuts use different EQ but they are CUT ON THE SAME LATHE BY THE SAME PERSON (RVG) USING the RIAA CURVE PERIOD. They will tell you that Vanguard uses a specific curve but Vanguard records were cut by various mastering houses including Columbia and RCA and both use the RIAA curve in the stereo era. PERIOD.

    • Interesting! I didn’t know any of that — and FWIW, I missed Eric’s demo, too. Anyway, your point about which curve was used by whom and when is well-made and gratefully acknowledged.

      That said, I think it’s pretty interesting that there’s a product that can be this flexible — my old Thöress phono stage can’t do that, for example. But if Darryl is right and that changing the playback curve can positively impact the sound that dramatically, I call that a win — and a cool feature. Regardless of the EQ used in the making of the record, or the one used in the playback. Better is betterer, no?

      As for tone controls … I think there’s a religious argument in there. What’s true and what’s not is kinda hard to argue. Fun, but hard. Are power cords tone controls? Are cartridges? I think we can easily make the argument that there is not a single, straight sonic path from the entry level Ortofon to their flagship cart. Instead, they put out products with a range of sonic signatures that are more-or-less correct, depending on the system they’re in.

      I think we should probably all strive for “reality” as our metric, barometer, and goal, but sadly, my ears, brain and personal history are different from yours, or anyone else’s. Verifying that what I’m actually hearing is what you’re hearing is what the scope might be measuring or might have measured is and will always be completely beyond science. Well, at least for the foreseeable future, but regardless, any definitive resolution of the “problem of qualia” is going to have to wait. And I offer this bit of unfortunate truth up with all humility and my sincerest apologies to the late Harry Pearson.

      In the meantime, I’m for anything that makes my tunes more ‘awesome’, for all values of [awesome].

    • Darryl Lindberg // October 17, 2016 at 8:27 PM //

      Thanks for the comment. I certainly respect your knowledge of vinyl production and reproduction, but let me respond by first saying that I’m just reporting on what I heard from the system I listened to. Whether the EQ wars are BS or not doesn’t change what I heard–and no one was more surprised than I was. It’s not a matter of my preferring that EQ, either: in those two instances, the sound was clearly more realistic via the non-RIAA curves, as anyone in the room at the time would tell you, and FAR closer to what I hear at home. And that brings me to the “part two” of my reply ….

      The fact is that I brought these LPs specifically because they sound absolutely wonderful on my system, the phono section of which, by the way, is RIAA and only RIAA (PERIOD). In both cases, I found that the presentation on the show system captured the sonic — and musical — qualities that make both of these LPs outstanding … when the curve was changed. Frankly, I don’t know what was going on. I’m sure no engineer, record executive, or professional reviewer — I’m just a listener — and a Part-Time one at that!

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

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