RMAF 2016: Preamble to my RMAF amble

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.

But 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.

And 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.

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.

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).  This 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.