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RMAF 2016: Lee at the End of Line and Best in Show

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I approached this year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest with a strange mix of excitement and trepidation.  The long-time venue of the Denver Tech Center Marriott was in the midst of significant construction which literally shut off half the hotel and disappeared the CanJam ball room.  How was this going to work?  Yet there were some new product introductions I was excited about including the no-show of a new Revox reel to reel tape deck from Horch House, saving me countless thousands of dollars and a likely bad decision to move into another, expensive “dead” music format.

High End Hero

Not to worry.  RMAF has a secret weapon who is the winner of our first award, High End Hero.

Marjorie Baumert yet again pulled off another wonderful show and solved construction issues by moving more vendors into the tower and setting up a big tent for CanJam in the parking lot, then arranging easy and free parking across the street.  I have to tell you, I’ve been coming to RMAF for a dozen years and the Colorado Audio Society staff are always helpful and friendly.  It’s just a very well executed show operation led by Marjorie.  It takes something special to make such a fun and friendly atmosphere year in and year out, so I’m going a bit off script and awarding Marjorie the Hero Award because dammit she and the entire Colorado Audio Society so richly deserve it.

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Best Stereo Sound, Cost No Object

award-sighting-smThis is a tough one.  I really, really liked the Harbeth 40.2s driven by Kevin Hayes’ amazing VAC amplifiers.  Oh boy was that amazing.  Zu Audio‘s next to top of the line Experience speakers were incredible too driven by the new might but affordable Peachtree Audio Nova.  Gordon Rankin’s room, always one of the best, was just effortless in sound quality.

However, my heart goes with the amazing debut of the Wilson Audio Yvettes, which were paired with a very high quality stack of dCS and VTL electronics and a megabuck loom of Nordost cabling.  These speakers settled in nicely and I made some six trips to the room through the weekend and heard demos by Luke Manley, Bea Manley, and the inimitable Peter McGrath whose demos are not to be missed.  John has already done masterful work talking about the new silk dome tweeter which is clearly making an improvement.  But I also think learnings from recent flagship efforts are improving the cabinet, parts and crossover design in a way that improves the timing and cohesiveness of the image.  Wilson has always had great resolution but I feel like the Alexx and Yvette are just plain musical.  You could hear this in the Malawian singer Malia’s track with Boris Blank of Yello on the album Convergence.  The vocals sounded just perfect as Peter McGrath played the disc.  The tautness of the bass from the Yvette cabinet just set the perfect foundation for this music.  Sublime.

This year’s best stereo sound award goes to Wilson Audio and VTL for the Yvette loudspeaker debut.

Congratulations to Luke and Bea, Bill, Peter, and Wilson wunderkind Daryl Wilson.

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Best Personal Audio Sound

This is another tough one given all the innovation going on in the CanJam tent.  I loved the new Sony gear which was marvelous and had off-the-charts build quality.  I fell in love all over again with the Chord Hugo TT and the DAVE.  I really loved the sound of the new Empire Ears ADEL IEMs and JH Audio‘s new 16V2s enthralled me.  But what really knocked my socks off was in the tower with the JPS Labs Abyss and Woo Audio WA234 mono blocks paired with computer files and the spectacular Mytek Manhattan.  This was the best personal audio sound I have heard.  Completely artifact free and flowing with tons of detail, I was just gobsmacked.  The guy ahead of me did not want to leave the chair, then neither did I.  Joe Skubinski and Jack Woo have created a pairing for the ages.  Well done gentlemen.

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Best Innovation

Hands down, the best technology I learned about was that from Stephen Ambrose who invented the ADEL approach which might save the hearing of a great number of people.  Empire Ears has smartly redesigned the line to included this technology which keeps sound pressure from building up to too high a level on the ear drum.  The prototypes that the Vang brothers from Empire Ears sounded great.  Review forthcoming.  Congratulations to Stephen Ambrose and Empire Ears for best innovation!

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Best Affordable Audio

Another close finish.  ELAC just killed this year.  Andrew Jones is on a roll and everyone knows it.  He has a smart integrated and a music server now to go with his terrific speakers.  But he had a really tough competitor in my view this year, the revamped Peachtree Audio Nova integrated amplifier.  I just loved how this sounded with the Zu Audio speakers.  For very reasonable money, the team at Peachtree seems to have created a Swiss Army knife of functionality.  And they wrapped it in some gorgeous wood finishes.  It just sounds much better than it should for the price.  Add speakers and you have a very nice system.  A colleague at work is looking for a good starter system.  After much research in the same price range, the Nova is the cornerstone of my recommendation.  Best affordable audio award goes to the Peachtree Audio Nova.

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Honorable Mentions

Several components really caught my ear at the show that are worth highlighting.

Sony NW-WM1Z Digital Audio Player – a new entry in the expensive DAP landscape, the WM1Z sounded lifelike, full of detail and musical.  I would say it was built like a tank, but I’m not convinced tanks are built this well.  This may beat the flagship A&K model.

Sonoma Model One – spectacular personal audio debut of Gus Skinas and David Kawakami’s new electrostatic headphone and matching dac/amp.  Such natural sound…I hope Santa thinks I’ve been good.

Shunyata Denali – a new line of passive conditioners from Shunyata, these just seemed to lower the noise floor in the RMAF systems they were in.  I’ve got the “tower” version in for review so more on this later.  I’ll just say for now it has taken my system to a new level.  Caelin Gabriel is on a roll.

Chord Hugo TT – Robert Watts creation has been out for a while but it still impresses and I can’t quite afford the even more impressive DAVE.

Kanso Audio Furniture – superb looking and superb sounding, this is artisan grade stuff that our SOs might less us place in the formal living room.  Bravo Aaron Huffman for being the craftsman you are!

Intervention Records – Shane Buettner’s reissues simply sound amazing and cover such important artists as Joe Jackson and Stealer’s Wheel.  Kevin Gray and Ryan Smith are doing ace mastering work.

Audioquest Dragonfly Red – $199 entry fee to a world of hirez sound in a very compact dongle for your laptop.  Superb engineering by Gordon Rankin in a very affordable package certain to create more audiophiles.

See you next year!

It was another great year at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.  The sound from the manufacturers just keeps getting better and better.  It really is a Golden Age of music and playback.

About Lee Scoggins (39 Articles)
A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Lee got interested in audio listening to his Dad’s system in the late 70s and he started making cassettes from LPs. By the early 80s he got swept up in the CD wave that was launching which led to a love of discs from Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. Later while working on Wall Street in the 90s, Lee started working on blues, jazz and classical sessions for Chesky Records and learned record engineering by apprenticeship. Lee was involved in the first high resolution recordings which eventually became the DVD-Audio format. Lee now does recordings of small orchestras and string quartets in the Atlanta area. Lee is a serious music collector and his current system consists of Audio Research Reference electronics and Magnepan speakers.