This year dawned with plenty of questions facing the high-end audio industry. The most pressing were: Would the U.S. economy hold up, allowing manufacturers and retailers to stay afloat? Would vinyl continue its revival, possibly enticing young people into a hobby that’s in danger of aging out? And, would the recent growth in the show circuit create too much of a good thing?
That third question was still hanging in the air as September arrived and the last two of the record seven major domestic gatherings for 2017 were scheduled to go off within weeks of each other, putting a strain on the finances and staff of audio companies and creating decisions for potential out-of-town attendees.
For over a decade, the final big show of the year has been the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver. This year, its traditional early October long weekend fell on the 6th through the 8th. T.H.E. Show, however, which was conducted in Newport, Calif., in June 2016, had shifted to Sept. 21-24 in Anaheim. That not only was uncomfortably close to RMAF, it also would have been the third sizable show in the Sunshine State in a four-month period.
At the 11th hour, though, T.H.E. Show blinked. Organizers postponed the event, citing “too many shows” among several reasons, but vowing to set a new date for 2018.
Exhibitors I talked with at RMAF last month seemed relieved. While some had been determined to try to do both shows, others were going to choose one or the other. And still others were trying to factor in the desire to also participate in at least one of two subsequent regional shows closing out the year, Capital Audiofest, Nov. 3-5, and the New York Audio Show, Nov. 10-12. (Both coming in addition to the seven national events.)
Whether it was a suddenly simplified schedule or the energy boost from a successful sales year, many industry executives were upbeat in Colorado. A major renovation of the Marriott Denver Tech Center, which cramped the 2016 show, was finished. Attendance was solid. And consumers seemed motivated to take advantage of the many show specials.
Altogether, 2017 was the strongest year in recent memory for new product introductions. RMAF continued that trend, with dozens of launches and sneak-peeks at models scheduled for release soon.
New gear that made the biggest impression on me in Colorado included the Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2, Legacy Audio Stereo Unfold Technology software, McIntosh MA252 hybrid tube/solid-state integrated amp, Daedalus Zeus loudspeakers, ModWright Instruments Ambrose One tubed line stage, Neat Acoustics Xplorer compact speaker, Nola Boxer S2 mini-monitor, Music Hall A30.3 integrated amp, Zesto Andros Allasso step-up transformer and Wyred 4 Sound nextGEN amplifier. If any of those sound interesting, and you missed some of my reports, please check Part-Time Audiophile’s show archives.
Along with the flood of new gear, RMAF also continued a 2017 trend of better sound at shows. Exhibitors are learning how to offset sketchy room acoustics and dirty hotel power with more serious wall treatments, better AC conditioning and a variety of isolation devices. The results still may not match a dealer showroom or your home, but at least attendees now can get a general idea of the sonic character of most systems.
Another welcome trend at RMAF was a loosening-up of demo playlists. I heard a lot of interesting performers I wasn’t familiar with, such as French percussionist Mino Cinelu and Swedish duo Lise & Gertrud. I also enjoyed tunes from artists who usually are not common audition choices, such as Bjork, the English Beat, London Grammar, the XX, Ben Harper, Lightnin’ Hopkins and the Peddlers.
Partly, this shift from repeat-play Diana Krall may be a result of CD players disappearing and almost every room having some type of server. With thousands of songs available, room hosts likely are selecting a more diverse menu for their own sanity as well as playing something different that might catch a visitor’s ear. No matter what the reason, I can report enthusiastically that I went the entire weekend without hearing “No Sanctuary Here” or “Keith Don’t Go,” which saved me from causing serious property damage.
It’s still not a perfect situation, though. This was the first show I’ve ever attended when I didn’t bring my own CDs of test tracks, since no one can play silver discs anymore. Trying to find some of those familiar songs on servers was a challenge with some exhibitors. (“We’ve got the last Dire Straits album, but not the first two.”) And, I still believe there are significant sonic differences between some digital files and CDs — and not always for the better. But that’s a future story.
The third encouraging trend I saw in Denver was an effort to demonstrate more affordable components. Some of the busiest exhibits were the series of “entry level” rooms on the second floor, featuring entire systems priced between $500 and $5,000. Yes, that’s not a misprint. There was a vinyl-based rig that totaled five bills. The $5,000 rig also was stunning, with beautiful floor-standing speakers, high-end cable, isolation devices and even a handsome wood rack.
All in all, it seems a lot of the big questions in high-end audio were answered this year. Despite a changing retail environment, manufacturers are adapting and many seem to have had a good 2017. Vinyl is only getting more popular, with a number of additional pressing plants opening. Low-cost equipment is sounding better than ever. And, the U.S. market proved it could handle at least six major stereo shows in a single year.
As we go forward, however, there is another fairly critical question the hobby is facing: Will enough younger people get the hi-fi bug to keep the industry viable? I saw a smattering of youthful show-goers, mainly looking at vinyl and budget exhibits, but in general every event this year was a sea of gray hair. I am in my 50s and I was referred to as “young man” twice at RMAF.
There are a lot of executives and hobbyists in the industry who are evangelical about good sound, but enthusiasm will only go so far. Building more entry-level gear and crafting products to interface with smartphones seem like good places to put more effort.
Before I close, I have to add one more observation. I hope I’m not being too vainglorious to note that Part-Time Audiophile, as an alternative publication in a very narrow niche, was proud to be able to cover the year’s busy show schedule with more manpower than ever, produce a long list of reviews and launch the first issue of our new print magazine, The Occasional (download it here). We hope you’ve enjoyed our enhanced coverage. There’s more to come in the remainder of this year and 2018.
John Stancavage’s RMAF Best of Show
Wilson Audio/Nagra: The preamp alone cost almost $60,000, but the combination of Nagra electronics and Wilson’s new Alexia 2s ($57,500/pair USD) had a level of resolution and musicality that not only was among the Best of Show at RMAF, it is a contender for year-end honors.
Wilson/Constellation Audio. The second standout system built around the Wilson Alexia 2 used Constellation gear to make crooner Dean Martin sound as if he was still with us.
MartinLogan/Audio Research: The flagship electrostatic Neolith loudspeakers ($80,000 a pair USD), painted bright red, couldn’t be missed. Powered by Audio Research tubes, though, the sound was intimate rather than in-your-face.
Premium systems, $20,000 to $100,000 USD
Legacy Audio/Raven Audio: This rig included Legacy’s new Valor floor-stander (price TBA), a pair of Raven Shaman Mk. 2 monoblocks ($49,995/pair USD) and Legacy’s Wavelet processor/preamp (about $5,000 USD as configured) running the new Stereo Unfold Technology software (see below, upcharge TBA). Elvis was in the building.
Accent Speaker Technology Ltd.: The company’s stand-mounted Nola Boxer S2 ($2,900/pair USD) improved on the base model with high-speed Mundorf oil capacitors and Nordost silver mono-filament wiring. Refined high frequencies, a huge soundstage and surprising bass (thanks to a huge port in the back). Sounded great on a Valve Amplification Co. 160 integrated amp and an Audio Research CD8 disc spinner/DAC.
Sanders Sound Systems: Impeccably made hybrid electrostatics, an innovative preamp/EQ/room correction/digital crossover and two 1,000-watt Magtech stereo amplifiers. Total price: $22,500 USD. One of the best values in the high-end for the level of sound quality, which is world class
Budget system, $5,000 USD
Aurum Cantus/Music Hall/VPI: This system proved listeners can assemble a satisfying system without cashing in the 401(k). Key components were the Aurum Cantus Melody M-103SE PU speakers ($1,800/pair USD), Music Hall A30.3 integrated amp ($999 USD) and a VPI Cliffwood turntable ($895 USD).
Most intriguing new products: Legacy’s Stereo Unfold Technology software, which seeks to tame room reflections and allow spatial cues to emerge accurately; McIntosh MA252 tube/solid-state hybrid integrated amp.
Trending: Reel-to-reel tape, powered speakers, integrated amplifiers, isolation devices, room correction, servers.
Beam me up, Scotty: Bang & Olufsen’s new BeoLab 50 speakers mixed Star Trek-worthy technology and high-end voicing.
Endangered species list: CD players.
Most welcome trends: Budget gear, broader demo playlists.
Least welcome trend: See “endangered species list.”
OMG moment: Hearing Dire Straits’ “Six Blade Knife” on a United Home Audio Ultima2 OPS-DC reel-to-reel deck ($28,000 USD). The authentic safety master had richness, depth and stunning resolution. If only….
Continuing worry: Graying of audiophile population.
Kudos: To Marjorie Baumert, RMAF director, for another great show; and to Noble Audio for sponsoring Part-Time Audiophile’s coverage.