Risky Business is a classic American film about coming of age, materialism, capitalist society, and taking chances. My son brought it up in a recent conversation about movies, and I couldn’t help but mentally compare it to the current state of high fidelity after reading John Stancavage’s closing piece on RMAF published HERE. Stancavage wondered aloud if high-end audio sales could remain buoyant riding a prosperous US economy, or (as I was imagining) if they would end up sinking like the Porsche 928 Tom Cruise’s character Joel lets slide into Lake Michigan during the film.
Stancavage’s musings are valid, and like him, I have heard the continuing distress calls among some of the audiophile cognoscenti, but I believe that even if the economy tanked (again) that great products, built by great people will endure. It’s the nature of the capitalist beast we all feed, and are fed by: unpredictability. But as capricious as sales can be, great products usually maintain some autonomy from the financial vagaries of our world, and there were a lot of great products at RMAF this year.
The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is an event I always look forward to, and over the last few years it has continued to shine for me as the show in North America that attracts not only outstanding high-fidelity electronics, but outstanding people as well. This year was no different, and I had a great time connecting with friends old, and new as I zigged, and zagged throughout the Denver Marriott Tech Centre trying to listen to everything as best I could.
As always there was a lot to take in, with some manufacturers like John DeVore of DeVore Fidelity showing off new gear – the Gibbon Super Nine loudspeaker – or Paul McGowan of PS Audio, with his new P20 Power Regenerator. LampizatOr had it’s golden Pacific DAC gleaming, drawing people into their room on bling power alone. Others like Gordon Burwell Sr. of Burwell & Sons was standing pat with his tried and true Plain Jane horn loudspeakers – which are anything but – and Vinnie Rossi was once again blowing hair back with his LIO amplifier designs.
Aurender was there again in a big way with more of the Korean company’s incredible-sounding W20, and N10 music servers dishing up high-resolution audio in more rooms than I could shake a USB cable at, VPI too, has almost become ubiquitous as the de facto turntable of record for those manufacturers looking to pair up with vinyl analog sources.
One French company – Metronome – has been catching my ear of late with their designs – the CD8 S in particular – so when I had a chance to connect with the company’s director Jean Marie Clauzel regarding the new MC 1 music server, and Le Player 2S (CD player) which were showing in Denver I asked him a few questions.
RA: Music servers are becoming the soup du jour of modern hifi systems, especially ones that contain CD rippers to facilitate the transfer or “dematerialization” of music to hard discs. Is this why Metronome brought the MC 1 to market? Did you perceive a gap in your lineup?
JMC: Métronome is historically a CD player manufacturer, but the audiophiles are moving to hi-res, so we need to do so. This is why we decided to move in two directions: Music servers (rip, store and play) with our MC 1 (Music Centre 1), and Network players with our DSC 1, which is a hi-end converter and network player.
RA: The Le Player 2S is Metronome’s entry-level CD Player. In an age where most audiophiles, and average music consumers have shunned the CD in favour of streaming, why have more than one model in your lineup? Why not focus exclusively on DACs, and network players?
JMC: As I said earlier, we’re originally a CD player manufacturer, and there’s still a relatively high demand for good CD players throughout the world. This is why we maintain those in the range, and put efforts to improve them accordingly. An important point is that we want all our CD players to be also very performant D/A converters. Our products are real hybrids that the audiophiles may use both as DACs and CD players.
RA: Is the CD coming back in popularity? I know from experience that there are more CDs available than ever before in the used bins at my local record stores for just a few dollars, but vinyl still seems to be king in the popularity contest with young people who value sonics over convenience. How do you get people playing CDs again, and if you do, why should they hear the Le Player?
JMC: Let’s remind what everyone said when the CD appeared more than 30 years ago: Everyone said that it was a tremendous progress versus vinyl. I love analog, but I’m one of those who believe that a good transcription of a good CD can give much more than vinyl. All our work and savoir-faire consists in making the Métronome sound as much analog as possible, resulting that people forget this is digital sound. I can see this from customer’s feedback that when an audiophile listens to Métronome CD players and transports.
Wang Xuanqian of Auralic was on hand at RMAF touting the new Polaris integrated amplifier/DAC/streamer (in one of my home systems now, review to come) and the brand new Aries G2 Streaming Transporter which the company hopes will propel it into the higher-end audiophile marketplace.
Loudspeaker manufacturer Magico was silently impressing with a static pair of the company’s M6 transducers. The massive three-way, carbon-fibre, edgeless (no corners here, everything is rounded), monocoque enclosures looked imposing in person, and their physical size would lead one to believe that due to the large bass-driver array, and cabinet volume, the lowest octaves should be served well. Since I still haven’t heard them, the jury is obviously out, but if looks are anything to go by these M6 should pick up where the M3 left off.
The marketplace at RMAF was thriving this year – more than I’ve ever seen it anyway – and I actually made a point to go, and do a little shopping while I was in Denver this year. Usually I have no time, and always lament not making 20 minutes to do a little crate digging. I was on the prowl for CDs this time, and came across some sublime discs thanks to MA Recordings. I listened to several, and finally decided on taking home “Calamus – The Splendour of Al-Andalus.” This Arab-Andalusion disc features a quintet of musicians, and is meticulously recorded with B&K 4006 microphones, custom-built amplifiers , and a modified Pioneer D-07 digital recorder. Check out their catalog, worth the time, and reasonable cost.
PTA publisher Scot Hull, and I both ended up on panel discussions this year, and while his was more attended than mine, the questions were no less challenging with conversations pondering how to get young people into the audiophile world. I can say with humility that I certainly don’t have the answers for that, as it is a complicated equation, but as fellow panelist Sean Casey of Zu Audio pointed out; there are more young people listening to music than at other time in our history, so the onus is really upon the industry as a whole to convince the teens, and 20-somethings with disposable income to want to hear more deeply into the music than smartphones, and earbuds currently allow.
As I walked from demo room to demo room at the show, and saw the smiling faces (and beatific ones, with eyes closed in supplication to the music) taking in the tunes being played, I couldn’t help but feel that high-end audio was doing better than ever. Perhaps the juggernaut of vinyl sales, and all the turntable, amp, and speakers being sold to accompany the big black discs was spurring on growth across the sector, but there were just as many digital front ends in attendance in Denver as analog ones (lest we forget the burgeoning reel-to-reel market as well), and portable music players, and headphone sales have to be a major force to take into account as well, as anyone who’s toured CanJam at RMAF knows.
Another industry health indicator to factor in is the sheer number of uber-expensive two-channel set ups being revved at audio shows these days. $25,000 USD turntables, $30,000 USD speakers, and $40,000 USD amps are de rigueur as are $5,000 USD cables, and interconnects. “Who is buying this stuff?” you ask.
A lot of people are.
Which goes back to the original question posed by Stancavage concerning the economic joyride high fidelity seems to be costing on. If the market will bear these prices, then perhaps being a manufacturer who caters to the somewhat strange, but burgeoning tribe of audiophiles isn’t such a risky business after all.