This year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was a blast.
With the Marriott Tech Center all put back together and a lot of manufacturers and people in attendance, it felt like the show was back up to the normal high-energy level. As usual, there was more to cover than I had time for. And I covered rooms solid from early in the morning until late at night all three days. There are so many great people involved in high end audio that I get energized by the excitement in the rooms and in the halls. Given all the different rooms, it would be impossible to cover it all. So as I recognize some truly exceptional sound, I may have missed some really standout rooms. The sound this year I found to be outstanding across the board. A shout-out to the Colorado Audio Society for another successful event. I also want to thank my fellow writers at PTA. The camaraderie we share is a sign of a great team.
Best Sound, Cost No Object
This was a truly difficult decision. So much good sound. Vandersteen and VTL followed up perfectly on an exceptional performance at the LA Show. It just came together beautifully with a gorgeous midrange and clean highs. Likewise, Wilson had a great room with Nagra’s reference HD line and the Alexia 2s. When the Nagra T tape machine rolled, magic happened. The Kronos ‘table was no slouch either. But I kept coming back to the Wilson Alexia 2 and Constellation Audio room which had a Continuum Obsidian with an Ortofon A95 cartridge. As great as the Nagra gear sounded, there was a cohesiveness to the Constellation room that transported me to the music and knocked me off my focus on gear. When Irv Gross played Dean Martin’s “Dream With Dean,” this system filled the room with a sublime, natural sound that if you closed your eyes, you could imagine Dean Martin in the room – and I know this recording well as an owner of the Analogue Productions LP. Hard to tell who gets the credit here… the sublime quietness of the Obsidian source? The utter transparency of Constellation’s best electronics? A set of finely engineered Alexia 2 drivers perfectly aligned for the room? The setup skills of Peter McGrath and Bill Peugh? Alas, it had to be all of the above with this level of sound. This system was simply spectacular and my vote for the best sound at RMAF 2017. Congratulations to Continuum, Wilson Audio, Constellation and Transparent who did the cabling.
Best Sound, Mid-Priced Room
This was also tough. So many great rooms. DeVore/Tone Imports, LampizatOr/Salk Sound, Sonore/Focal. But I was most impressed with the PS Audio room. The combination of Bascom King’s “BHK” amps and the genius digital coding of Ted Smith’s DirectStream DAC had everything just flowing out of the Focal Sopra 3 speakers. It was terrific sound for the money. Although not cheap, this system was natural and lifelike. The power conditioning of the new beefy P20 PureStream Power Plant probably helped as well. I also want to observe that at one point during the weekend some young audiophiles came in and Paul McGowan swung into action and did a “beginner’s demo” that was world class. Paul makes for a great ambassador of the hobby. It’s impossible to not like the people behind PS Audio and musically it was impossible to ignore the great sound that this room produced at RMAF.
Best Sound, Affordable
Forgive me but I am going to stretch the “affordable” definition here a bit to include a $5,000 USD set of tower speakers. Yeah, I know there were several great sounding systems well below this price. However, once one hears what a properly set up pair of ELAC Adante towers can do, that “stretch” budget becomes do-able. Maybe even essential. When an audio writer says a $5K set of speakers can match five-figure speakers, it’s usually a bunch of BS. When said speakers are designed by Andrew Jones and driven by Audio Alchemy electronics from Peter Madnick of Constellation fame, then it becomes true. I just heard these speakers again at Hifibuys in Atlanta, and I still have shivers. Thanks Andrew and Peter for offering breathtaking speakers at this real-world price point. Don’t have $5K? The stand-mounts at $2.500 USD are also superb.
Best Headphone System, Cost No Object
So much great sound this year. Audeze’s MX-4 and Nagra sources produced glorious sound. HiFi Man’s Shangri-La set created magic in a piece of art that would seem natural in an Architectural Digest photo shoot. But I fell in love (again) with the Sonoma Model One system ($5,000 USD). The final production version of these state-of-the-art headphones and amplifier/DAC is sublime. Gus, David, Dr. Demery, and the good folks at Warwick have done spectacular work. I am bugging Gus now for a review sample.
Best Headphone System, Mid-Priced
As a consultant who flies on more Delta planes than I care to admit, my portable audio needs are real. The new King of the Hill for me is the Audeze LCDi4 ear buds and the Chord Hugo 2. At just under $5,000 USD, this pairing has all you need for reference playback and a natural synergy that will get your toes tapping on that cramped 757. The LCDi4s offer planar level clarity in a small package and the Hugo 2 offers world-class FPGA-based resolution and dynamics. It may soon be time to upgrade from my beloved Chord mojo.
Best Headphone System, Affordable
I was amazed how much sound one could get for $500 USD with the new Sundara by HiFi Man. Comfortable, well-made, and gorgeous midrange. These sounded great just plugged into my humble iPhone 6S Plus. Plugged into the huge HE-1000 amplifier with HiFi Man digital audio players, the Sundara really shined.
Best New Product, Cost No Object
LampizatOr’s Golden Gate has knocked my socks off at prior shows with the Abyss headphones. This year, Lampi showed up with the Pacific DAC and Rafe Arnott, dirty rotten scoundrel that he is, beat me to the punch with an early show report. But Rafe captured the exciting sound this system produced with the Lampi Mono-Block Balanced amps and the Salk Song 3 Encore speakers. The DAC space just got a whole lot more competitive. And look at the photos! Just gorgeous to look at with shiny gold case work reflecting some equally beautiful tube tops on the roof.
Best New Product, Mid-Priced
Focal had a huge press event to introduce the Kanta 2s and the new Clear headphone. I was intrigued by the linkage between measurements in the presser PowerPoint and the subjective performance of the Kanta 2. For $10,000 USD, this speaker looked very advanced in build quality and more importantly, sounded like it being riven by a stack of Naim gear. It performed well on classical, jazz, and a variety of solo instrumental music. The relatively small form factor is a boon for audiophiles living in expensive cities like New York or San Francisco or simply those that want more of a design aesthetic. And the Galois Blue is to die for not only in looks, but also if you know your racing history.
Best New Product, Affordable
I still cannot get over the Pro-Ject PreBox S2 Digital DAC. Wonderful sounding, Swiss Army knife feature set, and remarkably compact, this is a total no-brainer. Thank you Jeff Coates for introducing this to me. I have since recommended this to several friends.
Best New Product, Accessories
Synergistic Research had their brand new Limited Edition power cable on static display that is designed to be the ultimate power cable with a retail price of a cool $20,000 USD (!). But what I heard in a very compelling demo was their new Active Ground Block has taken their grounding technology to a whole new level. Let’s face it. Lower noise floors is an audiophile “3-fer”…better bass, mids, and highs. This product takes it to another level with even lower noise. To demonstrate, Ted turned off the active devices in his Magico/Soulution system. When Ted switched the Active Ground Block back on things got so much better. As it did with the PowerCell line conditioner, Tranquility Bases, and Atmosphere XL tower. So the award goes to the SR Active Ground Block.
Best Technology Innovation
Chord’s Poly was much discussed at the show and is now shipping. The Poly connects smoothly to the portable Chord Mojo DAC and adds SD cards, BlueTooth, and many other features. However, I kinda feel the real big news at Chord was not obvious until I started talking to their digital designer Rob Watts. Watts is at it again, building now an analog to digital converter based on his FPGA filters. What a glorious thing this will be for the pro audio community. We will soon have the ability to hear Rob’s theories in action all the way through the chain from microphone to speaker. I believe Chord is essentially creating a new platform of learning on how to perfect 16/44 and hi-res audio. Given their track record, Chord and Watts will be able to take this learning and make even more amazing digital playback. So this award goes to Chord’s forthcoming Davina, with an honorable mention to the Mojo Poly.
Best Show Trend
So many choices here: VPI Rosewood Prime turntables everywhere, tape machines still popular, digital streaming, etc. However, I think the centre of energy remains with the CanJam participants and customers. The proliferation of new products on both the headphone and headphone DAC/amp side was astounding to me. Better portable audio is the gateway drug for two-channel audio. Thanks Ethan Opolion for creating “destination-event” CanJams literally around the globe.
Best Audio Shirts
Ted Smith, digital designer for PS Audio, always brings the goods with shirts that are colorful and tied to electronic circuits. No one does it better.
For my money, the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest remains the best high end show in the United States. I hope every fan of great sound gets a chance to experience it.