by Darryl Lindberg
Let’s get this out of the way right now: I love the Rocky Mountain Audio Festival. I’ve made the trek every year and I’ve never thought, “maybe next year I’ll give it a pass.” That’s because the vibe at this show is just so pleasant. And that’s a tribute to Majorie Baumert and all the Colorado Audio Society volunteers who step up to the plate every year to take on this demanding task. So, speaking as an attendee, I just want say thanks!
And speaking of attendance, it looked to me about the same as last year. It’s a bit hard to gauge in that there were exhibits on every floor of the tower and only the top floor of the atrium section; however, the ground floor always seemed relatively crowded, if that’s any indication. Some of the crowding on the ground floor was at least partially a function of the fact that one of the three tower elevators was out of service for the entire show (according to one of the volunteers that elevator had not been in operation for over two weeks). However, the “audiophile stair master” routine between the tower floors provided a stimulating cardio-vascular workout for all who felt up to participating!
Before I get to specifics, I want you to know that I refuse to qualify my observations with any variation of the phrase “show conditions.” You know, the same old song you’ve heard sung so often by exhibitors and reviewers over the years: inadequate rooms, power issues, noisy air conditioning, built-ins, whine, whine, whine. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: every exhibitor is in the same boat at the RMAF—and other shows. Some seem to consistently achieve satisfying results, while others do not. So “show conditions” are no more a limitation on the sound we attendees hear than the phase of the moon (possibly less). Just examine your own listening room, power delivery, equipment, speaker placement, et al. and tell me if it couldn’t be improved (if it’s ideal, please let me know how you did it!). The exhibitors putting together the show systems are presumably professional folks and it’s their responsibility to optimize performance; it’s not in my pay grade to listen through crappy sound—as some writers would have you believe they can—to extol the virtues of a favored brand/product. It’s one thing if the exhibitor’s equipment shows up damaged or doesn’t show up at all; it’s quite another to bemoan the existence of conditions known well in advance.
And that leads me to underscore the fact that I’m listening to the output of a system. My question is: how does it sound playing material I know? That’s the bottom line, isn’t it? Although I can speculate as to the contributions of a particular system’s various components, unless I’ve had a before and after experience with a single component substitution—as in Nordost’s surprisingly effective demo of their USB cables—I’m won’t attempt to shuck you by masquerading as a hyper-discerning audio geek. In fact, even those systems that feature components I’m familiar with are typically lashed together with other gear that’s either only vaguely familiar or totally unknown. So, I’ll just report on the rooms whose systems generated sounds I thought were engaging, as well as technology, new product introductions, and kinks that might interest you.
RMAF Outro: The Bad Seed
Okay, let’s start with the lowlight. Although I can say almost categorically that the exhibitors were gracious, it’s the “almost” that I’m going to discuss. I guess that, given a large enough sample size, there’s always an outlier—and I found him! Whether this guy was intentionally rude or simply a big old dope (or both), I can’t say. But here’s the scenario . . . I was the only person in this very nice sounding room and I asked the exhibitor if he would play my recording Purcell vocal works (Harmonia Mundi HM 242), which is worthwhile just for the excellence of the recording even if you don’t care for old Purcell’s music. He took the disc and noted that HM was a “good label.” But literally one second after the stylus hit and the music started playing, the exhibitor lifted the arm and said, “I can’t play that.”
“Why?” I was perplexed. At first, I thought that he might have seen some abnormality in the disc that could damage the cartridge and/or arm and/or turntable. I’d played this LP on other RMAF systems (and my own) without a hitch, but maybe there was a peculiarity that caught his eye. His answer came from way out in left field.
“That music drives me crazy.”
I defecate you not . . . I couldn’t make this up! Look, I know he paid for the room, shipped the equipment, set up the room, etc., so I respect that it’s his prerogative to play or not play anything he pleases. But, geeze, this is a show that attracts all manner of listeners, from serious potential buyers to tire kickers. And, for all he knew, I could have been in the market for his quite pricey product. What was so off-putting, though, was the sheer presumptive incivility. This guy needs to be reminded that he’s selling his equipment to the audiophile public at large—and whatever their musical tastes may be. I mean, really, if I were in the market for a product in his category, I would immediately cross his concoction off my list simply because it’s unlikely any manufacturer who’s designing audio gear from such a narrow perspective would produce a product that would satisfy my needs. And, quite frankly, I wasn’t going to waste my time evaluating a system based on music that appealed to him. So there. Fortunately, this was the first and only instance of such behavior in all my years of attending the RMAF—and I hope it’s the last!
High Water Heaven
Now on to one of my all-time favorite audio guys (and exhibitors): Jeff Catalano of High Water Sound. He didn’t make the last two RMAFs and boy, was he missed—and not only by yours truly. Why? I, like so many others, have found his setups over the years to be anywhere from merely excellent to quite extraordinary. Jeff always seems to manage to wring out every ounce of potential of the gear he plants in his show rooms, using his expertise to match the components of the system and the system to the room. Best of all, Jeff invites you to play your music and, even if your music drives him nuts, you’d never know it: he’s always polite and willing to let it spin (there’s never any digital in Jeff’s room). Jeff understands that the most important function of his show system is to demonstrate what it can do with the music that his potential (and current) customers love. His motto is “two channel with attitude” and the attitude is always of the “let’s play some real music” variety.
This year Jeff’s system was relatively modest by his standards, but, as usual, it delivered the sonic goods. The analog front end of the system was especially noteworthy: the Holbo air bearing turntable with linear tracking arm ($7,500) from Slovenia and the Tron-Electric Convergence moving coil phono stage ($2,850), both new to these shores. Attached to the end of the Holbro arm was a Miyajima Labs Saboten MC cartridge ($2.5K). This front end fed Tron-Electric’s Atlantic SE 300B integrated ($18K), which drove a pair of Cessaro Wagner speakers ($65K), the one obviously extravagant component in the system. The rest of the setup featured Furutech cables ($ various), Silent Running Audio ($ various), and assorted Shun Mook Acoustics tweaks ($ various).
I returned to Jeff’s room more than a few times over the course of the show, mostly just to remind myself what’s possible with low wattage electronics and high efficiency speakers. I think the first of my trusty LPs Jeff spun was Martinon’s take on Poulenc’s “Les Biches” (EMI ASD 496, gold label), a fun, witty piece for a relatively large orchestra. I’ve always found the imaging of this recording to be spectacular: far beyond the outer edge of the speakers and very deep. And that’s exactly the way the HWS system reproduced it.
During another visit I whipped out my LP of Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasy on a theme of Thomas Tallis” (EMI ASD 2370, dog-in-semicircle), a beautiful performance by Constantin Silverstri and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, realistically recorded in the resonant space of Winchester Cathedral. The full range string sound and sense of space generated by Jeff’s setup was downright amazing. Since the room was packed and I didn’t want to bogart the system—no matter how much I was enjoying myself—after a few minutes I told Jeff he could take it off. Jeff said that wasn’t necessary, as he was enjoying it and asked the other listeners whether they’d like to finish it off. The answer was a resounding “play it through!” And I think that says it all about this system’s ability to communicate meaningful musical information.
I always like to cruise the halls on Sunday morning both because the traffic is almost nonexistent and because the systems have been burned in, tweaked, and massaged to the point that the sound is about as good as it will ever get. Additionally, Sunday mornings are great time to spin those more adventurous, shall we say, discs that I pack just for these occasions. I know not everyone’s a Messiaen fan, so I brought my recording of “Et Exspecto Resurrectorum Mortuorum” (EMI ASD 2467, dog-in-semicircle) to Jeff’s room early Sunday morning to minimize any potential backlash from those whose expectations ran to Diana Krall, non-specific “female vocals,” or other typical audio show glop. It’s a work that features a large and interesting array of woodwinds and percussion, at points sounding almost like the gamelan music of Bali. This is a great LP of tremendous dynamic range and it sure sounded wonderful on Jeff’s setup, which was, let’s not forget, a pair of two-way speakers driven by about 9 watts. It’s more proof—if any is needed—that being doctrinaire about audio is never a good thing.
Stalking Vinyl at the Rocky Mountain Audio Festival
As a committed vinyl snarfler, this situation was becoming concerning. What to do with the extra space allocated in the trunk of my car to pack my vinyl purchases? However, starting a couple of years ago, Mike Morrow of Morrow Audio braved the perils of potential ET probing and brought a few boxes of used discs, and he’s continued and expanded his offerings. This year, the friendly and knowledgeable Lloyd Sitkoff of Try Tone Classical records joined the party. He had a goodly selection of used vinyl on the floor and the traffic seemed relatively brisk. Although I only bought one disc from Lloyd (Holst, EMI PCSD 3507), it’s an LP that wasn’t remotely on my radar and it turned out to be the winner I hoped it would.
I can say I was sure impressed by the research that he does on each LP. In addition to grading for condition, Lloyd checks prices on Discogs, Popsike, and other sources for comparison, as well as noting if comparable LPs would require foreign postage—a nice touch (this data is listed on the small piece of paper on the album cover—check out the photo). I’m hoping that the new, larger venue RMAF will move to in 2019 will attract more vinyl vendors. After all, when it comes to LPs, isn’t more always better?
Alsyvox and Omega Audio Concepts
A few years ago, I listened to a promising RMAF system that featured the Italian-made Leonardo planar-magnetic speakers. Then, silence: the speakers disappeared from the scene. But I can now report that the Leonardo speaker has apparently metamorphosized into the three-way Botticelli ($87K) from Alsyvox of Spain. These speakers were driven by an entire front end and cabling from Omega Audio Concepts (sorry, no prices).
There wasn’t a turntable in this room, so I couldn’t evaluate what this system could do with material I know; however, what it did with the software that was played was pretty amazing. The system reproduced the entire frequency range with the sonic imprint that’s unique to panel speakers. In addition, the system reproduced the bass end of the spectrum with real kick derrière impact, not necessarily a strength of panel speakers.
The reason I mention the bass is that, as I was perusing the literature in the back of the room, I nearly soiled my linen when a massive drum thwack unexpectedly occurred on the track that was playing. Moreover, this frisson wasn’t a function of overzealous application of the volume control; it was simply dynamic, tonal, and timbral realism writ very large. I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked in this room, but the little time I spent was an ear opener.
Jeff Rowland Design Phono Stage: A Conductor Very Becoming
I stopped by Jeff Rowland’s display-only room and found something that stirred the cockles of this vinyl lover’s soul: the new (I think) Conductor phono stage, slowly spinning, appropriately enough, on a mirrored platter. Jeff’s always created excellent sounding and elegant gear and I was wondering when he’d focus his outstanding design skills once again on the black plastic biscuit. If I recall, the price is $9K, but the Conductor requires a separate power supply, which can piped in from one of the Jeff’s preamps, if you happen to have one. There wasn’t any information available in the room and there isn’t much on the website, other than the basic specifications (gain: 42 dB MM, 52 dB High Output MC, 68 dB MC, 74dB Low Output MC). However, checking out the photo of the back panel I can see the Conductor has three separate MC inputs each with loading options as well as a MM/high output MC input, also with loading options. Single ended and balanced inputs and outputs run throughout. My guess is that the Conductor will be heartily welcomed by Jeff Rowland customers—as well as others.