BASS! How Low Can You Go? (Or: Another Take on RMAF)

This article’s title was taken from the great Chuck D who reprised his vocals for the 1991 Public Enemy/Anthrax video “Bring the Noise,” one of the earliest Rap/Rock partnerships along with Aerosmith/Run DMC. It was revolutionary and evolutionary. Suddenly, this “urban” art form was either desecrating or improving a traditional realm – depending on your point of view. I don’t know exactly what Chuck D rhymed about – perhaps ‘bass’ symbolized a new groove infiltrating the Heavy Metal community.

But if he was simply talking about the low end of hertz measurement, then I was asking the same thing at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2018. Walking from room to room of high-end speakers blowing out Jazz and female vocalists, I thought, “Sounds great, but where’s the bass at?”

RMAF was not my first rodeo. I attended the local show in New York City in 2017, and had a similar issue. It was the first time I had seen the legendary Harbeth 40.2s up-close. Finally, there I was in a hotel ballroom with the beefy BBC monitors connected to 500-watt mono-blocks via obscenely priced silver cables, but those speakers were given nothing better to play than what amounted to elevator music! I sat for about 15 minutes until I thought to ask for something different. I got two minutes of The Who before the dealer stepped in and switched over to the requisite In Session with Albert King & Stevie Ray Vaughn. “Okay, we get the idea,” he said. Well, I didn’t get any idea of the speaker’s capabilities.

I would prefer to audition with Motörhead (or “Motör-Fuckin’-Head!” as we say), but I wouldn’t expect anyone to play that. Whereas I’m thrilled by torrential flows of double kick-drums, screeching leads, fat bass chords, and tar-soaked vocals, I understand those qualities might not inform the other listeners adequately. I keep it classy, and only ask for musical changes when I’m nearly alone in the room: gimme some Yes, Rush, Led Zep – even Stones – and I can get a sense of what the equipment does with my music. But almost every time I made a request, I was met with a blank stare as if I asked for Reggaeton instead of mainstream Classic Rock. “You want… Rock? Digging through a small stack of records only produces Dark Side of the Moon, again. “Hey, how about Stevie Ray Vaughn?”

Although Capital Audio Fest is located closer to me, I decided to fly out to RMAF for the range of exhibitors. Armed with a checklist of established brands, new items, and people to see, I made my way first to the PS Audio room and had a chat with the incredibly friendly staff I had only seen in photos and videos. It was also nice to see their sleek components in person.

Then, I had a hell of a good time listening to Klipsch La Scalas. Talk about bass; the Klipsch Heritage room offered plenty – albeit sweetened with a pair of external subs. It was one of the few spots where listeners could really feel the music, especially the symphonic piece which energized the crowd.

I happened upon a few other rooms with noteworthy bass and decent music: NOLA Grand Reference Gold 2 speakers out of Long Island were deceptively massive-sounding for their driver sizes; Brooklyn’s DeVore Fidelity Orangutan Reference 4-piece set was as gorgeous as it was lush; the more affordable stand-mount JWM Acoustics’ Alyson AML II ($9.5K/pair) out of Texas were seductive and powerful. The most reasonably priced set ($6K/pair) with a retro 70’s vibe were the Super Seven T-c’s made by Speakerlab in Washington State. It seems like I have a definite ear for American craftsmanship.

Harvey and Ian, with Zu.

The coolest musical space, as usual, was the Zu Audio room – this time partnered with Pass Labs electronics and Mobile Fidelity turntables. I already own Zu speakers and was there just as much for the music as the Zu Druid Mk. VI towers. It was great to hear expertly selected records, from multiple crates, spun on two MoFi Ultradecks by young hip Zu employees.

I hit that room twice! The rest of the time, I just roamed the Marriott hallways waiting to be pulled in by exciting sounds or noticeable thumping, of which there was relatively little. In fact, the hotel staff should have left beds in place, because some of the audiophiles looked downright somnambulant.

Now, I’m not suggesting exhibitors feature Metal, Rap, and Latin music– or maybe I am. Can an aging, homogenous group of people support this industry indefinitely? Maybe a little musical and demographic variety would be a good thing. Change doesn’t have to be anything radical like woofer battles in the parking lot, but how about an occasional track by P-Funk, Beastie Boys, or A Tribe Called Quest played on an appropriate rig? Maybe some old-school Cuban and Salsa? It would be wonderful to hear cuts off Buena Vista Social Club or something by the 1970’s Fania All-Stars featuring Salsa legends Willie Colon, Johnny Pacheco, and the incomparable vocalist Hector Lavoe. Dare I say, a bit of Electronica for the Ecstasy crowd?

As a 52-year-old member of the same homogeneous group mentioned above, I have college-age nieces and nephews who have very little interest in sound-quality or stereos. They think a phone playing an ashtray-size wireless speaker sounds awesome, and that’s if they use a speaker at all. They like music through $20 headphones. One of my nieces recently claimed to like the Beatles, and I’ve been trying to get her over to listen to records on my modest $5K system. I want to sit her down at the top of the equilateral triangle and let her understand the point of all this boxy two-channel paraphernalia – even if it means playing Harry Styles.

I can’t believe it’s come to that.

Like an audio acquaintance of mine observed, shows are not necessarily targeted to music lovers, but rather to equipment lovers who adore music expressed through design, physics, and engineering. There is a difference. My local record-store owner and good friend plays his vast collection on an old beat-up DJ kit because he cares only about songcraft. Whenever I trade-in discs with noted flaws, he says my system is too good for my own good and that I’m missing the music in pursuit of vinyl perfection. As for hose-size cables and $10K turntables, “Idiotic!”

I guess I’m in the middle. I appreciate all the design and science to the extent of my understanding, but to me the music is paramount.

My tastes span many genres: 60% of my collection is Rock, but the rest is Jazz, Blues, Orchestral, and other. Never do I sit down for a session and listen to just one style of music. That’s why I would like to see more diversity in the rooms, and if it means annoying dealers, designers, and manufacturers, then I’ll do it.

Elevation sickness notwithstanding, I’m already looking forward to my next show in Denver. I’m bringing a whole new batch of dumb questions and unsophisticated musical requests. And maybe I should bring my own noise in 2019. How about some Public Enemy, Ruben Blades, or better yet, Slayer?