Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2019

Written by Frank Doris

Things change. That’s inevitable, and occasionally, it is for the better.

This year the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest moved from its familiar setting in the Denver Marriott Tech Center to the massive Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center. The lengthy name is appropriate for the gigantic facility: in addition to 1,000 or so hotel rooms, there’s nearly half a million square feet of exhibit space. If that number is hard to grasp—well, I averaged 3.5 miles of walking every day during the show. Wear comfortable shoes.

Audio folks worry and debate about everything, and the move of a longstanding show to a new venue, pretty well pegged the angst-meter. The concerns included the distance between the bigger exhibit rooms located in the Convention Center and the regular hotel rooms used as exhibit rooms. There were also concerns about cost, distance between the hotel and Denver proper, and on and on. And on.

I confess that I shared those concerns—but as it turned out, none of that mattered. The show was terrific.

I first visited the Gaylord back when the weather and skies were both wintry, and immediately thought of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. I wouldn’t be surprised if the header pic brought that to mind for you, as well. The interior has spaces large enough to house an upright Saturn V rocket—at least, it seems that way. Facilities and decor are a cross between Disney World and a Hollywood-ized hunting lodge. It helps if you like earth tones and plaids.

I say that not as a slam, but to help you visualize it. Enough about the new venue, what about the show? There were some first-show glitches–most prominent of which was a Press/Trade day on Thursday, which was a source of confusion. Oh, well. Better next year.

Big, no?

Escalators in the huge convention center, location of big rooms, headphones, the marketplace, and seminars.

Registration was busy—but the big hall prevented the bottlenecks that were commonplace at the old venue.

One of the oddities of RMAF, historically, is the fact that the show is often busiest on Friday. At most shows, Friday is a warm-up to the main event of Saturday—but Coloradans do cherish their weekends, and the show sometimes competed with Broncos games or The Great American Beer Fest. Neither of those draws was a factor this year, but at least from eyeballing the crowds every day, it did appear that Friday was again the heaviest day.

The PS Audio room was slammed the entire weekend, helped by a live Ask Paul seminar and Michael Fremer spinning discs in the room every day. Michael played great test-pressings, compared good and bad editions of records, and provided entertaining commentary the whole while. I mention that not as promotion, but as an explanation for why I didn’t see that many other rooms this year. As an exhibitor, it was terrific; as a show-reporter, not so much. My apologies.

Mikey at work.

The crowd at Michael’s first session included Sheryl Lee Wilson.

Of the big rooms in the convention center, there were four that I thought sounded terrific. The first—sorry—was PS’ own, featuring the very dynamic AN3 speakers; the second was put together by LA dealer High End By Oz, with a system that included Vitus Audio electronics, reel-to-reel by United Home Audio, and speakers from a company new to me, Lithuania’s Audio Solutions. The affable Greg Beron of UHA handled an after-hours playback session with copies of master tapes, and initially, I didn’t find the Audio Solutions Virtuoso M’s sound at all impressive. Well, it wasn’t—with unimpressive material. I came to realize that the character of the sound changed with every cut, with very little editorializing from the speakers: on compressed material, they conveyed that; on dynamic, bass-heavy material, they conveyed that. I found them very appealing, though others might prefer speakers that impose their own fingerprint upon the music. The speakers are also less-outrageous looking than most speakers their size (48 high, 165#) and price ($32k)—which may not work for those who like angular monoliths in Lamborghini Orange.

I enjoyed the session so much I didn’t take pictures. Oops.

Room #3? I am admittedly a sucker for both the sound and the story of Altec. In general, Altec speakers are the polar opposite of Audio Solutions, as there is a great deal of character imposed upon whatever they reproduce— and with the wrong electronics, the sound can be brutal. For many years, some vintage Altec drivers have continued to be made by Great Plains Audio in Oklahoma City, and now those drivers are used by the US/Mexican company Troy Audio, which purchased Great Plains. The Troy Audio Hellena Mk II speakers consist of two stacked enclosures (bottom with a 515 woofer, top with a 604 mid-bass/mid/low tweeter and a Fostex supertweeter) total 5′ high and 330#. The $120k version adds a massive Dueland-based external crossover; the model with internal xover was a paltry $80k. The rest of the system consisted of Thrax Audio electronics from Bulgaria, and one of Frank Schröder‘s beguiling tiny turntables with a Soundsmith cartridge. Sound was dynamic and smooth, and I liked it a lot.

Big speakers, big crossover, tiny turntable.

A closer look at that outboard crossover. Sheesh.

The dimensions of the turntable may have seemed toylike, but the sound was not.

Incidentally, Frank says he built the turntable to prove that a “properly-designed” turntable doesn’t have to be the size of the Trevi fountains to sound good. As is usual with Schröder, the sound was flawless.

The fourth room I liked in the convention center featured the big, pricey Göbel High End Divin Noblesse speakers, that I’ve previously heard at both Munich and Axpona (and I don’t name these things, I just report what’s there). Oliver Göbel is one of the more-approachable speaker geniuses I’ve encountered, and these speakers were powerful enough to shake the big room. US importer Bending Wave paired the $220k speakers with $150k of CH Precision electronics, a $66k Kronos turntable, and Lord knows how much worth of Göbel and Nordost cabling.

I can’t even absorb the idea of a home audio system costing half a million bucks; as with today’s megasuperhypercars, such things exist on a level far detached from my everyday existence, or ability to purchase them.

Oh, well: it’s fun to see and hear such things, and I’m not likely to score a Bugatti test-drive any time soon. Thank goodness for the democratization created by audio shows!

A bit of a hike is required to go from the convention center to the main hotel itself, where 69 “regular” rooms were spread over 9 floors. Compared to similar rooms at the Marriott, the rooms were smaller, but had fewer acoustic glitches. Most exhibitors I spoke with were happy with the sound they were getting.

Each floor had at least one multi-room suite, which allowed for a live demo and space for static exhibits. The most-impressive such room was that of Kimber Kable, featuring a system based around EMM Lab electronics and Focal speakers. As has always been the case with Kimber rooms, the sound was clear, musical, and powerful.

Ray Kimber, of course.

Don’t try lifting those amps—or the speakers. You’ll hurt yourself.

Boulder Amplifiers also had a large suite, featuring an unusual system centered around their electronics, speakers from Vienna Acoustics, and a 6-pack of REL subwoofers. Unexpectedly, the sound seemed light in the bass region.

Sony had a smaller suite, in which they had impressive static displays of a number of personal audio products, and a very impressive, surprising live demo of a desktop audio system which included a DAC, multiple amplifiers, DSP, and electronic crossovers—all built into a pair of relatively small speakers. Beautifully milled out of aluminum, the speakers were hefty—as was the price of $10k for the system. Sound quality was quite stunning, with strong, deep bass and holographic imaging. Now, if they could come up with 90% of the performance at 10% of the price….

Attractive products, beautifully made.

Okay, the magical desktop system wasn’t attractive—but it was beautifully made.

Going to the regular single rooms, I had to hit and run to see and hear things.

Jon Derda of MoFi distribution just keeps moving in front of their excellent MoFi/BAT/Falcon Acoustics system.

Mark Conti, formerly of Veloce Audio, was back with MC Audiotech. The speakers had an array of planar drivers and a pair of woofers in the lower enclosure. Interesting, and showing potential.

Larger models of Stenheim speakers have impressed in the past—but this spooky room was unattended when I stuck my head in.

Gordon Rankin at Wavelength always has interesting things—here’s one of his amps next to a DuKane/Vaughn ionic tweeter.

The full Wavelength/Vaughn system. Good sound, but not the lifechanging experience Herb Reichert had with the Vaughns a few years back. Admittedly—I heard one cut, while on the run.

LuKang was a new brand to me, and produced nicely refined sound. The speakers resembled Spendor/Harbeth/Audio Note.

The Wilson room sounded as though the room was overloaded, with two speakers plus two subs.

Alta Audio’s Mike Levy was producing good sound with Krell electronics through the new Alec speakers.

Steven Norber of Denver’s Prana Fidelity has made a wide range of speakers with all kinds of drivers. The common characteristics are great sound, powerful bass, and innate listenability. These were no exception.

While I didn’t see as much of the show as I would’ve liked, everything I saw and heard indicated that the show was a success, with better sound than most years. The atmosphere was energetic and upbeat, and my only complaint—other than sore feet—was that the brown-on-brown-on-plaid decor in most rooms made me feel as though I’d fallen into a 1972 Sears catalog. But that’s a picayune, irrelevant complaint.

I will be back next year, and anticipate another great show.

[Header pic provided by the Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center, a Marriott property.]

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