RMAF 2018 Show Report -- High-End Home Audio
This is the first Rocky Mountain International Audio Fest (RMAF) I've had the opportunity to attend since the remodel to the Denver Marriott Tech Center two years ago (2016). My last, which was also my first by the way, was in 2015. That had been wonderful show and a marvelous experience, having one of the most relaxed and festive atmospheres of any show I could recall attending to that point, so I was very much looking forward to returning to cover this year's event.
I'm sorry to have to report that the overall sounds of this year's show were, well, they were surprisingly not good. Save for a handful of simply stunning rooms, like those from Axiss, Synergistic Research, Omega / AlsyVox, and most especially, The Audio Company, I was completely underwhelmed with overall sonic achievements this year.
I was also a bit surprised at attendance. Typically, shows open to the public, i.e., shows open to those outside the industry, that run across both weekdays and weekends exhibit similar patterns. Friday may have a strong attendance, but Saturday's are normally frenetic, with easily the highest single day attendance for the event, with Sundays slowing drastically after mid-day, and being virtually dead by early afternoon.
One small part of the CanJam displays, in the Atrium area of the Marriott.
I was really amazed at how packed the hallways and rooms were on Friday; my take away was that Saturday would be a zoo. Surprisingly, it was not much worse, if even as busy, as Friday had been. Now, I admit that I was working different areas of the show on both days, but I went out of my way to both visit some of the same areas Saturday as I had Friday, and to ask some of the vendors what their perceptions were. Almost everyone, save those with outstanding sounding rooms, which drew crowds regardless, felt as I did, that Friday had been somewhat busier. Quite odd.
Into The Frey...
The event started off socially, with delicious hors d'oeuvres, beverages, and conversation among all the attendees, followed by an engaging factory tour led by founder Yoav Geva. Our tour concluded in YG's dedicated, and newly refinished, listening room, giving us all an opportunity to hear an extremely limited lacquer pressing of one of Devialet's "Lost Recordings." Over the past few years, Devialet has released a handful of limited-edition vinyl LP's (just 900 numbered copies each) of rediscovered "lost" recordings of jazz greats in live performance. It was our great pleasure to listen to a rare 1961 recording of Ella Fitzgerald, "Live at the Concertgebouw," in Amsterdam.
The newly remodeled YG Acoustics listening room with the Sonja 2.2 Devialet collaboration.
The collaborative system was an interesting amalgamation, starting with a special variant of YG's traditional Sonja 2.2. In this case, they bypass YG's unique DualCoherent passive crossover and instead employ a Devialet developed DSP crossover and new Extreme SAM technology incorporated into Devialet's flagship Expert 1000 amplifiers.
While the YG Acoustics Sonja 2.2 in the fully passive crossover version retails for $76,800 a pair, this special Devialet AXD DSP crossover version price is still to be determined. Power was provided by three pairs of the Devialet Expert Pro 1000 amplifiers, at $34,900 per pair, ($104,700), with all processing done by the first Expert 1000 of the six in the chain. The lacquer we heard was played on the superb Kronos Pro turntable, featuring the SCPS1 power supply, and the 12-inch Black Beauty tonearm ($62,500), fitted with the revered Air Tight Opus 1 cartridge ($15,000).
The recording was unique, rendering a very entertaining performance from Ella, and featured a humorous song mis-queue, and its restart, clearly capturing what has made her the First Lady of Song, her tonal purity, unique phrasing, intonation, and impeccable diction. I will watch with great curiosity to see how this venture unfolds.
Back at the Marriott after lunch, another unique launch was held at the NOU room, on the 11th floor. NOU Audio (pronounced "new") introduced a new product line, as well as introducing a new Channel Islands Audio amplifier. Dusty Vawter and Dan Wiggins bring something like 7 decades of audio design experience to this new high-end transducer line. NOU Audio transducers are their attempt at setting a new bar in terms of dynamics and resolution, with massive amounts of engineering going into creating drivers meant to offer the lowest self-noise on the market today.
Small in stature, but big sounding, from top to bottom, Tidal streaming with the CIA PLC1 Passive Preamp, Sonos, and the new CIA C-100 S amplifier.
The first offerings, the W130 and T25S, were shown in an extremely compact but truly full-range speaker, which Dusty affectionately called the "Creamsicle." Though the speaker as shown was not for sale, it was an extremely effective way to demonstrate the quality of the new drivers. Using a prototype Channel Islands Audio DMC1 Media Streamer (price to be determined) to stream Tidal over Sonos, the Channel Islands Audio PLC1 passive preamplifier ($999), and the C-100 S amplifier ($1494/shipping in late November), a new 100Wpc into 8 Ohms, or 180Wpc into 4, drove the "Creamsicle," in an amazing sounding demo.
An exploded view of the NOU W130 driver, with the motor structure, the "S" shaped spider, and the sectioned cone.
I must admit to being taken by the way they recreated the space of recordings, and their rich, vivid tone. Listening to "Bird on a Wire," from Johnny Cash's American Recordings, I was moved by the amazing sense of his chesty, thick, vocals, as well as the rich texture of his guitar. They played another cut for me that I was unfamiliar with, but that featured a children's toy xylophone. You could quite easily and clearly differentiate the individual strikes on each separate key as they moved, only inches, across the instrument. What a superb launch.
The Magico M3 in an impressive demo in the Synergistic Research room.
One of the most striking demos' I've heard in years came at the hands of Synergistic Research's Ted Denney in room 5018. Using an exceptional system, including the Baetis Reference 2 server ($14,620), the Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 with MQA ($21,3950), the Constellation Audio Virgo III preamplifier ($32,000), a Constellation Audio Centaur II stereo amplifier ($55,000), and the Magico M3 loudspeakers with MPods ($85,000), all hitched together using Synergistic Research cables, Ted demonstrated the effectiveness of his combined passive and active treatment devices.
The entire demo was roughly 25 minutes in duration, but it boiled down to this. Ted played a track for about 90 seconds or so, then repeated it, to allow us to get familiar with it. Then, he'd make a change to the different active or passive devices in the room, then replay the same track for us. To say that the changes in timbral integrity, space, and focus were staggering with each demo just doesn't even begin to cover it.
I've learned from decades of experience with such things, that the differences that room correction or treatment devices can make is significant. But, let me talk about the most surprising demonstration of the event. Ted again played a track for about 90 seconds or so, then repeated it for us. He then removed five tiny items, called Wide Angle HFT's, each about the diameter of your pinky and about two, maybe three, nickels thick, one from the center of the front of the room, attached to one of his active devices, 1 from each side wall, and finally, one from each side of the back wall... When he resumed play after the 90 to 120 seconds it took to take them down, it sounded like a different mix. There was a distinctly cooler shift in timber, the soundstage had literally collapsed, and there was a more than slightly noticeable loss of focus. My jaw dropped and Ted just smiled. As I said, this was one of the most effective and powerful demonstrations I've seen in years! Well done, Ted.