I couldn't wait for Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and Head-Fi.org's CanJam this year. As my friend Tasvee from Audeze said: "It's like a yearly reunion for audio enthusiasts and good friends alike". Both are true. There are friends that I only see once a year, and it's usually at RMAF. CES is nuts, and spread out. RMAF takes place is one large hotel: The Denver Tech Center Marriott – so most of us are bound to at least run by each other during the three-day event. The fact that RMAF 2014 and CanJam both take place in the same hotel, packed with music lovers and great sound seekers helps to create an atmosphere that is unique to this event. I used to call RMAF the Grateful Dead parking lot party of audio shows. Those of you who attended Dead shows know precisely what I'm talkin' about. The parking lot was where all the action was, from drum circles to dollar veggie burritos, to tripping fools and drunken deadheads. Sounds like a mad lot I know – but the vibe was always welcoming no matter how big or small the concert venue was. The same is true for RMAF. It's like a family affair. I credit Marjorie Beaumert, her fantastic team of volunteers (many of them actual family members) and her late husband Al for this wonderful phenomenon. A bunch of audiophiles getting together in one place, for three days, without a bunch of verbally venomous, hostile analog vs. digital wars and arguments over the "cable myth"? How in the world did this happen? I don't think we'll ever know. Maybe it's the altitude, maybe it's the fact that RMAF doesn't take place in Denver proper. It goes down in an industrial park a half-hour from downtown, so the people that make this pilgrimage really want to be there. That's how it feels anyway, and no matter how big or small, grandiose or understated, RMAF still provides an atmosphere all its own. That's how it feels to me and a bunch of friends anyway.
So is there something actually audio-related that also sets this show apart? Well, you've got a show for hard-core two-channel in-room audiophiles and Head-Fi's CanJam for high end personal audio enthusiasts. Sure, other hi-fi shows have dedicated headphone events now, but this is where it happened first – meaning CanJam isn't just a part of RMAF: a show-within-a-show born out of changes in the audio landscape. CanJam began as its own traveling show, dedicated to headphones and high performance computer audio (or "desktop audio" as its often called). I remember when Dave Clark took me to the first CanJam in Los Angeles near LAX in 2009. It was a tiny show, but a blast. It was different, younger, and there was a palpable sense of excitement there. We were seeing, and listening to wholly new high-end audio concepts. I remember Josh Heiners' futuristic Sonicweld Diverter being unveiled there by our dearly departed friend Lee Weiland of Cryoparts. The Diverter was also something Dave was itching for too (a USB-to-COAX converter, that also handled jitter issues – remember this was before the preponderance of USB DACs) as Dave was an early adopter when it came to high end computer playback. Dave and I came away from the event energized, and we talked about the future of high end audio. I was so inspired I started my What is the Future of the High End series for Positive Feedback. There was also a real sense of community at that event that I will never forget. It was, essentially, my first Head-Fi Meet (though it wasn't technically a Meet). Why would the sense of community be different there, aside from the newness of everything? CanJam is hosted by Head-Fi.org, the world’s largest forum-based headphone audio website. Head-Fi gets around 2,500,000 unique visitors a month, and currently has over three-hundred thousand members!
The cool thing is, even though it's that big
online (which is larger than the global audiophile community) thanks to
regional events, a.k.a Head-Fi Meets, that huge online tribe is strengthened
with each event, as its members get to know each other in the analog world!
Now, when I came up in the two-channel audiophile world working for The
Absolute Sound in the early nineties it felt like that global
community was starting to splinter, as stereo systems grew further and further
from the minds of average every-day consumers. Well, right now ninety percent
of the world's population who listen to music are imbibing it through
headphones! Now a lot of that has to due with the fact that people do more
than listen to music through cans, whether in-ear, on-ear or over-ear. We
communicate via headphones. How many people do you see everyday out there in
the world with little white earbuds in their ears, jabbering away? I bet you
see a few. So think about the community that's dedicated to turning that into
a transcendent listening experience just like two-channel in-room audiophiles!
I think the days of headphones vs. in-room systems should be over in your head
by now. If it isn't, well, just know that personal audio isn't a "passing
fad", as I overheard one high end loudspeaker manufacturer say at CanJam.
The community is growing stronger as the technology is getting better and
better all the time. Now, what could be bad about that? At RMAF, you get to
experience the event that's at the heart of all of it. There's a small
revolution happening (yeah, it's still small, relatively) and it is downright
fun. At CanJam, the music is fresh, there's that palpable feeling of
excitement when you walk through the doors, and there's already a strong
community built-up around the hobby of personal audio.
That community/industry/hobby has also come to include old school hi-fi companies like McIntosh: Who introduced their stunning MHA1000 headphone amp this year (which I reviewed at Audio360.org) and huge consumer electronics companies like Sony: Whose portable headphone amp/DACs are some of my favorite! My PHA-1 (iDevice/computer headphone amp/DAC) still has one of the blackest sonic backdrops of any portable I've heard! The thing is dead-quiet, and it's got a slick industrial look. I think Sony is taking advantage of the growth of personal audio, and proving they still have amazing engineers capable of great things. Their new music server and PHA series are both evidence of that (now on their PHA-3, which handles hi-res audio and DSD if I remember correctly). The rate of innovation in headphone-related products is also dizzying at the moment! Two years ago there weren't really any wireless headphone sets that grabbed me for example. Sennheiser had very capable wireless cans that were impressive technically, but they didn't really get me in the gut. There wasn't much soul to the sound. However, I don't want to take away from their efforts, as they continue to make some fantastic headphones (some of my favorite actually) but that was a hole in the market as far as I was concerned. Well, not only has PENDULUMIC introduced a wireless (Bluetooth) headphone that I love listening to music on (the Stance M1) but its also sharp-looking and great for cell phone calls – all at the ridiculous price of $200 bucks! Yeah, with my audio roots firmly planted in the high end audio world, that price boggles my brain. How the hell can PENDULUMIC manage to do this? Who cares! I was so taken with the headphones I'm working on a full review right now. They're also an energetic bunch of some of the nicest people I've met in years. Not only do we have new technologies like that being utilized and improved upon in personal audio, but we've also got some terrific stuff that's trickled down from high end audio: Like great tube electronics! Dennis Had, the man behind the globally respected Cary Audio, introduced a new tube amplifier at this year’s CanJam at the Moon-Audio.com booth! I loved it. It looked terrific, and had wonderfully silky mids, extended and controlled bass (but not so controlled it was lifeless) and glistening highs. Listening to that amp with my trusty Audeze LCD-XCs and Moon Audio Black Dragon V3 cables was one of the highlights of CanJam 2014 for me. I gotta get one of those bad-boys in here for review!
So the gear is hot and constantly getting
better and the community is tight. Doesn't that sound like a great movement to
be a part of for a music or high-fidelity addict? I think so! With community
comes friendship, and even more-so than the gear I couldn't wait to see and
spend time with some of my good friends! So, when boarding my plane at Oakland
airport bound for Denver on Thursday (set-up day: the day before RMAF kicked
off) I could barely contain myself! I brought along a personal audio arsenal,
even for the short two and a half hour plane trip! After all, I was on my way
to the Mecca of personal audio: Head-Fi's CanJam and Rocky Mountain Audio Fest
proper – where the very best of high-end consumer-level audio components are
there to soak up, kick back, and enjoy! And you know what we say here at Enjoy
the Music.com: In the end what really matters is that you... (Steven
says "enjoy the music" :) )
Luckily, because I do freelance work for RMAF too: I handle the social media for Marjorie Baumert – she always arranges for a car for me at the airport. No shuttle-waiting, no hoping for a ride. I get off the plane, grab my checked luggage (yeah, anybody who knows me will tell you I pack like a girl) and hook up with the driver. It's always a perfect start to what’s always turned out to be a splendid extended weekend audio getaway! However, this year that trip to the airport wasn't going to be as easy as I made it out to be this year, emotionally anyway. Without boring you with details: My cousin Kenny Gould (my older cousin, more like an older brother actually) who's accompanied me to RMAF the last two years in a row (we chose to make it a tradition) couldn't be with me this year for medical reasons. I know I know, what does this matter? I was heading to a place full of dear friends, state-of-the-art musical production hardware, and music has been something that has bonded Kenny and I together since I was ten years old! He's in his fifties, I'm thirty-nine, so there will always be that older brother kind of vibe between us. So, it may sound sappy, but I was sad when he wasn't there to meet me at baggage claim in Denver. He always time his plane to get in before mine so I could catch him at my baggage claim. This year, I was on my own. I knew I had plenty of friends and good acquaintances at the show, but it felt different nonetheless after wheels-down for me, I gotta express it. Music is a spiritual experience for me, nothing less. Given that Kenny works for Stevie Wonder, and some of my favorite recent hi-res remasters are of Stevie's old school records, like Talking Book and Music of my Mind – all 192kHz/24-bit files, I knew I'd think of him every-time I listened to "Big Brother"! I had to see if I manage without him thus year...