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RMAF 2013 Show Report -- Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2013
CanJam @ Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 
Bumpin' new tunes and hearin' new things.
Report By Michael Mercer

Sonic Satori: CanJam @ Rocky Mountain Audio Fest

 

  Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is my favorite hi-fi convention. I loved it so much I went to work for Marjorie Beaumert and her fantastic team of volunteers a couple years ago! When things start gearing up for the Fest's I help them out with RMAF's social media campaigns. Marjorie's salt-of-the-Earth. You gotta love her. Her passion for carrying on the legacy of her dearly departed husband, Al Steifel (they started Rocky Mountain Audio Fest together) always comes through and she's got such a great air of welcoming too. She's one of my favorite people.

So what do I find so special about RMAF? The people! Plain and simple. Since this is a consumer show, manufacturers get to toss the shackles of their suits and ties (unlike CES) and spend time with their friends and peers. We listen to the state-of-the-art two channel in-room systems in the hotel rooms and the best in headphones/personal audio in a grand ballroom. It is toy land at high altitude. Shows like this also present the opportunity to spend time with industry friends that you might only get to see a couple times a year. I know there are bigger shows, like Munich. But Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is the Grateful Dead parking lot party of audio shows. The vibe has always been positive, and you get to see crazy people. Shit, we're all crazy. Just look at what we do. We chase killer sound by any means necessary. Would you have it any other way? RMAF is where we go in the States to chill and experience the bleeding edge of the audio arts. It's also home to the largest high end headphone/personal audio show in the US (and in my opinion the best), period: Head-Fi.org's CanJam. What's not to love? It's also in Denver: So you know any consumer who bought tickets and attends is a devotee because they made the pilgrimage. Perhaps the altitude has something to do with it. Who knows. Bottom line: We're a small industry, built around a niche market. Many of us in the press, the manufacturers, reps, sales people, many of us know each other. RMAF is laid-back. It's about the magic behind what we do, not necessarily (all the time anyway) about the dollars.

It doesn't hurt me that the State has been enlightened enough to legalize weed either! If you're thinking something crass at this moment: Give me a fuckin' break. People get wasted on booze and act like animals. Frankly, I don't care and that's another attribute of RMAF: Most of the event is contained at the Denver Tech Center Marriott. So we all bottle neck into the Atrium Bar to get loose after (and sometimes during) the show. Social lubricants aren't a bad thing, but when people start actin' a fool it is time to take 'em to their room. And there's another advantage to having everything at one place: Come bedtime you can stumble to your room. Sound like fun? If you're into music playback, whether by iPod, turntable, cell, tablet or vacuum tubes: RMAF is the place to be.

Admittedly I spent nearly all my time at CanJam. Why? I'll try to summarize: I've been walking into those hotel rooms for twenty years now! It freaks me out. At 38 I've been in this wacky industry for twenty years. And the playlist hasn't changed in all that time! This is no joke. I wish it were. But if I hear "Keith Don't Go", Diana Krall, and Patricia Barber again at another show, all coming from rooms on the same floor (whew) I'm gonna puke. We did make it to a few rooms this year before getting disgusted (my cousin Kenny and I – not just me) with some of the overpriced madness posing as great hi-fi filling some of the rooms.

Audioengine was having a blast in their room when we showed up. I love those guys: Brett, Brady, Dave and Morgan. Good people and great products at prices that make you shake your head! I was so psyched to get one of the first production runs of their upcoming Dragonfly-like D3 headphone amp/DAC combo dongle! Its brushed aluminum is a sexy departure for them. The industrial look is sleek and modern. Since I got it home, I've been using it with my Mr. Speakers Alpha Dogs. With the Alpha's vocals are clear and pronounced. The midrange is rich and full-bodied. The bass is also surprisingly punchy and dynamic! I think this is going to be a winner for them if they position this product in a way that reaches beyond the already converted. An enthusiastic thumbs up thus far! They're new A2+ speakers with a built-in wireless DAC should also fly off the shelves over the holidays. Those things scream dorm room!

The only room sound that truly grabbed me came courtesy of Nordost. And, with everything they could be demo'ing, it was their voodoo built-in Sort Füt! A Beefed up and slick-looking' resonance control foot for loudspeakers! If your speakers are threaded for spikes they will accept the Sort Fut. The craziest thing? They set up this demo as perfect as can be. They had one system (all current Jeff Rowland stuff, including his incredible Fidelis DAC) set up and two pairs of the same loudspeakers set up. They were dialed-in for a sweet spot, both pairs. Paul would play a track (the whole track, thankfully, I hate quick cut-off music demos: It's the music we're chasing you idiots) using the speakers with the standard spikes. Then all they did was swap speaker cables to the same speakers on Sort Futs. The track I remember most, it was a female vocal and the track began with these raindrops. Well, I didn't even have to wait for the music to come on to hear the difference! The raindrops were different: More pronounced, sounding far closer to us. It was dazzling, and I admittedly sat there thinking what sort of voodoo is this, but I heard it and so did my cousin Kenny Gould. And he hates what I consider "audiophile bullshit" (like crazy expensive tweaks – even if they work – it's like, c'mon already). While the Sort Fut was doing its thing they were getting some terrific sound in there. The sound moved around the room with that rippling effect I'm constantly referring to. I gotta figure out some new language for that feeling. The system loaded the room beautifully, so detail retrieval was superbly executed. The soul of the music came through. I only wish I could remember what he was playing! Bravo to Paul Ritchotte and Meredith Gabor from Nordost for that splendid experience!

As I said earlier in this article I spent most of my RMAF time at CanJam. I'm just havin' a blast in the high end personal audio community. That community feels like high end audio used to feel back when I first started working at The Absolute Sound. I realize that many of us know each other as industry friends in the high end community. But I've met some of my closest friends through personal audio communities like Head-Fi.org! It's a generational thing. It makes sense. Ease of use with audio portability came of age during our adolescence. We got used to taking our music with us. We didn't wanna wait ‘til we got home to hear our music. We're entering an interesting time for high end personal audio. I'm understanding more and more that tons of people like me (age-wise, or closer to it than the average run of the mill audiophile) who always wanted better sound but didn't fall into the high end audio hobby as I did, so they needed to be practical! Enhancing portable and desktop audio, even though we're starting to experience a wave of high-priced gear in the market now, has always been reasonably done! And to experience some of the sonic breakthroughs that many of these companies are providing, again it sounds like history repeating itself. Stereo is cool again.

Now there was too much to hear at CanJam this year, but I got around as best I could. I was so proud of Jude Mansilla and Joe Cwik for their sheer dedication and elbow grease they put into all this to make CanJam happen. Also congrats to my dear friend Warren Chi for sexin' up the CanJam signage this year! It reminded me of Winter Music Conference in South Beach (and being in Denver at the time – that's impressive). It was amazing to see it transform and grow into an outstanding show! In 2009 it looked like a decent sized Head-Fi Meet in a big ballroom, with exhibitors’ tables around the outside walls. This year we had rows of demonstrations to explore and a lounge set up in the middle to chill! It was splendid. One of the products I was so eager to try was the Schiit Audio Vali tube headphone amplifier: $119! My buddy Warren Chi and I got a sneak peak at the board a couple of months before CanJam. So I was jonzing to hear it.

I couldn't believe the level of performance for $119 bucks. This headphone amp should put a few of their competitors on notice. The soundstaging was wide and deep. The sound punchy and airy at the same time. Most importantly, the timbre was warm and engaging, clear and seemingly unveiled. It was an easy and exciting listen. Hearing that amp with their acclaimed Modi DAC convinced me that it can hang with products five times the price. If I didn't have an office full of them right now, I'd get the Vali. It slammed, plus had the capabilities for handling nuance without being too polite. It's all class.

I was amp'ed to hear the two new offerings from Audeze at CanJam: Their closed-back design, the LCD-XC and a new member of the open-back LCD series – the LCD-X. Finally, after teasing us with the prototype closed-back model at last year’s CanJam we got to indulge in the final product: The LCD-XC. A few of us that participated in the headphone meet during Headmasters at the California Audio Show got to hear a prototype of the LCD-XC a couple of months earlier. I was blown away!

And I was blown away again with the production model. Now that I've been living with it for two weeks I know what I heard at CanJam wasn't all psycho-acoustics! Well, can you ever truly know how much is psycho-acoustic and how much is perception? And do we really give a shit? I know I don't. The LCD-XC should be paired with a powerful and musical tube headphone amp and proper DAC: like at the Audeze booth. They had an ALO Studio Six and MYTEK Stereo-192 DSD DAC. That combo is one of my current top reference rigs, so these conditions for my demo couldn't have been better! The bass weight and velocity was sickeningly good. The mids and highs crisp and coherent. I could've sat there all day.

But admittedly my most anticipated listening experience was with the new LCD-X! I got to hear the prototype of the LCD-X in the morning at Headmasters months earlier. I was helping my friends at Audeze set up one of their Eddie Current tube amp rigs. Luckily I lent them my dCs DAC, and so I had my MacBook Pro/Amarra rig with me to test the set-up and make sure everything was good. I didn't wanna stop listening to the LCD-X then, and I didn't wanna stop at CanJam. I've said this on Head-fi.org: But when I heard the LCD-X I thought I was hearing the next evolution in the LCD line-up. I got the full-bodied sound of my LCD-3 with the wide open soundstaging of my Sennheiser HD800's! It was a grand experience. Listening to Alix Perez's "Chroma Chords" (off the album of the same name), I couldn't keep from bobbin' my head and laughing to myself! The detail was outrageous. The music swooned, it ebbed and flowed like liquid. I was transfixed. I wanted more.

I know there's been some confusion about where the LCD-X sits in comparison to the LCD-3 now, considering the price tag is only $1,699. I can't speak to that honestly as I trust Audeze. They've never steered me wrong. I'm eager to compare the two over here with my reference desktop rigs!

 

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