Rocky Mountain High
Editorial By Robert Harley
The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (full report in our next issue and on-line now in blogs at avguide.com) has matured into a significant hi-fi show, and one that offers a different picture of high-end audio than the one presented at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). For starters, there's the venue -- Denver vs. Las Vegas -- a geographical disparity that reflects the vast cultural differences between the two shows. Although both are about the audio business, at CES the emphasis is on business rather than on music. Rocky Mountain couldn't be more different. The show has the vibe of a bunch of music and hi-fi enthusiasts (the industry) getting together to share sounds with strangers (show-goers) who happen into their rooms. If the manufacturers get some business out of it, great. If not, everyone still enjoyed some music and had a good time.
The price of admission for manufacturers and distributors is so low compared with CES that Rocky Mountain brings out a host of designers and inventors we'd never otherwise hear about. I'm astonished at every Rocky Mountain show by the sheer number of underground companies introducing new products. This is a show in which guys who have toiled in obscurity -- often in their garages -- finally get a chance to show off their handiwork. There's always someone who believes that he can make a better amplifier, or cable, or loudspeaker -- especially loudspeaker. Some of these mavericks have dreams of hitting the big time (well, relatively speaking) and becoming part of the high-end audio establishment. Others are simply content to share their creations with fellow enthusiasts. One would think that the relatively mature category of power amplifiers wouldn't be ripe for innovation, but several new companies showed ambitious amplifiers, usually hand-built to order by the amplifier's designer.
I'm always heartened to see individuals pushing the envelope and trying new things. A good example is the Granada loudspeaker from The Lotus Group that combines a super-exotic (and super-expensive) Feastrex field-coil driver in an open baffle with a DSP crossover. The design was radically different, but so was the sound -- completely natural, relaxed, and "un-hi-fi-like." I could have sat and listened to this system for hours. We're thankful for individuals who pursue their dreams and build (and demonstrate) new technologies and approaches -- they are the ones who keep alive high-end audio's core values and breathe new life into the field.
Of course, Rocky Mountain wasn't just about the tweaky and obscure -- most of the big names started showing up about four years ago when word got out that this was a show not to be missed. I was one of just a handful of journalists at the first small show and have watched its evolution with great interest. That first RMAF was almost like an expanded audiophile-club gathering, but the more mainstream high-end companies soon changed the show's flavor to that of a major international hi-fi event. By Year Three, a few famous European designers made the trek to Denver; by Year Five, it was a veritable
Who's Who of the world's greatest high-end designers and company owners.
The beauty of today's show is that it brings together a diverse spectrum of gear created for a diverse spectrum of consumers -- beautifully made mainstream components for the non-tweaky music lover as well as hand-built exotica for the hobbyist. Rocky Mountain is also notable for the juxtaposition of the old and the new. You'll see more turntables and analog gear here than at any other show (except perhaps an upcoming show in Portugal in which
only analog sources are allowed!), but also more innovations in computer-based audio, DACs, and music storage on hard-disk. It's a testament to the diversity of paths to the absolute sound that turntables and tubes share equal billing with USB DACs and music servers. And that, ultimately, is what makes the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest so great -- the richness of its diversity, the passion of its exhibitors and attendees, and the communal sense of a love of music.
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