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Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2004
Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2004
Report By Todd Warnke

  Since Steven has already posted his thorough show report, I'll not duplicate his work and instead I'm just going to present my impressions of the show, sorta from the viewpoint of an attendee, sorta from the perspective of an audio journalist (Hey, no laughing there in the back!) I live in Castle Rock, which is just about 15 minutes south of Denver and have lived in the Denver area for about 15 years now and have gotten to know a fair amount of people involved in the local audio scene.  When word first hit that there was going to be a MAJOR audio show here most of the folks I spoke with were, quite frankly, shocked. This cow-town has only a few audio stores that are worth anything at all and so at first blush it would seem that the audio market is quite small.  But looking deeper reveals a different story.

First, Denver and its surroundings support several outstanding small/home audio companies that demonstrate and sell a wide range of audio products. John Barnes at Audio Unlimited and Ron Welborne of Welborne Labs are two of the more widely known but Colorado Audiophile Sound & Design and Audio Federation are but two more of an expanding list of dealer/enthusiasts in the area. And second, Colorado also boasts a broad and interesting array of manufacturers.  Avalon Acoustics, Ayre Electronics and Boulder Labs are in Boulder.  Colorado Springs has Jeff Rowland Design Group and Green Mountain Audio.  The Denver metro area has Audio Magic, Teres Audio and Galibier Design while PS Audio is located just up I-70 in the mountains. Together this group makes it entirely possible to assemble a complete, first-rank made in Colorado system.  So, on further reflection, it looks like Denver could be a good place for an audio show, that is, if there is a good place outside of New York. Still, with the generally decreased interest in high-end, two-channel audio I have to admit I figured this baby was a guarantee to go splat.


I Was Wrong
Held in the Marriott Tech Center Hotel, the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest had about 70 exhibitor rooms and several large auditoriums hosting smaller, niche venders as well multiple and well attended seminars and training sessions. While Colorado companies and local audio stores held sway in quite a few of the rooms, companies from as far away as Asia and Europe were in attendance. To me this was especially surprising as the Stereophile show, set for early November, had yet to be cancelled, so most if not all of these manufacturers were committed to returning to the US in less than 4 weeks. Kudos have to go out to the show organizers for being able to convince people like Audio Note and Linn to send full size demos. Of course, in hindsight and in light of the fact that the Stereophile show was canceled, this turned out to be a positively brilliant idea.

Speaking of, somewhat paradoxically the cancellation of the Stereophile West Coast show may auger well for the future of this show.  Attendance, if not up to the packed lemming levels of the Stereophile shows in New York, LA or Chicago, was robust enough to prove that you can bring 'em in at a mainstream audio show outside of the three biggest cities in the US and without the sponsorship of Stereophile.  And without the costs of those large cities and the Primedia show.  Sure, other shows like VSAC in Washington State have found success, but they cater to a niche market.  And while I have no inside line with the show promoters I did hear that they covered costs and are looking to do it again.  Good for me, as one of the nicest things about the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is that I was able to cover an audio show and still put my boys to sleep in their own beds.

Two more nice things about a local show.  First, the show took place over the weekend of the Japanese Grand Prix so I was able to invite a small group of F1 addicts to my house for Italian espresso, Scotch liquor, Cuban cigars and to see a Ferrari victory.  And second, review gear requests are infinitely easier to fill when you can say, "I can be here Sunday evening and we can load it directly into my Jeep."  Yes, I did get some cool toys to play with after the show.

Oh, one more thing, Steven is both a better photographer than I am and has a far better camera, so I took only a few pictures. That out of the way, here is my quick take on what gear excited me. 

First on my tour of the best/most enjoyable rooms is the Cogent True-to-Life Loudspeakers room.  Forgive the awful photo the room was almost completely dark and my poor flash simply could not cover the approximately 40 feet of distance in this picture.  As for the sound, it was breathtaking as well as being an intriguing mix of the ancient and the cutting-edge.

That big box in the center is the Cogent "Big Ed true horn subwoofer."  At something like 7.5 feet high and 8 feet wide (though only about 18 inches or so deep), this thing, under normal circumstances would dominate a room.  But these are not normal circumstances as you can tell by those other large horn thingies.  The Chiaroscuro, they are called.  At about 5 feet tall, 4 feet wide and 5 feet deep, they more than held their own with the Subs.  A two-way horn system, the Chiaroscuros were very nimble, articulate and very non-horn-like.  With an analog source based on a Teres Audio turntable, the retro was well represented.  But with a digital source from VRS Audio System the bleeding edge was also present.  Both sources sounded magnificent.  If I had a 40 x 50 listening room, this system would be high on the list to fill that space.


Next up is the new Cabasse loudspeaker, the BAHiA from the newer Altura line.  If you know Cabasse you know they simply cannot bring themselves to make a conventional cabinet, so while an oval shape is not that odd, if you turn it sideways it becomes a bit unusual.  Of course, sonics not shape matters, and sonically the BAHiA was a stunner.  It always helps to turn my crank if the manufacturer uses real music to demo with and Dale Fontenot of Cabasse North America earned my eternal gratitude with his unprompted playing of a Boz Scaggs  track, Thanks to You from the superbly recorded Dig album.  While I love this album for its music, Fontenot proved to me it is also a demo worthy disk.  With deep but tuneful bass, cymbals, tasteful guitar and an upfront vocal, it came across so much better than I'm used to hearing it that I immediately asked to review the pair.


Helping the Cabasse sound wonderful was the Art Audio Carissa.  An 845, single-ended triode 16 watt amplifier, the Carissa can be ordered with a minimalist, internal volume pot and was used this way at the show.  Joe Fratus of Art Audio spent months testing and measuring the performance of the 845 and as a result of that research developed a custom power transformer that... ah... transforms the performance of the 845.  So much so that, in the middle of a loud demo, when someone asked Mr Fratus how much power the amplifier was putting out I mis-heard and thought he said 60 watts.  Now, I know a pair of 845s cannot do that in single-ended triode mode, so I spent the next 5 minutes trying to figure how Joe was doing that when I realized that he said 16.  Yeah, it rocks.  But with full-range, amazing finesse as well.


 Dan Wright of ModWright has helped the budget audiophile achieve great sound for years with his mods to existing products.  In the above photo you can see one of his most famous and effective mods, the redo of the Sony SACD player.  But just above that is something even more intriguing, his all new preamplifier. At less than $2,000, this tubed linestage was simply amazing as it sounded the equal of products 3 and 4 times its price.


Vu, of DejaVu Audio in Washington DC is working on his own line of audio products. Colorado Audiophile Sound and Design was showing his new 300B power amplifier (retail of about $4,500) and I was swept away with its harmonic detail, smooth and yet completely engaging sound.


Colorado Audiophile Sound and Design was also showing the newest CD player from Berendsen in Germany.  With giant-killer sound, this retail $2,295 player looks and sounds like a real bargain. Oh yeah, just below it there on the rack is the new Vu designed pre-amplifier stage. At about $6,500 with phono stage, it's a sweetie too.


Spendor was at the show with a two-channel into home theater loudspeaker setup. In this picture you can see the S5e and S9e floorstanding loudspeakers.  With matching center-channel, hang on the wall surrounds and a Spendor subwoofer, the sound was highly articulate but non-fatiguing. Perfect for a system that must serve both the music and loud-TV G-ds.


Richard Kohlruss of VMAX Services was in attendance and showing new products from Unison, Opera, Audio Analogue and Triangle.  Wow, that's a lot of work for one man!  Fortunately, besides being one of the nicest guys in audio, Mr. Kohlruss is also one of the hardest working.  While most of his display was static, the above pictured Unison integrated amplifier was music to the eyes.

Lastly, audio shows are or most probably should not be about the sound alone.  While waiting for an elevator I struck up a conversation with a young man who said he was an artist/metal sculptor as well as speaker designer.  He was a very personable though shy gentleman and I was intrigued, which is why I found myself in the Ocean Acoustic room.  It really is a shame I did not have my good, 35mm camera with me as this sonic sculpture was beautiful.  Please don't ask how it sounded as I neither listened to it nor do I believe that sound is the sole purpose of this piece of art.


Parting Thoughts
As I walked the hallways it hit me why public shows are so much better than industry/press only events. Women. Sure, you go to CES and there are people of the female persuasion at booths, but they aren't real women, more like breathing ads. Ok, I know that when they leave the show floor they are real women, but from Thursday through Sunday and between 9 and 6 their purpose is to draw you into an exhibit and then hand you over to a sales guy not hector you, cajole you, listen to you, humor you, laugh with you and laugh at you. You know, like real women do. And at a public show the halls are filled with women.  Some are there with their male counterparts, but sometimes the men are there as the guests.  And seeing people of both genders enjoy fine audio is a thrill. I know at my house audio is a full-family event and it should be the same at shows.

Another reason I enjoy public shows is that I learn so much from watching and eavesdropping.  At the large, dealer-sponsored home theater exhibits there were a ot of people making private comments I loved. Things like, "Too loud", "Too bright sounding" and, "Too complicated". And that was just the guys!

Seriously, I overheard a great many comments about home theater that mirrored my own feelings. Chief among them was that while impressive, the loud TV stuff was just too expensive for the return.  Interestingly, I overheard far fewer comments about price in the two-channel rooms.

There was also quite an interest in two-channel gear, especially the "affordable" stuff. Now being high-end audio, affordable is a relative and sliding term, but based on what I voyeur'ed at the show, affordable ranges from under two to three thousand for individual components and up to perhaps twice that for loudspeakers.  I found this quite interesting, as to me affordable had always meant under 2k, period. But based on hallway conversations I now see the audio marketplace as having four distinct levels. Entry, at under a thousand or so per component and up to perhaps twice that for a pair of loudspeakers. Affordable at the previously mentioned level. The Good Stuff, at up to about 10k per component and maybe 15k for loudspeakers. And, lastly, the Statement stuff at ego is the limit pricing.

So, there they are, my impressions of the first Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. I sincerely hope that there is another one next year or at the least the year after for me to write about. The facilities were excellent, the entertainment superb (Patricia Barber played Friday night) and the number of exhibiters impressive. Good show guys!


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