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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 34
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Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2007: The Audio Oasis! Awards, a photo essay
by David W. Robinson

 

[All images and image processing by Robinson]

Fall 2007…time for football, food, friends…and fests of audio! Once again, Denver was the site for the fourth annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF), an event that has become my personal favorite. Fine audio ought to be fun, and its shows should give us opportunities to listen to great music, see and hear excellent audio designs and their designers, meet audiobuds old and new, and remember why it was that we fell in love with audio in the first place. Unfortunately, that usually doesn't happen. Apart from the VSAC shows of years back (due to be revived in 2008, I hear), RMAF is the only gathering I've attended that really delivers that special experience. I haven't been to a Stereophile/HE event in years; it was too much like a cut-down CES for my taste. (Apparently there won't be an HE show in 2008; the new owners of Stereophile have nixed it, according to a reliable source.) And as for CES—well, when you stir together Las Vegas and 200,000+ people, it just becomes grinding work, depressing unless you happen to have an appetite for the crass and vulgar at all levels. And it's far too large to be personal in any meaningful way.

Just what we need: audio events that alienate.

That's why I've been very thankful that Al Stiefel and Marjorie Baumert and their helpers have been able to build up RMAF into an annual audio event that I do not miss. Dave and Carol Clark and I have attended all four RMAF's from 2004 until now, as have a number of the members of the Positive Feedback Online gang. (We had a baker's dozen or so of our urchins along for this one.)

Why does this show work for us? Well, I'd say that the combination of a central location, reasonable pricing for rooms, an excellent site (Denver Marriott Tech Center) with plenty of hotel space for audiophiles, lots of fine restaurants close at hand, and just the right amount of attendee traffic, makes for a brilliant gathering—which is just what we had.

To tell you the truth, I go for the people more than for the audio gear. Don't get me wrong: audio kit is great fun, and the rooms and their music are a treat, but it's the audio friends that I enjoy the most.

For example…

PFO's Bob Levi and his good friend Chuck Bruce of the Atlanta Audio Society.

Good friend Chris Sommovigo of Signals Superfi.

PFO's music reviewer Bob Neill, also owner of Amherst Audio.

More audio acquaintances: Jack and Todd Garfinkle of M٠A Recordings, whose work is so fine that I own nearly every one of their titles. I freely confess to buying a stack of their work for reference here at PFO. Check out their excellent work at http://www.marecordings.com. Highly recommended!

"Hold it!" PFO's Dave and Carol Clark photograph Albert Porter photographing them …while Ye Olde Editor photographs ...well, you get the idea.

I have a very long-standing tradition of making photographs of Carol Clark enjoying various adult potables …in this case, a pleasant ale. The tradition is upheld: cheers! from all of us at Positive Feedback Online.

Some fine guitar sets were to be had at the RMAF atrium, courtesy of the good folks at Zu Audio. By the way, that's the Zu Druid in the brilliant red finish to the left (another is to the right, off camera), being used as the performing speaker for these sets. As a guitarist, I was really taken by the result …wouldn't mind plugging a pair of the Zu's into my Mesa Boogie Road King II's stereo external outputs!

Purveyors of music were to be found at RMAF 2007, as well. Here's my ol' audiobud Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds, found where he can usually be found: pitching some great vinyl reissues. Several others were in the media room, though I didn't see Elusive Disc this year.

This article is not a show report per se, however. We have other RMAF 2007 show reports in Issue 33 that give you an overview of the 140+ rooms that were on display. Instead, most of what I'll be doing is announcing my Audio Oasis! awards for the best rooms that I heard this year. Audio shows are notorious for mediocre-to-atrocious sound; you don't have to go far to find the reason for this, either. Hotel rooms generally make indifferent audio display sites, especially when they're side by side, and sandwiched layer upon layer. Power is usually inadequate, and rooms share circuits promiscuously. Acoustical treatments are usually not available widely, and combinations of equipment are all too often tossed together in quick shotgun marriages of convenience, as panicky exhibitors rush about to supply gaps in their preparation or replace components that are KIA.

The results shouldn't surprise us—and usually they don't, sad to say. That's why I'm actually pleased when I hear rooms that are better than they should be, given the limitations of a show. That's why I decided to start recognizing such "merit under fire" with my Audio Oasis! awards, first handed out after CES a couple of years ago. The Audio Oasis! tells you where I found music, magic, and a place of real sonic merit…an oasis…in the midst of rooms that were less than they could be. "Oasis" rooms drew me in; others did not.

Please remember that I was not able to get to every one of the rooms at RMAF 2007, so these awards are not comprehensive. I could have easily missed something in the two days that I was visiting the rooms (Friday and Saturday). Note also that these awards are not ranked in any way at all; there is no "best of show" or "best sound" room. I present them in no particular order. The reader should use these simply as reports from the field, as I heard them. If anything looks interesting, you'll have a point of departure for further research and listening on your own.

By the way, a note to exhibitors at audio shows: One of the big problems with covering these events is keeping the rooms, exhibitors, and ESPECIALLY the specific equipment on display straight. There's a lot of time pressure for audio journalists, and mistakes are easily made, and hard to fix. Carol Clark came up with a good idea at the last CES: she handed out equipment forms in every room that she and Dave Clark visited. Exhibitors filled these out …or they didn't get covered. (You go, girl!)

Even better yet, however, was what I saw in a number of rooms at RMAF 2007: printed lists of "equipment on display," complete with room number and current pricing. Now THAT'S what I'm talkin' about. This is the best help to audio journalism that I've seen in years …though I also really like CD-Rs of image files, spec sheets, and .PDFs of related materials. I think that all exhibitors at all future audio shows should bring lots of "equipment on display" lists. Believe me, it will assure that your room is properly covered by those of us who are only human, after all.

Good for you; good for us.

To those who already get it: many thanks!

And enough said.

Onwards to the rooms…

The Audio Oasis! award winners.

The Merlin Music Systems/Joule Electra/Cardas Audio/Critical Mass Systems room.

No surprise at all here. Bobby Palkovic and Rich Brkich's rooms have been intensely musical and always pleasing for many years now. Once again, Bobby and Rich were demonstrating the excellent synergy that the Joule Electra VZN-100 Marquis Mk. IV monos (100-watts per channel of OTL, 6C33CB-based) have with the Merlin VSM-MXE speakers and Cardas cabling. I am very experienced with these Joule Electras on the exceptional CMS stands made by Joe Laverncik. If you are looking for quick, luscious, wonderfully integrated sound—this is it!

Two good friends: Bobby Palkovic and Rick Brkich.

Bobby Palkovic standing next to a culmination his life's work (so far!): the Merlin VSM-MXE.

The ModWright Instruments/Redpoint Audio Design/Art Audio/Studio Electric/FLK Marketing Room.

This room was a real change of pace, showing that there's no accounting for (my) taste when it comes to Audio Oasis! recognition. Turntables sharing the space with streaming audio …all with Art Audio tubes powering Studio Electric loudspeakers. The sound was very satisfying at all times.

Another Pacific Northwest boy does good: Dan Wright of ModWright with a stack of truly cool ModWright components…

…great looking, and great sounding kit. That's the SWL 9.0 line preamp on the middle shelf, and his new LS 36.5 tube line stage with balanced I/O on the bottom. On top: the ModWright-modded Slim Devices Transporter. Fine audio reaches a new generation!

Pretty hard to top this for current-generation coolosity. Want to stream your server-based recordings to your stack? Here ye be, tubed analog output, power supply and all. More information is at http://www.modwright.com/products/index.php?product_id=28. Recommended for all of you who are into streaming media and server-based audio; I certainly enjoyed it.

Peter Clark wasn't in the room when I photographed his eye-catching turntable, but one of the "room associates" was there, and stood in for him. Here's the Redpoint Model D table, on parade. Peter, I like you a lot, and you're a handsome mature gent, but I have to say that your stand-in is prettier, eh? (See Dave and Carol Clark's RMAF 2007 reports for a photo of friend Peter, at http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue33/rmaf7.htm.)

The E.A.R. USA Room

Chronologically, this was the first room to win an Audio Oasis! award. From the very first, Dan Meinwald's presentation was musically superb in its selection of recordings …all LPs when I had anything to say about it… which sounded exceptional on the all E.A.R. playback stack. The speakers are the new E.A.R. Primary Drive loudspeakers, a three-way dynamic dipole design, with exposed tweeters on top. The sound was extremely musical during each of several visits that I made.

Dan's component rack included the excellent E.A.R. Disc Master magnetic suspension turntable, outfitted with two Helius Omega tonearms, the one to the right (standard position) with a Dynavector XV1S stereo cartridge, while the one in the rear sported a Dynavector XV1S mono cartridge. Rare stuff! The next shelf down featured the E.A.R. Acute CD player; beneath that is the E.A.R. 868 preamp, while on the bottom shelf was the E.A.R. 890 amplifier.

A closer look at the E.A.R. Disc Master turntable. The base is an attractive aluminum, acting as the foundation for a magnetic impulsion drive; there is no direct contact between the drive motor and the spindle system. This is a very sweet turntable, and produced music that was very hard for me to resist.

E.A.R. USA's Dan Meinwald demonstrated the playback of some choice mono LPs that he had brought with him.

My personal favorite was the original 1950(!) pressing of Duke Ellington's Masterpieces by Ellington. Via the Dynavector mono, the sound was incredibly immediate, very clean, and spilling over with real presence. Not only that, but I got to hear a performance of "Mood Indigo" that went on for some eleven minutes, allowing Ellington and company to really explore some variations that were new to me. To say that this session was the personal highlight of the show for me is an understatement. It was an exceptional experience, one that furthered my audio education.

Dan Meinwald with a monoraul pressing of Ellington Indigos (left) and the marvelous 1950 monoraul Masterpieces by Ellington (ML 4418). Sublime! Many thanks, Dan.

It was also a revelation of the glories that great performances on mono can have: layering (you don't need stereo for that, surprisingly enough), texture, rich enveloping tone, and atmosphere by the ton. Dan was sharing with anyone who has EARs to hear (not everyone does!) how good such mono LPs can be, properly played back. Dan even did a comparison of mono playback via mono vs. stereo cartridges. The Dynavector stereo did a good job, but the noise floor was noticeably increased (more tics/pops) with a stereo MC. This demonstration made it clear to me that if you're serious about mono, invest in a good mono setup. In the case of the Disc Master, getting a second tonearm is quite feasible …just the thing for the serious collector.

More Friends…

Every now and then you come up for air while covering an audio show. That's when you hang out with audiobuds and have some fun—as you can see.

A long-time friend of ours, Joe Cohen of The Lotus Group does his "tripping the light fantastic" thing with a Feastrex driver cone. Very spry, Joe, very spry! By the way, these bloody drivers have an efficiency of, what, around 106dB/W/meter or so. Love flea-powered SETs? If you've got the bucks (these drivers are not cheap), these drivers with their enormous ultra-rare magnetic structures could be just the thing. Me, I can just imagine Harvey "Gizmo" Rosenberg dancing with one of these himself!

In which Dave Clark reminds Joe that he is no longer eighteen years old….

Another in my long line of "Carol Clark sipping a beverage" series. This is my first non-alcoholic study of Carol. Hmmm ...that's probably not what I meant to say. Make that, "This is the first time I've photographed Carol sipping a java drink."

Dave Clark hanging out with another long-time acquaintance, Mark Schifter of AV123. Mark's company is producing a number of well-crafted speakers with unbelievably good price tags. 'Philes on a budget will want to check out the AV123 line.

We were able to get Marjorie Baumert and Al Stiefel to stand still long enough to make a photograph. These are terrific folks, doing a fine job of keeping RMAF running smoothly—oftentimes, despite the exhibitors. (You know who you are!) Thanks to Marjorie and Al for a superb audiophile show, one that is rapidly growing into perhaps the very best in the country.

While in the lobby, I made this quick portrait of long-time audiobud and PF/PFO contributor Bruce Kinch. Long-time readers and vinyl lovers will remember Bruce as the editor of Primyl Vinyl, an excellent newsletter devoted to LPs back in the 1990s.

Here's a hallway moment: Jim Wang of Harmonic Technology with Dave Clark. Jim's looking like he's having a great time; Dave looks a bit like an audio editor who's ready for a beer!

Back to the Audio Oasis! Rooms…

Another superior room: The ESP Loudspeakers/LAMM Industries/Critical Mass Systems/Argento Audio Cables/Matrx Systems/Abingdon Music Research/Halfnote Audio space. (Stop …take breath.)

The room stack: AMR CD-77 CD player and a LAMM LL2 preamp on CMS stands. These fed a pair of the superb LAMM M1.2 Reference hybrid amplifiers (my notes on these in the very near future) via Argento Audio cables, and on to a pair of ESP Bodhran SE speakers.

I have to say that I love the LAMM M1.2 Ref hybrid monos, pictured here with the Critical Mass Systems stands that have become a particular favorite of mine—Dr. Sardonicus loves 'em too. Intelligently designed, moderately powerful (110 WPC into a nominal 8 Ohms), and built like a tank, the M1.2's really hit the sweet tonal spot for me. Very articulate, but never dry—shaken, but not stirred! A great combo with the LL2, of course, but the ESPs clearly dug the connection, as well. Synergy galore.

The pleased proprietors, left to right: Daniel Barnum of Argento Audio Cables/Half Note Audio; Doug White of ESP Loudspeakers/Matrx Systems; and Joe Laverncik of Critical Mass Systems.

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