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Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2017 - Young Guns and More

11-13-2017 | By Danny Kaey | Issue 94

Cue exhibit C, marked as personal identification tag, allowing said member of the audio press to attend Denver's annual mile high HiFi show. "Your honor", says the defendant, "this is more proof that the industry is doing great!" Truth be told, I'd agree—advocate—that for some in the industry, the HiFi business is indeed booming. Let's call that group the top twenty percent. The rest of the industry? I really couldn't tell you, mostly because whereas the top twenty percent is a consolidation of actual businesses, the bottom octaves of the registers are mostly filled with one-man-road-shows that I would argue—advocate—don't qualify as a traditional business enterprise where generally accepted business performance metrics quantify success or failure, at least around standardized accounting norms. Thus, while there are no doubt quite a few Han Solos, lone ranger success stories, there's probably just as many who are hanging on by a thread.

A little more than a month prior to the show, I had reached out to the most enthusiastic show organizer ever, Marjorie Baumert, to see about joining some of the show's now legendary seminars. Sure enough, Ramsay Thurber, Marjorie's right-hand man, pinged me and several conversations later, I not only was part of several seminars, but ended up hosting two of them as show master. Fascinating. The first such outing was moderating the infamous "Young Guns of HiFi" panel, which, with such great kids like Sean Casey of Zu Audio, Rafe Arnott of Part Time Audiophile fame, freshly appointed head of marketing for Intervention Records, Jessa Zapor-Gray, and truly the young gun himself, Jordan Gerber, head of sales for The Bob Carver Corporation, proved to be quite the stirred pot, if you know what I mean. The general theme of this conversation can be summed up in roughly two or perhaps even three buckets: that HiFi as we know it is in fact dead; that too many cooks have stirred the pot the wrong way; that everyone is trying to figure out how to get young folks into HiFi.

Cleverly, Steve Guttenberg of Stereophile and contributing CNET fame, managed to sneak into the lion's den and thus vivid, candid and sometimes quite funny conversation ensued. Whereas this is supposed to be a show report, not a rehash of some memorable quotes, the general summation of these enthusiastic buckets of ingenuity is that the premise of just how we are supposed to get young folks into HiFi, is perhaps the wrong question to ask. There already are a ton of young people in HiFi, enter into evidence friends that show up at my music parties, various other outings and subscriptions, it's just that these young bucks want nothing to do with the establishment's version of HiFi. Stuffy shows, with stuffy rooms full of stuffy conversations—heck, I wouldn't want any part in that either. Clearly there is a way to include tons of young people in a high-end hobby; one only needs a scant view of what for example the Swiss watch industry has accomplished with lifestyle branding over the past twenty or thirty odd years. Ever heard of Cars & Coffee? No? Were ya' been bro? There's all sorts of ways to get young pups with deep pockets to invest into well marketed high-end lifestyle gadgets, from small to quite large.

Which brings me to DK's own personal midnight radio show (no one would listen to it otherwise), or, how we learned to love the bomb. Not quite. But similar. Cunningly titled "Why we in the industry are fighting over MQA and so much more," the story tells the tale of said main character's frequently foiled fumbles across the HiFi universe. It was in fact so steamy a novel, that several times during my hallway walks, random strangers from Alpha Centauri would seek my deliberate attention. "I can't believe you are defending MQA! You damned fool! Who in their right mind would defend MQA!" Said one such alien from a distant world, costumed in gorgeous Hawaiian-themed top garments called "shirt," I believe, featuring toe nails that last saw a pedicure in 1952 when mom was still around. Character dramatizations aside, one can easily see how said point feeds into paragraph 3, subsection C, entered into evidence labeled as "who in their right mind, no matter the available spare cash, would in fact want to hang out at a HiFi show?" Even as MQA drew a lot of bashing, other points covered included comparisons to various other industry standards such as 4K, Hollywood, HiFi's modern day branding problem and many other notable mentions, simply too few to list.

We certainly have our work cut out for us and I am not entirely certain that adding up the brightest minds of the industry would produce any meaningful results. After all, does anyone care about model trains anymore? Hardly. Alas, the show in and of itself was actually rather nicely appointed, even as I have come to believe that these types of shows seem to be a brofest for the already initiated, not so much a welcome mat for those unfamiliar with HiFi. The messaging is simply off and the venue  is too large and fragmented. One room is showing great sounding $1k speakers running off a Mac, iPad, or Peachtree; the next room over features $120k speakers with about as much money spent on electronics driving the speakers and cables costing about half as much again connecting the lot. Say wut? Cables? One need not be Sherlock Holmes to realize that said messaging would prove utterly futile to someone taking a first dab at this thing we call HiFi. Hermès doesn't quite have a show room next to Banana Republic, if you know what I mean. No, for that, other venues and means of communication are necessary. Fact. Set. Match.

In other news, the seen and heard section was filled with quite a few surprises and great foundational elements. Having struck up a conversation with Heinz Renner of MySphere from Vienna, Austria, a few months prior to the show, I was eager to get my hands on their new, designed from the ground up, headphones. Called the MySphere 3.1, they can be seen as the spiritual successor to AKGs famed K1000, which, given the fact that Heinz Renner and his new firm's other partner, Helmut Ryback, were the dynamic duo responsible for AKGs high-end hit of yesteryear. Visually striking, the 3.1 headphone shares certain foundational design elements with K1000 ear phones. Named such, because the premise of these cans was that you had two individual dynamic drivers floating to the sides of your ears, easily adjustable angles customizing the sound to your liking. The problem with K1000 was of course that decoupling drivers from your ears so far away left highs and lows somewhere else, never mind the fact that you needed an actual amplifier to drive them—in a twist, one of the pairs I owned years ago, came with spade lugs on the amplifier side. So much for portability. But that was like fifteen years ago. The headphone market as we know it didn't exist, thus enabling such exotic designs to wow unassuming headphone guys. MySphere's 3.1 similarities to the famed K1000 just about end here, with a fit and finish that's the best I've ever seen on a personal audio gadget of any kind save for my iPhone. Mind you, these were still pre-production models, that Heinz assured me would look and feel even more premium in the final, shipping version. Quite the feat. Cueing up a few tracks on the connected Woo Audio WA8 Eclipse portable headphone amplifier fed by a Microsoft Surface tablet, I immediately heard—given the rather noisy demo room no less—certain qualities that left me fumbling for adjectives. My single biggest issue with headphones is the much dreaded in your head sound which to varying degrees my current reference Audeze (LCD-3, -2 and EL-8Titanium) cans mitigate to a point; MySphere 3.1 seem to distance that sensation even further without necessarily defusing the sound or losing out in the bass department. Fascinating, with a review pair already firmly having been requested.

Elsewhere at the show, I cued myself in with MSB's friendly face Vince Galbo and his demo of MSB's latest and greatest, the Reference DAC, complete with M204 mono amplifiers leashing a pair of YG Sonja 1.2 (review forthcoming). While the room was indeed small and generally filled with enthusiastic philes, one could easily hear the sublime quality the MSB / YG combo delivered. Stunning depth, a noise floor that was so low as to be indiscernible proved extraordinary in the system's ability to portray dynamic swings both macro and micro, in a way not heard anywhere else at the show. Validating this experience was the fact that not a month prior to the show, MSB's SoCal dealer, fronted by Fabio Storelli of Alma Music and Audio in La Jolla, had dropped off that very same Reference DAC for a quick drive-by listen at chez K. There, I felt so taken aback by the intrinsic qualities of the DAC that following the afternoon's listening session I immediately reached out to MSB congratulating them on having created such non-digital digital sound, certainly the best and finest digital I had ever heard in my system. While the price point of MSB, given the extraordinary investments and virtually all in-house development and manufacture (similar to YG!), is without doubt elevated to say the least, it does go hand in hand with the experience one derives from just a single, afternoon listening session. A formal review request has been submitted and will hopefully be delivered sometime in 2018.

Moving along the show's stomping grounds, which, by the way, included the now fully renovated and nicely modernized Marriott Tech Center, I ran into a room quite by accident. The room in question was Classic Albums Sundays featuring pretty much a reference system consisting of YG Sonja 1.3 (review of Sonja 1.2 forthcoming; [note: even as YG didn't officially participate in this year's show by way of GTT Audio's typical all-hands, I have to say that I don't recall another show where so many YG speakers prominently featured their sonic chops]), a VPI Avenger 'deck and Jeff Rowlands behemoth integrated, aptly named "Daemon", comfortably delivering in excess of 1500w into an 8 Ohm impedance. Wowza. While the sound was somewhat lean—I think the room was ultimately too small to have such a big setup and host upwards of 20+ people per session, ie. pretty much permanently as evidenced that three of my attempts at grabbing a good seat proved unsuccessful—you could easily hear the incredible musicality, depth and scale YGs Sonjas are capable of producing. CAS is known to essentially play real music for real, which is to say an entire album, side to side, interrupted only to flip the record. I didn't quite get to schmooze with the young lad (see Young Guns of HiFi paragraph earlier) playing DJ; if you happen to be reading this article, please do get in touch with me—I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation and only wish that more rooms would connect with people in such a meaningful way; no talk of specs, speeds and feeds, just pure, uninterrupted music.

Speaking of pure music, John DeVore's room, co-hosted with Tone Imports, is always a great show stopper. It's the music, stupid. Sonically, John always manages to somehow extract the most from these unfavorable show conditions and this year was no different, offering up a relaxed atmosphere to enjoy some great music. I always joke that visiting John's room usually costs me a couple hundred bucks in eBay / Discogs fees as I feverishly try to get my hands on the great music he plays. Likewise, Sean Casey and family (literally) always has a great room; this year's show stopper, must see, nay hear, setup was fronted by the all new Zu Druid Mk VI. I think it's safe to say that with this Druid, Zu has been recognized to have joined the big leagues. Built like a tank, with absolutely clever technology, Druid VI is no doubt the speaker that Sean always wanted to build and contains several foundational elements that soon will trickle north and south the entire speaker line. Visually, Druid VI, though similar in appearance to Druid V (which, along with a single Submission sub covered in glossy Aston Martin baby blue, I own), is at once strikingly higher end. The seamlessness of the design, the integration of Zu's legendary full range driver into the cabinet's structure (!) and overall under the hood improvements prove altogether vastly superior to Druid V, who's sound I am obviously very familiar with. Within seconds of Sean's needle drop (frankly, I can't even recall one single show that Zu spun digital) on his hot-rod modified Technics 1200 of yesteryear, you can immediately hear the dramatically lower noise floor, superior dynamics and vastly improved speed of Druid VI. Fortunately for Zu, I am not the only who felt that way as was evidenced by the incredible popularity of the room. Zu now in effect has a fully integrated speaker line, which scales up from the $999 Zu Omen all the way up to Zu's yet to be released Defcon 5 giant killer due sometime in mid 2018. Meanwhile, a fresh as ever Sean is said to be arriving in Los Angeles sometime around Christmas with an all new pair—revision—of their Presence model from ca. 2006, slated for review at chez K. Now that should be a killer speaker with a get out of jail free card. Stay tuned.

Noodling around the rest of the show saw the affable mad Irish man, Philip O'Hanlon fronting his newest distribution acquisition, namely legendary Dutch brand Gryphon. Opting to show a very simple setup consisting of their ca. $48k full range speakers leashed by Gryphon's integrated amplifier and CD player, the sound was at once attention calling. Full range, deep, thunderous bass with a mids that sounded incredibly sweet, certain recordings really played rather well through this setup. A different kind of presentation was offered up by Xuanquian Wang of Auralic. Showcasing his all new Vega G2 DAC and G2 Streamer, a devilish pair of YG Carmels driven by Auralic's Merak mono amplifiers produced a reference quality sound that was fun, involving, intimate and explosive all at the same time. Playing back Malia's collaboration with Boris Blank (one half of Swiss schlagerband Yello) produced such stunning start/stop speed, precise imaging and Cinemascope sound staging that you instinctively felt like you were listening to speakers four times the size of Carmel. While he was mum on certain aspects of the DAC's updated design—for reference, the original Vega DAC was often called the close equal to designs easily costing multiples of it's then new retail price—certain features of Vega G2 appeared to validate the sonic quest of besting his old reference DAC by some margin. Upgraded chassis work and tank like build quality rounded out the stunning G2 series which will be hitting chez K for review sometime this holiday season.

Lastly, happenstance and friendly encounters from distant worlds also netted some new industry introductions and friendships. Case in point, meeting the editor and publisher of one such European favorite, Fidelity Magazine's Ingo Schultz, whom I had been eager to meet. Fidelity Magazine is one of those famous coffee table 'zines that you are always proud to show off with friendly visitors and HiFi enthusiasts alike. Professionally edited and printed on luxe inspiring paper stock six times a year, Ingo took the magazine international with a growing, English speaking online presence and a free iPad 'zine also published several times a year. Similarly inspired to deliver HiFi to a growing lifestyle clientele, we shared thoughts and ideas that hopefully will see some collaboration across the pond.

All in, the show appeared successful, with attendance in line with plausible expectations, save for the rather dramatic drop off in attendance starting ca. 3PM Saturday afternoon and pretty much appearing empty throughout Sunday save for the odd crowd in select rooms here and there. Will 2018 see a continuation of this tradition? Surely. Alas, even as I always so thoroughly enjoy these shows and the friendships they spawn, I can't help feel that they are increasingly becoming said brofests, with little to no real outreach to those not yet initiated into this great hobby of ours. Frankly, I am surprised that we haven't seen shows of a different kind, catering specifically to high-end lifestyle, not high-end audio. Then again, given the extreme fragmentation of our industry—think Android—I am likewise not really that surprised. To wit, the collective industry as a whole is at a great crossroad: just which road will we take? Time will tell. Until the next show!