Official Report

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest
Denver Marriott
September 30th - October 2nd, 2005




Well, here we go. Another one of these show reports. We exhibited again this year at the second RMAF - playing music on a system that was similar to the system we took last year. Because we were exhibitors, our time to spend listing to other rooms was somewhat limited and so this report is not as in-depth as our normal show reports.

However, we did make the rounds and heard what we heard. We will try to describe what the show offered this year and provide some context. For example, why do some people post that room X was best of show when the rest of us heard something closer to Excedrin headache #721 (for those of you without 1000s of TV commercials indelibly burned in their brains, this means the room did not sound very good)?

As usual, we will not comment on the sound in the rooms of the other dealers in the Colorado area, our honorable competition here on the Front Range.



This report will try and approach the show from a listener's point of view.

This year had many more exhibitors, around 100,  than last year, which had approximately 60 - 70 exhibitors. The show goers increased in approximately the same amount, with fewer on Sunday than last year, the speculation blaming the televised Broncos football game and the 85-degree-and-perfect weather.

First, we'll describe our goals for our system sound, hopefully in a way that is meaningful to both those that did not get to attend the show - and especially to those that were able to be our guests at the show this year. This should provide some context for the type of sound we are striving for - and even if you, the reader, are not able to identify 100% with our sonic goals, at least you will be better able to better understand our reference point when we talk about the sound of other rooms at the show.




Next, we'll describe the sound we had in the room this year, how we might improve it, and how it compared to last years sound.

Then, we will get to what we found to be nice sounding rooms, deserving of a more concentrated listing session - assuming we had the ability to indulge ourselves during the show, which, of course, we did not.

Finally we will get to some anecdotes and describe some adventures we had at the show this year.





or Why people chose wildly different 'best of show' systems



How We Want Our Room to Sound

Speaking, at least for myself, what is desired is a faithful reproduction of the music that was put on the CD or LP media. Note that this is not limited to the music that is actually on the CD or LP, but the sound in the studio or stage that was intended to be put on the media - so some extrapolation by the equipment back through the media to the actual recording event is acceptable, and even desirable.

This means that the digital CD player is not limited to playing each and every distortion, but is permitted to use whatever DSP curve fitting algorithms, or whatever, at hand to try and reproduce the original signal as it was recorded to the CD. Similarly, the turntable setup should not necessarily reproduce in all its glory each and every pop, nor render bass rumbles of the asymmetry of the groove or platter.

What this means, in short, is accurate reproduction that is at the same time musical and enjoyable, i.e. faithful to the intentions of the musicians.


Comparisons to the Goals of Other Systems or
Systems as Musical Instruments in and of Themselves

This goal is in contrast to the goals of many other systems at shows - that some people may perhaps honestly prefer in comparison to our type of system sound:


The Ruthlessly Accurate System

There is always debate as to whether these systems are really accurate, but their goal at least is to faithfully reproduce each and every piece of sonic information on the media they are playing. The fact that the result is not what many would call musical or enjoyable is blamed by the purveyors of these kinds of systems on the inadequacies of the media, of the playback and rendering equipment, and often on the listener themselves.

Example of components that are often used in these kinds of systems (but which can also be atypically found in other kinds of systems) are: TAD and Wilson speakers, Krell and Spectral amplifiers, Wadia digital players, Nordost cabling.


The Exaggerated Sonics System

These systems usually exaggerate either dynamics or harmonics, and their goal is to produce something that is impressive to listen to, with often minimal emphasis on sounding real. The systems that emphasize dynamics often target mid and upper bass frequencies.

Example of components that are often used in these kinds of systems that exaggerate dynamics (but which can also be atypically found in other kinds of systems) are: Avantgarde and MBL and JMLab speakers, Krell and McCormack (both are examples of amps with tilted up bass responses) amplifiers, and many brands of cable which attempt to passively modify their input signal to make them sound impressive.

Example of components that are often used in these kinds of systems that exaggerate harmonics (but which can also be atypically found in other kinds of systems) are: Sonus Faber speakers, single-ended triode and large wattage tube amplifiers, Cary digital players.


The Mellow Yellow Sonics System

These systems never sound harsh or unpleasant to the ears. To accomplish this the music is often compressed, which not only removes harsh transients, but also those that make the music sound like music.

Example of components that are often used in these kinds of systems that mellow out any potential unpleasantness (but which can also be atypically found in other kinds of systems) are: (everything from the exaggerated harmonics list above), and equipment like the Mark Levinson, BAT and McIntosh lines, and most cables.

[And then there is the hybrid system, where a particular component is picked based on its sonic signature, corresponding to one of the goals immediately above, and the rest of the system is built to compensate for the unlistenability of the system as a result of including this particular component. A similar system is known as the reviewer's or bargain-hunter's lament system, where the particular component is picked based on its bargain-basement price].



Hopefully the reader can sort of relate to this breakdown of the goals for various system sounds and understand where their own preferences lie.

Hopefully, this will help explain why some people chose for 'best of show' systems that sounded nothing like our system - or more accurately, sounded nothing like the way we think all systems should sound. These other people prefer systems like those immediately above. Nothing wrong in that. Just be aware that their sonic goals may not be in anyway related to what your sonic goals are. Then again, maybe they are....

OK, those that made it through all this may ask "Yeah, sure, fine. Whatever. So, what are the examples of components used in the faithful reproduction systems"?

The easy answer is that faithful reproduction is impossible with current technology, or that it is impossible in a normal listening room, or with the vulgarities of the power mains, or reference some other real world physical limitation. Another is that for each listener's ears, it takes a very long time and monumental effort iterating through lots of different equipment to finally find a well-balanced system that honestly reproduces the musician's intent. These answers cause many people to give up and chose one of the other goals for their system.

Another is that it costs money, lots of money, too much money for most people. In truth, each of these types of systems can cost lots of money - and the size of the room definitely impacts the cost: filling up a large room with good sound requires better, more expensive power and larger, more expensive speakers.

But everybody is budget minded to some extent, and so the idea here is to go in the direction of faithful reproduction, which is all any of us can try to do, anyway; and that for a given dollar amount a system can be built that is as faithful as possible to the musician's intentions. While some may not reproduce each and every nuance and delicacy that reflects a lifetime of practice and skill on the part of the players, they do allow the system to function as communicator in space and time: from musician to listener: "this is what I have to say".

In our 'Favorites of Show' we will list a number of systems that we think try to be faithful to the musician's intent.


Our Room Sound This Year

[Sorry if this section is not as polished as it might be, FrontPage decided to go belly up on me after the first attempt and my second attempt seems to be a pale shadow in comparison. And sorry about the pissing and whining, but I am sure all of you have been there (yeah, even you Mac people too :-)].


The equipment roster this year


So, did we succeed? Did we achieve the goal of ultimate transparency upon the musical venue, communicating to each listener the messages that each musician intended to... communicate? Well....


The system sounded very well-balanced, detailed, and dynamic. Sound-staging and imaging were excellent. Big Band (for example Gerry Mulligan) and Orchestral pieces sounded very real, every frequency in its correct balance with the others, every dynamic in correct proportion to the others. We were very happy with the system's ability to play complex, difficult to reproduce music well.


Electronica sounded really good, Kruder Dorfmeister and even a new Eno someone brought in and played, after some general, but good-natured, confusion caused by having up to four of us playing DJs all taking different requests and lining up different selections and all at the same time - and often completely different kinds of music.

The music people heard in our room was the favorite music of the composite NeliDanSteveMike 4-headed audiophile, spiced by the favorite music of our show guests.

And here I thought I had all Eno, Fripp's, Roedelius's stuff, but a new Eno? I thought these guys had retired, issuing an infinite series of remixes, recompilations and soundtracks like Jarre, like Floyd, Zep, the Who, the Beatles, etc. That is the great thing about shows - getting to hear great music (and news that people you thought retired were still kickin') that you would never get to hear otherwise.

[And now that I look I see that Klaus Schulze is still up and at it too. Who says hardware is a more expensive habit than software? Someone please take away my Amazon privileges.]

On more traditional, easier to reproduce audiophile fare: female vocals, small jazz bands, well-recorded rock-and-roll, the music was or course reproduced as well as the more difficult pieces described above.

If we were in the room for a longer time we would have made changes to the system to tweak it a little more and if I were to have a criticism of our sound in that room it would be that there was a slight lack of warmth, or openness, or transparency, or something that caused the system to not be as engaging, to not communicate the emotion of some of the music as well as I would like.

[During the blues, people are supposed to get teary-eyed, have real difficulty keeping it together - but our guests did not use up even one box of Kleenex in our room during the show. Rock-and-roll music should cause the neat lines of chairs in the room to be tossed hither and yon as people have to get up and groove to the beat - but no one at all complained, to us anyway, of air-guitar-elbow, or about getting air-guitar elbowed by their neighbors.]

Unfortunately, none of the other systems at the show, that I heard, were emotionally engaging for me personally. So I think we did a pretty good job in comparison. It is certainly something that we always strive for, the ability for the listener to, almost subliminally, feel the emotions that good musicians are able to communicate through their music.

To this end we would, I think, first take a look at power cord allocations. Switching the Nordost Valhalla for the Shunyata Anaconda Alpha power cord on the Audio Note Kegon amplifiers in anticipation of trading a little less detail for a more relaxed and open and fuller sound would probably be the first thing we would try.

Then, because the new Audio Aero Prestige CD/SACD player, only played for a few days, by the way, did in fact communicate emotion fine, but was a little less transparent than we would like, would probably get those exact same Valhalla power cords, trading a little openness and warmth for more detail and transparency.

And the Meitner digital CD/SACD front end, having the opposite problems in that system, at least in comparison with the Brinkmann turntable (more on this later!), we would put on a Anaconda Vx, adding some more relaxation and harmonics in exchange for detail and control, likely sacrificing a little transparency in the process.

Next would be a long iteration through vibration control and cable exchanges, finding a new balance to the system that would hopefully put us closer to our ultimate goals for the system.

[Given that our sonic memory has a half-life seemingly of just a few minutes, and the real necessity of listening to a system for at least hours, if not days and weeks to ascertain overall quality - this is a process fraught with peril to the faint of heart, weak of limb, and sensitive of ear].

Comparisons to Our Room Last Year

[Well, we had a better chandelier last year, less comfortable chairs, and the carpet and sofa were a wash.]

In general, the people who preferred a sound with better dynamics and deemphasize warmth and engagement liked the room better this year than last, those that preferred the opposite did not like the room better.

There were two amps using in our room: the Audio Note U.K. Kegon 300B single-ended triode 20 watt tube amps, and the 800 watt EDGE NL Reference solid-state high-current / high-voltage amplifiers. The Kegons for the first half of the day, the EDGE for the second half.

The sound in our room was more dynamic than last year: both because we were using the 800 watt EDGE NL Reference amplifiers instead of the 400 watt EDGE Signature One amplifiers, and because of the different vintage of the Audio Note U.K. Kegon amps (which were placed on an HRS amplifier stand and HRS Nimbus couplers (which helped tighten up the bass very nicely).

The sound was also a little cooler than last year, the EDGE Reference being not quite so warm as their Signature One, and the Kegons also being ever so slightly cooler sounding than the Kegons we used last year, even though they were using the Sofia 300B tubes, which are more languid and euphonic than the more dynamic and somewhat thinner sounding EAT 300B tubes.

This coolness was counterbalanced by the use this year of the Jorma No. 1 speaker cables, which, although they are not really warmer than the Valhalla we used last year, have ever so slightly more body and harmonic richness (and very nearly the same amount of detail and resolution - which the Valhalla excels at - with just a slight bit less delineation, and a few others have thought exaggeration, of a note's microdynamics).

[I know, I know, sometimes I write really long sentences that have to be parsed using a a separate scratch pad.... that, or a Lisp supercomputer].

It was also counterbalanced by the Meitner digital gear being broken in this year, the Audio Aero Prestige's inherent musicality, and of course the Brinkmann turntable, which added a nice analog flavor to our sound this year.





Brinkmann Balance turntable with Lyra Titan Cartridge and Lamm LP2 phono preamplifier


EMMLabs / Meitner CDSD/DCC2 CD/SACD transport and DAC

We had a chance to put one of the best analog rigs against the best SACD digital rig several times during the show. The music was Dark Side of the Moon (30th anniversary edition) SACD vrs. LP, and the Modern Jazz Quartet "Concorde" CD versus LP.

Steve01s4, an obsessed guest of ours, and I listened to the '1st side' of the SACD DSOTM on the Meitner and the 1st track of the 2nd side. Then we put on the 2nd side of 30th anniversary vinyl on the Brinkmann Balance so that we heard one track immediately after the other, but also different sides to get a general 'feel' for the quality of the reproduction without having to compare each note for each note.



Surprisingly the analog playback was more laid back than the digital - but one could attribute that to the fact that we had the INDRA on the Meitner versus the slightly less pure Valhalla, and the Meitner was also plugged into the 'direct' inputs in the Lamm L2 preamplifier, which has a shorter path than the 'line 1' inputs the Brinkmann went through.

Besides that, the analog just had more detail - each note was better formed because of the additional detail and gave one a deeper appreciation for what the musicians intended when they made this, one of the best albums of all time.

That said, the difference, though real, wasn't a monumental difference (i.e. I can still listen to digital without obsessing about what the corresponding vinyl would sound like, though I am not sure Steve01s4 can say the same, poor guy), and could well be proportional to the price difference in the two setups: $23,500 versus $37,000.

I am so very happy with these results: digital is finally competitive with the very best vinyl - for those times, and it is unfortunately most of the time these days, when I can't sit down and enjoy 15-22 minutes of vinyl, I can just put on a SACD and not be slumming it, that the musical experience is only very slightly compromised (and there is a new rev of the Meitner CDSD transport that is supposed to be even better than our older one (we had one of the first) and also see the Black CD section below).

Then again we never did try the Brinkmann with the INDRA interconnects and using the direct inputs on the Lamm L2....Ha! Competition between formats is a great thing!

[(ignoring the HRS platforms that both setups require and assuming one uses an, optional, separate preamp for the Meitner): $19500 for the Meitner plus $4000 for two power cords versus $21600 for the Balance with tonearm and tube power supply, $4890 for the Lamm LP2 deluxe, $2000 for the LP2 power cord, $3600 for the interconnect to the LP2 and $5K for the Titan cartridge]


Similar to the DSOTM shootout, the Brinkmann reproduced the music with more resolution. This was especially the case with Bag's xylophone; one could hear more oscillations in  the ringing of the notes, where on the CD they were almost completely undetectable.

But again, see the Black CD section below, which is able to enhance just this part of the frequency spectrum to great effect.





Audio Aero Prestige CD/SACD
single-box player



EMMLabs / Meitner CDSD/DCC2 CD/SACD transport and DAC

We only had the Prestige during the show and it was brand new when we got it, and although it improved remarkably during those few days, it is very likely to continue to break-in and improve over the next few months of play.

Really, the flavors are so different, it is hard to see them competing in the same space. The Meitner is very neutral and extraordinarily transparent. The Prestige is harmonically rich and has that Audio Aero trademark analogue-ish dynamic roundness to the notes. Both have about the same level of resolution, sacrificing excruciating detail for a more accurate portrayal of the actual music. For those that find the Meitner and Reimyo too neutral, not to mention the spotlight-like Wadia, but still desire that level of finesse and resolution, they might like to try the Audio Aero Prestige.






Audio Note U.K. 2001 Kegon 20 watt 300B single-ended triode amplifiers




EDGE NL Reference 800 watt high-voltage / high-current solid state amplifiers

It seems absurd, does it not? But these two amps are closer in sound than one has any right to expect looking at their respective technologies. Given our struggles to get the big EDGE to sound more like a solid-state amp than the big tube amp it usually wants to sound like, we at least didn't have a 'solid state sound' in our room.

The biggest differences were the EDGE's ability to take better control in the bass at very loud volumes, and the Audio Note's richer harmonics in the midrange. Well, duh, you might say.

Yes, but, the better bass control is only at very loud volumes, the rich harmonics are only slightly richer and rounder. The real difference, it seemed to me, was in the level of confidence in the amps: we could rely on the Kegons to be musical no matter what - but to keep the overall SPLs down to 90 - 95 db (or so, it was a very large room). We could rely on the EDGE to play just fine at any volume, no matter how outrageous, but the overall musicality was slightly more dependent on the musicality of the music itself.

[Hey! No we do NOT need Q-tips. and no, our system was VERY revealing of the differences, thank you. This shootout is just pointing out that amplifiers of the highest quality are converging together in terms of their sonic signature - regardless of their technology or brand. I think we can all agree that music is supposed to sound like music - and there are studies (no I do not have a link) that show that (most, ordinary, those that would not be reading this report) people do agree on what high-quality reproduction is supposed to sound like. It is only when we have to make compromises in sound quality that we all start disagreeing what sounds better and what is intolerable].







These are rooms that sounded so good that I wanted to stay longer and hear more. There are probably other rooms I would have liked if I had had a chance to visit them or if they had been playing music while I was photographing them. Conversely, if I had stayed longer in some of these rooms I may have decided that they were not my cup of tea after all.

The rooms are listed in the order corresponding to the amount of confidence I have that the room would sound good over a wider range of music than that which I was lucky enough to hear during my stay.

"Hey!" you might say, "what the heck kind of favorites list is this?"

"Well", I might answer if I was still awake, "it does rule out about 50 rooms which from the get-go either sounded like stale beer tastes, had an edge like a rusty saw, or created a general feel of confusion and bewilderment similar to that caused by really, really bad drugs (not that I personally have any experience with anything like this, just imagining what it would be like)". Given time and a decent sized room, I'm sure many of these would have sounded a whole lot better.

There were so very many rooms, one had to be somewhat selective in what systems they chose to spend their time listening to. One technique was to just walk down the hall and if it sounds like something you would like (or hate) from the hallway, then this is a good clue as to what it will sound like inside. However, the more polite exhibitors had their doors closed so as to not disturb their neighbors, and for these rooms you had to use you mind, and not your ears, and make a value judgment based on what equipment was listed on their sign as to decide whether you might want to go in or not.

[This is a heckuvalot better than using one's mind to determine whether the sound inside the room is good, however - a subject we call 'listening with the mind instead of the ears', most often found in industry long-timers and those audiophiles who pay a lot of attention to technologies, both of whom's unfortunate plight we will talk about at another time.]

Of course, there is an audiophile for every room - each room will have someone who absolutely loves the sound, and although I believe we all really do hear the same thing there is this mass between the ears that often gets final say, so that aural beauty, as always, is ultimately in the ear of the beholder.






  Walker Audio*, Red Rock Audio, Verity Audio Room

This room made the Verity speakers sound as good as we have ever heard them. Detailed, musical, well-balanced, this was a fun room to sit and listen in.






  AAudio Imports - Acapella*, Einstein,  Accustic Arts* Room

This room was almost exactly like the AAudio Imports' room in New York at the Stereophile Show. Just about the same size room too. This system really kicks butt in rooms this size, putting out an amazingly holographic soundstage with deep tight bass with a very musical and transparent presentation.







David Berning Company, Sound Sensations, Ambiance, Analysis Plus, Still Points, Audio Aero* Room

This room sounded pretty good as well. A little euphonic, a little compressed but in a balanced manner, it sounded quite musical during the short time I spend there.







Star Sound Technology Rooms

Star Sound had two rooms with the Caravelle speakers this year - I remember both of them sounding good to my ears, similar to last year's room. Very coherent and stable imaging and tonality.







deHavilland, Nola, Prana Wire / Lotus Group Room

This room was sounding good this year. Not usually our cup of java at CES, at RMAF it sounded quite enjoyable, albeit maybe a little too warm and seductive. Anyway, at the time I heard this system, it was like a cool balm on tired, ravaged ears.






  Special Mention: Acoustic Zen's new speakers

These speakers are gorgeous (see more pictures at the bottom of day 2 here) and at $3700 they are a steal... and in this price category they are sonically very, very competitive.






  Special Mention: Teres with turntable stand

Well, the picture says it all. Not sure how all this sounds, but it sure is beautiful. More pictures here.







We got there around 4:30 pm Wednesday and had everything up in the room by 6:30 or so, and the system up and running by 10:00 (except the Brinkmann, which Neli setup the next morning). So by Friday at noon, when the show opened, the equipment was warmed up for the most part.

This year the Marriott insisted that to use one of their bell carts we had to accept the assistance of one of their Bell Men. Cha-ching. Really nice guys, but overly helpful and eager to get things moved quickly. And with equipment costing more than my car.... well, you know what I mean.

There were a number of other exhibitors who also got there Wednesday, had sleeping rooms but were unable to get into their exhibiting rooms (in our case, our sleeping room adjoins the exhibiting room, so we got in OK). For some reason the Marriott was being difficult.

Like last year, the plan was to vacate the room Monday morning, forsaking the hustle and bustle madhouse of 100 rooms of equipment making its way down 9 floors and into waiting vans and moving trucks. So after the show closed at 4:00pm we stayed open and played music for ourselves and the last lingering guests until 8:00 or so, at which point we tore down the system.

However, the next morning brought a number of surprises. We ordered room service breakfast at 8:30 am, only to be told that we were not registered and were not supposed to be in the room anymore. Then, that seemed to get straightened out only to have them call at 9:30 asking us if we had received our meals. No, and since we were to move from 10:00am until noon checkout - it was a little late to be re-ordering breakfast now.

Then, even stranger, at around 10, all the exhibitors got a knock on the door, with a hotel manager saying that we had to be out by 10 - even though our summarizing bill earlier that morning listed checkout at noon, which is the standard for hotels in this country. Then they disabled our door key (but not the other exhibitor's keys that we talked to for some reason).

Anyway, we got out of there by 11:30, feeling, along with the other exhibitors that morning, that we had gotten the "Bum's Rush", the ole "Heave Ho", also known as the "Big Boot in the Britches".






Black CDs are recordable CDs that are... black. Because they are black they are supposed to stop the scattering of light in the CD Player from the laser as it scans the CD during playback. This scattering of light is supposed to confuse the software reading the information from the laser, resulting in an audible degradation in the playback of the information read from the CD.

To use these black CDs, one must have an MP3 or a store-bought CD and record them onto the black CD using a computer or, better, a dedicated  recorder.

Well, we got a demo in the Audio Limits room at RMAF from Darrin and the Genesis folks (who are supposed to have more information on their website, information that does not seem to be there at the time of this report, but which details which black CDs work best and what are the best CD recorders, etc.

Oh, there they are! Thanks to Carolyn at Genesis for sending us the link; it is on the downloads page under whitepapers:
In Quest of Absolute Fidelity™: The Saga of the Black CD - Finding Black Gold ).

It seems to really work! Especially in the upper frequencies where spatial information, suspense, and other cues humans like to have in order to suspend disbelief that what they are hearing is real. It is shocking that this simple change results in such improvement - improvements that we otherwise sweat and labor spend ridiculously large amounts of money to achieve.

These black CDs are about 40 cents each.

We also got a demo of a plastic, not aluminum (which rings), perfectly round CDR (most CDs are round in only a general sense). This was much better even than the black CDR, in much the same way as the black CD was better than the common sliver CD. These, however, are only available in Japan, and cost $14 each.

The "De Mat"

Our heads spinning, we later brought the subject of black CDs up to our Audio Aero distributor. It turns out that they are just starting to distribute a product that does much the same thing as the Black CD. It covers the top of an ordinary CD with a thin rubber disc, preventing the scattering of light (and probably helps add inertia and dampen vibration in the spinning CD at the same time).

So when we were wowing them with the awesome sonic intentionalism [uh, well, we really do try hard, anyway] of our systems here at Audio Federation after the show, they gave us a couple of these to try out. Which we did. Here.

Shit. Fuck. This is ridiculous. Why doesn't the stupid music industry just put their music on black CDs?

Well, until that day arrives (yeah, uh huh) the De Mat is $45.

How does one measure what an improvement in the system is worth? I know that we may have got a similar improvement by replacing a Valhalla interconnect with an INDRA interconnect, or the Audio Note CDT2 transport with the CDT3, which are both in the '$2K or more improvements' category. But that is our highly optimized system. In a typical system, an upgrade from a standard black Belden power-cord to a $1K Shunyata Python on the amplifier will result in a much greater improvement than the $45 De Mat, so your mileage may vary, as they say.

Now I just worry that my Sony 9000ES DVD player's drawer is too thin to allow the thin rubber disc to fit (no worries, it fits, but will it come back out? Or am I stuck watching Kung Fu Hustlers forever? Oh well, there are worse fates... I think). Stay tuned.




* Carried by Audio Federation


All pictures in this report are copyleft and are freely copyable and distributable.


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