Rocky Mountain Hi-Fi: The Rocky Mountain Audio Fair 2009

The 2009 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was held earlier this month in Denver, Colorado, as it has for several years now. While my main beat these days is home theater, both for Ultimate AV and, increasingly, for Home Theater magazine, once an audiophile always an audiophile, so I was anxious to find out what was happening in the world of hair-shirt Hi-Fi.

Nobody calls it Hi-Fi any more, of course. Even the term "audio system " has gone out of style. Now it's simply referred to by insiders as two-channel, to distinguish a classic audio system from a multichannel setup. While the latter is usually associated with home theater, that isn't really fair, as multichannel for music is now a genuine reality, if still a niche within a niche.

In any event this was very much a two-channel audio show. But that was not a surprise. I only saw two rooms with any video source, which was two more than I expected. I make no claims to this being an exhaustive report; you can find additional details at and other sites.

The show appeared to be relatively well attended, though with patience it was rarely a problem to get into rooms and score a good seat. I was primarily interested in hearing speakers; you really can't judge amps and sources at an audio show; you hear the whole system, including the mediocre hotel rooms most manufacturers are forced to deal with. A few of them landed larger rooms, and these often provided excellent sound—as long as they weren't too big.

I bypassed most rooms with speakers that looked too bizarre, or amps that looked too tubey. I wanted to hear the speakers, not the speaker-amp combination, and like them or not it's a fact that the amp-speaker interface is far more critical with tube amps than with solid-state ones.

It's also important to bring your own program material. The program sources used by many exhibit runners can vary from pristine to grim. I bypassed many a room when the music being played resulted in a bad first impression. Only when the system seemed promising did I stop to pull out my own stuff. That's a bit unfair, I know, but once you're committed and are seated you're pretty much stuck in the room for at least a few minutes, come good or bad. And any audio show veteran knows that all shows have more rooms that are awful than awe-inspiring.

The show was very esoteric, meaning that some of the most well known manufacturers were no-shows, while many of the exhibitors were relatively obscure— or hopeful newcomers. Still, I heard a fair amount of good sound. Probably the most impressive overall was the Wilson Audio / Ayre room (shown in the picture), with a pair of the new Wilson Sasha W/Ps ($27,000/pair) lighting up the room. The Sasha W/Ps are the newest version of the Watt-Puppies, though they involve a redesign major enough to earn them a new first name. The Wilsons were used in two other rooms as well (a fourth room had Wilson Duettas), but this was easily the best, helped in no small measure by first generation high resolution recordings from Wilson spokesperson and uber-recordist Peter McGrath, played back via computer files fed to an Ayre USB DAC. Computer music files, often high rez, is a growing trend in high-end audio.

Ayre was also showing its upcoming DX-5 universal player (DVD, Blu-ray, CD, SACD and DVD-Audio—multi- or two-channel. The DX-5, which is likely to set you back $9000 give or take when it comes out later this year, is based on the mechanicals and video guts of the Oppo Blu-ray player. But the chassis, audio stages, and a built-in USB DAC that can also be used with an outboard computer, are all Ayre-born.

As you can see, most of these products are not exactly popularly priced. Hair shirts for Hi-Fi can cost big bucks these days, and manufacturers trot out their choicest weaves for audio shows. But on the expensive but not ruinous fun-scale were the Focal Electra 1038Be (2nd generation Electra Be series). At $12,495/pair with its beryllium tweeter, it soared with most of the program material I brought along. But while it did surprisingly well with a low-powered Pathos hybrid amp (tube front end, solid-state output) some louder transients with demanding bass were clearly indistinct. Very likely this was due to the limited power on tap, not the speakers themselves, which actually impressed me more than the intimidatingly huge Focal Utopia models heard in a different, larger room. To be fair, however, I did not have the time to check out my own program material on the Utopias. There's also a slightly smaller Focal Electra Be, the 1028Be (also not on hand at the show), at $8495, which differs only in having just two 6.5" woofers instead of the 1038Be's three. If you use a sub, the extra woofer may be unnecessary, and the price difference will buy you a state-of-the art subwoofer, or two excellent ones. A matching center channel (not seen at the RMAF, of course) is the CC1008Be at $3495.

And on the even more affordable side, the Zaph ZRTs in the Madisound room appeared to offer remarkable value. Madisound offers speaker drivers, parts, and cabinets to the DIY hobbyist market, and at $1500/pair including cabinets the Zaphs impressed me enough to consider checking out a pair, or more. They appear modest enough, with just a single 6.5" woofer-midrange and 1" tweeter per side, but the drivers are some of the best and most expensive available from Scan-speak, whose products are used in many commercial high-end speakers costing at least ten times as much as the ZRTs. Check out any high end speaker selling for more than $20,000/pr and there's an 80% chance that it is using, at the least, a Scan-speak tweeter no better than this one. The included crossovers are also pre-wired. But if you had trouble assembling that IKEA bookshelf, don't trust yourself to install the pricey drivers without poking holes in them with the screwdriver, or aren't sure which end of a soldering iron to hold, these kits aren't for you.

Other rooms that caught my ear or eye, in no particular order, were Vivid, Marantz/Snell, Hegel, PMC, Hansen/Esoteric, Avalon/VTL, Bamberg Audio, Naim, and Kimber. For more info on some of these rooms, see the blog entries below.