Rocky Mountain High-Fi

The annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was held in early October in the Marriott Hotel at the Denver Tech Center. For at least the past 10 years this has been the biggest of the many audio shows now jostling for position around the U.S. Depending on who you ask, the Newport Beach (CA) show, held in June, is nipping at its heels but isn’t quite there yet.

Manufacturers (not to mention the press) must be tearing what’s left of their hair out trying to support all these shows, which now include RMAF, Newport, (northern) California, Chicago, New York City, Washington D.C., and Toronto. Let me know if I’ve missed one! And this doesn’t even include the trade-only CES (and, for some, CEDIA EXPO). For small manufacturers this is a major expense, and many of them only attend one or two. If they support two, it’s most likely they’ll include RMAF and CES).

Unlike many present-day audiophiles I keep one foot in the audio/video world of home theater and surround sound and the other in the 2-channel world of high-end audio. I regret that multichannel, even for music alone, remains anathema to many audio fans. As for film sound, for many that’s clearly the spawn of the devil. If I didn’t love film and, in particular, the little appreciated genre of film scores, I might feel the same way. But there’s something about a well-acted, well-made, well-engineered well-transferred, well-scored film on a good home theater system that pushes my buttons. It helps that my taste in films (and well-made TV shows) is as eclectic as it comes, from animation to sci-fi to comedy to serious drama—from Game of Thrones to Downton Abbey and from Gnomeo and Juliet and Star Trek to Quartet and Anonymous.

Fortunately, the same goes for music, since there was little in the way of home theater or surround sound at the show. Three companies made the effort: SVS (showing movies on a small flat panel set), Kimber Kable, and exaSound (the latter launching its 8-channel DAC on five Magnepan speakers in its small hotel room). But in the “old” days of the 1990s and early 2000’s, when Stereophile was running the only annual, viable shows in various parts of the U.S. (Canada had, and still has, its own annual show) there were more home theater demos. Not a lot, but enough for an obvious presence. The late, great J. Gordon Holt, the founder of Stereophile, was one of the first in the press to appreciate the convergence of quality audio and video. He once commented, while covering a show for both Stereophile and the now defunct Stereophile Guide to Home Theater), that for the latter he knew which rooms to enter: the ones that were dark and had screens!

The urge to acquire a dedicated, stand-alone audio system has diminished in recent years. Whether this is a result of the stagnant economy, the growing price of audio gear, people’s busier lives, home theater, or other tech products competing for limited disposable incomes, it has resulted in the closing of many audio dealerships. In the 90’s and early 00’s the home theater boom kept many of these dealers alive as they added custom installations to their bottom line. That has slowed with the economy. Perversely, another result has been the explosion of six-figure systems and even six-figure individual components, helping many remaining dealers stay in business by hoping for one or two big-ticket sales rather than 50 smaller ones.

Today’s high-end shows cater to this. It’s rare, for example, to find speakers costing $5000 or less being demonstrated at RMAF and similar events, though a few brave exhibitors do buck that trend. Ironically this means that many young audiophiles, who now have fewer opportunities to audition gear in a dealer’s showroom, come to these shows only to find little they can afford. If they’re new to the hobby they might think that affordable high-end audio isn’t being made any more. It is, but is rarely featured at shows. Is there a market for an audio show in the U.S. where no individual component being demoed can cost more than, say, $5000? Or even $3000? I’m sure there must be. I know I’d be first in line for it.

One branch of the audio market, however, has flourished in recent years. So-called “personal audio.” Sales of headphones and the means to drive them has exploded. So it was no coincidence that what was arguably the most popular spot at RMAF, Can Jam, gathered dozens of headphones and headphone amplifier vendors in a large ballroom. Yes, some of these products were expensive; it’s possible to spend several thousand dollars on headphones and the means to drive them. But the result just might be one-listener audio that equals or exceeds that of many a six-figure, conventional system. Possibly the best sound I heard at the show (in an admittedly brief listen) was from Audeze LCD-X headphones driven by a Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold headphone amp, a combination that will run you close to $6000 (the amp was roughly twice the price of the ‘phones!). But you don’t have to spend thousands to get a taste of the high end from a set of “cans.” You can get very good headphones for a few hundred dollars and drive them, at least at first, from the headphone output of your AVR or portable music player.

RMAF did, however, offer up plenty of impressive, conventional demos. As usual, there were more than a few poor ones—this is a chronic problem in the small and poorly treated (self-inflicted) rooms typical of such shows. Even so, I heard excellent sound in a number of rooms. I didn’t hear every exhibit; there were too many for one person to cover in any depth in less than three full days. But enjoyed the show immensely nonetheless, and also contributed to Stereophile’s show coverage. You can find my show blogs, and those of other Stereophile contributors, at