There are ways to approach a show — target the products you want; wonder around and see what takes your fancy, or the truly insane approach I adopted of going to the top of the tower — the 11th floor — and working my way down. I figured, 11 floors, then a mezzanine, then the remaining large rooms, and I’d get it all covered in 3 days. By end of day one– having started early, I had cleared 5 floors. Even then I felt I missed spending enough to time in some rooms…and that was without taking lunch, having a drink or even a restroom visit. Yeah, TMI….but that’s an audio show.
And how crazy is an audio show? Hotel rooms taken over, stripped out, audio gear moved in and music played while interested people wander about. If not part of the audiophile community it must seem a little strange that people invest so much effort to hear recorded music, and further, that there can be so many differences in sound quality and price that enable dozens, perhaps hundreds of specialist companies to exist. But the sales trope is consistent: each company believes their products do something different, better, truer to what people want, etc. It makes no sense but that’s the world we inhabit.
Anyway, you just want to know what sounded good right? Let me cut to the chase before going into details. Most of high end audio, as evinced by what was on display here, is not actually very good at delivering music to your ears in a confined space. The claims of many manufacturers to producing high quality sound are little more than marketing BS. Exotic enclosures, fat cables and resolution rates hide myriad fudges about doing anything very different. We still have drivers in boxes, we rely on claims over data, opinion over science, and tolerate pricing that fundamentally is based on what someone else might pay, rather than intrinsic worth. Oh, and of course, every manufacturer claims it is the other guys that are doing that…not them.
And the prices! Dear me, how little is the reality of most consumer lives reflected here. A couple of years ago I noticed that many speakers were one hitting $30k a pair. That’s been blown through and there were lots of speakers here well north of that price. Thus year I found a common problem to number fudging. Prices are quoted in dollar units that you must interpret as you can’t be sure if the answers refers to hundreds or thousands. How much were those monoblocks you ask? The answer is $39-five! Er….is that $3950 or $39 500? In this world, standards are so vague that you cannot reliably estimate the correct answer from any sonic or visual examination of the product.
So what did I learn here at RMAF 2017?
Most rooms are overloaded with bass. Much ‘hi-resolution’ gear has such a sharp, cutting transient delivery and decay that it never produces anything that sounds like real music. Many people sit in rooms scratching their heads wondering why anything that sounds like this can command such a price. But hey, you knew this already right? Oh, and the music is still very predictable, lending some weight to the argument that for audiophiles, it really is more about the gear.
Rather than do a day by day, let me try to convey some general observations and specific experiences.
Focal were everywhere. I gave up counting after hearing them in at least 4 rooms but there were surely more. The value of this is it reinforces the vital importance of rooms, set-up and parterning equipment. And time. The speakers sounded good in the Krell room of local dealer Listen Up, but sounded harsh and tizzy in two other rooms. On the first day I thought them boomy in the PS Audio room powered by the great BHK300 monos but this had smoothed out over the course of the weekend and on some music, particularly piano recordings, they could sound great. Focal’s own main display might have had Anne Bisson sitting outside it most of the time but inside it resembled a bad dealership on a busy afternoon with lots of display items but no chance of hearing anything meaningful. So if you ask me about how good Focal can sound, I have to say they run the gamut from great to ear killing.
And speaking of Gamut — wow, a $100k+ pair of magnificent speakers that visually dominated the space but managed to make sweet music on two occasions I visited – the highlight being their open party on Sat evening when 4 or 5 of us were treated to a master tape R2R play through of Floyd’s Wish You Were Here that reached such thunderous levels that they were asked to turn the music down by the hotel. Bass notes from these monsters actually set up enough air disturbance to flutter nearby candles. Add in the coolest room hosts -those Danes know how to have a good time — and it was a pleasant space. The Zodiacs are made in small numbers, and this pair is heading off to TAS and another reviewer after that. Expect raves just because they’ve made it this far. But yeah, they actually sounded good.
And because I really do like to hear what super expensive stuff sounds like, I get to hear the $50k Raidho flootstanders (very nice sounding, and even better looking), the top of the range Martin Logans powered by mega AR tube amps (sometimes great, sometimes a bit rougher depending on what was being played, but generally impressive) and the largest Wilson Benesch speakers I’d seen, which proved to be a little disappointing on the two occasions I entered the room. Nothing really wrong but generally nothing that spoke to me either.
More to come — just dumping some notes now. I will get around to a talk by Paul Barton, a chance to hear those tall Carver speakers in action, the ML Renaissance 13 and 15s, and a couple of interactions with the Tekton speakers. Turntables were plentiful and in use, with some great sounds emanating from some lower level products in odd partnerships with much more expensive speakers. Hard to summarize it all quickly…..stay tuned for updates.