Rocky Mountain Audiofest 2015 is in the can. I had a terrific time at the show this year, even though I didn't make it to all the rooms. Please accept my apologies if I missed your rooms. I try to focus on quality rather than quantity and I spend quite a bit of time in most rooms I visit. Plus, I spend a large amount of time talking to people in the industry rather than listening to every room at the show. How else does one get inside scoops, unreleased product information, education on the finer points of digital audio, and secure the first review opportunity of a new product? For example, spending an hour with Bob Stuart from Meridian / MQA and Pål Bråtelund from Tidal, before our seminar, was very informative. The ability to ask Bob one-on-one questions about MQA and to learn more about Tidal since its change in ownership was priceless. It's nice to hear that Tidal isn't abandoning the HiFi enthusiast market despite what appears to be a huge shift in the type of content pushed by the service. I was happy to hear that Tidal is in this for the long haul. The service estimates the global market for streaming has about 1 billion potential customers. Streaming is in its infancy. With this in mind, the streaming service providers see hundreds of millions of people as future customers. Those suggesting that one service will "win" (Bob Lefsetz) or that Tidal is doomed from the start (almost all popular press), are pretty short-sighted. Believe it or not, that awkward Tidal press conference has helped them immensely and will be forgotten by all but those in the press very shortly. Heck, most future streaming customers will look at you with a blank stare and wonder what you're talking about if you mention that press conference.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
BY far the most talked about topic at RMAF this year, at least in my circles, was Roon. Only a Elac and Sonore were showing RoonSpeakers audio endpoints and RoonServers at the show, but many manufacturers were waiting with bated breath to get their hands on the Roon software development kit (SDK) to implement these technologies. Everyone from DAC and component manufacturers to loudspeaker manufacturers was talking about enabling Roon on products. I have a feeling we will see Roon enabled components everywhere from our favorite HiFi dealers to BestBuy in the next year or so.
As I mentioned in the forum, Elac displayed a rough version of its Roon enabled product. This unit, with analog and digital outputs, runs RoonServer on Linux. The cool part about this is that users will configure Roon from the tablet application, connect to a number of streaming services (not just Tidal), and select the location of their local library (USB drive or NAS) without the use of a general purpose computer. Essentially the Elac device is the computer because it runs Linux on an ARM processor and has 8GB of RAM. However, it runs as simple as a toaster.
I had the pleasure of meeting Sonore's Adrian Lebena in person for the first time at RMAF. He was exhibiting at the show with his son, and the well known around these parts Barrows Worm, in addition to Small Green Computer / Vortexbox's Andrew Gillis. I talked to all the guys about their current and future product plans. It was really great to hear Adrian talk about how much sound quality effects every decision they make with respect to product design. Although it wasn't on display at RMAF the forthcoming Micro Rendu should be a one-of-a-kind product that Sonore is pushing to make sound as good or better than the Signature Rendu. The Micro Rendu will be one of the quietest computers every created because it was designed from the ground up as an audio computer (yes the motherboard was designed from the ground up!). Focussing on the here and now, on display at the show for all to see was the implementation of RoonSpeakers and RoonServer. Andrew from Vortexbox talked to me extensively about the microJukebox. This unit was running RoonServer in addition to all the other apps Vortexbox can run. The microJukebox will enable users to rip CDs and have them automatically appear in Roon. Andrew even told me that the tracks appear within Roon as they are being ripped and a track can even be played with only a portion of the track's rip complete. Adrian then gave me a demo streaming from the RoonServer running on the microJukebox to a Vortexbox running RoonSpeakers (and out to Sonore DAC, Sonore amps, and Raidho loudspeakers). I really enjoyed the sound of the entire system.
Sonore and Elac are companies to watch in the coming year. Elac will continue creating great sound for incredibly low prices with its new Andrew Jones designed speakers and its new line of components. Sonore will continue with its comparatively tiny team to be the first to market with innovative products featuring cutting edge hardware and software that is designed for great sound and a great end user experience.
Another company that aims to be on the cutting edge is exaSound. One thing that is really refreshing about exaSound is the company's focus on engineering and its rejection of hocus-pocus. I spent some time talking with George about his new PlayPoint product described as a network audio connector for exaSound DACs. The PlayPoint supports audio input via wired Ethernet or 802.11ac wireless. My experience with HiFi WiFi has been less than stellar over the year in that it simply doesn't work for high resolution with many products. George assured me the PlayPoint has no trouble streaming stereo DXD 384 kHz and DSD256 via wireless connection. In addition to robust WiFi, the PlayPoint features everything. Just kidding, nothing features everything, but t his component supports many great features. A short list of features includes UPnP, openHome, AirPlay, HQPlayer NAA, TIDAL, Roon, stereo and multi-channel playback, PCM less than or equal to 384 kHz, DSD less than or equal to 12.28 MHz, remote support and remote upgrade. I also saw George at the MQA after hours press conference. It's my guess that exaSound will support MQA if or when it becomes a viable product.
Longtime Computer Audiophile supporter The Audio Salon, based on Santa Monica, CA, had a room that deserves press for several reasons. First, I really liked the sound despite there being not a single acoustic treatment in the room. 99.999% of rooms at RMAF need acoustic panels or bass traps to tame the crazy frequency reflections and humps. Maier Shadi of The Audio Salon and Peter Madnick of Audio Alchemy more than managed to get great sound in a less than great environment (played through Wilson Audio Sabrina loudspeakers) . Second, for those who've been around HiFi for a while the name Audio Alchemy isn't new. The company's first iteration was a bit before my time, but it's back and it's another company to watch. I believe Audio Alchemy's products are very important to the market as a whole. The company offers very well engineered products (DAC, amps, phono-pre, source) that sound great at affordable prices. The man behind Audio Alchemy is Peter Madnick. Those familiar with his engineering chops will not be surprised to hear how good his products are, but may be surprised to hear about the reasonable prices. The Audio Alchemy DDP-1 is a DAC with analog volume attenuation that sells for $1995 and has the ability to use the $595 PS-5 external power supply. The PS-5 is capable of powering two Audio Alchemy components, such as the DAC and the forthcoming music server. After talking to Peter Madnick about some of the advanced engineering in the DDP-1 DAC, I'm looking forward to receiving a review unit, along with the PS-5 power supply, very soon. Third, RMAF 2015 was the debut for a product I had no idea was even in the works. The Stromtank model S 5000 is an independent power source for audio equipment. It's a battery power source created by the founder of Mbl Wolfgang Meletzky. The S 5000 has a 5000 Wh capacity with 4000 W peak performance. The unit weighs 253.5 lbs and is full of LiFePo4 batteries. There are many neat things about this battery supply, including the fact that it could run the show system (Audio Alchemy components) for nearly two days before requiring a recharge. Once the unit needs recharging it can automatically reconnect to the grid, and still allow playback of the audio components without a glitch. This is really a cool unit. I believe the MSRP will be around $28,000.
One room at RMAF 2015 was truly an experience to remember. Philip O'Hanlon of On A Higher Note, the distributor for many fine products including Mola-Mola, Merging Technologies, and Vivid Audio, demonstrated both stereo and multi-channel playback at a very high level. When I first arrived in Philip's room he was playing The New Appalachians' album
Hitting the letter A hard, I visited Audioengine, Auralic, and Aurender to see what each company had in store. I spent time talking to Audioengine's Brett, Morgan, Dave, and David. Everyone at this small company is really down to Earth and fun to spend time with, I highly encourage show-goers to visit Audioengine at the next show. This year Audioengine debuted its HD6 loudspeaker ($749). The first thing I noticed on the speaker that made me want one was the nice looking aluminum strip at the bottom containing the power and volume controls. According to Brett, this was Brady's idea. Nice work Brady. The HD6 is self powered and has inputs for optical digital devices like an AirPort Express, Sonos, or even Auralic Aries Mini. While in the Audioengine room I streamed all the music from an aptX enabled Samsung tablet. Like other Audioengine products, the HD6 supports aptX as well. The sound quality was everything you'd expect from Audioengine. Great quality for a great price. It's hard to get more for your money when it comes to loudspeakers than with products from Audioengine, and the HD6 is no exception. I'm really looking forward to getting a pair of HD6 speakers in for review as it has been about six years since I last reviewed a pair of Audioengine speakers (in TONE Audio magazine). By the way, incase you didn't hear, Audioengine snapped up industry veteran David Solomon after he parted ways with Tidal earlier this year. David is now Audioengine's VP of Global Sales and Marketing. Sliding further down the alphabet, I visited Auralic. This year Auralic really changed gears by displaying the Aries Mini streaming audio to a pair of Dynaudio Xeo 4 loudspeakers. Usually Auralic displays very high end systems featuring its DAC and amplifiers paired with floor standing speakers. This year was all about the Mini and simplicity. When i entered the room they were playing the newly remastered Blue Coast collection in DSD256. The sound was great, especially considering the digital audio was converted to analog for output into the Dynaudio Xeo hub, then converted to digital for streaming to the Xeo speakers, then converted to analog by the speakers. Sure this is a roundabout way to listen to audio, but it proves a point. One doesn't always need to stick to hard core audiophile principles to hear great sound and have fun listening to music. I expect the Aries Mini will be very capable via both its digital and analog outputs. I hear the Mini in Newport on a much larger system and was very impressed. I can't wait to get a review unit in here and connect it to my main system in addition to a smaller system elsewhere in my house. This is a versatile piece, priced at $549 and delivered with a one year free subscription to Tidal's HiFi service. Moving on to the last A, I visited Harry, Sally, Eric, and John-Paul from Aurender. At RMAF 2015 Aurender featured the N10 caching network music player with 4TB of storage ($7,999). One N10 was connected to the Aesthetix Pandora DAC via AES and another N10 was connected to the same DAC via USB. At RMAF Aurender used the Larsen Model 8 Ortho-Acoustic loudspeakers. These speakers are really nice for audio shows in that the off axis sound is nearly identical to that of the sweet spot. Plus, when someone walks in front of the loudspeaker, one hardly notices a change in the sound. Anyone who has visited an audio show knows there can be serious issues in a small crowded room and these loudspeakers are a great solution. I really liked what I heard in the Aurender room and experienced my favorite moment of the entire show in this room. Aurender's John-Paul Lizars and I were both adding songs to the playback queue using two different iPads running Aurender's Conductor iOS app. I would play a song, then he would play a song, and so forth. JP noticed I put Peter, Paul and Mary's All My Trials into the queue, but that I had selected the TIDAL HiFi version to stream from the Internet. He quickly removed it and said he had a better version for me. I was completely unaware that this, now one of my favorite songs, was available from Audio Fidelity remastered by Steve Hoffman. As soon as JP hit play I new this couldn't be topped at RMAF 2015. I was not going to hear anything I liked more than this during the entire show. Needless to say, I took a screenshot of the album and ordered it as soon as I returned home from Denver. I will attempt to recreate this moment when the CD arrives Wednesday.
Wrapping up this recap, I must mention three systems that could do know wrong while I was present. First, the show opened Friday morning with a dCS press conference introducing the new Rossini DAC / disc player and Rossini Master Clock. Martin from dCS described everything that went into the new Rossini including the same dCS Ring DAC that's in the flagship Vivaldi, the latest dCS DSP platform, and DXD oversampling or DSD upsampling, among many other items. The dCS front end was connected to VTL pre and power amps and Wilson Audio loudspeakers. Like most years at RMAF in this same room, this system was setup perfectly with sound to match. Second, the Constellation Audio room featured the new Centaur II monoblock amplifiers driving Wilson Audi loudspeakers as well. Digital was provided by Constellations Cygnus file player / DAC. The Virgo II preamp rounded out this Performance Series system. When I first walked into the room and sat down next to a gentleman in the front row, Miles Davis was being played. After a minute or so I turned to the gentleman next to me and said, wow this sounds fantastic. I expected at least a glance but assumed he would turn to me and offer an opinion. This guy was in a trance. He didn't acknowledge I was even there next to him. I thought to myself, OK cool this guy is really transported to another place. I guess that's what a good system does. In this wonderful hobby we spend considerable amounts of money on components that we'd like to disappear and not notice. I think Constellation is doing well with its disappearing act. A few minutes later, after the aforementioned gentleman left the room, I took control of the iPad and played a few tracks of my choice. No matter what I played, the sound was great. I can include Wilson Audio loudspeakers, along with Magico, in the category that work very well with Constellation products. In a week or so I'll know how Constellation components work with TAD loudspeakers as I'm set to receive the Inspiration Series of components including the Mono 1.0 amplifiers and the PreAmp 1.0 preamplifier shipped to me straight from RMAF. The third system, and one that I couldn't stop telling people about at the show, consisted of EMM Labs components and MartinLogan Neolith loudspeakers. The system was setup in a 4.0 channel configuration, but I wanted to hear the new EMM Labs DA2 flagship DAC ($25,000) so it was switched to two channel for a bit. After hearing a few tracks I put selected Nirvana's Where Did You Sleep Last Night from the Unplugged album. Based on what I'd heard I thought this system would reproduce live music very well. I cranked the volume up to what seemed like 100 dB and grabbed the center seat. What I heard literally sounded like a live Nirvana concert. The room in which this system was in was huge and so was the soundstage. The electrostatic panels sounded awesome with the huge EMM amps and the new DA2 DAC. The sound wasn't like a traditional audiophile system at a show, rather it was life-like with air and immediacy in a way that made other systems sound a bit closed in and boxy. I think I could have played the entire Unplugged album with my eyes closed and seriously felt like I was sitting in Sony Music Studios in New York City on November 18, 1993. The EMM Labs / MartinLogan system was one of, if not the most live sounding systems I've heard in recent memory.
Overall I really enjoyed RMAF 2015 for the audio systems and the people. Before closing I must mention a great dinner I had Friday night. I felt very lucky to spend the evening with Jud, his wife, Alex C., John S., and Larry. We talked a tiny bit about audio, a lot about music, and a little about our other shared interests. It's always fun to talk with these guys here on Computer Audiophile, but it was even better to see everyone in person. Plus, it's always fun to sit at a table and have the lowest IQ (by far). These guys are smart and ooze knowledge as they talk. I learned quite a bit just staying relatively quiet and soaking it in. What a fun time. I look forward to seeing the newly renovated Marriott hotel next year and hopefully getting together with friends of CA again at RMAF 2016.
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