Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF) celebrated its ninth year earlier this month. Since its inception in 2004, the RMAF has grown to become one of the largest, most widely attended audiophile shows in the world - not bad for something that started off as a "fest." While RMAF may be among the most trafficked regional shows in all of audiophilia, it was my first time in attendance. The show lived up to all of my expectations as far as being a pleasing venue with good attendance, both public and industry, all sharing in a wide variety of nicely appointed rooms with equipment from all over the globe. From a public perspective, RMAF is the best chance John Q. Audiophile has to hear some of the more esoteric equipment his beloved hobby has to offer. In this respect, RMAF was a resounding success. While the majority of the show was still focused too heavily on the top one percent, I can understand why manufacturers and dealers brought their flagship products. Still, it was the far less expensive product offerings and rooms that caught my eye, for I'm always more interested in products that I deem as real, as opposed to ones that seem more for show than anything else.
As I made my way through the halls on day one, I began to notice a few trends, some not wholly unique to RMAF, but troubling all the same. I also took note of a number of semi-private conversations taking place between the manufacturers and dealers, conversations that proved to be in stark contrast to the general positivity that permeated the show. While it would be easier, or even make more sense, for me to simply go room-by-room and describe what I heard or didn't hear, I feel that this coverage already exists elsewhere and chances are you've already read it. Instead, I would like to focus my coverage on what I noticed behind the scenes, from attendees and even the manufacturers themselves, for their actions spoke louder than any system I heard while attending RMAF. Some of what I'm about to say may not be pretty or even well-received, but nevertheless, I feel it's important, for we all play an active role in growing this hobby, something that was definitely at the forefront of everyone's mind at RMAF.
This isn't so much a criticism leveled specifically at RMAF, but rather at all hotel-bound tradeshows that are attended by exhibitors and manufacturers who insist on making their rooms dark. I know a lot of them believe they are "setting a mood," but I argue that the products should do that; illuminating them with the equivalent of a night light makes me think you're trying to hide something from me. What good is a triple-buffed, metallic pearl paint job if you show it off in the dark? The answer is, "Nothing." Adding insult to injury, many exhibitors feel the need to use colored or gelled lights to further "enhance" the listening space, a technique that is especially annoying. Several rooms were more than guilty of this, with Emotiva being among the worst offenders that I saw while at RMAF, even though their room sounded pretty good. Their blue-on-blue color palette felt as if I had crawled inside Cookie Monster à la the dead Tauntaun in The Empire Strikes Back. We live in the digital age, meaning people are communicating with their peers almost instantaneously via their smart phones, and when your room is darker than night and/or bathed in a monochromatic light source, it's difficult for these people to share your products with the world. And don't tell me to use a flash, because the second one of those goes off in a room filled with jazz-listening zombies, your next move - provided you're the one who took the picture - better be to run.
Just Because You Can Play It Doesn't Make It a Format
The predominant format at RMAF was vinyl. While this may excite some readers still clinging to the idea that vinyl is alive and well, let me tell you it's a bit annoying. I spent more time watching exhibitors fidget with tone arms, cartridges and phono stages than I did listening to the music they were playing. I get it: some people want to hang onto the past and being an audiophile allows for a certain constant level of nostalgia to exist, but don't tell me vinyl is better. As for reel-to-reel, you have to be kidding me! Nobody can get music on reel to reel, certainly not master tape copies of top albums, unless they have access to vaults that few audiophiles possibly can approach. But that's not the worst of it. I actually saw cassette tapes at RMAF. You remember cassette tapes, the kind you used to have to wind back up using the eraser end of your school pencil - those cassette tapes. Please. I'm holding out for 8-Track tape if you want to talk esoteric. There were a number of "progressive" thinkers at the show using CDs and, dare I say downloads, but their rooms were scarcely as packed as those who seemed as concerned with the spectacle as they were with actually listening to music. I watched an exhibitor rub down a record in front of a packed house. Each person there was watching him like a lion watches a wounded gazelle before deciding to pounce. Which begs the question: is it the sound of these dead formats audiophiles love so much or is it the ritual?
Despite what a few pundits in this hobby believe, young people are not "flocking" to vinyl because it's better. First off, they're not flocking to vinyl, period. The few that may be attracted to vinyl are interested more out of a sense of irony than due to a belief in the format's quality. Second, while audiophiles and hobbyists alike may despise digital music and/or downloads, it is the future and the sooner we can get more folks to accept that fact, the more we're bound to attract new blood to this industry. Just look at all the AirPlay-enabled devices that have sprung up in recent months. That is real new growth, growth that more people, young and old, can benefit from and participate in.
No Excuses: Shut Up and Play Some Music
More and more, I've noticed that the exhibitors have gotten into the habit of prefacing their demos with excuses and apologies. Generally, this takes the form of a disclaimer like, "I'm sorry but this isn't going to sound as good were we in a proper room." What is a proper room? To me, a room is four walls, a floor and a ceiling. This means hotel rooms are, in fact, rooms. Furthermore, what do manufacturers think their customer's rooms look like? Do they think we all live in perfectly proportioned sound rooms with thousands of dollars' worth of acoustical treatments? We don't. Or is it that they don't care? Is it that they want to make a strong enough impression at a show to get you to buy, only to have you get home and realize your just-purchased speakers sound nothing like what you heard at the expo, so you're shit out of luck? The truth is that a trade show is precisely where you want to listen to speakers, for if a speaker or a piece of equipment can sound good amidst paper-thin walls, ambient room noise and often stunted dimensio
ns, then it can only get better from there. If it sounds like crap in a hotel room, chances are it's also going to sound like crap in your home. Just my opinion. Furthermore, at the prices some of these exhibitors and manufacturers charge for their wares, they'd better sound good, no matter where I choose to install them.
Bad Economy? What Bad Economy?
Did you know, because I didn't, that the economy is back on its feet? It's true. Everyone has mountains of superfluous cash just lying around to spend. Heck, in the bathrooms at RMAF, people were drying their hands with hundred-dollar bills. Seriously, when is this hobby going to get the memo that in order for it to grow, it needs to embrace the concept of affordability? I saw so many no-name, no-reputation brands showcasing their next $10,000, $20,000, even $50,000 whatever at RMAF that it made me sick. I get it, it's a public show, meaning it's the general public's best shot to hear or be next to the industry's equivalent of a Bugatti Veyron. At the same time, who's buying that? It's one thing to showcase what's possible at the extreme, but quite another to get someone new to the hobby to actually feel compelled to buy. I argue the latter is much harder than making yet another cost-no-object speaker. It wasn't all Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous at RMAF - there were a number of manufacturers who did represent solid values within the two-channel space, but they were most definitely in the minority.
Audiophiles Are Going to Ruin the Headphone Market
A few years back, headphones began to emerge in a big way and recently have been heralded as the savior to the audiophile industry's woes. Six months ago, I would've agreed with this assessment, but after visiting RMAF, I feel that even headphones are doomed. I'm not talking about people my brother's age (20-something - Gen Y), who wouldn't be caught dead at RMAF or any specialty AV trade show. No, I'm talking about audiophile companies that believe, by making headphones and headphone components, they're going to save their dwindling businesses. There are two problems with this approach. First, manufacturers are still selling to the same dwindling group of individuals whom they're also trying to get to buy their free-standing products, and second, they're now bringing their old, tired methodologies that failed them elsewhere in the business to headphones. This is a recipe for disaster. Like I said, two years ago, headphones were a relatively inexpensive way into a brand. Now they cost as much as free-standing product and can't be "properly listened to" unless plugged into a whole group of new, expensive ... well, you get the idea.
Again, the answer to the audiophile industry's woes isn't about finding a way to sell expensive things to the same customers, it's about attracting new ones. Suggesting that headphones now need to be plugged into multi-thousand-dollar amps, preamps or both, when the headphones themselves now cost thousands of dollars, is absurd. The next generation of audiophiles wants a mobile headphone - not something strapped to a $5,000 tube headphone amp.
The Audiophile Industry Is Scared -No Terrified
The number one most overheard comment at RMAF was, "What are we going to do?" The notion that the specialty AV industry is in a bit of trouble is nothing new, but I've never heard it so openly discussed as I did at RMAF. This may sound like the industry is being proactive about its problems. I wish that were the case, except it isn't and it's not. In truth, everyone is waiting for that next big thing or person to come along and save them. Thirty years ago, it was the compact disc, but thirteen years ago, industry folk turned their backs on the iPod and have been playing catch-up ever since. The truth is, no one thing or person is going to fix the specialty AV business. The only way it gets fixed is through a radical shift in thinking, thinking that the industry doesn't necessarily want to adopt.
Specialty AV is more concerned with talking at consumers than including them in the conversation, and we in the media are complicit in this mindset. How else do you explain fifty-plus-year-old technologies still being heralded as "the best"? You don't see the computer market longing for the days of floppy discs, do you? But what ails the specialty AV market isn't even about technology or a lack thereof, it's about elitism and how you're not a real enthusiast unless you do (insert absurd claim here). Manufacturers have promoted this, dealers attempt to sell it and reviewers reinforce it. I know what I'm writing is going to go over like a taco fart in an elevator, but it's time for some truth. No one is saying off with high-end's head, or that cost-no-object components can't still be valid. That's not the issue. The notion that needs changing is that these are only these things make you worthy as an audiophile. This whole business has existed on selling you the idea that unless you go with (___) brand or product you're wrong. Nonsense. It's time to evolve, to embrace change and radical ideas. Quit selling and start educating and including those who support this hobby in the discussion, rather than merely telling them what they need to do in order to make some suit happy. People don't wait in line for days in the cold because the iPhone is just that good, they wait because they feel a part of something greater than themselves, because they get to say, "I was there."
So there you have it, my takeaway from this past RMAF in Denver. It's not that I didn't enjoy the show. I did. In fact, I believe it to be one of the better shows out there. If you want to know what I enjoyed, then check out the photo gallery above (or below), for if I took a picture of it, then chances are that I thought it was neat and/or sounded good. If your product isn't pictured, it's not a condemnation of what you make, it's possible that it just got shared via Twitter or Facebook live from the show.
I understand this may not have been the show coverage you may have been expecting, but honestly, I believe it is the show coverage the industry deserves, for it's not all kittens and rainbows out there. It's time we tell it like it is, for the only way this hobby will grow and return to prominence is if we reintroduce some honesty back into the conversation. We've been wrapped up in our own denial for too long and it's time to stop. While the manufacturers and dealers may have wanted the public to believe all is well, their words and actions in the hallways of the Denver Tech Center Marriott told a different story, one I feel is far more relevant and worthy of open, honest discussion, much more so than extolling the virtues of yet another high-priced no-name loudspeaker.