I've been attending the RMAF since 2005 and this was my favorite time, by far. I can attribute much of my happiness to finally learning a valuable lesson. I've learned to turn around and leave a room that sucks the instant that I realize that it has damaging potential. Almost all the people running the rooms are nice and want to be helpful, BUT many of the rooms sound absolutely horrid. I used to try to be "nice" and at least sit through a song, but now I don't even sit down in many rooms. This year, after three days, my ears were still fresh. I spent more time in the really good rooms and went back to a few two to five times.
My absolute favorite room was the Avalon/Rowland room, where Avalon introduced its mid-sized, floor-standing "Transcendent" speaker, driven by Jeff Rowland Design Groups new Model 625 stereo amplifier. The sound was a little rough on Friday when they were using Rowland 301 monoblocks, but by Saturday morning, the 625 and some small speaker placement adjustment had pushed the sound to glorious levels.
On Sunday morning I came back to the Avalon/Rowland room right at openning at had a quiet, almost private session with the system, listening to Doug Wamble play Ken Parker's "Brownie" acoustic archtop guitar and sing. (It's not released yet). The richness of guitars overtones and Doug's voice were palpably real, except that the mic on the guitar was a little too close. That gave unrealistic size to the guitar, but afforded a very rich symphony of steel and wood, much like when I play that guitar myself. Later, we listened to the Israel Phil under Bernstein play Dvorak's Ninth. The entry of the brass gave me the same goose bumps that I feel when I'm onstage playing trumpet in the middle of a great brass section. The brr of the bones and trumpets was palpable and rich with no harshness, even at very high listening levels.
The all-Gamut room was very nice. After being in a HUGE room last year, Gamut was in a small room and brought appropriate sized small towers for their room. This was scaled down from the Avaolon/Rowland room (which had lots of traps and damping added) but very accurate harmonically and emotionally involving.
My seond-favorite to the Roland/Avalon was the Playback Designs/DarTZeel/Evolution room. At times the mid-sized Evolution speakers overloaded the room, yet the mids and highs never threatened physical harm to my ears. In fact, I visited this room three times and loved my Brownie/Wamble CD just as much here as I had in the Rowland room
There was a large room with dCS/VTL/Wilson that sounded the best that I've ever heard Wilson sound. I'd always felt that Wilson should sound better than what I'd always heard at shows and this room proved my suspicion right.
Another very pleasant surprise was the Luxman room driving some speakers that looked like giant silver snails. The system sounded way, way better than the speakers looked.
The Esoteric room had great sound, but I don't think that the Esoteric speakers deliver the full emotion that the Esoteric front-end could put into a superior speaker. These speakers don't do anything "bad" they just don't pull you in and aren't as rich in the mids as some others. However, they're good enough that you know that the digital front-end is a high-potential setup.
A block away, off-site, Soundings Audio put on a great demonstration of the Vienna Acoustic "Kiss" speakers driven by a Boulder front end and amplification. I spent a couple of hours here, helped along by wine, beer and other goodies.
I could live with any of the systems that I've mentioned here. So that you know my biases, my current system is Playback Designs CD/SACD player, Rowland Contiuum 500 amplification and Vienna Acoutic Beethoven Baby Grand speakers with Analysis Plus wiring throughout.
It wouldn't be fair for me to talk about the systems that sucked (there were many) because, as I said in the lead-in, I only stayed a few seconds with those systems. To be fair, most systems were no where near their full potential in a well developed home system. Some were able to deal with poor room acoustics better than others. Also, surprisingly, much of the equipment was not broken in and burned in prior to the show.
It was a great show. If you come in the future, save your ears and only spend time in the rooms that invite your ears in rather than assult them. It's not a purely a loudness thing, but an uglyness thing. I listened at some pretty high levels, but only on the best systems.