RMAF 2016: Day 1 Liftoff

On Friday morning at 9am, the blogging team of (left to right) yours truly, John Atkinson, Herb Reichert, and Jana Dagdagan gathered for a strategy meeting in the newly remodeled restaurant of the Denver Marriott Tech Center. As it ended up, I opted to cover rooms in the lobby, on the mezzanine, and on floors 5, 6, and 10 (45 rooms). John, who could only stay for two days, went with floors 7 and 11, and the independent Magico exhibit at the nearby Hyatt (24 rooms)—as well as all the other things you need to do when you're the Editor of the world's largest-circulation audiophile magazine. Herb went for floors 3, 4, 8, and 9 (45 rooms). Jana, in her first time covering an audio show, added ad-lib blogs to floor 2 (11 rooms). On the last day, Herb and I also chose to pick up what had not yet been completed.

The new ultra-clean-and-modern look of the lobby, and the new downstairs layout, welcome though they were, came at a price. The entire Atrium, as well as the conference space—the latter used, in years past, for seminars, entertainment, and the largest CanJam of any audio show in North America—was unfinished. Thus were all those exhibits shunted into: a huge, heated tent; some large ballrooms in the main hotel; and mostly-open spaces referred to as media pods. It seems only Channel D/Joseph Audio opted for the pods. And as for those exhibitors who wanted large demonstration spaces, there weren't nearly enough to go around. As a result, a number of major players, among them YG, regretfully either bowed out entirely or resigned themselves to static displays on the ground level.

Having an equal impact on RMAF were the changes to the standard-size hotel rooms in the Tower. To guests, the new décor was lovely, and the supposed soundproofing, which did not extend to those locked safety doors between rooms, gratefully received. But…

… as you can guess from the photo above, those changes were not of benefit to exhibitors. While the noisy, antiquated heating/cooling units under the windows were gone, they were replaced with an even noisier air-conditioning/heating system housed in a shaft at the end of each room's permanent, unmovable desk/credenza/wall-mounted TV setup. Thus were exhibitors who chose the traditional, up-against-the-windows installation scheme left with a substantially narrower-than-before space in which to set up speakers, and seating areas that could comfortably accommodate only three people per row.

"Standard size" now felt like "Smaller size." Together with new wall coverings, an unmovable bed headboard, and other sundry decorative touches, these thorn-in-the-side alterations made for a different acoustic which only some exhibitors were prepared to address. For exhibitors with floorstanding speakers of other than narrow dimensions, the space felt extremely cramped.

Less affected by the remodeling, as far as I could see, were the large rooms on the mezzanine level where I began my blogging. First up, Naim and Focal, from Audio Plus Services. With the help of Stillpoints Aperture panels, Ricardo Chailly's version of Mahler Symphony 10, performed by the Berlin Radio Symphony, produced gorgeous string sound via the Naim UnitiServe UPnP server ($4595) and Naim NDS network player ($12,995) with two NAPS555 power supplies ($11,495/each), one for digital circuitry, and the other for analog, all sitting on a Naim Fraim rack. The sweetness was truly heart-tugging, but when the volume increased, strings turned wiry. Prior experience with these brands points the finger at the room.

The massive Focal Stella Utopia loudspeakers ($97,500/pair) conveyed an excellent sense of the sheer volume of massed strings, as well as the spaciousness of the symphonic acoustic. It was quite thrilling. A CD of Dire Straits' "Private Investigations," upsampled to 24/192, again produced a fabulous, huge soundstage populated with images of substantial body. Yes, there were some bass-control issues, but that's par for the course in large hotel rooms with spongy walls. Equally impressive, despite brittle highs, was the sense of mass on a recording of Saint-Saëns' well-worn Organ Symphony.

Other essential, hard-to-miss components: Naim Statement NAC S1 preamplifier ($90,000), a pair of Naim Statement NAP S1 monoblocks ($90,000/each), Naim Super Lumina cabling, and Vovox network cables.

I had to virtually goose Walter Swanbon of Fidelis AV (distributor of Harbeth and other brands) and Kevin Hayes of VAC to get them to smile, but there was plenty of reason for them to do so. Through the Harbeth 40.2 loudspeakers ($14,795/pair in cherry), Acoustic Signature Ascona MK2 turntable ($33,999) with their 12" TA 9000 tonearm ($18,999), VAC Signature 200 iQ 100Wpc amplifier in 200W monoblock configuration ($14,000/each), VAC master preamplifier line stage ($27,000) with phono option ($13,000), unidentified Tellurium interconnects, and Tellurium Q Black Diamond speaker cables ($4200/pair), I experienced a gorgeous, luxuriant bath of sound via Sara McLaughlin's "Angel." The system was also quite revealing, with all the hiss from the LP of Dorati's Firebird evident. The soundstage, from the first row, was huge.

"Eminently smooth, delicious warm sound with fine body—conveys the mystery behind the music wonderfully," I wrote in my notes. As long as you like warm sound, the system was fabulous. Yes, there was some booming on Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." But in the end, that's exactly what I will say about the pairing of Harbeth and VAC: absolutely nice to come home to.

Allen Fant's picture

Nice group pic! All.

additionally, nice pics of the gear! Happy Listening!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Sometimes it was...

volvic's picture

I think my blood would freeze if I encountered Herb Reichert walking down the street with that gaze. Just jesting of course.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

that has intimidated many an art student not ready to accept Herb's level of expertise, and sent manufacturers of inferior equipment running. Herb actually smiles aplenty when he's not on camera. I've tried to get him to smile for the lens, but we are dealing with one strong-willed man.

volvic's picture

But a great writer.........

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

It helps to have a strong will in this profession. Herb uses his to best advantage.

Dave Clark's picture

I found many rooms to sound quite good with the overall response being that this year's RMAF to be a wonderful show. For sure there were issues with rooms and such, but if one used experience and whatnot, one could get it to work. Hats off to Marjorie Baumert and all for a great time. The only rooms I did not like tended to be playing ho-hum audiophile tracks.... or simply had speakers/systems set up wrong for the room.

sunnyhtms@gmail.com's picture

When we setup speakers the first object is to pressurize the room properly.
Last year we had a great big room at The Newport Show and we setup Wilson Audio Specialties Sasha series 2 with a pair of Wilson Subs. We had gotten this space to show XLF speakers. I tellyou the Sasha's did a marvelous Job. If the rooms are small, big speakers should be displayed static only. Otherwise you tend to do more harm than good. At The new show, I am longing to do a super high end system with Mid-fi price points...All good points Dave...

jim davis's picture

When I heard about a 'CanJam' in a big tent at Marriott, I figured 'heck yes!' Disappointed that you had to bring your own. And there weren't any chips. No samples, but some music, I read. It's all a little hazy.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Once marijuana is legalized in CA, you'll be able to smoke your can right outside the CanJam. I'm sure many did in the weed-legal state of CO. Of course, there may be restrictions on public imbibing, but that has never stopped the devoted. Meanwhile, come to WA state, where it's legal.

Anon2's picture

I heard the Naim Superuniti, without the power-plant amplification on display here, a few years back. The Superuniti, on its own power, provided great sound to some very power-hungry Dynaudio Confidence C1s in that show a few years back.

I am intrigued by these all-in-one systems. Admittedly, I still might hook up a CD player to one of these. These all-in-one units, for those who no longer use CDs, seem to offer a low-to-no moving parts experience for space constrained people.

Naim units are a bit high in price for me, but these Uniti products do offer a lot under a single chassis. I hope that we will see a test of this new product soon. I don't recall that there was a test of the current Superuniti.

The one-piece stereo has come a long way from the fake-wood and fabric console monsters of yesteryear, that's for sure (sitting next to the fake-wood and fabric console TV set).

I enjoyed the group picture. I'll take the non-audio photos if it's of the hard-working, hard-travelled Stereophile crew. It's now only 6 months of crummy weather, and an annoying presidential election, until Axpona 2017. See you there.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Look down, and you'll see me.


Anton's picture

That picture seems downright Shakespearean.

Magic and mischief are afoot as Prospero, Falstaff, Puck, and Viola prepare for the play!

You know who's missing?

Prospero would tell you...

"It was mine, Art, when I arrived and heard these, that made gape thee pine and let thee out!"

The Tempest, Act 1, scene 2.

philipjohnwright's picture


I had an earlier iteration of the 802, which I downsized for a pair of Harbeth C7s. I have to say overall my musical enjoyment did not diminish, although I still harbour a fondness for the big B&Ws.

Obviously the 40.2s are more comparable to the 802s, how would you characterize the differences?


Edit - oops, just realised it was Herb who heard the 802s, so guess the question isn't appropriate.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

you are correct in that I'm not equipped to offer an educated opinion.


philipjohnwright's picture

For uneducated opinion :-)

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

you can turn to our competition. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

avanti1960's picture

backdrops functioning as acoustic treatment? when you review rooms, can you please comment on their use of (or lack of) acoustic treatments? i am just starting down this path for my system and getting an idea of how you enjoyed the sound of a given room and whether it was acoustically treated (and how) will be very helpful.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

You have raised a weakness in my reporting that I need to address at future shows. In this particular case, I've written four people at Audio Plus Services, who distribute Naim and Focal in the U.S. and Canada, for an answer. Either they or I will post a further response.

Many exhibitors used what appeared to be generic looking absorption and diffusion panels in their rooms. Often these do not appear in photos, because showing them would mean stepping farther back (which was sometimes impossible, given the layout) and diminishing the size of the equipment in the photo. Some propped up egg crate foam, which is not very discriminating in which frequencies it addresses. Others used far more expensive Aperture panels from Stillpoints, which are designed to function on multiple levels simultaneously. (I have two of these in my listening room, along with a host of excellent treatment from Bart Andeer's Florida-based Resolution Acoustics). Ted Denney of Synergistic Research used his own panels - blog to come - while Raidho - blog to come - achieved head turning sound without use of anything whatsoever.

One exhibitor - I think it was Vinnie Rossi, but I'll discover who as I continue blogging - told me that he had such a miserable bass suckout in his room when he set up in the usual position in front of the windows that he went with a diagonal set-up. Jeff Joseph has also been known to use such a set-up in many of his exhibits, again with the goal of minimizing nodes and suckouts. But with the remodeling addition of the credenzas and the air conditioning shaft, this was quite difficult to accomplish in standard size rooms. Vinnie took a risk, which paid off. Then again, he was using smaller Harbeth loudspeakers rather than big floorstanders.

I did ask in one room if their backdrop served anything other than a decorative purpose, and they said no. But in general, I did not ask. It's too late for this show, but I'll be sure to ask at CES and thereon.

More to come,

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Emmanuel, who works with Audioplus Services, is based in Canada and bilingual.

The backdrops were not intended to be acoustic treatments. They are made of nylon, and are quite transparent. But as you know, any piece have an influence on the room acoustics, specially these quite large banners.

As you said in the review, we had 6 Stillpoints absorbing panels (2 stacks of 3) on each side of the room, in line with the first order reflections, but about 25% into the room. The room tuning has been made by Acoustic Analyst Bob Hodas [based in the Bay Area]. But as you said, there is so much we can do with these hotel rooms. The Stella\Statement combo was able to deliver so many SPL, that it was easy to saturate the room.

jhanken's picture


veentage's picture

Thumbs up to the team photo and coverage of this event!

J.Bevier's picture

Blanca Peak / Focal Stella Utopia EM, Naim Audio Statement System

Your reader’s question is a good one:

Behind the Focal Stella Utopia EM speakers we had two nearly floor to ceiling banner made of some thin cotton/nylon blended fabric stretched around an aluminum frame of some basic trade show supply kind stock. There was NO room treatment of any kind behind those two banners.

There WAS acoustic treatment elements set towards the sides of the room — these were Stillpoints Apature Acoustic Treatment panels (http://www.stillpoints.us/index.php/product/aperture#!BLACK_WALNUT_STILLPOINTS_BRAND__1). Inside these square panels are a combination of absorber, diffuser and resonator. These were mounted on Stillpoints stands made for the panels. We used four stands, eight panels - two on each side of the room, placed at the first refection point of each speaker. Interestingly, this Blanca Peak room is quite wide. Normally, you might place these acoustic treatments on the walls of a less wide expanse; but we had a world renowned acoustic engineer named Bob Hodus (http://www.bobhodas.com/) contracted to help us set the space up. Bob’s a genius. I think he can see sound. His measurements and experience told him to place these into the room on stands to cancel/control reflections before the wave fronts travelled all the way to the room boundaries. That was it, no active room correction elements were used.

Thanks to Bob, Bruce at Stillpoints, and all the team members at Focal and Naim Audio for their superb collaboration.

Our finest regards - J.Bevier | Audio Plus Services |