RMAF 2015 - the Party's Over, the Party's Just Begun

As the Stereophile Contributing Editor who has attended more Rocky Mountain Audio Fests than anyone except John Atkinson and Michael Fremer—that's me in the center—I've been entrusted with writing the show wrap. (John, it should be noted, deeply regrets that the magazine's production schedule made his attendance impossible.) But this time around, rather than simply relying on my own impressions, I posed questions to and gathered impressions from both my fellow bloggers, Sasha Matson (left above) and Herb Reichert (right above), and no fewer than 25 exhibitors.

Asked to name his favorite rooms, Herb writes, "Bricasti/Tidal speaker room and the Gordon Rankin Wavelength/Vaughn room. And, of course, the High Water Sound/Cessaro/TW Acoustic room. And the High Fidelity Services room with the Verity Audio Parsifal speakers, Audia Flight amplification, and the TW Acoustic record player. I really enjoyed the VANA room with the new Audio Physic Avanti loudspeakers and Dr. Feickert Woodpecker turntable. I could go on . . ."

Sasha, in turn, lists, not in order of preference or quality:
1. VTL/Wilson/dCS,
2. Dynamic Sounds/VPI/Halo/Joseph Audio,
3. Audio Research/Vandersteen/AudioQuest, and
4. Von Schweikert/Constellation/YFS.

I second the one room that both Sasha and I visited, the VTL/Wilson/dCS/Nordost exhibit, and add to it Wilson/Constellation/Nordost, Voxativ, Vivid/Luxman/Mola Mola/Shunyata, Wilson/Audio Alchemy/Stromtank/Transparent, Thrax and company, and Wilson/D'Agostino/Brinkmann/dCS/AudioQuest exhibits. I seem to be the only one of our team who kept encountering the same speaker brand in room after room. I'm not complaining. I'm also aware that each of us tends to focus on our preferred playback medium, as in vinyl vs hi-res digital, and our little "/" slash lists sometimes overlook the wonderful products on display in our favored rooms that we tend to play less in our own systems.

Our coverage is not restricted to this website. Michael Lavorgna reported on the 2015 RMAF for AudioStream.com, Michael Fremer for AnalogPlanet.com, and Tyll Hertsens for InnerFidelity.com.

Telling it Like it Is
Without benefit of attendance figures, which were not forthcoming four whole days after show's end, the overwhelming exhibitor consensus is that attendance at RMAF 2015 was down significantly from years past. Estimates vary, but some felt it was up to 20% lower. Friday was slow, Saturday healthy but hardly overwhelming, and Sunday proportionally as slow as at August's California Audio Show. Of course, where you exhibited, as in near the elevator or a major thoroughfare, had more than a little to do with how many people wandered in. Making the front cover of Stereophile, receiving praise in multiple show reports, having a long and honorable history, and having a heap of awards to your credit certainly helped as well.

Nonetheless, the same exhibitors who noted the drop in attendance emphasized over and over again that the quality of attendees was, from their perspective, up. People seemed far more engaged with equipment and music than in some years past. Talking over the music in total disregard of everyone present was down, and sales for many were up. While some exhibitors lamented that they saw the same crowd of white men in their 50s, 60s, and beyond—not that there's anything wrong with white boys in our 50s, 60s, and way, way beyond—the majority sang the praises of an influx of couples in which both parties were equally engaged, of single women, and of younger people.

True, many young people stuck to the huge CanJam. But, perhaps because of the proliferation of headphone amps all over the place, and the revival of vinyl, the inclination to drop the cans when at home, sit down, and listen to loudspeakers may very well be experiencing a revival. Or so it seemed to many exhibitors who watched the eagerness with which young people entered their rooms. As one wrote in response to my email query, "It was really cute to see young lovers engaging in the hobby together. There's something happening in the world and it parallels what I'm seeing in my store. We have a new generation that is asking for vinyl. Having a stereo is cool again."

Sasha Matson (right) meets one of his audio heroes, Ayre's Charlie Hansen (left)

A few other vital insights from exhibitors merit sharing:

"RMAF has become an important industry meeting place. We saw a number of industry partners as well as vendors at the show. For us, RMAF is very effective and productive from this standpoint. The B-to-B side of the show is a very important aspect that might not be as visible to you and your readers, but one worth noting."

"RMAF is still the best consumer show—lots of major players exhibit here—but my gut instinct tells me T.H.E. SHOW in Irvine, CA may be gaining some traction."

"The attendees were very enthusiastic and happy, and the show's overall vibe was outstanding—fun, relaxed, welcoming. I spoke to two young women from the Denver Post who were fascinated by digital-to-analog converters! I also chatted with about a dozen other people in their 20s who all seemed to exhibit a genuine interest in hi-fi, along with far greater insight than I owned at their age."

"In 2009 we tried the RMAF, and found it to have the enthusiasm and optimism than I remembered from the CES at the Sahara. Marjorie [Baumert], the organizer, is a joy to work with, the demonstration rooms are a reasonable size, price and quality, the Marriott staff are responsive and very helpful, accommodation near the Marriott is plentiful, the show's official shipper is actually helpful, getting freight in and out of the hotel is quick and easy, and you don't have to put up with the terrible traffic that seemed to be strangling Vegas. What's not to like? We have done every RMAF since 2009, are very happy with it and hope it will continue."

"Sunday afternoon, I had 20–25 people who wouldn't leave and stayed until I pulled the plug. Once off, I got a standing ovation."

Frankly, I'm relieved to read these comments. Due in no small part to the proliferation of audio shows, limited resources on the part of exhibitors, and the ability of both T.H.E. Show Newport Beach and AXPONA Chicago to draw increasingly large crowds, exhibitor participation at RMAF declined some this year. As someone who loves this show, I've been concerned that T.H.E. Show Newport Beach/Irvine and AXPONA Chicago, plus the increased importance of Munich High End, will continue to siphon off exhibitors and potential out-of-town visitors, and eventually cause RMAF to whither and die.

Such a strong show of support from exhibitors, however, suggests that RMAF will trim a bit to its core constituency—the hi-end audio show equivalent of a market correction—and remain strong. In fact, as the SoCal show grows, more and more audiophiles may find RMAF a kinder, gentler, and friendlier alternative. And the imminent Marriott renovations, combined with a hopeful return to the Hyatt as an alternate venue for exhibitors wanting more big spaces than the Marriott can provide, will likely breathe new life into RMAF.

The New There were some interesting innovations at RMAF this year. One was the appearance of show-sponsored budget rooms. Alas, because they were peopled by folks not necessarily into hi-fi, the presentations were not up to snuff. More coaching is required next year, and more effort devoted to visuals. Budget does not have to look impoverished.

The First Annual RMAF HiFi Press Awards were a good start, but far more work is needed to refine the concept. Truth be told, the idea was generated at the May Munich show in discussion with a single magazine, and other publications were not solicited for feedback before polling began. You never saw a story previewing the awards in Stereophile because we didn't know any of the details, let alone whether we'd be invited to participate, until way late in the game.

Not only were categories inconsistent, but the nominations were also sometimes all over the place. Perhaps because a number of the publications invited to participate concentrate almost exclusively on lower-priced gear, and some as much if not more on video as/than on audio, the dCS Vivaldi ended up competing with the Oppo BDP-105, and the Wyred 4 Sound mAMP with the Dan D'Agostino Momentum monoblock! Wild, absolutely wild. Is the Devialet Expert 200 really better than the Burmester 101, Jeff Rowland Continuum S2, and Musical Fidelity M6si? I'm not even sure that some of the products nominated qualified as being released during the past year, or even in 2014.

For starters, getting consensus as to what categories to consider, and having divisions by price, would make a whole lot of sense. If you're going to vote on interconnects, power cables, and digital cables, for example, why not speaker cables? If you've got one speaker that costs $1500/pair and another that costs 20 times more, and both are exceptional in their price range, wouldn't we benefit from separate price categories? That way, people with limited money to spend on audio products as well as those with deep pockets end up winners, as do companies that design and build to different price points.

The RMAF's Marjorie Baumert (left, in glasses) has been running the show since the death of its cofounder, her husband Al Stiefel in 2009.

The Truth
When all is said and done, a helluva lot of people in the industry love RMAF and are willing to put their money behind it. Many find it a preferred place for exhibition, sales, and industry networking. And, let's face it, the fact that the show is run by Marjorie Baumert, whose generous heart and compassion for others continually touches so many of us, is a gift to treasure. Witness the Al Stiefel room, the T-shirts whose sales benefit our community, the donation of the three "affordable" rooms, the warmest industry/press welcoming party on the planet, and the industry members willing to sponsor entertainment because they want the show to continue to be a place that celebrates music first and foremost.

Without question, Herb, Sasha, and John join me in sincerely applauding the efforts of Marjorie; her staff, relatives, and friends; the many volunteers of the Colorado Audio Society; and all the manufacturers, distributors and vendors who did their darndest to put their best foot forward at the best RMAF they knew to create. Even as we contributors to Stereophile's show report look forward to the time when we can leave our keyboards behind and listen to entire tracks, sides, and albums of music without interruption, we cherish those moments in Denver when even short snippets of music touched our souls and thrilled us to the core.

May RMAF survive and thrive. On with the show, and onward to RMAF 2016.

johnhdarko's picture

I agree - the award nomination and voting was rushed. It was even run twice due to some confusion over what was being voted for: manufacturer or model.

And as someone who took part in the voting but who rarely reviews gear that sells for north of US$10K (because I don't write about what I personally could not afford), it was impossible to vote for anything beyond that which I'd had direct experience. I assumed that the the likes of Stereophile and TAS would cover the high end. But as you say, one funky side effect is seeing a multi-thousand amp going up against a $1K-er.

Moreover, I don't recall seeing nomination limited to product being issued in the past 12 months. That would rule out the KEF LS50, would it not?

One could make a case for the D'Agostino vs Wyred4Sound standoff being entirely valid when viewed in the context of value for money. Value doesn't have to be the sole preserve of the entry level. That said, a category for absolute performance might indeed be required. Where this runs into rough waters is when we stop to consider the paucity of reviewers, even the hard-working folk at Stereophile, who get to audition any more than two or three statement power amps, turntables or D/A converters in any given year. How can one reliably call out 'best' in a price category without first having surveyed the majority of the field? I find it extremely tricky even when considering DACs below the $10K marker, a category in which I hear the most units per year.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Hi John,

Thank you for shedding additional light on the awards, and for raising some excellent questions.

The write-up on the RMAF website says:

"The inaugural Rocky Mountain International HiFi Press Awards (RIHPA) are the High-end audio industry’s first world-wide press awards honoring High-end audio manufacturers. The Oscars of the audio industry. RIHPA nominees and winners will be selected via anonymous ballot by the world's leading High-end audio publications."
If these were meant to be the Oscars of the Audio Industry, then they must have been limited to products released in the past "year," however year is defined. Otherwise, they cannot pretend to be the Oscars of the Audio Industry. If this was not clarified to you as a voter, then clearly the conception was not thought through.

If "value for money" was not stated as a criterion, then it is not one. But if no criteria at all are stated, then it's pretty much a free-for-all. Which is not, IMHO, what an award that claims to be international in scope and the most important award granted by the press can afford to do and retain credibility.

What John Atkinson chose to do in Stereophile's case was to vote for the same products that Stereophile's review team chose for Stereophile's awards. Hence, the entire range of product prices was honored. If some publications who vote restrict their reviews to products of a certain price point, then I would suggest that those publications be invited to vote on products within that price category, but not on others.

We could have a big back and forth about this, but I don't think it would be productive at this point. What is absolutely clear from your comment, and from the fact that the nomination and voting had to be conducted twice due to confusion over what was being voted on, is that the entire award process was not thought through. The finger points to a lack of collaborative brainstorming. These awards, at least in their first year, cannot claim to have the authority of the international press behind them.

johnhdarko's picture

There were numerous categories in which to nominate/vote. I left the majority blank, filling in only those for which I had direct, hands-on experience. But even so, voting for best power amp (for example) has to be tricky for any reviewer.

Me and tonearms? Nope! ;)

And yes, I think the process needs some work but still, a step in the right direction perhaps. I hope next year they also roll the awards and opening night drinks into one event.

John Atkinson's picture
Jason Victor Serinus wrote:
The nomination and voting had to be conducted twice due to confusion over what was being voted on...

Not from my experience. The procedure was the same as for Stereophile's Products of the Year: first a nominating round to produce a list of finalists; then the actual vote. The only confusion I encountered was that the information we were given with the first round said we had to nominate products while the actual Web form said "brands." I nominated products.

I have been asked why only the editors of only 10 magazines and webzines took part. I am told that the editors-in-chief of 14 publications were actually asked to take part. However, one of the The Absolute Sound's writers posted on Facebook that that magazine declined to participate unless all its editors and reviewers were allowed to vote, not just the editor in chief. Don't know why the other 3 declined.

Yes, the scheme suffered from teething pains, but overall I think the idea a good one.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

BradleyP's picture

To all the fine folks covering RMAF at Stereophile and its family of publications: Thank you! The coverage was as copious and serious as I ever recall seeing. In the mad dash to shuffle between rooms and bang out your thoughts on your computers at all hours of the night, you had to sacrifice the time you would like to have spent listening to your favorite stuff for the sheer joy if it. Yeah, you did it for a paycheck and to greet friends around the industry, but still. Hats off, gents! I really enjoyed reading your reporting.