RMAF 2016: An Assessment

Perhaps a show that begins its 13th year on a Friday in a hotel still undergoing renovation, with an entire Atrium wing, once available for exhibits and large convocations, now declared off-limits, is not destined to break either exhibit or attendance records. But for a show operating under such a severe handicap, RMAF 2016 maintained its warm vibe and reputation as the most friendly and communal audio show in the US.

All good things must come to an end. Even as these men were busy taking down signs from doors and walls on every single floor of Marriott Denver Tech Center's lobby and newly-remodeled 11th-floor tower…

…the Astell & Kern folks joined others who were packing and transporting gear from the tent erected for the biggest CanJam at a US show.

While Rob Robinson and crew were packing up all the stuff they used for their Channel D/Joseph Audio/Classic Album Sundays and personal presentations in the portable Pod that show organizer Marjorie Baumert rented to replace space lost to ongoing renovation, some of us were pausing long enough to try to figure out just how well RMAF 2016 had gone. On which score, it is worthwhile noting that the Pod I entered seems to have been the only Pod that exhibitors elected to use.

I emailed Marjorie for attendance figures. When I received no response, I called both her numbers and left voicemail messages. Then I wrote again. Now, a full five days after show's close, I have heard nothing.

My sense is that, undoubtedly due in part to lack of space and low expectations, both of which resulted from the Marriott's remodeling being so behind schedule, turnout was down. To validate that observation, I turned to my colleagues for their thoughts. Thus hath John Atkinson opined, "I thought at first that traffic seemed good on Friday. But if you consider that there was around half the real estate compared to previous years, and that the tower corridors didn't seem busier than in previous years, that means attendance was down."

Of course, there were other factors at work here. The consistently shrinking (Northern) California Audio Show may have died with neither a bang nor a whimper, but Southern California's increasingly successful T.H.E. Show Newport—unquestionably the largest high-end audio show in North America in 2016—has just morphed into two different, hotly competing shows. The new one, the Los Angeles Audio Show [LAAS], has moved to the Sheraton Gateway next to LAX. Having taken over T.H.E. Show's dates in the beginning of June, it has garnered the support of Bob Levi and the huge Los Angeles Orange County Audio Society.

Meanwhile, the Southern California installment of T.H.E. Show, now under new leadership due to the death of founder Richard Beers, has shifted to Hotel Anaheim, and will open the third weekend of September, just two weeks before the start of RMAF 2017. That, my friends, means it's in direct competition with RMAF, which is not a good thing. And given that Marjorie is one of the—no, THE most-loved show organizer in the United States, as well as an extremely generous and caring woman who has garnered huge support out of her devotion to the industry, something has got to give.

Then there are the additional issues that have plagued RMAF since Day One. In the beginning, RMAF had its roots in the DIY movement. While it has certainly shifted in a major way toward established brands, this year saw an unusual number of speaker and other start-up companies, some of which had a distinct DIY feel. The show also welcomed any number of non-US companies, some of which took the place of familiar names. Ostensibly, those major exhibitors only held back in 2016, awaiting suitable demo space in 2017. But if RMAF remains in the Marriott, and the long-hoped-for large rooms that companies fight for do not materialize, or if there is major dissatisfaction with the now-shrunken demo space in standard size rooms, what will happen?

In my blogs, and in a comment posted by Bill Leebens of PS Audio (and the entire audio industry past present and well into the future), the issue of electrical current has also been raised. I simply do not know if all other hotels are also plagued by drained electrical systems that output 107 volts max under stress and THD of 8%. This may, in fact, be a universal phenomenon. What it means, for attendees and exhibitors alike, is the fact that the sound of some equipment is even more sabotaged by these problems. It also means that, whatever a consumer likes at show, they would be wise to audition again in their own listening setup before making a firm commitment. And that calls for working with a reputable dealer rather than buying used, without audition, off the web. Equally essential is checking out John Atkinson's invaluable measurements and assessments of what works best with what.

The other major issue haunting RMAF concerns attendance. Part of the show's charm is that it is never so mobbed that you can't breathe. People move slower in Denver than they do in L.A., and they are also less clubby and less high-pressure. It makes for a truly lovely feel, which has been nurtured by Marjorie's warmth and encouragement of community. It is this energy that has garnered such support amongst members of the Colorado Audio Society, who have in turn contributed immeasurably to RMAF's success and vibe. But even in the best of years, attendees have never turned out in numbers equal to T.H.E. Show 2016. Given how many people were attracted to both AXPONA and T.H.E. Show this spring, will lower attendance in Denver ultimately tempt exhibitors to switch their support?

Finally, there is the question of the legitimacy of the annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest International HiFi Awards. While the awards are ultimately a very good thing, and the eminently capable, brighter than hell, and wallflower antithesis Roy Gregory has done much to bring them along, there are still lingering issues which you can read about here. These must be addressed in the next year.

Some may damn me for raising such issues. But the truth of the matter is, anyone with half a brain who is involved in this business is asking these questions. It is the job of a vital press to articulate concerns and offer critical commentary, rather than generate ad copy. What issues remain unspoken cannot be adequately addressed, let alone changed.

In all my years covering shows, I have met exactly one person who has said something negative about Marjorie, and I have intentionally blanked out their name. So many of us love her and want her to do well. We also love this show. Only time will tell what 2017 will bring.

Favorite Rooms
Let's begin with the poet amongst us, he of the Flights of Fantasy that inevitably find us frolicking in fields of fertile fancies and heavenly hyperbole, Herb Reichert. The show had hardly ended when Herb, who had visited the Wavelength/Vaughn room after its shipping-related equipment problems had been successfully resolved, offered the following:

"I thought Vaughn's Plasma Signature loudspeakers ($20,000/pair) with their new bamboo cabinets, revised plasma tweeter, and eight Fostex midrange drivers combined to create a most scintillating—better than electrostatics—magic realism. Sourced and powered by Gordon Rankin's spectacular electronics, this system was easily the best sound of the show—maybe the best sound of ANY show—ever!

"My second selection is not only for best sound: It includes best people, best amp, best records, best attitude—best of everything! I declare Dennis Fraker and Serious Stereo the winner in all these categories! Thank you all—Bravo! Brava! And amen."

For my part, my faves of the lower-, mid-, and high-priced rooms I visited are unmissable. That said, if you want to know what I favored, what John Atkinson favored, and what our fabulously articulate show debutante, Jana Dagdagan, liked and didn't like, please check out our blogs. (Herb's, too: he liked a lot!) For headphones, please see Tyll Hertsens' at InnerFidelity.com; for analog, Michael Fremer's at AnalogPlanet.com and in future issues of Stereophile; and, for computer audio/digital, Michael Lavorgna's equally informed and dedicated online treasure trove, AudioStream.com.

Now that your homework has been assigned, mine is done. It's pouring like cats and dogs in the Pacific Northwest, and the three rabid terrorers need to eat before conducting their business in the great outdoors. The infamous Guy Luvberg is now quashing his hunger by ripping into one of the business cards I acquired at RMAF. Raingear, slosh, and fir needles for days, here we come.

Have a good one, folks. Despite what anyone may say, only you—not your hairdresser or your favored candidate for office or we crazed bloggers—can make the final call on what can and will bring great sound your way. We can help point the way. But no one can do it better than you.

BillK's picture

Quite frankly, I'm surprised when lower attendance is posted as the halls are just about as crowded as I'd like to see them. If RMAF were more heavily attended, I suspect I would beg off as it can already be a challenge to see and hear everything I would like to, especially in the more popular rooms.

I think they did a great job this year, and actually much preferred the "all in the tower" layout rather than having to do the tower than the atrium rooms.

If anything, there is a lingering disappointment with some of the vendors, who used to sell at RMAF at a slight discount. Instead, I overheard a few transactions where they needed to be begged to match their OWN Internet pricing; it's as if they are hoping the show buyers are not so much a way to meet their customers as a way to hopefully fleece rubes who don't know they could order the same product from them with free shipping online and save 20%.

The biggest pity of RMAF is that more companies don't take the opportunity to introduce area residents to equipment they can't normally hear as there are no local dealers or local dealers can't/won't stock their products; I saw a single pair of Magicos, few Rockports and one Esoteric K-03X. No MBL, never any Spectral, and this year not even Wilsons larger than the Yvette. Sonus Faber Lilium or Aida? Sorry, not this year. The only pleasant surprise being Mark Levinson brought a pair of No. 536 monoblocks.

Living in the Rockies almost inevitably means having to travel to a coast to audition higher end product, but to not even be able to hear any at the biggest show in the area shows one of the problems the industry faces when selling to customers who care about sound quality, not mere aspirational qualities.

In past years, I have been able to talk a manufacturer into directly drop shipping a unit to my local dealer so I could audition it, based on promise I heard at the show (as opposed to purchasing it and leaving my dealer stuck with it if I didn't like what I heard.)

Unfortunately, if you can't even hear it at the show, it loses consideration over what is presented, and that's a shame.

The industry needs to decide how they want to handle this; if they won't support regional shows like this, and they no longer show at CES, how will people ever hear their flagship products?

Anon2's picture

If you live in the Denver area (a UAL hub, as you know) you should try Axpona, if you have not attended this show. Fridays are great for hitting a lot of rooms with reasonable crowds. Indeed, if you get in early, you'll have some Axpona rooms to yourself before 12 noon.

You could get an early flight to O'Hare out of Denver International. Get a hotel van or take a cab to the Westin. You could be at the show by 9:00 am when it opens. There are comfortable chairs, a nice Starbucks, and free copies of USA Today, the WSJ, or the Chicago Tribune in the Westin's lobby.

You could hit all of the good rooms by 5:00 pm, with time to attend a seminar. There's lunch to be had in the Westin if you need a break. You could cross River Road and eat at Carlucci's for some better fare.

Then, you could take a 5-10 minute cab (or hotel van) ride back to O'Hare and easily catch an 8:00 or 9:00 pm flight back to Denver on Friday night.

If you want to stay in Chicago, Axpona is about a 1/3 mile walk from the Rosemont CTA station (where locals park for $5.00 a day). You could stay at the Hyatt Regency, and walk to the CTA station if you wanted to make a quick weekend trip to downtown Chicago without renting a car. It would all cost less than you might imagine.

Maybe there's something to see at Axpona that RMAF does not have. I have never attended the RMAF, and I'm sure that my travel itinerary would work as easily in reverse.

You could see Axpona, get a good show experience, and go back to the same Colorado bed that you awoke from on the same morning. (Now if I can only get my Colorado relatives to believe this, but that's another, non-audio, story for another type of publication.)

jim davis's picture

This works from Dallas Ft Worth too.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

There were yet two more factors that dissuaded some potential exhibiitors: Because only half the hotel was open, and exhibits were on all floors of the tower, there were far less sleeping rooms to be had. Some exhibitors do not want to be across the street or down the road from their exhibit. Nor do they want to park their vehicles in the parking lot across the street because half the Marriott's parking facility was closed due to renovation.

There were two Magico exhibits, but one was in the Hyatt. This is not the first year, let alone the only show, where Magico has chosen to go it alone in another hotel. I believe I pointed this out in my show preview. It certainly was not the responsibility of Marjorie and the RMAF folks to tell you to go there, since Magico was not contributing to RMAF.

There were two other reasons that many major brands were not at RMAF, or Wilsons were not all over the place, etc. etc., In addition to the lack of sleeping rooms and parking, there simply were not enough large rooms to satisfy the needs of major exhibitors with big speakers. Plus, the standard size hotel rooms are now smaller and more cramped. You are stuck with the credenza, and you have less space to spread out your speakers and accommodate visitors due to the new heating/cooling shaft. I spoke to three exhibitors, two of whom opted for static displays at booths or in the marketplace, and the third of which (YG Acoustics), sat the show out simply because they considered the active exhibit spaces available inadequate for their needs.

BTW, I might add that, this year at least, some exhibitors in large rooms discovered that the unmovable huge TV in the center of the room could be moved to the side. When the hotel objected, they looked at the contract, and retorted that there was no prohibition against moving the TV. If the Marriott changes the contracts next year - I don't know if they have the legal right to do so - there will be a major problem with those large rooms, and more potential exhibitor stand asides.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

RMAF 2016 proved that we have gone well beyond the tipping point. Disc players that were replaced by computers have been replaced by music servers. Attendees are slaves to the taste of the exhibitor. Sometimes this can lead to surprises. But other times, it makes for very dreary listening.
For thoughts on the pros and cons of letting people play their own music, please see: http://www.stereophile.com/content/play-or-not-play#MTIYBUZZFmpjOtYO.97. As for the major issue of playing the same tracks over and over again, year after year, please see: http://www.stereophile.com/content/dont-play-it-again-sam#BR652QepPOoC1PgB.97

malevolent's picture

The voltage drop is what you are actually trying to refer to. Current is not voltage. If the current were 107 it would be in amperes, not voltage. And 107 amps of current coming out of the walls would present another set of problems.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Big oopsie on my part. I appreciate the correction.

Kal Rubinson's picture

"Rocky Mountain Audio Fest International HiFi Awards" completely baffle me.

jim davis's picture

'Leading HiFi publications'? Hardly.
And I'm gathering that the gear didn't have to be present and demo'd here?

Kal Rubinson's picture

Yes, "Leading HiFi publications" are involved but I do not know how.

John Atkinson's picture
Kal Rubinson wrote:
"leading HiFi publications" are involved but I do not know how.

The editors of the magazines and webzines mentioned in Jason's article were asked in September to nominate 5 products in a large number of categories. (Individual reviewers were not asked to take part.) As I was compiling Stereophile's own products of the year at that time, on behalf of the Stereophile team I nominated all the products that got the most votes in our own poll. Other than the categories for which there was no equivalent, this mean that our choices would be representative of the magazine's gestalt opinion.

There were 3 significant omissions in the list of magazines/webzines: SoundStage, Hi-Fi News, and The Absolute Sound. I have no idea why the first two declined the invitation to take part but in the case of TAS, I was told that editor Bob Harley felt that the RMAF awards conflicted with his own magazine's awards. Make of that decision what you will.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Kal Rubinson's picture

Thanks for the clarification about the process.

jim davis's picture

but if I was driving thru town and saw that porte cochere, I'd pull in expecting to fill up with some 91 octane while running inside to eliminate and pick up a package of twinkies. Maybe Marriott is partnering with QuickTrip or RaceTrack on facilities designs.