How to make a hi-fi show more inviting to the curious newcomer? Not one to shy away from such issues is Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF) organiser Marjorie Baumert. RMAF is one of the USA’s largest and most successful audio shows. It’s where manufacturers and their distributors gather to show off their latest and greatest to the general public.
For the past two years, Baumert’s newcomer attraction angle has been affordability: a handful of rooms given over to lower-priced hardware from a broad range of manufacturers; and a seminar, chaired by yours truly, entitled “Affordability: how low can you go?”.
However, affordability is only part of the welcome mat equation.
As we have seen repeatedly over these past few years, audio shows arrive with a fundamental weakness: the music. Drop into any audio show in the world and you’d be hard-pressed to shake the overall impression that exhibitors rarely reach beyond a tried-and-trusted pool of tunes. It’s more puddle than pool.
The upshot is that a hi-fi show’s appeal on a musical front is generally limited to those who enjoy artists like The Eagles, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Nils Lofgren, Diana Krall, Patricia Barber and Steely Dan. That audio show regulars could rattle off this kind of list with ease tells us just how deep this narrow appeal is rooted.
I wouldn’t dare poke fun at The Eagles’ fans or those who genuinely love “Hotel California”. I would (however) dare call out show exhibitors who play the song over and over and over. Clearly, I am not alone:
Back in Denver, for the newcomer (naively) kicking off his/her first RMAF with a USB/CD/vinyl of more modern but perhaps less-well mastered/recorded music, ready to hand it over to the operator-in-charge of each demo room, s/he knows not of the disappointment that awaits.
Perhaps the USB/CD/vinyl stick will be refused point blank – the exhibitor might not have the means to play it. And yet, the reasons for refusal don’t end with formats.
For digital sources, the exhibitor might not trust the obfuscated provenance of files on a USB stick or burnt to a CD. Perhaps the newcomer will encounter a premature fade-out midway through the first cut – the track’s limited dynamic range not at all flattering to the high-end gear through which it is being played. Or perhaps – more likely – said cut plays not to the exhibitor’s own music taste. After all, it’s his room and he has the final say on what gets played and what doesn’t.
Exhibitors want their equipment to sound as good as possible and will spin tunes accordingly. Nothing wrong with that. In their role as hardware promoters, the majority of exhibitors are, by definition, Sound-First Audiophiles. When optimal sound quality is the name of the game, they cannot be anything but.
Where does this leave our newcomer with a penchant for indie rock, world music, hip-hop, dubstep and/or techno? If it’s RMAF, the Zu Audio or GamuT room where the music policy is considerably more relaxed.
Elsewhere, the newcomer must go room to room, listening behind a metaphorical wall of glass. The unspoken message is the aural equivalent of “Look – but do not touch”.
Perhaps RMAF, and shows like it, need some kind of safe space?
Each year, Marjorie Baumert, in memory of her late husband Al Stiefel, gives over one RMAF room to an exhibitor who might otherwise not have the means to attend. The recipient is nominated by a third party and the room fee funded by donations.
From the RMAF website “In remembrance of Al, his wife, Marjorie Baumert, honors his life and his passion for music by having the Al Stiefel Legacy Room at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. “I think we could all agree that a large part of Al’s legacy was his inclusiveness and ability to welcome newcomers into the RMAF fold. He loved to champion the underdog with the great idea and applauded those who had the vision and bravery to take a chance. He really did celebrate sound in so many ways! Al’s Legacy Room is funded by other exhibitors and industry supporters who wish to extend Al’s gift of inclusiveness, and will go to a new manufacturer with an innovative product, or one who simply needs a little help.”
Past recipients of the Al Stiefel Legacy Room include Carnegie Acoustics, Bamberg Audio, Musical Concepts/Musical Design, PranaFidelity, TFC, 3beez, Grace Design and Sonoma Acoustics.
Nominations for 2017 close on 15th July – in three days’ time. What follows is my submission.
The 2017 Al Stiefel Legacy Room would feature a pair future-facing loudspeakers: the Spatial Hologram M4 spring immediately to mind. With Future-Fi, looks matter.
To maximise music format compatibility, we might then call on the AURALiC Polaris or the Rotel RA-1572 for amplification. Both are stylish, single units with multiple input possibilities. Minimal cable salad is also fundamental to the Future-Fi concept.
Both amplifiers can playback audio files from directly-inserted USB sticks. Both can play catch on Bluetooth streams. Both amplifiers offer an MM phono stage for turntable hook-up. Here we’d need something capable of withstanding a little rough n’ tumble. How about a Pioneer PLX-1000?
For optical media, the OPPO BDP-203 reads more than just CDs; SACD and DVD-A too. We need to be prepared for every eventuality. The OPPO’s coaxial output would be connected to the super-integrated’s corresponding digital input. Or maybe we’d simply go with an analogue connection.
Alternatively, we run a pair of KEF LS50 Wireless, appended by a Roon Ready streamer (e.g. Bluesound Node 2), a Shinola Runwell turntable (with in-built phono stage) and a Pro-Ject CD box.
Whatever the hardware combination, being able to accommodate as many music formats as possible is crucial: digital files – check; vinyl – check; shiny silver discs – check. * [See footnote 1]
With the stage set and all format doors open, attendees would be invited to use the RMAF ‘Safe Space’ to listen to music irrespective of source quality.
Want to spin that doom metal cut you bought from the iTunes store four years ago? Come on in. Got a hiphop mix CD burned for you by your older brother back when he was deep into Napster and Audiogalaxy? Take the weight off. Recently unearthed a long out of print Lou Barlow 7″ single? Let’s do this!
This would be a room where music choices ride ahead of their dynamic range scores, sample rates, bit depths or pressing quality.
In other words, an audio show room for the Music-First Audiophile, and especially newcomers.
This year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest runs October 6th – 8th in Denver, CO.
Further information: RMAF
Footnote 1: Rarely will a host hotel’s wifi service offer sufficiently reliable bandwidth for streaming services like Tidal or Spotify.