A Magical Hour at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest

A Magical Hour at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest

Nominally, I was at RMAF 2014 to cover software—that is, music. But it would be a gross misrepresentation to suggest that I applied myself with anything like the energy, discipline, and sheer will-power that colleagues Spencer Holbert, Steven Stone, Andre Jennings, and Jim Hannon brought to the far more demanding task of considering the offerings from more than 250 equipment manufacturers. This was the first audio show I’d attended in nearly 18 years, and I found it exhausting, even a little overwhelming. An hour of quiet in my hotel room in the middle of each of the three days was, for me, a necessity, to reboot and recharge.

In terms of what music I was encountering, plenty seemed familiar despite my long absence from the audio show circuit. Around the perimeter of Evergreen Ballroom Salons B and C at the Denver Tech Center Marriott were busy purveyors of new and used CDs and LPs—a lot of the same titles as 18 years ago. There, I enjoyed catching up with Janice Mancuso of Reference Recordings and hearing about some of her pet projects, a pair of recent recordings by Doug MacLeod among them. Vinyl devotees were hungrily thumbing through the wares of Acoustic Sounds, The Elusive Disc, UltraSonic Records, and Absolute Vinyl Records & Stereo. Chad Kassem’s Super HiRez enterprise had a presence generating plenty of interest. On the higher floors of the Marriott, the hallways were filled with purposeful audiophiles and a cacophonous mix of typical audio show repertoire: too many jazz trios, Delta blues guitarists, and Rachmaninoff; not enough chamber music, big band, and hip-hop. There was excessive chatter in the rooms when music was playing, conversations that could have transpired in the hallway. I get it: commerce is happening. But it seems unfair to the enthusiast who has traveled a long way with the hope of hearing some familiar music on gear of interest. I carried a thumb drive with “reference” tracks myself but, frankly, this was as much to hear something I liked every so often as it was to judge unfamiliar components. The selection I requested most often was Thomas Campion’s “Never weather-beaten sail” from Stile Antico’s 2012 release Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart—a perfect recording of a perfect performance of a perfect piece. After that 2:39 respite, I was ready to soldier on to the next too-closely-miked jazz trio.

I got to as many of the excellent seminars organized for RMAF as I could, and none made more of an impression than the one entitled “The Future of HiFi,” led by computer audio maven Chris Connaker. “The Future of HiFi,” in case you haven’t heard, is streaming and Connaker had on stage with him two representatives of the Norwegian company TIDAL, which was poised to launch the first high-resolution streaming service in North America: 25,000,000 lossless tracks for your delectation plus HD music videos, all for $20 a month. I later heard the actual product (sourced from Norway via modem) in TIDAL’s room, through an all-Electrocompaniet system. A familiar recording of Leif Ove Andsnes playing a Beethoven piano concerto sounded great.

But what does this mean for the concept of collecting, the drive that audiophiles and other music lovers have had for as long as there have been recordings to assemble a singular body of repertoire that represents their unique experience and perspective? What does it mean for the idea of connoisseurship if everybody has everything? I raised these existential (if not exactly life-and-death) issues both publicly in Connaker’s seminar and in an extended one-on-one discussion with a TIDAL manager. While the responses were thoughtful and not at all dismissive, I’m not sure I liked what I heard. Younger listeners don’t feel that they need to own their music. They don’t care about that. Don’t worry, a hybrid system of purchased music—discs and downloads—and subscription models will coexist for a while—you dinosaurs will be OK. But in 20 years, most of you will be dead, and it won’t matter. That last part isn’t exactly what was said, but it was what I heard.

Kind of disheartening, if not downright depressing. But along with the sense of technology bulldozing ahead and the high end becoming ever more of a commodity, two threads were quietly developing that would power my conviction that, while plenty has changed, what’s most important has not.

On the Thursday evening before RMAF officially opened, as the exhibitors were finishing the setup of their rooms, there was a cocktail party in the Marriott lobby. I gravitated to people I knew, in this case Peter Breuninger (AVShowrooms) and Myles Astor (Positive Feedback). As we chatted, we were approached by a striking middle-aged woman, impeccably coiffed and elegantly dressed—she definitely stood out in this crowd where having your shirt tucked in registered as a nod to fashion—who knew Myles. This, I learned, was Lyn Stanley, an LA-based jazz singer who has a considerable following among audiophiles, and had been to RMAF before. She was there to promote a new SACD and LP, Potions, an album of 15 songs dating (mostly) from the 1950s. The discs were for sale at the show, but Stanley worked the industry and press crowd, handing out copies of the SACD to those she felt might help her cause. Astor and Breuninger excused themselves to schmooze elsewhere, but I continued talking with the singer for another 15 minutes, fascinated by the improbable story of her career (college professor becomes competitive ballroom dancer and is then discovered to be a gifted vocalist by Ella Fitzgerald’s pianist) and details about the new recording, engineered by Al Schmitt and mastered by Bernie Grundman. Ultimately, Stanley deemed me worthy and handed me a copy of Potions. I thanked her, looking forward to the time when, at home, I could really hear what she was about, musically.

Whenever I travel, I try to hear the local orchestra in their usual hall—this can provide an important point of reference when assessing that ensemble’s recordings. The Colorado Symphony is a good “second tier” American orchestra, poised to develop further artistically under the leadership of its latest music director, Andrew Litton. Back in my room after the cocktail party, I went on-line and discovered that the CSO was performing that weekend, three concerts conducted by James Judd and featuring Olga Kern as piano soloist. The next day, I wasn’t surprised to hear that I wasn’t the only RMAF attendee with a ticket to the concert. Wilson Audio’s Peter McGrath is a close friend of the conductor and, in fact, engineered Judd’s best-known CD for Harmonia Mundi, his 1993 recording of the five-movement version of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. McGrath had organized a group of showgoers (that included Stereophile’s Michael Fremer) to attend the Friday concert in downtown Denver. We had great seats and the performance was superb, including a rendition of the discarded “Blumine” movement of the Mahler First, Haydn’s “Drum Roll” Symphony, and, after intermission, an incandescent performance of the fiendishly difficult Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3. The piano Kern was playing wasn’t ideal and I concluded that the hall has some fundamental acoustic shortcomings, but the musical success of the evening wasn’t compromised one bit. We met the conductor and pianist backstage and Judd enthusiastically accepted Peter McGrath’s invitation to head out for drinks and a late supper. Discussion at the table was spirited and wide-ranging; at the end, McGrath invited the conductor to come by the audio show the following day.

On Saturday at noon, Judd sat down next to me at a panel discussion on recording philosophies that Peter McGrath was participating in. Afterwards, McGrath led his friend up to the Wilson/VTL suite for a demonstration of those two venerable firms’ latest and greatest. In one of the larger and more acoustically favorable rooms at RMAF, music was played through a pair of Sasha 2s, complemented by two of Wilson’s passive Watchdog subwoofers. The VTL electronics included two S-400 Series II Reference stereo amplifiers and a TL-7.5 Series III Reference line preamp; the take-no-prisoners digital front end was a Vivaldi transport/DAC combination. As usual, Peter McGrath also played his own recordings from a laptop. With James Judd installed in the sweet spot, the lights down, and the other listeners in the room exceptionally quiet, Peter pulled up a 1999 concert recording of Judd leading Mahler’s First with the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra. Judd had stated the previous evening that he didn’t especially like listening to his own recordings, that these were experiences, for better or worse, which belonged to the past. But he sat there in the Wilson/VTL room transfixed, his efforts of 15 years previously brought to life. At the end of the first movement, the conductor reminisced fondly about his collaborative relationship with the orchestra’s musicians at the time of the recording—sadly, the Florida Philharmonic folded in 2003 and Judd moved on—acknowledging the effectiveness of the recording and its playback in conveying the emotional essence of the event. McGrath then played the cataclysmic opening of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, also a Judd-conducted FPO performance. The Watchdogs and the VTL amps did their thing, and Judd nodded his approval.

During the Mahler playback, Lyn Stanley quietly slipped into the room and approached Peter who was standing at the equipment rack. McGrath hadn’t met Stanley before, but the appearance of someone dressed to the nines at 2 PM on a Saturday afternoon, exuding a firm but pleasant self-advocacy got his attention. When the Corigliano excerpt finished, McGrath asked the singer which tracks from Potions he should play. She picked two—both first takes—“Lullaby of Birdland” and “The Man I Love”, the SACD’s final track which was dedicated to the late Paul T. Smith, for decades Ella Fitzgerald’s accompanist and Stanley’s mentor. The Gershwin selection, especially, with Stanley backed only by Kenny Werner on piano, was profoundly communicative and stunningly well recorded—the silent audience collectively exhaled at the end of the song. The vocalist looked pleased and James Judd turned around in his seat to compliment her in the utterly convincing way that only another musician can bring off. And then it was over. Judd needed to head back downtown to prepare for the evening’s CSO concert and Stanley had more discs to push as she continued her rounds at the Marriott.

I headed off to more audio business-as-usual, as well, but my mood had definitely improved. Improved by an hour of superlative audio and improved as well by the imprimatur of two performing artists given to canned music at its considerable best. Judd and Stanley have to do what they do, whether or not the recorders are running. It’s who they are, almost a biological imperative. But these two, I think, also have an intuitive understanding of how critical it is for those who cannot create at this level to have recordings and equipment available that can render an approximation of the real thing. This truth continues to ennoble our audiophile enthusiasms—for manufacturers, recording engineers, musicians, and consumers alike— and I no longer feared “The Future of HiFi.” I was pretty sure, as well, that I knew the first two artists I’d be playing when I was back in the familiar environs of my own listening room.