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Denver's high-end audio fest, part 1

The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2009, held last week in Denver, showcased the best and brightest high-end audio gear.

Twin aluminum cylinders belt out a huge sound. Steve Guttenberg

The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2009, held last week in Denver, showcased the best and brightest in high-end audio gear.

Hundreds of high-end manufacturers, from tiny one-person operations all the way up to industry giants like JBL were on hand. RMAF has a very different vibe than the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas every January--RMAF is a more grassroots affair.

I never heard of RAAL, a company based in Serbia, but its small (I'm guessing 7-inch-tall) speakers, produced a huge, room-filling sound. The speakers totally disappeared as sound sources.

The speaker uses twin aluminum cylinders, with 4-inch drivers firing up and down and a special "ribbon tweeter" sandwiched between the two cylinders, firing front and rear. Each speaker has its own, separate woofer, housed in another tube with 6-inch woofers at each end.

It's a fully powered system; just hook up a source such as a CD player and you're good to go. Price and availability weren't announced, but the company is hoping the complete system will cost around $4,000.

TAD speakers and Bel Canto electronics sang ever so sweetly together. Steve Guttenberg

TAD (a division of Pioneer Electronics) had the best sound I heard at RMAF. Their newly revised Reference One speaker ($60,000 per pair) was far from the most expensive speaker in Denver, but the 330-pound towers produced the most vivid, clear, and transparent sound. Bass drums were tight, pitch-perfect; stereo imaging was, again, remarkably precise and three-dimensional. Vocalists virtually materialized between the two Reference Ones.

Some of that amazing sound quality has to be attributed to the Bel Canto electronics that TAD was using. The compact e.One Series components use just a tiny fraction of the AC power consumed by their hotter running, bigger and heftier competition. Bel Canto does things differently.

The Gallo Strada, the best-sounding small speaker at RMAF. Anthony Gallo Acoustics

The best small speaker sound came from a pair of Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference Strada speakers ($995 each).

The speaker is comprised of two small, stainless steel spheres, each with a 4-inch woofer, the spheres straddle a cylindrical tweeter that produces exceptionally broad dispersion. The matching TR-3 cylindrical subwoofer is compact, and still produced superb bass. The Gallo system's sound was sweet, detailed, pure and very, very natural. Like the RAAL speakers the Strada speakers projected a big sound, and it was easily the best sound quality I heard from small speakers at RMAF.

High Water Sound's room played the best tunes. Steve Guttenberg

New York City dealer and importer High Water Sound made the trek to Denver. Thing is, with all the distractions at hi-fi shows, sitting and really listening doesn't happen that often. But listen I did at High Water Sound's room, I spent a solid 45 minutes there, fully engaged with the music and sound. My typical stays were closer to five or six minutes.

Analog rules at High Water, but it wasn't just the grooviness of the sounds, a lot of rooms were spinning LPs. No, it was the music that made me hang around. Owner Jeff Catalano was a master DJ, there was something about the way he mixed familiar and obscure tunes that kept my butt in the chair. His Horning Hybrid speakers made stereo sound so huge it was more like surround. I'm not kidding, the soundstage projected way out in front of the speakers.

I'll have more good stuff in Part 2 of this report.