High-end audio fest rocks Denver

Last week's seventh-annual Rocky Mountain Audio Festival, in Denver, Colorado, demonstrated that high-end audio is alive and kicking.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2010, held last weekend at the Denver Marriott Tech Center Hotel, showcased the best and brightest high-end audio designs.

Hundreds of high-end manufacturers from North America, Europe, and Asia, 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.

The Kawero speaker Kaiser Acoustic

Vandersteen Audio's incredible Model 7 ($45,000 per pair) features balsa wood/carbon-fiber woofer, midrange, and tweeter drivers individually hand-crafted by Richard Vandersteen himself. Each driver can take up to one day to build. The sound is more believably natural and realistic than that of any other speaker at the show. Stereo imaging was full-bodied and dimensionally convincing in ways no other speaker can match. Vandersteen speaker prices start under $1,000, and they're all made in Hanford, CA.

Vandersteen's sound just nudged past Kaiser Acoustics' stunning Kawero speakers. These slender towers are priced about the same as the Model 7, but were even more transparent and pure sounding. The made in Germany speaker's transient speed and dynamic punch were spectacular. The design is said to produce excellent sound quality in real rooms, without any acoustic treatment. Kaiser invested seven years into research and development of the Kawero speakers.

Entry-level audiophile gear from Napa Acoustic made an immediate strong impression. Their NA-208S ($199 a pair) speakers, mated with their NA-208A ($399) tube integrated, 25-watt amplifier sounded rich, with lots of detail. Napa's build quality is the best I've seen for budget-priced gear.

The Napa Acoustic NA-208A amplifier Steve Guttenberg
The Audeze LCD-2 headphones Audeze

The best headphone sound came from the Audeze LCD-2 ($945). These full-size headphones had a huge, open sound, with effortless clarity. Audeze has a hit on its hands, and its customer waiting list is currently running to four weeks! I hope to get a pair for review soon. The LCD-2 was plugged into Red Wine's Isabellina HPA headphone amplifier, but the headphone can also work with iPods.

I had a great chat with headphone guru and Head-Fi founder Jude Mansilla about the future of high-end audio. Our conclusion: today's younger headphone audiophiles will be tomorrow's high-end audiophiles. That is, headphones are a great way to discover what high-end sound is all about, for a fraction of what a speaker-based high-end system would cost. Mansilla promised to introduce me to a bunch of young Head-Fi-ers, who are just starting to get into speakers. The next-generation audiophiles are an intensely passionate group of people! I'll report back soon about what they have to say.

The Devone Rithm speaker Steve Guttenberg

MA Recordings is one of my favorite audiophile record companies, and I was completely knocked out by the sound it was making over a pair of Devone Rithm speakers. By high-end standards they are little things, just 28 inches high, but they project a huge, room-filling sound. MA's recording of Guo YaZhi's "Sorrow of the River" was remarkably vivid. YaZhi plays a Suona (a traditional Chinese oboe) and other Chinese instruments, and his virtuoso playing was incredible. If you like world music, I strongly recommend checking out YaZhi's music on MA Recordings.

Peter Ledermann of Soundmmith is a master of LP playback gear. He builds and repairs phono cartridges in Peekskill, NY. He also designs and builds electronics and speakers. Ledermann's room at the Rocky Mountain show was making music on LP come alive with truly startling fidelity.

Precision Transducer Engineering put the loud in loudspeaker. Its 5-foot-tall, 400-pound Statement speaker not only played loud with exceptional ease, it reproduced the sound of a drumkit with the best fidelity I've ever heard. Few high-end speakers, even $100,000 models, can match the Statement's ($40,000) unlimited dynamics and ultra-low-distortion sound. It's not the most attractive speaker I saw at Rocky Mountain, but if you have the space and a taste for really loud music, put the Statement at the top of your audition list.