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Rocky Mountain High: Denver's high-end audio fest

The fifth annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver is proof positive high-end audio is alive and definitely kicking.

The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2008 was held at two hotels: the Denver Marriott Tech Center Hotel and the Hyatt Regency Tech Center on October 10 through October 12, 2008.

UPDATE: Click here to view more pictures from the RMAF.

The hundreds of manufacturers participating at the show proves high-end audio is alive and definitely kicking. RMAF has a very different vibe than the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas every January--RMAF is friendlier, without a hint of corporate oppression that dominates mainstream shows.

The KEF Muon super speaker. Steve Guttenberg

High-end audio is a smaller industry, where established brands such as Krell and Vandersteen compete against fledgling start-ups. Every manufacturer sets out to build the very best performing products, without the dulling constraints that Sony or Bose has to contend with.

Cruising through the 160 demo rooms I noticed an interesting trend, a minority of companies were using CD players. Maybe half had music servers/laptops, 30 percent were spinning vinyl, a couple had reel-to-reel analog tape machines, and the remainder was CD based.

Jolida's new $399 JT-10 all-tube integrated amplifier sounded awesome. It's a gorgeous glass encased design, a little jewel of an amp. Jolida also showed the JD 9 tube phono preamplifier, which was also sounding phenomenal. I believe it's $450, what a deal!

Vacuum tube electronics were plentiful, perhaps even in the majority compared with solid-state. Sure, a lot of gear was pricey, but budget high-end brands, such as Audioengine were making great sound on the cheap, the Audioengine 2 speakers run $200 a pair. Clever name, the Audiophile One is a tiny, $249, 30 watts per channel stereo amplifier. It's no toy, the little thing comes in a bunch of colors and it's built to a very high standard.

High price is no guarantee of ultimate sound quality, but the very best performers are never cheap. The best sound I heard, by far, came from the Focal Grande Utopia EM speakers ($180,000 per pair). The speaker boasts several breakthroughs; check Focal's Web site to learn more. KEF's reigning statement speaker debuted last year at $140,000, but the Muon now runs $165,000 a pair. Aren't you kicking yourself?

Turntable manufacturer Thorens has been around for 125 years, predating consumer audio by a long shot. Its new TD 160 HD boasts a number of breakthroughs and goes for $899, but the brand offers a vast range of more affordable models.

RMAF will return to Denver next October, and I'll be there. Hope you can stop by and see and hear the show for yourself.