Adventures at the Rocky Mountain AudiofestOctober 18, 2011
This past weekend I went to the Rocky Mountain Audiofest. RMAF is a tradeshow for audiophiles. Three days of stuff at the Marriott Hotel at the Denver Tech Center. I don’t know the exact count, but there was somewhere between 200 and 400 exhibitors.
If you didn’t know, I have a love-hate relationship with audiophiles. I certainly applaud the efforts to make excellent sound systems. But human perception of sound is a very subjective thing, and good audio equipment is a very technical thing that not everybody can understand. When you combine something subjective with a lack of understanding then you open the doors wide open for pseudo-science and downright fraud.
You could roughly divide up the companies at RMAF into three rough categories: Awesome, Clueless, and Deceitful. From a practical perspective there isn’t much difference between Clueless and Deceitful. It’s much like the difference between involuntary manslaughter and first degree murder. Both result in somebody innocent dying, but the deceitful company does it knowing full well what they are doing.
What surprised me at RMAF is that I expected much more deceitful companies. I expected that maybe 50% of the companies would be in this category. The real number was probably less than 10%. Unfortunately, maybe 80% were clueless and only 10% were awesome.
Here are some of the awesome companies: Ayre Acoustics, Benchmark Media, Audioengine, and Vandersteen Audio. Of course there were some others, but these are the ones that really stood out. These companies offer quality products based on solid science.
Normally, each exhibitor or group of exhibitors would rent out a hotel room. The hotel staff would remove the beds and other furniture from the room. And a sound system would be set up to demo. Every other room would be set up for demos, with the unused rooms used for storage and for isolation between the demo rooms. People would roam from room to room checking things out.
Each demo room would usually have speakers, amps, and some sort or playback device. The playback devices were usually CD’s or Laptops, but almost every room had a turntable and some had reel-to-reel tape decks. Some rooms would have “acoustical treatment”– stuff to absorb or diffuse the echos in the room.
Now, most audiophiles prefer “Class A” amplifiers. It’s not important to know what Class-A is, other than it is the most inefficient amplifier available. All of that inefficiency shows itself as heat. These amplifiers run HOT. Audiophiles also like vacuum tubes. Again, what they are isn’t important except to know that they are also inefficient and HOT.
So picture this: A small hotel room filled with people. Inside is a lot of hot equipment. The AC is turned off and the windows are closed (too much noise). The walls are covered with thick curtains or sound absorbing foam. And there are halogen spot lights pointed at the expensive gear. These rooms were hot and stuffy! Room after room of hot and stuffy. I went there on a Friday, the slowest day. I cannot imagine how bad it would be on Saturday or Sunday when it got really busy!
Not too many of the rooms were giving away swag. A casualty of the economy, no doubt. Most of the swag was in the form of premium booze. 10 year old single malt scotch, nice bourbon, etc. One booth had a couple of beer kegs. Unfortunately, it was hot enough that drinking alcohol wasn’t appealing. I should also mention that the booze was served in little disposable cups that resembled communion cups (but slightly larger).
I listened to a lot of amps/speakers at RMAF, and one overriding theme was how crappy they all sounded! There were two rules of thumb for quickly judging how bad the speakers would sound. The more complicated the speaker or the smaller the woofer the worse the speaker sounded. By “more complicated”, I mean that if it had more drivers (4 woofers + 3 tweeters, etc.) or if it used some novel shape or “technology” then it would generally sound worse. Also, if it used 4 or 6 inch woofers but claimed that it didn’t need a sub-woofer then you know things would be bad. Of course there were exceptions, but they were rare.
The best sounding speaker systems were simple 2-way rectangular boxes with a separate sub-woofer. On the surface this defies logic, since 3-way speakers should, in theory, sound better. What this is more indicative of is just how bad most of those speaker manufacturers are. They pay more attention to looks, the wood finish, or other things and forget to actually make it sound great. Keep in mind that these are not cheap speakers. The price range that I saw was from about US$1,000/pair to well over US$100,000/pair.
If you are in the market for a US$100K sound system, buy a Lexus. Seriously. It will likely sound better, and might actually take you somewhere.
There are exceptions to this, of course. The best speakers I heard were a US$55K pair of Vandersteens. They sounded great. But honestly, when compared to the speakers I use (QSC HPR152′s) they didn’t sound $50K better! They sounded only a little better, although admittedly they would look much better in a living room.
The most deceitful companies I encountered was Nova Physics Group and their “Memory Player”. I talked with their head designer, Mark Porzilli, for some time and came away feeling somewhat violated. Like my brain had been physically raped by technological gobbledygook. My own soul, in an act of self-preservation, actually left my body, went down to the Starbucks in the lobby, drank 5 shots of espresso, and then returned 30 minutes later to do CPR directly to my brain.
The Memory Player is, essentially, a device that will rip CD’s and stuff, copy the music to a hard drive or SSD, and then play it back. Unfortunately they deviate from what would have been a good plan by claiming all kinds of pseudo-scientific crap. Most of this crap is around their “jitter removal process”. Debunking their claims is relatively straightforward, but is beyond the scope of this blog post. If there is enough interest I could do an entire post just on this company. Even so, I’d like to give you a quote from their “FAQ” that they handed out at the show; in regard to “people” claiming that they purposely use obfuscation:
As for obfuscation, if you don’t understand our theories and concepts, all we ask is that you please have the integrity to admit you just don’t understand. . .
We feel it’s simply irresponsible for people who have never heard or seen The Memory Player to malign it. If I went to where you work and told your boss and coworkers lies about you and your work, you would think that’s pretty irresponsible, since I don’t know you. Mean-spirited invective to inflate an ego may feel good for a while, but it does not add to anyone’s knowledge or understanding.
To accuse someone of obfuscation in this manner implies that closer examination will reveal fraud. That’s not necessarily the outcome. It’s only “Obfuscation” if you don’t understand it.
How many people have criticized them that they feel the need to put this in their FAQ handout at a trade show? Wow!
Let me set the record straight, just so there are no understandings. I’m not implying that closer examination will reveal fraud. There is no implying here. I’m saying it outright. In my opinion, the people who designed and promote The Memory Player are either complete frauds, or are so amazingly stupid that it’s indistinguishable from fraud. I will also admit right here that I don’t understand! But I don’t understand in much the same way that I don’t understand when someone says “2+2=Bird”. I completely understand the underlying technology, and what they are claiming is complete BS. Given that ringing endorsement, they’ll probably be running for President in 2012!
So that was the show. Some good. Some bad. Mostly hot and mediocre. Still, I met lots of interesting people there and had a good time.