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RMAF: Part one…

RMAF: Part one...

Five Postcards from RMAF and Beyond:
A first visit to Denver’s audio show

By Gautam Raja, Photo: Brian Von Bork

#1. Wish You Were Hurting

There aren’t many Indian brands in high-end audio, which is why I’m sitting on an orange sofa at the Hotel Irvine, talking to Jacob George, a pony-tailed architect from Cochin, India. It’s 2015 at T.H.E. Show Newport, and Jacob is the founder and designer of Rethm, a company whose single-driver loudspeakers received good reviews in the international audio press. Jacob is in Orange County to show a pair of his elegant Rethm Maarga’s, and is also on the verge of setting up a US distribution network. He has run into an unexpected problem.

A dealer heard their room, and loved both sound and aesthetics of the speakers so much, that he walked the distributor into the corridor to talk business. The dealer had a bevy of high-profile clients with holiday homes at an upscale location in the US, and knew they’d love Jacob’s product.

But the distributor soon returned: no deal. The sound was right. The looks were right. The price was a problem. Too expensive? No, at $10,500, they were too cheap. His clients were expecting to pay about $80,000 for a pair of loudspeakers.

Long dissolve to 2017. The scene is the Davone room at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver. I walk in and look with suspicion at these pretty teardrop-shaped speakers with a beautiful wood finish. And when they play like a proper high-end product, I’m surprised. I make this admission to the soft-spoken Davone designer and founder Paul Schenkel, and while I don’t expect to be the first, I also don’t expect Paul to have no defensiveness or resignation about this, but a simple acceptance: this is how it is.

A little later, I talk to an experienced dealer about Davone, and he says, “Oh yeah, great speakers, but I can’t sell them. Too pretty.”

Please write back and tell me, why does it have to hurt?

#2. Wish You Were Younger. No, Older. No, Younger

In my recent past, I worked as a salesperson at a high-end audio dealership, a brief career unbesmirched by the ugliness of commerce (i.e. actual sales). But hey, I made lots of friends. Many industry reps visited the dealership, and I would ask them the same wide-eyed question: “Who is the new audiophile?”

They’d say, “You. Young people like you, with your USB turntables.”

And I would respond, “Holy crap, how old do you think I am?”

I’m 43, but I’m told I look much younger. (What they don’t tell me, but I know is true, is that I act much younger too.) But, apparently even 43 is young in audio world, and my callow USB-turntable-toting youthfulness was borne out at RMAF at the seminar “Young Guns of Hi-Fi”. It was part-joke that the venerable Steve Guttenberg sat in on the panel, but I don’t think anyone missed the irony of not having enough young guns to go around. Ebullient, ubiquitous Danny Kaey of Positive Feedback and SonicFlare led the seminar, and also on the panel were Rafe Arnott of Part-Time Audiophile, and Sean Casey of Zu Audio. They were all chronically young rather than chronologically—and I mean that in a good way. I guess that was the point.

Perhaps the only truly young people were self-described “older millennial” Jessa Zapor-Gray, vice president of marketing, Intervention Records, and someone I’ll describe as a likely older millennial, Jordon Gerber, manufacturing manager and chief engineer, Bob Carver Corporation.

The main question posed to the panel was the all-important: “How do we bring young people into audio?” The ball was thrown around a bit, but the game didn’t really take off. It wasn’t poor Danny’s fault, but more that these discussions are like lowering cartridge to your favorite record, and expecting the stylus to follow some other path—any other path—than the inevitable downward spiral through a bunch of well-worn tunes, to finish up “and but”-ting into eternity in the run-off groove.

“That was like stabbing myself in the eye,” said one of the panelists afterwards.

The industry seems to universally claim that young people must step in to save it, and yet one of the revelations at the seminar, something everyone on the panel and much of the audience agreed with, was that young people are ignored in rooms by manufacturers, dealers, and distributors. “These are young people with money, ready to buy,” said Rafe.

Again. Why does it have to hurt?

Also, I have never owned, and do not plan to own, a USB turntable.

#3. Wish You Were Hearing

Danny Kaey and I both live in LA, and he has promised to invite me to the next of his famous listening parties. (Hopefully it’ll stand even after he reads this article.) I phoned him for a post-RMAF chat about his seminars and, of course, “the industry”. Those aren’t my scare quotes; Danny had used them in the title of his Sunday seminar ‘Why We in “The Industry” Are All Arguing Over MQA and So Much More’. Again, Danny tried valiantly to kick it off, but the stylus descended, caught the groove, and a familiar album played out, including the famous “Bits is Bits” song. We all know the lyrics to that one, especially when sung by a computer engineer.

Though Danny is a certified gearhead, the three rooms he liked the most at the show were ones that were about music over equipment: Zu Audio, Classic Album Sundays, and Devore Fidelity.

“Shows need to be much less about listening to equipment and much more about a music party,” he said. “They need to make it comfortable, play non-audiophile music, and much less that quasi-controlled environment… it should be a lounge set-up where you can be social.”

Once again, we’re talking about self-induced pain. Stern chairs set up facing an audio system that’s a small skyscrapered city, playing beautiful inoffensiveness in a sea of variables that make it almost impossible to judge the merits of the object of your desires.

“This isn’t an inherently fun experience,” said one of the (truly) young observers at the Young Guns seminar, and most of us laughed. Jessa Zapor-Gray however, didn’t.

“But it is an industry event,” she pointed out.

I pivoted once more, starting to feel like a member of the fickle rabble in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Are shows such as the Los Angeles Audio Show, T.H.E Show, and RMAF marketed as consumer events, but treated and set-up like industry events?

And is this a problem?

#4. Wish You Were Here

Here’s what I felt on my final walkabout at 3.45pm on Sunday afternoon, catching the last of the rooms on my list before the sources started disappearing, and power amps mysteriously powered down in anticipation of the huge pack-up job at 5.30pm. There’s something deeply lonely about truly high-end audio. It’s polished into the liquid finish of speaker enclosures, brushed into the sides of solid metal casework, made manifest in the fanatical detail that bridges the chasm between 98% and 99%. I believe it’s a necessity not a symptom.

But it’s not a necessity to bake this sterility into the marketing. Looking at the advertisements, you’d think a home with $200,000 loudspeakers is a mausoleum with great light and stunning views. Floor-to-ceiling windows, floor-to-ceiling loudspeakers, and no humans to mar the gloss with their fingerprints, nachos, hairy pets, and cables. In these pristine mansions, no children clap their hands and giggle in front of turntables, no couples do an impromptu dance while dinner warms up. There’s not even the stereotypical target-demographic model: an old, white audiophile grinning at the veils being lifted by his new power conditioner.

These are products, the ads tell you, to be locked up in golden-ratioed towers. They celebrate loneliness, and loneliness sells when we’re largely not lonely. Today, we’re too lonely to be seen apex buying—just look at those extroverted little Bluetooth speakers that sing of backyard barbecues, dinner parties, and spontaneous picnics… in France.

So what happens if we start throwing people—you know, like actual human beings: happy families, beautiful friends—into those product advertisements?

I await your response.

#5. Back To the Home Fires

I should state that I’m no young gun, or gently middle-aged gun, or in fact, any kind of cis-weaponised member of the audio industry. I’m the upstart; the arriviste recently crossed over from consumer to industry, who presumes to comment upon the field. I wrote recently (and perhaps optimistically) that I had the tools to be the ideal observer: “I know the language but not the water-cooler gossip. I have the framework, but carry little baggage.”

In the days following RMAF, I reflected that though audiophilia was a huge, rewarding part of my life, I had an ambivalent relationship to it. You can’t come away from loving a $73,000 pair of loudspeakers without the moral fiber fraying a little. Something changes when you talk high-end all weekend with your audio-show buddy (hey, I have audio-show buddies now!), and he goes home to a small Northern California town that few people around the world had heard of; until the evening of October 8, when the firestorms put Santa Rosa on a global tragedy map. I went directly from discussing my friend’s upcoming loudspeaker purchase, to asking if his home was still standing.

I know it’s futile, even unfair, to bring life tragedy or world poverty to a luxury event. As I wrote in the long caption on an Instagram post (@gautamraja): “At shows such as Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, you meet passionate people whose surnames on their name tags match the badging on their highly engineered, beautifully finished products. Depending on the energy you bring to the show, it could be a study in glittering, exclusionary excess, or a moving view of a human yearning for perfection.”

My energy rattled between the two all weekend, but when things went well, as they often did, it was possible to walk through darkened hotel corridors on a clear, crisp Colorado day, and feel proud to be human.

If it’s going to be beautiful, sometimes it has to hurt.

#6. A Post-it Note From the Old Guy – Jeff Dorgay

Like our new guy Gautam, I too am usually confused for someone younger, but it’s because I’ve remained pretty immature, and the fact that I can still clear out a demo room in under ten seconds. With all this gray hair, I usually get mistaken for Einstein, the Doc in Back to the Future, or Nelson Pass. I’m comfortable with either of these. I asked Gautam to walk around, soak it up and give me his opinion on the vibe. I’d say he pretty much nailed it. I’ve been attending the RMAF now for 12 of the 13 years it’s been going on. I’ll always have a soft spot for it, because it’s where the first, 55 page issue of TONEwas launched 12 years ago.

One thing I did notice this year, was a lot higher percentage of rooms with good sound. That’s a big start. If you want people of any age to get excited about what this industry has to offer, the sound has to be compelling, and not just from a single, head in a vice position. This year, the chance with someone random stumbling in the door and hearing great sound was much higher than in years past, and I think that’s necessary to bring more people to our world. And unlike the Barrett-Jackson car auction in Scottsdale, which I’ve been attending even longer, I did see a lot of unfamiliar faces, and that’s a good start.

All that being said, it was a pleasant show. Saw my buds, met some readers and made a few new friends, so life is good.

In closing, I don’t think anyone realizes what a crushing amount of work, show promoter Marjorie Baumert goes through, so I’d like to ask my fellow audio enthusiasts for a minute of silence and praise. I know how tough it is just to coordinate Thanksgiving dinner. I can’t imagine how tough it is to get all the wacky folks in our industry in one place and keep em all happy. Well done, Marjorie. See you next year.