Saturday, December 19, 2015

Random and Belated Musings from the 2015 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, Part 1

If you look back on my blog over the last few years, you'll see that this is the time of year, around the holidays, when I start apologizing for not keeping up. To put it succinctly, I'm pretty busy this time of year. Mostly it's because we've just finished the busy season and now we have to prepare for CES. I'm not talking about the holidays per se, because after eighteen years in retail management I learned that life is so much better when you simply ignore those pesky dates. It's quite edifying when some poor retail clerk asks you if you're "ready for the holidays," and the look that you give them clearly communicates that of course you're ready for the holidays, that it's easy to be prepared when absolutely nothing special is planned.


But I really need to apologize to a few people because it's been more than two months since the last RMAF and I haven't talked about anything yet. I was all set to do so--this was the first RMAF in five years where Colleen Cardas Imports wasn't an exhibitor. Since Colleen and I had spent most of the summer traveling all over the country, and I took that big trip to Australia through September. I think there was a point where, about halfway through the summer, we said to ourselves that RMAF just wasn't going to happen. But since it's only a semi-treacherous five-hour drive across the Rocky Mountains to get to Denver in October, we just decided to show up as attendees and visit as many of our industry friends as possible. And I thought hey, I could cover a show just like I used to, back in the B.C.! (Before Colleen.)

The closest thing we had to a home base was the room that featured ModWright amps, Endeavor Audio Engineering speakers, Triangle ART analog and Skogrand Cables. We were eager to meet with Leif Swanson of Endeavor--we shared a room with him back at the Newport Show where our PureAudio amplifiers were paired with his huge E-5 towers. Everyone involved loved that combo, and we talked about doing future shows together. Leif was running several rooms, however, and we never seemed to be in the same one at the same time. Perhaps it was because he saw us first? Hah!

Fortunately, Leif connected with Dan Wright of ModWright Instruments for amplification for this show. I've known Dan since my TONEAudio days when I gave extremely favorable reviews to one of his preamps, and I used one of his phono amps to review some cartridges. In the last few years since I've seen Dan, ModWright has become a major player in the US amplifier market, and the two systems where Dan's amps were used were among the top three or four best-sounding systems at the show. (In another room, Dan's new 845 monoblocks were VERY impressive--you can read about them here.)

One thing that Dan hasn't changed over the years--that lovely blue LED glow that emanates from the top plates of his amps. I always felt that those lights were so soothing to look at while you

Analog was supplied by Triangle ART. I have sort of a connection with Tom Vu and his company as well--Triangle Arts is based in Anaheim, my hometown. It seems that at CES, where we help man the Unison Research and Opera room every year, we're always across the hallway from Tom's room. His turntables are beautiful gleaming metallic sculptures, gigantic and solid in an ultra-industrial sort of way, but more affordable than you'd think. I'm especially interested in his new line of cartridges, which are creating a lot of buzz in the industry right now.

Now it's time to talk about a new favorite person of mine in the industry, Knut Skogrand of Skogrand Cables. Knut is from Norway, and he makes gorgeous-looking cables with some of the most ornate jacket designs I've seen. I don't mean crazy, futuristic looking cables that glow chartreuse, but opulent and silky jackets that are designed to reflect the classic art and architecture in his home country. Knut's cables also sound as good as they look, which is pretty friggin' good.

I've listened carefully to his system at both the Newport Show earlier this year and this RMAF system and I can genuine say that it's easy to relax and not even worry about visiting other rooms at the show, because this will be enough. Sure, Knut shared some wonderful Scotch with me during my visit to his room, but that didn't influence my decision about the sound quality one danged bit. How dare you.

Speaking of Newport back in late May, that's where I first met Knut in person. We'd been Facebook friends for a while, and he and Colleen have been playing Words with Friends on their phones for the last year or more. Knut's one of the few people who can beat her consistently at it, too--except I think Roy Hall might be a badass player as well. (Look at me, droppin' names.) Anyways, we were in a big group of people, and for some rare reason or another I became either assertive, demonstrative or animated making one of my points. Knut leaned into toward me--and probably down as well, since he's one of those really tall guys in high-end audio--and he said, "I thought you were an introvert." I had to laugh, because I can get uncharacteristically nutty talking about audio, and that's when I first suspected he was a very cool dude.

He confirmed that at RMAF. First, I brought up an amazingly obvious question about 2L Recordings, you know, like "Hey Knut, you're from Norway and 2L Recordings are from Norway and have you heard about them?" And that's right when I noticed a sign right next to Knut's arm, on the folding table he was leaning against, that said "2L" right on it in big letters. So yeah, Marc, I've heard of them. So there's THAT.

But here's the coolest part of the story, for me at least. While Knut and Colleen were talking, I turned my attention back to the system and I started paying attention to the weird, funky music Knut was playing. It was instrumental prog rock, more '80s than '90s, but it was so dynamic and wildly imaginative that I just started laughing. I turned to Knut and said, somewhat drunky-drunkily, "What are we listening to?"

"Mike Oldfield," he replied. He stood up and handed me the LP cover. I have a couple of Mike Oldfield LPs, just Tubular Bells and its sequel, but I'd never heard of this one, Amarok, a 1990 release that Oldfield intended as an hour-long instrumental protest song (split up into two thirty minute sides, obviously). I fell in love with this album for a lot of reasons--I love how it's one long song that's constantly evolving, and Oldfield is able to introduce humor and whimsy into this prog rock theme without conjuring up images of elves skipping through the forest. Some of the typically bright and edgy synthesizer sounds of the '80s are present, but in the more frantic and intelligent context it's merely part of the complex texture of this music. And did I say dynamic? This recording will have you constantly fiddling with your volume control because the quiet parts are really quiet, and the loud parts are really loud.

So when I told Knut how much I loved this album, he pulled the LP off of the 'table, put it in its jacket and handed it to me. At first, and i know this sounds terrible, but I thought Norway might be one of those cultures where if you compliment someone on one of their possessions, they have to give it to you. I joked about that with Knut, and he laughed and said, "No, no, just makes me happy to give it to you!" And that's why Knut Skogrand is a cool dude.

Finally, this is a speaker by a guy named Jeff Joseph. I think the name of his company is Joseph Audio, or something like that. Every time I visit his room at a high-end audio show, it sounds really, really good. Everyone who goes into his room comes out of his room and says, that was one of the best rooms we've been in. So I don't think I'm going to tell you anything new about Joseph Audio, other than the fact that this speaker, the Perspective, is probably the Jeff Joseph speaker I'd want to buy for myself. I love its compact dimensions, despite the fact that it's a monster when it comes to soundstage depth and low frequency performance. I'm a big fan of the Perspective's little brother, the two-way Pulsar, and I think it has the most impressive and natural bass of any speaker its size. I also think his flagship, the Pearl3, is one of the world's great loudspeakers, but I don't have the space or the moolah. But the Perspective is just right, in so many ways.

When I started this blog entry, I thought I could get it all in one shot. But I'm getting exhausted and I think I'm dividing into two parts. The second part will mention two new turntables that I heard that might be new contenders for the best analog rigs I've heard!

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