T.G.I.RMAF! Years of Great Friends, Music & Sound

What more do you need from an audio convention? 

Chillin' with my boy  Warren Chi, my partner in Audio360.org (we're all on Hiatus there right now) and T.H.E Headphonium. He's also a Moderator for HeadFi.org + Canjam teammate. We were gathered in our hotel room at the Denver Tech Center Marriott just before RMAF 2014: Checkin' out the then brand-new Cavalli Audio Liquid Crimson w/ my trusty Audeze LCD-XCs and Double Helix Cables. All we had for a DAC was a CEntrance DACport LX, paired with my MacBook Pro SSD runnin' Amarra Symphony, and the system sounded splendidly musical: Tight, extended, and enveloping... I still think the Liquid Crimson is one of the most under-rated hybrid headphone amps out there today.  But, this is about RMAF - so please forgive my tangents.

It's that time of year again! I've been spendin' weeks gearin' up for my favorite audio show: Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. This show has always meant far more to me than the gear displayed or even the music played. It's a time to see good friends whose paths I don't cross too often, maybe because of geography, maybe because we're too damn busy for phone calls, but the bottom line is RMAF has always been more about the people than high fidelity - at least to me. Perhaps the main reason for that is back in 2009 (during my first RMAF) I experienced a major shift in my audio/writing career! The late, great Harry Pearson, my mentor and dear friend, was giving a speech on the Past, Present, and Future of the High End. Aside of helping him prepare for the speech, which included insisting that he not stick to the original plan -  to merely focus on the "Golden Years of Hi-fi" (I told him if he went up there and solidified himself as a fossil I'd never speak with him again) he put me on the spot and asked me to address the audience in the middle of his presentation! Now, he told me that he was going to read from my first installment of my continuing What is the Future or the High End series for Positive Feedback - and that was special enough! My mentor thinking highly enough of my work that he wanted to share it with his audience? Now it may not sound like a big deal, but if you knew Harry you'd know it was. He loved to build ya up - but he wasn't too big on compliments (when it came to writing, specifically). However, instead of reading from my column as he promised, he asked me to address the audience without ANY warning. I coulda' killed the man. However, that night actually changed my life. I figured out what I could do for some of the companies I believed in, and how I could propel my writing forward. I also saw that I could reach people in the younger demographic as well as the older cats. It was illuminating! And that all happened at RMAF:

Here's the video of (Part 3 - you can check the others out too) Harry putting me in the Hot Seat!

It's not often when you can look back at a specific time in your life and know just how transformational that time was. Well, I know in my soul that RMAF 2009 changed my life forever (for good, or for worse - think the jury's still out on that one) . So, needless to say, I look forward to every Fest since then with great anticipatory excitement, and this year is no different. As with all great things, there's also a melancholy feeling attached to RMAF for me - because of friends I've lost that I connected with so well there! I count my fallen brother Lee Weiland amongst those cherished and hugely missed heroes. He was a true pioneer of high-performance digital/computer audio - to the Bone. I miss him often. But it's the Sweet and the Sour , that both contribute to a great-tasting meal: That combo gives it a slice of the yin and the yang - and both lead to great energy! And if there's one thing for certain about RMAF, all my poetic bullshit aside, it's the palpable feeling that we're all in this crazy hobby that spawned an industry together. We're a bunch of music addicts, sound nuts, both the humble and digustingly arrogant, but we're a global family! Sound like horseshit? Sorry. Can't help you.

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest means I get to hang with my Positive Feedback fam, and all the Head-Fiers at Canjam - plus some people in the high end audio business that've known me far too long. They know all my bullshit (some of them) so it kinda' sucks. But it's also refreshing - as I got nothin' to prove. Just the fact that I thought this way about RMAF that very moment, shows me how "laid-back" the vibe is there. At first I thought that was a bit of an exaggeration - I mean, there's politics and bullshit - but that's true everywhere. Those of us in this crazy game of high fidelity, via in-room stereo systems and personal audio gear are either init' cuz we love music and great sound, we don't know anything else, or both of those things: Many of us really have no fuckin' choice - and that magnificently beautiful mix a' people are kickin' it at the Denver Tech Center this time a' year during RMAF! Plus - there's also some really cool audio gear there ;-)

This year I'm eager to gauge other people's response to MrSpeakers new ETHER-C closed-back planar magnetics. For me, and I've been fighting to get Part I of my ETHER-C review column series going - but, as mentioned in Facebook - life gets in the way - but it's too damn amazing not to give it it's due ASA-Muthafuckin'-P! For me, it's surpassed my beloved Audeze LCD-XCs as my top reference-level closed-back planar-magnetic cans! I think their window-like transparency are unlike any magnetic planar closed headphone systems I've heard thus far, plain and simple. It also plays well with a far wider variety of sources, from DAPs (digital-audio-players) to desktop systems. As for their resolving capabilities: As a reviewers tool - I can hear differences in system changes immediately: Faster than any other cans I own, period. So I highly recommend giving them a listen if you wanna dip into the soulful state-of-the-art in closed-back planar headphones. My ETHER-Cs have gone everywhere with me since I got a review pair from Clark and Co. shortly after the magnificent Schiit Show down in Marina Del Ray, Cali. I'm rockin' em as I type these words actually. A real bonus: Dan Clark and his crew always seek out some of the most musical accompanying component systems for the demos of their cans. Their spots at headphone culture shows are always first-class. If you stop by you might find me chillin' out!

I'm also jonzin like an audio crackfiend to hear Astell-n-Kern's "stackable amp" for my AK380 review unit! Now, I know I've said this before (regarding the previous top-end AK240 player) but this thing IS DAP! Now, I'm honestly not sure yet if it's worth their asking price. I honestly wish I kept to my rule, one that I inherited from Harry Pearson actually (and one that he stopped following, ironically): Stay away from any discussions about how much something costs that I have under review. We all got our own winning formulas right? Well, $3,500 bucks is alot to ask for even, IMHO, the highest-end digital audio player. I can't lie about that. However I can say, and I'm wholeheartedly grateful to be able to say this and sleep well (when I do that is) that on certain music the AK380's resolution and musical refinement knows no equal to these ears. I think the AMS dual-DAC system may have something to do with that bit! However, Questyles' amazing QP1R Hi-Rez DAP, which is slowly becoming my all-around favorite portable player - for it's fun factor and sonic integrity - is as resolving when it comes to dance, hip-hop, and other bass music (personally much of my favorite music) as the 380. But the 380's got this dimensionality and airiness that's nothing short of captivating with the right tunes on - like a track from Tori Amos Under the Pink or Beck's Mutations LP. These listening sessions have been an audio geeks paradise! So I'm eager to see what the stackable amp does for the 380. I have a feeling it may elevate its power and precision to level that might be un-contested for awhile. So hello A&K at Canjam! Here I come! And I'm goin' for it and askin' in public (shame on me, but I gotta be a lil' selfish here): Can I MAYBE borrow it for a night? Like I said - knowing there's an amp specifically designed for the AK380 has me going through high end portable audio-induced withdrawal...  Help a brotha out. Seriously though: In my opinion, Astell-n-Kern and Questyle are just runnin' the high-performance DAP market at the moment, and deservedly so. I'm also excited to see what Bruce from Questyle Audio is bringin' out for this years RMAF!

Other things crackin' in my audio junkie brain:

Getting to hear Audezes new Flagship: The LCD-4. Having been dubbed the "Audeze Jihadist" - I gotta admit I was more than a bit surprised that I didn't even know about it! Maybe I'm just out of it - the divorce has been just fuckin' things up lately - but hey, guys! Just because my boy stepped down as CEO doesn't mean I'm not a crazy Audeze fan anymore! The Audeze LCD-series are single-handedly responsible for pulling me deeply into the high end personal audio frontier, as I've written! So I hope the 4 lives up to its $4,000 price-tag. I have faith. But I'm just droppin' this now - if it doesn't do so that would be doing to the LCD-series what Godfather III did to the first two movies: Paint a layer of crap across a work of art! I still hear about other El-8 drivers failing (and one of my pairs is now down) so I thought they should get that squared away first. They've always been completely customer service / end-user care oriented. I hope they stay the course and kick some serious ass! I'm eager to test this out. And, as a side-note: Fellas! Please stop slapping that awful stock filter of-a-cable on those beautiful LCD cans! There are plenty of companies that make cables that simply help all of us hear your creation without a fight! You're handicappin' the damn things. Call up Double Helix Cables - you've used his stuff at shows before. Reach out to Wywires, Moon-Audio.com, Nordost, whatever whomever! I know I'm bringin' my own reference cables to check out the LCD-4s! I may even bring my own system as well - as these have me very fuckin' curious. Here's the page at Audezes website for the LCD-4.

And, while there's more I can't think of at the moment (and I'll be doing some short & sweet live-blogging coverage from RMAF)  - perhaps the two things I've been waiting to hear the most, at least the final versions anyway, are the new Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon and battery-powered/fully-discrete portable headphone amplifier, and Woo Audio's portable WA8 FINALLY! I loved the new portable 8 at last years Canjam, but it's apparently gone through a few changes since then. I hope Jacks kept the magic in that design! I freakin' LOVED it last year!

NOW: The new Cavalli Audio stuff - GEEZUS! I was blown outta' my chair weeks ago listening to one of the original Liquid Carbon prototypes, and I own his Statement Liquid Gold (a.k.a LAu) desktop headphone amplifier - and that's a solid-state differential amplifier with more power than I'll ever need, and I LOVE dynamic headroom and more gain than I could ever use! I just like having more power in-reserve. The LAu? That's another level - but the Liquid Carbon got way too close, especially considering it's price tag  - a fact I couldn't escape, as they're doing a pre-order campaign so of course I saw the sales price. Because I wanna keep the meat for the actual RMAF report - I'll say this this for now: My buddy Alex Rosson (Founder of Audeze, currently running the new audio department at Shinola) had the unit, and I almost stole it from him. Would I've regretted it? maybe. Maybe not. Though I hear the final version is much better. This affordable stuff, especially in personal audio, is getting frighteningly good people, and I for one am pumped about that! The Liquid Carbon is going to be my #1 recommendation in headphone amps up to a thousand bucks.

PLUS: I finally get to hear the battery-powered Cavalli portable amp - the finished product! I heard the portable proto at Canjam SoCal and at my buddies place . It sounded terrificly engaging and dynamic, but it didn't have the battery-stage implemented yet. It was a tease really - the lil' thing was being powered via a tiny walwart - so it wasn't exactly portable when I heard it. However, it was also so damn freakin' quiet - considering the walwart at-play during that time, I can't wait to hear it apart from the grid! 

Get over to the Cavalli booth if you're coming to Canjam at RMAF - trust me, give yourself the personal audio ride of your life!! And don't forget to check out the Schiit Audio table - as they showed a TON of amazing stuff at the Schiit Show a few weeks ago (per my comments above) so I expect all those goodies will be at Canjam as well. CEntrance will be showing my beloved new HiFi-Skyn! I wrote about it for Positive Feedback - you can check that out HERE. Remember the Mophie battery-cases for the iPhone 5s?

The HiFi-Skyn wraps around my iPhone like a Mophie, but provides me with a stellar portable headphone amp/DAC - and it Improves my Battery-Life!! Now that should be a slam-dunk. I hope Goodman and Co. figure out a way to get the word out about it - the crowd-funding campaign was a huge success - and it's one of my favorite products of 2015 for sure. They've also done a stellar job with the updated DACportHD! That was another successful crowd-funding effort by the little enterprising company. As an original DACport devotee - I was pumped to hear the DACportHD, but mighta' had unreasonably high expectations. The great news is the component destroyed em! It's much sleeker than the original, IMHO, and it powers everything from my Audeze LCD-2Fs, EL-8 open-backs, to my Sennheiser HD800s, and new MrSpeakers ETHER-Cs I mentioned above! It's my travel Amp/DAC nowadays - and usually it's accompanied by their Mini-M8 battery-powered Amp/DAC. So spend some time at their booth as well:

So there's lots of exciting kit to check out at this years annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest! I look forward to seeing everybody around the fire-pit: If they got the damn thing workin' this year! It's been out-of-commission for two shows I believe - and that used to be my favorite spot to hang out with good friends! Someone do somethin' about that will ya?!?! But, no matter what: We're all gonna have a BLAST. 

See ya there!