My attendance to the 2018 Rocky Mount Audio Fest (RMAF) got off to a rather ignominious start. My flight was over an hour late leaving Charlotte due to a mechanical issue with the nose gear. Gives one pause when time to land, let me tell you. Upon arrival to Hertz to pick up my rental car, I was informed there were no more cars like the one I reserved three months prior. Forty five minutes later, I left Hertz in an acceptable four door full size. Not what I wanted but acceptable. All of this put me at the show on Friday at closer to 2:30 instead of the 11:30 I had planned. Of course there was absolutely no place to park at the Marriott - hence the $20.00 bribe to the valet parking guy. I kept reminding myself "ain't travel fun?"
I suppose the most notable information I discovered was for 2019, RMAF is moving to a new venue. Occurring about a month earlier in September, next year's show will take place in the brand new Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center. Located about five miles from the Denver airport, the new digs will have about 1500 rooms, eight restaurants and 2700 parking spaces. Room sizes and how they may fare acoustically is as yet unknown. On paper, this seems like a wise move. Given the new venue that AXPONA was in this past April, I don't see where RMAF has much choice but to relocate.
I thought the crowds were about average and perhaps Friday may have been more crowded than in years past. Saturday may have actually been a little slower than Friday and Sunday, as it usually is, was most likely the least attended day of the entire weekend. None of this, however, negated the never ending line spent waiting on the elevators.
Sonically, I thought most rooms were fairly predictable. There were some surprises, however. One that was talked about was the new, recently released, powered bookshelf speakers from Elac. Hats off to Andrew Jones as I thought this little speaker sounded really wonderful and had a very attractive cabinet. They will retail for $2000.00.
Another speaker that sounded surprising good but definitely quite, um, "different" are the new cast iron speakers from Denmark manufacturer Jern. You read that right, the enclosures are cast iron. When you think about it, cast iron is quite dense and as such should theoretically do an excellent job managing cabinet vibrations. Given the small size, they are certainly room friendly. Note also, they are best if supplemented by a subwoofer. These retail for about $3000.00 per pair. The JERN 14 EH retails at $5000.00 and may be used without a sub.
There were some other new additions. Luke Manley of VTL introduced a new, lower cost tubed phonostage, the TP2.5i. With a retail cost of $3250.00 it is significantly less than the TP6.5 which retails for about $9000.00 without a step up transformer and about $12,000.00 with. Michael Borresen of Raidho fame has his own line of speakers I thought sounded stunning. The "01" bookshelf version retails for $30K to $36K, depending on how it is configured. The "02" floorstanding model on display retailed for $45K to $52K, again, depending on configuration.
Beyond that, there were the rooms that just always sound excellent, almost no matter what. Among the ones that I thought sounded remarkable were the Esoteric/ Cantonroom, the Dan D'Agostino/ Martin Logan Neolith room, the Constellation room, and of course, Phillip O'Hanlon's Gryphon's room was also spectacular. As I always do, I very much enjoyed the Nordost demo and their traditional methodology of demonstrating how better cables can make a difference. I also enjoyed the McIntosh room. Not only did their line array speakers sound inviting, how could anyone not fall in love with all that McIntosh blue.
What I noticed about the 2018 RMAF was that there seemed to be a higher preponderance of more affordable gear than I have seen in the past. That is not to say there were not systems retailing for many hundreds of thousands of dollars because there were. Even beyond the second floor rooms with systems that retailed from $1000.00 to $5000.00, it looked to me like there was a greater emphasis on affordability as opposed to the all-out assault on sonic excellence regardless of cost.
Personally, my most notable frustration was the music in most rooms. I don't think I have heard more music that could pass as a funeral dirge in my life. I realize this is my opinion alone, and anyone also in attendance may disagree completely, but I got tired of so many violin and cello concerto's that did little to illustrate the full frequency range of the system. I went into one room, and I'm sorry I don't remember which one, and found Earth, Wind & Fire blaring out. I wanted to scream "FINALLY!" I completely understand that classical is an excellent way to demonstrate an audio system. However, I cannot help but wonder if it has gotten to the point of being the next Diana Krall in every room joke.
All in all, I enjoyed the 2018 RMAF - this despite not personally seeing everything. I got to see some friends and heard some really fantastic systems at every price point from $1000.00 to the absurdly expensive. I also discovered that some products, despite the hype, really didn't suit my fancy. This, of course, could have been as much the room as the product. And of course, it could also have been me. In any event, and bias aside, an audio show is a spectacular place to see the new, the great, the not so great, the innovative, and the absurd. I had such a good time I didn't seem to mind the trouble I had getting there. And with a brand new venue for next year - who knows?