The Swarm

November 09, 2012

Sonic Satori: Hearing The Youthful Evolution of Personal Audio Loud and Clear at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest...

Michael Mercer

I often refer to the annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest as the Grateful Dead parking-lot party of audio conventions. Of course, there are no veggie burritos for sale, but the vibe is far more laid back than industry shows like CES or CEDIA. The people making the pilgrimage to Denver for RMAF are mostly driven by their love of great sound, and the event was well-attended by the expected audiophiles, as usual. However, CanJam, Head-Fi’s event at RMAF aimed at headphone listening devotees, proved remarkable. While Jude Mansilla, founder of Head-Fi, has been hosting CanJam at RMAF for three years now, this year the personal-audio trend – which spans headphones, headphone amplifiers, DACs, and hybrid products – has exploded onto the audio scene at an unimaginable pace. Finally, as we’ve been saying editorially for years at The Daily Swarm, the price of entry for high-quality audio has been blown to shreds by products that are specifically manufactured for users who grew up listening to headphones! They listen to their favorite cans while using PC’s, gaming consoles, iDevices, and Android-based phones. This means these consumers are already familiar with the most important component in any sound system they will ever own: the source of their music! Now we have affordable audio components that use these devices as the main source, and they’re not as big as your microwave.

Big room, oversized and overly-priced audiophile systems abounded at RMAF as well; component systems could be found that cost twice as much as your Beemer or Patek Phillipe. A few even played something resembling music, but most were spewing the usual yawn-inspiring, audiophile-favorite demonstration CDs. I’m not being objective here; I’m tired of preaching to the already-converted about the new frontier of high-end personal audio. Many companies have embraced this phenomenon, and those who don’t will continue to carve out a meager existence based on overpriced stereo equipment that needs its own honeymoon suite to live in. The greatest things about RMAF remain the variety of gear and the people in attendance. It’s not the same ol’ crowd I’ve been seeing at every audio show I’ve attended over the last fifteen years. Okay, many of them were there, but there were also new faces and, most importantly, new tunes! Fortunately, for those of us riding the personal audio wave, many of the companies at CanJam utilize music written and recorded in this century. It’s refreshingly new sonic territory for this scene, believe me. You can have polite, wine-and-cheese music at RMAF, or you can go listen to some Black Keys, James Blake or Burial at CanJam.

(Photo courtesy of Positive Feedback)

Unfortunately, I heard that an editor from one of the audiophile sites wrote a whole article about the fact that RMAF doesn’t attract young people. Those who’ve been critical acknowledge the need to usher in a younger demographic to hi-fi shows, which has been a concern for years. Luckily in 2012, via friends at Beatport, we managed to get the word out on CanJam at RMAF. Since established brands like Sennheiser, Monster, and Koss exhibited this year – and Sennheiser dominates a portion of the DJ headphone market, and certainly DJ cartridges – more young people attended this year than ever before, and the youth weren’t there to jam multi-thousand-dollar room occupying systems. Most, in fact, came to see and hear new things at CanJam – where, not coincidentally, there was also a ton of new music being played. This will prove crucial to attracting a younger, hipper audience and grow them into the audiophiles of tomorrow (or even today). I saw artwork for James Blake’s first LP on one of Alpha Design Labs’ iPads (a brand we’ve reviewed here) and other forward music like Amon Tobin, Radiohead, and Bat for Lashes in a few manufactures hard drives and playlists there. The people complaining about RMAF being unable to attract new blood were, unfortunately, obviously in the wrong place during the show. They’re upstairs, where the old guard still preaches to the already happily-converted audiophiles. That world is shrinking, as the whole world is shrinking – think living space in Tokyo – which is one of many reasons all the action was at CanJam.

The truth is, if you weren’t there, then you would’ve experienced most of the other rooms playing the same ol’ sleepy-ass audiophile bullshit. I’m referring to music by Diana Krall (it’s a shame – she’s actually talented, but hi-fi shows killed her voice for me long ago), Patricia Barber, and songs like “Keith Don’t Go” and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Tin Pan Alley”: Another great tune murdered by repetition at audio conventions! I’ve heard these same tracks since my first high-end audio show at CES in 1996! If you want to attract the young, you have to go where the young’s ears are, even if you don’t understand their world at first. At least RMAF managed to grow the numbers of younger attendees this year – still, while I don’t have exact numbers, the margins surely won’t be huge. It’s strong, incremental organic growth, however, all done through word-of-mouth marketing.

We’ve laid the groundwork by setting up a solid social-media structure for RMAF. As soon as the audio fest began, numerous manufacturers and audio press began blowing up social media, retweeting information from events like wild; the #RMAF hashtag even started trending! I’ve never seen social-media activity at this scale from an audiophile convention. Old-school manufactures like Cary Audio and Nordost, Jude Mansilla (the founder of and a few of us starting working together to get the word out to the headphone generation in Denver. It was a community effort, which is what personal audio has today, and the high-end stereo world used to have.

Once high-end audio became an elitist’s hobby over a lifestyle product in the ‘80s, it began to lose touch with everyday consumers. Normally, that signifies the end; luckily, there are dedicated, good people working in the high-end audio community today. Companies like VPI Industries, who’ve been building turntables in the United States for close to forty years, and Wilson Audio, which was founded in 1974 and currently crafts state-of-the-art loudspeakers by hand in Utah, are part of the foundation that keeps high-end audio alive. Still, they all have to wake up to the personal audio evolution. This is not a fad: an entire generation was raised listening to music through little white earbuds! Many audiophile companies made the mistake of initially thumbing their noses at iPods and iTunes; those same companies now tout Airplay as a top-selling feature, and most have iDevice-friendly components. Just as the record industry feared Napster, digital downloading and file-sharing, now streaming/download services with deals with the major labels like MOG run the show. During that early time period, certain people understood there was something bigger happening than thoughts of immediate monetization. They saw a revolution in the sharing of information, be it music or videos: those visionaries saw the bigger picture, and they continue to innovate personal audio today.

There’s an energy there that’s palpable. Now the users are educating themselves on the technological aspects of equipment associated with their collective passion for better-quality portable and desktop audio! I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ve learned more about headphones, headphone amplifiers, and everything personal audio-related from fellow users on than any other audio site or magazine. Luckily, many are catching up, but the new wave is a user-generated, interactive world where manufacturers and their customers work together to build the best products.

Many large audio corporations just don’t see it, or don’t need to – yet: they can sell LED-backlit LCD televisions at CostCo all day. It’s incredible that the opportunities on view at RMAF don’t open their eyes: it remains a fantastic event where you get to interact with designers, manufacturers, and brand-reps, with the press covering it all and the consumers buying the products! It’s a win-win situation: the more consumers who find out they can have far better sound for their music collections by simply adding small components to products they already interact with and love everyday is a giant leap forward for high performance audio, period. RMAF brings all the audio wackos together, and we learn from each other, exchanging ideas and dreams about a bigger future for our hobby.

There are so many options and price-points, I have no doubt there is something out there for everyone personal audio, and RMAF 2012 proved it! We can have our audible cake, and eat it too. I’m psyched to be a part of audio today – so much is happening, my head is spinning – and RMAF in Denver proves year after year to be the best place to soak it all up, and watch the industry grow and evolve. Play on…

Click Here