Saturday, October 20, 2012

RMAF 2012 - Later thoughts

On the audio forums there's a lot of criticism from causal listeners who attended the event and seem to have been underwhelmed by the sonics. In part this comes from the tendency of some to appear as tough, rational listeners who are not 'fooled' by the high end or who tend to find their favorite company's products (usually lower priced, built in the garage by a 'little guy against the world type') blow more expensive gear out of the water. Cue the usual suspects but if some of these small manufacturers with vocal advocates really did produce the best rooms and the best products, I wonder if I attended the same show or why those products are just not so well liked or known by everyone else (ah, that would be because of the advertisement-paying majors have control over the magazines which trick us all into believing that only expensive gear is worthy, of course). Oh well, let's move on.

Now the dust has settled, I've tried to make some sense of what I was hearing at RMAF. When I came home, I made a point of sitting quietly with my own rig to remind myself of how it sounded. In short, it was a reminder of joy. Yes, my existing rig, in my room, sounded better to me than almost anything I heard in Denver. No big deal there - I have really nice equipment and a large, comfortable room in which I've taken time to place my gear and feed it with clean power. How many of the rooms at the Marriott could provide manufacturers with the same? At a basic level, this experience confirmed that the room is vital, a quiet space is important, and equipment upgrades need to be thought about carefully and chosen empirically. Plus ca change.

I recognize that room treatments seem to matter but the problem with understanding their effects at RMAF is that you don't get to hear the before and after treatment sonics. I have to trust that when I visit a room where the speakers are angled and the corners are treated, the set up is deliberate and carefully chosen rather than a quick and dirty attempt to cure the worst excesses by trying some basic "traps in the corners, cover first reflection points" placement. I suspect any trust here is a little misplaced and that improvisation is more the order of the day. So, how can any of us really judge the effect of the treatment, and by extension the quality of the gear, in such circumstances?

That said, there's a couple of memories that continue to impress. That Sony AR-1 4-track listening session has been hard to get over. On my two-channel rig, the bow strikes are there but not as embodied as they were in that Sony rig and I can easily tell the difference. What I cannot know is how much of this results from downsizing to two channels at home,  if the Sony speakers are just more resolving or if all that expensive EMM gear in the front end, in that large room, was providing the improvement? I can understand some people feel that if you really want the sound you hear at some demo, you have to purchase the identical rig as a whole and then work on your own listening room.

Another, perhaps more sobering, is the impression that the gap between the best and average sound is not even close to the gap in prices. I realize it's somewhat of a fool's errand to put price on sound quality but really, with such variance in pricing from the low thousands to the tens of thousands of dollars and more per component  that could be observed across rooms at RMAF, one might reasonably anticipate far greater and immediately obvious differences in sound. Pricing really does seem out of sync with sonics. This might be true of many product categories such as luxury watches or automobiles but I have my doubts that it is so wide a spread as in audio gear. I realize old Gibson guitars fetch prices that are not quite tied to their sound alone, rather their desirability as collectibles but even there, the best made and sounding guitars, while more expensive than their cheap compatriots, are not tens of thousands of dollars more expensive. Hand labored archtops using expensive woods cost a lot, but not that much more than a basic but well made Yamaha or Ibanez guitar, with the exception of centuries old instruments perhaps.  Even if the comparison is limited, the question provides genuine food for thought -- is there something about audio gear that makes if operate on a different economic model?

I don't have an answer but I do know that the trip to RMAF is worthwhile, that the organizers do a fantastic job, and that now I am home, I really can enjoy my own gear with a refreshed perspective. Enjoy the music!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Please share more about your experience with the 'little guy against the world type.'
I suspect there are many who would like to hear about the less expensive products competing with the "old guard."
Thank you.