Room set up is all over the shop. Some nail it from the outset, some get there over the weekend once they hear what attendees hear and how the room changes with more bodies packed in; and some just suck all weekend (or have equipment failure). Music could be more varied (Venessa Fernandez still popular, Norah Jones, Krall etc, you get the idea. Way too much Dire Straits for my taste too). I know it's handy to have a reference but it does get tiresome if you don't actually care for the music). That said, who'd be a rep or room host at this meeting? - it would tax human endurance by Saturday pm, no wonder so many rooms shut down right on cue!
What I learned
I find uber-resolution tiresome. There's a kind of audiophile sound that is super crisp on transients, particularly on digital sources, that can impress with details but become sort of irritating quickly. I'd not really found a way to describe this before RMAF but after a day I came to sort of recognize it, usually in the more expensive set-ups, and to dread it when volume went up. When coupled with the sort of deep, strong bass that the high end speakers emphasize just to show you they can, it is often disguised as 'resolution' but it's not the same thing. That leading edge crispness can kill the natural sound of instruments and ruin the illusion of music. Now I know it when I hear it.
Real instruments are recognizable when reproduced but there's a level beyond recognition that pushes the illusion of presence further up the scale of credibility. Harbeth rooms did that well. Von Schweikert's too, but the German Physiks room did it best on violin. Of course, that was just the speakers, each had excellent partnering gear and careful set up. I commented a lot on lack of soundstaging in many rooms, the pull of vocals or instruments to one speaker at the expense of the other. Am sure there's a ton of technology that can work on this but the basic rules of set up cannot be fought and even if they could, sounsdtaging won't ever replace timbral accuracy as the key for me. And back to that point about resolution: real unamplified instruments never have that bleeding edge sound you hear in some gear.
Pricing bears only a modest positive correlation with quality. Once products are well designed, combined with some consideration of match, and set up to suit a space not fight it, then the results are generally pretty good. To move from good to great requires real effort and sometimes incredible cost. But just paying that cost is no assurance of improvement. Further, the improvement you might gain is comparatively slight. It's rare to hear something that is so far beyond the decent, well matched and set up system that you think the world has changed. Accept this as the reality of reproduction and you will hear gear a little more clearly. The ELAC speakers are a classic case of what's possible on the affordable side and can really compete with more expensive speakers. Reproduction is an illusion anyway, the question becomes at what price you can get a passing illusion of musical reality. I think you can get 80% or more of the way to the ultimate for 20% of the cost of the very best equipment, maybe closer. There's a real 80-20 rule for audiophiles.
The medium might be the message but am not convinced that one format is best. I heard great vinyl, cd, hi-rez digital, tape, and all fell a bit short of real life. That's ok too, our brains can fill the credibility gap and a system can help it to do so easily. I do think that I am of a generation or a personality type that likes the physical medium. Some computer-based front-ends sounded fantastic at RMAF but I do like my record sleeves and I enjoy the process of setting up an album to play. But I recognize this as something in me, it's not a principle of sound quality. And I would say the same about tubes and solid state amplification.
Finally, despite all the talk of obscene upward spiral of prices, I actually think there are some downward pressures at play which are offering us really good sonics and value for money. A few years ago I noted that $30k was the typical price of floorstanders. This year there were real choices, serious contenders for your dollars, at far less. Sure, you can drop more and you might be happier, but I saw a few components that I thought could help you put a killer system together for under $10k that would be a delight in most rooms. Of course, I like learning about the top end, and seeing how far the art can be extended, but I no longer feel that I'm missing much by not being able to afford it. In fact, I don't think I am missing too much at all.