This past weekend, I had a blast exploring the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, hosted by the Colorado Audio Society. It was my third year attending, and I hope it won't be my last.
If you're not in-the-know, it's a big convention for high-end stereos aimed at consumers. The exhibitors are brands that make things like speakers, stereo amplifiers, speaker cables, DACs, and other aspects important to home audio. To host this in an open convention hall would be madness, so they essentially rent out an entire hotel. Each room has all the beds and furniture removed, and a speaker brand will team up with an amplifier brand and cable brand to outfit a room with a great sounding stereo. Attendees go from room to room, hearing each new stereo, and you can even bring your own music to play to hear how each stereo performs on music you know.
For those that are interested, many bloggers and hi-fi magazines are covering the convention and any exciting products unveiled at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest by major brands. I'll let them cover things like that. But I will offer a few takeaways from the show that feel significant to me:
1) Speakers Matter - Other Equipment Matters Less
It's hard to say with 100% certainty that if a room sounded good or bad, it was because of this component or that component. You would need to do in-depth shootouts to determine that, which just isn't possible from one room to another when all components are changed instead of just one at a time.
That said, speakers are king. Maybe a room is set up with $30,000 of cabling or just $30 of cabling, but when I walked into a room and heard a new system, it was the speakers I was hearing. Bad speakers kill the sound, and great speakers make the sound. Everything else is a bonus, looking for incremental improvements. But quality speakers are easily the most important investment you can make in a stereo. As far as electronics are concerned, I'd spend the lion's share of your budget on the speakers.
2) Placement and Acoustics Matter Just as Much
The rooms and stereos that really impressed me had three things in common: the speakers were great, the speakers were carefully placed, and the exhibitors worked with the acoustics of the room. On the contrary, I heard some really great speakers that just sounded like mush because they were haphazardly placed and acoustics weren't taken into account.
You're right to place a lot of emphasis on good speakers, whether you're producing and mixing on them or just using them to enjoy music made by others. A lot of people have this emphasis already. But equally important is your attention to room acoustics, which most people forgo entirely. A little research and a little budget go a long way. And also equally important is speaker placement: if your speakers aren't in the right place in your room, they're just not going to sound very good, no matter how fancy and expensive they are. Do yourself a favor and pay attention to acoustics, especially since it's cheap, and speaker placement, especially since it's free.
3) Listening Means Nothing Without Reference Tracks
A lot of rooms played some really cool songs that I've never heard before. And, for some reason, a lot of rooms played some really terrible music I hope never to hear again. (Why they would do this baffles me.) But, it's not really fair to judge a system on music you don't know. Maybe the terrible music is masking a great sounding stereo. And maybe the cool music that sounds good just happens to undercompensate in the way that the stereo overcompensates, making up for its shortcomings. The one song may sound good, but it's not representative of how the speakers will sound across all music.
The only way to fairly judge systems is to listen to the same piece of music on as many stereo systems as you can, ideally music that sounds really good and that you know really well. One of my favorite test tracks is the song "Love Is A Verb" by John Mayer (off of his album Born and Raised). The instruments are lush, the vocals are precise, the bass has impact, the mix is great, and the frequency response is broad. And, as bonuses to the many other listeners to be found at such shows, the genre is unoffensive to most all, the lyrics are interesting, and the song is very short.
4) Agnostic Listening
I approach speakers (and other gear) with a certain degree of skepticism. If someone tells me that they use adamantium magnets to drive a woofer made out of Hindenburg fabric in an enclosure constructed entirely from Apollo-program heat shields, I don't care. If it sounds good, it sounds good. Too many times have I heard the hype over speakers with some radical new tech or construction material that just doesn't pan out into great sound. Maybe a great pair of speakers have tweeters made from the Shroud of Turin, or maybe it's just paper for the tweeter and woofer. That's okay if the sound is there.
Likewise, I don't care if a speaker is cheap or expensive. This past weekend, I heard a pair of speakers that cost over $250,000 and thought they sounded like a cruel joke. And a pair of $360 speakers, somehow including amplifiers and DAC and signal selection and even a Bluetooth radio, sounded surprisingly good. Quality of sound speaks, not style or marketing or price. I encourage you to let your ears guide you.
I don't buy into people that say "this speaker is great for EDM" or "that speaker is only good with classical". If a speaker is limited to a certain genre, then there must be some flaw that's obscured by the nature of that genre. Maybe that flaw is as simple as limited low-frequency output, in which case adding a subwoofer or two is the miracle solution. Or maybe the problem is much worse. But a great speaker is a great speaker, whether you're playing jazz or classical or rock or pop or EDM.
Also, I don't really care whether I end up using hi-fi speakers for my studio or studio monitors for my living room. A great speaker is a great speaker, whether it's self-powered or not, and whether it's designed for and marketed to pros or consumers. Again, let your ears guide you, not marketing.
I encourage you to listen as a skeptical agnostic: the sound is all that matters, not what it's made of, who it's made by, who it's made for, or how it's marketed. Believe nothing but your ears.
5) My Budget Champion for Speakers
My favorite speakers of the show were made by ELAC, and designed by Andrew Jones. I have something of a man-crush on Mr Jones, and it's not because of his winning personality or his fame or his incredible accent (though those are pluses). It's because when he designs speakers, even when working with a minimal budget, he builds killer speakers that sound incredible. He's famous within hi-fi circles for a reason, and you don't have to be a fanboy to buy into his work.
If I were shopping with the appropriate budget, I'd buy the Adante series of ELAC speakers, which he designed. They're superb in every way, possibly the best at the show regardless of budget, despite being cheaper than 95% of speakers I saw. The floor-standing model would be ideal, though the bookshelf model is half the price and should deliver nearly all of the performance.
But that's still real money we're talking about, and the Uni-Fi series of ELAC speakers he also designed is only 1/5th the price of the Adante. They still sound incredible, better than 100% of speakers by other brands up to 10x the price, and better than 95% of speakers up to 100x the price. I truly mean that. A pair of these properly set up in your room would sound killer, and the price is unbeatable.
Note: the Debut series of ELAC speakers is cheaper still, but I can't recommend them based on the sound. Upgrading to the Uni-Fi series is worth it 10x over.
6) Bonus Recommendation
The internet-direct Hsu Research (pronounced Shoe Research) wasn't actually at the show this year, though it has been in the past. I've heard some good and some bad things about its traditional bookshelf speakers, but its subwoofers are incredible, especially for the money. I've personally installed three different models in peoples' homes, and each time, I was amazed by the quality and quantity of bass for the money. If you need a good subwoofer and you have a terrestrial budget, I'd recommend buying from Hsu Research - whether that means you get a single modest Hsu subwoofer or a pair of beastly Hsu subwoofers, I doubt you could equal the value with any brand, much less surpass it.
Pro tip: buying two subwoofers not only improves headroom and works toward negating room nulls, but it provides the opportunity to reference your "pair of Hsus", which is always fun.
If you couldn't tell, I had fun at the show. I love this stuff, even though most of it is geared toward the rich.
I shared with you what I learned at the show that applies to every stereo used for every purpose in every room. One could get lost in the world of expensive DACs and amps and speaker cables, and though they provide some benefit, they're not nearly as important as the basics: speakers, placement, and acoustics.
Don't be influenced by price. In fact, don't even pay attention to it until after you've listened yourself and made your own decisions. Marketing is marketing and will always tout, even when it's false or at least blatantly misleading 95% of the time. Let your ears decide instead.
And though I'm not paid a cent by anyone to say this, you now know my personal value favorites to assemble a killer stereo, whether for production or engineering or home theater or living room music enjoyment: either the Uni-Fi or Adante ELAC speakers, according to your budget, and any single or pair of Hsu Research subwoofers, according to your budget. Of course, trust your own ears more than my recommendation. But know I make my recommendation based on what my ears tell me.
Have you made it out to an audio convention? What was your experience? Perhaps equally important: what songs did you discover at the show? Share in the comments below.