When the War of the Electric Currents ended in the late 1880s, George Westinghouse and his acquisition of Tesla's alternating current patents won over Thomas Edison's low-voltage direct-current power distribution ideas. Today, the North American power grid operates on 230,000 volts, serves 283 million people and uses over 200,000 miles of transmission lines. The National Academy of Engineering awarded this colossal power distribution kraken the #1 spot among the 20 most influential and important 20th century engineering inventions - ahead of the automobile (2), the television (6), the computer (8) and nuclear technologies (19). As 50 million people in north-eastern America and eastern Canada found out the hard way during the largest US blackout in history, heavily used transmission lines get hot, then stretch, then sag and shorten out when they touch a tree that provides a path to ground. Operational 24/7 without any holidays or down-times, this electric power grid works in the background of our awareness and is taken for granted - until it stops working. Then pretty much everything comes to a screeching halt.

The first-ever Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2004 was, by most reasonable accounts and expectations, a smashing success. Held in Denver's 2nd-largest hotel of 650 bedrooms right in the Tech Center district, there were 60-some exhibit rooms and 200-some exhibitors. Stereophile's Peter Breuniger; The Absolute Sound's Robert Harley and Stephaen Harrell; HiFi+'s Roy Gregory (in the country on other pleasure business but eager to stop by); a large contingent of Positive Feedback writers including the Dave-squared publishers; Vade Forrester from SoundStage!; Steve Rochlin from EnjoyTheMusic; Rod Morris from Audio Asylum; Laurence Borden from Dagogo; and professional photographer Albert Porter from AudiogoN were amongst the press members I met and recognized. And there likely were even more. Hell, even South-American 6moons contributor Fernando Chao from Uruguay's Pastoral Audio made the trek.

With plenty of DIY-inspired exhibits and horn/SET rooms reminiscent of Dan "Doc Bottlehead" Schmalle's VSAC event, the RMAF also sported mainstream veterans such as BAT, JMlab, Linn and McIntosh - direct and alternating current. With a Patricia Barber concert held in a subdivided ball room -- with the other half home to a wedding convention because the 1200-seat prime venue had long booked before Mrs. Barber was -- this Rocky Mountain show came out of nowhere and opened with a bang just like electrical light appears with the flick of a switch. The two people responsible for this miracle? Ron Welborne of Welborne Labs [above] and Alan Stiefel of Red Rock Audio [depicted later in the show report in his own suite] who worked quietly in the background before and during the show, churning away like the 24/7 power grid.

While an in-depth interview with these two gentlemen won't be conducted until the end of this week when the final tally is in, I can already tell you the following. When your love, passion and livelihood are embroiled in manufacturing and selling audio goods, organizing a show instead (or simultaneously) is not a fun substitute. Even if financial rewards were to equal the money you lost in your normal business due to stolen time, energy and resources, you'd still prefer to make this money in your chosen profession rather than as a show organizer. What would constitute show success from that perspective?

Until our concluding interview investigates this question, here's my take on the show in general: It needs to happen again next year. The US needs its own Montreal show -
an affordable and central affair that's friendly to both exhibitors and attendees. If this show doesn't run in 2005, it won't be readily resurrected in 2006. Can monsignors Welborne and Stiefel afford to do it again next year? Could Mike Maloney and his partner from T.H.E. Show who have turned themselves into full-time professional event organizers take over RMAF? Should, as they suggested, the CES open its doors to the public which already sneaks in under industry guise anyway? Should the CES become the central industry/consumer event, with manufacturers and retailers collaborating on manning exhibits, the latter conducting demos and prospective end-user sales, the former handling tech inquiries and retail/distribution matters? Stay tuned as we attempt to provide some background data on these notions and observations. For now, give a big hand of thunderous applause to our intrepid show organizers. They did a phenomenal job on behalf of our industry. This required major sacrifices in their own businesses and entailed plenty of sagging lines, short circuits and temporary blackouts while putting things together so all of us could enjoy, participate and benefit.

Any show event naturally requires support to come together. In the area of exhibitor participation, nobody contributed as heroically as Denver dealer John Barnes of Audio Unlimited who hosted three rooms on the 2nd floor and two very large suites in the Mezzanine, showcasing, amongst other brands, Acoustic Energy, Airtight, Avalon, BAT, Boulder, JMlab and Tannoy. Geoff Poor of BAT and Daniel Jacques of Audio Plus Services (the US/Canadian JMlab distributor) had flown in to assist John in orchestrating his multi-pronged assault on the crown of unflinching support for an event that, after all, was a first of its kind. It thus invites fence-sitting and carefully distanced observations on the part of many who'd rather assess viability and possible future participation than take any personal risks. Bravo to all who joined the RMAF in its first installment. Bravo in particular to John Barnes for leading the way with such a massive rollout of first-rate exhibits!

My personal favorite of John's rooms? The very earthy Japanese flavor of Tannoy Yorkminster speakers from their Prestige Range with the Airtight electronics. At $13,000/pr, the new Yorkminsters are 15" dual-concentrics with Alcomax 3 magnets in a twin rear-ported Teak enclosure, 94dB sensitivity and 121dB peak SPLs at 550 watts. This was my kind of dynamic, coherent and full-bodied sound. But for those of different makeup, John had plenty of other flavors on tap. On the subject of trophy audio amassed by the wealthy but musically ignorant, John offered a miniature anecdote about one of his top JMlab/Boulder customers who, upon their 16th birthdays, takes each of his kids on a tour of the great European opera and concert houses. Just because certain brands are expensive and mainstream doesn't at all mean that those who prefer them to cottage-industry one-up products lack musical passion or intellectual discernment. It's convenient and easy to write off products and companies who are really successful as having "sold out" - as though only limited or no real commercial success equated to "audiophile kosher". But that's a bloody narrow-minded and rather judgmental view.

John knows this and enjoys commercial success precisely because he doesn't subscribe to kosher-anything diets and practices omnivorous appetites instead. His well-honed palate identifies peak proponents of the main flavors and then assembles a mix of products that allow optimization of these sonic flavors to present best-case scenarios of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry to a wide variety of customers. As far as what Barnes fancies? It doesn't really matter, does it? In retail, it's what the customer fancies that's important. Unfortunately, many of the specialty audio salons become so dogmatic and religious that they decimate their prospective audience to the few who agree with their personal notions on good sound and involving music reproduction. Take a lesson from John Barnes. He's smiling and with good reason...

Here's the line-up of Audio Unlimited Denver's goodies: In the 25' x 30' Maroon Peak Room, the main system comprised a Clearaudio Anniversary turntable with new Graham Phantom arm; Aesthetix IO Signature phono stage; Accuphase DP-85 SACD system; Boulder 2000 Series electronics and Avalon Acoustics' $106,000/pr Sentinel Diamond speakers; all cabling by TARA Labs 0.8. The smaller system premiered TARA Labs' Vector cables and used BAT's BK-05, VK-31 and VK-55 to drive Avalon's new Symbol. In the Blanca Peak Room of the same dimensions, the Clearaudio Master Reference with TQ-1 Master or Graham Phantom arms, Everest stand and Insider Reference cartridge comingled with the McIntosh MCD100 transport and Boulder 2000 Series electronics to drive the $85,000/pr JMlab Grande Utopia Bes via TARA Labs 0.8 cables.

Moving to the second floor, room 7209 used an all McIntosh system of MDA/MCD 1000 digital combo, C2200 preamp, MC-2275 integrated amp, MC275 MkIV bridged monos or a Clearaudio Emotion with Satisfy arm and Virtuoso wood cart via an Aesthetix Rhea phono stage to drive Acoustic Energy's AE1 or AE3 Reference speakers via TARA LAbs ISM cables. In room 7212, a complete BAT system with the VK-D5SE player, the CK-P10 phono stage, the VK-51SE pre and VK-600SE/BatPak amp plus Clear Audio's Champion Ltd. Edition drove either Avalon Ascendant speakers or JMlab Electrca Be 927s via TARA LAbs Air 1 cables. Last but certainly not least was room 7213 with the Tannoys, a Transrotor Fat Bob with matching arm, Koetsu Onyx cart and Transrotor phono stage, the Accuphase DP-77 SACD player and Airtight's ATC-2 pre and 211 power amp. Phew - these boyz certainly went to town and stayed way deep into the night.

Alas, the really big news of my show report isn't about who made the best sound -- there was an unusually high number of good-sounding rooms -- but that even small-scale American manufacturers now have access to very potent medicine against the Chinese labor virus. I'm not joking. If you're singing the blues about not being able to compete against Chinese-made products, Mark L. Schifter and Mr. Pu of Sound Art China are your solution. With a minimum order requirement of 10 pairs, delivery of a first sample in a matter of weeks and 30-cents-on-the-dollar pricing, speaker companies like Epiphany, GR Research and VMPS have already taken advantage of this American-run and co-owned factory. It currently employs 183 workers, pays out three times the standard Chinese labor wages and will grow to 430 employees by next year. Mark Schifter currently serves 16 OEM accounts, amongst those certain high-profile European brands you wouldn't believe if I told you.