Rocky Mountain Audio Fest: Can Money Really Make Music Sound Better?

There's a Marc Maron joke about expensive audio equipment. He wants to buy a $10,000 amp that Jack White has, but decides against it because he feels that every time he'd play his guitar with it, he would just think, "No, this doesn't sound like $10,000."

It was that joke that stuck in my head as I wandered around the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest this past weekend. Audiophiles gathered in the convention center of the Denver Marriott Tech Center to check out the best of the best in audio equipment, from guys selling tiny parts for amps and stereos to suites set up for listening to home speakers that cost considerably more money than I will ever see in my life. How was any of this possibly worth the money people were planning to spend? Maybe some super-rare part for an amp that hasn't been made in twenty years. But home speakers? Headphones? Can money really make music sound better?

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I wandered into one of the listening rooms and instantly thought I had made a mistake: This wasn't a listening room, this was a live jazz performance -- except it wasn't. It was a pair of futuristic speakers taller than me playing a jazz CD while people sat, staring, listening, and occasionally whispering to one of the people who worked for the stereo company. It didn't add up, it sounded too realistic. My brain honestly had trouble understanding that there wasn't a keyboard and drum kit in front of me. I've spent my life around live music, I know what it sounds like, and this was somehow not that. Maybe it was worth tens of thousands of dollars to be able to hear that every time you opened Spotify. But then again, you could just go to a jazz club and spend maybe $50 to hear that sound and have a couple of drinks.

It was that confusion that stayed with me as I went from room to room, past people talking about the "clear timbre" a certain pair of headphones provided, past huddled attendees discussing which unit to buy, past music nerds with considerable disposable income. There were speakers that were supposedly worth more than my annual income because they were flatter than other ones. There was a complete turntable setup made out of a single piece of nice wood. It looked like it belonged in a sad log-cabin-themed casino. I couldn't bring myself to ask how much it cost. I heard one guy tell a seller he didn't want to listen to an album, he just had on "cheap speakers, cost like six hundred grand." That made me do a double take. I don't know what six hundred grand sounds like, but I'm pretty certain that it's a sound that should not be dismissed.

In one room there were desktop speakers set up, and Lorde's "Royals" was blaring from a MacBook. I just heard "Royals" live a couple of weeks ago; this sounded better. Does a stereo that sounds better than the artist herself playing with an arguably amazing amphitheater sound system deserve to be worth its ten-thousand-dollar price tag? I don't know, but I did know that I really wanted to ask the representative to play the rest of the album.

The last room I went into had a fake living room setup. A white rug, a wooden coffee table and another laptop plugged into some basic-looking tower speakers. "Never Going Back Again," by Fleetwood Mac, was playing. It's a song I've heard countless times in my life -- but I'd never heard this version. I sat and listened and was able to hear every single note, every squeak of fingers sliding up and down the fretboard, all the subtle fingerpicking, the little moments where the melody and harmony weave together. I had never heard vocals so clear and in tune. It's not like I had to really listen, or use my years of band and orchestra and live-show listening skills. It just came at me effortlessly.

I'm still unsure of attaching giant price tags to sound, or whether there really is any difference between a speaker that costs fifteen grand and one that costs sixteen grand. But if I could listen to any song like I was listening to "Never Going Back Again," yeah, I think I just might pay that much.

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