SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIFeatures Archives

July 1, 2002

 

I Went Down to the Audiophile Zoo (and They All Asked for You...)

I had a ball at the recent Home Entertainment 2002 A/V extravaganza in New York. I'd had misgivings, it's true. I was concerned that Primedia -- which had only recently acquired Stereophile, The Stereophile Guide to Home Theater, Home Theater, and Audio Video Interiors -- would either not be aware of, or would ignore, the long history of the Stereophile Shows that morphed into HE2002, and might abandon the two-channel roots that had nourished the Show for so long.

My concerns proved unfounded. The Show remains a lightning rod for two-channel ardor, with the addition of just enough future tech and home theater to keep it balanced and inclusive. In fact, I'd have to say that HE2002 was one of the most thoroughly enjoyable hi-fi shows I've ever attended. It was relaxed, fun, and full of great-sounding systems regular people could afford. There were a few large-scale, cost-no-object fantasy systems, of course. People love to gawk at 'em and this year's crop -- which included the Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7 (left) and WATCH Dog launch, a no-holds-barred all-Krell home-theater system (with Faroudja projection!), a Naim/Dynaudio combo (launching Dynaudio's killer $16,000/pr Confidence C4), and a Pipedreams/Tenor/Audio Aero system -- ranked among the best-sounding I've ever heard.

What makes or breaks a show like this, in my opinion, aren’t the big rooms, but the upper floors, which convert ordinary hotel rooms into system showcases. These rooms present certain inevitable problems, of course. They're small and their entrances become bottlenecks. Some rooms are packed, while others remain empty the entire show. And when the hotel gets crowded, it becomes difficult to get into and out of rooms and the elevators take forever. But to complain about a show being popular seems perverse, to say the least. If you adopt a coping strategy (the old reliable take-the-elevator-to-the-highest-floor-and-use-the-staircases-coming-down ploy works well) and throw away any sense of urgency, you'll have a great time.

And darned if most attendees didn't seem to get that. People had a great time and it showed -- most were polite, pleasant, and passionate. In exchange, most people exhibiting were also relaxed and open to requests. Plus, most of them had figured out that the best-sounding rooms didn't try to jam too much speaker into the room and were playing "real world" hi-fis. For the first time in -- well, maybe forever -- I heard almost no truly bad sound. Even when I didn't really like what I was hearing, I could still find something of worth in the demonstration.

But the absolute best part of these shows isn't the gear -- which is what brings us all together -- but the fact that we are there, all together. I love hanging out for four days with thousands of audiophiles. We call ourselves nerds, but what a bunch of fascinating people showed up! I met photographers, lawyers, musicians, cowboys, and financiers.

I actually started hob-nobbing the day before the Show started, when Larry DiMarzio invited me over to his suite at the Sherry Nederland to hear a pet project, a little two-way speaker he and Harry Kolbe (of TubeSmith renown) had whipped up. It was a gorgeous ported box with black aniline-dyed quilted maple veneer and Dynaudio drivers. As I examined it, I noticed the knurled knobs on the binding posts looked familiar. "Who made your binding posts?" I asked.

"I did," Larry smirked. "I used solid copper bus bars for the crossover and then threaded a pure copper post through them."

"Okay, but I've seen these knobs somewhere before."

"Yes, you have. They're the tone and volume knobs off a Telecaster."

D'oh!

And it sounded real good, too. I listened to some John Williams and Friends (The Magic Box [Sony Classical SK 89483 CD]) and I was very close to there. But I grew a little restless with more complex recordings. Eying Larry's Sony DVP-7000 DVD player the way a vampire regards a pile of freshly minced garlic, I said, "Larry, I signed for a Musical Fidelity CD/Pre 24 this morning and it's still sitting inside my front door in its box. When you ride out to the factory in Staten Island this evening, you could pick it up. I think it will make these puppies sit up and bark!"

And I reckon it did, because Larry sent it back to me after the show with a bottle of Cristal to keep it company!

The first day of the show was sort of devoted to the press, although I suspect the rules were somewhat relaxed, since I saw a fair smattering of folks wandering the halls as I trudged into press conference after press conference. They looked like they were having fun.

I'm not singing the blues here, but if you've ever envied the glamour of being a member of the high-end press, you've obviously never been to many audio press conferences. The sound is seldom good and, despite all the hoopla, there's seldom any real news at them. But you skip one at your peril, since there's always the off chance that somebody inexperienced set it up and actually had some major news to report.

The first press conference of the day looked promising. Called by Sony, there really was a rumor of something incredibly hush-hush in the air. Over the preceding weekend, Peter van Willenswaard had filed a report on www.stereophile.com that there was an unconfirmed, but very credibly sourced, rumor at the 112th AES Convention in Munich that Sony and Universal were going to cease production of Red Book CDs for all new releases and manufacture only double-layer SACDs on those items. The item was clearly labeled a rumor, and all attempts by the magazine to confirm it over the Memorial Day weekend were a bust.

Wandering around the press room just before the event started, it seemed like just about every working journalist there was convinced that the scoop was going to be that announcement. Instead, Sony announced a 22-disc dual-layer SACD reissue lollapalooza featuring the Abkco-era Rolling Stones catalog.

I'm sure that from Sony's point of view, this was a huge announcement. After all, the Stones are the world's greatest rock band (just ask 'em, they'll tell you) and this was a deal for everything in the Abkco Rolling Stones catalog, which is essentially everything the band did up to Sticky Fingers -- in other words, it encompasses almost all of the truly great Stones records.

If the two companies do what they are promising, it could be great. Many of those early records, originally released on Decca (London in the US), had great sound. Original Decca pressings of Beggar's Banquet, Their Satanic Majesty's Request, and Let It Bleed can make you weep with the purity of their sound.

But those were Decca recordings. What's that I hear you ask, how did Abkco get those tapes? Well, let's just say that the big reason that all the Stones albums since Sticky Fingers have been released on Rolling Stones Records is that the Stones were, ummm, not happy with having no control over their early output, and that one of their sorest points was that their UK manager, Spooner Oldham, sold the rights to their entire early catalog to the band's American manager, Allen B. Klein.

The currently available Rolling Stones on Abkco were mastered and released in 1986. The early material is all mono -- and this is where things get a tad confusing if you're not a record hound. Although the albums were all in mono, the Stones recorded almost all of their singles in stereo. When the Abkco CDs were released in the US, Polygram still had rights to release them in the rest of the world, so there were many versions of that material released -- a lot of it with stereo tracks included.

One of Mobile Fidelity's biggest early coups was obtaining the rights to release the Abkco Stones material as a limited-edition set of LPs, so at some point, MoFi had possession of the masters. And most of the foreign releases of the back catalog were taken from MoFi's remasters, so most of the non-US world had better-sounding Stones CDs than we did.

In 1995, Abkco's rights to the material went worldwide and the London versions of the early material were pulled off the shelves and replaced. Many people mistakenly believe that the Abkco CDs were re-mastered at this point, but noooo. The 1986 versions remain on the shelves to this day.

It doesn't take a genius to figure that Abkco could have made a fortune at virtually any time in the last 16 years, simply by pasting a huge remastered sticker on their releases -- heck, just about every other label with a profitable catalog has done it two or three times, at least.

So you have to ask, how come Abkco didn't?

Abkco's official explanation is that all of the changes in CD technology since 1986 have been "incremental," but SACD offers a chance to make an elemental change in sound quality. Nice words. But get a bunch of industry insiders together and you'll hear rumors and hints. Me, I love conspiracy theories, so I read Sony's official text of the press event searching for the magic words original master tapes, and guess what? They aren't there!

Instead we get this great little sentence that seems to completely avoid the point, "The restoration process for Abkco's Rolling Stones Remastered Series started with hundreds of hours of painstaking research on both sides of the Atlantic to determine the analog sources most true to the original Rolling Stones studio recording."

Of course, some very impressive people have put their names on this project -- Bob Ludwig, for one, and you know he isn't going to cotton to any hanky-panky. In addition, people who have heard the DSD masters for the reissues, such as John Atkinson, report that they sound fantastic. So, chances are I'm just getting the vapors over nothing.

As for the rumored announcement about new releases? It wasn't actually confirmed, but the manufacturing capacity for SACD is being ramped up drastically, both domestically and around the world, and everyone who spoke made pointed references to SACD's superior security against casual piracy, which seems to be Sony's code word for downloading. (You didn't think it was about sound quality did you?) Additionally, several highly placed executives have decried Stereophile's publishing the article without going so far as to actually deny it. My experience with corporate-speak leads me to expect it's going to happen, but the company is trying to time the announcement for maximum spin.

Dynaudio actually had a press conference that was about something. The company announced a new loudspeaker line, Confidence. It stands between the Contour and Evidence lines and, so far, features two loudspeakers, the $16,000/pr C-4s (shown right) and the $12,000/pr C-2s.

I'm trying to avoid the "laundry list" show report, so I won't give you chapter and verse on drivers, except to mention that the C-4s utilize an entirely new Dynaudio tweeter, the Esotar2. It's almost impossible to make those large conference rooms sound coherent and three dimensional, but the C-4s sounded amazing. They had deep, taut bass and a sweet top-end that made the Evidence Temptations I've been listening to sound broken.

Down the hall, Wilson had a full house for the announcement of the WATT/Puppy 7. Now, modifications of this venerable (yet ever-changing) design are certainly newsworthy, and the 7 incorporates many, many changes -- most of them a result of lessons learned in building the remarkable Sophia, no doubt. But the minute the official press conference was over and David Wilson and Peter McGrath began playing requests, the room emptied out. That's a great pity, since the speakers sounded marvelous. In fact, based on limited listening (including a private session late Saturday night), Wilson has taken a huge leap forward with this design.

Contributing to the great sound of the Wilson room was VTL's incredible new, software-driven two-chassis $10,000 TL7.5 Reference Line Preamplifier (below left). Luke Manley invited a few members of the press upstairs for an up-close'n'personal examination of this beast, and it's a brute of a preamp (45V output!). VTL is using tubes, of course, but only in the gain stage -- the 7.5 employs MOSFETs in the output stage (but true to its tube roots, the company bundles them together and puts a very tube-like plug on one end).

Keeping the signal pure seems to have been the 7.5's design brief. The audio circuits reside in their own box, separated from the power supply, display circuitry, and digital controls by an eight-foot umbilical.

It's kind of interesting that, just as everyone was predicting that preamps would wither away completely, so many cool and world-class preamps have been developed. Like the Ayre K-1x and Conrad-Johnson ART, the TL7.5 sets the bar just that much higher for everybody else.

Perreaux's new Radiance R200i, a $3495 200Wpc integrated, is another product like that. I think it looks stunning: The sample at the show had a black chrome faceplate and a glossy black acrylic top plate. The front panel is bereft of all controls; all you see are a centrally located oval display and a subdued "Perreaux" cast into the lower left of the panel. (Actually, there are very tiny little touchpad buttons set into the display for vital functions, but you've really got to look for 'em.)

This supremely uncluttered look is made possible by the R200i's software-driven microprocessor, which also gives the user an immense amount of functional flexibility. User settings are stored in non-volatile EPROM and there are lots of choices. You can assign input labels, set the balance for each input, choose a preferred start-up volume, set maximum volume, choose from three display brightness levels, adjust display-timeout and energy-saver modes, and choose which input the unit will default to.

In addition, Perreaux used the microprocessor in a variety of ways I've never encountered before.

Thermal monitoring, for instance. Both left and right heatsink temperature are individually monitored and are displayed in real time in the LED window (in centigrade, of course). If the amp goes into thermal protection or overload protection, the display says so. That protection is intelligently controlled, too. The amp will pass signal again when the heatsinks cool down (if it's a thermal failure). If the amp has gone into overload protection, it will automatically ramp down and continue to monitor itself as it ramps back up to its original output in 5dB increments. If it fails again, it resets itself to its last safe setting.

The microprocessor even controls the binding posts. Want to drive two pairs of speakers? No problem, just pick the proper setting. Need to biwire your speakers? Again, choose the option and the circuit will adjust to it.

This all makes so much sense I can't believe no one has done it before! There's so much processing power available on chips now, it seems ridiculous to limit their use to controlling displays and switching signal paths -- if we're going to use 'em, let's really use 'em.

And for those of you who are, quite rightly, concerned about all the AC garbage that LED displays and microprocessors produce, well, so is Perreaux. The control circuitry gets its juice from its own li'l multi-tap toroidal transformer (well, little relative to the honking big 'roids that power each channel). This eliminates any risk of noise contamination through the supply.

I could go on and on -- the R200i's RF controlled, so you can put it anywhere; it's built like a Greene & Greene outhouse (much more palatial than brick); it's stuffed with high-quality parts; and, let's not forget, it puts out a stiff 200Wpc! And the remote -- which Perreaux designed -- is fantastic! And . . . and . . . and . . .

Oh just wait for the full review, 'cause I have simply got to get my hands on one of these. Never mind comparing it to other integrateds -- it's one of the coolest audio toys ever.

Obviously proud of their handiwork, Perreaux's managing director Martin van Rooyen and Daniel Lamborn (left and right respectively in photo above right), who did a lot of the design work on the R200i, were on hand to guide me through the intricacies of the design. I'd never met Marty before -- I've never made it to the antipodes and this was his first trip here -- but I felt an immediate affinity. If there's one quality that immediately wins me over, it's a kind of barely suppressed enthusiasm that borders on the boyish. Marty all but jumped from one foot to the other as he raced through a list of the R200i's features. Ah, I thought, he's one of us.

Poor guy -- seems happy though.

Speaking of happy, probably the happiest place at the whole show was TLP Audio's room, where Blue Circle's Gilbert Yeung was demonstrating his divinely silly Music Purse/Music Pump preamp/monoblock power amp system (below left). Why silly? Gilbert has assembled a basic preamp in a woman's handbag ($499) and has installed a pair of single-gain-stage power amps in a pair of matching size 11 women's pumps with 4" heels ($799/pr).

But in performance, these products are no joke! Driving a pair of Kirkseater Silverline 60 loudspeakers, and being fed clean AC by an MR1200 Music Ring balanced powerline conditioner, their sound was warm, detailed, and effortless. I think a certain number of audiophiles were actually offended by Gilbert's whimsy, but these babies actually sound great. My wife fell in love with 'em when she saw 'em at the Montreal show -- the first audio product she's fallen for since the first time she heard Quad '57s -- so I got her a set and we've been listening to them for weeks.

If you think a metal chassis makes a product sound better, I won't argue -- you're entitled to your opinion after all. But these are handmade of high-quality parts (including the shoes, which are very well built, um, made). I even like their funkier construction details, such as all the silicon goo Gilbert uses to damp wire resonance and pot some components. Besides what's wrong with having a little fun with your audio? I have no idea what Gilbert was thinking when he built his first pair -- maybe he just thought it would make people remember his booth at hi-fi shows -- but darned if they aren't starting to sell pretty well.

And yes, I will review them here soon.

Another guy who always seems to be having fun is Silverline's Alan Yun (below right). I guess he likes to work because he seems to have a new speaker every time I see him. This time he was showing off La Folia, an $8000/pr floorstander with a ported, rear-firing woofer. On the front are three drivers: a 1.25" Dynaudio Esotar soft-dome tweeter, Dynaudio's impressive 3" soft-dome midrange, and a 7" Scan-Speak paper-cone woofer. The burled briar cabinet was drop-dead gorgeous and the sound kept the room packed for the whole weekend. I kept coming back hoping for a seat in the sweet spot, but I never found the room less than full. (By the way, if you attend a hi-fi show and discover a room where this is true, you can take it to the bank that the sound is superb; nasty sound empties rooms.)

Maybe I have a better feel for the speakers from not sitting in the sweet spot. Soundstaging can be seductive, but off-axis tonal balance can be killer. Get that right and you're almost guaranteed to sound good in steerio. Alan tells me SoundStage! has a pair in for review, so stay tuned.

About midway through my first day of going room by room through the Show, I couldn't help noticing that most of the rooms where I really liked the sound were using PS Audio's Ultimate Outlet. Coincidence? I've started using one myself and I don't blame 'em a bit. Those dang things work.

The Cinderella story of the show was that of Hérvé Delétraz (below left). Hérvé is a Swiss audiophile, who also happens to be an engineer. For a student project, Hérvé started thinking about what he wanted an amplifier to do and how to make one that could do that.

That part of the story isn't all that unusual -- it probably happens every day, in fact. But Hérvé never compromised his audiophile standards when engineering "reality" reared its ugly head. I don't mean he ignored engineering practice; what he ignored was the "close enough for jazz" attitude of the commercial EE.

The result is a simple circuit turned elegant by Hérvé's phenomenal attention to detail. And I mean every detail. I asked him why the gold-plated busbars connecting the capacitors in his power supply formed such elegant crescents, and he responded, "Because they do not sound any different from straight ones, but they certainly do look nicer."

The amp's a brute capable of delivering 100Wpc at 8 ohms (and 160 into 1 ohm!), but it's also handsome: The gold faceplate and red anodization on its heatsinks are touches I like. Hérvé's measurements show just about the closest thing to a true square wave I've ever seen. The darTZeel NHB-108 Model One ($9898.98) just might be a revolutionary product. (Hérvé's not above having a bit of fun himself: The amp's front panel sports two power LEDs with an on/off switch between and slightly below them. Look closely and you'll read: "Left eye," "right eye," and "power nose.")

David Chesky was marketing a pair of speakers, of all things. The Chesky Audio C1 loudspeaker, a $3995/pr three-driver two-way floorstanding tower he intends to sell through the Internet. "We've got to have something to fall back on when Napster puts all of us out of business," he said.

Well, not Napster, surely -- maybe he meant Kazaa. But whatever he meant, I think it's the wrong marketing strategy. I think he'd be more successful spinning it as: If anybody knows what the original signal sounds like, it would be a company that makes high-res recordings every day.

"These speakers would cost twice as much if you bought 'em in a store," David pointed out. I'm sure he's telling the truth -- they looked fabulously sculptural and I think they'll have a lot of appeal for folks normally turned off by speakers with more of a, um, "speakerish" look. But I'm not sure if the Internet business model is sufficiently evolved to make selling $4000/pr loudspeakers an everyday occurrence.

But what do I know? I'm the guy who said CD was too complicated for mass-market acceptance.

Dale Fontenot (right) was getting impressive sound for the second year in a row from his Roman Audio Centurions -- and his room was also standing room only. His $5995/pr floorstanding two-ways employ Ray Kimber's DiAural crossover, which might be why people were sticking around for two or three demos. I brought the display pair home with me, so stay tuned.

As it so happens, my three favorite rooms had something in common: value!

Roy Hall was showing a $2500 balanced Creek preamplifier, which, in conjunction with a pair of balanced Creek 5350SE power amps, was making the Epos M14s sing. I love these speakers, but they were producing bass I couldn't believe. The P53 Balanced is really going to shake up some smug preamp manufacturers.

And Meadowlark's $995/pr Swifts (left) just might rewrite the book on what you can expect from a floorstanding loudspeaker for under a grand a pair. Solid hardwood baffle, elegant styling, American craftsmanship, and SEAS drivers? Somebody pinch me, I'm dreaming!

Cairn and Triangle put together a system that came in at a touch over $4000 and managed to put most of the show sound to shame (and this year's sound was uniformly good). The $1095/pr Triangle Xerius, $1590 Cairn Fog 24-bit/192kHz upsampling CD player, and 30Wpc 4808A integrated amp ($1590) had a symmetry that was jaw-droppingly musical. If most audiophiles started out with a system this good, they'd never upgrade. Well, maybe they would, but not for better sound. Now I see what Sam Tellig was making all the fuss about.

My favorite room at the show wasn't actually demonstrating a product. Ray Kimber took a room downstairs to demonstrate his nifty new recording method IsoMike, which uses a pair of mikes way back in the hall, with a baffle between them to prevent some forms of right and left channel acoustic cross-contamination. Ray had tons of recordings he'd made and they were amazing. They had that lovely mid-to-rear-hall bloom without the loss of detail and impact that usually implies.

The sound was precise and holographic, and the recordings captured all of a cello's woody warmth or a piano's snap and rumble without sacrificing, well, anything. Engineers take note: Ray Kimber is really on to something.

Ray was playing the music through a pair of speakers designed by a young (21, okay?) associate, Nathan Allen, and they sounded fabulous, too. I asked Ray if he was planning to market them, and he is -- as studio monitors. Price and distribution have yet to be determined, but keep your ears open for more news about them. You may want to go to a pro shop to hear 'em, if what I heard was representative of the finished product's capabilities.

And I still haven't said anything about the Wilson-Benesch Arcs (they were to die for) or the new Naim SL2 (possibly the most dynamic speaker at the show), or mbl's astonishing multichannel music demo. Oh well, I guess you had to be there. Next year, you should resolve to do so (hear that, my SoundStage! brethren?).

...Wes Phillips
wes@onhifi.com


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