HE2003: San Francisco Days
HE2003, held in San
Francisco's Westin-St. Francis, June 5-8, was not a huge show, or one that saw tons of new
products introduced. In a way, that's part of the show's charm. It is big enough that a
journalist can spend all four days discovering nifty little products, yet small enough
that a dedicated audiophile can feel he has completely covered it in a single day. And,
while it's always fun to see stuff while it's still brand spankin' new, it's also nice to
hear demonstrations after the dealers who set the displays up have had a chance to
discover how to get the best out of the products being demonstrated.
Luke Manley caressing VTL's Siegfried.
Ming Da amps with Dali Megaline crossover.
Tyll Hertsens teasing us with the new AirHead.
Nice shirt EveAnna!
Billy Bacon and the Forbidden Pigs.
Arturo Delmoni and Robert Silverman were happy with their Kreutzer adventure.
Ray Kimber and budding speaker designer Nathan Allen with "Summer Project
Besides, my personal belief is that these shows are less
about the gear and more about the people involved. Year after year I see the same
attendees and the same exhibitors, and it's my experience that most are there as much for
the freewheeling discussions that spring up in the corridors (and after hours in the bars)
as for what's contained in the rooms themselves.
That doesn't mean there weren't new products at this year's
show. There were some doozies.
VTL's Luke Manley brought an enormous new monoblock to the
show: the $40,000-USD/pair 800W Siegfrieds. These guys have just about every automated
feature you can dream of, from logic-controlled automatic tube biasing to diagnostic
displays that tell you how many hours of use you've put on your tubes (and which even
predict how much longer they'll last!). If you can think of a function that you'd like on
a tube amp, Manley has probably already included it on the Siegfrieds. This is what the
company calls "tube smart" technology, and it should go a long way toward
calming tube anxiety.
Pure Audio Distribution brought a system that consisted of
nothing but products that were new to me, starting with the line-source Dali
Megaline loudspeakers ($35,000/pair), two pairs of Ming Da MC300B/845 monoblocks
($10,000/pair), active impedance-correcting interconnects from SEEC, foil speaker
cables from Xindac, and a Ming Da preamp. This system produced some of the most luscious,
holographic sound of the show, so something was sure working in that room. Probably
everything, when you consider how easily good gear can sound disappointing under
show conditions. I'll be on the lookout for all of those names in the future.
Silverline Audio Technology's Alan Yun came to the show
with a new speaker, the Bolero, an $8000/pair floorstanding three-way. Alan seems
endlessly inventive, so he always has a new loudspeaker. What's surprising is that
they always sound like final products, not works-in-progress. The Bolero was well-voiced
and coherent and very, very musical. I lost myself in Yun's demo discs and then did it all
over again with mine. How come some speaker manufacturers try for years to get it right,
while Yun does it over and over again? Maybe he never sleeps.
Speaking of endlessly inventive bundles of energy, I
spotted Tyll Hertsens skulking in the hall outside the Joseph Audio/Manley Laboratories
room. Tyll was toting around the latest project out of the HeadRoom Skunkworks R&D
section: a new, improved AirHead. I asked him if I could take a picture of it, but he told
me it's top secret. You heard it here first.
Inside the Joseph Audio/Manley Laboratories room,
Jeff Joseph was presiding over one of the most effective demos of the show. Featuring
Joseph's $20,000 Pearl floorstanders, the 20-minute presentation was a masterpiece of
showmanship in the service of music. Joseph told several anecdotes about the creation of
the Pearls: he never intended to sell them -- he created them as a design platform for
testing crossovers, he says, and he named them after his mom, Pearl Joseph, and his
mother-in-law, Pearl Wolper. (He even named specific speakers after each lady; he claims
Ms. Wolper is always right.) But the most impressive part of the demo (other than
the sound, of course) was Joseph's assertion of his belief that a music system's raison
d'ętre is to allow its listeners to be transported to musical events they otherwise
could never experience -- which he then proved with a 1959 recording of the Louis
Armstrong All Stars, sounding eternally in the now.
EveAnna Manley had a couple of new products almost
ready for prime time: an ultra-high-quality two-input switching unit, the Skipjack; and a
"moderately priced" linestage preamp, the Prawn. Prices and delivery dates have
yet to be determined. However, the must-have product of the show was the Manley
Labs T-shirt, featuring flaming triodes cavorting on its long sleeves. Everybody seemed to
want one, but few people wore 'em with the flair of their creator, EveAnna.
It wasn't quite as cheap as the Manley Labs shirt, but the
next most-coveted item at the show was xHiFi's nifty li'l xducer 2.1 three-piece desktop
system ($695 and up, depending on options). What I did glean about the product was that it
employs a 6.5" cone woofer and class-D amplification. What I couldn't figure out was
what's in the sleek little satellite towers. Some folks swore it was ribbons, but all that
xHiFi's literature said was that it's an "ultra-high-bandwidth 360° driver."
Whatever it uses, it sounds pretty darn good for a teensy little thing -- especially one
driven by an iPod!
Actually my other pick hit from HE2003 was another teensy
li'l thang: Epos' new ELS-3 two-way bookshelf loudspeakers ($300/pair). I'd seen
them in Montreal, but this was the first time I'd heard 'em, and they sounded way better
than any $300 speaker has a right to. This is the new speaker to recommend when your
non-audiophile friends ask you what's good. Just don't blame me if they start telling you
about low-level details your fancy-schmancy speakers don't reveal.
The best part of any Home Entertainment expo is the free
live music that runs throughout the event. I caught a rockin' performance from
Billy Bacon and the Forbidden Pigs. It was rootsy, hard-drivin' rock and roll
(maybe with an emphasis on the roll) that made me boogie in the aisles.
But the high point of the show was Arturo Delmoni and
Robert Silverman playing Beethoven's Kreutzer sonata (op. 47, no.9) on Sunday
afternoon. As Silverman reported, "It had the virtue of not being
over-rehearsed" -- they had spent an hour hammering out the details, and a lifetime
preparing for it. This was music making of the highest order and for half an hour we were
all transported to a far loftier plane than the one we had inhabited upon entering the
auditorium. As much fun as HE2003 was, as pleasant as it was to catch up with old friends
and see the new products, this was what it was all about.
Normally, I'd end the report there, but Sunday, June 8, was
Ray Kimber's 53rd birthday and a group of friends dropped by Kimber's demo room to sing
the birthday song and share some cheesecake. A few of us stayed for Ray's demo of his
IsoMike, an acoustic baffle placed between two widely spaced omnidirectional microphones.
Kimber has become obsessed with the recording process and has developed the IsoMike as
part of the research he has been doing connected to his DiAural speaker technology. He has
invested in four Tascam DS-D98 HR recorders and a Pyramix Mastering System, allowing him
to record in DSD. Taking advantage of the music program at nearby Weber State University
at Ogden UT, Kimber has been recording students, faculty, and guests, producing
phenomenally dynamic and spectacularly realistic recordings.
For his demo at HE2003, Kimber played these tapes on an
experimental loudspeaker developed at Kimber Kable, which employs six tiny midrange
transducers arranged in a semicircle around the inner rim of the tweeter. Tweeter and
midrange drivers are contained within a fiberglass globe separated from the woofer
cabinet. The sound was spectacular.
Kimber has produced a two-CD set of the music he was
demonstrating at the show and, based on what I've heard since returning home, it even
sounds great down-converted to Red Book CD. These recordings make commercial CDs sound
anemic -- they have dynamics that might be dangerous! You can own a set of the CDs. All
you have to do is send a check for any amount (I sent $50 and felt I got a deal) to
Ray Kimber, made out to Weber State University, and Kimber will see to it that your
donation supports the college's music program. He points out that corporations issuing
grants look for ground-level support like this before contributing to causes, no matter how
worthy, so your money may go further than you think. It's a good cause and these are great
recordings you can learn a lot from (Kimber Kable, 2752 South 1900 West, Ogden UT 84401).