SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIFeatures Archives

June 15, 2003


HE2003: San Francisco Days

Luke Manley caressing VTL's Siegfried.

Ming Da amps with Dali Megaline crossover.

Tyll Hertsens teasing us with the new AirHead.

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Nice shirt EveAnna!

Little marvels.

Billy Bacon and the Forbidden Pigs.

Arturo Delmoni and Robert Silverman were happy with their Kreutzer adventure.

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Ray Kimber and budding speaker designer Nathan Allen with "Summer Project 2003."

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.

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).

...Wes Phillips

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