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Home Entertainment 2001

Home Entertainment 2001

Show Report

by Chris Boylan

 

Enjoying the Music at Home Entertainment Expo
– Is It Possible?
Part I

 

  Greetings, fellow audio and home theater junkies! I write these words bathed in the afterglow of Home Entertainment Expo 2001 – the annual Mecca of audio and home theater lovers everywhere. Overall, it was truly a revelatory experience, with the opportunity to hear and see some of the very best audio and home theater gear and discs available on the planet. Cutting edge equipment and recordings… designers, dealers, reviewers, and musicians who are truly passionate about what they do… individual systems worth a cool half a million bucks… You would think this is the ideal place to sit back and enjoy the music (and movies), right? Perhaps… perhaps not. Read on and find out. Let me state up front that this is not a comprehensive guide to the show. In two and a half days, it is simply not possible for one person to see all the marvels this show had to offer. Nor is it a completely detailed treatment of all of the equipment in each of the rooms that I did manage to visit. 26 hours to see over 180 exhibitors sprawled over five floors with horribly slow elevators – do the math. So for those hard-working exhibitors not mentioned here, humblest apologies in advance – maybe next year?

 

Secret Audio Reviewer Man

First some background… Our intrepid editor, publisher and fellow music-lover Steve Rochlin offered me a press pass to gain admittance to the show early – before the "great unwashed" as one particular reviewer liked to refer to us regular audio geeks. This magical badge of honor helps pave the way to getting the best treatment, the best seats and, sadly, a slightly skewed view of the show. I chose instead to go completely incognito – paying my own way, and sporting a non-descript badge that read simply "Show Attendee."

I waited in lines, fought over the sweet spot with everyone else and was privy to some behind-the-scenes action that just wouldn’t have been possible with press credentials. Like, for example, a war of words between cable designer and audio fanatic that progressed into the threat and even the reality of physical violence. But more on that later…

 

Five Star Facilities… well, mostly…

With a few exceptions, the facilities and the organization of exhibits were top-notch. The New York Hilton has apparently undergone significant renovations lately and it shows in the quality of the rooms, the halls and surroundings. Yes, there was some bleed between rooms as the low bass rumble of a desperate dinosaur occasionally overpowered the string quartet next door. But for the most part, everyone tried to play nice and it was certainly possible to put on a great demo in any of the rooms. Future exhibitors might take notes from Sony, whose multi-channel SACD demo room was dead silent – completely covered with sound treatments – and who virtually walked away with the best multi-channel sound in the show (in my humble opinion, at least). But more on that later.

 
Some of the rooms on the upper floors were a little problematic. In most cases, demo rooms had empty rooms between them and the next demo room – in fact many of the rooms were multi-room suites, which guaranteed you'd have an empty room on at least one side. But in the cases where demo rooms butted up against each other, you got some bleed. Hey, this is a trade show and you have to expect things not to be perfect. Now as for actually getting to the upper floors, well that's a totally different story.

 

The exhibits on Floors 2 and 4 and the live performances on the 3rd Floor were easy to get to due to the escalators and a wide choice in elevators serving the lower floors, but getting to the upper floors was nothing short of a fiasco. Only one bank of three elevators served the 42nd floor and it seemed like one elevator came about every 20 minutes, stuffed beyond capacity with grumpy, sweaty, smelly audiofools (including yours truly). And, of course, the 42nd floor housed some of the most desirable and finest sounding systems like Innovative Audio's wonderful Spectral and Wilson Watt/Puppy combo, the TacT Audio/B&W system AudioReview.com's punchy but affordable home theater/stereo set-up, the all Legend system, and the EgglestonWorks demo system, among others. Getting to the upper floors was definitely worth the trip, but the elevator wait was among the low points of an otherwise excellent show.

 

First Stop – the Gift Shop

The first floor main entrance pavilion housed most of the software and tweaky gadget vendors hawking their wares to a widely appreciative crowd. You just can not find a lot of these wonderful recordings in Tower Records or in your average local CD hut. It was great to have Chesky Records, Music Direct, Classic Records, Elusive Disc, Acoustic Sounds, and May Audio (among others) providing us with our fix of rare vinyl, 24/96 DVD, SACD, DVD-Audio and MFSL Ultradiscs. Some vendors even allowed you to try before you buy with on-site listening stations or the offer to test the disc in one of the show reference systems before purchase. This is most appreciated, particularly since many of the artists and recordings on specialty labels are not as widely known as their major label counterparts.

A company called AIX Records also had a booth where they were giving away free samples of a hybrid DVD-Video/DVD-Audio packed with 5.1 channel music sourced from 96KHz/24Bit masters. One side was standard Dolby Digital DVD, and one side was DVD-Audio. Alas, I was unable to audition the DVD-Audio portion, but the standard DVD side included some decent sounding tracks, plus some useful set-up information and a quick overview on the benefits of higher sampling rates and larger sample words in digital audio. I imagine that the info would be quite helpful to a digital audio newbie, but I take umbrage to their claim that 24/96 digital recordings are superior to all analog recordings. C’mon guys, I know you're trying to sell your upcoming catalog of new recordings, but saying that everything that came before 24/96 was crap is not the best way to do it.

 

Next Stop - Portable Pleasures

 
Also on the first floor was a portable audio paradise assembled and hosted by god’s gift to the traveling or isolationist audiophile, Headroom. The inimitable and always friendly Tyll Hertsens, founder and president of Headroom, and his team assembled a vast collection of the best headphones, amps and headphone vendors in one location, with surprisingly little bloodshed. Vendors included Grado Labs, Stax, Sennheiser, Beyer Dynamic and Etymotic Research. (For Tyll’s inside views on the reality involved in pulling off such a mighty feat, see his report by clicking here.
 
The Grado booth proved extremely popular as they gave away one set of their flagship RS-1 headphones plus their RA-1 headphone amp (total list price somewhere around $1,000) each day to one very lucky show attendee. The first day’s winner shyly asked, "Will these work on my boombox?" Yes, ma’am! And another burgeoning audiophile is born...
 
Grado had on display their prototype surround sound headphones, employing the new Dolby Headphone circuitry. These are designed to appeal to the home theater aficionado who watches movies on the road or late at night and wants to experience the joys of surround sound without bothering the neighbors or waking significant others. I listened to the Super Speedway DVD on these puppies and the effect was quite startling. There was a real sense of front to back as well as left to right as CART racers seemed to zoom around my head. How do they do that? When these ‘phones make it onto store shelves, they’ll definitely be worth checking out by anyone who loves to enjoy a good movie in the privacy of his own head.
 
Another stand-out from the crowd was the Etymotics Research display which included their ER4P and ER4S in-ear ‘phones.These headphones not only sound fantastic, but they are the absolute best choice for travelers, particularly frequent flyers. Etymotic’s in-ear canal design eliminates virtually all background noise including ambient aircraft noise. Forget about those horrible Bose noise-canceling headphones with their inadequate and intrusive phase-cancellation nonsense. The Etymotics eliminate noise the old fashioned way – with 23dB of acoustic isolation! It’s basically a pair of comfortable earplugs with great-sounding headphones built in. If you thought it impossible to enjoy music in a noisy environment, think again, and get your hands and ears on a pair of Etymotic earphones. Mate them with one of Headroom's portable headphone amps and you have instant portable audio bliss. I took advantage of the on-site 5% discount to order my own pair and I am eagerly awaiting their arrival.

I would be remiss were I not to mention Headroom's own gear. Tyll was showcasing Headroom's newly redesigned flagship Headroom Max amp, fondly referred to (appropriately enough) as the New Max. A six month labor of love, this represents a total tweak of the already exceptional headphone amp from the ground up. With substantial upgrades to the switches, connectors and even the resistors, the New Max represents true state of the art in headphone listening. Alas, I was not able to audition the New Max amp myself (did I mention the time crunch here?) but the buzz at the show was that it was something special. You can read all about it at Headroom’s home page at www.headphone.com.

 

If it’s not Scottish, It’s Crap!

Continuing on into the bowels of the 2nd floor and into the traditional displays of fine audio and home theater, I came upon the Linn room. The entry room featured some fine multi-channel home theater systems including an all LINN signal chain from pre/processor to amps to speakers. Video monitors of choice were a 42" widescreen plasma display in one corner and a dead-sexy Loewe widescreen CRT monitor in the other. All in all, some fine sights and sounds were emanating from these systems, with all the finesse of this purebred Scottish system (no, they were not showing Highlander, though perhaps that would have been apropos).

 


Linn Komri

But the real treat was to be found in the backroom where the mild-mannered Scot, Ivor Tiefenbrun himself (founder of Linn) was spinning black and silver discs to show off his new KOMRI studio monitors. With a usable frequency response of 10Hz to 40KHz, and built-in powered woofers employing active servo technology, the KOMRIs are an impressive set of speakers – for $40K a pair they should be! And in the true spirit of excess, they were quad-amped (!) with Linn’s Klimax amplifiers all around. The front end consisted of a CD-12 for silver discs and the audiophile favorite LP-12 for vinyl feeding a Linn control amp .So we’re basically talking about a system price well north of $100,000.

How did it sound, you ask? Like a studio engineer’s wet dream! I have participated in a fair amount of studio recording (as a performer) in some pretty high quality studios in New York City. Sadly even many well-regarded studios consider the execrable Yamaha NS-10M monitors to be "reference standards" (which may be one reason why so much popular music ends up sounding like so much noise on a decent Hifi system). The Komri’s give the term "reference standard" new meaning.

Supreme accuracy… tight tuneful bass… warm musicality. Many superlatives come to mind. But more importantly, my toes started tapping as soon as the Tracy Chapman tune started playing. Of course they threw a precise, well-defined soundstage and recreated the timbre and texture of female vocals in a highly realistic manner, but more importantly – they were fun! I dug sitting there listening to them. To check out their portrayal of percussion and drum sounds (something with which I am more than passingly familiar) I asked them to put on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather LP. Drums sounded real and had the proper attack and decay and the finer details like the subtle hi-hat closing in time with the beat in the intro of the title track were presented with realism and finesse. I only wish more studios had reference monitors as accurate as these. Then maybe we’d have more mainstream recordings that approached the quality and realism of the audiophile label stuff.

 

The Sonic Wonder that is Super Audio Compact Disc

Yes, you have probably heard the hype. And you may be aware of the format war brewing between DVD-Audio and Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD). But I'm hear to tell you, friends, that Sony's new multi-channel SACD system provided the best multi-channel sound reproduction I have ever heard, bar none. The system on display was comprised of their new flagship SACD player, the SCD-XA777ES.With a list price of $3,000, this player was driving a quintet of Pass amplifiers, which in turn fed five of Sony’s SS-M9ED speakers.  When the first cut came on – a choral recording produced and engineered by DMP's Tom Jung – the boundaries of the room disappeared and I was literally fooled into thinking I was in the hall where the performance took place.

It certainly helps that Tom Jung is an engineering genius and an audio purist. The rear channels were apparently used only for room ambience with one mic toward the rear of each corner of the hall capturing the natural acoustics and reverberation of the space. Images were rock solid, vocal textures were unbelievably accurate, with no noticeable colorations and the soundstage was wide open. But trying to describe the sound in quantifiable terms almost seems inadequate. It sounded real. End of story.

When I went back to the room a second time, sharing the experience with a budding young audiophile friend, we were treated to a wonderful recording that technically "does not exist." It was another Tom Jung creation – but one that has not been released yet. This one was a Jazz trio with the drums placed precisely in the left of the soundstage, the stand-up acoustic bass in the center, and the piano on the right. Again, the rear channels were used for acoustic ambience only and again, the illusion of three-dimensional space was almost unsettling. I want my multi-channel SACD and I want it now! I also want a few of these Sony speakers… they ROCK!!

Sony SS-M9ED Speaker and Pass Amplifier
Sony SS-M9ED Speaker and Pass Amplifier

Did He Just Say "Sony Speakers Rock!!??"

 
I never met a pair of Japanese speakers that I liked… until now. I've been a fan of Sony's ES line of CD players, tape decks, preamps and power amps since the late 80's when I used to work in a Hi-Fi Shop down south and had a lot of time on my hands to audition and compare equipment. But as for Sony speakers – or really any Japanese manufacturer’s speakers for that matter - well, I have not heard much to write home about. But I forgave them… after all, you can't do everything right, can you? Apparently Sony can.

The SS-M9ED is a fairly traditional design - 4 way, with five drivers in a trapezoidal kind of cabinet with the tweeter free-standing on top of the cabinet to eliminate diffraction. According to Sony, they are "optimized for Direct Stream Digital" (DSD) sources, like SACD. But frankly that sounds like a bunch of marketing malarkey to me, not unlike the ridiculous "Digital Ready" moniker of the early days of CD. I am sure they would sound wonderful with a killer analog rig on the front end. Technically, they are not Japanese - these babies were designed and manufactured entirely in the United States. But still, the days of domination of the high-end speaker market with American, British and Canadian brand names may be waning. But maybe a little extra competition from the East is not such a bad thing? The SS-M9ED ain’t cheap – $8,000 each – but from what I heard at the show, they may actually be worth it. Hell, I lost more in the stock market last year than the price of this system, and listening to these speakers would have been a whole lot more fun than watching my tech stocks tumble!! In other words… it's all relative…

 

Into the breach of Home Theater land

In other rooms on the second floor were various home theater displays. Sony did a fine job of illustrating the benefits of progressive scan DVD – or really the benefits of line doubling in general – by showing a comparison of interlaced vs. progressive output. If you’re already a video maven, or are not even slightly interested in video technology, then skip down a couple of paragraphs to get back to the non-techie stuff – you have been warned! And now back to our regularly scheduled geek-speak…

In Sony's example of an interlaced video signal, diagonal lines clearly displayed a stair-step effect caused by the presence of only half the frame information on the screen at any one time. This is an artifact of the NTSC interlacing process. In order to accommodate the 60 Hz power standard of in the US, the NTSC format consists of 30 frames per second, which are split into two "fields" or half-frames that each contain one half of the screen information and are displayed once every 60th of a second. To simplify things, let's say the even scan lines are displayed in field1, then the odd scan lines are displayed in field 2. As each field is displayed, the previous field is still on the screen. This means that the fields on the screen are effectively out of sync half the time – you may have field 2 of one frame displayed with field 1 of the next frame. Our eyes don’t normally notice this, but as screens become larger, the lack of resolution and the sync problem becomes more apparent.

Sony then showed the same DVD clip from the progressive output of the DVD player and the stair-stepping and jagged edges disappeared. There are two parts to this process. A line doubler stores each field in memory and reassembles two fields into one complete frame, which it then displays all at once (rather than half a frame at a time). This effectively doubles the resolution of the image and it means that fields will never be out of sync. Plus the 3:2 pull-down process (which is a feature of any good progressive DVD player) corrects for the fact that film is captured at 24 frames per second yet NTSC video stores this at 30 frames per second. The duplicate field information is removed from the signal so that the progressive player effectively outputs the exact same 24 frames to the video monitor as they came in from the original film source. The conclusion? Interlaced video - BAD, progressive video - GOOD.

But Sony’s Home Theater demo was otherwise less than impressive. They had a major glitch in playback of some high-def source material they had of a live concert. This only goes to show ya that HDTV – particularly HDTV recorders – still ain’t quite there yet.

In Sony’s video room, they had some fine-looking plasma and rear projection HDTV displays, but the much-hyped new LCD projector seemed to be having some trouble as it was only powered up on the first day of the show. When it was on, it provided a very sharp and detailed picture on approximately a seven foot screen. It wasn’t quite as detailed or artifact free as a good CRT projector, but it was not far off, and it’s priced at a fairly reasonably $7999.Also, I was disappointed that there were no true HDTV CRT monitors to be found. There is some good news for tube-lovers though. After some false hope last year (with the cancellation of two HDTV direct view monitors in 2000), Sony is finally releasing a replacement for their KW-34HD1 High Definition 34" direct view CRT monitor. Unresolved issues related to the security standards as well as connection standards for HDTV have apparently caused the delays in the set’s introduction. Although these issues are still not 100% ironed out, Sony promises that this fall will see the introduction of a brand new 34” widescreen 16:9 direct view set with a built in HDTV tuner and i-link connections (a.k.a. firewire, a.k.a. IEEE1394).The suggested list price? A measly $4,000.This may seem expensive for a 34" TV, but then again, it’s less than half the price of its predecessor, so stop yer whining!

 

A $20,000 Bargain Basement System

OK, you know things are getting weird or inflation is running wild when a $20,000 home theater is considered a "bargain." But at this show, where many of the systems ranged in price from $100K to $500K and in some cases the cables alone cost more than my car, it is easy to see how we could become a bit jaded. The bargain system in question could be found in the 6th Avenue Electronics room. While I personally have had a bad experience with this dealer (years ago), the staff on hand was friendly and accommodating, and the demo system was well put together, offering good bang for the buck.

The system consisted of about $6,800 worth of Paradigm speakers (the Reference Studio system), Anthem pre/pro and amps, a Sharp LCD projector and the ubiquitous Stewart projection screen (most of the better home theater displays at the show included Stewart screens). The clip was the meteor strike from the movie Dinosaur. The sound was punchy and unrestrained and the Sharp projector threw a nice big, bright and… well… SHARP picture upon the Stewart screen. As attached as I am to the picture quality of a good direct view monitor, there is something to be said for the sheer impact of a larger projection image. Considering how some of the much more expensive systems at the show looked and sounded, I would say that this "little" $20K system actually was a good bargain and I’m sure many folks would be absolutely thrilled to own a system like this.

 

Aluminum, Aluminum Everywhere... and not a Toaster in Sight
 
At the end of the hallway, with a line that seemed to go on forever was a room that housed a very special system.  With a price tag of over $500,000, the system was comprised of only four brands – a Sony CRT projector, a Faroudja video processor, a Stewart screen, and absolutely everything else, from source to speakers made by a little company called Krell. Audiophiles know Krell as a maker of powerhouse amplifiers and ultra high end preamps as well as some of the most outrageous (and outrageously priced) digital source components. Now they have added a DVD player to their arsenal (video circuitry by Faroudja) as well as a full line of home theater speakers.

 

Krell's LAT-1 with Master Reference Subwoofer and Krell Power Amplifier
Krell's LAT-1 with Master Reference Subwoofer
and Krell Power Amplifier

Jim from Krell proudly described the design and features of the new additions to the Krell family. You see this was the world premier of the Krell "Lossless Acoustic Transducer" LAT-1 speakers.  Featuring an all aluminum enclosure (curved to minimize diffraction), a one inch tweeter flanked by two 5.25" midranges in a D’Appolito array, and the custom-designed 8" woofers, the LAT-1s were unlike anything I had seen before. Four of the LAT-1s were joined by a Krell center channel speaker as well as two, count ‘em TWO Master Reference Subwoofers. At 425 pounds each, with 15" drivers capable of 3" excursion, housed in a solid aluminum enclosures, these puppies could move some serious air! The new Krell speakers come in your choice of colors as long as your choice is silver or black.

On the video side, Faroudja was showing off their DVP-5000 processor, which is a modular piece that is customized for a customer’s specific display. Robert from Faroudja Labs boasted about their extensive (and well earned) patents in the video realm and emphasized that they just do video. They do not do anything else. They do not do audio… They do not make toasters…They just do video. And they do it well. The DVP-5000 in this system was set to MAX WARP – it took a 1080i (interlaced) High Definition source and line-doubled that to a whopping 1080P (progressive) – the ultimate in High Definition Television! The only video display they could find that could accommodate this kind of bandwidth is a CRT projector – in this case the Sony G-90, which sports three hefty 9” guns. After Robert finished his spiel, he stepped back, flipped on the HDTV player, and the audience held its collective breath…

 

Alright… who snuck a film projector in here?!

Only one word describes the picture that I saw in that room – WOW! This was more than film-like. This was a window on reality. The High Def clip they showed was The Egg’s Journey from Dinosaur. The camera follows a prehistoric bird carrying a dino egg back to the nest to feed her chicks. The bird flies over a breathtaking vista made up of vivid landscapes, waterfalls and cliffs. I tried to see scan lines. I looked hard for digital nasties in the details of the flora and the textures of the rocks and cliffs. I squinted trying to spot trails behind fast moving images, but they were nowhere to be found. This was, by far, the most fluid – the most analog – looking digital video signal at the show.
 

The all Krell audio was also quite impressive, but the video was almost too good – it was distracting. I had to remember to pay attention to the sound. The Dinosaur HDTV segment was stereo only, but they also featured multi-channel mixes using standard DVD segments. One clip was from Fight Club. This clip included a good blend of music, spoken voice and effects, plus a mid-air collision thrown in for good measure. The Krell system definitely had the impact that people expect from a high-end home theater system. The Master Reference subs produced bone-rattling lows without a hint of strain. The integration between mains, center and surrounds was completely seamless and coherent. Dialog sounded natural and the music and effects were clear and punchy. Definitely a good sounding system but the sound just didn’t blow me away as much as the picture did. I would want to audition the Krell system with high quality music sources before making a final judgment on them.

All in all, the first floor of the show included some really fun and really impressive sights and sounds but there were more surprises in store on the upper floors.  All this and more will be covered in our next segment… so stay tuned and don't forget to… Enjoy the Music…

 

Click here to continue to Part II

 

Click here to see a
complete listing of show exhibitors.

Click here to see our 1999 show coverage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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