by Matt Tulini
To most people, the thrill of attending a major hi-fi convention is getting the rare chance to evaluate first-hand the no-holds-barred, price is no object equipment they've only read about. I was particularly excited because this was my first show. I can say right now there were many products that amazed me, but far more that disappointed. For those that claim "an amp is an amp" or "a CD player is a CD player," they obviously don't trust their ears.
The show itself ran rather smoothly, although the hotel became a bit cramped during the busiest hours of Friday and Saturday. The dealers were spread across several floors, and it was usually very difficult to get an elevator, so I found myself taking the stairs most of the time. Also, the security was strange, requiring a barcode on your badge to be scanned every time you move to a different floor
(Steve sez: why does this echo of Germany in the 1940's? Papers please?).
On to more important matters... I was impressed by three things at the show: HDTV, analog, and SACD. Everyone knows how great HDTV is, how it's damn near film quality, native 16x9 format, and notoriously expensive to purchase a set capable of receiving and displaying HDTV images. What most people probably don't know is that they may already have these capabilities built into their computers!
Bill Gaw and I attended a seminar on "HTPCs" (Home Theater PCs). For only a few hundred dollars in upgrades, your computer may be HDTV capable. You do of course need a modern Athlon or Pentium 3 computer. Those of you still clinging to your 486 with Windows 3.1 will have to invest a bit more. But if you have a modern Athlon or Pentium 3 with a nVidia Geforce 2 or ATI Radeon video card, you already have HDTV decoding capability! All that's needed is an HDTV tuner card and the software to decode it, and your computer can be transformed into an HDTV set complete with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. For $399, Hauppage makes such a package, which also allows you to connect external sources such as VCRs and camcorders, and you can even record digital broadcasts to your hard drive (which consume 9 GB per hour), much like a TiVo! Of course if you want to hear Dolby Digital 5.1 audio on your computer you also need a capable sound card, and such cards can be had for under $200 these days. Considering the amount of money consumers can save by adding HDTV functionality to their computers, I'm guessing most people's first HDTV experience will be on their PCs as prices for HDTV sets remain stratospheric.
Digital television certainly is a great advance over the archaic, analog NTSC video standard (NTSC=Never Twice the Same Color), but in the audio world such a parallel cannot be so easily drawn between "archaic" analog LPs and "modern" CDs/SACDs. With all the fantastic advances in technology between the introduction of the LP in the 40's and the compact disc in the early 80's, the "archaic" analog format still proves to be superior. The period between the introduction of the LP and CD saw polio and smallpox conquered, a man land on the moon, the creation of the internet, the personal computer, the hydrogen bomb, need I go on? The most musical sound of all the rooms at the HE show came from vinyl and vacuum tubes.
My pick for the best turntable at the show is the VPI TNT 5, paired with the JMW Memorial tonearm and a Van den Hul cartridge. This table is a mechanical marvel, providing an extremely quiet noise floor while producing the richest, most detailed sound of any turntable I've heard. However the best complete analog system I auditioned at the show was the Hovland/Immedia room. The Immedia turntable coupled with Hovland's praised pre-amp, their new 40w Sapphire tube amp, and Audio Physic loudspeakers produced a sound so warm, lively, and liquid I wanted to stay and listen to every record they had.
One other analog product jumped out at me: the economically designed and priced Music Hall MMF-7 turntable. At $999, it's an incredible deal. That price includes a Pro-Ject 9 arm and a $400 Goldring cartridge! This table is no slacker in the sound department either. It produces a crisp, detailed, neutral sound any analog lover on a budget would love. To isolate the table from the vibrations of the motor, the motor fits into a cut-out section of the base and never actually touches it. Although I still found the noise floor to be slightly high, this table is miles above any other in its price range.
Analog may indeed be the past - and present - of high-end audio, but eventually digital is destined to take over as technology continues to improve. My first glimpse into the digital future was hearing the SACD demo in the Red Rose suite. The system consisted of Mark Levinson's own Red Rose Model 5 integrated amp, R3 ribbon bookshelf speakers, and a $1000 Sony DVD/SACD player, all connected by Red Rose cables. This "baby reference system," we were told, has a combined price tag of about $13,000. Regular CDs were never played for us, but judging by the sound of the SACDs the price is well worth it. The promise of SACD is what CDs were supposed to deliver 20 years ago: the high fidelity of records without the wear and the inherent noise caused by it. SACD may spell the demise of the vinyl LP as the audiophile format of choice. It did in fact sound very analog, pure, and musical. However, no digital format will ever replace the simple fun of playing records, and the cleanliness of the digital sound may never replace the warmth of records, even though the perceived warmth may partially be due to sonic artifacts inherent in the LP playback system.
Click here to see
complete listing of show exhibitors.
Click here to see our
1999 show coverage.