Report by Dick Olsher
My biggest surprise in Las Vegas was the discovery that DVD Audio is undergoing exponential growth. A representative of the DVD-Audio Council told me that the DVD-Audio catalog would reach nearly 2,000 titles during 2004. Apparently, the format has benefited from the market growth of DVD products, including the ubiquitous presence of DVD players in home theater systems and sales of DVD-ROM computer drives. Additional sales points are 5.1 surround sound, and on-screen displays of lyrics, liner notes, menus, photo galleries, and web-enabled capabilities. The medium has been promoted as having sound quality that is "over 300 times better than a CD." Lord, I wish it were as simple as that.
Having set through a quickie demo of 5.1 DVD-Audio surround in the Denon booth at the Convention Center, I'm more convinced than ever that 5.1 surround is the wrong approach for the average consumer. My thesis is that a good two-channel setup trumps any 5.1 setup of equal cost. The cost of the added speaker channels and amplification dilutes the sound quality of the individual components. The old adage about the resultant sound quality being dictated by the weakest link in your system applies here in spades. My recommended strategy is to spend your home theatre dollars on the best two-channel setup you can afford. Center channel? I don't need it or miss it in my personal home theater system, where most of the time there are only two listeners centered between the front channels.
However, I do like the looks and features of the two new Denon multi-format players. Both the DVD-5900 ($2,000) and DVD-2900 ($1,000) will play DVD-Audio as well as Super Audio Compact Discs (and, of course, DVD videos). For the record, I currently do not own a SACD player, and I don't think that I will ever buy a stand-alone SACD player. Apparently poor sales of stand-alone SACD players have forced Sony to bundle SACD with some of its DVD players, essentially giving it away. To my mind, the most sensible approach is the one that offers the utmost flexibility: a universal multi-media player.
A Loudspeaker Feast
Back at the Alexis Park and St. Tropez venues, I quickly came to the conclusion that there were way too many loudspeakers vying for attention. What follows is my personal take on what was new and/or interesting.
Martin Dürenmatt of Precide sa deserves kudos for keeping the spirit of the late Dr. Oskar Heil alive and well. More than anyone else over the past decade he has been responsible for keeping the Oskar Heil AVT (Air Velocity Transformer, also known as Air Motion Transformer or AMT) in production. The AVT transducer is a truly unique design that excels in transient speed and precision. Shown here is the top-of-the line Kithara ($4,800 per pair), a two-way design, augmented by a 10-inch dynamic woofer. There is also a headphone - the Ergo AMT - that incorporates a full-range AVT transducer. US distribution is by Sage Audio, located just over an hour from my home in Taos, New Mexico (www.sageaudio.com).
Bruce Edgar is a pretty Horny guy. Here he is seen beaming over a pre-production version of the new Slimline. Edgar has spent years absorbing and refining the Horn art, and as a result has developed a significant following. The Slimline Signature is bound to get a rise out of his fans.
If horns, good sound, and a wife acceptance factor are high on your list of priorities, then you should check out the Odeon line, manufactured in Germany and distributed in the US by Axiss Distribution (www.axiss-usa.com). Seen here is Odeon's founder, Axel Gersdorf, and two of his elegant creations. The sound, when driven with Air Tight's reference amplifiers, and headed by an exceptional analog front end was eminently listenable.
Avantegarde has been a major player in the horn loudspeaker arena and has continued to evolve and refine their product line. I thought you'd enjoy a glimpse of this gorgeous red-finished Duo. It is a thing of beauty and this model remains my favorite horn-based design.
PBN's Peter Noerbaek was on hand to demo the massively solid and authoritarian Montana EPX ($10,000 per pair), with bass extension and control other manufacturers only dream about. PBN is undergoing a major expansion with a move into a spacious new facility in the San Diego area. Good luck, Peter.
At last! Murata Manufacturing has finally commercialized their super tweeter technology as an add-on kit. In particular the ES103 series should be of interest to audiophiles looking for added transient speed and treble transparency from their loudspeaker system. A spherical piezoelectric ceramic diaphragm is used to give excellent dispersion and a frequency range from 15kHz to 100kHz. The tweeter is designed for simple and easy installation. You might be asking yourself: who cares? After all, many of us can't hear anything above 15kHz, and 20kHz is pushing the limit for even the young. Well, you'd be right to a degree. This tweeter can't be heard in the conventional sense. But it most definitely can be perceived. There is in fact scientific evidence (including PET scans) that demonstrates cerebral blood flow activity in response to ultrasonic energy. The impact of the tweeter is very obvious, and once its effect on speed and treble air is appreciated, it's difficult to accept life without it. It's pricey, in the context of tweeters, but relative to speaker cable it's a bargain. For more info check out www.murata.com/speaker.
Final Sound, the Dutch electrostatic speaker experts (www.finalsound.com) broke the $1,000 price barrier by introducing a speaker system consisting of a stereo pair of ESL panels and a powered subwoofer set to retail at under a kilobuck. Their home theater setup (see here), with amplification by Butler Audio, was winning many friends. My Lesley (her red beret is visible at the lower left hand corner) was so thoroughly enjoying the Steely Dan video that we ended up staying for a long while.
For such a small country as Finland, the last thing I expected to discover was another talented speaker designer. For years, I've admired Gradient's bass dipole designs, whose airy, non-boxy bass character, shown through even under Show conditions. And now, it's Pen Audio's Sami Pentilla who takes the limelight. The stacked Chara + Charisma ($5,550 per pair), a floor-standing three-way design, made a fine impression. Pen Audio (www.penaudio.fi) is being imported by Joe Abrams, Portal Audio.
Over the years domestic speakers have been disguised in some very creative ways, for example, inside lampshades and as artistic wall hangings. Now Madison Fielding has extended the concept to the great outdoors with several all-weather designs. Shown here is one of the Terra Cotta series planter speakers. The woofer fires downward and the treble reflects off the "cup" at the bottom of the stand to fill in the upper octaves. By the way, the plant is not included. For more details visit: www.planterspeakers.com.
The massive and intimidating SoundLab Ultimate, at 210 pounds each and standing nearly seven feet tall, is not for the faint of heart. The name says it all: it is the ultimate full-range electrostatic for the music lover. There was a gorgeous sound with a full-bodied tonal balance to die for.
A "Grand Victory" for low-power amplification. Jason Blume proudly shows off the aptly named high-sensitivity speaker, driven by Manley Labs 300B amplifiers.
Late on Saturday, tired and hungry, I shuffled my feet into the QUAD room. The QUAD 989s were holding court, driven by QUAD's matching tube amplifiers. Absolutely lovely sound! It brought back fond memories of my first encounter with the QUAD ESL-57, one of the most important hi-fi speakers of all time. The old QUAD transformed my expectations of what a speaker should be all about. Now a lot has changed in the interim. Not only has QUAD been sold to IAG, but the line is currently being manufactured in China. Yet, I think that if there is an audio Heaven, Peter Walker must be nodding and smilingly approvingly. It's not scientific, but easily Best Sound at Show.