Audio Expo North America
A Skeptic's First Audio Show
Part Two of Two
Report By A. Colin Flood
I did not see an ion plasma tweeter melt a
record or a Krell monster sub flap a trouser leg. In my brief college-day
stint of selling crap audio equipment, I demonstrated the tracking superiority
of a tone arm, by having it coast over a bump in a record. No big deal for a
competent arm, but it helped seal a few deals. Yet, I saw no such bells and
whistles at this show. Guess the default winner
therefore has to be Mark Waldrep's AIX surround sound demonstration. His
company had a large display room on the first floor. Theirs was one of the few
home theater systems on display. They used a Wolf projection screen,
amps and a ring of five Thiel speakers to show case incredible DVD recordings
for two-three dozen attendees. The Thiel CS3.7 speakers have rounded cabinets
and angled aluminum front baffles for proper time coherence. Although the
4-ohm impedance of the Thiel speakers requires amps as powerful as the Boulder
blocks, the result is an impressive 33 Hz to 26 kHz response, within a very
I sat both up front and in the back of the
seating area for his system set-up. I vastly preferred up front. This allowed
the rear loudspeakers to surround me with music. Yet I am not sure I preferred
AIX's immersion option, with musicians playing on all sides of me, as this
was bit distracting with only one projection screen in the center. Seems like
a five-sided sound like that needs five-sided video also. Nonetheless, the
sound was clearly superior and imminently listenable. Vocals were spot on
accurate; easy to imagine the artist live in the room. The Thiel speakers seem
to add very little of their voice; music seemed uncolored and natural.
I did get to spend some time with a few audio
illuminaires. The indefatigable Roy Hall and I sat down to sip some of the
good stuff. He was his usually irascible self. His Music Hall room had a sweet
sounding little set-up with two new items. Below is a photo of myself with Roy
Hall, Roy taking a rest and finally their active electronic equipment.
A Creek Destiny CD player ($2495) fed a new Creek Evolution
5350 MOSFET integrated amplifier ($1795). The slim amp claims 200 watts per
side into 4 Ohms! The amp powered some very deep sounding Epos M22i
loudspeakers ($2599). These had a delightful high-end.
Also new from Hall are red AktiMate Mini two-way table-top
loudspeakers with built-in iPod dock ($700), from Australia. These have RCA
and USB inputs with remote control. The larger Maxi model ($1095) adds
Internet and FM radio, mini audio jack plus an Ethernet connection.
Mark Waldrep of AIX Records gave a few of the
seminars at AXPONA. He has the patrician mien of an academician. He said AIX
produced 58 discs in 10 years. He gave an interesting talk about what makes
music sound live and hit directly into emotional centers. Waldrep is not a fan
of SACDs due to their roll-off at 25 kHz to avoid upper end noise at 30 kHz.
Waldrep said typical recordings want to be louder, this "means make it
crappier, take the dynamic out." His advice? He said, "the cheapest thing
you can buy that will dramatically affect the sound of your systems is one
of" his high quality recordings. "Better yet," he said, "make my wife happy
and buy two!"
Author of a book filled with so much common
advice and valuable tips, that every tweaking audiophile must have it; Jim
Smith spoke before the largest gathering of the seminars I attended. His Get
Better Sound is a useful compendium of Smith's decades of
audio experience. His prior audiophile manual was available for free and he gave
away 15,000 copies of his "31 Secrets" guide.
Smith told about a guy who spent $25,000 to $30,000 on a
system, but did not invest another $400 to tune his set-up for the very best
possible sound. This makes, he contends, a "very powerful difference in our
systems." As a Sales Manager for Magnapan panel loudspeakers, he found that "in-house installations made systems vastly better sounding."
"A lot of
people, he said, "have expensive systems and mediocre sound." Unlike
yesteryear, Smith thought there are practically no bad components today. Music
today however may have only 6dB of dynamic range, compared to 60dB for the
Smith thinks phase and time alignment are ruined if you are
not listening at the sweet spot. He said speakers in a 5.1 channel system
should all be as similar as possible, meaning the sides and rear speakers
should also be full-range models. There was a "aah-hah" moment for an
audience member when Smith told a story about the taunt backside of a leather
couch resonating so much like a drum head that it need dampening with a
In answer to audience questions, Smith said
he likes Rives Parametric Adaptive Room Compensation (PARC) equalizer, because
sound below 300 Hz depends on room boundaries. Although he likes treating
suck-outs with bass traps, he doesn't recommend the traps on side walls for
wide dispersion loudspeakers. Smith suggests treating the first reflection
points of sound from a loudspeaker with bookshelves and/or plants. For rooms
constructed of concrete, he likes adding wood surfaces, but covered with
carpet, preferably natural instead of synthetic fibers. Smith suggests the
equipment rack should not be between the two main loudspeakers, even if it
means running inexpensive loudspeaker cables.
On the always controversial subject of widely
expensive power cords, Smith thought they did indeed make a difference,
despite what he said was ten cents worth of Romex wiring in the wall. He
quoted fellow audio author Robert Harley (reviewed
here) as saying power cords matter not because they are the last
six feet between the wall and expensive sound systems, but because power cords
are the first six feet. Music,
he said, is re-modulated AC power. Therefore, a poor power cord can affect the
dynamics of the sound by limiting current. If you can afford it, he thought a
dedicated power line is probably worth it. Keep interconnects away from power
Smith did think cables should be raised off the carpet if
possible, especially those with synthetic fibers, and that they should cross
power cords at right angles. He thought tube lovers should have a second set
of tubes on hand for quick comparisons to see if the sound of their primary
set is degrading. He is available to tune people's systems, but insists on
spending time listening to the system, staying overnight and taking 6 to 10
hours for the tweaks.
Dapper, urbane sophisticate, Mr. Fremer's
step-by-step presentation demonstrated proper turntable set-up in one of the
AXPONA's seminars. In his re-mastered Beatles tie, Fremer was charming and
witty. Declaring that CDs are not as emotionally involving as vinyl discs, and
himself to be "math-lexic," he nonetheless gave an excellent talk on how
to tune turntables for their best possible sound. With a steady banter between
his CD loving video man and him, Fremer provided a droll point-counter point
comedy routine. He held his arm out like a tone arm, wiggling, wobbling and
waggling it this way and that, so you could easily see what one physics
principle after another meant in one simple to understand motion. Very
effective. He explained the different shapes of needles. Fremer noted that
some expensive diamonds are not properly mounted. He explained how to set the
correct angle for cantilevers and that static can effect tone arm tracking.
He demonstrated the useful $250 Fozgometer Azimuth Range
Meter, which certainly looks like something every tweaking audiophile and/or
stereo club should have. The "Foz" is Jim Fosgate of Dolby Pro-Logic II
and Rockford-Fosgate car stereo. The battery operated meter reads the axial
tilt of cartridges! It also reads channel separation, balance and signal
direction. Fremer's presentation was entertaining and informative enough to
make me think I should return vinyl playback into my one of my systems. This
childish fancy persisted only until I heard a glorious 3D sonic illusion on a
mega-buck system evaporate into thin air with the pernicious pops and clicks
from a record.
President and founder of Legacy Audio, Bill
Dudleston, was quite informative at the panel discussion on Loudspeaker
Design. The Springfield, Illinois, maker of "the biggest box consumer
will let us" had many noteworthy items. For example, a 100 Hz signal is ten
feet long in wavelength. A tall line source cancels out roof and floor
reflections. One of Legacy's driver sources is Scanspeak. He said all
vendors at the show "seek profit so we can continue to do what we love."
As the discussion moved to a question about bi-wiring, Duddleston said that a
bi-wire "provides a return path for back [electromagnetic field] EMF"
signal. This allows, he said, lots of little fish to get up against a tidal
wave of bass backlash. A member of the Audio Engineering Society and the
American Institute of Chemical Engineers, Dudleston was recently inducted into
a regional Hall of Fame, taking his place among mid-western Nobel scientists
With Michael Fremer's presentation and so
many of the vendors using turntables, I have to conceded there must be
something special about analogue sound that so many tweaking audiophiles keep
putting up with the wow, pop, flutter and clicks of that half-century old
With their easy-to-adjust software, computers as part of an
audio system might just take over even more digital functions. They might even
outperform hardware DACs. Channel D showed off their Pure Vinyl program, which
uploads vinyl discs to PCs for playback and their new Pure Music player ($99),
which works with iTunes to play high resolution 24-bit/192kHz files. My friend
Nels wrote a great review of their Pure Vinyl software here.
I-Fi Company, out of Salt Lake City, had a novel idea,
perfect for poor people like me, struggling students or a second system: use
quality near field reference speakers, and then mount a sub-woofer and shaker
with iPod dock on a big, plush lounge chair and viola! They have a new Home
Theater in a Chair. No messy wires. Looks and feels great. Listen to music
until you fall sleep. Connect MP3 player and other audio devices. Their chairs
have electric reclining motors, with real Italian leather. Class D amps are 50
and 25-watts. Prices for i-Fi Chairs are $2,000 and $4,000 including
cup-holders. Scott Faller will be reviewing one shortly.
According to a new law, Internet reviewers
are not allowed to comment on products without disclosing receipt of
merchandise or compensation. So you should know that I did not get any free
equipment. Darnn! I was not promised any new equipment to review either –
that is fine; my plate is full at the moment anyway. I did receive one free
night and weekend pass from AXPONA, which enabled me to write all these good
things about the displays there. Each room had a lot of
freebie brochures, but the only people providing bags were the record sales
booths and since I eschew that ancient format, I had nothing with which to
carry all my literature. So on Sunday, I was the guy walking around with the
black leather man-purse full of CDs, legal pad and brochures.
Itrax.com passed out post cards offering a free HD audio
disc for the price of postage. If I ever buy another stamp again, I will be
sure to send mine. Ayon and Genelec provided full size, thick catalogs filled
with specs and photos. Avatar Acoustics had a press kit prepared (smart guy)!
Madisound Speakers thoughtfully handed out PDF catalogs on CDs.
Finally, after a decade of writing equipment
and music reviews, I wasn't sure if anybody would even recognize my name.
All of the vendors recognized the Enjoy the Music.com Web site of
course, with far too many extending a personal "hello" to my publisher for
me to remember any of them. I am pleased to say a few vendors said they
recognized me – as did a few horn-loving audiophiles. In fact, one gave me a
tip about a horn dealer in my own hometown that I did not even know about.
That tip alone might have made the trip worth it.
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