by Bill Gaw
Well here I am again putting myself through
hell. I swore I'd never do this again... Only four months ago after the
Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES). I have a four day weekend, the first in several months, in the middle of
Spring and after the worst winter in twenty years in New Hampshire! What am I doing?
1. Going fishing.
2. Taking my family to the White Mountains.
3. Traveling to Acadia National Park.
4. None of the above.
Correct answer: 4.
I'm going to another high end audio video show. Am I Audiolic Numero Uno or what? And to top it off, traveling on Amtrak to get there. No fancy jets for me. How was the trip? Give me European trains any day. Hint: Don't bother spending extra money to go Business class. The seats are lousy, the service is poor, food is worse than with most
airlines and Coach is 3/4 empty. And there's a total of five people in the business class car on a Thursday afternoon commuter time. Did I say the fare's about the same as the Delta Shuttle? Amtrak get your act together. We need European style train service in this country if we ever want to conserve energy (so we can use it more effectively to run our audio
After a good night's sleep at the Hilton it was off to the
Show being held at the Hilton Hotel on Sixth
Avenue in New York. Sign-up and badge pick-up are on the second floor for those of you planning to attend. Everything went smoothly and the
Emap people seem to have everything going smoothly for those of you planning on attending. The exhibits, unlike at the
CES, are spread out over floors 2, 4, 9, 10, and 42, and the rooms are separated by empty rooms in
between so there is no interference between exhibits with noise.
Hint to the attendees. Start at the 2nd floor, then go to the
42nd, then back to the 10th, 9th, etc. because of the way the elevators run. Also pick up a show directory
before leaving the admission area.
At 9:30 a.m. I attended a press conference given by Sony, which probably has the largest exhibit at the show, primarily showing off SACD. The great news is that they will be releasing in the Fall a high end
six-channel SACD unit Model SCD-XA777ES for $3,000 list. They claim it has all of the sound quality of their original high end
two-channel unit for the lower price. Unhappily, I haven't been able to listen to it
yet but hopefully will before the show ends.
Next up was a quick tour of the floors. First booth I spotted after leaving the Sony exhibit was, of all things the SMART AUDIO people, whose tube driver-mosfet amp I am reviewing now at home. While a static
display (read: not playing), first impressions at home are of a solidly designed, pretty good sounding stereo unit with volume control for
Next up was the RL Acoustique room with their Lowther based Lamhorn
1.8 that I had also seen in Las Vegas. Both times using their own electronics, the sound was very good for a Lowther unit. I wish I could get them in the same room with the Beauhorns I reviewed in
last months Audiolics Anonymous
column. There's something about high efficiency drivers with SET amps that stimulates me.
Better sounding this time compared to CES were the Wisdom Audio speakers driven by VTL amps. For their price they should sound good, and they did, but not the best I've ever heard. I still don't see what Harry Pearson hears in them.
Much better sounding was the system in the Red Rose Audio room, and much cheaper. Of course this was a system all designed by the infamous Mark Levinson himself, and they were playing some of his two track SACD's. His small speakers, using a ribbon tweeter and 6 inch cone driver sounded wonderful driven by his
$8,000 EL34 based integrated amp from a mid level Sony SACD player. When I first entered the room, they were playing a Mobile Fidelity CD which sounded very good. I asked the attendant put on the SACD that Mark produced and had played at the Vegas show for us, and everyone in the room suddenly stopped talking and listened. The tension went out of me and I bathed in the music. There was actually a small amount of applause at the end of the piece by the attendees. I had a collection several years ago of second generation master tapes from some of the majors both here and from London, names not mentioned, and SACD beat all of them for realism. I'm going to have to get that Sony ES SACD player for review. Are you reading this Steve?
(Steve sez: Yep. Readers should also see our
News page concerning many more new Sony SACD players to reach stores by
the end of this year.)
Interestingly enough, second best sound to this point was in the 47 Laboratory room, where they were playing regular CD's through their Pitracer
transport ($25,000), Progression DAC ($2,700), and Gaincard amplifier ($1,500) into a pair of
"BOX" loudspeakers by Vaessen of Belgium. The DAC in a non-oversampling, no digital filter unit recently reviewed by Steve Rochlin which beat the hell out of several other digital
demos and came very close to the naturalness of the SACD demo. But at $25,000 for the transport, I think I'll wait for the Sony SACD unit.
Outlaw Audio demonstrated their electronics with very good sound from equipment which can be brought directly over the web for ridiculously low price for the sound quality for a second or home theater system. The most interesting component is their ICBM Controlled bass manager for only $249. This was developed to control which speakers should get sub bass, a problem that is not handled by most of the DVD-A and SACD units out there. A very impressive demo for all of you out there with bass management problems.
After a short rest, and a wonderful but expensive steak dinner at Gallagher's, I went a walkin' and noticed that a revival of
The Music Man is playing down the road, so I got a single ticket. Boy did that make my
day! I can still remember the first time I heard the cast album and saw the movie. Unhappily I'm sure Shirley Jones isn't singing.
Anyway with that buoying my senses I returned to the show. At 2:30
p.m. I attended the first free show sponsored concert, a piano recital by Hyperion
Knight who is a wonderful pianist. Happily, I had to fight through several hundred audiophiles to get through the door. Unhappily there were only 51
audiophiles in attendance for the free one hour Gershwin-classical piano recital. And this is a pianist that audiophiles swoon over with their systems. There were more persons packing some of the hotel rooms to hear mediocre systems. Oh well, guess I know what's more
important... the music.
Later I attended a wonderful lecture by Pat Megenity on Home Theater Computers. He did a great job discussing the many uses of a computer in high end audio and video systems, one of my hobbies which I'll hopefully be able to discuss some day in my Audiolics Anonymous column.
In between all this I finished off visiting the floors. While most left something to be desired, which is normal at shows, sometimes with the best of equipment under show conditions where hotel room acoustics are atrocious, there were a couple of stand-outs.
Best sound at the show so far using CD playback were the new
Alón Grand Reference System. This is a four tower speaker grouping with an active crossover. The
woofer towers have four 8" drivers each and the mid tweeter towers have 19 transducers operating in an open baffle configuration. I didn't notice what they were using to drive them, but the sound was almost as good as my horns. They claim flat response of
120 dB (pain levels) from 20 Hz to 20 kHz and cost $120,000... so they should sound great. Happily they are one of the few speaker systems in this price category that may be worth the price. If you have the cash, go for a listen.
Most high tech looking equipment were from Nirotek America. You have to see these things to believe them. Hopefully the picture I took will come out so
it can be added to the report. Driving a pair of B&W 801 speakers, the room was filled with deep
bass though unhappily somewhat boomy. The amps certainly look like their $22,000 price, but I couldn't tell whether they sounded up to the price.
Best sound at the show using SACD playback so far was, of course, the Red Rose room using Mark Levinson's own recordings. I'm definitely going back there tomorrow for another listen.
Best sound from older speakers was found in the Eggleston Works room. I still remember the first time I heard these about five years ago at a CES demo, and they still sound great. These things also use an open back for the mids and tweeter, like the
Alón, so maybe that's what makes them better.
The Music Man show last night made this trip worthwhile. It was even better than the movie version, and far superior to Phantom and Les
Mis. As a bonus, they only used minimal mic'ing and sound enhancement, so in Row G it was almost
unnoticeable and just added minimal shrillness to the voices. Why can't the theaters get this right. There are
definitely good professional reproducers out there that must sound better than what I've heard recently at shows for sound reinforcement. Gee, just think. Maybe American musicals peeked at the same time as Shaded Dog vinyl playback, and both have been downhill since. Remember, most of the best musicals of the past 20 years have come from England.
This morning with Clark Johnsen, Kwami Ofori-Asante and i went
to see some of the better rooms from yesterday before the crowds could get in.
First off was the Pipedreams room. I went to hear their new smaller version, listing for
$9,000, but they were playing their bigger
$56,000 brethren. Also, they didn't have their $11,000 subs turned on, but the music was markedly improved over
yesterday, and they definitely surpassed what I had heard in the high priced rooms
at that time. Worth a listen if you want to spend big bucks.
Next was a return to the Lammhorn room so Kwami could get a listen compared to his
Beauhorns. Both of us agreed they sounded very good, but under show conditions it was difficult to make a decision on their relative qualities.
Then came the two best demos of the show, eclipsing what I heard in the previous day, and changing my recommendations for best sound at the show. And the winners are:
1. Best CD or Analog Playback System: Art Audio - Soliloquy
I was in there yesterday, and the system sounded pretty good, but they didn't agree and they worked on it all night, changing things. The final system consisted of:
1.Art Audio Jota 20 watt VV32B Amps - $7,995
2.Sound Applications CF-X power line conditioner - $5,000
3.Soliloquy 6.5 Speakers
4.Aurios Speaker Feet - $1,000/six
5.Gill Audio Design Transport and D/A converter - $6,000
6.Zen Acoustics interconnects- $900/meter
7.Zen Acoustics speaker cables - $1,100/two meters pair
8.Zen Acoustics AC cords - ?$600? each
For a relatively inexpensive system compared to the big boys, the sound beat everything else at the show by far. Again, I don't think it was any individual
component but the system and the ears of the people who set it up. This was as good two channel playback as I've heard anywhere. If I were in the market for a complete
system I'd be knocking on their doors. While it wasn't horns, the 92 dB efficiency
of the loudspeakers were being used to good affect with SET amps... and they sang. Most noticeable was the bass, which was
extremely tight and deep. I couldn't believe they were getting this in a hotel room from 20 watt amps with a cone speaker. The rest of the range was also superb, but that I could expect. If you can find a dealer who'll demo this entire system, go for a listen. And I emphasize system, for I think it was the whole and not the individual components that made the difference. You'll be satisfied.
Best Sound at the Show: Sony SACD Surround Demo
This all Sony system consisting of:
1. Sony 777 SACD-CD multichannel player
2. Pass Labs amplification
3. Sony SS-1 Speakers
Although three out of the four selections they played were out of absolute phase, the sound was more analog than analog. As I said above, this beat out any analog master tapes I've ever heard, and of course, the hall feeling with the surround channels opened up the
room while expanding the soundstage in all directions. It also seemed to
present height information as well. One could actually hear ceiling reflections on the
Gaudeamus recording from DMP done in a church. Please, please, please Sony, let me have a review piece when they hit the states this Fall.
Click here to see
complete listing of show exhibitors.
Click here to see our
1999 show coverage.