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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 II

 

  In the previous segment, I promised you some insight into the lofty systems in the higher reaches of the Hilton. And this shall be revealed to you in due time. However, I did want to mention one more home theater denizen of the 2nd floor that provided the most unusual looking speakers I have seen in some time. Speakers this cool looking couldn't possibly sound good, could they??

 

Avantegarde Trio
Avantgarde

Is that a Sousaphone in your Home Theater or Are You Just Glad to See Me?

As you can see, Avantgarde makes speakers that resemble musical instruments – horns to be exact – arranged in artistic configurations with gorgeous lacquer finishes. In addition to being ready for display at the Museum of Modern Art, the Avantgarde's horn-based design lends itself well to home theater due to its high efficiency. With a sensitivity rating of over 107 dB, the Trio model ($38,000 US per pair including subwoofers) could be driven by the headphone output of a portable CD player! But I’d recommend a nice single-ended triode for music listening, or a medium to high-powered tube or solid-state amp for home theater.

OK, so they look interesting, but how did they sound? Well, surprisingly enough, they sounded warm, full and very natural, without a hint of strain and extremely realistic portrayal of male vocals, plus excellent dynamics and impact on home theater material. I expected some degree of cupped hands coloration, which I have heard on other horn-based designs, but somehow the magicians at Avantgarde have avoided this. The center channel speaker used in this room was actually a single horn midrange unit flanked by six little horn tweeters, naked as the day they were born, arranged on the floor in a radial formation to assure uniform dispersion of high frequencies across the listening area. Very unusual, but hey, whatever works… and this worked.

 

Avantegarde Center
Avantegarde's Unusual Center Channel Configuration

Of course, I'm sure the amplification used in the room, provided by BAT (Balanced Audio Technology) made no small contribution to the sound as well. I would imagine that the silky smooth sound of the BAT gear let the Avantgardes shine in their best light, where inferior amplification might have limited their performance. Cable was by Cardas, and platforms and tweaks by Symposium Acoustics.

 

SACD for you and for me.

Also, just a small supplement to the earlier reference to the Multi-Channel SACD exhibition by Sony. While the player used in the demonstration was their statement piece, at $3,000 list, they also intend to bring Super Audio CD to the masses, and quickly. According to the Sony rep, there will be a wide range of multi-channel SACD players available in the fall including an entry-level combo DVD/SACD/CD player for a list price of only $300! As long as your preamp or receiver has a six-channel analog audio input, this killer new technology will be within your reach in the very near future.

 

When asked about the possibility of a multi-channel SACD digital input/output standard, Sony had nothing to say, so it’s strictly decoding/processing built into the player for now, and that will just have to do. The only problem is that DVD-Audio works the same way – processing is built into the player and fed out to your system through a multi-channel analog output. So unless your system has more than one multi-channel analog input, you’ll have to pick one: DVD-Audio or SACD. Maybe some day, a combo player will be released that plays SACD and DVD-Audio. And maybe there will be an end to war in the Middle East. And maybe pigs will fly out of my butt. Which of these is most likely? Unfortunately for us all (and particularly for me), probably the pigs thing…

 

Onward and Upward – the 42nd Floor.

Rather than work my way up from the bottom to the top of the show, I figured I’d work in from the edges so, after the second floor, I headed straight to the top. Following the excruciatingly long wait for the elevator, then the cramped ride up (everyone inhale… and no one fart!), one of the first rooms I saw housed the TacT Audio exhibit. This system immediately banished the memory of the ride in the Otis sardine can, with its compelling rich, inviting sound. Amplification and processing were all TacT driving a pair of B&W Nautilus 802 speakers. This was a wonderful sounding system – remarkable depth of soundstage for such a small room and tight image focus and detail. TacT refers to their system as the first true digital amplifier, or, more precisely, "a D/A converter that just happens to put out enough current and voltage to drive speakers directly." Whatever you call it, it sure is easy on the ears.

All the way at the end of the hall was the Innovative Audio suite… and sweet is a great description of the sounds they were getting there. In the anteroom, Elliot Fishkin, the spiritual father of Innovative Audio, greeted us with a warm welcome and philosophical introduction. Innovative is a New York city-based audio and home theater equipment dealer with showrooms in Brooklyn and Manhattan. It is clear that Elliot is passionate about what he does and he clearly wants to bring more people into the fold of high fidelity audio and home theater. I'm certain he did just that at the show. And hey, if he makes a few bucks along the way, then more power to him! A good dealer is sometimes hard to find, and Innovative appears to be just that.

Innovative's primary demo system included the Wilson Watt/Puppy 6 speaker system (SRP $20,000) driven by Spectral Electronics amplification and held together with ultra-tweaky MIT cable (the cables had their own bulky "network interface box" – huh?). In any case, these components blended to create perhaps the finest sounding two-channel sound at the show. I have only heard the Wilsons in show conditions, but they have never failed to impress me with their realistic portrayal of a three-dimensional soundscape and their accurate reproduction of the attack and energy of live music. They played a requiem that rattled the walls and a Mickey Hart recording Planet Drum as well as other percussive material that produced the most realistic drum and percussion sounds at the show.

 

Wilson Watt/Puppy combo
Wilson's Watt/Puppy 6 with MIT cable

Sound so good that even the ducts were singing along.


As with many of the other exhibits, it was clear that the Wilson/Innovative folks faced a tremendous challenge in minimizing the negative contributions of the room. There were matchboxes and pieces of paper wedged into the cooling ducts and AC vents to prevent rattle. Wilson had also brought along their mongo reference subwoofer (not the official name, of course), but they decided not to hook it up – they really didn't need it. The Watts and Puppies did just fine on their own. Some of the lowest bass sounds had to be reaching down below 40 Hz, even in this small hotel room. All in all, they did a great job of minimizing the bad elements of the room sound, while still getting a nice live ambience.

Down the hall a piece was the Legend Audio Design room. There are very few companies that try to do more than one thing well. Most manufacturers focus on one or two things and try to make a name for themselves. Amps and preamps, perhaps; or just speakers; or just D/A converters. But occasionally you see exceptions to this rule. Legend is one of these exceptions.
 
The Legend room was all Legend from the D/A converter through the preamp through the triode tube amplifiers and into their gorgeous two-way monitor speakers. They were even using Legend interconnects and speaker cables. I sat down in the dimly lit room and closed my eyes. Amanda McBroom's song "The Rose" (made popular by the Bette Midler film of the same name) came on. I’ve heard the song a thousand times of course, and kinda thought of it as one of those schmaltzy-girlie-tear-jerker tunes. But let me tell you… I got goose bumps! Suddenly I wasn't just listening to music, I was connecting with it. I don’t know whether it was the warmth of the tube amps, or the neutrality of the speakers, or a wonderfully gestalt combination of all of the parts working as a whole, but it was a magical experience. If I had to live with a one-brand two-channel system, I'd be happy with living with a Legend.
 

The Legend two-way Loudspeaker
The Legend Two-Way Loudspeaker

As a small high-end manufacturer, Legend pretty much lives or dies on whatever word of mouth they can generate plus the opinions of the mainstream press. As I was leaving the room, one of the members of said establishment was on the way in – a rather portly and pompous fellow – let's call him "Mr. S." Mr. S. writes for one of the leading Hi-Fi audio magazines and has, in fact, given the Legend equipment a well-earned favorable review in the past. I overheard this person saying to his friends on the way in, "watch these guys suck up to me…" He entered with a flourish, proudly announced himself to the Legend rep, and basked in the genuinely warm welcome. I know the welcome was genuine, because they were also quite friendly to me – a lowly "Show Attendee." Friends, if I ever get to the point where I use my reputation, title or position for such lowly purposes, please put me out of my misery.

 

Welcome, My Son… to the Machine…

As I wandered out of the Legend room and around the 42nd floor in search of more audio adventures, I was beckoned by strains of Pink Floyd. Not your usual audiophile demo material… at least not since 1979… but a welcome change from the mellow vocal ensembles, singer/songwriters and chamber music that passed for test music in many of the rooms. So I popped into the room hosted by Norbert and Dave from Audioreview.com and plopped down for a listen.

The Floyd was emanating from a pair of Newform Research speakers. The Newform R645 speaker is an easy to drive (91 dB efficiency) slim tall two-way design featuring a 45" triple-decker ribbon tweeter assembly mated with a 6.5" mid-bass driver. At over 6 feet tall, it's a precarious and imposing looking speaker. And at $2,265 delivered, it's aimed squarely at the entry/mid-level panel speaker market. This is a pretty competitive place to be, up against vendors like Martin Logan, Final, and Magnepan, among others.

The ribbons, driven by an Audio Research tube amp, were a perfect match for the lush production and full-bodied Floyd sound. Finally, I was able to kick back and enjoy the music! If you’re partial to that big open airy sound (and I am, I own Martin Logans), then the Newforms are definitely worth a listen. They offer full-range hybrid ribbon/acoustic models from as low as $1,500. Newform has been building quite a buzz and cult following on the Web. Now I can see why. And flying in the face of trade show rhetoric, Dave was chilling out with a frosty Beck’s beer, while he played Mr. DJ. Beer, tubes, panel speakers and Pink Floyd – what more could you ask for? Well, more beer for one thing. Dave, next time bring enough to share, OK?

Audioreview.com also put on a home theater demo, with a nice-sounding little system that cost less than $10K soup to nuts. Featuring Dynaudio speakers, a Sony direct view 4:3 monitor, Marantz receiver (used as a preamp), Outlaw power amp, Hsu Research subwoofers, and JPS cables, this system kicked out the jams! The guys from Audioreview.com showed us that it’s possible to have champagne tastes on a beer budget if you’re careful. All of the components in the home theater were winners of the Consumer's Choice awards on Audioreview.com. These folks were great hosts as well, playing the music the visitors wanted to hear, and the movie clips that we wanted to see and turning the Hsu sub waaaay down so as not to intrude on their high falutin' neighbors, EgglestonWorks.

Speaking of EgglestonWorks, they put on a fine-sounding demo as well, with their Savoy Reference loudspeakers, behemoths that weigh in at 410 pounds each! Sources included a Basis turntable and Sony SACD player, played through new Nagra preamp and power amplification ("c’est Suisse, et très précis!"). There was a bit of a crowd mulling around while I was in the demo room, so I can’t say I heard the speakers in their best light. But what I did hear was very natural sounding, extended on the bottom end, and compelling.

 

Ah, excuse me… but could you please just SHUT THE HELL UP!

Not quite so compelling was the noise emanating from the Sound By Singer room, where the folks from Krell were trying to demonstrate their new two-way mini-monitor speakers. In the entry room, Mr. Singer himself, and his entourage of compatriots and cronies were lounging around congratulating themselves at being masters of the universe (Yes, I stole that line from Titanic, so sue me). And why does Andrew Singer still use a twenty year old picture of himself in his ads? Does he really think this helps sell high end stereo gear? Ooooooooh, nice beard! I think I'll buy me an Audio Note Ongaku!

But seriously, folks, the chatter was incessant, and they would not close the door between the coffee klatch lounge and the demo room. So while Todd, a designer from Krell, tried his best to demonstrate the new speakers effectively, it just wasn't happening. Not that the speakers sounded bad – far from it – it's just that the environment did not support an effective demonstration of the equipment. I know – it's a trade show – but still, as an exhibitor you've got to realize that people will make snap judgments based on first impressions and if those first impressions are bad, you may not get another shot. And with a claimed figure of over 12,000 visitors over three days, you make a lot of first impressions…

That's all we have time for now folks, but stop by soon for our final segment where you'll hear all about the Keb Mo show, an altercation between hi-fi vendor and a member of the general public, the Absolute Sound Harry Pearson reference system, Joseph Audio's new speakers and much more!

 

Click here to continue to Part III

 

Click here to see a
complete listing of show exhibitors.

Click here to see our 1999 show coverage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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