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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 III


  Greetings and salutations once again, folks, and welcome to our final segment. At this point, I'd like to spend a few words, not on the joy of equipment but on the joy of music. After all, music (and movies) is what this is all about, right?

This year's show featured some fine live musical performances, from piano soloists and small jazz ensembles to more elaborate productions like David Johansen (yes, he is still alive), and the Grammy-winning Sony/Epic blues artist, Keb' Mo' (a.k.a. Kevin Moore). So, on Saturday evening, after a full day of enjoying the wonders of high end audio and video gear, my audio buddy and I flashed our "show attendee" badges and headed straight for the front row... all the way on the right near the fire exit...


We want MO! We Want MO!

Shortly after the designated time, the lights dimmed, and the band appeared on stage led by the unassuming guitar-wielding Keb Mo, who proceeded to take us on a heartfelt and enjoyable journey through his own brand of Mississippi Delta-style rhythm and blues. Imagine the soulful purpose of Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson, mixed with the drive and energy of Dave Matthews, and you'd have a hint of the music and performance emanating from this youngish, yet obviously seasoned pro.

Of course, Keb was far from alone out there. He was backed by the rock solid rhythm section of Reggie McBride on bass and Les Falconer, III on the drums who locked tightly to define the foundation for Mo's melodies. In melodic support of Keb's mostly acoustic guitar stylings and singing was Clayton Gibb (who had a whole lotta soul for a white guy) on the electric guitar and Jeff Paris on the keyboards. Jeff showed off his versatility over the course of the evening by also whipping out a mandolin, an accordion, and a harmonica (among other things). Jeff did a mean keyboard/harmonica duet, and through the miracle of modern synth technology, he even did a convincing impersonation of a full horn section.

Keb Mo - click for a RealAudio Clip
Keb Mo - click image for a RealAudio Clip
More info and clips available at www.kebmomusic.com

But Keb was definitely the star of this show. He had a great rapport with the audience, and poured his heart into his performance. When he got warmed up and started really rocking out, we were all enjoying the show and we were all right there with him... well, almost all of us...


"Where the Hell is the G-ddam SOUNDSTAGE?"

You would think among the not terribly chic, but usually quite polite audio intelligenstia that you could expect a fairly well-behaved and appreciative audience. And that was true for the most part, but... well, as they say, there's one in every crowd...

"This produkshin sounds like SSSHIT!" slurred the drunken cable designer. "Shhhhhh!!," replied the regular joe who was just trying to enjoy the music. "SHHHHHH???!!... I'll give ya SHHHH!!! You wanna take thish outshide and discush thish like, hic, gentlemen?" ...and the classy reply, "Shut up, ya drunken Irish fuck!" and so on, and so on...

This verbal assault continued to a greater or lesser extent for the remainder of the evening, punctuated by the security folks pulling the cable guy aside and asking him to settle down (which worked... for a while). During this time, the rest of cable guy's party abandoned him for safer environs. At the end of the performance, the verbal parrying culminated with said cable designer following the poor (but admittedly antagonistic) dweeby audiophile outside and challenging him to an old-fashioned round of fisticuffs.

Picture if you will, a 57-year old, long-in-the-tooth and large-in-the-paunch, three-sheets-to-the-wind audio designer threatening a guy at least 10 years his junior (and in observably better physical condition) and demanding he put up his dukes! When the pair finally did make it outside, it was clear that Mr. Audio Dweeb was most interested in getting the hell out of there and FAST! It's amazing how quickly bravura dissipates when one finds one's opponent is serious! So all the cable guy managed to get in was a single but enthusiastic kick in the ass as the audio geek departed with his tail between his legs.


No, we're not here to kick your ass

Your fearless roving reporter managed to witness the whole fiasco and then decided to confront the cable guy to find out what got him so riled up. At first, he thought my buddy and I were friends of his would-be foe, so he asked, "Are you here to kick my ass?" After we assured him that we were not, he was still suspicious of us until I showed him my "Show Attendee" badge and convinced him we were just regular guys. So then cable guy... let's call him "Mr. B." opened up a bit and told us that he was appalled by the production qualities of most live sound systems, and this one was no exception. When he vociferously voiced his dissatisfaction of the sound reproduction system, to no one in particular, this "rabid fan" told him to shut up, and well, you know the rest.

Mr. B. went on to explain that he has earned 4 Golden Ear awards and his company tries to offer the general public "cables that provide good sound at an affordable price." Even under the influence, he still had his marketing line down pat (and his priorities in order). But he was even more pissed off because the dealer and his son who had joined him for the show, had abandoned him for dinner (due no doubt to this debacle). And so he was short one potential distributor of his products.

Mr. B. actually turned out to be quite a decent fellow. He was just a bit passionate about what he does and felt a need to express an opinion when he heard a less than perfect presentation of a musical performance. He invited us to dinner, and when we explained we had already eaten he said "how about cocktails?"

As tempting as this sounded, our plans were interrupted when one of Mr. B's decidedly more staid colleagues (an exec from a high-end speaker manufacturer), ran into us on the street and said to Mr. B... "Have I got a dinner for you!" Apparently his friend had set him up with an even better opportunity to network and peddle his wares. "Let me fill you in on some of the details though..." he continued... "This dinner, this crowd, is very Zen, very laid-back. Are you OK with that?" "Oh, yeah... (hic)" Mr. B, replied... "That's me. Very laid back... very Eastern..." Yeah right. Mr. B. went on his merry way, and hopefully made a few good connections with his new Zen friends.

To Mr. B., and to all folks who judge a live amplified music performance by the standards of a good high-end audio system, I say, "CHILL OUT!" Yes, in most cases, live music is the reference by which we judge an audio system. But any time you get into heavily amplified live music, sonic virtues and ideals like "imaging" and "soundstage" pretty much go out the window. The best you can hope for is a reasonably accurate frequency response and tonal representation of the amplified acoustic instruments and voice, clean amplification of the non-acoustic instruments and a well-balanced and well-blended mix of all of the sounds together. This is not an easy task to accomplish in a live show! And I think the folks who put together the Keb Mo show did a fine job. My friend and I definitely got to enjoy the performance and, of course, enjoy the music.


And now back to our regularly scheduled show report

Sunday brought a different audiophile buddy and a new round of audio and video adventures. The fourth floor housed mostly stereo audio systems, but it did include a few multi-channel home theater displays, including Manhattan dealer Harvey Electronics' all McIntosh and Martin-Logan system. This system, featuring a Sharp LCD projector and a Stewart screen, alternated between multi-channel music and movie clips. A segment from the film U-571 illustrated just how involving the Martin-Logan electrostatic sound can be for movies.

Martin Logan Prodigy Speaker
Martin Logan Prodigy Electrostatic Speaker

One of the aspects of electrostatic speakers that I really enjoy is that they draw you into the music or movie sound, presenting an open three-dimensional soundscape that extends well beyond the room boundaries both in depth and width. You are immersed in sound. I own a pair of Martin-Logans myself and love what they do with music. But I sometimes wonder if electrostats are really the best choice for movies. There's something about the attack and punch of a good set of dynamic speakers that is missing from electrostats. If you like your action flicks with plenty of kick, or if you primarily listen to hard rock or dance music, then be sure to check out some well designed dynamic speakers before you plunk down megabucks for an all electrostat system.

Also on the fourth floor was the Dynaudio room where they were showing off their $30K per pair Evidence Temptation speakers. These sounded extremely accurate and would probably make excellent studio monitors, but they didn't really draw me in. Dynaudio does make some fine-sounding budget speakers (like the ones on display in the audioreview.com room mentioned in the last segment), but I wasn't blown away by the Evidence Temptations. Again, this was a trade show and the conditions were not ideal, but for that kind of money, I'd expect something approaching audio nirvana and this was not what I heard.

Audio Connection put together a fine sounding system, featuring the Vandersteen 5 speakers driven by all tube Cary Audio Design electronics. The analog front end included a Basis turntable, Graham arm and Koetsu cartridge. The best description of the sound of this system would be lush – smooth and musical – but a little soft on the top end. Of course, this is common with tubes, the sound wasn't entirely accurate, but it was entirely enjoyable.


Is This The Absolute Sound?

One of the most talked-about systems on the fourth floor was the reference system of Harry Pearson, of The Absolute Sound magazine. The brochure handed out in the room was rather amusing, considering the system's list price of over $235,000. And I quote, "while not inexpensive, this carefully designed system is not excessive." Not excessive?? Are they on drugs? What would you call a $28,000 belt-driven CD transport? Or a $31,000 D/A converter? How about $53,000 worth of cables? I dunno, the word "excessive" sounds about right to me. The system included Burmester CD drive and DAC, a Clearaudio analog rig, Conrad-Johnson ART 2 line-level preamp, Groove phono stage, VTL and Edge amplification, Nordost cables, and the whopping four-piece Wisdom M-75 Adrenaline loudspeaker system. Did the system live up to the hype, or to its lofty price tag? Not even close.

Wisdom Speakers and VTL amps - part of the TAS Reference System
Wisdom Speakers and VTL Amps - TAS Reference System

My original impressions of the system include such terms as "toe-tapping," "precise," and "open," but this was based on the carefully selected demo material, which consisted of obscure acapella vocal numbers and light jazz ensembles. About two songs into the demo, an extremely rude (yet arguably justified) fellow show attendee demanded to hear some "real music... not this be-bop shit." One of the exhibitors – obviously a new agey-type from Colorado or thereabouts – interrupted the demo, trying to pacify the unruly crowd. He said he was going to "cleanse our shakras" and he proceeded to put on a very bass-heavy percussive number that brought the poor system to its knees. The thumpy big bass drum sounds either drove the amps or the speakers into overload causing serious clipping and popping distortion. The exhibitor seemed not to hear this and put on a smug little smile saying... "See, it can do the Big Bang Boom stuff, too!" Not quite!! Honestly, this system, with all its excellent components, produced some of the worst sound at the show when driven to extremes. My only advice to future exhibitors would be, when trying to make your audience happy, always make sure to test your demo material! Like Bill Gates and his famous General Protection Fault (GPF) during the Windows 98 launch, a bad demo can leave a very bad taste in people's mouths.


Whatever happened to Audio Alchemy?

Hoping to do our own "shakra-cleansing," we headed up to the ninth floor to see what mysteries awaited us there. We saw and heard a few nice systems, some of which stood out from the rest. On the audio side, we spent some time listening to the Perpetual Technologies exhibit. For those in the dark, Perpetual Technologies is the latest brainchild of audio guru Mark Schifter, whose original venture Audio Alchemy took the Hifi world by storm, bringing fantastic-sounding digital components to the world at affordable prices. Alas, Audio Alchemy is now defunct. But with Perpetual Technologies, Mark carries on his mission for high quality, high value digital audio components.

Perpetual Technologies P-1A and P-3A
Perpetual Technologies' P-3A DAC and P-1A Processor

The Perpetual Technologies P-3A is petite in stature, but big on sound. It's a 24/96 DAC, selling for a mere $799 direct from Perpetual's Web site at www.perpetualtechnologies.com. And from what I heard at the show, I'd say it's worth every penny. But the other component on display was even more interesting, if harder to categorize.

The P-1A "Digital Correction Engine" serves a multitude of functions. It eliminates jitter in the digital data stream and transforms a standard 16 bit 44 KHz digital source (the format of current CDs) into a high resolution 24 Bit, 96kHz signal. But the really exciting feature of the P-1A is that it offers software-based correction for the phase and amplitude abnormalities of your speakers and even the acoustic anomalies of your listening room!

Most high-end speakers are designed to present a reasonably flat frequency response within the limits of human hearing (20 Hz to 20KHz). Of course, it takes a large cabinet to reproduce the really low bass notes, but there are a whole slew of speakers out there that will reproduce, let's say, 50 Hz to 20 KHz within a range of +/- 4 dB, or so. But very few speakers get the phase right. In other words, the high frequencies may get to you a little before the midrange, which in turn arrives a little before the bass notes. These errors in phase coherence can create a diffuse image. Also, phase discrepancies near the crossover frequencies can lead to amplitude anomalies as common frequencies reproduced by multiple drivers partially cancel each other out.

Some speaker manufacturers, like Dahlquist, KEF, Thiel and Ohm have attempted to address phase coherence problems by using custom crossovers, staggering the driver placement, or (in the case of KEF) placing the tweeter in the center of the woofer driver. These design techniques have met with varying degrees of success. The P-1A works with just about any speaker (any one for which it has detailed phase and amplitude response measurements, that is) and it corrects for frequency response and phase response errors in the digital domain! The effect is staggering. They had on display the Martin-Logan Aerius-i (the upgraded version of the speakers I currently own) driven by the gorgeous new Niro power amp. They played a bit of music, then switched in the P-1A. Wow! The bass tightened up, and the image just locked into focus. They switched the P-1A out of the circuit... and I almost cried. "GIVE IT BACK!! GIVE IT BACK!! PLEEEEEEASE!!!" This is not some wacko tweaky black box that you have to strain to think you might hear contributing to the sound. The P-1A offers a fundamental and significant improvement to your existing system and works with all of your existing CD software. And it sells for a measly $1099!

If you want to add on room correction, then the company will send you a measuring kit including mics and recording equipment. You take the required measurements, upload the results to Perpetual Technologies, then download the updated correction software into your P-1A. Simple! All you need is a computer and an internet connection... oh, and $599 for the full measurement and customization process. Which seems a bargain to me to get a system optimized for your specific listening environment. Kudos to Mark and company for another job well done. The system only has one significant limitation that I can think of - it's currently two-channel only. According to the company, a multi-channel version that supports Dolby Digital, DTS and other multi-channel formats is in the works. I can't wait to hear it!

Niro Amplifier
The Niro 1000 provided the muscle in the Perpetual Technologies room

The video highlight on the ninth floor would have to be the Davis A/S display. They were featuring their new DLP projector, which sports XGA (1024X768) resolution, exceptional brightness and, as they stated, "is 70% done." Man, I wonder what it will look like when it's 100% done because it sure looked fine here. This is probably the best I have seen of DLP, with minimal artifacts and excellent resolution. My friend and I lingered for quite a while in the Davis room, which may have been the quality of the video display, or it may have been the comfy chairs and free popcorn. Or it may have been a combination of both. While we were there, Robert and the gang from Faroudja came up to check out the goods. They seemed pretty impressed with what they saw. Hmmm... do I smell a partnership? Davis DLP projection with Faroudja video processing? I sure hope so.

Oh my G-d, there's MORE??

Yes, there's still a whole other floor left! But don't worry, folks, I'm only going to mention one system from the tenth floor. This was the Park Avenue Audio system, and it offered some of the finest sounding stereo sound at the show. The system featured a new model of speakers from Joseph Audio the RM33si, a beautiful Dutch-designed acrylic turntable called La Luce by SPJ, cartridge and cables by Cardas. and amplification by Classé.

La Luce by SPJ Turntable
La Luce, by SPJ - acrylic turntable

The way to an audiophile's heart is through his stomach... um I mean EARS

As usual, the charming and affable Jeff Joseph (the "Joseph" in Joseph Audio) was on hand to sweet talk and sweet tooth his way to a few votes for best sound in show. He was giving away large quantities of m&ms to all takers, and after a long hard weekend of audio adventure, there were plenty of takers. But bribes or no bribes, the Joseph Audio speakers really shined here as they have at each show at which I have heard them. Very natural sounding vocals and a tight tuneful low end. Jeff put on a fantastic-sounding Louis Armstrong LP recorded some time in the 1950s that reminded me that that you don't have to buy the latest and greatest multi-channel megabit digital recording to sit back and enjoy the music.

Jeff Joseph poses with his new babies - the RM33SIs
Jeff Joseph with his new babies - the RM33SIs

So, was it possible to enjoy the music at Home Entertainment Expo 2001? Absolutely! The gear on hand here was evidence that we're making great strides in advancing the state of the art in musical and visual reproduction. The best exhibitors were the ones who showed that they cared enough to make the attendees' viewing/listening experience the best that it could be given less-than-ideal conditions. Hats off to those who displayed their wares and ran the booths at this year's show. It's no mean feat, and for the most part, it was a job very well done, indeed. I'll leave you with a few of my own choices for best of show.




Best Multi-Channel Sound: Sony SACD system featuring
Sony SACD, Pass amps, and Sony speakers
Best Stereo Sound: Innovative Audio system featuring
Wilson Watt/Puppy 6, Spectral amps
Best Video: Krell/Faroudja system featuring Krell DVD,
Faroudja processor, Sony CRT projector
Most Impressive Individual Component: Perpetual Technologies
P-1A Digital Correction Engine
Best Refreshments: TIE - Davis A/S's fresh popcorn and
Joseph Audio's M&Ms
Best Presenter: Elliot Fishkin: Innovative Audio
Best Sound in a Funky Package: Avantgarde speakers


Well, that's all for now, folks. See ya at the next show!


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