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Home Entertainment 2003 Hi-Fi and Home Theater Event

Saturday and Sunday By Chris Boylan

On Saturday, I returned to the MartinLogan/Parasound/Faroudja/Transparent room to see if they had figured out what the trouble was. They had. Apparently they had been having a problem with the processor and they had blown a tweeter in their center channel speaker. Talk about bad luck at a trade show! On Saturday, with these problems corrected, the system sounded a whole lot better.  Excellent tonality and dynamics, good channel balance and crisp articulate dialog. Their speaker complement included the Odyssey (Left, Right) and Theater Center up front, Aeon-i in the rear and Clarity on the sides for a 7.1 configuration.  

The picture, with Faroudja DCS (processor with built-in DVD drive - $9,995) and Faroudja DLP and DILA projectors, still looked just as stunning as it had before.  

Faroudja DVP1000 processor and DCS processor/DVD drive.
Faroudja's DVP1000 processor and DCS processor/DVD drive.

Meridian and Dolby Labs sponsored a DVD-Audio demonstration room, with the emphasis on audio (a plasma screen was present just to show the DVD-audio menus and supplements). The all Meridian system with Transparent Audio's Reference Meridian cables and power conditioning (total system price $160,000) highlighted the new V. 4 version of Meridian's 861 pre-amplifier processor ($20,000) which includes digital correction for the room/loudspeaker interface. Demo material included the Eagles Hotel California and Deep Purple Smoke on the Water on DVD-A and sounded fantastic with a huge expansive soundstage.

Meridian's showcase DVD-Audio system
Meridian's all-digital system showcased the DVD-Audio format.

Speaking of DVD-Audio, 5.1 Entertainment Group was on-hand selling DVD-As from their catalog of nearly 200 titles on their Silverline, Immergent and MyUtopia labels.  John Trickett, CEO, said sales of their DVD-Audio titles have been extremely strong including their new "Front Row Live" series which features popular artists such as Pat Benatar, Foghat, BTO and the Romantics.  Coming this Summer are titles from Deep Purple and Billy Squier, among others.

"From the Front Row Live" goes back to the original live master tapes of definitive performances and creates new high quality 5.1 channel mixes for DVD-Audio. Although the releases are always authorized by the labels, the artists themselves are not always a part of the process.  When I asked Billy Squier whether he was heavily involved in the re-mastering of his soon-to-be-released live performance on DVD-Audio, he said "I'm coming out with a live performance on DVD-Audio?"

John Trickett, CEO 5.1 Entertainment Group
John Trickett (left) - CEO, 5.1 Entertainment
Group - poses with a sample of his wares.

I asked John whether we might see DVD-A releases of titles that have already come out on SACD, like, for example Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon, to which John replied with a wink, "Well, you'd have to ask EMI about that..." hmmm. Very mysterious. Let's see how things progress over the next few months. 

Alon by Acarian teamed up with deHavilland and Prana Wire to showcase Alon's Lotus Elite Signature ($7,999/pr.). The speaker features all Alnico drivers and an external passive crossover. The system survived my Rush 2112 torture test with great dynamics and no congestion even at fairly high volumes. It also did classical and jazz very well too.  

Alon Lotus Slite Signature with DeHavilland amps and Prana Wire
Alon Lotus Slite Signature loudspeaker
with DeHavilland amps and Prana Wire.

The system featured deHavilland's Aries 845-G 30 WPC Single Ended Triode ($6,000/pr.), and Ultraverve preamp ($3,000). Cables were provided by Prana Wire - made up of silver ribbons wrapped with 26 layers of insulation.

Another good-sounding room was that of speaker manufacturer Silverline Audio, who featured their Bolero loudspeakers ($8,000/pr), driven by Conrad-Johnson electronics. Unlike at CES, where Silverline's speakers were a bit too large for their room, the Boleros were well-suited to the space and had an excellent tonal blend. 

Silverline Bolero speakers with conrad-johnson electronics.
Silverline Bolero loudspeakers driven by Conrad-Johnson electronics.

In San Jose dealer Tailored Technology's room, the Vandersteen model 5a ($14,400/pr) was being driven to good effect by the Specton Musician II amplifier, a 500 WPC solid-state "Class D" amplifier ($3,495 to $3,995 depending on configuration) "Class D" amps tend to be extremely efficient because they only fire up when a signal is actually flowing through them. But it is difficult to get a "Class D" amplifier to sound good due to the on/off switching noise inherent in the design. Somehow Spectron must have found a way around this, as I did not notice any egregious distortion in the signal.  In fact, the system sounded quite nice with solid imaging and refined musicality.  

Spectron Musician II amplifier driving Vandersteen 5A loudspeakers.

Spectron Musician II amplifier driving Vandersteen 5A loudspeakers.

Most "Class A" tube amplifiers are lucky to have a 15% efficiency rating and even most Class AB solid state amps usually reach no more than 30% efficiency. Spectron claims a 95% efficiency rating of power consumed to power output.  

If you have a few amplifiers in your system and leave your system powered up all the time, this could actually decrease your utility costs a hundred dollars or more every month. I guess this makes it the first EnergyStar compliant high-end power amplifier. I can see the marketing campaign now: "Reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, buy a Spectron amplifier!"

On the analog front, Clearaudio was showing off their Master Reference AMGb turntable feeding Wavestream tube amplification and Avalon Acoustics loudspeakers.

Clearaudio Master Reference AMGb turntable
Clearaudio Master Reference AMGb.

And next door you could find the Quad 988ESL (pictured below) being driven by Airtight 211B monoblocks ($12,000/pr).  

Both systems sounded warm and liquid fed on a strictly vinyl diet.  

Quad 988ESL loudspeakers with Airtight amplification
Quad 988ESL loudspeakers with Airtight amplification.

In the "best snacks" department,
Resolution Audio provided a welcome relief to tired hungry audio geeks (like me) with free wine, cheese and hors d'oeuvres. And proving that they were indeed the "hostess with the mostest," they also asked me if I had any particular music I wanted to play. Well at this point I was getting so sick of the standard audiophile crap that I handed them my Beatles "1" CD. They happily put it on and played three rockin'  non-audiophile-approved tunes, and that's when the party started.  Wine, cheese, good electronics, accommodating hosts and "The Beatles" combined to make this a room the "most fun room at Home Entertainment 2003." People were piling in, stuffing their faces with endives, slopping down wine, and dancing in the aisles. A good time was had by all.

Jeff Kalt and Michael McDermott, from Resolution Audio.
Jeff Kalt and Michael McDermott, from Resolution Audio.

As for the actual equipment on display, Resolution was making some pleasant sounds with their CD player with volume control ($3,500), driving a pair of Avantgarde powered horns ($7,500/pr). They also had their integrated amp on hand ($2,500) and talked about plans to introduce a tuner in the near future. Resolution's components are mini-sized and modular. A single power supply box feeds multiple components with independent cords, and components fit together with a computer-style connector. Think of it as a high-end lifestyle system for those who want audiophile quality sound without components that dominate the living room. Resolution sells their gear factory-direct, and, taking notes from Dell, they make their components to order. They generally have a same-day turnaround. If you order an amp and CD player today, they can probably have them out the door today or tomorrow.        

Down the hall, J. Scott Russ from MSB Technology was playing Mr. DJ on a system comprised of MSB's Super DVD-Audio player ($7,999) which supports CD, DVD, SACD and DVD-Audio and has variable outputs for driving a power amp directly. That power amplifier in this case was provided by Atma-Sphere, and the speakers were Chesky's C1 reference monitors.  

MSB Technology with Chesky Speakers
J. Scott Rust from MSB prays to the great audio gods
that his demo will go over well... it sounded just fine.

Nearby was the room of Innersound, makers of tube and solid state amplifiers and electrostatic panel speakers.  They were annoying the hell out of the neighbors playing their Silver Eros, Mk III ($9,500 with active crossover electronics, $6,000 without) electrostatic loudspeakers and ESL800 monoblock amps ($6,800/pr.) at extremely high levels. Again, I whipped out my torturous Rush 2112 disc which Wes Bender their Director of Marketing cranked up for me with glee.  This system really rocked out, but with plenty of subtlety. I may have to get my hands on a pair of these for review. Innersound also offers pre-amplification, cables and a 400 GB music server that can store up to 1,000 of your favorite CDs with no compression or loss of quality.

Inner Sound Silver Eros, Mark III and ESL800 monoblock amplifier
Innersound's Silver Eros, Mark III loudspeakers and
ESL800 monoblock amplifiers really rocked the house!

Over in the Outlaw Audio room, they were demonstrating a $23,000 home theater system driven by a total of $1,598 in Outlaw Electronics. Like Resolution Audio, Outlaw offers their products directly to the public, so you eliminate the middleman and get an exceptionally high bang for your buck. One product that has done particularly well for them is their model 950 preamp/processor ($799), which supports Dolby Digital EX, DTS-ES, and Dolby ProLogic II. $799 may sound too good to be true for a preamp/processor, but things sounded pretty good in the Outlaw Audio room, so they must be doing something right. Mate it with the matching 7100 7-channel amplifier ($899) and you get an additional $100 off for a total price of $1,598, which is less than most high-end receivers.

Of course, it probably didn't hurt that the Outlaws were driving Atlantic Technology's new top-of-the-line 8200 surround speaker system ($10,000 to $25,000 depending on configuration and finish). In fact, this THX Ultra2-certified system certainly had a lot to do with the good sounds coming out of this room.

Outlaw model 950 preamp/processor exposed
Outlaw Model 950 pre-amplifier/processor exposed.

Rounding things out on Saturday was an offsite press conference at Dolby Labs, where several folks from Dolby, 5.1 Entertainment Group, Warner Music, and Meridian talked turkey about the present and future of DVD-Audio, including giving some sneak previews of upcoming DVD-Audio releases. After more wine, cheese and hors-d'euvres (are you sensing a trend here?), they rounded us up and sat us in the Dolby Theater for a series of presentations.  This was an updated version of the dvd audio conference first held in August of last year, and reviewed here.

DVD audio hardware
Dolby had on display some of the gear that currently supports
DVD-Audio from Denon, Pioneer, Panasonic, Meridian and others
(but not Sony... go figure).

The panel estimated that by 2004, 50% of all DVD players will include native support for DVD-Audio (though all DVD players can already play the Dolby Digital tracks on current DVD-Audio discs).  There are currently 500 DVD-Audio titles in the catalog with new labels coming on board all the time, including EMI, who has apparently vowed "aggressive support" for the format.  

The new Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac albums released earlier this year were released day and date on CD and DVD-Audio as will the upcoming "Best of REM" disc. New titles recently released or planned for release later this year include albums by Elvis Presley, the Flaming Lips, REM, Annie Lennox, Santana (Shaman and Supernatural) and Iggy Pop, plus several jazz and classical titles.

Also announced was the new DVD-Audio Marketing Council, which includes members from hardware manufacturers and labels who are dedicated to advancing the format. When I asked whether there was any intention to create a hybrid CD/DVD-Audio (so that you could buy one disc to use in your car, portable, home machine and computer) the reply from John Kellogg of Dolby was pretty encouraging. He said that plans to release a dual-layer disc where the CD layer and DVD-Audio layer were on the same side had been abandoned, however... "As Yoda said in Star Wars... there is another." I believe the implication of this was that every disc has two sides and there's nothing to stop anyone from putting out a dual-sided disc with DVD-A on one side and CD on the other. We shall see... In short, the future's looking pretty bright for DVD-Audio.

After the Dolby press event, we were whisked back to the hotel for our front-row VIP seats at the free Richard Thompson concert.  

Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson belts out a tune...

Ian White and Chris Boylan rock out to Richard Thompson
while crazed fans Ian White and Chris Boylan go wild.

Not just an excellent guitarist, Mr. Thompson is also an extremely entertaining performer. The high point of my evening was when he broke into his "1000 years of music" abbreviated medley which featured modern interpretations of a renaissance-era Italian diddy, an American folk tune (Shenandoah), and my personal favorite, Britney Spears' "Oops, I did it again" (needless to say, Thompson's version was superior to the original).  All in all, a nice way to finish off an excellent show.


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