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Home Entertainment 2003 Hi-Fi and Home Theater Event

Home Entertainment 2002

Saturday Live From San Francisco
By Ian White


  As the crowds streamed into the Westin-St. Francis on Saturday morning, Enjoy the Music.comô maven Steven R. Rochlin and I decided to make a break for it and walk around downtown San Francisco, as both of us needed some time away from the show.  The turn-out this year has been quite extraordinary considering the state of the economy (major kudos to the show's organizers for putting on such a great show), so it does seem that the industry is poised to get out of the funk that it has been in for close to two years.  Two things that really struck us as we walked through the rather upscale shopping district were the hemispheric prices in some of the stores, and the startling number of homeless people panhandling.  As we made our way closer to Chinatown, our ears perked up when we heard what sounded like a live Opera performance emanating from the rather ritzy Maiden Lane.

For two guys who walk around with digital cameras surgically embedded in their hands, we picked the wrong morning to leave our equipment at home.  A rather portly woman stood in the middle of the walkway that leads to some of the most expensive shops in the city, and with a ghetto blaster providing the music, belted out some of most beautiful opera that either of us have ever heard.  There was a magnificence to it that no system could ever reproduce.  It was one of the rare human moments where one human being with a breathtaking voice made a rather awed collection of strangers stop and admire something they are unlikely to ever hear again on the streets of any city.  It was depressing to observe as others walked past her as if she didnít exist on their way to Starbucks for another grande decaf skim mocha frappacino.  It makes you wonder sometimes.


France has taken quite a beating in our press over the past six months for their refusal to back Operation Iraqi Freedom and we were curious to see if any of the French manufacturers would maintain a lower profile at the show.  Thankfully, there was a lot of good French equipment in San Francisco and some of it was even affordable.  Triangle Electroacoustique introduced its new Stratos range this year with the 3-way Solis bookshelf monitor ($2,395 pair, $599 for the stands), and the 3-way Luna floor-stander ($3,995 pair).  Every speaker in the new line is available in both amber beech and mahogany finishes and are extremely efficient designs.  The Luna, in particular, was quite impressive as it belted out SRV's "Little Wing".  A Pathos integrated was used to drive both speakers. The Unico tube 24-bit CD player made its debut and it was hard not to be impressed by this Italian player.


As good as the CD player is, the real star of the room was the Unico 80 watt integrated amplifier ($1,350), which uses two ECC 82s and is available with a phono stage.  The Unico integrated is one of those "how do offer something that good for such a low price" products that are sadly rare.


The really big guns were saved for the room next door and our hosts graciously shut the door to the general public and let us sample Triangleís statement loudspeaker, the $33,000 Magellan 3-way, which uses eight drivers.  At 85.75 x 11 x 13.4 (HxWxD in inches), the Magellan are not exactly designed for smaller rooms.  While it may be difficult to judge the size of this speaker from the photographs, make no mistake about it Ė these 94dB/W/m towers are something to look up at and salivate over.  The loudspeaker is divided up into a midrange enclosure, bass enclosure, and stand and comes in a luxury walnut burr finish.


Driving the Andre' the Giant of French loudspeakers was the new Hovland Radia power amplifier and a pre-production version of a new Hovland pre-amplifier.  The Hovland power amplifier sounded slightly dry to my ears but had a tremendous grip on the Magellanís woofers and was extremely quick and agile sounding.  While its price has still not been determined, the Audio Aero Prestige SACD/DVD player sounded great in this system and it appears that the French manufacturer has introduced a truly high-end SACD player worthy of another listen.


As Saturday is the last day of my coverage, I want to comment on which room I really think stood out and my opinion on the direction of the industry.  Picking the "best" product of the show is a no-brainer for me.  I heard nothing that touched the Cain and Cain Studio Ben ES double-horns  ($12,500) and I hope that more people get to hear this superb example of sublime simplicity.  I know it seems odd that I would recommend the Studio Ben ES over the Avant-Garde Trio 3.0s, which are capable of brilliance, and have legions of fans, but the maple horns from Walla-Walla were better this weekend.  The Studio Ben ES need state-of-the-art amplification in order to shine and combined with the Art Audio PX-25 monoblocks and Carissa 845-based stereo amplifier, were hair-raising, heart-pounding good.

The strong attendance at this year's show was very encouraging as the past few shows that I have attended were less than packed or energetic.  The industry has been in a funk for more than 24 months, and if not for the tidal wave called "DVD" would be in very serious trouble.  While I love two-channel audio and would sell one of my arms for the entire array of equipment in the Cain and Cain, BAT/Avant-Garde, Manley/Joseph, or Naim rooms, the reality that we must all face is that the industry is doomed unless it can figure out how to successfully market high-end audio/video together.  The issue is not the quality of the equipment, but the lack of integration, the absence of affordable systems that really offer state-of-the-art performance, and the failure to educate women consumers (and not by offering pink faceplates) about how high-end audio/video will enhance their lives.


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