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Home Entertainment Expo 2005 Show Report

By Chris Boylan

Hey... Where'd Everybody Go?

Part II

  Next stop on the never-ending home entertainment joy ride was Kaleidescape.  This media server company has gotten some press lately for the frivolous (in my humble opinion) lawsuit aimed at them by the DVD Copy Control Association (DVDCCA). Apparently the DVDCCA maintains that Kaleidescape's media servers are making "illegal" copies of DVDs.  Kaleidescape maintains that, since they actually paid to license the CSS Decryption technology from the DVDCCA, and since their customers are only backing up their own DVDs onto the media server, their use falls under the "Fair Use" provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. I wish them luck, because their media server is decidedly cool.

Kaleidescape rips all of the content of your entire DVD collection into a massive expandable server, then links up to a database of artwork and credits so you can browse your entire movie collection by cover art (on your TV or projection screen), or search or sort movies by actor, by genre and/or by director or studio.  You can instantly watch just the movie (without all those annoying semi-mandatory trailers) or skip straight to favorite scenes or extras - it's your choice.  And in a very nice interactive touch, if you highlight a particular DVD on the menu, then after a few seconds Kaleidescape rearranges the other DVD covers on screen to suggest other similarly themed DVDs that you also might be interested in watching.  Since the content is ripped digitally, with no additional compression, the picture quality is identical to the original DVD.  The Kaleidescape system supports High Definition content and playback - it even ships with some HD samples and the HD version of "Video Essentials" (for system calibration) - but it does not currently have a way of capturing HD content from any consumer HD source.

Kaleidescape enables you to interact with your movie collection
in ways previously not possible.

Kaleidescape systems are comprised of servers for media storage, DVD readers for ripping your content, and players to playback the titles, linked to each other via high bandwidth network connections.  The System K3000 ($22,500) comes with a K2500 server with four 400-GB cartridges which will store at least 180 DVDs (expandable up to 12 cartridges or 660 movies), one DVD reader and one movie player.  The system also includes the necessary software to control the system and one year access to the online database of movie artwork and credits (movie "meta data").  It supports up to 5 independent playback zones.  The System K3500 ($30,000) supports up to 25 different independent playback zones.  "This comes in handy," explains Kaleidescape's Michael Malcolm, "for our customers with really large... yachts."  Yes that's right, the home is a nice place to put a Kaleidescape but it makes so much more sense in a yacht... a really big yacht.

Next up was the Joseph Audio / Manley Labs room where Jeff Joseph was showing off his new Pearl Center ($11,000) loudspeaker mated with a stereo pair of Pearls.   In what I consider the "odd choice" department, Joseph decided to show off these babies in a three channel system, featuring a handful of three-channel classical SACDs recently released.  And just when I thought I was getting good at explaining to my two-channel buddies why they need 5 channels (and vice versa) along comes three channel to mix things up again. 

Joseph Audio's new Pearl Center loudspeaker was
being driven to good effect by a Manley 250 Tube Amp.

And Manley was enabling the madness with their Ghidorah three channel line stage controller ($3,000).  Hey, you could use two for ultra-pure 6 channel sound (but I don't think that was the point)!  OK, I officially give up. The three channels they did have sounded excellent as usual, with a wide and deep cohesive soundstage and fine dynamics. 

Manley's Ghidorah line stage includes three count-em THREE line inputs and outputs for a single source.
The name, of course, comes from the mythical three-head beastie.

And from the choirs of angels, and mythical beasts, I plunged into the devilish squeaks and rumblings of what may have been the worst sound at the show, courtesy of BodySound. The BodySound chair ($2375 to $2875, depending on options), was billed as "the most Dramatic Experiential Development and Technological Breakthrough for Your Home Entertainment System."  In reality though, the BodySound appeared to be a flimsily constructed recliner with tinny-sounding built-in speakers and mechanical transducers that converted movie soundtracks and music to distracting vibrations and muffled unintelligible sounds. The bizarre part is that the BodySound reps actually seemed to think that people liked what they heard.  Fellow audio geek Len Schneider put it succinctly when he said "that may be the first time in my life that female vocals have vibrated my backside."  Well, Len, despite the fact that you need to get out more, your comment was right-on.  If a chair is going to rumble, then let it rumble with just the lowest frequency sounds -- like Monster Cable's "Action Couch" or recliners that have built in "butt-kicker" transducers.  If you're going to build in speakers for audio listening, then put them just near the ears, not near the butt cheeks. I'm afraid this was one of those ideas that looked really good on paper but just didn't quite cut it in reality.    

The BodySound chair was certainly one of the more "unusual" exhibits at the show.

In a more traditional showing, April Music highlighted their new multi-channel preamp/processor, the Stello SP200 ($3,995, June 2005) which was making some wonderful sounds with April Music CD transport and amplification, and NHT speakers all around.  The preamp/processor includes no video switching so it can maintain higher purity of the audio signal path and processing.  For video duties, you'd need to use the inputs built into your display device or add on a fine scaler/switcher form a company like DVDO or similar.  The SP200 features Dolby PLII (but not PLIIx), Dolby Digital EX, DTS ES, DTS NEO 6, and MPEG2 (D.A. and AAC) audio processing.  It features an eight-channel analog-only bypass mode for DVD-A and SACD, as well as a 24-it/192kHz upsampling DAC for pristine reproduction of two channel digital sources. Like any good preamplifier should, it did not get in the way of the music, presenting excellent spatiality and a balanced tonal blend.   

April Music's multi-channel preamp/processor and CD player.

April Music's Stello MP200 features digital, analog, and balanced analog inputs
as well as balanced and unbalanced analog outputs, but no video inputs or switching. 

Roy Hall's Music Hall room always provides a safe haven from the din and mayhem of the show.  A carefully matched set of components (most, if not all Scottish), making some lovely music accompanied by a fine Scotch Whiskey - what more is there to life than this? 

Music Hall MMF-9 turntable.

This year, Roy had fun putting together what some would call a hopelessly mismatched system: $14,000 worth of electronics and source components driving $1350 worth of loudspeakers. But it actually sounded quite good.  It was comprised of a Shanling T-300 tube CD player ($6,995), Creek 5350 SE Mk.2 integrated amp ($1,995), Music Hall MMF-9 turntable and Maestro cartridge ($750), Whest Audio PS.20 phono stage ($2595), Epos M5 bookshelf loudspeakers ($650/pair) with Epos ST35 stands ($200/pair) and an Epos ELS Subwoofer ($700).

The gorgeous Shanling tube CD player and Creek integrated amp.

The system produced excellent dynamics and an almost tangible sense of space. Proving once again, that "if it's not Scottish, it's crap!"  Now can I have that scotch you promised, Roy?  Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh.

The excellent Epos M5 loudspeaker and ELS
subwoofer were anything but out of their league.

After chilling in the Music Hall room for a while, I bumped into headphone guru and old CompuServe CE Forum buddy, Tyll Herstens from Headroom, purveyors of portable pleasures.  I'm not sure if Tyll was too cheap or just too cool to have his own static display (maybe both), but I believe Tyll had the only fully mobile "booth" at the show.  He was sneaking up on unsuspecting press folks and immersing us in unexpected aural delights (that's "aural" not "oral") with a set of Sennheiser cans hooked up to his new "Microstack" ($600).  Headroom's Microstack is a portable system comprised of a stackable mini DAC and headphone amp strapped to an HP iRiver MP3 player (sold separately, iPods also invited). This is the first in a new line for Headroom with built in DACs that accept input from either Toslink or USB. When I asked if there was a Bose headphone option, he had some choice words for me that cannot be repeated in polite company (I believe they were "Fuck off!" but I'm sure he meant it in the nicest possible way). 

The Headroom micro-stack.

What makes the Micro Stack cool (other than its excellent sound quality and portability) is that it's equally at home with PCs, laptops and Macs as it is with portable audio and video players.  Wire it up to your laptop via USB for high quality playback of music files on your computer, then when you need to go on the road, just unplug the USB cable, plug in the TOSlink digital or analog audio output of your portable player and keep right on listening to tunes on your iPod, XM2Go - any portable device you like.

Tyll Herstens from Headroom shows off his little stack to Enjoy The Music.com™'s own Steve Rochlin.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Headroom's digital portable gadgetry was an equally impressive display of non-portable analog technology -- the ELP laser turntable.  A laser device that's analog, you say?  You're darn tootin!  The ELP turntable ($14,999 to $18,999 depending on options) uses no less than 5 low-powered (and completely non-destructive) lasers to analyze the groove of a standard black vinyl record (33, 45 or 78 RPM), adjust the height of the disc on the platter and then read in the recorded information from the groove. It converts the oscillated laser light, reflecting off the groove directly into varied voltage which is then converted directly into good old-fashioned analog audio, with no digitization or sampling to mess up the audio chain. 

The industrial design of the ELP turntable stresses function over form.

The big advantages of a laser turntable over the traditional diamond-in-groove arrangement is that with a laser, there is no additional wear on the album, and the laser reads the musical information from a part of the groove that is generally untouched by traditional styli, so it's less likely to be damaged. The unit can be purchased with a built-in RIAA phono preamp/EQ or without one so you can use your existing phono preamp.  Sound quality was quite good, even on albums that looked pretty beat up and scratched. The eerie thing is the near complete absence of surface noise.  Oh you do hear the occasional tick or pop when it encounters a crack or defect in the groove, but nothing like what you hear when a diamond is dragged over vinyl.  The ELP turntable also identifies number of tracks and track length (by scanning the complete record side in high speed when you first insert the platter).  So vinyl lovers can now enjoy the convenience of the digital age with remote control access to specific tracks.  For record lovers who are tired of the constant tweaking of a traditional LP front end, for libraries and for collectors who want to make the most of potentially compromised records, the ELP laser turntable may be just what the Record Doctor ordered.


Continue to Part III, including High Water Sound's tweak-fest, Mark Levinson's Burwen Bobcat, Odyssey's Art series of loudspeakers, Naim, Butler Audio, Von Schweikert, Innersound and Boylan's Best in Show.













































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