Another month, another reference to high end watches - haute horology - vis-a-vis high end audio. But, is there really any sort of formal alignment in reality, or is this merely another feeble attempt at attempting correlation without causation? Writes Srajan of 6Moons fame, “There’s no justification for high prices relative to time keeping”as he opined about said similarities between the watch and audio industries. Problem is, that while audio folks and marketeers would love to have strong correlations between these two industries, I just don’t see them, strictly speaking as someone who’s into horological time pieces myself.
First, to start with Srajan’s point, high prices in high end audio aren’t necessity relative or indicative to playback quality (or quantity) either. Case in point, mega-buck separates that don’t bring any more fidelity than a 30 year old Mac stack. Second, the horological industry as a whole is vastly, and I do mean vastly bigger than all of high end audio put together times one thousand. Thus, simply from a market cap / visibility perspective, high end audio is utterly dwarfed by Switzerland’s largest export good (next to chocolate of course). Third, the value proposition in high end audio is completely out of whack. Cables selling for tens of thousands of dollars vs. an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chrono retailing for $22k is positively hair raising to an outsider looking in. Fourth, the time keeping industry as a whole is running a far higher clout factor compared to the little peanuts we are. Take for example the media coverage just one swiss watch show produces via the usual suspects at Hodinkee, Haute Time or Worn & Wound and you’ll see the rift we are up against.
Finally, there’s just the overall quality of reporting that is just hilariously stacked against high end audio. Take for example the following two video reports to see what I mean:
AV Showroom reporting on whatevertheheckIcan’tevenwatchthis, vs. Hodinkee’s Basel show video, illustrates the point to a T.
Reporting and video issues aside, there’s a glimmer of hope with new sites like New Record Day, hosted by the affable Ron Brenay, which are gaining momentum and driving excitement towards high end audio.
Thus, while I personally would love to see high end audio elevated to the status of haute horology, we still have ways to go and the work that needs to be done to get there won’t be all peaches. I’ve always said that high end audio needs to simmer down each of the various factions and get behind a band wagon to lead the business to the 21st century. Time will tell!
Sunday. Sunday. Fabio Storelli, proprietor of Alma Audio in La Jolla, California, hosted a terrific audio event full of the usual gizmos and gadgets audiophiles come to expect. The faithful gathered July 19 and 20, 2015 for an audio extravaganza. More of a “society” event - that is, audio society - notable luminaries like Yoav Geva and Dick Diamond (YG Acoustics), Dan D’Agostino (D’agostina Masters Audio Systems) and Joe Kubala (Kubala-Sosna cables) were in attendance as well. Smart. So what exactly does one get from such an event? Naturally, a full belly for one, as delicious cuisina-Mexicana was on tap; alas, everyone of course was there to see, hear and mingle with the latest and greatest.
Tired of checking in with your local audio show? No problem. Set your sights to your favorite audio salon’s iCal and follow the tune. Seems like these types of events are popping up everywhere. As Ted Turner famously said, “Only more is more”. Fair enough. While I delight in the sights of Yoav, Dan and Joe, I often ponder the effect on the general audio populus. Surely, Shirley, said populus must agree with such sentiment. IDK. Maybe? I think it depends on the audience. The converted seem to know the message already. Hi-Fi is what it is. How does one reach the audience at ground zero? Maybe that’s too lofty a goal. Maybe it is in fact the focus on the lowest hanging fruit that will bear the most rewards. IDK. What I do know is that those already reached have a distinctly different need that needs to be met. It follows then that one should have a different curriculum for those yet uninitiated. Therein lies the rub, how do you do that?
Food for further thought. Not like that conversation has never taken place. Alma Audio makes a good start: from entry level to highest end, you can shop for records and buy a new ’table or accessory. All set in a homely surrounding to boot. Headphones I heard are next. That’s clever and in line with the latest trends. The rest? Perhaps an invitation to those not yet initiated is in order. Keep the tacos, add the educational component. You hear this, because of that. If your average La Jollian looks to Bose as high-end, there’s not a glimmer of hope we can connect them to $78k YG Sonja 1.2s. However, if we educate them and reach them at ground zero… food for thought. As once famously said: “if you can explain the why, the how will follow”. I agreed then, I agree now. Enjoy the pics! See you all soon.
Over at Stereophile, Robert Schryer (newbie to Stereophile? I confess that I haven’t read anything by him before) speaks of his mom’s quest to identify audiophilia nervosa:
"The times they may be a-changin', but I believe they bode well for audiophiles. In terms of playback gear, we're at a historic juncture of quality, price, and options. We can now own several different sources of superior sound reproduction for what it used to cost to install just one in a dedicated listening room. Plus, there's that other thing that makes my heart tingle again: the anticipation of what's coming up next, just around the corner from where we're all standing now."
Agreed. I’d also add that we haven’t seen this kind of massive product expansion ever (in the history of high performance audio or anywhere else audio related for that matter) and as such the question begs: what exactly is an audiophile these days? It seems that the lines have been blurred considerably and notably so. The description, in my humble opinion, has changed dramatically. More on that in a bigger post, soon enough.
Though there were really two rooms for Jonathan Tinn to showcase his latest wares (I suppose four rooms if you consider the darTZeel integrated in the SF room and the system setup in the PF hospitality suite), I only managed to spend time in the big room, whilst taking a snapshot pic of the small room. Go figure. It appears that after years of fronting shows with their highly regarded Evolution Acoustics Micro One speakers (mini-monitors, which I am writing a review about at PF), Jonathan decided it’s time to upgrade: MMTwo was the name of the game. Maximum Musicality is indeed what I then heard for an altogether too short visit. As mentioned earlier, Dean Martin’s Dream with Dean sounded big, bold and powerful - and certainly judging by the lines of people out the door to have a listen, most everyone seemed to agree.
The rest of the playback chain was darTZeel’s new NHB-18NS preamp, the all new and exciting looking LHC-208 “danalogue” streaming DAC avec integrated amplifier and last but not least, Wavekinetics NVS Reference direct drive ’table (for which I am also penning a review this summer). All in all, top shelf components - particularly, the LHC-208 (who’s big brother, the CTH-8850 played in my reference system for well over 2 years and was reviewed here) seems interesting: an all in one integrated with built in hi-res DAC (handling PCM and DSD) is just about all one needs as a center piece of a modern Hi-Fi setup. Price point around $15k. Should be selling well judging from the performance points witnessed and heard. The NVS Reference on the other hand is indeed a reference level ‘table that when matched with the appropriate arm / cartridge combo does deliver exquisite sounds. Overall a great room with hospitality to boot.
No stranger to the SF (and PF) band - we have been using EINSTEIN gear as our reference for the last 2+ years - EINSTEIN teamed up with AudioMachina, TechDAS and Bob Graham of Graham Engineering, to deliver the goods. Delivery charge induced. Tips optional. Having said that, if this room were a restaurant establishment, tips would have been ringing at the register quite loudly. Several people I spoke with mentioned this room to have been one of the best sounding at the show. Easy to see why: EINSTEIN brought out the big guns, running The Preamp ($30k), a pair of bi-amped The Poweramp ($30k each) and showing off the latest prototype version of the soon to be released The Phono preamp (exact pricing has not yet been released, however, is rumored to be roughly around $10k for the single input setup - optionally, you can also order it with a dual input which in this case means two completely separate phono amplifier sections, a rare novelty even in these price circles).
EINSTEIN’s electronics fed AudioMachina’s big speaker, The Maestro; source was TechDAS Air Force One with Graham Engineering’s latest Phantom II Supreme tonearm and the all new EINSTEIN The Pickup cartridge. And that’s just for starters in the big room. The secondary suite utilized EINSTEIN’s The Tune integrated amp with The Little Big Phono sourced by TechDAS’ Air Force Two along with AudioMachina’s CRS compact bookshelf loudspeaker. As I could tell, cabling was all EINSTEIN as well, respectively their The Flash and The Thunder interconnects and speaker cables. Judging from observers walking into the SF room mentioning how they heard someone else was using EINSTEIN gear, the sound appeared at once cohesive, dynamic and very open. Given that EINSTEIN distributes both AudioMachina and TechDAS in their native Germany, I wasn’t entirely surprised by their choice of components.
When I had a chance to sample the room for an all too brief moment of mere minutes, I heard much the same qualities - particularly the smaller system played well beyond its apparent means. What stood out the most was the quality of each of the sources: TechDAS obviously has the know-how of decades worth of engineering and manufacturing capabilities, not to mention the obvious financial wherewithal to build such amazing components in first place - an all too often overlooked component of the high-end industry at large. Ideas are plentiful: the means of realizing them into reality quite lacking, most of the time. That EINSTEIN’s big components sounded great was no surprise, what was a surprise is how well the all new The Tune integrated played. Immediately seen and heard as an EINSTEIN component (dynamic realism, extended and open sound), it really mated very well with AudioMachina’s little speakers. The new, The Phono, in development for some 3+ years, shows great signs of taking the crown of their existing The Turntable’s Choice phono stage. Handsomely packaged the all too often heard - “hey, what’s in those cylinder shaped boxes” - should become a mute conversation starter soon enough. Immediately apparent was the dramatically lowered (+6db!) noise floor of this new phono stage, which, seemingly sounds unheard of: the existing TTC already has such a vanishingly low noise floor that I always use my favorite “demo” to unsuspecting fellow ‘philes. Turn up the volume and put your ears next to the tweeter… silence is golden (says AMC Theaters). This could become a new reference phono stage regardless of price and competition.
Bob Graham, always the gentleman was also on hand to discuss the virtues of his latest creation, The Phantom II Supreme tonearm. Affable, to the point and always happy to get into the nitty-gritty of his engineering efforts, his latest arm does in fact mate well with the overall function of these TechDAS ‘tables. While I am not entirely familiar with Bob’s designs - other than the rudimentary - the sound approached a certain effortlessness, drive and punch that is hard to come by with vinyl playback. No doubt in a more closed environment - read: less noisy environment - these qualities would come through even more.
Much to my surprise, AudioMachina doesn’t seem to have too large a following stateside: according to Karl Europe and Asia in particular are his two main business partners. Come to think of it, I don’t ever recall seeing a recent review of their speakers either. Shame, as they did really sound rather great - given that they are manufactured close to Loveland, Colorado to boot, this is even more of a surprise. Then again, nothing surprises me in high end audio these days. Look for a post mortem analysis-paralysis of the show at SF soon - I certainly took copious notes of various conversations and observations. Stay tuned!
The invitation was emailed to everyone and anyone. I always new that Chad Kassem (AcousticSounds) spinning his latest TPs (that’s a test pressing for a record prior to getting the green light for production - for those of you in Rio Linda) would command attention. Cue crowd control. If the SonicFlare music room had been the size of a gala event, I bet we would have packed the house. Simply put, Chad is the master of reissues - yes, there are others of course who put concern and thought into each of their reissue projects, alas, I don’t know of anyone who does it to the extreme as Chad does. From sourcing the best possible tapes (the term “Master” has been thrown around so loosely lately that you do have to wonder at times) to faithfully recreating the jackets and artwork to distributing his wares globally - in one word: amazing.
Promptly at 430pm Chad opened his bag of goodies and started playing some new stuff off freshly cut lacquers: next up, he will be reissuing 25 titles from the vaults of the famous Contemporary label. Home to such artists as Shelly Manne, Jack Marshall, Ornette Coleman and André Previn, this lineup of titles ought to be another runaway hit. Needless to say the sound coming off the Brinkmann / Transfiguration combo sounded crazy good: tight, dynamic, clean, with great extension and a freshness you’d think these titles came off the studio just yesterday (cough, cough, if only the stuff coming out of studios yesterday would sound half as good…).
Another runaway hit will undoubtedly be Nina Simone’s first album, Little Girl Blue, originally released on Bethlehem records. Perhaps - heck, for sure - one of the top 50 jazz albums of all time, Chad’s reissue (from the original tapes, guaranteed), sounded stunning. As in jaw dropping. As in your socks and shoes just fell off. Seriously. Nina Simone is quite literally in your room - now, I have what is considered to be a very “good” original 1st pressing with a remarkably clean cover courtesy of my friend and local record dealer Bob Donnelly, which I paid top dollars for. In fact, if you look for clean copies on eBay or Discogs, you will probably have to part with at least $100 for your aural pleasures. But even as good - and important it is to have an original - Chad’s reissue is simply put leaps ahead. Released in 1958, the sound is at once riveting, soulful and intimate to the core. This record will move your soul - guaranteed.
Beethoven’s 6th read by the immortal Bruno Walter on double 45 is also coming soon, as is the one record no one has ever! played at an audio show: Nils Lofgren, Acoustic Live. Even though this is a digital recording, the sound via record seemed to carry much more body and weight; speed and dynamics. This became clearly evident as we pitted Chad’s upcoming release with the standard fare CD rip I had on my LaCie Thunderbolt drive. Audiophiles all over the world will rejoice with this one!
Lastly, and perhaps most personal to me, Chad cued up what surely was in fact the runaway hit at Newport this year: Dean Martin’s Dream with Dean on double 45. The history of this reissue dates back to my early childhood memories: growing up in Vienna, Austria, Dean Martin (and Jerry Lewis) were my two big movie heroes growing up. That Dean Martin, nay Dino Paul Crocetti, became the highest paid actor at the height of his career (receiving a cool $1 million for his role in Airport plus percentage points off the backend) and an accomplished singer, crooner was only a natural progression of his career. In short: Dean was a stud. It must have been five, maybe 6 years that I kept bugging - nudging - Chad to reissue this record. Naturally, everyone has a title they want Chad to reissue, alas, once Chad heard the record, all engines were set to full steam ahead. Upon the first needle drop, you realize why this record became such a success: Dean and his trio are in your room - period. The sound coming off the SonicFlare system was simply to die for, at once dynamic, life-like and of highest purity. Easily one of the finest test records you can use to judge a system’s sound, I heard some good, some not so good renders at the show. A keeper if ever there was one! Pressed at QRP and out now at AcousticSounds.
Let’s face it: all of us in this hobby owe a great deal of gratitude to Chad Kassem and his team at AcousticSounds - his fanatical insistence to cover the most minute details of a reissue are what make these so incredibly great to begin with. Thanks for all you do! (Let’s do this again in a bigger room next year…)
In all the craziness leading up to the show, I almost forgot a small little detail: take note of the new SonicFlare logo - more to come. We hope you like it, as it represents a new chapter in the SonicFlare brand. All hail Josh Ray!
The problem with hosting your own room and hospitality suite is that you just don’t get around too much - even as Eric Johnson was helping as eMCe, I simply didn’t have the time to go to all the rooms I had planned to cover as part of the show. Alas, I did make it to a few: YG Acoustics was playing several systems, one featuring the big Sonja 1.3 and a smaller system playing the Carmel 2 loudspeaker. Each had their own unique sound; each embodied YG’s philosophy of speed, accuracy and dynamic agility. Of course, the Sonja 1.3 setup held its own with life-sized imaging, dynamics and overall gestalt. Having seen the power of Arian Jansen’s SonoruS Proximity Bass Control System in action (in several rooms at the show and of course in my own digs at the show and at home), I would almost say it’s a prerequisite for any system, show or not. Did I mention that crooner Dean Martin's Dream with Dean, (DKs inspired Chad Kassem reissue project available here), was playing in just about every room? Needless to say, the record sold out in an instant. Well done!
(YG Sonja 1.3 courtesy of GTT Audio’s Bill Parish; YG Carmel 2 courtesy of Alma Audio and Video, La Jolla CA)