Part 1: Under the Radar
Since Josh was able to grab me press credentials for HE 2006, I owed him. And I had anticipated that writing something here—however late—would return the favor, but I’m guessing that rescuing him from lecture hell covered the press pass. In fact, when the ballroom door opened, and Josh staggered out into the lobby, I caught a look at a slice of my assembled press companeros--and I started thinking maybe this press-thing might not exactly be wicked fun. I had trusted the “badge” was my ticket to a bunch of solo flying from sweet spot to sweet spot through the Sheraton rooms: left pretty much alone for an entire opening day listening through muy expensive gear. And, well, yes, from time to time it was like that. But there’s little peace when, settled in for tunes, you’re being eyeballed by hopeful distributors, dealers, and manufacturers, or by suspicious press vets that remind you of the most disapproving Brother from Catholic high school--so half of Thursday was spent schmoozing with other press and reassuring those demonstrating their equipment.
I am, by the way, a terrible schmoozer. Josh was happy to engage any and all in intense discourse about how the old guard (basically everybody there) might engage—or at least acknowledge--the next gen of music and sound addicts; Danny Kaey, who sometime between Thursday and Friday picked us up (or did we pick him up?), would simultaneously charm and torment everyone around him. I just wanted to ask exhibitors and press alike, “Can you hear how goofy this room sounds?” I didn’t. I just tagged along trying hard to be invisible, thinking that this was really the Stereophile show to be a civilian. And that’s because I could have flown around a whole lot more easily sans press badge. This was the show to which practically nobody came. On Sunday, in particular, sweet spots were on offer in abundance. I’ve been to every Stereophile show in LA and San Francisco, and this one was, well, intimate: which made it, for those who came, a great show. But it was also a small show. Manufacturers missing in action included—off the top of my head, and among many others—Krell, Martin Logan, Mark Levinson, Revel, Kharma, Talon, Avalon, most of the Brits (Spendor, Tannoy, Harbeth, Wilson-Benesch, Naim and Linn) and Stereophile’s own (non-Wilson) house speaker, Focal/JM Lab. They weren’t there probably in anticipation that not a lot of folk would be there either. They were right.
2. The Audio Show
I just realized that I’ve yet to offer Josh much opportunity to wedge some pictures inside the text. When I look at show reports, I want to see pictures. Sorry.
A word about audio—er, Home Entertainment—shows. They are a lot like auto shows without handsome young ladies with mics wedged into décolletage informing you about the product. In part, you ogle and climb around the hot new toys on display: with the significant exception that at an audio show you get to take the stuff out for a drive. Sort of. I mean you actually get to listen: you don’t simply fantasize over how what’s there will perform. Through all of the room problems, the easy listening jazz and uncomplicated female vocals, the peculiar CDs that show goers sometimes hand the poor guy who is demoing the system, you get to listen. And you take away impressions. The guys—it was always guys last weekend—who demo want in fact to impress you.
Now folks who write show reports by and large avoid sharing unfavorable impressions. (Late Thursday afternoon, one distributor offered his opinion to our small cadre that the Show was the worst sounding show he’d ever attended, and believe me you won’t read that in a Stereophile show report or blog. I thought—even on Thursday evening—that, once you allowed for the various strange room interactions some exhibitors apparently couldn’t hear, it was a pretty good sounding show; and by Sunday rooms sounded much better.) Sometimes grumbling is just unfair to all those who went to the trouble to pay for the room space and show off their equipment. I had a pair of LINN Active Isobarik speakers in use for over fifteen years. The one time I heard them demoed at a show, they sounded just horrible. They weren’t horrible at home: although it took about a day of listening after hearing them at the show for me to regain peace of mind, and kill the urge to run out and buy new speakers.
Understand that what anyone hears—or thinks they hear—at a show is just that brief, no doubt sometimes unrepresentative, impression of the sound on demonstration. In this rambling, sort of sideways, “show report,” I’m really interested in sharing what I believe are the kind of impressions the show that just happened in LA had, or could have had, on the next generation of audio souls. Some of these are pedestrian impressions of the sound and the gear: others are of the silent, and often unintended, messages the audio business was sending out. And, oh, I’m at least as interested in what the unraveling hi-fi biz mucks up as I am in what it does well.
3. Wilson World
The symbolic capital of high end audio is 2233 Mountain Vista Lane, Provo, Utah. Wilson Audio’s loudspeakers have for years now been at the heart of the dialogue about what is, and what should be, the nature of high end sound. Paper press and webzines alike have seemed to embrace each new model, or at least the updates to the iconic Watt/Puppies, as the new “references.” And the brand has an extraordinarily loyal following: buoyed by Dave Wilson’s having the business sense to survive and prosper for two decades. The Wilsons also generate a remarkable amount of animus—some, undoubtedly from folks who find themselves on the wrong side of their wallets when considering speaker purchases; but some from folks who simply find the performance disappointing. I prefer not to either get too worked up by someone preferring something that I might not; or to worry about whether or not there might be similar sound for fewer dollars. But the Wilsons are surely one of the most interesting phenomena of the last couple of decades of audio.
I was in fact at the 1986 LA Stereophile show when the Watts—no Puppies, Puppy Tails, or versions 2 through 7 yet—were first introduced. This year’s show marked the twentieth anniversary of Wilson trying to keep those original shrieking little devils from singeing ears.
The speaker has for some time been a very different animal than the original. At this year’s show, the 7s as well as the new 8s, if I remember correctly, were there for the listening. The 7s—unless I have them mixed up with the Sophias (speakers were, in fact, the Watt 3 and Puppy 2s. See comments for full details - Ed.) —demoed along with the introduction of new silly expensive cables and interconnects from Legenburg were tonally convincing, though to my ears had some of what I think of as a “hi-fi” sheen that makes you aware of the reproducer even while it flatters the music by making it just a bit more rounded than my experience either of live music or of live mic feeds. (Of course were I introducing wires insanely priced I would hope the room would lift all who listened to Nirvana. It didn’t: but more about wires later.) Assuming this is really an artifact of the speaker, the 8s, as demoed, seem to have edited it out: though they with Audio Research electronics also sounded tonally a bit desiccated compared to the other Wilsons I heard. What I wished the Watt/Puppies did better? Well, dynamics. With the demos I heard—and since I only got to the 8s on Sunday, I missed Dave giving the programmed demo Josh describes—music was polite, appealing, but not particularly ready to bounce. And it is this I find particularly disappointing, and with this that my taste veers away from not only from Wilsons, but also from many of the other speaker/amp combinations on display.
The best sound from Wilsons was I thought from the Sophias in Brook Berdan’s room. With VTL electronics, they sounded harmonically sweeter—and more satisfying—than the 8s, and less hi-fi than the 7s—or were they other Sophias?—in their set up. Still, no bounce. But one real virtue of all the Wilsons at the show is that they worked in their rooms. With the music I heard demoed, none of them exhibited room anomalies that many speakers more attractive to my own tastes did. So, you have one reason those who can afford it are willing to open their wallets: W/Ps and Sophias are apt to work fairly well near a front wall in medium sized rooms. They don’t eat up the living room. They also come in cool colors that, I assume, make them an easier sell to wary spouses. Bugatti Blue is pretty great; even if it really looks to me like Bentley Blue, and—while I’m thinking about upscale autos—even if Wilsons seem a whole lot more like Mercedes than Bugattis. Dave, I think, is on the money with his automotive finishes. And I’m guessing that the coming generation of audiophiles—and there will indeed be one—is a whole lot more concerned with looks than the current one that sometimes puts up with some just ridiculous, and in some cases embarrassingly amateurish, design in the name of audio perfection.
Coming Up in Part Two: How Much Can You Afford?