HE2006: After the Ball is Over: Part 4
by JB on July 03 '06
Part Four: “Sizing” up the High End
(read part three)
Not for a second, by the way, am I offering the lame nonsense of pushing thousands of dollars of electronics and speakers at you as some sort of outrageous bargain. Just passing along that the ceiling for the most impressive toys, based on the sound demonstrated at HE 2006, is a lot lower than high end insiders make it out to be. In any event, the three terrific rooms above are for most folk just beside the point. In college, in graduate school, and for some time after as I slogged through my first jobs, I never had a room in which any one of these speakers might work well. I’m assuming that the same is the case for many SonicFlare readers. Dedicated listening room? Not for most folks.
Through the years, I have read with both astonishment and amusement reviews from critics whose reference systems included enormous speakers shoehorned into tiny rooms. I’m guess I’m willing to believe—after a stern lecture to myself about individual tastes—at least one of these writers must have received real satisfaction from 6 foot speakers functioning sort of like headphones; but I’m pretty sure that same satisfaction (well, more satisfaction, I’m betting) would have been available from a system with speakers sized for the room. For years, John Atkinson reviewed with stand mounted two ways: which I’ve always taken as one of the many signs he’s surreptitiously sent to the outside world that he possesses more common sense than any of the critics, perhaps excepting Mr. Holt, who’ve passed through the Big Two of the American audiophile press. (I still worry a bit, however, about the unhealthy attachment he had for the DOA Celestion SL600s.)
For many, maybe most, audiophiles, and certainly for the generation about to join the club, the best speakers in the world will be much smaller than almost anything displayed at the show. And even the luxury lines get this. Revel jumped into the high end with their compact Gems, Magico offers a $20k two-way, and Wilson has been offering the small Cubs for years. Wilson, in fact, has just released a new small speaker, the Duette, whose website promotion is a hoot—touting the Duette as a “special applications” product designed to work in “hostile environments.” In other words, it’s a speaker that’s supposed to work in a real room. Amazing.
Smaller speakers offer disproportionate enjoyment because their absolute liabilities are negligible in the rooms in which they are used. They tend to offer smaller images and soundstaging than larger speakers. Big deal. Enormous presentations in small rooms might be impressive, but nearly always are more distracting than involving. In the smaller rooms of my house, or in the many rooms I plopped the stereo system in during the lean years, the size of the images was proportional to the room and enabled even large scale pieces to be musically coherent and seductive. Small speakers don’t have low bass. Well, yes. But small rooms really don’t manage low bass particularly well: as was demonstrated repeatedly at the June show. And with smaller speakers, you have significant control of bass quality as well as overall tonal balance by simply experimenting with placement in relation to boundaries. And then, a brave new world of small, often powered, subs with room correction has opened up a door to absolutely tuning and maximizing sound for the space. The bigger the room, the bigger the speaker, the bigger is the pain in the ass getting music into your home. The bigger the speaker, the smaller the room, the more likely you have just flushed a lot of dollars down the toilet.
The best news, however, is that the finest speakers in the world for our “hostile environments” are, and will be, almost certainly far less expensive than most of the speakers displayed at the show, including those with crazy price tags. The original Watt demonstrated vividly that a zoomy price and love from the press don’t equate to musical satisfaction. Unrealistically priced two ways have to compete with designs that won’t impoverish, and many of these have a long track record of delivering genuine musical satisfaction. It’s useful to remember that ultra high prices together with the promise of sci-fi technologies and materials make us all giddy; and, at least from what I’ve observed, make the audio press giddier even than the rest of us—in fact damn near drooling and enfeebled. There’s a possibility that the Magico Mini might well be magical: but I’m guessing it is more apt to sound, like the Revel Gem for example, like just another fine speaker when listened to within the context of a modestly sized room.
That there weren’t more rooms dedicated to “real world systems” at HE 2006 was a bit of a disappointment. But then, I might, in scurrying about have simply missed some. (I more or less followed the whim of the moment: not at the time expecting for an instant I was going to be writing anything but a brief impression of the show. Oh, well.) But what I did find there—as is witnessed in Danny’s report—was enormously interesting, and in the context of their rooms, a couple of systems offered the equal to the best sound at the show.
There were a few teases along the way. By that, I mean some rooms promised incredible performance from equipment most humans could afford, but for various reasons tripped me up a bit. The least visually impressive speaker Jeff Joseph brought with him to the show—if you don’t count his new “in-wall” speakers which sounded pretty good; although they were not in a wall—was his little two-way RM7XL. This was the one of his I liked the best. Music through them was alive, vocals were warm as in life, and up and down the range they exhibited no tonal aberrations. Unfortunately, they were demonstrated with about $37,000 of electronics in front of them. Of course, it will be the electronics that get the notice—probably with a “look how good the Soundsmith’s made the little bookshelves sound.” I don’t believe that for a second. I’m betting those are very good two-ways that will satisfy with a number of integrated amps that are beginning again to receive some attention in the press and on the web. I should also add that the Soundsmith stuff is of the industrial design school that, as I see it, won’t exactly thrill anyone who missed high school wood shop.
The Odyssey room that Danny loved puzzled me a bit. The sound was immediate and lively (qualities often AWOL at the show), but it was also a little washed out and—in Brit-speak—was also somewhat muddled. From my experience, I’m guessing that the floorstanders were moved away from bass nodes only to generate all sorts of reflections fighting with the direct sound of the speakers: you dodge the truck only to get run over by the mom coming home from the supermarket in her Prius. And now for one of those promised wild guesses: the sheer vivacity of the presentation hinted at the least that, whatever the ultimate quality of the speaker, there were some mighty fine electronics in front—for genuinely reasonable prices. It’ll be interesting to get some reactions from Danny once he gets the system in house for a listen.
My various trips to the Zu room were always fun and often both interesting and musically satisfying. As Danny writes, Sean and friends played real music: some with wonderful sonics, some that were sonically pretty ordinary. But they didn’t care. What was always foremost was the music. And that’s all I heard them talk about. The sonics were clearly to speak for themselves, and if you liked them, cool: but “isn’t this a great cut?” was what was of most interest. This was the first time I had had a chance to hear the Druids, and they were played with some crazy Euro jazz/blues video projected on a bed sheet. First of all, I thought the music was enormous fun and really good. I also thought the speakers, driven by, according to Josh, a $1200 Audio Sector chip amp, sounded like they might be very satisfying in the long run: neither Druids nor Definitions had what I’ve described earlier as a “hi-fi sheen.” In fact, not much to quibble about, other than the material was unfamiliar and that they were playing into a fairly large room. They were indeed off in their own space, but the bass had all the room it needed to breathe. So, the question that I have is how well they will really work in smaller spaces. I also came away with a sense that, for all the purported sensitivity of both the Druids and the Definitions, both speakers needed more muscle than has been advertised to make them really sing. I suspect there is the possibility of a very satisfying system to be built around the Druids, but suspect also the speaker might work better with amps a little less groovy than the low watters with which the speakers have been reviewed.
Finally (at last, I know), as smitten as I was with the three larger systems above, I heard no musical reproduction at the show more satisfying within the listening context than that in the Totem room and that in the Bluebird room. And this was through two of the least expensive, and certainly least physically imposing, systems at the show.
I more or less wandered down into the Totem room so that I wouldn’t seem like a Pioneer groupie. My eleven year old son came with his mom to the show Saturday afternoon, and he was determined to sit through Andrew Jones’ demo a number of times in succession. (Jack treats audio shows a little like Disneyland: you just go on your favorite rides as many times as you can.) I figured Andrew had seen enough of me from the day before and from my son’s first ride, and I just started looking for new adventures. The Totem room was a cozy little room, divided for a mini-home theater demo in the rear, and a small two-channel set-up in front. Since Vince Bruzzese along with other Totem folk were busy with real people (I used to be one of those), I just tried to squeeze into a corner and disappear. A home theater demo had just ended, and it wasn’t particularly impressive: frankly, I don’t know how it could be in that room. And then the two-channel stuff started playing. I was listening to the small floor standing Arro speakers through a Plinius integrated. The little system was wonderful. I simply wanted to keep listening to music through it. I suppose after the enormous scale of the Pioneer room, the Totem room seemed just more personal, and it did no wrong with the material that was played. It was more detailed, more dynamic, and subjectively more extended than the sound I had heard in the Joseph room; and were I looking for a system for a relatively intimate space I probably would have been seduced to opening my wallet on the spot. (Not that I need another speaker or system in my house.)
On Saturday night, I gave James Gregan a call to see if Jay Rein was planning to play on Sunday the small Neat/Exposure system over in the corner of the Bluebird room. The two times I had dropped by early in the show, only the larger Neat/Chord system was being demoed. I was pretty much cooked on audio, and was ready to spend some time outside come Sunday. But the experience in the Totem room had turned on a little voice that was nagging me like crazy to come back to the show and have a listen to the Exposure stuff. Turns out that soon after I last visited, Jay had started demoing the small system, and that the time between systems was just about evenly split.
When I walked in on Sunday, a legitimate showgoer had just dropped in an opera CD in the Exposure CD player, and having found an effective way to clear the area, settled in to listen. I am not an opera fan: in fact, when the singing starts, my head generally just drifts away. But supposing this might be my only chance for awhile to listen to the system, I cozied on down next to opera-fan. All of a sudden I’m interested in opera. Couldn’t for the life of me tell you which opera, what conductor, what female singer I listened to, but it was extraordinarily lifelike and beautiful; and while scaled down in size, the sound had real sweep and force. Opera was followed by pop then jazz, and I was ready to open my wallet again. The Neat/Exposure system—comprised of Neat Motive Twos and Exposure 2010S Integrated and CD player—had all of the virtues of the system in the Totem room. I’d be hard pressed to detail the differences: both systems were full of life and dynamic, both had believable midranges, both extended much lower than you’d anticipate. The Neat seemed a little better at separating instruments out, the Totem a little warmer. But now I’m in the realm of what might simply be describing the differences in rooms and placement.
How much room would each of these small systems manage? Experience with small speakers in the past suggests to me much more than you’d anticipate. I imagine our 15’x14’x8’ home theater room would be a breeze for each of these systems. And most importantly, you’re not really apt to be dragging some large three-way into a room that size that’s going to sound nearly as good. We’re all aware by now that stereo equipment is not going to lure some attractive woman through the front door. But were you to manage step one, and were you to have either of these systems, a normal young woman is going to find that you have impeccable taste with uncluttered, simple electronics, and elegant floorstanders dressed in their veneers to kill. And she’s going to be knocked out by the sound, instead of thinking you’re some kind of dope to have all these giant boxes crammed into the space. (And you’re going to have the common sense to not say a word about your “cool” rig.)
Assuming you might slip in the Exposure CD player alongside the Totem Arros and Plinius integrated, I believe you could have each of these systems for under $6k. So the show hinted that if you had the sense to get a car that’s just cool enough, not an M3 you’re going to have to cough up because you can’t afford payments anyway, you might start living quite well.
(Coming up in Part Five: Curiosities)