HE2006: After the Ball is Over: Part 5

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by JB on July 07 '06


Part Five: All Sorts of Surprises

1. Lost in Wonderland

Even “intimate” audio shows overflow with curiosities and surprises. There were probably more of these to cover than rooms at HE 2006; and as much as Josh is indulging my willingness to keep on writing, I certainly don’t have the strength to recount them all. One of course hopes to be surprised by great sounding rooms. I’ve already identified all but two of these surprises for me; but they seem paltry in number and quality with those reported elsewhere. The Stereophile blog is a litany of rapturous surprises that apparently could both draw listeners into a composer’s “phantasmagoric universe in a deeper, more all consuming way that (sic) . . . ever before experienced,” and—I learned—could make grown men cry. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m a little unnerved by the idea of gathering together with a bunch of strange guys in a hotel room for a group cry.

I don’t believe for a second that nearly any of those who actually paid their way into HE 2006 were nearly as prone to euphoria as some of those who wrote about the event. Those who attend come, as they might to an auto show, as virtual—and generally fantasy—shoppers. Most of the folks I ran into—and there are exceptions—sure seemed to me to be quite sensible about the whole thing: as ready to be cautious as they were to be enthusiastic. There’s much to be cautious about when manufacturers are offering products so expensive that an ill-advised purchase might make you want to drive over a cliff. With dealer networks shrinking, opportunities to hear equipment are vanishing. Take all advice with a grain of salt, and hope reviewers—at the risk of missing out on future review samples—get a grip on the their gush impulses.

2. Shooting Yourself in the Foot

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I’m always bewildered, and often amused, by exhibitors who almost seem as if they wish you to hear their systems at their worst. (Then there are the others who play such a limited range of demo music—usually inoffensive jazz and female vocals—that they seem to be saying their equipment is too dainty for much else.) The Lipinski demonstrations were some of the most genuinely curious I’ve attended. The relatively new L-707 speakers were on stands that literally placed the speakers above your head when you sat to listen. These were advertised to be “powered stands,” whose name—as soon as I let my mind wander into the world of audiophile tweaks and possibilities—provoked visions of neon and glow-in-the-dark. In truth the stands were “powered” only in the sense that you could wedge the new Lipinski amplification inside of them to power the speakers. With their speakers on the “powered stands,” six-channel, as well as two-channel, and two-channel with subwoofer sound was demonstrated, played through a CD carousel, an anonymous passive preamp, and new Lipinski amplifiers.

And the sound was sometimes very good—clear, dynamic, and incisive—sometimes pretty blah—blah for sure if you sat on the couch, pretty good most of the time if you happened to stand—and sometimes pretty edgy. I’m guessing that there actually were some fine speakers in the room: small boxes able to play with clarity and some warmth, and to give clean, well damped bass into the thirties. But something wasn’t going quite right that had, as far as I could tell, nothing to do with the room. The set up certainly made it very hard to say just what was wrong; and it was very hard to say just how much of the set up—other than nearfield positioning of speakers way up in the air—might have been mucking up: Maybe at the next demonstration, the Lipinski gang, just nice and generous folks new to audiophile show-biz, will make some changes. Hope so, because these might be magnificent speakers—not priced out in the ionosphere—that dazzle in a medium sized room.

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By contrast, it was pretty easy to figure out what was screwy in the Brooks Berdan room with Ayre electronics and the Vandersteen Quatros (above). Someone must have used an after-market car stereo as a music reference, and had the Quatros playing bass as if DJ Ming were running the room. The three times I tried to listen, the room sounded as if two separate speakers were playing simultaneously: a very loud, well-damped subwoofer, and a very clean, tonally accurate mini. Since they were in the same cabinet, I wished they had been introduced to each other. As with the Lipinskis, I suspect the Quatros might be really fine speakers. Because the bass configuration is indeed an active subwoofer with a relatively wide range of adjustment, it’s clearly possible—perhaps probable—that the speaker will adjust to sing with one voice. The Quatro’s big brother, the Five, did just that with enormous Audio Research room heaters in the Optimal Enchantment room. Unfortunately, the Fives sounded relatively dry and lifeless compared to at least the mid and top of the Quatros.

And this, to me, was a surprise of another sort. I’ve heard Vandersteens demoed repeatedly with Audio Research, and they have always seemed a great fit. In fact, one of the first speakers I auditioned too many years ago to reflect upon were the Twos with Audio Research electronics at Optimal Enchantment. I liked them very much, and have always thought Vandersteens, which are much too warm for some, and some too warm for me, have been one of the high end speakers that actually can both rock and handle a wide range of material—and, in these respects, they better many mega-buck high end favorites. I did come away from both this show and the last Stereophile show in San Francisco with the impression that the Fives and the Quatros have different sounds than the classic Vandersteens. They are crisper, and the sound has shed some extra pounds to become leaner, and slightly more forward. So, perhaps the marriage with Audio Research is no longer quite such a happy one. In any event, there seems a good chance that the Quatros, if their two halves can be joined, might well be genuinely exciting speakers in a small, relatively attractive (in veneer, not sock-puppet black), package. (They are, in their wooden garb, much more attractive than the Fives, which my wife excluded on first sight from my search for a full range speaker.)

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Perhaps the most interesting effect of the Quatro demonstration was that the sound stuffed the room with listeners. I kept running out, because the balance was so obviously askew it pretty much wrecked the music for me—but apparently not for almost anyone else. Considering this, I’ve decided that either I am now too old to be able to handle real bass, or that boom just always sells, or—and I’m pinning my hopes on this—that folks who went to the show simply were attracted to a room in which a wide range of music was played on a system that, however much it resembled our governor from his days in Pumping Iron, at last was flexing some muscle.

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Up in the Zu room, it seems there was a couch issue. On my first couple of visits I stood around listening to the Definitions as Josh chatted with Zu folk. I liked what I was hearing. With relatively unchallenging, but interesting, country-folk material, the sound was life like—not much “hi-fi” hanging around. Emboldened by the music-friendly room, and encouraged by Sean Casey, I waited for the room to thin a little, and then put on a fairly obscure Kimmie Rhodes/Willie Nelson duet. This piece is itself neither particularly complicated nor dynamically challenging, although there is a relatively deep electric bass underneath. I was just interested to hear how it sounded on a system other than one of mine. When, however, I sat down to listen, it seemed as if the Definitions had been tossed into the cold, cold Pacific, and their drivers—together with the sound—immediately shriveled up. This remained a puzzle to me, especially when I came back the next day with Jack and the Definitions sounded pretty good again. Only in the last couple of days have I read somewhere that there was a bass null at the couch. Move the couch, guys. (And, though they’re claimed to be as sensitive as “the tender horns of cockled snails,” I’d sure like to hear these speakers with some hefty amplifiers.)

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There were no overt screw-ups in the Thiele/Audio Research room, but it was perhaps the most disappointing room I visited over the run of the show. I should first mention that the room was very small, and certainly might have contributed to what I thought was arid and musically confused reproduction. But I suppose I was most disappointed, as shallow a creature as I am, in what the Thieles looked like. They really do look like their pictures! I went assuming that, like many things in life, including a few women I’ve dated, they would look better in person. But it’s just hard to avoid thinking of pie tins and jello molds when looking at the drivers, and marveling at how remarkably awkward the shape of the design looks. The peculiarly uninvolving sound ended up offering a strange twist to the concept that “form follows function.”

3. And a Good Save

One of those “well, how about the weather?” moments followed the Thursday proclamation I reported in Part One that the show was the worst sounding show one distributor claimed he had ever attended. Guess what? The room in which he was exhibiting was the worst sounding room at the show—on Thursday, that is. Dan Rather would have been telling you—back in the days—that the sound from the Legacy 20/20s with Valve amplification and EAR and Avid front ends was booming like an east Texas thunderstorm. Josh and I were hopping about, picking up and putting down our folding chairs all over the room, trying with little success to find some relief from the boom. The poor Music Direct guy was near apoplectic at the room dilemma, and also, I imagine, at the two guys hopping up and down drawing everybody’s attention to the little problem that wasn’t going away.

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Now it’s likely I’d never have written a word about this room, since the room so obviously was throttling the equipment, except that Danny came up and raved about its sound on Sunday. I thought he had lost his mind. But, as you might have read in Josh’s report, the Music Direct squad attacked the room with some simple treatment, and almost certainly some judicious rearrangement of the speakers, and produced first rate sound by show’s end.

I will admit that when I went back the tunes playing suggested everyone with a stake in the room was a trifle gun-shy about playing stuff with much bass content. Nevertheless, through the Avid table and the EAR CD player, the speakers were producing effortless, engaging, sound. If you were to have asked me to identify by sound on Sunday which room had the $90,000 turntable as source, I would have answered Music Direct. The Continuum, in a room with Peak Consult was in fact producing lush, swimmy, gorgeous analogue, but the sound was ladled up like thick soup compared to the clean, more vivid, sound coming from the Avid and Legacy. I came away still not entirely sold that all the bass from the Legacy would be serviceable in most rooms. I also trust that the Legacy is a speaker for someone who either tosses aesthetics to the breeze, or is audio old school enough actually to want the sound delivered by some large, pretty ungainly and—to my taste—just plain homely, boxes. Still, by Sunday the speakers really played music.

4. Just What Are You Really Saying?

On the face of it, the Rives Audio demonstration seemed to make perfect sense. Rives, the manufacturer of a PARC equalizer, is an audio consulting firm that will work with customers either to completely design a new listening room, or design various levels of treatment to optimize a current room. Their literature was, I thought, probably the most persuasive and impressive handed out during the show; and the concept of helping the room work obviously makes sense. To demonstrate how sound might be transformed in a room, Rives dealer Ultimate Audio Video set up side by side hotel rooms with Gryphon CD playback and electronics and Rockport’s $13,500 Mira speakers in each.

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The effect of the demo was, for me at least, not exactly what I imagine the exhibitor anticipated. I expect the idea was that we would be knocked out by the sound of the untreated room, and then completely turned upside down that it could be dramatically improved upon. When, however, both rooms ended up sounding—how shall I put it?—less than good when I heard them, I took away three clearly unintended messages in the following sequence. The first was that expensive Gryphon electronics paired with expensive Rockport speakers sound dark and murky without room treatment. (Wouldn’t imagine Gryphon or Rockport would be thrilled about that, would you?) The second was that the best the Rives treatment could do was make the sound slightly less murky. (The Stereophile blog reports the “difference was not subtle.” Oh, yes it was. The difference was what I would expect by moving speakers out a bit or listening position back a bit.) The third message was that “Treatment Level One” consisted in making the room a visual mess with a hodgepodge of bed sheets, carpeted panels, and divided packing cartons –ok, they were really dedicated diffusers. (Head on over to the Stereophile blog for a peek, and then factor out the lens distortion to get a mind’s eye of a narrow hotel room with this stuff along the walls.) Go ahead and bring in a young lady to this “dedicated listening room.” You might as well have a neon sign flashing “I’m a dork” above your head.

I don’t have a clue what to make of this demonstration. I’ve never heard Gryphon and the Miras before, but I assume they’ve got to sound cleaner than what I heard at the show. And maybe they did later in the show. The Rives rooms on their site and in their literature (well, past Level One) are, considering they are dedicated listening rooms, pretty attractive. But it sure makes me wonder if anybody even thought about what the nifty room treatment actually looked like in that hotel room. I guess this goes in “the best laid plans . . .” file.

5. Accessories, Tweaks, and Wires

$15,000 equipment racks (below) and $1200 isolation platforms ultimately seem to me just silly. If you want one, and can afford one, by all means indulge yourself. You could, however, especially here in LA, have just about anything manufactured for you at a fraction of the cost that the accessory industry charges—or you could head over to Pottery Barn, a plastics manufacturer, and the local hardware store and construct your own isolation devices for even less. (I have, and at the prices I’ve paid I can afford to believe in component isolation for electronics—if only for peace of mind.)

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In truth, expensive tweaks and accessories other than racks were something of a hidden commodity at HE 2006. If you looked carefully, you might get a glimpse of cable towers and the like in some rooms, but almost no one was drawing attention to them. They were the embarrassing relatives everyone hopes stay in the kitchen. The principal exception was the room with the wooden pucks that Josh had a go at in his report. What Josh didn’t report was how surreal that experience truly was. Josh and I walked into the room at the very end of the first part of the demonstration—to playback without the pucks. There was a lone Stereophile writer sitting dead center in the large, otherwise deserted, group of folding chairs as an earnest young man spent the next ten minutes or so (it seemed like thirty) placing the wooden discs about the room with excruciating care. Josh and I had pressed up against the wall, and eventually a solitary civilian joined us to watch and listen.

As Josh reports, the showgoer was absolutely horrified until Josh and I reassured him he was not the only non-believer in the room. When the music finally resumed we all sat down, now a group of four, and the Stereophile writer and the young guy demonstrating started dissecting how the sound had changed. Then calamity struck. The disc so painstakingly placed on the left side wall fell to the ground. We all stared in horror, and . . . nothing happened. The soundstage didn’t collapse, timber didn’t change, attack didn’t falter, bass didn’t bloat, highs didn’t harden: nothing happened. It all seemed a weird, bad, embarrassing, cosmic practical joke on the poor guy demonstrating. He likely truly believes in his product. But I’m guessing that most folks currently interested in sound, and most young people who will eventually make the transition to whatever it will mean in the future to be an audiophile don’t really have much interest in these kinds of suspect tweaks and expensive twiddling that seem so often beside the point. The next generation of audiophiles, with iPod’s in hand, and lap tops in tow, seem to me looking for elegant engineering solutions to the problems of sound reproduction.

And I’m guessing this extends to Wireworld. This is the first show in which I noticed tables set up in hotel hallways with rows of interconnects stacked upon them. Maybe I just missed these at the last show in San Francisco, but here in LA I found the tables riveting. I kept thinking that they looked like folks were giving away free samples. I had to resist just taking mine. The cables were made to look like precisely the things they are, easy to design and manufacture, disposable commodities. It’s not that cables or power cords don’t, at least in single ended set-ups, make a difference in sound. I think now only zealots will deny that. It’s just that they’ve so obviously, and outrageously, floated entirely free from the usual relationships between price and either research/manufacturing costs or performance that they’ve become the “high-end’s” number one turn-off. (Below, $9800 palladium speaker cables by Silversmith and cable elevator by Dixie)

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Mr. Atkinson, who for years now has engaged in a meta-dialogue with his own publication, describes precisely the “trouble with cables” in the latest Stereophile Buyer’s Guide. “Don’t assume,” he writes, “that the more expensive cables will always sound better—the best cable for your system may well be one that costs less.” I read this to mean that you better not be gullible enough to believe there will be any relation between the price and the performance of a cable that you might buy. In my own case, I have—for various reasons—four different single ended interconnects at home ranging in price from just over two hundred dollars to well over a thousand dollars. The second least expensive at just over two hundred dollars works best in my systems. (What works least well, by far, is the most expensive, pure silver numbers.) I also have two sets of digital connectors, one at about one hundred dollars, the other listing at eight hundred dollars. The one hundred dollar interconnects are best in my system. As for my two after-market power cords—one at three hundred dollars, another at twice that: neither works as well in my system as do the inexpensive power cords that came with the equipment.

Only Legenburg and Kubala-Sosna (Belkin also had their own room - Ed.), which clearly supplied most of the rooms and had banners all about, called attention to their cables at this show. But no exhibitor I visited drew any attention to the cables. Josh had to tell me that the Sarastros were driven through the lunacy of palladium speaker cables (shown above). I couldn’t tell you, for the life of me, what cables connected things up in either the Pioneer or GamuT rooms. More importantly, it seems the folks who ran the rooms didn’t care—or at least didn’t care to make any issue of it whatsoever. There’s no question in my mind that the ridiculous pricing of wires has driven a ton of folks away from this “industry” and, as a result, from pursuing better sound. And I really can’t see the next generation putting up with this foolishness. I’m hoping the “giveaway” tables were a sign that the end of the craziness is almost at hand.

(Coming up in Part Six: The Weird and the Wonderful, and Some Parting Thoughts)


Bravo, JB! Once again the voice of reason prevails. The insightfulness, honesty and wit of your writing is very liberating, especially compared to the typical audifool media.
Love the bit about cables. I 100% agree that the cable foolishness has driven herds of would-be customers away from high end audio.
Excellent piece! Looking forward to Part Six.
Great writing. Thought the Vandersteen bit was particularly funny. Need more of this. Love this site. Don't think I have actually laughed out loud reading about audio equipment since the days when Corey Greenburg was writing at Stereophile. Nice to hear folks finally speaking out against easy listening jazz/female vocal wussy music for demos. Hope that eventually goes the way of cable hype.