HE2006: After the Ball is Over: Part 6
by JB on July 13 '06
Part Six: Guilty Pleasures, and Goodbye LA
1. MBL and the Chamber of Secrets
If you entered the Sheraton Gateway’s main lobby, turned left, walked past the Starbucks towards the bar—resisted the bar—turned left again at the first hallway, then left one last time into the first available doorway, you found yourself in a very, very odd place. It was as if Area 51 had been transported into a large, dark hotel room. There a couple of mini-spacecraft sat staring at you. All that was missing was their venting gasses. The MBL room was right out of fifties sci-fi. It just needed the Air Force guy to ask, “Are they ours, or are they from . . . “out there?” Well, they’re definitely from . . . “out there.”
German MBL Radialstrahlers sound like nothing else, and I have an almost irrational weakness for them. I meekly accept them as my high end blind spot. They do some of the things I value in active ATCs, and then some things box speakers can’t ever do. The MBL 101Es at the Sheraton, like the ATCs at home, were crystal clear, unbelievably dynamic, and capable of real delicacy. The effect of speakers that can do this is to simply make the musical event more present. That’s what the best audio systems seem to do; and what the best at the show did. But, as with a play or film, the illusion even from the best systems takes some effort from us to “play along” with the fiction. Active ATCs and MBLs can catch you off guard by how vividly they deliver music: to the extent that sometimes you’re just not expending psychic effort at all.
But MBLs perform another trick as well, and sometimes they can be plain startling. Like other omnis, they radiate sound in 360 degrees. Unlike any other omni I’ve heard, any other speaker I’ve heard, when set-up properly, with a room treated just enough to cooperate, they come scary close to taking you to the event. Within limits, you can move from side to side, and from front to back, and still be in the middle of the music. This is not the conventional “visual” illusion of soundstaging; and it is almost certainly technically wrong—and so morally suspect--as an expression of the originally intended stereo “effect.” As a consequence, MBLs have been known to make folks who are either comfortable or enraptured by conventional two-channel presentation disoriented, queasy, and—for the pure of heart—outraged. I like the effect. With MBLs, you don’t exactly “see” the soundstage at all like you do with most speakers. Rather, you feel the presence of the musicians pretty close to the way you do in life. This is, by the way, nothing at all like the experience you get from a surround system. I think it’s better: certainly better than any surround system I’ve heard—including my own. The MBL reproduction seems more like the real thing. There’s never that random distraction of the musical tone or line or reverberation you catch coming from side or rear speakers. MBLs, when they are “on song,” deliver a sound that comes awfully close to my template of the live experience.
The MBL 101Es, in addition to the other Radialstrahler omnis MBL offers, radiate sound through the strange looking petals—or “lamellas” as MBL calls them—that surround the speaker.
With the 101E, carbon fiber petals generate lows and mids, aluminum/magnesium alloy ones produce the highs. These are speakers that really do seem to be that rare child of genuinely innovative technical insight and vision, along with engineering and manufacturing expertise that has matured over twenty years. (At least that’s what MBL claims. But I do find it a little suspicious that all this came from researchers at the Institute for Aeronautics and Aerospace at the Technical University of Berlin. Coincidence? Take a look again at those speakers. Hmm. Think UFO.)
MBLs have been, and remain, one of less than a handful of true “exotics” of high end audio. They are not simply a giant version of a reasonably sized speaker with just more drivers stuffed into the box. Unfortunately, like most exotic supercars, they also have personalities that not everyone will be able to live with. The 101Es at the Stereophile show were often overloading the room on material that had a lot of bass content: and this was a pretty large room. MBL bass has in fact seemed to me the other times I’ve heard the speakers demonstrated to be on the round side of what I normally take to be accurately reproduced bass. But because the bass has never seemed discontinuous with the rest of the presentation, this is probably a sign that MBL bass radiation is simply pretty twitchy in rooms, rather than necessarily a warning of inherently underdamped bass. Then, not just the bass will need some minding. There was a little metallic tune I first noticed humming along with a Joan Osborne cut played in the room. And it sang every so often at the oddest places on a couple of other pieces. I had never heard this the other times I’ve listened to these speakers. Apparently every so often the room, the other MBLs in the room, or everything together was just into it, and singing along. I’d sincerely recommend that if you’ve got the fortitude, and the few extra dollars, to take the plunge, you should think about having a good acoustician lined up to help you try to make MBLs work in your house.
Know also that at the show the MBLs didn’t do their magic with every single cut that was played. On a few cuts, they seemed relatively two-dimensional, like most speakers. Yet when they worked, they were crazy. I don’t listen to the Roches. They’re too cute and witty by half—and cloying. (That’s what I’d advise anybody to say in public.) But—I’m never going to live this down—I started laughing along with the Roches on a tune the head German played. I would never have laughed at home—really. I promise. It just seemed in the MBL room as if the sisters were right there, and were alive and having fun. And I laughed. (This was my only public display of emotion: no one caught me wiping a tear away.) The speakers were in truth able to work their magic on most of the music played—from the Roches to Anne-Sophie Mutter’s blistering version of de Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, and the MBL folk were not shy about playing just about anything—including some of the oh so peculiar tunes showgoers insist on sharing with the rest of the world. The speakers, by the way, were uber-dynamic. Like the Pioneers, they will go as loud as you can stand without a hint of doing anything you wouldn’t like, except making you deaf.
There are two remaining considerations in case you’re thinking about putting aside pocket change each night in hopes of a purchase. I’m sure I could excuse the speaker’s visuals in my living room as something like “outer space chic,” but I find it a bit hard to imagine living with the black and gold of the electronics that for some reason just makes me wonder when the plating will flake off. (It would be interesting, by the way, to discover how much magic the amplification brings to the party.) There is an “arctic silver” option, but we’re still not talking about the latest in industrial design. And, oops, there’s the price. The 101Es run about $47,000. Together with the mono amps (even without MBL amplification, the 101s need significant muscle), the disc player, and the preamp, the cost of the system (let’s not include cables, shall we?) lands just on the wrong side of $180k. So, for most of us mortals, the system was precisely the equivalent of something like the Ferrari Enzo at an auto show. Assuming it lit your fire—it did mine, it was there to be lusted after. But unlike the HE 2006 “exotic” pretenders, much of the time this system was—in the sense of taking you away from listening to recordings in a hotel room—other worldly.
2. Aloha, and What Have You Been Smoking?
If it didn’t infringe on copywrite, I’d suggest the reclusive Mr. Von Gaylord just lift Sly Stone’s song title and appropriate it for a company add campaign: “Von Gaylord Audio: I Want to Take You Higher.” When, a long time ago, some young folks smoked funny cigarettes before going to a concert, or listening to music in their apartments and dorm rooms, I imagine it must have been in the hopes it would make music sound something like it did in the Von Gaylord room: kind of better than real—hyper-real. Everything about the Von Gaylord room was crazy, and transporting, and somehow wrong, and both geeky and in the end pretty cool.
This was the very first room Josh and I stepped into on Thursday morning—number one. Just a few bars of music, and I was settled into the front row. This was like stepping into the Wayback machine; and lacked only the smell of that “funny” incense. Little Legend two-ways were perched on gold cones above their stands, and filled the air above from wall to wall and across the ceiling with sound like a projection for some sonic planetarium. (I was in fact all of a sudden in the mood for an accompanying ceiling projection of stars and moons.) The music was ultra-saturated with color, bass was fuller than physics allows from little boxes, and details seemed to have a life of their own: not what I think any sober soul might call accurate; but it made a strange musical sense that I found really, well, transporting.
And when you looked down from the sky to the ground, you couldn’t miss the Von Gaylord $60k, 200 watt triode, mono aquarium/amplifiers: the Uni “Sea Urchins.” That’s right. You’ve seen the pictures, and the look is as crazy as the price. The tubes are swimming in some clear coolant, circulating in currents inside the little “tube aquariums.” So, if you don’t wish to dayglo the ceiling, you can just fixate on the swirling waters. Of course Josh and I both asked about the functional possibilities, and learned that, unfortunately, fish just aren’t going to like it if you pop them inside. However, a little gloopy dye, and you’ve now got lava lamps. Of course the price of the amps is preposterous; but I’m betting that hyper-reality is likely to be found in large measure as you go down the line to VG’s relatively less expensive amplification.
I completely understand someone coveting a Von Gaylord system. It will work in a real room, and the sound triggers a monstrous endorphin explosion. Judging by the demonstrations, you won’t, however, be able to play a wide selection of music. The reserved gentleman conducting the demos carefully restricted selections to very simple instrumental and vocal works, and I believe that you’re going to push a VG system past it’s listenable limits as you complicate its life. And then it’s not exactly going to play music the way it really sounds—which is certainly fine with me. How much pleasure a system delivers an individual seems much more important to me than how close to “accurate” a system purportedly is. The Von Gaylord room was a vivid endorsement of all triode and SET lovers who don’t care a fig how amps measure.
Would I own a VG system? I might—for secret visits to it as a second system tucked away in an upstairs room. But in addition to being wonderfully quirky, it’s also fairly expensive even as you head down the amplification line. And then, there is this curious “Hawaiian problem.” As Josh mentioned, by Sunday, it seemed that every time you walked by the room, ukulele music was floating out into the hallway. My last time passing by, I succumbed and sat in on one of the endless demos of IZ Kamakawiwo’ole’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World. It was a trip: IZ’s ethereal voice, as well as his musical sensibility, was psychedelia sans chemicals. So, be careful about grooving with certain tunes through a Von Gaylord system, or you could find yourself playing an imaginary ukulele with your shirt off and a sheet wrapped around you. Of course, if you can find any young lady who doesn’t run away screaming from this dedicated listening experience, you’ve hit the jackpot.
3. The End: “What’s the Sound of One Hand Clapping?”
I’ve had the luxury of writing this rambling commentary on HE 2006 over a few weeks, and have been able both to look around and see how others have reacted to the show, and to take some time to think about whether the show gave any indication of where sound reproduction, and its “high end” cottage industry, might be headed. If the Stereophile show blog is an indication, I surely did hear and see a few things quite differently than many of the insiders at the show. Wes Phillips, after all, thought the Von Gaylord system “sounded extremely natural.” This left me wondering if Wes was one of the few having too much fun at the Zu rave. But then, I also ended up utterly failing Wes’s “homage to Jeff Foxworthy” audiophile test. I have never, ever carried Wet Wipes in my pocket “just in case there’s a box of records forgotten in some corner of the jumble sale.” And I am certain that when I’ve stayed up until 4 AM I had things on my mind other than listening to stereo through quiet power lines. I knew already I was a fraudulent audio “writer.” It’s a little tough to find out I’m also a failed audiophile.
When I read Wes’s conclusion that “the best part of HE 2006 was being among my tribe and realizing just how darn good it is,” my first response was that this sure wasn’t my tribe. Now, I understand what he means. At an audio show—at any hobbyist show, we declare ourselves total nerds the moment we walk through the front door: giving ourselves complete license to chatter about arcane stuff that makes everyone else either yawn or consider shipping us to a quiet institution. You just about can’t be “cool” at an audio show. And that’s very cool. All attempts come off looking pretty ridiculous. The problem I have is that I’m not willing to embrace any “tribe” that has so few guys under 35, almost no women, and even fewer children. (The thing with kids might seem weird, but I wonder why kids aren’t taken along for a bit the way they are at auto shows. I saw only one child other than my own—a boy about Jack’s age—with his father at the show. And like Jack, he was having a great time.)
Jack’s first question to me when I came home Saturday night was “how come there weren’t any young people there?” He didn’t mean other kids. He meant folks from twenty to thirty. He meant the young guys he saw two years before at the Stereophile show at the St. Francis in San Francisco. He got it immediately: they were AWOL. My answer? Well, I told him it was because most of the people who make, sell, and write about the great toys don’t have a clue about young people, and most will eventually wither away until they are replaced by folks who do. He was good with that. He can wait—he’s eleven.
The story of HE 2006 was that it was a great show by the few left standing for the few left standing. The other, unnerving, side of the story won’t be represented by an establishment audio show. And I’ve no room to write about that. All sorts of things outside of the control of the “high end” have contributed to its unraveling, but the “high end” has also seemed eager to immolate itself through enormous foolishness—some of which I’ve written about. It’s also dealt with the changes in the landscape around it like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, and it needs a good kick in the butt. Certainly, the traditional dealer/manufacturer and dealer/distributor relationships will be changing as more and more dealers fall by the way and more and more audiophiles court expensive disappointment by buying things without audition over the net.
It would, finally, be nice if the “high end” really did take seriously the world of computers and iPods. Almost all of the high-enders walking around the Sheraton began with sources inferior to MP3s: bandwidth-limited cassette players and their hissy tapes, and crappy direct-drive turntables. What few manufacturers at HE 2006 seem to get is that there already is a generation walking around with an entry level source, the iPod. It’s not great, but it’s what young people can afford. I saw only one iPod based system at the show, and only one system that accounted for a computer interface.
Nevertheless, it’s a huge mistake to think “high-end” is dying. The show suggested to me the “high-end” is simply in the middle of a long and undoubtedly painful reconfiguration. The Pioneer and GamuT rooms appeared to me to drop the price ceiling significantly for just about the best there is to offer. The Totem and Neat systems promised extraordinary sound in real spaces for those who are ready to move up a little. Distributor Jay Rein of Bluebird was working with his dealers more as partners than as his customers, and just as importantly, is badgering his lines to provide USB ports on their electronics. I don’t know whether or not it is apocryphal that John Atkinson said eight years or so ago that he’d never hold a show in LA again, although if he didn’t say it then, he’ll probably say it now. But LA is predictive. It’s probably a look at the future of what will happen to the current “high-end” structure: of how it will continue to shrink, even in those areas of the country where it still looks to have a bit of bloom left. The good news is that there are also hints of change in the air. There really are.