HE2006: The Low End is the Exciting End
by Danny Kaey on June 20 '06
Stereophile’s Home Entertainment 2006 was typical of shows past… oversized loudspeakers in undersized (hotel) rooms with lots of sonic problems: bass was either non existent or way too boomy, soundstage was tiny and, well, you get the picture. Of course, there were a few rooms which managed to get good sound regardless. Since Josh has posted a gazillion pictures already (not to mention my geek buds at Stereophile who couldn’t seem to resist the temptation of blogging while at the show) I will focus more on a few topics I identified as otherwise newsworthy.
First off, big, huge, large, humungous hats off to the guys at Zu audio for attempting to bring HiFi 2.0 to the masses by throwing a rave party featuring custom Zu loudspeakers throughout. Although many have already documented the rather poor and totally unwarranted no-shows, suffice is to say that it is precisely that type of an event high-end needs more of (ok, LOT’s more of!) in order to sway the masses, read Mr. & Mrs. iPod (45 million and counting…), to the world of HiFi which exists beyond the boundaries of your local Compusa, Fry’s, Best Buy or similar big box electronics madhouse. I hope and wish that my buddies at Zu will not give up on this grand and most welcome idea – even though I know it must have cost them a small fortune! Their room was spiffy as usual, I really dig their love for music first and foremost; when you walk into the Zu room you immediately feel a different vibe: one that is together inviting and thrilling, because you actually hear “REAL” music being played! Enough of this audiophile approved junk already!
A similar, though quite a bit different, event was organized by Joe Kubala and Howard Sosna, otherwise known as Kubala-Sosna, cable manufacturers extraordinaire. Partnering up with a pair of Wilson Sophias, Metronome digital/analog front end and LAMM electronics, all gear was connected with K-S “Emotion” series of cables, which is their best offering sitting at the very top (tip?) of their food chain (having sampled some of these personally, I am of the firm opinion that a) there’s no snake-oil here, b) these cables sound pretty darn great, c) are the most user-friendly high-end cables I have seen.) What made this event so special (and hence why we also need more of these types of events!) was that Joe and Howard invited none other than mastering guru Steve Hoffman to offer insight into the world of how a record is being mastered and how much better it can sound if the guy behind the controls actually knows what he/she is doing (to test this little abstract truth, get yourself a readily available release of the Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” and compare it to one of Steve Hoffman’s versions… even your little iPod will quite easily tell you the difference). Since Steve uses K-S cables for his critical evaluations and work, we were blessed with vintage master tape sound from excerpts of (drum rolls please!): the Beatles, Jethro Tull, Peggy Lee and many others – sadly, many of these “remasters” are not available publically due to “rights” and “royalties” issues. Nevertheless, what all of us heard that afternoon (it was a 2 hour event) was the most “real” music experience I have in recent memory. Judging by the jam packed room (there was a line of people outside the room waiting to attend!), everyone else was utterly impressed as well. No doubt, I firmly believe that exactly these types of demo’s do so much more to draw people into the high-end then any gazillion dollar high-end rig gracing the covers of glossy magazines ever will. The moral of the story? We need many more events like the Zu and K-S demos – we need to be able to demo the experience of true high-end sound to the masses.
High-end doesn’t need to cost $30,000 either, as was evident by my visit to one of the most amazing rooms of the show: the Odyssey room hosted by owner Klaus Bunge (pictured above). Klaus has been the importer of the famous Symphonic Line from Germany (read: expensive). Some years ago he decided to do something quite amazing. Borrow extensively from the guys at Symphonic Line, under a special licensing agreement, and manufacture the high quality components in Indiana, USA, eliminating the expensive advertising and sell direct exclusively. The result? Components that look like $5000, but sell for $1000 and less. Mind you, this is all still hand-made fanciness, with looks to boot. Believe me, I was in complete disbelief when Klaus shared pricing during the demo. The sound was fantastic, with true high-end feeling. The total cost of the Odyssey system? $4400, including speakers, a dedicated tube pre-amp, 100 watt/channel amplifier and good cables. The total system price could actually be reduced handily by around $2500 by switching out the floor standing two ways for bookshelf models of similar design. In fact, I am due to receive that system for review shortly, so impressed was I with the overall presentation, far and away exceeding what I had thought was possible at that price point. Add an iPod, and for a grand total of $2000 you have yourself a genuine high-end system. Add another $400 for a Music Hall 2.1LE turntable and you are in true high fidelity heaven!
Speaking of Music Hall, their room is always inviting, in no small part because of Roy Hall’s attitude. Leland, VP of the whole shebang, is way cool and fun to hang out with. What can one add? Great products at real world prices, great music, great fun! Getting into true fidelity doesn’t have to cost gobs of money. Hand over $399 for the Music Hall 2.1LE and, voila, you have yourself a very, very decent turntable. No kidding, we played Classic Records new 35mm release of Mozart’s Violin concerto and it sounds rather good – gave me more musical enjoyment then the same track being played back on cd for sure!
Pioneer EX speakers are always a highlight – since their launch at CES 06 anyway. Designer extraordinaire Andrew Jones promised me a review pair by early August. I have been tooting the horn on these since the first time I heard them, they are that good and at $9000 a bargain to boot. Only problem is the whole Pioneer mass manufacturer association. Andrew tells me their reception has been very good in Europe and Asia; I do have some misgivings about the branding, however. Josh mentioned the otherwise pretty good Sony ES speaker line of a few years back which ran into major issue acceptance wise. Who knows what will happen? My guess is Best Buy and Compusa will NOT be carrying these and most consumers will associate the Pioneer brand name with exactly those types of POP places. Likewise, I can’t imagine high-end dealers stocking up with these either, but, hey, I have been wrong before. All in all a truly outstanding loudspeaker that should command the respect of most other loudspeakers, because it does so much so right.
So then… what is the moral of the story? High-end is getting smaller and more focused on penultimate performance at the upper echelons of the price spectrum, while the lower and more entry level gear is often overlooked in favor of mediocre sounding Bose, iPod and similar gizmo’s and gadgets, which needn’t have to be. I can say with a good amount of certainty that the aforementioned Odyssey entry level system at $1700 will handily beat any multi-box “better sound through marketing err… research” outfit any day of the week. The problem of course is that Ralf Rotterdam and Svetlana Onatop simply don’t know about Odyssey, yet see and hear Bose just about anywhere they turn. Hrmmm… food for thought (more to come!).
Danny Kaey's system includes Marten Duke speakers, NAT Plasma preamp, NAT Se2Se monoblocks, Brinkmann Integrated for backup, Zero One HDD server, Naim CD player, Brinkmann TT, rebuilt Thorens TT, Squeezebox, and Zero One DAC.