SHOW REPORT: T.H.E. Show Newport, Part II
I’ve been in love with McIntosh electronics since the Summer of Love (actually Sex… and drugs and Rock & Roll.) It was and still is some of the best looking stuff out there. What other audio equipment is so identifiable at first glance? What aesthetic design (other than Rolex) was so ahead of its time that it still looks great 50 years later?
Their speakers, on the other hand, well… let’s say they have been less than stellar for as long. From their four-way boxes of the seventies to their multi-tweeter towers of today, I’ve been unimpressed. I always expected more from a company that does such a great job on electronics.
Normally, I’d walk right by their room. They pissed me off at the CES a couple of years ago by telling me that a bass note – which I claimed their multi-amped tower system couldn’t reproduce – was not on the source material. I knew it was from hearing it on my home system, so I took the CD directly over to Per Hsu’s room (hsuresearch.com) where Saint-Saëns “Organ Symphony” shook the very foundations of the building. Other exhibitors were complaining three doors away.
McIntosh must have hired a new speaker designer because the XR 100 speaker sounded great. It looks to use the same parts as their previous efforts, but as Hugh Hefner was once reputed to have said, “It all depends on how they are implemented.” Despite the fact that they still won’t reproduce the lowest organ notes, McIntosh finally got speakers right – for $10,000/pr.
Anthony Grimani (pictured above) delivered an animated, educational and entertaining lecture on room acoustics to a packed house. “It’s importance to the sound of your audio system cannot be overstated,” he exclaimed. I had to learn that the long, hard way, through experimentation and error. My wife fell in love with our house on first seeing it despite the atrocious acoustics of the living room. She liked the color of the tile. That’s like voting for John Edwards because he’s cute.
Mr. Grimani is a veteran of Dolby Labs and Lucasfilm, where he played a major role in developing THX standards for home theater. Currently, he’s an independent audio consultant for professional studio and home theater clients all over the world. He revealed a very handy equation for determining the acoustic treatment needs of any room. I looked around, judging by the expressions on the faces of the attendees, it might as well have been an inscription on an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus. “Or,” he added, thankfully, “You could use our rule of thumb, which is to line the surfaces of your acoustic space with about 20% absorptive and 25% diffusive materials.” That we understood. “It won’t work in every situation!” he cautioned us, but it was close enough for me. (Mr. Grimani will be addressing the SDMAG this fall.)
The prettiest jewelry in the audio world comes in the form of high end turntables. The Pyon Sound Musica Ultima turntable (above) is a stunner, but I have no idea how it sounds. The exhibitor didn’t play it while I was in the room. Even if he had, how would I distinguish the sound of the turntable from the rest of his system?
Do turntables really sound different from one another? Perhaps, during shoot-outs, we are really just hearing the effects of inadvertent alterations to VTA, azimuth or zenith as we swap from table to table? It’s all too complicated for me… or maybe too inconvenient. I like to toss my source material around like Frisbies and no longer have the patience for 100,000 bristle record brushes, disc washers, anti-static zappers or stylus cleaners. During my esoteric period, I felt compelled to sterilize my hands (before spinning a disc) and everyone who came within three-feet of my precious turntable.
Despite all the analogue love, my records rewarded me with increasing degradation at every play …… so I eventually dumped the whole ungrateful lot on Goodwill Industries (at least they were grateful.) I felt Good! Why should I countenance low fidelity from my records any more than I would from my girlfriends. “Stunners” tend to try my tolerance.
Some of my more patient audiophile friends stick with analogue because they say it sounds better than digital. I entertain their assumptions as they have great sounding systems. In discussions on the subject, they usually postulate promotional propaganda decrying the diabolical depravity of dithering, data compression and digital hash. I’m skeptical. Some of my best early listening experiences were rife with hash.
In search of understanding, I’ve developed a 5 point theory on analogue preferences. I call it “A Counterpoint to Promotional Propaganda Decrying the Diabolical Depravity of Data Compression, Dithering and Digital Hash.” My wife felt that was rather an extravagant title. She calls it the Montanalogue Theorum.
The Montanalogue Theorum
1. No concert patron wants to sit within 10 feet of the musicians during a
performance (especially percussionists) because the volume spikes would be too loud
2. The more dynamic the audio system, the more dramatically those volume
spikes are reproduced in the home. That’s no problem on recordings with mikes
set well away from the musicians, but if the recording is close-miked, reproduced
volume spikes can be as fatiguing and intolerable as the real thing — more so in
small and/or reflective listening rooms.
3. By its nature, analogue limits dynamics – much like the acoustics of large
concert halls – thereby mitigating the impact of close-miking. This sounds more
natural to many audiophiles.
4. Because analogue attenuates volume spikes, analogue recordings can be comfortably played at higher overall volume settings. This raises the volume of the quiet passages as well. Louder sound equates to superior sound – as Floyd Toole discovered during the course of loudspeaker evaluations – for golden ears and laymen alike. Speakers consistently scored higher if their volume was increased — even by as little as .5 db. The improvement was ascribed to superior rhythm, pace, slam, body, resolution etc. – everything but volume.
5. There are legitimate reasons for audiophiles to prefer analogue sources, but they have nothing to do with the shortcomings of digital media.
I’ll enjoy reading comments both from those who agree and those who don’t.
I have no idea what the Ascent Solar girls were supposed to be selling, but as they were located in the parking lot, they brought a ray of sunshine to every attendee who crossed between the two hotels. Thanks ladies. (Happy Jay?)
Harvard professor Arthur Janszen patented the first practical electrostatic speaker in 1954 when “quad” was a place to meet co-eds. His son, David, carries on the tradition with the latest Janszen iteration, the zA2.1 hybrid. Barely three-feet tall, these tilted-back speakers sound remarkably like large towers. They have impressive bass devoid of the usual “room effect,” as the British liked to call it, (a giant suck-out in the midbass resulting from the Allison effect) thanks to the use of widely spaced, dual bass drivers. It’s one of the few speakers of such diminutive size that isn’t crying for the services of a subwoofer. I’m told it doesn’t need much power to sound great, but if like me, you are fond of orchestral music, you’ll need a big amp with lots of control.
Aside from the satiating bass, these speakers have a magical midrange. It’ll suck you into the music quicker than a Dyson Cyclonic, but doesn’t need an analogue front end to sound natural. Because they are directional, they’ll work well in otherwise impossible rooms if they are positioned correctly. Unlike many other hybrids, the transition from dynamic to electrostatic elements is seamless. Another thoroughly gratifying loudspeaker and a fine value at $7,500.
How can anyone not love Andrew Jones (pictured above) from TAD? His warm welcome, big smile, charming personality, enthusiasm for audio and boyish good looks are as disarming as soap bubbles.
But there is nothing wishy-washy about his prowess in designing state of the art speakers. Since the year after its first iteration at the CES 7 or 8 years ago, his systems have consistently been at or near the top in the Mercedes E class category. Moreover, they don’t look like utilitarian coffins, a reasonable expectation at this price point. The most convincing and natural sounding home theater set-up I’ve ever heard was presented by Andrew at the CES a couple of years ago.
The $35,000/pr. Onda Ligera speakers from Latvia featured a Fostex midrange, what looks to be a Scan Speak tweeter and dual bass drivers. I’ve never heard of this speaker company before, but found their slot-loaded bass arrangement fascinating. I guess it works because the speakers sounded very tight and clean. I was impressed.
These were some of the punchiest speakers at the show, perfect for the Home Theater set-up in which they were presented. I was impressed both with the sound and the reasonable price, but alas, I was not able to get any info on these products and can’t find a reference to them in my notes. Can anyone help by revealing their source and details in the comments column?
Everyone understands absorption, but what’s diffraction? This is. Products like this scatter reflections randomly around the room rather than glaringly like a mirror would. Too much absorption makes music sound lifeless, but if it’s still necessary to take care of reflections, diffracters do a beautiful job without “dulling’ the high frequencies. From my experience, absorbers and diffracters will do much more to improve the sound in your room than changes in cables, stands or even electronics. They can change your audio life as much as new speakers.
Despite the elaborate technical explanations, head scratching, furrowed brows and large expenditures, audio components are nothing more than toys for big boys. And like most toys, they are all the more attractive in bright colors with lots of lights. No-one understood this better at the Newport Show than J-Corder.com. This refurbisher of classic tape machines consistently presents marvelous sound, but it was all the more fun with the light show. It was enough to make those longing for Las Vegas feel at home. As always, the Vivid Audio loudspeakers sounded sublime.
This show report is more of a vignette than a full representation of the event. There are many rooms I missed and shouldn’t have, but like Vegas, one can only absorb so much in a given time span. Camaraderie plays an equally big part on my priority list and, unless I’m getting paid, I won’t sacrifice that for work. Truthfully, I never sacrificed it when I was working either.
A great big vote of thanks to Richard Beers, the show’s producer, for:
1. Not trying to handle everything himself, which never leaves sufficient time to do everything right.
2. Hiring competent and efficient staff, which expedited my job as Hospitality Room host.
3. Arranging for us to have the same room in the same hotel and on the same terms as last year, which made the SDMAG Hospitality Room possible again.
4. Being next to the John Wayne airport, which is convenient for SoCal and fly-in audiophiles.
5. Having the cajonies to listen to Bob Levi, whom everyone knows is crazy (like a fox.)
I know there’s been some criticism suggesting that this audio show is insufficiently glitzy. Please refer those farmers to Vegas or Munich? Orange County is an oasis in the urban zoo and an attractive alternative to downtown decadence.
~ Dr. B. Jan Montana