The Hub: What's that weird green light?

Estimating the size of a crowd may be almost as difficult as judging beauty: while one person may find Maria Callas' strong features and voice vibrant and crackling with life, another may find both coarse, or unrefined. Similarly, someone from Manhattan may guesstimate a crowd's size far differently than would an agoraphobic, or someone from, say, Wasilla, Alaska. You betcha.

Given those caveats, a veritable Dead Sea of grains of salt, here's how many people attended CES and THE, according to the LVCVA (Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority): CES attendance was up slightly from 2009's level, to 120,000; THE attendance was the highest ever, at 6,000. How many went to both? No idea, but a lot of familiar faces were seen in both places.

When Richard Beers, proprietor and promoter of THE, was asked about attendance, he immediately responded, "we had a bunch". That certainly is true; it might be both ungracious and pointless to speculate whether that "bunch" reached 6,000. THE may not have seemed busier than last fall's RMAF, but clearly it was busy, and spirits and business were both good.

The sheer size and expense of CES almost demands a certain seriousness of demeanor that THE does not; nonetheless, some CES exhibitors managed to maintain their sense of joy through it all. Some even managed to be...goofy. Here are a few of the many people who made the show fun for me.

No matter how many exhibit rooms he runs between, no matter how many demos he gives, amiable polymath Ray Kimber always seems to have time to talk about a new recording, a new interest, or a charitable concern. Ray's comments are always insightful, and often possessed of a wry humor. Were he not incapable of deception, Ray could be a successful politician.

The mere act of offering a $100,000 tube amp in today's world requires a certain detachment from worldly concerns and a devotion bordering on obsession. Engineer Lars Engstöm, designer Timo Engström and export-manager Ole Lund Christensen of The Lars didn't seem obsessed, just glad to be at the show. Their room offered exquisite sound, when you could hear it over Ole conversing in four or five different languages, flipping between German, Swedish, Danish, English and what was THAT?, at a rapid pace. Brilliant guys, and decidedly different.

If only for Sound Practices, Joe Roberts would be in my personal Hall of Heroes. To have discovered him last year representing totally-over-the-top gear from Korean brand Silbatone, was almost too good to be true. Back again this year in a nice suite atop the Venetian, Joe presented a beautiful new 3-box Silbatone preamp designed by J. C. Morrison, who, oddly enough, teaches trapeze when not wrangling tubes. All the Silbatone gear was exquisitely finished, although the speakers (a Manger-based low-efficiency horn?) might not gain much significant-other acceptance. Joe's observations regarding genus audiophilia nervosa were always amused but detached, so it's not a huge shock to learn he's working on a PhD in anthropology. Good luck with the dissertation, dude.

You can always tell when you're in the company of friends: they give you a hard time. So it is with the unlikely duo of John DeVore and Jonathan Halpern. Stepping into the DeVore Fidelity/Tone Imports room and seeing the unfamiliar broad baffle of John's prototype 2-way "Orangutans", I said, "Did I walk into the Audio Note room?" John responded, "I was thinking more Snell." Jonathan of course joined in, with several acerbic,unprintable comments. It's good to be liked.

At The Mirage, we had an enjoyable chat with David and Sheryl Lee Wilson. Whether or not you like their speakers (and I confess that only in the last few years have I cared for the Wilson sound), these two have been major contributors to the growth of high end audio, building solid products and a solid company with a grace and friendliness that is inspiring to see. Building upon my reputation as a ground-breaker, I may have become the first industry-type to cause David to mop the floor, courtesy of an erupting bottle of Perrier. Sheesh. Nothing like making a good impression.

On the whole, the vibe of THE was more laid back than that of CES. Veteran exhibitors such as Ralph Karsten of Atma-Sphere, Stephen Norber of Edge, the Danish Peters (Qvortrup of Audio Note and Noerbaek of PBN), Brian Cheney of VMPS and Wendell Diller of Magnepan made it seem like old-home week. And what would old-home week be without a proper hangout? Enter the timewarp known as NFS Audio, where NFS stands for "Not For Sale". What the...??

Did you know that "Casablanca" was based upon an unproduced play called, "Everybody Comes to Rick's"? Well, just like Rick's Cafe in Casablanca, in Vegas, Everybody Comes to NFS.

For five years now, local audiophiles Dr. Michael Alazard and Dr. Anton Dotson (pediatrician and allergist/immunologist, respectively) have practiced their healing craft at THE. Their intent was to just attend THE, but triggered by the serendipitous arrival of "Exhibitor" credentials, they experienced a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland flashback of, "come on kids, let's put on a SHOW!" No, I don't know if Mike was Judy, or if Anton was. Whatever.

The result has evolved into an "exhibit" room reminiscent of that college dorm room where I first heard the Floyd's "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict", minus the haze. Okay, now assume that those college students had trance-inducing concert-grade lighting, instead of an old Christmas tree color-wheel, giant Tiki heads stolen from Trader Vic's, rather than a ripped-off road sign, and killer sound instead of a $49 BSR changer, and had a selection of REALLY NICE red wines, absinthe and homemade limoncello,instead of cans of Busch, AND those students were all engineers or musicians with cool senses of humor, instead of just being...well.. slackers and burnouts. Phew. So, the NFS Audio room is JUST LIKE being back in college in the '70's! Sorta.

Every year at THE, Mike and Anton fill an exhibit-room with those Tiki heads, lighting systems which may have come from a Grateful Dead garage-sale, a pile of great old records and a hodgepodge of audio gear, none of which, obviously, is for sale. This year there were a pair of the DeVore Orangutans, a tweaked Adcom amp, and I don't know what else. Heck, It's DARK in there.

The idea was to get back to the basics of listening to music for fun and fellowship, not agonizing over "which stamping is best?" and "OMG, the VTA is off by 30 seconds of arc!" Y'know, that standard audiophile stuff.

Judging by the after-hour crowds, NFS is a hit. At various times I ran into (sometimes literally) the aforementioned John and Jonathan, accompanied by cabinet-maker extraordinaire Anthony Abbate; Ralph, of course; Sean Ta of Artemis Labs with Frank Schröder, as close to a movie star as we have in the high end; Joe and J.C., who apparently had, ahem, made previous stops; the Brians, Kurtz and Kyle; Bernie Ahne of HiFi-Tuning (AKA "fuse dude"); and Glen Johnson and Peter Ledermann of The Soundsmith. The leonine Mr. Ledermann is as gracious a man as you will ever meet, and an extraordinary story-teller. What more could one ask for?

The answer of course is, "Women!" as I breathlessly announced, upon discovering Kimberly Aud-Stahl of Purist and Marjorie Baumert of RMAF in the NFS room one night. It is perhaps indicative of the curious nature of high end audio that the presence of two females requires comment, but there you have it.

As you might expect, females working in male-dominated fields exhibit a strength of character those of us of the lesser gender rarely approach. Daughter and wife of engineers, Kimberly's Aud-acious behavior is that of a born salesperson; we have her to thank for provoking the unearthing of a surprisingly rocking FLAMENCO version of "Stairway to Heaven". Marjorie's calm presence and compassion are those of a born organizer and coordinator. Besides all that, both are a lot of fun to be around.

Perhaps I've made too much of this whole "fun" thing. After all, I'm the guy who whined about how much hard work is involved in doing the shows. Such is true, but the informal, after-hours meetings are important, as well, and the trust-building and bonding necessary in doing business are aided by the element of fun.

That's an aspect of the business-world lost on those who see ANY association as evidence of a dark conspiracy. Life is tough, and you do business with people you trust and, one hopes, like. Full disclosure for those conspiracy-buffs: some of those mentioned have relationships with Audiogon, some had previous business relationships with me, personally. With any luck, in the future, ALL of them will have relationships with Audiogon!

Now: jeez, is Axpona only a month away?
Always good seeing you, Bill. And thanks for the kind mention of the Tone Imports/DeVore/Box Furniture room. Cabinet-maker extraordinaire Anthony Abbate is also the proprieter of Box Furniture Company. Anthony was not only gracious enough to hold all our display goodies with his fine furniture, but was a key set of ears and hands in helping set up the room.

Until next year.... and I promise to give printable commentary next time.

Thanks, I think?

Kudos to Anthony for giving his company an understandable and unpretentious name, in a world of nebulous, vague and grandiose company-names. Personally, I'm thinking of calling my next venture, "Universal Global Megalomania Unlimited". I'll have to check; the name may have already been trademarked.

Good to see y'all, too.
Thanks Bill and keep up the good work! If things go right, I'll see you at Axpona (we really weren't planning on it until after THE Show, now I'm trying to shoehorn it into our schedule).