Trelja and friends in New York, 2004
As we all know, the 2004 Stereophile NYC Show is this weekend. That means, like it or not, the annual TRELJA in New York Report is being submitted for your reading pleasure.
First, I would be remiss if I neglegted to mention my two compadres, mechans (Dr. Mechanic) and slipknot1 (Joe G.) for hanging out with me for the day. I had a blast, and my buddies being with me were a big part of why that was so. Thanks for putting up with me from 7AM to 9:30 PM guys!
Also, I should give a quick nod to the friends I met while at the show, some of whom I for the first time. Apologies for those I have forgotten, but Albert Porter, Vinh Vu, Lloyd Walker, Sandy from our audio group, Mark O'Brien, and Gilbert Yeung - it was a pleasure to see you all Friday. And, while I would have LOVED to see the Gilmore Girl, I am sure she could care less. I missed Victor Khomenko of BAT. I also got a chance to say hello to Bobby Palkovic, Ralph Karsten, Kalman Rubinson, meet Art Dudley, and Chip Stern.
Art Dudley wins the Gentleman of the Day award. It almost seems incongruous that such a kind, gentle man can create so much controversy in audio. But, I will reiterate my opinions that Art is a truly entertaing, funny, gifted writer who adds so much to Stereophile. He is better at being Sam Tellig than Sam is these days. Art has added a perspective previously lacking at Stereophile, evidenced in the gear he reviews.
I miss Chip Stern at Stereophile, my opinion being he was the best everyday meat and potatoes writer at the magazine. I was happy to get a chance to tell him yesterday. Chip cranking the volume up in the Rogue/Vandersteen room showed that I do have kindred spirits in audio, people who actually want to listen at loud volumes.
OK, my overall impressions of the show basically mirror what I felt in 2002, only to a much greater degree. Good sound was the rule. In fact, there was really no awful rooms whatsoever. That goes very much against how I felt in 2001, when there was definitely some dreck in more rooms than there should ever be. Like the good doctor said, it looked like the companies definitely got their stuff together and knew how to put their best foot forward. In fact, some of the rooms that I had previously felt were awful in the past made serious strides forward.
In that vein, let me get the worst sounding rooms of the show out of the way first, as it is a very short list...
In my opinion, going against the opinion of a guy we ran into raving that we had to hear it as it was the best sounding room there, was the Rogue/Vandersteen room. Now, I am an absolutely huge fan of Mark O'Brien, Mark Walker, and the crew at Rogue, but their products just didn't match well with the Vandersteen speakers and vice versa. Contrast that with 2001, where the same Vandersteen 5s driven by the Cary V12 monoblocks were what I considered to be the best sounding room of the day. The Rogue and Vandersteen combo was overly harsh, forward, bright, and kind of trashy. It was not terrible sound, and was better than a good number that I heard in previous years, but both companies can definitely show themselves in a better light.
Next up was the Halcro room, with expensive products galore, this room proves that money often has zero correlation with good sound. The home theater setup, playing the Eagles DVD, left me with the sole good impression that the Halcros sure are big amps. This was good for a mid fi demo, but come on, this is not a mid fi event. Funny, I even had the feeling that the sound was not in sync at all with the video. The salesmen were those who you sit there in disbelief as they are convinced of the absolute superiority of their sound, yet the product was on the bad side of neutral.
And, finally, the last bad sounding room I encountered was the Atma Sphere/Gilmore room. Ralph Karsten was a gem of a person, but the synergy between his amps and those speakers was poor. The achilles heel sonically of the Atma Spheres is wrestling a woofer's voice coil to the ground and gaining the submission. Four 12" woofers look to be more than the great OTL amps are capable of. On the plus side, the sound was a heck of a lot better than the previous two years, where the match with the Classic Audio Reproduction horns produced horrific sound. Ralph sure thought it was sublime, however, and his air guitar proved he thought the combination was rockingly good. Personally, I know the amps can sound a lot better, as I am the proud owner of a pair of M60 monos. And because of that, I hope one day, Atma Sphere shows with a speaker that will really show how special and real the product truly is - tremendous clarity, speed, realness, and openess. I now understand all of the clamor and controversy over the speakers at CES 2004. I think I'd look for a pair of Carver Amazing Platinums if I was someone into the look/design. I'm sorry, but I wonder if anyone sees a shred of value for money in this loudspeaker. There was a murderer's row of Atma Sphere amps there, the whole lineup. Whew, that's a lot of tubes to count. If you are a tube fetishist, you might just get yourself arrested in that room. Although, I love the cosmetics of the Mark 3 version of the M60s, as time passes, my regard for the looks of my silver Mark II.2 is going through the roof.
OK, that is it for the bad. As far as the OK goes, I should say that the Music Hall rooms with Epos loudspeakers were good, but not great. I think a better speaker would really show the brand's lineup, like the MMF25 (which I didn't see), to be perhaps the most obvious best buys in high end audio. The lineup of turntables pleased many an vinylholic to be sure. I almost feel ashamed not praising them here, as I probably need to view the speaker in the $300 light in which they are sold. It's kind of like entering a new Nissan Sentra in a Concours d'Elegance - a nice little car, but no one will be giving it a look there.
Also, the Chord stuff didn't thrill me, and I wonder if there is anyone out there who sees value in the interesting looking, yet very average sounding lineup.
I guess I could list all of the good or great sounding rooms and give a detailed description, but that might fill up a book. Instead, allow me to try to be as brief as possible, while still providing something in the way of description.
Best of Show - JMlabs/BAT. No question. Wow! $200K, and way out of my, as well as most people's abilities. Proving that you can get something for all that money. Steve Bednarski is one of the class acts of audio, but I do prefer a more free form approach to show going. The Sound By Singer structured demos were not what I would do, but the sonics were disgustingly good. And, the JMlabs Utopia line just might be worth the price in the non gargantuan models. If you can get that kind of sound, maybe they deserve plunking down that kind of money, as they just might give you sound that will please for many, many years. The speakers paired with Bel Canto electronics finally convinced me that home theater can actually sound good, but I am just as unenthusiastic about it as ever.
Yet, somehow, I was far more pleased with BAT in 2002. In two rooms, one solid state, one tube, they took a more accessible path for an audiophile towards attainment. A smaller system, featuring the new $3995 BAT VK55 was what I really interested in, but alas, was not part of the demo.
Biggest Surprise - Hyperion loudspeakers/electronics. First room we entered, and to be honest, spoiled us for most of the day. The prices were astonishing! I mean, from their looks, I expected the speaker to fall into the $12K - $18K range. Instead, they were $4000, with a generous show discount on top of that. We were so beguiled by them that while none of us need speakers, we came thissssssssss close to coming home with three pairs. The electronics will have you shaking your head to an equal degree at their $1500 price points. My only criticism was the preamp seemed to spit out some noise/hash when the volume was changed. In summary, those speakers trumped the likes of just about every great speaker at the show. And, the finish/looks were to die for.
All right, but canned. Von Schweiket/VAC. As stuffy as things get. A prescribed, yet underwhelming after further review event where the moderator actually threw one person out, as he had committed the atrocity of being the seventh person in a demo that allowed only six. Yo, lighten the heck up! While the speakers were meant to impress, the 30 second vignettes ultimately left me unimressed, and I never really connected with them, despite the fact that many will find them to be perfect. I am also wondering who would pair a $20K integrated with a $4000 speaker.
Blue Circle/Focus. The sound was incredibly open and good. You have got to see the size of the new industrial looking Blue Circle power amp. Mammoth is not an exaggeration. Anyone who tries to sneak equipment in past the wife should think about this beast. You could easily install it in the basement, and convince anyone it is part of your home's HVAC system. Gilbert Yeung had me thinking he was the son of the owner at HE2002, but he has wisdom of a grizzled audio veteran. He agreed the taller BC3/BC3000 preamps were more attractive, but most customers wanted a smaller package. I am happy to report the ridiculous preamp purse and power amp pumps were not in sight, and wonder why Blue Circle gear is so often overlooked in audio.
Audiopax. The beautifully designed, yet expensive gear left me feeling that the high pricetags were definitely worth it. If you can swing them, definitely try to visit Rhapsody, formerly Avante Garde, in NYC. I truly loved the sound of this equipment. The gloss red sub/sat speaker system particularly had me drooling, and almost looked like a good value. If a pair ever turn up on the used market, I wonder if I could resist. The boys from Brazil definitely know good sound.
Audio Note - Kondo, Japan. As Kondo - san says, "Nothing is unimportant." The system featured the Ongaku - Neiro integrated with some really modified Lowther horns. The whizzer cone was removed, as was the phase plug, and a separate tweeter was added. Two large woofers resided on the rear of the gorgeous, large wood cabinets, and the horn exited at the bottom. The doctor might have been more impressed by the Gaku - On, but that would have been the only way they could have done any better.
While I am at it, I must say the Lowther based speakers sure sounded good to me. As I have purchased two pairs of drivers, PM6A and PM6C, I should be in for particularly good sound once I assemble my cabinets. The love/hate argument involving Lowthers that so pervades audio has been now settled in my mind - they are magical speakers. A 300B based Viva amplifier in the corner had us wishing we could give it a listen.
Speaking of Lowthers, the Rethms took my by surprise by sounding a lot fuller than I had been led to believe. While it is reported they have no bass, I had absolutely no complaints about them yesterday.
More great single drive sound that left us scratching our heads was the Mapleshade Audio room. The $999 Fostex based Omegas were superb. The whole system came in at a ridiculously low price, although I felt some of the elements, such as the Mapleshade speaker stands were left out of the equation. The 2A3 integrated even made some points with the doctor, who prefers his power amps to be jet engines, as we joke. This system sounded too good for anyone to now tell me that you have to be rich to be in high end audio. Were the speakers in the corners (not playing) Horn Shoppes? I wondered about Ginko Audio and Mapleshade being in the same room, as their solutions to vibration control are polar opposites, but everything worked.
Totem seemed a bit disappointed that the bigger speaker they brought sounded too full for the room they were in, but I was not. Reason being the Arro is my favorite in the lineup, and the liliputian sized woofer did put out some full sound. Partnering amplifier was a Plinius integrated, and those always saying to give Totems a lot of power proved quite wise to me yesterday. Totem also leapt over the pack when it came to decorating the room. It makes me wonder about companies who just show up, mope about the room, and then go on to show their products in an awful presentation.
If I had the money, I would buy some Thor equipment. No words can express how glorious I always find the sound of their rooms. Beguilingly rich, sweet, and warm. I am not sure I would be happy travelling that far away from openness and neutrality, but I sure would like to give a try. The horn speakers the amps mated with supposedly had trouble mating with other amps, despite their sensivity ratings. Go figure.
Bohlender - Graebender (apologies for spelling) were proud of their speakers, but I found the amps they set up to be just too cool looking.
April Music of South Korea makes me wonder if the brand will do as well in the world as their cars. Things were ho hum, until someone threw a dynamic disc into the equation, then everything perked up nicely.
I laud the presence of Jadis at the show, there with my favorite integrated in the world, the DA60. It is an absolute crime what has happened to the marque in North America over the past decade (I know, I sound like a broken record). The interesting Prame horns Northstar Leading the Way mated the amp with didn't please everyone, but I know that I liked the sound. As a Jadis integrated owner, perhaps one day I will own a DA60 to take its place in my second system. But, can the one with the DA60 really be the second system???
Walker/Kharma were making great sound, but does anyone expect any less? Lloyd's turntables transcend anything else I have encountered in analog, and he told me early this month, a lower cost turntable is in the works. I loved his response once when I told him that while I respected his products, they were way beyond my means. His reply, "They're beyond my means, too!" And, something about the Kharmas, is it the seamless and liquidity that a series crossover provides? Could be. This sytem cost some serious money, yet did not let down. I believe the amplification was Lamm, but please don't make me swear it was the case.
Perreaux had a pair of very powerful monoblocks driving Piega speakers. I still have nightmares of Perreauxs becoming oversized doorstops after they pulled the plug the last go 'round, but I can't take anything away from the sound. The Piegas left me a bit cold, however, I loved the cool red Italian(?) tubed preamp.
Merlin is the speaker I have been drooling over since hearing a pair in February. My encounter at the time so far exceeded my expectations for how a stereo system could sound that I actually began think that reality and presence were almost attainable in our hobby. I wondered if the speakers needed a bigger room than they were in, or maybe I would have liked to hear the system without the BAM in place. The sound was a bit too plump and plummy at times. While the pairing with Joule electronics sounded very, very good, it didn't match the sound I heard a few months ago. But, then again, how could it?
Portal mated their new monoblocks with the Finnish Penaudio loudspeakers. Many will find the speakers to be interesting looking, as they are very unique. Personally, I would have loved to hear the Portal Panache integrated, but I had no complaints regarding the sound through the monos.
The Naim Arriva speakers took me by surprise. The sound was engaging and lively. Perhaps I should give them another listen, as I have a dealer five minutes from my home. The last thing I need is another pair of speakers, but I did have a good time, and it might turn into a recommendation for fellow audiophiles.
I found the Innersound rooms to be outstanding, and wondered how the Isis is often so passed over on the used market. At the prices they fetch, they represent incredible value. Both rooms sounded great, but the room with the larger speaker sounded greater. The red turntable in the corner wowed me, it was as if a Ferrari were reborn as a turntable. Oh, and give Innersound some big points for the openness, honesty, and integrity of their representatives. Treating the high end community with respect and intelligence reflects well on the company and shows me why the company appears to be making strides in a difficult marketplace.
The Gershman Audio Opera Sauvage always impressed me with its interesting, boatlike looks. Perhaps playing on my love of the sea. The level of sound nearly matched its looks. But, then again, if you hate the cosmetics, you could say the sonics far exceeded them.
Birdland Audio components are so small, they make me think of radar detectors. But, mating with a $10K pair of Tetra speakers, the Odeon Ag DAC and itsy bitsy integrated proved that big sound can come in small packages. The gear was on was of the coolest racks around, too.
Jeff Joseph and EveAnna Manley have the Home Entertainment Shows down to a science. It's as if you are watching the San Francisco 49'ers of the 1980s. Precision, meticulousness, and excellence of execution. Jeff is humorous, comfortable, and relaxed in front of the crowd. The Pearl was only on display, as Joseph Audio introduced the new RM55, with Seas Millenium drivers. Trying to push most of the Pearl's performance down to the $12K price point, Joseph seems to always produce a winner when it comes to his speakers. The "Tubes Rule!" t - shirts sold by EveAnna were far too cool for Joe G. and I to pass on - hats thrown in gratis!
Simaudio gear sounded better than I have ever heard it, and improved on the dryness I have heard in past shows. Give Simaudio points for upping their performance over time. The DeVore loudspeakers seemed to be a good match. Everyone I know who gets near the DeVore seems to come away with very positive feelings.
But, the biggest improvement over past shows I noticed was MBL. The speaker is more expensive than ever at $45K, but I actually thought the sound was pretty darn good this year. The speakers felt like they came undone a bit during percussive passages, but maybe room setup could help that. Previously, the harshness/shrillness made the MBL room unlistenable. Nice job, guys! And, since I love piano black so much, the looks of MBL definitely appeal to me. The doctor called the radialstrahlers "pineapple speakers".
Also making a serious upswing in show sound was Silverline. The Boleros made beautiful music with their new 805 based integrated. The only problem is the $15K integrated looks way overpriced. At $2500, it would look like a good deal, as it is it looks like they won't be selling very many of them. I didn't hear anything special with the Sonatina and $35K solid state EAR in 2001, but Silverline certainly got their ducks in a row this year.
Due to time running out in the afternoon for us, we skipped the Sound By Singer Musical Fidelity rooms. I am certain nothing will be lost here, though as Sam Tellig will make sure everyone knows how wonderful he found it.
In heavy rotation - Patricia Barber and Diana Krall, but neither to the degree of things in the past
Missing in action, music - Jacintha. The beauty from Thailand with the silky voice was overplayed at HE2002, but only in evidence in the vinyl/CD racks in the marketplace this year
Missing in action, equipment - Coincident
Well, that is this installment of TRELJA in New York, 2004. Hopefully, everyone who attended HE2004 had just as good a time as I did.