I decided to check out the New York Audio Show today, I think it's the second year of this
particular show. It was spread over several floors of the New York Palace Hotel on Madison Ave. I
flashed my AES membership card and got a discounted admission (I think 10% or maybe 15% off). That
admission got me into everything going on Sunday afternoon.
A general observation is that the hotel was not an ideal place for this kind of event. Demos were
taking place in small NYC hotel rooms, and were sometimes overcrowded. The rooms were invariably
stuffy and in some cases, smelly food had been brought in (why? to clear out the over-crowded
room?). Detracting somewhat, and no fault of the show organizers, was a power failure, which caused
super-loud generators outside the windows to kick in. The net result was akin to horrible turntable
rumble-feedback. This did not last all afternoon, thankfully.
I won't get into what makes people spend more on stereo gear than cars, but most of what I heard
didnt't sound particularly great. Nothing made we want to run out and take a home-equity loan
because I _must_have_it! But, there were some surprises.
First surprise was how many headphone companies were there, how many high-end headphone amps are now
made, and how mediocre to bad most of them sound. However, I found a couple of 'phones that were
superb, better than anything I own. Most interesting of that bunch were MrSpeakers out of San Diego.
Dan Clark, the "Head-Master" (I assume that means owner or chief engineer), has some interesting
ideas about "voicing" headphones (as he pointed out, ALL headphones are "voiced" in one way or
another). I really liked his mid-line model (the regular unbalanced one). It comes out less
bass-extreme than my go-to Audio-Technica ATMH50s but still with plenty of solid, natural bass. The
midrange is akin to AKG 'phones (very natural-sounding, especially right where the human voice
usually falls) and the treble is much better than AKG and more like the more-costly Sennheisers I
heard. Dan Clark said he allows a 15-day return policy, so I plan to try out a pair in the studio. I
think they may be better than the A-T's for judging overall sound quality because of the superb
midrange. The A-T's are still probably best for hearing exactly what's wrong or right in the bass
frequencies (much better than near-field monitors). I also have to give props to the Mytek
DAC/headphone amp I heard driving HiFiMan headphones (which were very good in their own right, but
way over my budget for headphones). They had the Mytek playing DSD streaming files off a Mac laptop
and the sound quality was very pleasant and realistic. They didn't have enough variety of music to
render a verdict on DSD vs high-resolution PCM, but I will say I enjoyed that demo very much.
A company out of NYC called Well Rounded Sound makes single-driver speakers in tubular wooden
enclosures that can be combined or used alone. They had a setup with their biggest drivers on the
floor and their long-tubed smaller drivers up on the radiator/ac unit. The beauty of the system is
that they had time-aligned the bass and treble so the damn thing sounded fantastic. It was a small
hotel room, so no telling how this would sound in a living room, but I'm wondering about the
applications for a studio, assuming one built their own crossover network (or maybe not, I'd
probably try it just driving the two speakers per channel first, see if I could align them right for
the room). I know there are probably a bunch of acoustics theories broken here, but I know what I
heard and that setup sounded really good, better than some of the house-priced speakers in other
rooms. I specifically asked the guy to demo full-range and dynamic music, helping pick from his
large pile of CDs. Better treble than I expected, really nice stereo-location-cues frequencies and
plenty of bass (even though the speakers on the floor are only spec'd down to 70hz).
Also noted, definitely in the class of what's called a "lifestyle product," along the lines with
that 4-car garage in the McMansion, the return of the "Hi-Fi Console":
The difference with the old klunky furniture containing a Garrard record-wrecker, some screamy/honky
speakers and an underpowered and ill-vented tube amp, this thing sounds pretty good. I had the guy
put on a bass-heavy Jimi Hendrix record and then crank that little tube amp to the point of
room-clearing loud, too see if the bass would skip the record. Amazingly, no! He's figured out some
sort of isolatuion system for that turntable where he was tracking at 1.5 grams and had no skipping
or feedback issues. The build quality was also impressive, although the tube amp has more a good DIY
fit and finish than an old Magnavox chasis of old. The speakers don't have super-strong treble, but
they don't sound like a blanket is over them either. The little tube amp is quite crisp and clean,
like a Dynaco with a better power supply (which is what I suspect is the design). The noise floor of
the system was good, not at all like the hiss/hum/hash background of yore. The Wall Street Journal
had an article over the weekend about many-vehicle, million-dollar, stand-alone garages, and one of
these things would be great in the loft/lounge area of one of those places. It would definitely
sound better than what's more likely to be there.
Another general comment -- people demo'ing very expensive equipment should obey two cardinal rules:
1) never plug in an iPod or run lossy files from iTunes on a laptop, no matter how thick your cables
or how costly your DAC connected to the laptop. 2) try to pick music that is not all midrange.
Acoustic folk music or a guy and a guitar playing blues doesn't demonstrate anything. Original
pressings of 70s rock records also doesn't reveal anything except how bad most of those records
sounded from Day 1. To almost everyone's credit, no demos were done at pain-level SPL's. To my ears,
too many pricey speakers are "voiced" to have too much midrange or too much bass and very few do
"air and space" well. Also, too few speakers throw the treble and midrange very wide, and this seems
to be a recent trend. I remember in the 70s and 80s that it was common for speakers to be spec'd
with a wide treble throw (usually having half of the tweeter orb outside the front of the cabinet),
and some manufacturers would have a horn-ish setup on their midrange driver (or an actual horn, like
Klipsch Heresys) to make sure it threw wide. It could be that the demo'ing folks "toe-in" these
modern speakers too much, but it's not just a problem throwing out beyond the speakers, it's also
not throwing in toward the center. I heard this same problem in about half of the demo rooms, with
speakers costing a couple grand a pair and speakers costing more than many homes.
Probably worth noting that I saw a lot more headphone and streaming/computer audio stuff than
vinyl-playback stuff. There's definitely a trend out there among computer-saavy music fans to set up
whole-house servers and to create or download non-lossy music files to feed the listening systems.
There were definitely more software and whole-home-control reps there than turntable or cartridge
manufacturers, and many demos were being run off digital devices (although the majority were
probably run off CD players). That said, there were several "vinyl playback sessions" each day of
the show. VPI had one of their top-line turntables set up playing LPs all day. They had a very
good-sounding amp and speaker combo, I forgot the brands because the prices were way out of my
league (big speakers and lots of tubes, but not all for show because that system's sound was clear,
detailed and solid if not super-crisp). It was very nice to sit in there, rest the barking dogs and
listen to a side of "Dark Side of the Moon."
-- Tom Fine