HE 2004 Nelson
Home Entertainment 2004
A Veritable Sonic Smorgasbord
To you, my audiophile companions, I begin my show report from HE 2004 with an apology: I suffer from a common ailment known as the “buffet syndrome” which I suffered mightily while attending HE 2004 at the Hilton Hotel in Manhattan. I will not bore you with all of the details but suffice to say that when I hit a food buffet comparable to this sonic event, I tend to graze on the most expensive dishes offered, many times missing the morsels looking less lavish. Certainly, I usually never make it to the dessert tables, except maybe to pluck the fresh raspberries off of all the miniature pastries, which usually appear at such buffets. I tend to pile my plate so high to start that no matter how hard I try, and how much I hold myself back, I am satiated before I can sample the full menu and usually leave slightly worried whether I would survive to my next meal and wondering whether I really got my money’s worth after all.
I hope you can appreciate these parallels to how I approached the sonic smorgasbord that I encountered at HE 2004. From the moment I left the taxicab with my buddies Greg Petan and Key Kim, I committed myself to hearing everything and seeking out all of the gems to be sampled from the new lines of audiophile equipment and accessories on hand. Alas, three days later, I would be found in a corner of the Hilton, suffering from my “buffet syndrome” and longing for just one more plate, one more chance to return to the Lamm demo and somehow find a little more cerebral room to concentrate and enjoy the next table of audiophile treats.
What I did accomplish was to find and report here on a few gems which, to my ears, represented the holy grail, the beluga caviar, the elusive chocolate truffle, that I sought at HE 2004: equipment that brought me closer to musical intention and truth. I must admit that this search was made much harder at this event due to the fact that all of the hotel rooms were monsters to tame and I wondered why there were so few rooms which utilized room correction devices, like the wonderful Argent Roomlens or advances in digital room correction, such as offered by Tact Audio and others. A few rooms utilized sound panels or the Shakti Soundfield Optimizers to good effect, but most had no such attention paid to room acoustics, so fundamental in my opinion to audiophile art and science today. Without this technology, most of the rooms suffered from the audibility of chaotic reflections from walls and hotel furnishings, resulting in reduced clarity, detail and soundstage depth from even the best sounding systems. In contrast, it was nice to see many new rack and vibration control systems being utilized and I report on a few of these below. Of course, when you have tens of people crowding into the CINEPRO room where the soundtrack of Blade II is being demonstrated in high octane fashion, and in a next door room, a crowd trying to listen to the gentle shimmer of a harp on a two channel system, there are always limitations to what you can hear and experience at these show events.
With these observations and caveats in mind, (and my buffet syndrome carefully massaged away until the next episode), I bring you my thoughts on some sonic gems that I did discover and enjoy at HE 2004. Readers should take note that I consistently tried to play identical selections from three reference recordings in each of these rooms, to keep a consistent sonic benchmark to compare and enjoy. I thank all of the manufacturers and dealers who allowed me this small privilege. The recordings utilized were:
Odetta, Blues Everywhere I Go, [M.C. Records MC0038]
Rachmaninoff, Symphonic Dances, [Reference Recordings, RR-96CD]
Jesse Cook, Gravity, [Narada, ND-63037]
One of the pleasures of HE 2004 was taking a stroll through the area of the Hilton where various audiophile recording labels were selling their recent recordings. It was here that I met Ken Christianson of Pro Musica, Chicago, who is the energetic wunderkind behind the unprocessed analog recordings available on the Naim label. Their latest sampler, entitled True Stereo, [Naim cd080] is not to be missed as an absolute revelation of sonic truth. All performances on this disc are recorded live with no overdubbing using AKG 414EB microphones in stereo array direct to a NagraIV-S analog reel to reel. I have since spent many a soulful hour with this disc and recommend it to anyone seeking a recording of pristine, tuneful jazz, instrumental and vocal selections with near perfect sonics and an unsurpassed clarity of vision.
I would also be remiss if I did not mention my grazing around the Chesky booth, chatting with the grinning and talented Rick Eckerle, engineer and coordinator to some of the greatest sessions recorded on this audiophile label, including the meeting of Larry Coryell, Badi Assad and John Abercrombie, captured in all of their musical companionship on Three Guitars [Chesky JD248]. Magnificent music making and the kind of careful recording craftsmanship that makes our audio equipment such a joy to behold.
THE MAIN COURSES:
THE MBL ROOM: This German company is definitely at the cutting edge of audiophile technology and workmanship as demonstrated in their outstanding high end room at HE. The room was fronted by the incredibly looking mbl Radialstrahler 101EReference Speakers, ($45,000) a four way radiating speaker system utilizing a circular vertical arrangement of “lamellas” or thin alloy plates, which radiate sound waves in all directions. The sound from these high priced speakers was indeed in the stratosphere of sonic detail, dynamics and soundstaging. Driving these captivating speakers were a collection of mbl’s reference amps, preamps and transport/DAC pieces, ranging in cost from $16,000 upwards. On Saturday morning, I was fortunate enough to arrange for a private demonstration of mbl’s more affordable line of monitor speakers (mbl 311E, $4,000) paired with their entry level integrated amplifier (mbl 7008, $6,600) and either their entry level CD player (mbl CDP 2 ($4,400) or their top loading player, mbl 1531 ($8,000). Jeremy Bryan, Vice President of mbl of America, and his technical mate, Jurgen, were kind enough to allow me to let this system sing all to ourselves and it was pure sonic pleasure. The mbl 311 E monitors utilize a woven 170 mm. Kevlar woofer/midrange driver with a 28 mm. soft dome tweeter and a magnetostatic super tweeter unit. Their sound can only be described as accurate, fast and full, with no compromise as to a sweet spot location - it was full and precise no matter one’s listening position. The best sonic match for these monitors, (we all agreed), was the mbl 1532 SACD player, due to be on the market very soon. Build quality of the components and the luscious piano lacquer speakers was some of the best I have seen. Jessie Cook’s brew of startlingly fast flamenco guitar on “Brio” from Gravity was pure adrenaline, crispness and accuracy. A major find at the show and one of the best I heard, regardless of price.
THE SILVERLINE AUDIO TECHNOLOGY ROOM: A welcoming smile and hug from Silverline Audio’s owner and guru, Alan Yun, again confirmed for me that this business is really about the people who invent, dream and listen to music, and about the connections people make with each other through this medium of art. Alan is clearly a man of integrity, knowledge and enthusiasm, and his speaker line and new prototype integrated amp embodied all that this author seeks in finding new gems in audiophile design. Listening to Odetta’s voice through the Silverline’s Sonatina IIIspeakers, ($5,000) was a treat, as her voice was portrayed with accurate tonality and pitch, a very hard thing to for a system to capture. The Sonatina III, utilizing a 3 way design with soft dome tweeter, midrange and cone woofer, was one of the best I heard at the show in this price range, with a soaring treble and a deep, articulate bass. On the Symphonic Dances recording, people crowded into the room to hear the Sonatinas sing and convey the large soundstage and full dynamic slam that this Reference Recording offers in spades. I would like to spend more time with the Sonatinas and see how they would compliment a digital amp with tube preamp setup, which might take even more advantage of their sharply delineated dynamics and full range sound. Alan was also utilizing in this room his new “Motion in Music”Moto integrated amp, ($15,000), a four stage tube amplifier utilizing a combination of a 300B tube with an 805 tube, resulting in a delicacy and detail which was quite liberating in this setup. In addition to a Metronome CD player, all cabling in this system was provided by Silverline Audio’s proprietary cable. Talking shop with Alan for the first time was a great pleasure for me, and clearly conveyed to me the feeling that purchasing a Silverline Audio product would be entering a special and secure relationship with a man who cares greatly that each of his products should bring one closer to the natural realism of music.
THE VON SCHWEIKERT ROOM: Arriving early one morning to this room, I was fortunate to get my own session with the Von Schweikert VR4 JR. two-piece stacking speaker system, ($3,995) driven by the latest integrated amplifier from VAC, the Phi Beta, ($19,000) with a front end composed of an Oracle Audio CD transport feeding the always consummateElectrocompaniet ECD-1 DAC unit. Cabling through out this setup was from Verbatim Cable. This room struck me immediately with its great musical presence, even given the difficult limitations of the small room. Odetta’s unique voice through the VR4 jr. speakers was uncanny in its tonal accuracy and depth, and lead me to conclude that these speakers were a precious new find in their price range. The VR4 jr. speaker system really rocked with my cut “Words of Wonder” from Keith Richard’s Main Offender [Virgin Records], one of my reference discs for deep and articulate bass. The bass from these speakers was fantastic and the detail and retrieval of sonic information conveyed through the VAC and the front end was fully realized. The full function 110 watt/channel vacuum tube integrated amplifier was a gorgeous piece of equipment milled from a thick aircraft aluminum plate stock and provided a wonderful warmth and very good treble detail to this mix. I particularly liked this entire system, and would love to spend more time with the VR4 jr. speaker system, clearly a stunner to my ears in its price range in this initial encounter. I will be reviewing Albert’s VR-1 in the future, and look forward to experiencing his products’ ability to capturing virtual realism in musical terms.
THE PORTAL AUDIO/PENAUDIO ROOM: My man Dave Thomas has already submitted in these pages his typical insightful review of the PenaudioCharisma reference level monitor pair ($2995) andChara free standing woofer ($2495) combination that was the centerpiece of this room, fed by the newPaladin fully balanced monoblock amp ($3,500) from Portal Audio. This was my first chance to sample this combination and it immediately lured me in with its directness of presentation and full-throttled character. If pushed to compare it in this short, initial encounter to the Von Schweikert Room, I would state that this room had a more direct approach to delivering the music, as opposed to the Von Schweikert’s feel of a more enveloping sonic picture. Here, Odetta’s voice was captured in its tonality spot -on, with a directness that placed you right there in front of her on stage, regardless of where you sat in this small hotel room. The dynamic nature of the Paladin amps, clearly reminded me of the power and finesse of my own Portal Panache integrated except with even more grip on the Chara woofer. The cosmetics of this speaker combination were also quite appealing, with a thin column resting on a small footprint - ideal for urban apartment dwellers with a notion to seek out full throttle precision in their music. Also on hand was Penaudio’sRebel 2 speakers ($1500 per pair), an intriguing two-way, reflex-loaded monitor that is small enough to set-up on a desk in one’s office. Look for a review in these pages in the future.
THE HYPERION ROOM:Hyperion’s motto, “Hearing Is Believing” was the clarion call of those who were fortunate to venture into this room, featuring the Hyperion HPS 938floorstanding speaker ($3,995/pr), combined with their BEC-P25 preamplifier ($1,495) and BEC -250amplifier ($1,495). Here was sweetness and power, all cooked into a fine sonic stew, keeping all listeners on the edge of their seats. Here, Odetta’s voice, (which can be very difficult to deliver accurately) sounded a little less tonally accurate than in other rooms, but her crack backing band were on full display, clearly delineated on an impressively wide and accurate soundstage. The Hyperion speakers contain a newly U.S. patented Synchro-Vibrate Flattop woofer which claims to offer increased transparency along with greater precision. I observed how this combination kicked the blues up a notch on the Odetta recording, keeping everything focused and pushing the soundstage further out than I heard in many other rooms. The small hotel room really crimped the style of these speakers to really strut their stuff, and it would be nice in the future to devour some musical time with this system in a larger, more appropriate, listening space. However, based on my brief encounter with Hyperion, I would say to keep an eye out for this new company and its affordable offerings, delivering impressive soundstaging and satisfying musical energy at a fair price point.
THE LIVING VOICE ROOM: Speaking of musical energy at a fair price point, this room held a bountiful of treats to my ears, all centered around the Living Voice Auditorium Series of speakers. The Auditorium Avatar floorstander ($5,695 per pair), a D’Appolito design, was driven here by several components fromExposure Electronics of England. This combination got to the rhythm of the music in a hurry in precise and dynamic fashion, with an accurate low midrange and bass extension that was quite impressive to my ears. Jesse Cook’s flamenco assault was handled with agility with the Avatars; the only drawback was the limitation of the room, yet again, as it closed in the sound of these enticing speakers. The Exposure electronics were remarkably quiet, yet held tremendous power and pace in driving the Avatars. The Exposure Signature Series amplifier , utilizing a dual mono construction with bi-polar output transistors, reminded me of the virtues of the Paladins heard in the Portal room: dynamic and precise in their powerful focus. Once again, keep your eyes and ears on these English products, as they march forth with what I perceive to be excellent audiophile value and built quality, judging from this brief introduction.
THE GOLDMUND ROOM: Listening to Odetta’s unique portrayal of love and loss in this room was simply a revelation to my ears. Regardless of the contortions that this hotel room played upon the music, the Goldmund Logos active monitor speakers ($8,850) poised on the am 30’’ designed stands ($1,700 per pair), driven by the Eidos 18 multi-format player ($7,420) and Mimesis 30multi-channel processor ($17, 750) made Odetta come alive. Equipment racks used were Sistrum Platforms and amp stands that our publisher reviewed and remainshis long time reference. The hidden details in this recording, of Odetta’s pace of breathing, her laughs and sighs were all given life by this system. One of the best I heard in a monitor set-up, epitomizing the accuracy of monitors and their precision at getting to the details in the music, especially if you find the sweet spot in a listening position. I liked these and the MBL monitors the best at this show, for systems utilizing monitors on stands.
THE THOR AUDIO ROOM: Although unable to play my reference recordings in this room, I wanted to mention to readers the thoroughly musical pace and quality that I heard in this room, dominated by Thor Audio’s tube electronics, including their TPA-60 monoblock amps, ($15,990) with a rating of 60 watts, but built with a 100 watt power supply. These amps were housed in Thor’s unique round “toroid” style chassis, which claims to make possible an inherently non-resonant layout design which offers a fully shielded operating area for the tubes in this amp. Although the glow from the tubed electronics was hypnotizing, the sound was anything but, as it flowed effortlessly from crescendo to quiet passages, without missing a beat. This brief introduction lead me to want to hear more offerings from this company, whose electronics look to be built with painstaking precision and craftsmanship, and whose sound is much bigger and bolder than their measured power ratings may indicate.
THE ESSENTIAL SIDE DISHES:
Before I conclude this Bacchanalian feast of sonic delights offered at HE 2004, I wanted to offer a few insights into some notable audio rack systems.
EQUARACK IN THE THOR ROOM: Here was a distinctive modular rack design, utilizing a “shelf-less” system which supported components with perceptible strength and rigidity. The Model A ($2,850 with four levels) utilizes a universal isolation and damping device, the Equamounts. Equamounts come in two versions, one with an integral ball bearing and one without. They utilize a single layer viscoelastic polymer configured in an aluminum alloy base, which provides damping of vibratory energy by conversion to low-grade heat, in addition to greater shock/impact isolation. Equarack also displayed their amp stands ($1,050 each), which were also the picture of stability in cradling the Thor tube electronics.
THE FRAIM, IN THE NAIM ROOM: In terms of aesthetics of design and utility, I was taken with this new design approach in the Fraim, displayed by Naim in their room, with their new Arivaspeaker line and electronics. The Fraim is a beautiful, understated piece of audio rack refinement, constructed from discrete shelf levels stacked one upon another to be extended or reconfigured as equipment demands. Each layer is fitted with isolation units so that each piece of equipment is isolated as it is placed on top. The whole concept is one of simplicity, versatility and beauty, similar to the incomparable sonic delight and beauty of a Naim analog recording!
Happy Listening! See you at the next sonic feast!
(Publisher's Note: Photos by Albert Porter courtesy of AudioGon)