Plants. That’s what made the difference between heavenly and hellish-sounding rooms at this year’s New York Audio Show. It took me a while to clue into this. I was in one of the better-sounding spaces, and I asked, “How come your room sounds so good and most of the others are hard and bright?” The answer: plants. I looked around and, sure enough, there were leafy potted diffusers everywhere, rescuing the sound waves from the fate of smashing into the new venue’s tall, flat, unadorned walls. From then on, I noticed plants taming reflections in most of the good-sounding rooms, which I’ll describe shortly.
Sonics were one of several concerns plaguing would-be exhibitors at this year’s New York Audio Show. Indeed, the omens surrounding the show were worrisome from the start. The location had moved from chic Manhattan to distant, bohemian and, let’s face it, not exactly high end Brooklyn. How many customers would brave the Manhattan Bridge? Of course, the new location necessitated a change in venue. But whereas Manhattan boasts dozens of luxe-yet-large, conference-friendly hotels, Brooklyn has nary a one in that category. So it was out with the Palace, in with the Brooklyn Marriott. A nice place, actually, but would it be nice enough to attract this hobby’s well-heeled crowd? Then there was the timing—smack dab in the middle of Rosh Hashanah. That can’t be good.
For all these reasons, several prestigious New York dealers, such as Audio Arts and Sound by Singer, plus a bunch of high-end brands decided to sit this show out. Others took a flyer, though, no doubt incented by the much-reduced tariff. As the opening bell approached, they wrung their hands in worried anticipation. The question on every exhibitor’s mind: Would anyone show up?
Well, show up they did. The sighs of relief from exhibit rooms nearly drowned out the music. Lines formed early and traffic didn’t let up until the last of the three days. Organizers and exhibitors alike pronounced themselves well pleased. But what about the attendees? Would they be pleased? True, many of the ultra-exotic brands were absent. But those who ventured to Brooklyn were treated to something perhaps even more rare and exciting: a bevy of good sound from eminently affordable gear.
The show also boasted a surprising number of American debuts. So if you hadn’t been to Munich this year—as, of course, most attendees (including myself) hadn’t—you got to see lots of fresh drool-worthy gear. This was especially true in the always-active $30k speaker category. (I swear, if I had to pick one $30k pair of speakers to live with right now, my head would explode.) Here, then, are the sonic and debut highlights of the 2014 NYAS.
Five Most Significant Products
1. The very first product I saw, at the HDtracks exhibit, was also surely one of the most significant: a pre-production version of the imminent Sony iPod-killer, nostalgically named the Walkman. Actually, I guess since Apple has discontinued the iPod, the Sony might be better thought of as something that’s going to give Astell&Kern a few restless nights. That’s because the new Walkman is as feather light as a Nano, sports Apple-like intuitive controls, supports high-res up to 192/24 (sorry, no DSD), and costs a mere $299. Oh, I forgot to mention that the Walkman sounded fabulous through a pair of Sony’s new MDR-1R ’phones (also $299 and a terrific value). In case its lineup of high-res audio components hasn’t already made the point, the new Walkman confirms Sony’s seriousness about bringing high-res to average consumers. By the by, as I was enjoying the Walkman, a cellist materialized, instrument in hand, and set up right in the middle of the room. He then began playing honest-to-gosh live music. “Not quite as good as 192/24,” quipped a nearby David Chesky.
2. KEF has finally come out with a scaled-down version of the sonically superlative and physically unmistakable Blade (ahem, $30k). Dubbed the Blade 2, the new version shares the same unique point-source configuration and Uni-Q coincident mid/high driver, but with smaller woofers in a 33% smaller cabinet and a $6000 smaller price tag. This was the baby Blade’s first outing in the States and, as driven by Wadia and Parasound electronics, it sounded open, spacious, and ballsy in the bass, if a bit hard-edged (no plants). In typical Blade fashion, the 2 completely disappeared sonically. For those who admire the eminently admirable Blade but seek a smaller, lower-cost package, KEF now has an answer.
3. Nola was another prestigious company that did not shirk this show. Carl Marchisotto himself was on hand to introduce the Metro Grand Reference Gold ($33k). As per standard Nola orthodoxy, the new speaker has a ribbon tweeter and an open baffle cabinet for the mids on up. What’s unusual about the MGRF is that bass is conducted by two tiny, stacked woofers, which allows the MGRG to occupy just one 1 square foot of floor space. I experienced cognitive disconnect if I looked at the speaker while listening to its bass. What a tympanic boom these things make! Carl M. says the treble’s extension out to 100kHz accounts, in part, for how right the bass sounds. He also says the MGRF has flat low-end extension down to 25Hz. From what I heard in New York, that seems about right. This new Nola makes my Most Significant list because of its utility to the serious but space-challenged audiophile.
4. Leather cladding? A matte wood finish? Non-parallel sides? These are not the classy design touches one expects in a $4000 speakers. And yet there they were in the Opera Secunda. And guess what? The speakers sound great, too. In New York, mated with a Peachtree Audio DAC/Integrated amp ($1500), the Secunda was un-hyped and airy, and delivered spectacular depth. Shyness in the deepest bass is about the only significant compromise one makes with this speaker. At this price, that’s remarkable, especially considering the Secunda’s smart looks. So here’s a great system (minus source) for just $6500.
5. Audioengine, maker of my favorite Bluetooth speakers, has created a little box that might just bridge the gap between music-toting youth and a decent hi-fi system. The device is called the B1 and it occupies a new category: Bluetooth receiver. Music streams in over Bluetooth from a smartphone or tablet, at which point the B1 upconverts the signal to 24 bits and sends it on its way downstream to audio gear via either digital (TosLink) or analog (RCA). Of course, the quality of Bluetooth as an audio medium has yet to be determined. (Audioengine, for its part, claims to have done extensive testing and found the results more than satisfactory). For the folks who don’t know from CDs, SACDs, or LPs, the B1 is a link from their world to ours.
The Wes Bender Studios room played host to the U.S. debut of the Marten Getz 2 loudspeaker ($23,500 in lustrous piano black). Despite the sizzle that plagued many rooms missing plants, the excellence of these new Martens showed through. The speakers are coherent to an unusual degree, leading to perfect imaging—among many other strengths.
Gershman Acoustics’ new Grande Avant Garde ($12,500) is, IMHO, misnamed. The speaker is far from grand; rather, it is a charmingly petite floorstander. However, it sounded big, without being aggressive. Compellingly rich and eminently musical, the Grande Avant Garde looks like a winner.
The aforementioned Gershman Acoustics speaker was fronted by Backert Labs’ new Rhythm 1.1 tubed linestage ($7500). Its power supply eschews electrolytic caps; instead, it runs on premier V-Cap Teflon units. Furthermore, there is adjustable bias, which is quite unusual for tubed linestages. Finally, the Rhythm’s top plate, when tapped just so, reveals a door that provides easy access to the valves within. Is this thing mecca for tube-rollers or what?
The Soundsmith room was, as usual, sounding great. These guys definitely have something going on. In New York, they were introducing a series of five new medium-output, as yet unnamed cartridges. Designed for older preamps—such as classic C-J’s and ARC’s—with fixed gain on their phonostages, the new models will range from $1800 to $7500.
VPI revealed its new Prime ’table. The company considers the Prime, at $3500, the sweet spot of its line: a solid performer, upgradable in multiple ways, yet reasonably priced. The biggest news about the Prime is that it includes VPI’s groundbreaking 3-D printed tonearm. That represents quite a value, since the ’arm used to cost $2500 all by its lonesome.
As usual, speakers dominated the announcements. Verity Audio showed the new Parsifal Anniversary ($25k) which, in New York brandished a brash sound that fit the Brooklyn environs perfectly. Gamut was proudly displaying its RS Series. Each of the four models, which range from $19,500 to $115k, boasts a multilayered, curved enclosure with plenty of bracing but minimal internal damping. Gamut says the approach reduces vibrations while preserving natural dynamics.
Subs were big in New York. At Hsu Research, not one but two horned subs took a bow: the VTF3-Mk5HP ($799) and the VTF15-H ($899). The two have the same 15** driver, but the latter features balanced inputs and a larger enclosure. Well Rounded Sound also showcased two new subs that now sit atop its lineup, the Woof 6 ($1199) and the EXP ($1599).
Those diminutive, stand-mounted speakers with a USB input? Those are the Vanatoo Transparent Ones. They sounded pretty astounding for $499—and that includes a built in DAC and amp! Of course, the lower octaves were nowhere to be heard, but the speaker was impressive nonetheless. And while I don’t generally lean to horn speakers, I did cotton up to the USA Tube Audio Tineo J Horn ($35k). These are 3-ways with outboard stereo subs. The combo sounded as warm and ravishing as its burnished wood finish. The blend between main speakers and subs was absolutely seamless. The horns were sourced by an Ayon Audio CD3X DAC/streamer/player/preamp ($13,500) and driven with great rhythm and transparency by a pair of Ayon Titan SET monoblocks ($68k/pair).
A few non-speaker components did make their debut in New York, a lot of them tubed. Audio Classics showed its new 9B ($10k) stereo amp, which delivers 50 or 80 watts a side depending on whether you opt for 6CA7’s or KT88’s. The amp can be bridged for 100/160-watt mono operation. Another tubed debut was the Aluxus Audio 33SE monoblock ($9950), which sports a very cool digital bias readout. The amp displayed impressive build-quality for its price point. On the solid-state side of the street, Hegel was showing a new $1400 DAC, the HD12. The DAC has a built-in linestage, as most do these days, plus a phase-corrected output for lower jitter, an incredible -145db noise floor, and DSD64 support.
There weren’t a lot of cable debuts in New York, but Triode Wire showed off its Digital American Power Cord ($499). The wire itself is not digital, the distributor patiently explained to me; it is so called because it is meant for digital components. To that end, the cord’s shielding is made of carbon-fiber over conductive Mylar. Finally, Tortuga Audio bucked all the trends by introducing a passive volume control. Haven’t seen one of those in a while! The LDRX ($1495) uses a light-dependent resistor to control volume, so there are no metal contacts. In New York, the rest of the system consisted of a Jolida Tube DAC with Bluetooth ($500), a Prima Luna amp and Acoustic Zen 2 speakers ($18k). The promise of a passive volume control is transparency and lack of grain, and this system certainly delivered on that promise.
Top Five Systems (in no particular order)
1. The Sony Room was playing a system that, sadly, you can’t buy. At least, not the amplifier portion. The rest was familiar, available Sony gear: at one end the top-of-the-line HAP-Z1ES music server, and at the other the estimable SS-AR1 speakers. In between, as usual, was a pair of Pass amps. But these were no ordinary Pass units. It seems that in rummaging through its figurative attic, Sony happened upon a stash of never used, forty-year old Sony transistors. The company approached Nelson Pass and asked if he would do something with them. There were enough transistors for Nelson to build exactly six VFET amps. Sony kept four; Nelson nabbed two. Now I can’t say for sure that it was because of the amps, but this system sounded marvelously natural. I returned again and again for a respite from the harsher-sounding plant-less rooms.
2. The Nola Room was impressive not only for the sound but for the fact that the sound was coming from such apartment-friendly speakers. When Carl Marchisotto spun up a Count Basie LP, the dynamic slam was nothing short of astonishing. This feat was matched by Nola’s traditional openness and transparency. Nola does it again.
3. You know certain rooms are good even before you walk in, because the unmistakable whiff of “live” sound bleeds out into the hallway. That was the case in the Park Avenue Audio room. As I entered, I already knew I was in for a treat. Imagine my surprise when I realized the system that had drawn me in cost a mere $10,000 for the amp and speakers. Doing the honors were a pair of Audes Blues Mk 2 ($6500) paired with an Audes ATA 234 ($3500) 15Wpc tubed integrated amp. The source was the North Star Transport and DAC ($5998 the pair). Overall, the system delivered a lifelike sound that belied the price.
4. Wes Bender of Wes Bender Studios always gets good sound, and New York was no exception. The system was almost entirely new gear, including the Marten Getz 2 noted above, the Zesto Andos 1.2 phonostage ($4700), and the Townshend Audio Rock 7 Mk 2 ’table with Merlin power supply motor ($5800). I didn’t make many notes about the sound; I was too busy enjoying the music.
5. In the Vandersteen room, Richard Vandersteen had set up his flagship Vandersteen 7. But instead of the usual Aesthetix electronics, the speakers here were driven by Vandersteen’s own M7-HPA liquid-cooled amps designed specifically for the speakers. “That’s cheating, I know,” Richard confessed. The rest of the system was a rack of Audio Research gear. The sound was stunningly live and musical, even with lowly sources like Red Book CD.
Best of Show
- Best Sound: The Vandersteen room, with Vandersteen 7s driven by custom-matched M7-HPA liquid-cooled amps and ARC electronics. Peerless.
- Best Sound (for the money): The Park Avenue Audio room’s “second” system, anchored by the Opera Secunda speakers, an aesthetic and sonic steal at $4,000.
- Greatest Bargain: The Sony Walkman hi-res portable player and MDR-1 phones. $299 apiece, superlative sound.
- Most Important Trend: New products designed to lure younger buyers to the high end. Examples included the new Sony Walkman and the audioengine B1 Bluetooth receiver.
- Most Technically Innovative Product: Ironically, it was the Pass amps with 40-year old NOS Sony transistors.
- Biggest Surprise: People showed up!