2018 New York Audio Show Report

Quality Over Quantity

Show report
Categories:
Floorstanding,
Stand-mount,
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Turntables,
Cartridges,
Tonearms
2018 New York Audio Show Report

Overview
The history of the New York Audio Show can best be described as rocky. Decades ago, the show was run by Stereophile magazine, and it was a juggernaut. I remember making an annual pilgrimage from Washington, D.C. to the New York Hilton to experience that show’s endless rooms, each packed with lust-worthy gear and ravenous audiophiles. But after Stereophile pulled out for lack of funding, New York languished for years without a major regional show—an unholy state of affairs for one of the country’s largest high-end audio markets.

In 2012, England’s Chester Group took on the mission of bringing back the NYAS. Since then, Chester has striven to nail the formula—with varying degrees of success. The hotels selected for the first two years, the Waldorf-Astoria and the New York Palace, respectively, were appropriately luxe and drew respectable crowds. But those properties were pricey, prompting exhibitor complaints. For the next two years, Chester Group experimented with significantly less expensive—but also significantly less convenient—sites. Those shows suffered low attendance by both exhibitors and audiophiles. Neither relished a trek to Brooklyn or Westchester County.

Clearly a return to Manhattan was in order, and in 2016 Chester Group did just that. For the past three years the NYAS has held court at the New York Park Lane. This hotel may not quite be in the Waldorf’s league, but it’s reasonably upscale and boasts a splendid midtown location next to Central Park. Most importantly, the Park Lane’s costs are, by New York standards, relatively moderate.

Although the Park Lane-based incarnation of NYAS has been a solid hit with exhibitors and attendees, both groups have remained stubbornly small. This year, for instance, there were just two dozen rooms, plus the usual ballroom bazaar for audiophile source material and accessories. That’s a far cry from the hundreds of exhibitors in the Stereophile days—or from currently thriving shows like Chicago’s AXPONA. Nonetheless, in a classic case of quality over quantity, this year’s NYAS proved highly rewarding.

Exhibitors were delighted with the crowds, which were some of the most keenly focused and enthusiastic audiophiles I’ve ever seen at a show. As GoldenEar Technology’s Sandy Gross put it, “Everyone who’s come through here has been a true enthusiast.” And though there weren’t as many rooms as one might’ve hoped, the rooms that were there saw steady, heady traffic. Further, the sound in those rooms was generally good, though I noticed a counter-intuitive phenomenon whereby the smaller rooms had better sound.

Attendees were equally smitten. While an audiophile visiting NYAS couldn’t hear the latest big Magicos or Constellations, they could hear the stellar Technics Reference System, a $750k five-way Chinese horn speaker, and Chad Kassem of Analogue Productions telling anecdotes and comparing his own reissues with the originals. Attendees were also treated to East Coast or U.S. premiers of numerous new products. For all these reasons, NYAS participants—be they exhibitors, attendees, or writers like yours truly—went away highly satisfied. Now, having hit on a formula that works, Chester Group just needs to expand on it.     

Premiers
As a reviewer visiting NYAS for the first time in several years, what most surprised me was the number of companies who chose this occasion to introduce new gear. Luxman, for instance, took the opportunity to give the new PD-151 turntable its first North American showing. The ’table ($3895 with ’arm) employs a custom synchronous DC motor, and all components are mounted to the underside of the plinth in an “under-slung” arrangement. Vintage vinyl collectors take note: the PD-151 is the rare modern ’table that supports 78 rpm. When mated with the equally-new L-509X 120Wpc integrated amp (with built-in phonostage) and Triangle Magellan Cello ($13k) speakers, the PD-151 produced a seductively lush, musical sound. 

Another new product, at least to me, was the Dupuy Acoustique Phase Restoration Acoustic Panel (PRAP). The wood panel, which the company says took six years to develop, is precisely curved in both the horizontal and vertical planes and rests on a solid granite bass. A passive device, the PRAP is placed between speakers and is said to address the “back-wall problem” by correcting inter-speaker time and phase issues. The model on display was enormous, making it impossible to do a before-and-after comparison. However, I can say that the sound was spacious, with natural (rather than hyper-defined) imaging, solid bass, and perfect tonal balance. The PRAP costs $30k for the big panel I heard, $15k for a smaller version.


In the bustling Technics room, the company was showing off its new Ottava S, a $799 all-in-one compact component. The technology within is cutting-edge, having trickled down from the aforementioned Reference Series. The new Ottava supports audio from a NAS, Apple Airplay, Bluetooth, Internet radio, Spotify, Tidal, plus any analog source. An optical digital input means that TVs, too, can feed the S. All of which is nice but means a whole lot more when you consider that the Ottava’s sound is truly unbelievable. Bass and space are stunning for a product this size, and the S has the same musical, self-effacing quality as the mighty Reference Series. Buy one for self-contained stereo, or a pair if and when you have more space.    

Among the most exciting bows at NYAS wasn’t a hardware product at all. Qobuz is a new hi-res streaming service that will launch in America “very soon.” The company’s focus is on 192/24 and other “studio master” quality files. In other countries, Qobuz (pronounced KO-buzz) already offers over two million such hi-res titles, plus forty million CD-resolution titles. Imagine having that level of choice and resolution, which is even higher than Tidal offers, at your beck and call. In demos throughout NYAS, Qobuz was always supremely impressive. I can’t wait for this service!

Looming in the Park Lane’s largest showroom was the mammoth Dragon full-range horn speaker system from China’s ESD Acoustics. The speakers, sold as a complete bundle with purpose-built electronics, will cost about $750k when they hit the U.S. For this you get five horns per side—the largest of which tower over mere mortals—each with carbon fiber cones for stiffness. A five-way active crossover fronts the drivers, necessitating a phalanx of amplifiers. Each is solid-state, single-ended, Class A, and puts out just 20 watts. Yet that’s more than enough to drive the Dragons, since each horn requires but a single watt to drive it to full volume. A feedback loop between the electronics and the speakers is said to deliver more linear motion.

Be that as it may, the Dragon system emitted some of the show’s worst sound. While there was plenty of bass, airiness was in short supply. And though, as expected, the horns delivered extreme dynamics, the drivers weren’t well-controlled. At higher volumes, their harshness became unlistenable. Hopefully ESD will do some more fine tuning before they start taking orders.

Several NY-metro-area dealers—including Scarsdale-based Value Electronics, Sound by Singer, Rhapsody Music, and Distinctive Stereo—had very fine-sounding rooms. The latter showed off a new Merrill Audio monoblock amp, the Element 116 ($22k/pr.), which boasts megahertz bandwidth and zero feedback. The 300-watt (into 8 ohms) amp was having no trouble driving a set of Muraudio hybrid stat/dynamic speakers. Sourced with a Wolf Audio music server/ripper and an EMM Labs DAC driving a Merrill Audio Christine linestage, the sound was punchy and lively, though the bass had some serious discontinuities—probably the room doing it no favors. Nonetheless, I got shivers when I listened to Radiohead’s “Faust/Arp” through this system.


The AVM room featured the company’s stylish new turntable, the R5.3, which runs $7500 including a 10" ’arm and integrated dust cover. The ’table is unusual in that it utilizes an “Ellipso Centric” belt drive, whereby a single motor drives two passive pulleys placed on opposing sides of the platter. The arrangement is said to even out irregularities. Even cooler, the acrylic platter lights up a mesmerizing blue; it’s something you have to see to appreciate.

You may remember the Perfect8 loudspeakers from CES reports of yore. They were notable for their thick glass enclosures, mechanically-connected dipole driver arrangement, and frequent contention for best-of-show sonics. This year at NYAS, the company unveiled the first production units of its smallest and by far least expensive model yet, the Cube S ($20k/pr.). The diminutive speakers sounded wonderful—as far as they went. For all that they did well, which was a lot, the Cube S cried out for a subwoofer. Fortunately, the new model can be paired with the company’s $15k Sub. Now that’s a combination I’d love to hear.


Finally, there was the Vitalis room, which was like no other. Looking more like a musical instrument store than an audio display, the space was populated with all size and manner of stringed instruments. To the delight of all who entered, those instruments turned out to be speakers, with craftily integrated drivers. Founder Tal Levy, a former recording engineer, decided to turn speaker cabinet orthodoxy on its head. Rather than going to extensive lengths to eliminate resonances, he decided to harness them—just like real instruments do. Surprisingly, since his concept flouts every speaker design convention, the results were a knockout. The doublebasses housing Fostex full-range drivers and ribbon tweeters (the instrument’s “strings” are actually speaker wires connecting the drivers) sounded open, natural, and musical—even driven by very modest electronics. Bass was tight and punchy. The doublebasses run $37k, but there many smaller, more affordable models, plus a subwoofer housed in—what else?—a bass drum.   


Good Sounds
There was no lack of good-sounding rooms in New York. Take the Dynaudio room. The Contour speakers ($10k), driven by Octave tube electronics, were open and wonderfully dynamic, with great imaging and depth, plus subterranean bass. The source: Qobuz streaming through a Marantz DAC. Nearby, Technics took time out from showcasing the Ottava S to regale visitors with its Reference Series, including the recently-released SL-1000R ’table fitted with an Ortofon Windfeld cartridge. This system allowed me to simply relax and breathe in the music.

I was also impressed—as were many other show-goers, judging from the buzz—with the Harbeth 40.2 LE speakers sharing space with Vinnie Rossi electronics. The system, set up for nearfield listening, had no discernible character or coloration aside from a tiny bit of edge in the treble. Sitting in the sweet spot, depth and imaging were spookily good. Once again, the source was Qobuz, this time from an iPad and a $99 DAC. Simply amazing.

Convergent Audio Technology was showcasing a series of increasingly expensive amps, topping out at the $150k/pr. Statement monoblocks. The amps drove Magico S5 Mk 2 speakers, a model that has clearly come into its own with this latest version. The system did everything right, with no evidence of the usual constraints on dynamics or bass grip, both of which were exemplary here.

Meanwhile, the winner of the transparency award has to go to the Robyatt room, which was playing a fetching pair of Quad ESL-57s rebuilt by Electrostatic Solutions. The debate over which original Quads were better, the 57 or the 63, rages on, but this system made a strong case for the former. The setup included Robyatt, Butler Audio, and Audible Illusions electronics, and not one but two turntables: the new Technics 10R for stereo discs, and a vintage, original-spec Technics SL-10 for mono slabs. Both were fitted with Miyajima cartridges. With the Quads, you know you’re hearing just what the source is feeding them, and the sense of musicians being right there in front of me was unmatched elsewhere at the show. Best of all, you can buy them for just $6000 a pair.  

Sonner Audio was also getting great sound from its Legato Semi ($6500/pr.) two-way floorstander driven by the new Luxman 550AX II Class A solid-state amp ($5500) and an Abbingdon DP777E DAC. The emcee played Reference Recordings’ Big Band Basie, a live album, and I could clearly hear everything going on, including the hall itself. The entire system cost under $15k.

At an even more affordable price point was the least expensive of Scarsdale dealer Value Electronics’ four rooms. There, a Marantz K1 Ruby 40th Anniversary integrated amp and CD/SACD player ($3999 each) drove the Definitive Technology Demand 11 speakers, which run just $1000 a pair. In this price range—$10k for the whole system—there are bound to be compromises, but in this case there were precious few. My trusty Pentatone Stravinsky SACD sounded astonishingly alive, and even the bass was hitting above its weight class.

As you can see, NYAS offered lots of good sound at a wide range of prices—plus embarrassingly bad sound at an astronomical price point. That’s a sure-fire recipe for fun. 

Alan Taffel’s Best of Show

Best Sound (Cost No Object): Of all the good-sounding systems at the show, the Technics Reference Series imposed the fewest “filters” between the source and my ears.

Best Sound (For the Money): The Value Electronics room, with Marantz K1 Ruby 40th Anniversary stack and Definitive Technology Demand 11 speakers, had no peer anywhere near its $10k price.

Most Significant New Product: The Qobuz streaming service will usher in a new era of studio master-quality streaming.

Most Significant Trend: The NYAS itself. The show has found its footing and its potential is unlimited.


Best Demo: Analog Productions’ Chad Kassem comparing original LPs with his reissued versions over the high-resolution system in the Robyatt room.   

Most Coveted Product: The Perfect8 Cube S, but only if I can get them with the Sub.

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