JV and JM Visit Audioarts in NYC

JV and JM Visit Audioarts in NYC

Why is it that, every now and then, something sounds “real” through a stereo system rather than “reproduced”? If you’re expecting me to answer this question, you’re out of luck, because I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that on every occasion that this has happened to me two other things have also always happened: First, I’ve momentarily been unaware (or mystified)  that the sound is coming from a loudspeaker and a chain of electronics—even though it manifestly is. And second, my reaction has always been visceral and involuntary—not the result of analysis, not a judgment made on reflection, and never a process of measurement or double-blind testing. Like a gasp or a goosebump, the experience just occurs without me having a conscious say in it. As in that oldest of jokes, I may not know what makes something sound real, but I know “real” when I hear it. So do you.

This may strike you as an odd way to introduce a blog about a remarkable high-end audio store. But then that upscale store, Gideon Schwartz’s Audioarts on Fifth Avenue in the NoMad (“North of Madison Park”) neighborhood of Manhattan, carries speakers, electronics, and sources that are capable of pulling off this magic trick on an astonishingly regular basis.

You may recall that I was gobsmacked by on one of these speakers—the $100k+ Zellaton Reference—several years ago when I heard it at Munich High End 2014. To remind you, the Reference—a three-way, five-driver floorstander (three cone woofers, one cone tweeter, and one cone midrange that covers the entire critical band between 100Hz and 8kHz)—came very close to being the most lifelike loudspeaker I’ve heard at a trade show. Indeed, in the midband it came very close to being the most lifelike I’ve heard, period.

Here is what the Zellaton Reference did better than any other cone speaker I’d auditioned up to that point: Reproduced LPs and digital media with simply unparalleled speed, openness, and resolution. Everything from entire vocal and instrumental lines in large ensembles to the tiny timbral and textural details that characterize (and humanize) the performances of soloists was reproduced with such clarity and naturalness (and with such a complete absence of the usual metal, plastic, paper, ceramic, diamond, or carbon-fiber cone/membrane sonic signature) it was as if the recordings themselves had been remade—remixed and remastered by the world’s greatest mastering engineer. Moreover, the Zellaton References did this magic trick without ever sounding “analytical.” Indeed, their tone color was well nigh perfectly neutral from top to bottom, and their “disappearing act” nearly complete. Not without reason did Gideon Schwartz call them “Quad 57s with meat on their bones.”

The secret to the Zellatons’ lifelike sound is their incredibly rigid and lightweight drivers, which are hand-made (in a process that takes up to six weeks for each unit) by Manuel Podszus, the grandson of Dr. Emil Podszus, the man who invented the sandwich driver in 1930. Although tools and materials have improved greatly over the years, the basic idea has remained the same: Each cone comprises an ultra-thin layer of foil (six one-thousandths of a millimeter thick in the tweeter), a layer of hard foam, and a tissue-like backing of paper. As the foam is 85% air, the entire “sandwich” is featherweight (0.18 grams in the case of the tweeter), giving the driver the superior transient speed and resolution of a membrane and the superior damping and linearity of a cone.

When I heard it three years ago, the gorgeous Reference was Zellaton’s top-of-the-line. Last year, a new flagship was introduced, the $350k Statement, a nearly six-foot-tall, extremely heavy (almost 700 pounds), three-way, five-driver floorstander (two woofers, two midranges, and one tweeter in a D’Appolito configuration), with improved drivers in a gorgeous cabinet that features a newly designed front baffle incorporating aluminum. The enclosure is subdivided internally into individual chambers for each driver, all routed to a semi-open baffle on the back. (The drivers and cabinet of the Reference have also been similarly and substantially updated. I will be reviewing the Zellaton Reference Mk II in the near future.)

I heard a prototype of the Statement last year in Munich. At Audioarts I got the chance to hear the finished product—and, man, was it ever worth the visit! Frankly, it would’ve been worth the visit just to see and hear Gideon Schwartz’s audio salon, which is located in a fin de siècle building at 210 Fifth Avenue, directly across from Gramercy Park, and a block or two north of the Flatiron Building. (Not that it matters to anyone other than me, but on his business trips to NYC my grandfather used to stay at the Gramercy Park Hotel—directly across from where Audioarts is now located—so my visit also brought with it an unexpected touch of nostalgia.)

Schwartz has obviously spent a great deal of time and money renovating the upper floor flat that houses his listening studios (see Julie Mullins' report below for details). Walls, floors, ceilings have been custom-finished for gracious looks and top-notch sonics—like the rooms of a luxe East Side Manhattan apartment that happened to be designed for Pierre Boulez. On Day One of the visit, the Zellaton Statements were ensconced in the larger of the two listening rooms, which peers out on Gramercy Park. (On our return on Day Two, the Zells had been magically replaced with Stenheim Alumine Five loudspeakers—Gideon is the U.S. importer of both Zellaton and Stenheim.)

Constants in the larger listening room were the FM Acoustics 711 amplifier (Gideon also imports Manuel Huber’s legendary products), the FM Acoustics 266 preamplifier, the FM Acoustics 122 Phono Stage (a long-ago version of which I once reviewed in Fi), a Brinkmann Balance ’table and ’arm with Fuuga moving coil cartridge, and a Le Son of Switzerland LS001 DAC/streamer. All cabling was FM Acoustics with Schnerzinger (another Audioarts brand) Giga Network Protectors and Innovator Power Distribution providing power conditioning/distribution, an example of which appears below.

In Audioarts’ smaller (but no less bespoke) listening room, we got to hear Zellaton’s wonderful stand-mounted two-ways, the Legacy loudspeakers, sourced by a rebuilt Thorens 124 Mk2 with Ortofon SPU (glorious shades of the past!) and a Le Son of Switzerland LS001 DAC/Streamer. Once again, all electronics were from FM Acoustics—the 108 monoblock amplifiers, the155 linestage preamplifier, the 122 Phono Stage, the 133 Linearizer—with Schnerzinger Giga Network Protectors and Innovator Power Distribution used for power conditioning/distribution.

As I’ve said in my MOC show reports, despite its inimitable virtues in the past I’ve had one nagging reservation about Zellaton loudspeakers. To explain that reservation, let me quote from the same article in which I named the Reference Mk 1s Best of Show at Munich High End 2014: “So where’s that ‘proviso’ I mentioned earlier? Well, take the famous Turnabout LP of the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, newly reissued in a 45-rpm, 180-gram, two-disc set by Analogue Productions. Although this recording has always been a bit dry and forward (due, I think, to the narrow, shallow stage that the Dallas Symphony, under conductor Donald Johanos, was recorded on), and the performance itself overly brisk and aggressive, the LP is still a wonder of inner detail and floor-and-wall-shaking power. The Zellaton References reproduced it with more detail (and I mean loads more detail) and greater realism than I’ve ever before experienced—and I’ve been listening to this LP for four decades, and my current reference speakers are the highest-resolution transducers I’ve had in my home. However, in spite of the Zellaton’s superb speed, color, and resolution (and these qualities extended all the way from the treble to the bass), the Rachmaninoff didn’t have quite the “punch” on big orchestral tuttis I know it should’ve had.”

A large part of the reason I journeyed to Audioarts was to listen to the Zellatons under much better acoustic conditions than those of the glassed-in cubicles at the MOC, and find out whether the new and improved Zells (with superior drivers and reconfigured enclosure) had “gotten over the hump” when it comes to big dynamic swings at loud volumes.

Before I attempt to answer that question, it should be understood that when it comes to “slam” pure and simple the quasi-dipole Zellatons (or at least the Zellatons all by themselves—i.e., without subwoofers) are never going to be the full equals of big Wilsons (or big Magicos, for that matter). That would be like expecting Quad 57s or MartinLogan CLXes to reproduce Led Zeppelin with the same sock as Alexxes or Q7 Mk IIs. In short, it is unreasonable. One brings different expectations to a speaker like the Zellaton Statement or Reference (or even the marvy little Legacies). These are transducers that, from the softest pianissimo to the strongest forte, will reproduce vocalists and acoustic instrumentalists in small ensembles and large with a distortion-free clarity, resolution, colorlessness, and frisson of realism that can exceed that of big Wilsons or Magicos (for the reasons I mentioned above). They are not, however, the speakers for what Paul Seydor calls “head-bangers” (i.e., they wouldn’t be first choices for heavy-metal rock ’n’ roll played back at stadium levels).

Nonetheless, I’d have to say that on the basis of what I heard at Audioarts the new Zellatons have, indeed, gotten over the dynamic-range/SPL hump. Through the Statements, I heard the Sheffield Drum Record, for one of several examples, reproduced at average SPLs in the upper 80s (with peaks well into the mid-to-upper 90s—in other words, pretty damn loud) with genuine wallop on toms, snare, and kickdrum and with simply superb differentiation of each instrument. More to the point, I heard Eartha Kitt, Janis Ian, Roberta Flack, Mel Tormé, Dean Martin, Johnny Hartman, Son House, Peter, Paul and Mary, the King Singers, Abel and Steinberg (on the Debussy Sonata), Curzon and Szell (on the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2), Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (on the Bartók Concerto for Strings), et al. sound “there” —and “there” with a transient speed and resolution, timbral neutrality, dynamic range, and three-dimensional realism that were consistently goosebump-raising. (I don’t think I’ve ever before heard the famous Curzon/Szell performance to better effect.)

In the smaller listening room, the two-way, three-driver (they have a passive radiator on their backside), stand-mounted Legacies were also very much in the Zellaton lineage, sounding exactly like what they were—miniature versions of the mighty Statements. Minus a reduction in image size and a little power-range fill (though nothing like suckout) on the piano, the famous Wilson recording of the Debussy Sonata (with Abel and Steinberg) was breathtakingly beautiful, and the pizzicatos and glissandos of the violins and the chiming notes of the piano on the Bartók were every bit as realistic as they were through the Statements. Same for Son House’s leathery old baritone and National steel guitar. The Legacy is simply a superb two-way.

Equally impressive on Day Two was the $60k, front-ported, 95dB-sensitive, Stenheim Alumine Five three-way (silk dome tweeter, treated-paper-cone midrange, and treated-paper-cone woofer, all housed in an aluminum enclosure). Stenheim was founded in 2009­–2010 by engineers who had worked at Goldmund. When the founders moved on to Devialet, Stenheim was taken over by Jean-Pascal Panchard (formerly of Nagra), and the current Alumine models were voiced by Jean-Pascal and Gideon. (At Munich High End 2015, I also heard Stenheim’s flagship speaker, the Reference Statement—a massive, two-aluminum-box loudspeaker system comprising a six-driver subwoofer column and an eight-driver D’Appolito main column with nifty articulating motorized panel for the MTM section. Despite being shown in a makeshift “room,” the sound was good enough to contend for my Best of Show award.)

A bit of Old School (paper-cone drivers) mixed with New (a very modern enclosure), the Alumine Five rather shocked me in how close it came to the sound of the Zellaton Statements. Oh, the Stenheims may not have been quite as fast or as detailed as the fabulous Zells, but they came amazingly close, reproducing something like Son House’s voice (and a whole lot of other voices and instruments) with a “there-ness” that was forehead-slapping.

Over the years I’ve visited a lot of audio stores—large and small—but I’m not sure that I’ve ever been to one where the setups more consistently delivered that ineffable frisson of realism you only get when the stars align just so. If you’re a high-end audiophile and you’re in the neighborhood, I strongly recommend calling in or emailing to arrange a visit to Audioarts (contact info appears at the end of this article). You will be treated to something very special, believe me.

Julie Mullins Comments:

The discreet, single-door entrance to the fin de siècle Manhattan building where Audioarts is located, near the iconic Flatiron Building, could be described as ordinary. But from the moment you step off the elevator, you know you’ve landed somewhere special. Audioarts owner Gideon Schwartz has created a true, purist audiophile haven five stories above Fifth Avenue—and he’s recently had the space extensively renovated. Every detail has been thought through.

In the foyer beyond the entryway there’s a small collection of collectible vintage high-end gear on display: a Garrard 301 Transcription turntable (pictured below), a refurbished Thorens ’table, a one-off prototype tube amp, and more. There’s an enormously wide, fortified (and soundproofed) door to the large main listening room; Gideon used the word “medieval” to describe it.

Needless to say, for an audio showroom in NYC (or most any city) soundproofing becomes essential. Gideon had a floating floor installed with a hollow cavity underneath for acoustic isolation. For extra damping, the wall interiors alternate between insulation and wood beneath their understated grey fabric coverings. The windows facing the street still have their original, turn-of-the century glass in place (as well as their decorative curvilinear cast-iron in front), so for protective and sonic reasons modern panes were installed on the inside. Once in a while, he says, you still get a low-frequency rumble, mostly from the subway. But it feels like a sonic oasis.

The main listening room still contains elegant architectural period details: a beautiful fireplace, crown molding, along with some discreet acoustical treatment elements. In-wall wooden shelves house an eclectic, wide-ranging LP collection. Audio-related vintage poster art—of a French Philips diamond phono cartridge for one (pictured below)—along with some paintings are hung on the walls.

But none of these elements overshadow one of the primary reasons for our visit: to see and hear the new, aptly named Statement from German speaker manufacturer Zellaton. This magnificent, ultra-high-end, three-way, five-driver d’Appolito floorstander represents an amalgamation of state-of-the-art technologies and materials. Using the latest transducer from Zellaton (a closeup of which appears below)—one of the oldest loudspeaker manufacturers in Germany (see JV’s comments above)—the Statement boasts patented, handcrafted, ultra-light rigid-foam-and-foil sandwich diaphragms. Each driver is housed in its own chamber and discretely wired with premium Schnerzinger cable. The speaker’s hand-tuned, 660-pound enclosure features semi-open rear baffles. This speaker, which wouldn’t have looked out of place on the set of Fritz Lang’s 1927 German science-fiction film Metropolis, is a dazzler to behold but without the razzle-dazzle sonic editorialization; purity and transparency to sources are its domain. It really pulls back the curtain to reveal source material.

Authentic, Real-deal Sound

We began our LP listening with some spare vocal cuts from The King’s Singers (a cappella from the early 70s and an early digital recording from EMI) to Dean Martin (who needs no introduction) on “I’m Confessin” and “I’ll Buy That Dream” from Analogue Productions' fab Dream with Dean. The naturalness, spaciousness, and delicacy of these cuts were astounding, especially coming from such large speakers. Extremely quiet backgrounds—thanks in part to the superb FM Acoustics electronics driving them (see JV’s report for details)—enabled the details of every breath, soft enunciation, and vibrato to come forth. Mind you, whatever is on a given recording is what will be conveyed—in all its splendor…or with whatever imperfections it may have. Maybe you could call this the Zellaton’s sense of humanity. Some multilayered, heavy-hitting percussion instrumental tracks (Sheffield Drum Record among others) we listened to later on displayed rapid-fire transient attacks, plus all of the slam and solidity you could want—all there in high resolution. The reproduction was surprisingly fast, tight, and open. I heard no smearing, no discernable distortion. If you didn’t fin yourself tapping your foot or bobbing your head, you might not have a pulse.

Gideon describes the Statement’s sonics as “akin to 
the effect of a Quad 57 with meat on its bones.” The speakers’ spaciousness, exactingly high resolution, superb dynamic contrasts, and effortless dispersion lend an uncannily lifelike quality to acoustic music. But the Statements can also rock out without losing their composure. Unlike with some other transducers, their prowess never turned aggressive. During our visit, JV and I listened to a wide array of music through these wonderful speakers for hours with no fatigue and constant delight.

In addition, Jonathan and I had the chance to listen to the magnificent new Stenheim Alumine Five three-way, four-driver floorstanders (pictured below) from the acclaimed Swiss maker. As their name suggests, these speakers feature cabinets of aluminum, with striking red accents. As with the Zellatons, they might look imposing but their sonics are anything but. In contrast to the Zellatons, they do have a signature sound “personality” (Gideon himself collaborated with Jean-Pascal Panchard of Stenheim on the final stages of their crossover tuning) but also consistent musicality. The Alumine Five has a silk-dome tweeter and accordion surround, and coated paper cone drivers for better speed. Dispersion was impressive, not only slightly off-axis but anyplace in the large room. These highly efficient (94dB) speakers that can even be driven by triodes retail for $60k and have been in the U.S. market for only a few months.

How did they sound? I was immediately struck by, even astonished by their speed and nimbleness—quite unexpected from such a substantial enclosure—followed by their slight tonal warmth and big, full sound that never grew overbearing. Guess you can’t judge a speaker by its (cool) cabinet. Harmonics on vocals and string instruments in particular were very lively and natural. Standout examples included JV’s ORG-reissue Peter, Paul and Mary LP and Joni Mitchell’s Blue. But the real showstopper was “Good Night Irene” from The Weavers Live at Carnegie Hall. The soundstage grew deep and wide with stunningly accurate instrumental placement of the singers and the trio of banjos onstage (as well as the other instruments). Hall ambience filled the room for a thrilling presentation. On many a well-recorded LP, such presence, sense of dimension, and body made for extremely engaging listening.

As you might expect, Audioarts showroom visits are by appointment only. Gideon believes in a personal touch and his philosophy is his establishment’s raison d’être. He also wants to understand what his customers want so his high-end components can be tailored to their individual tastes and preferences with not only equipment selection but with sophisticated technologies (from Schnerzinger, for one) that can enhance them. The artisan high-end European lines he carries fit this bill perfectly, as these systems can be adjusted and fine-tuned for different types of music—and for different kinds of discerning listeners.

An NYC aside: As part of our visit, Gideon treated Jonathan and me to a late lunch at the landmark Barney Greengrass deli (pictured below; can you spot us in the first photo?) on the Upper West Side that’s been has been serving classic fare (sturgeon, lox, the best matzo ball soup ever, etc.) for nearly a century. Ah, New York, New York!

AUDIOARTS 210 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010. Telephone: 212.260.2939. info@audioarts.co