HP’s Workshop: The Many Moods of Las Vegas (TAS 202)

HP’s Workshop: The Many Moods of Las Vegas (TAS 202)

This is going to be an impressionistic portrait of what I saw, heard, felt and, in a few cases, did during the audio carnival in Las Vegas early last month.

Impressionistic because, for once, I found myself wearing several hats, fighting a severe winter cold (thanks to the near daily arctic blasts in New York in late December and the new year), making a speech before and for this magazine’s Golden Ear Club, and trying to cover both the newly rejuvenated T.H.E. Show and visit the more “official” audio presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show at the Venetian down the street from the Flamingo, where the alternative (T.H.E.) was taking place. Keep in mind that no single reviewer can cover all the audio exhibitions taking place in the two shows, and so, generalizations about what is “best” are impossible; the “best” a reviewer can do is say what struck him or his fancy.

In my case, there were three sonic demonstrations that intrigued me at T.H.E. Show and two at the “official” and thus mainstream doings at the Venetian. But that is getting ahead of the things I want to report.

The phrasing gives away, I hope, a certain bias I have on the subject of “official” audio shows. But, after attending T.H.E. Show during its salad days three years ago, and the spectacularly good Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver in October, I now think such are the best showcases for sound that is truly high end, and for new and intriguing designs and their designers. I also must confess a decided dismay about the Venetian as a showcase for anything as special as our audio community, not only for its inflated room costs and cramped quarters, but for the difficulty folks have in negotiating both its corridors, and getting to its location thirty and more floors up, because of the shortcomings of the elevators, never designed to handle large numbers of visitors. Off-the-record, some of my most intelligent sources described the atmosphere in the Venetian’s halls as either “dismal” or “somber.” I heard much mumbling and grumbling about the Venetian’s facilities from audio folk who came over to check out things at the Flamingo; many vowed to exhibit at the more relaxed and better-sounding facilities at T.H.E. Show, rejuvenated after several tough years (for both it and the audio community in general).

Ironically, at T.H.E., there seemed to be a kind of optimism in the air, the much-hoped-for feeling that maybe the absolute worst was over, and on the other, a nervous fingering of religious icons, as if one were passing too near to Dracula’s castle. (“Is high end audio dead?”) But, everywhere there was the sure sense that things in audio were changing, period, and changing in ways as yet unpredictable and therefore a little scary.

And some of these coming future possibilities were at hand. For example: Some wave (WAV) disc players were much in evidence, including, to these ears, a nice (maybe even much better than that, because the headphones attached were ordinary) $900 WAV-disc player from the talented Demian Martin. Martin has shown, in the past, his flair for brilliant designs. This unit, the Araliti Digital Music Player PK 100, will handle everything from the aforementioned WAV discs to MP3 encodings. (Reference Recordings, where Martin’s ex-wife, Marcia, is a principal player, now has almost a dozen such recordings of Keith Johnson’s best engineering work on WAV discs, and they are as close to the original Keith Johnson tapes as you can get. And ditto for Chesky Records, with its WAV discs—all of which signified a much higher resolution system for playback than digital encoding has afforded us in the past.)

Indeed, some products now at hand show that even the decoding of the more conventional forms of digital encoding has reached a plateau that now suggests it is a true alternative to the best analog, as Wilma Cozart, of Mercury fame, presciently noted years ago. There has been a deepening understanding of the problems involved in the playback of CDs, such as, say, “jitter,” and how to eliminate such distortions completely.

“Officially” the Consumer Electronics Association reported that the attendance at their show was up a couple of thousand, and its mood upbeat, since there were 350 new exhibitors—even though the total number of exhibitors fell by five per cent. If that’s not having it both ways, I don’t know what is. Richard Beers, founder of T.H.E. Show said the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Center had estimated the attendance at his show to be around 6000, a number he said he’d stick with, although unofficially, he said he thought the number was probably half that. For what it’s worth, by my rough count, there were 106 companies showing either singly or together at the Flamingo, and likewise for the 147 at the Venetian.

At the Flamingo, T.H.E. Show occupied both the basement and fourth floors of the building. On the lower level, there were the high-end record companies displaying their wares, as well as some of the more elaborate exhibitions, including the spectacular Brian Cheney live-vs.-recorded demos of music and vocalist Napua Davoy (friend of HP’s, whom he introduced at an opening night performance), a high-resolution setup if ever there were one. (Marjorie Baumert could be found in T.H.E.’s business office on the ground level. She took over the operation of the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest this year, after her husband, its founder, suddenly died. Though no one has said as much, it would seem that her alliance with Beers has led to T.H.E. Show’s much improved operation. And it is just this alliance, between her and Beers, that portends well for future and better independent shows.)

For me, a compelling reason to visit the Venetian was to suss out Avalon’s demonstration of a new (and much discussed) speaker called the Time. I had met with owner Neil Patel in Denver, after a long and frosty silence on his part (don’t ask me why, I never knew). The cordiality of that session aroused my curiosity about his present-day design work. He was at long-ish lunch when I first arrived, and so, after awhile (since my time was limited), I ran a brief exploratory mission down from the 34th to the 30th floor to meet with several folk, especially the son of the founder of the dCS digital players, David Steven, the managing director (whose father suddenly died about a year ago). I was there because I have long wanted to evaluate the top-of-the-line player to find out if it really is, as all seem to suggest, the very state-of-the-art in conventional CD playback.

An unexpected and rewarding side trip came, by accident, when I caught sight of the president of Crystal Cable, Mrs. Gabi van der Kley, the only female speaker designer in this business, (insofar as I know). We first met over dinner in Denver, and I found her to have a vivid personality. She is also, by the way, an accomplished pianist (Chopin). She recognized me and literally pulled me into the demo room, where there were playing two glass-enclosed two-way speakers of hers, the Arabesques. Immediate thought: Oh no, won’t they sound, er, “glassy.” After the briefest of listens, their immediacy and yet refined and uncolored purity were characteristics that both intrigued and surprised me. (Found out later, they had much impressed Roy Gregory, the former editor of our sister publication, HiFi+, who reviewed the speakers there.)

The next day I spent much of the early afternoon visiting exhibitors at the Flamingo. First stop was the Magnepan room, where, as it turned out, the folks from Minnesota weren’t entirely happy campers with the cramped quarters (the original and larger room downstairs had to be abandoned at the very last moment). The raison d’être behind this year’s demonstration was to show off the new Maggie 1.7 speaker system, said (by them) to be a full-range ribbon speaker. Actually, it wasn’t quite that, since the woofer section is a quasi-ribbon.

The setup was clear-cut. Two of the new Maggies, the 1.7s, were stationed left and right, with a new center-channel speaker with a true ribbon tweeter (along with the Maggie woofer). A bevy of Bryston’s 28B-22T amplifiers were driving the system (with Bryston’s CD player and linestage) along with the recently-introduction Kubala-Sosna Elation Interconnects.

Perhaps because of the last minute change of venue, the surround system was not well balanced. For one thing, the center-channel speakers were set at a level at least 3dB too high and the blend to the Maggie woofer was not seamless. It was clear, to me anyway, that Magnepan’s sudden decision to move to the 4th floor had not allowed it enough time to properly tune the surround speakers to the room, which was too small to allow best imaging for big crowds, and that was, at times, the size of the audiences lined up outside in the hall.

When I have to sit through a demonstration of a speaker system, I like to play material with which I am intimately familiar, which, in recent years, has been the XRCD of The Planets (Mehta, LA Philharmonic) to play both “Mercury” and “Saturn,” and the movie soundtrack from The Thin Red Line. I heard the 1.7’s potential, even as the sound seemed overall bright and at the top, a bit metallic.

Next, I made a brief stop at Roger Sanders room (Sanders Sound Systems) where he was demonstrating his new electrostatic speaker, the Model 10—priced at $13,000 the pair. Years ago, at a much earlier high-end show, I heard (and later reviewed) his first work on his own for Inner Sound. Because of Inner Sound’s success, he acquired financing, an experience that proved traumatic and costly for him. His new work represents a resurrection of sorts. The new speaker, like the old, is a hybrid, with a dynamic driver at the bottom that comes with a 600-watt solid-state amp (yes, he has abandoned tubes) with a regulated power supply.

Most of the time an electrostatic speaker sounds like an x-ray of the music, rather than a fully fleshed out version, one that you can feel through your skin. But Sanders’ don’t. The system can pressurize a room, and the ’stat elements he’s designed can play at incredible levels without audible distortion, and the woofers, 10-inchers with a magnetic damping system, were, well, floor-shaking.

His room, however, was small and narrow, and there were only three chairs, in a front-to-back row. And I was instructed to sit in the middle. He was using his solid-state amplifiers. One amp drove the woofer section; the other the ’stat elements (you can, in this case, choose your own amp for the electrostats if you don’t want the Sanders version). As I found throughout the show, Sanders chose the music he wanted to use and we, the auditioners, had to live with that. Since I couldn’t listen to the material I would have chosen and which would have given me a more precise ability to describe what I heard, I can only say that some of the organ cuts he played, with low pedal points, were little short of awesome and the ’stat sections handled the volume with excellent dynamics. As noted above and elsewhere, I don’t much like the increasing use by manufacturers of pre-recorded material played back through devices of their own choosing. In this instance, a selection from Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony really was mediocre sounding and thus dispiriting.

The last full stop? At John McDonald’s demonstration of much (but hardly all) of his developing line of Audience gear. Indeed, the only element in the room that wasn’t his was a Denon 3930 CD player (“heavily modified,” he said) Back in 2007, McDonald had, to my way of thinking, some of the most natural sound I heard at T.H.E. Show (along with Keith Herron with his still unproduced reference speaker). Since then, his most ambitious power conditioner (the aR12-T) has become a reference standard of sorts; and, he has since been at work on updating his speaker systems and a soon-to-come preamplifier. The amps he used at T.H.E. were Class D (of all things) prototypes.

The speakers he had going when I arrived were the ClairAudient LSA 4+4 “bi-poles,” his term—LSA stands for line source array—priced at circa $12,000. I used the “Mercury” and “Saturn” cuts from The Planets, and for the organ pedal points in Saturn asked him turn on his new subwoofers (two Audience 8-inch woofer “bipoles” and two ten-inch passive radiators, also bipole in operation). I thought the sound I heard there as magically “right” as any I have heard at any show. I forgot to listen to the sound, and listened to the music. A joy. (And if you correctly assume I will be reviewing this system, consider these remarks, as is so often the case with me, a tease.)

This report really is just skimming the surface of what happened in Vegas; it cannot do the complexities and intricacies justice.

But, one of the reasons I was there, and it turned out to be my favorite moment, came when I spoke, seminar-style, before this magazine’s Golden Ear Club (introduced by TAS’s new publisher, Jim Hannon). The audience was peppered with audio celebrities, from, among others, Mike Hobson of Classic Records to an argumentative Ralph Karsten of Atma-Sphere, who also took the floor, invited or not. Having gotten my water wings in Denver (is that an apt analogy? Hang-gliding bars?), I got more focused in my discussion of the evolution of the high end—if you want an idea of how this went in Denver, check out the video on-line (at avguide.com)—and had a quite lively back-and-forth Q+A session with the audience, whose members wanted, for instance, a lexicon of audio terminology and reporting of the excesses of audio dealers.

I talked about evolution, how our vocabulary evolved from what were essentially descriptive terms for colorations (often euphonic) and distortions early on to the spatial language I devised. And the difficulties we’d face, given the neutrality of present-day components in furthering that vocabulary, suggesting phrases like “aura of grain” might be useful in the future. Then there was the evolution of tubed units in the face of the transistor challenge of the late Sixties, the resurrection of the LP in the face of the digital tsunami a generation ago, and more. Apparently my opportunity to ham it up in front of an audience banished my (quite severe) cold and so all was well that ended well. 

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