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New York Audio Show – Part 1

I don’t know anyone who is ambivalent about New York City. It’s a “love it” or “hate it” thing. My wife is not on the “love it” side of that particular fence, and I can see where she’s coming from. The noise is omnipresent. Someone is always putting something up, tearing something down, or fixing something (whether it needed fixing or not), and that construction always seems to require sustained bombardment with nuclear weaponry. With something north of a trillion people in Manhattan alone, it’s sometimes hard to find open pavement. Doubt me? Try walking through Times Square on a sunny spring Sunday afternoon. Ain’t happening—it’s like bumper cars, on foot. And yes, there’s the cost. The Big Apple is the most expensive place I’ve ever stayed. One incautious breakfast (for one!) cost me $100. Whoops. A dinner cost me three times that (but it was sooooo tasty) and I believe I got off lightly. I’m not saying you can’t eat cheaply, but that takes real effort, and also requires a certain willingness to take your life into your own hands (see comments re: ‘noise’ and ‘people’).

Fine, I get it. New York City isn’t for everyone. But I love it. The variety on offer is like nowhere else (and yes, that means LA, too). There’s so much of everything jammed into such a relatively small place, that it’s no wonder that New Yorkers get a bit, ah, focused on things.

“Never argue with a New Yorker,” said no one, ever. Okay, that’s probably not true, and it’s actually pretty good advice. But it is a bit like saying, “don’t talk to a New Yorker”—because everything is an argument. In three days, I got into more heated arguments about, well, everything, than I’ve managed to enjoy in the last three months. I argued about the price of cabs (pretty reasonable, I thought), the price of coffee (absurd, thought I), the number of potholes (given the taxes, unbelievable), the weather, the Yankees, the best slice, the unions, Obamacare, gun control, foreign policy—you name it. Everyone had vehemently defended positions. Everyone! The guy who hauled my crap to the hotel registration desk was a philosopher. The woman who made my coffee was an economist. The cabbies I met were aspiring writers, political refugees, and students. Everyone had a college education or plans for one. Everyone was paying too much for rent. Everyone new exactly where the closest Starbucks, pizza joint, or Duane Reede were to be found. I was exhausted by the time I made it to my room that first night. And that wasn’t even the first day of the audio show! Ahh! I’m still yelling! Ahh!

The 2013 New York Audio Show happened over the course of the weekend leading up to Tax Day here in the US. By some coincidence, it was also the same weekend as the Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Festival. I’m not sure if any of that kept folks from coming or if they came anyway, but I do know that the halls were rather crowded this year—and they were crowded last year, now that I think about it. I can’t see that as anything other than a good thing, and I’d even go so far as to add that the crowd this year wasn’t quite as geezer-heavy as some prognosticators might have been expecting. How ‘bout them apples?

Another myth-buster—while there were the obligatory rounds of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Nils Lofgren, and Diana Krall, I heard a lot of “other stuff” at the New York Show. More on that anon…. But the biggest complaint I heard from the show? Cost. Yeah. No surprise there. Apparently, this was an eye-popping experience for most of the exhibitors. The room cost, the fees, the setup costs, the cost of hotel dining, the delivery costs—lots of room to complain, apparently. On the other hand, one of the things that caused much snarling and gnashing of teeth at the New York show last year was the room acoustics—a problem that simply didn’t happen here. Not saying it wasn’t a problem, it just wasn’t any more of a problem than usual. Interestingly, the AXPONA show addressed this head-on with a truck-full of room treatment solutions from ATS Acoustics, and was no doubt one of the reasons for that show’s sonic successes—I’d love to see this sort of thing become standard practice (insert crickets here]. That said, the sound of the 40 or so rooms here at New York was, on the whole, quite good.

 

But what stole the show was the lengthy list of “auxiliary events”, with the seminars, the live music performances, and movie screenings, it was quite possible to be entertained both visually and aurally the entire weekend—and never visit a single room demo. And the lineup was incredible. I got to hear Lori Liebermann, Valerie Joyce, Amber Rubarth, and Louise Rogers all perform live. I sat front row-center and listened to 3-time Emmy Award-winning Darcy Proper talk about mastering music for the audiophile consumer. Stereophile’s Michael Fremer gave a series of seminars on vinyl, vinyl setup, and more vinyl. Cosmo Murphy was there with the Classic Album Sunday crowd, playing the full-album/right-through experience to packed rooms. Seriously—there were a hundred different things to sit in on. What’s not to like?

Another surprise for the show was the number of announcements made here. VPI announced—and demoed—the new “Classic Direct” turntable. The name, like the price, is still tentative, but the latter should clock in somewhat south of $30k when all is said and done. The table features a sophisticated drive mechanism—Harry Weisfeld called it a “three-phase electromagnetic induction motor”, and at my blank look, he proceeded to talk about the mag-lev tech being used in high-speed rail systems, currently working in China. The motor costs VPI about $4,000 to manufacture, is super-quiet, and while a direct-drive approach, there’s no high-torque drive wheel making contact with the platter introducing noise and rumble. As a side bonus, there’s also no “cogging”, an effect present in just about all motors used in turntables today where there’s a tiny, but measurable, hitch as the motor cyles. With the new approach, the platter on a Classic Direct spins as smooth as a baby’s bottom. I want to try one of these in a big way. Harry says they’re still tweaking the ratio between drive and delicacy, but what I heard in the room was pretty spot-on.

A second surprise came from the same turntable—the new 3-D printed JMW tonearm VPI will be making. This new manufacturing approach lets VPI create tonearms with incredible internal damping and a complex structure designed to reduce it even further. The 3-D printing process is not cheap, at least not yet, as it still requires access to a hideously expensive printing machine and about a full day for that machine to crank out the finished product. A lot of ink is going to be spilled over this so I’ll leave off here other than to say the price for the arm should fall close to $6,500.

Vinnie Rossi of Red Wine Audio also chose the New York show to launch a pair of significant updates—the Isabella preamplifier, now updated with his “Renaissance Edition” tube input stage featuring 6H30 “super tubes”, and the Signature 57 battery-powered integrated amplifier—both will be available with options for an internal DAC, a phono preamp, and a headphone amplifier. The Signature 57 will replace the award-winning Signature 30 integrated I had so much fun with six years ago. Based on a Class-AB Mosfet output stage, the Sig 57 is also the physically largest Red Wine piece to date—it incorporates the exact same hardware as found in the monoblocks, with precisely half their output, a difference due to the size of the battery module feeding them. Vinnie grinned “yeah, but I’m working on that.” Stay tuned there for more—in the meantime, expect to see the Signature 57 this summer. Prices start at $3,995 for both the Isabella (shipping now) and the upcoming Signature 57.

Venture Audio introduced a new 2.1 system, featuring a pair of Vici loudspeakers and a single AW500 subwoofer, offered for a package price of $36,000 (as shown here, with an additional sub, the price was $48,000). The Vici comes with four 4-inch “Abaca Graphite Composite” (AGC) drivers and a matching 2” AGC tweeter. Frequency specs on the Vici cover from 60Hz – 40kHz. The matching AW400 sub is ported, with dual 10” AGC drivers powered by an internal 500 watt Class-D amplifier, with the usual complement of room-tuning options. This room sounded outstanding, and was my first nominee for Best-In-Show.

 

Veloce Audio is now shipping the long-awaited Saetta Hybrid monoblock amplifiers ($18,000/pair). Rutherford Audio brought the latest Vertere tonearm ($38,500, including the tonearm cable, $27,900 without). Wes Bender Studio NYC had a pre-release SACD transport and DAC pair from E.A.R. ($13,000 for the pair). Sound by Singer demoed a pair of the brand-new Raidho D2 loudspeakers ($48,00/pair as shown) with the new diamond-on-graphite drivers. Audio Arts demoed the entire line of new CH Precision products, including the C1 DAC ($32,975), the D1 Player ($32,750) and the A1 amplifier, here run as a bridged pair ($37,475 each), with a sleek pair of new components from Trinity Audio Design GmbH, the Preamp ($34,740) and the Phono ($34,750). Audioengine had a nifty little USB DAC that I’m not supposed to talk about (more on that soon). The Jecklin Float QA “head speakers” from Quad were surprising and surprisingly comfortable—$3,000 gets you the cans and the amp necessary to drive them. On the other end of the headphone market, the Mad Dog from Mr. Speakers (with the leather Alpha pads and leather comfort strap — $299) was extraordinarily comfortable and a great match for the new Astell&Kern AK100 high-resolution digital player ($699), that, unlike your iPod, will natively play all your 24bit/192kHz HDTracks downloads. Sennheiser was showing off their $349 Momentum on-ear headphones and the new HDVD-800 headphone/DAC combo ($1,999), a slick little box that lets you mix and match your single-ended cans with your balanced ones. Audez’e had a new closed-back headphone with an intimate and engaging sound, and if not quite as colorful as the steampunk-inspired LCD model on prominent display, they were certainly more real-world. Elsewhere, Woo Audio brought two full rooms of head-amps and headphones, all in self-driven demos with music from M-A Recordings and new, affordable audio cables from Black Cat. More on all of this, soon.

My favorite room at the show was a joint venture between MBL and NY retailer, Sensorium AVR. Jeremy & Tara Bryan of MBL-North America, Bryan Bilgore of Sensorium AVR, and analog tape guru Greg Beron of UHA, put together a stunning 45-minute demo that quite literally made my day. The sound was outstanding. The material was equally outstanding. It was unexpected. It was thrilling. I loved every second of it. The sound came from—uh, well, I have no idea where it came from. There were speakers all around me, but the relationship of them to what I was hearing—and seeing on the Sony 4k projector—was completely removed. Almost architectural. The sound wove together in front of me. To the side of me. Behind me. And more than a few times, all around me. Absolutely stunning. A one-off master tape playing the ubiquitous “Coal Train” of Hugh Masekela was fresh. Roy Orbison was ethereal. I think I started grinning with Anna Netrebko, became open-mouthed by the time Sting finished “Fragile” and when YYZ played through, I almost got naked. Yeah, I liked that demo a lot.

Another showstopper for me came courtesy of the dapper gent from Ireland, Philip O’Hanlon of On A Higher Note, the importer of Vivid, Luxman and other fine brands. O’Hanlon is, clearly, a wizard. There’s really no other explanation for it. It makes a kind of sense—who else could do what he does and pull off that bowtie-and-tweed thing but Hogwarts faculty? It also explains that Cheshire Cat grin when you ask where in Heaven’s name he got a “console-mix” (in double-DSD!) of Luther Vandross and Beyonce. Not my favorite performers, I was poleaxed by the stereo image—layered, textured, and utterly convincing. A one-off never-made-it-to-the-album cut from Boz Scaggs followed. Like any good ref, I threw my Best-In-Show flag down on the spot and demanded a booth review. Incredible stuff there.

The most surprising sound at the show? There were two that stopped me in my tracks, and I mean that in the sense of being hit in the face with a lemon peel, wrapped around a gold brick. The first was Touch by Yello, played in the big Burmester/Genesis Loudspeakers room. Played through, it was a fantastic antidote to some of the drivel I’d heard, and thrumming through that tremendous system made me remember that I actually liked music. You lose track, sometimes, at an audio show. Anyway, the other shake-me-like a Raggedy Andy episode happened courtesy of Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note UK. On his all-Audio Note system, he dropped a dubstep A-bomb with some cuts from a special edition release of Noisia’s Split the Atom. Peter was so taken with the album and the sense of the “live experience” that it captured that he bought 500 copies. It was electrifying—and played back at well over 100dB, it was more than a little terrifying. 20 watts, put to very entertaining use.

And that’s the fly-by. More room details to come.

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