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New York Audio Show: The Big Apple Goes Big Time

If last year’s New York Audio Show was a rebirth, 2013 saw its fruition. Everything about this year’s show was better. “We can actually get our gear to the rooms,” marveled Andy Singer of Sound by Singer, referring to the logistical nightmare that plagued exhibitors at last April’s venue. That, and many other reasons prompted, show organizer The Chester Group to abandon the dowager Waldorf-Astoria in favor of the modern posh that suffuses the New York Palace.

This year’s “side” events were also more compelling. Singer Lori Lieberman was on hand to talk about record-making and, of course, to sing! Colleen Murphy ran multiple “Classic Album Sundays” sessions, a forum to discuss and listen to great LP’s. Here, she spun David Bowie and Talking Heads vinyl on a Spiral Groove SG1.1 ‘table with a Lyra Atlas cartridge—through VTL electronics and Wilson Maxx3’s, no less! Meanwhile, PMC, The Sound Organization and SoundStageDirect hosted a series of luminary-laden panels called “From Studio to You”, which detailed the various stages of the record recording and production process. 

Most importantly, the sound at this year’s show represented a major upgrade. The hoped-for improvement over the sonically abysmal Waldorf materialized in spades. Aside from the labyrinthine layout on the ballroom floors (“Are we confused yet?” snarked a passing Michael Fremer), the Palace proved to be a superb place to hold an audio show. Its rooms are solid, well-proportioned and—unlike those at the Waldorf—free of energy-sapping tapestries and wall fabric. Not insignificantly, the A/C and the AC behaved themselves. As a result, with very few exceptions, rooms both large and small were showing off their resident systems to especially good effect. 

Indeed, good sound was spilling out of nearly every doorway, as were delighted attendees. Outside the mbl room, one local was visibly excited. “I’ve read all about these speakers in your magazine,” he explained, “and now I finally get to hear them.” Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that his significant other appeared equally charged up about being there. 

Some of the show’s best sound came from the city’s rich trove of high end dealers, all of whom (except Lyric Hi Fi, which inexplicable forsook the show) took advantage of the opportunity to strut their wares and system-building chops to thousands in one shot. Many dealers took multiple rooms in order to demonstrate a range of options.

Take Innovative Audio, for example. Their “new school” (my appellation) room offered three digital source formats playing through solid state gear. The first source was supplied by the omnipresent Peter McGrath, who played his exemplary recordings from the very deck on which they’d been recorded. The second was hi-rez PCM files streamed from a MacBook, and the third was DSD files drawn from the same Mac. All were routed through an apparently superb MSB Diamond DAC4+ ($35k), Dan D’Agostino’s stunningly outfitted Momentum electronics, a pair of Wilson’s hot new Alexia speakers ($48,500), and Transparent cable. Whether playing Red Book or DSD, the sound was whip-snap fast, precisely imaged and dynamic as all get-out. Rhythms were just a tad slack, and at high volumes the sound could get edgy, but this system was doing everything else just right. Of the three sources, DSD sounded the best—as it always does. 

 

Across the hall was Innovative’s “old school” room. Here, listeners could hear vinyl—and only vinyl—through tubes. The ‘table was Spiral Groove’s top SG2, outfitted with the Centoid arm and a Lyra Kleos cartridge. VTL and Lamm teamed up to provide the valves, and the music emerged from Wilson Sashas. These two rooms and systems could not have had more different personalities. Whereas the new school room’s sound was decidedly extroverted, the old school room’s sound was almost bashful. Somehow, that made it all the more inviting. The latter room’s presentation was more relaxed and natural, though less adept at certain audiophile touchstones like bass grip. Ultimately, I felt that the old school room comported more closely with live music.

Sound by Singer took another large room and populated it with mouth-watering gear, including the brand new Raidho D-2.1 (approx. $42k). This latest in Raidho’s D-series, which features diamond-impregnated cones (1.5 carats per cone!), is the floor-standing big brother to the excellent D-1. New York was its debut. The speaker was driven by sexily-lit VAC Statement 450S amps and a Soulution player, all wired with Nordost Valhalla. For whatever reason, this system had problems in terms of high-frequency extension; perhaps the VAC and the Raidho were unhappy with each other. This did not prevent me from hearing the Raidho’s immense potential, nor from being enthralled by the system’s unforced musicality, which outdid even some pure analog systems.

Rhapsody Music and Cinema outfitted three rooms, each at different price points. At the lower end room (relatively speaking), I met a new company with the unlikely name of Mola-Mola. New York was effectively its U.S. launch, with products becoming available in June. On hand were the $10k preamp and the Bruno Putzeys-designed Class D $15k monoblocks. They were sourced by the all-new, double-DSD capable Luxman DA-06 DAC ($6k, June). Driving the Giya G1 speakers and wired with Kabula-Sosna cables, the sound was, in a word, lovely.

At the highest price level, Rhapsody fielded a roomful of equipment from Kondo Audio Note Japan. (Note to manufacturer: could you please just call yourselves Kondo?) There were Kondo Audio Note Japan (OK, that’s the last time I’m doing that) speakers, electronics, cables and ‘table, plus a Pi Greco CD player. Total price: $400k, including a prototype of the 55 Watt Kagura SET monoblock amps, which will see production next year at a price somewhere north of $160k.          

Although the sound in the Kondo (….) room was very fine, I personally was more taken by Rhapsody’s “middle” room, which was anchored by the amazing, stand-mounted Raidho D-1.1 ($28,500). Are these guys on a roll or what? As driven by a Kondo G70 preamplifier (see how much better that works?) and Merrill Veritas amps, the Raidhos delivered better bass than any speaker this size has a right to. Overall, the sound was sweet and spacious, despite some room-borne mid-bass resonance. BTW, elsewhere in the show, this same amp paired beautifully with Sanders Sound’s new flagship ‘stat, the 10C ($14k). The duo delivered some of the best imaging I heard, along with other virtues, such as transparency, that one expects from good electrostatics.

Let’s move on to one of my favorite rooms, which was put together by the Audio Doctor dealership. There, the sleek KEF Blade was being driven by an imposing array of Chord gear and a Kronos ‘table. Some of the Chord stuff was new, including the massive SPM-1400 Mk II, 1,000 watt (!) monoblocks ($86k/pair), the CTA 8000 preamp ($45k), and the DSX 1000 music streamer ($13k). The sound was preternaturally pure and effortlessly dynamic, especially when playing a lacquer of Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight”, but also when streaming digital. This system was a reminder that the Blade, when suitably driven, should be on every shopper’s list of speakers $30k and up.   

 

Audio Doctor had a second room that contained two noteworthy debuts. The first was the Aurelac Vega DAC, claimed to be the least expensive DAC on the market with a precision fempto clock, plus 384/24 and DSD support. The DAC also features a discreet Class A output stage. That’s a lot of high end tech for just $3500! The second newbie was the Waterfall Victoria Evo glass speakers ($7k). Despite the attractively-priced and technically-generous new components, the system—which also included a Manley preamp, Aragon amp, and Wireworld cable—on this occasion sounded bright and bass shy. However, there was no denying its forceful dynamics.

GTT Audio had two very impressive rooms, both anchored by YG speakers. In the first, Veloce was playing its Saetta monloblocks ($18k/pair), which have been in prototype literally for years but have finally reached production. The amp is quite unusual in that it is battery-powered and a hybrid; a tubed Class A driver stage feeds a bridged Hypex Class D output stage. The Saetta was making truly excellent sound through a pair of Kipod II Signatures and mated with the aforementioned Luxman DAC and Veloce’s own LS-1 battery-powered, tubed linestage.

GTT’s second room boasted the consumer debut of Soulution’s first integrated amp ($49k), which, depending on your Rorschach proclivities, looks like either a dorm-room fridge or a safe. In any event, the sound was engaging and fleet, as directed through the always-charming Carmel speakers. (This may be anathema, but despite their modest price, the Carmel is my favorite YG model.)

New York dealer Sensorium AVR teamed up with mbl to create the most buzzed-about demo of the show. Gangly lines of time-stamped ticket clutchers queued up for an hour. Once inside, a surprise. Mbl does not immediately come to mind for home theater systems, but that is precisely what they and Sensorium showcased in New York. This was the first such demo in North America. A Sony 4k (that’s lines of resolution, not price) projector provided stellar video, while mbl donated its Corona electronics and Radialstrahler speakers. If this wasn’t enough, twin JL Audio Gotham subs topped it all off.   

The demo began with some two-channel material, but not from a CD or even a hi-rez file. Instead, mbl enlisted a UHA-Q reel-to-reel deck and wowed the crowd with master-quality tape. The sound was astonishing. Familiar tracks sounded the best I have ever heard them—anywhere. The DJ/VJ then moved to a series of music-related videos, from classical to Sting. Suffice to say that I cannot imagine anyone owning this home theater system and not being ecstatic. Personally, I (and my ears!) could have lived without the overly long, overly harsh-sounding Rush video that closed the show that was played at “concert” (read: painful) volume. Others, though, were jazzed. The bottom line is that this demo included some of the best sound at the show.

Sony commandeered its own room—and a very significant room it was. There, one could hear for the first time the company’s SS-NA2ES speakers. The NA2’s are very similar in size and appearance to the SS-AR2’s, but at $10k are less than half the price. As usual, Sony had hooked its transducers to Pass electronics. Here, they also enlisted a dcs Debussy DAC to play DSD files from Sony’s boundless catalog. The speakers sounded straight-out wonderful. I know this is anathema, but I actually prefer them to the AR2, which has always sounded plummy to me. The NA2 may have less ultimate extension (then again, maybe they don’t), but they struck me as more balanced. Between these and the Magico S1, we appear to be entering a renaissance period for serious yet attainably-priced loudspeakers.

 

You know a show has hit the big time when the audio industry’s big names show up to support it. That was certainly the case in the Ciamara room where TAD’s unflappable Andrew Jones was holding court. The Ciamara system consisted of TAD Reference One speakers and all-TAD electronics. The sound was as fabulous as ever, and featured some of the richest timbres and most realistic imaging of the show.

Finally, there were several products associated with neither a dealer’s nor a manufacturer’s room, but which caught my ear. Here is a brief rundown. Music Hall had the Ikura ‘table on hand. The new model had been introduced at AXPONA, but at that time the priced was TBD. Now we know: it will cost just $1,000 including cartridge and arm. Viola was showing the first production units of its $22k Concerto stereo amp (June). The chassis is made of solid T6061 aluminum, and the connectors are the first instance I’ve seen of WBT’s latest. Venture debuted its new VICI speakers, which come bundled with either one ($36k for the bundle) or two ($48k) subwoofers. The mains run full-range, rolling off naturally at 60Hz to the active subwoofs. They sounded dynamic and open.

New to me was a company called Clue, which makes very affordable loudspeakers. It was showing the Clue Speakers ($1k/pair) and the Clue Deuce ($2k/pair) as driven by a Hegel integrated amp with built-in DAC. As you would expect at this price point, this was not the most refined sound—but it was lively, rambunctious and fully in keeping with the company’s motto: “Fun is underrated.” These speakers are especially fun at their price and are well worth checking out. 

VPI was testing the waters with a prototype ‘table called the Classic Direct. If ultimately produced—and the company says it will be—it will run between $20-30k. What makes it so much more costly than other VPI ‘tables? Not the chassis, which is classic Classic 3. Rather, it’s the motor, which is a unique 3-phase induction design said to eliminate cogging, and the direct drive system. (Eventually, everything comes back around.) The Classic Direct was mated to an equally intriguing tonearm, the JMW 3D (approximately $2500, June). Unlike every other arm on the market, this one is a fabricated from a single solid piece of epoxy. There are no joints or seams. How do you make such a thing? With a 3D printer, that’s how. This arm is the first such application of 3D printing technology, and it takes 26 hours to “print” each one. The new duo was playing through VAS tubed electronics and Joseph Audio Pearl 3’s. The sound was terrific. 

I’ve saved one of my most exciting discoveries for last: the Astell & Kerns AK100 portable music player. Think of this device as an iPod for audiophiles. The form factor resembles an iPod Classic, but the innards and specs do not. This portable player supports resolutions up to 192/24 (the iPod tops out at 48kHz) and uncompressed formats such as WAV, FLAC and AIFF. If you must, it will also play MP3s. The UI is a nicely done touch screen that I found completely intuitive. Inside lies a genuine Wolfson DAC. 

I listened to several tracks through both Azure LCD2 ($999) and Sennheiser Momentum ($349) headphones. In both cases the AK100 exhibited the steadiness of pace and timbral realism that epitomizes true high end components. Did I mention that this gem lists at just $699? Like the AudioQuest Dragonfly, this is exactly the sort of device our industry needs to woo younger listeners. And New York was exactly the sort of show our industry needs to expose a broader audience to great sound. 

By Alan Taffel

I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.

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