The Primedia Home Entertainment Show (HES) takes place in my hometown but this year it felt far more foreign than familiar to me - and for several reasons. Many of the familiar names in audio -- Wilson, B&W, Magnepan to name just a few -- continue to be conspicuous by their absence. Less obvious but more important to me, the only New York audio salon that continues to commit to a major presence at HES is Sound by Singer. Aside from Singer's presence, only much smaller dealers and specialists -- Damoka, HighWater Sound, In Living Stereo and Rhapsody -- showed the flag for my city.

I barely know Andy other than to exchange pleasantries when I occasion upon his store or when we run into one another at various high-end shows. But the truth is that his presence, not just in N.Y. but in audio retail more generally, has been tremendously important to the industry. He has a very good ear, takes chances on new product lines and supports not only the high-end but the industry as a whole. Say what you will about him -- and there is no shortage of forum inmates, competitors and maybe a few manufacturers and customers as well willing to do so -- the fact is that he came to HES and supported it in a big way - financially and otherwise.

There are several other high-profile dealers in NYC who could very easily have come to HES but didn't. There is no question that they had their reasons and I suspect they were perfectly good ones, too. Still, they didn't support their hometown show. Andy Singer did.

Sound by Singer is a big operation with access to resources sufficient to offset the high costs of demonstrating at HES. The costs of a four-day exhibition in a smallish guest room at the Hilton are significant, exceeding the costs of a similar stay in the substantially larger rooms at CES. At CES, moreover, the investment can be justified on business grounds since that is the venue at which manufacturers and potential importers, distributors and dealers mingle and partnerships, some real, others merely aspirational or imagined, are formed. In contrast, HES is basically a consumer show. It provides a rare direct and relatively large-scale interface between manufacturers, some retailers and the consumer. That makes the participation of the folks from Damoka, HighWater Sound, In Living Stereo and Rhapsody even more impressive.

Of course manufacturers who show up are trying to increase their visibility to potential end users. They wouldn't be there otherwise. And for some with modest or non-existent dealer networks, this may be among their only good opportunities to make contact with consumers and potential dealers. Even so, it would be a mistake to understand these shows as the confluence of self-interested business decisions. The manufacturers, designers and retailers who participate in shows like HES are not merely exhibiting and demonstrating; they are sharing - often their knowledge or expertise, more often still their passion for music and for the means of its reproduction; the ways it can be made available to us and take its place in our lives.

I don't see how even the most jaded cynic could spend five minutes with someone like Dan Meinwald without being moved by

his absolute love for all things vinyl. Dan owns more than his share of turntables. When he puts on an LP in his room, the last thing on his mind -- well, maybe not the last thing but certainly not the first -- is whether this particular cut will lead to a sale. He couldn't stop talking about how much he wanted to obtain a new version of the Thorens 124 table that is now being brought into the country by Lawrence Blair, better known for being the importer and distributor of the wonderful Brinkmann Balance which both Michael Fremer and I recently raved about (albeit in different magazines; I believe he writes for Stereophile -:).

I saw the same passion at HES in Jeff Catalano of HighWater Sound. Jeff was displaying a new analog setup that featured a quite impressive new design from Sound Engineering of Nashville/Tennessee, fitted with the much discussed (among analog fanatics) and absolutely stunning 12" DaVinci tonearm not previously seen in the US. When I entered the room, Jeff motioned me to a corner and pulled out a gorgeous wood case in which the DaVinci arm is shipped with everything needed for its proper setup. Best of all, the display box contained another DaVinci arm, simply a work of art. More impressive was the obvious excitement Jeff had for the arm, and more impressive still was his enthusiasm for sharing his excitement and the arm itself with analog lovers who entered his room.

There are lovers of art and there are dealers of art. You don't have to be a lover of art to be an art dealer, but I would be reluctant to purchase art from an art dealer who wasn't an art lover. Purchasing art is not simply an interior design decision. And neither is purchasing audio - however appropriate lifestyle and other aesthetic considerations may be in purchases of both art and audio. These are decisions that reflect an appreciation of the place of the arts in an examined, reflective life well lived, not just an appreciation of the color scheme in the living room or den.

Many of us approach music reproduction in ways that some approach books. For those of us who love books, there are few experiences more enjoyable than discovering a bookstore whose owner and salespeople share the same passion. You can feel it the moment you enter such a store. The love for books is embodied in the layout, the collections -- their vintage, the titles, the authors -- and the store's atmosphere. When a book lover visits a new city, she searches out such bookstores. For everyone else, there's Barnes and Noble. The same is true of purchasing audio or audio software. The last thing we need is for all audio stores to turn into Circuit City or Best Buy or even Harvey's.

We need to maintain the passion that can only be nurtured by an understanding and appreciation of the art form – not the business plan. More than that, we need to encourage individuals with passion to share it freely and openly. We may like different sounds, styles of music and playback systems. But we share something that ties us together and what we share is not a commitment to a business plan. To be sure, we cannot keep the hobby alive and well without good business sense and a much more cooperative joint effort on everyone's part. But let's not forget that the business plan is in service of something else; it is not an end in itself. And that something else has to be the centrality of music and its forms of reproduction in a life well lived. What ties us together in this hobby is a passion about the role of music and its modes of reproduction, the latter in service to the former: the former, unlike a business plan, being something of intrinsic value. We may dispute the nature of the value, its source and its import - just as we may disagree about which playback systems do a better job of conveying the music. Our disagreements are meaningful only because we share so much. Without that shared commitment, our disagreements wouldn't be about the same thing. We would be talking past one another, not to one another; and the passion we associate with our views would seem irrational.

And sometimes expressing commitment to that value is crucially important – even when there is no obvious financial reason to do so. That's why I applaud the presence of the local retailers who exhibited at HES and am disappointed that many possessing the resources to participate did not.

If the paucity of big-name manufacturers and local retailers was unfortunate, then the absence of various segments of the audio press was palpable and neither justifiable nor excusable. Needless to say, Stereophile was well represented. There is a sense in which HES is their Show; and by all accounts that fact sufficed to keep at least some of the 'competition' away. I saw no writers from either Soundstage! or The Absolute Sound at HES, certainly not in an official capacity.

Soundstage treats covering HES as supporting the competition and discourages it. For all I know, they may actively boycott HES. I do not know if TAS has adopted a similar stance but the absence of any writer from their staff was conspicuous. Given the extent of their coverage of other shows, they left the unmistakable impression -- whether intentional or not -- that they did not want to support a competitor's project. [Based on a rumor I heard, Primedia did not sell booths to competing publications like The Rocky Mountain Show did last year for Robert Harley's book or CES in years past for The Inner Report. If true, this could explain why TAS elected not to participate in attending the show - Ed.]

The attitude of being unwilling to support the competition is naïve and counterproductive at best; childish and immature at worst. Not every activity that a competitor undertakes is a competitive activity. Attending HES is not a case of sleeping with the enemy, of supporting a competitor to one's own detriment. It is instead a matter of supporting the industry by attending and covering a show that is itself sponsored by a competitor. There is a nontrivial difference between the beneficiary of an action and its author or in this case its sponsor. To be sure, authors act in ways that they believe will secure ends they desire, but that does not mean that the only consequences that they value are the ones that redound to them. And even if they felt that way, it would hardly follow that all the actual consequences produced redound to the author or sponsor.

This is a show for everyone who can make it. It is not a show for Stereophile. It is a show made possible by Stereophile. If it goes well, it will surely display Stereophile in a positive light. If it does not go well, Stereophile will come off less well. But it is not a Stereophile show; it is a Stereophile (actually, Primedia) sponsored show. I never for a second felt used by Stereophile as a mere instrument to the pursuit of their ends. As Kant would have said (though there is little evidence that he attended audio shows), I was treated not merely as a means but as an end in myself. (Kant had a way with catchy phrases.). Indeed, I felt completely welcomed and was warmly treated by everyone from Stereophile I ran into - especially Michael Fremer, Kal Rubinson and Art Dudley.

In my 'real life', I have written extensively on the relationship between competition and cooperation. In much large-scale group activities, there are elements of both. The decision -- conscious or otherwise -- of segments of the audio press to boycott the Stereophile Show on the grounds that it would lend support to a competitor is not just self-centered but in the end counterproductive to self-interest.

In shared group activities, agents who act at each moment on their interests alone -- quite apart from their ability to resolve conflicts between their short and long term interests -- pretty much insure the failure of the group and in doing so, undermine the desires of all to achieve the common ends that bring them together in the first place. The audio industry more than most could stand a bit more commitment to a cooperative framework within which competition might prove both individually rational and collectively productive.

As I said, I found myself in a foreign place yet among friends - and not just because I see the industry as much more of a joint collective activity than others do. My worries run deeper. I think designers are by and large simply headed in the wrong direction. They have a goal and by my lights, they are getting better and better at approximating it. Indeed, there are times when they very nearly achieve it. My problem is that I have less and less a sense of the connection between that goal and the reproduction of music.

In another essay and in an upcoming interview for a Finnish magazine that few of us (including me) will ever be able to read even were we so inclined, I draw several distinctions that are important to how I think about music reproduction. It is a very good question to ask: what it is that is distinctive of music? By that we mean, among other things, how would we distinguish music from sound? What are the elements of music? The most radical view is that music is distinguished from sound by its having a certain structure. I don't happen to share this view but no one would deny that tone, timbre, timing, harmonics and dynamics are elements of music. They are of course more general elements of sounds. That is why those who claim that the key to music is structure emphasize this feature of it. They don't deny the centrality of, say tone or timbre, to music; instead they want to remind us that tone and timbre are aspects of sound as well.

Notice, however, that imaging, soundstaging and transparency -- to name a few attributes -- are not elements of music. They are not constitutive of music. They are aspects of music playback or reproduction. Indeed, I am inclined to the view that (in some measure and to some degree) they may even be constitutive elements of successful or artful music playback. But they are not features of playback that are intrinsically valuable even in the context of music playback. They matter primarily to the extent that they are aspects of music playback.

Without getting into detail as to how or why this has happened, it just seems to me that designers have forgotten about the constitutive elements of music as the centerpiece of musical playback in favor of these other attributes. Not only are imaging and transparency, for example, not aspects of music, they are not even the core elements of music reproduction to be traded off if necessary for tone, timbre or timing. One can have perfectly believable and wonderful music playback that does not possess pinpoint imaging of great depth or height; but one cannot have believable music playback if the timbre of the instruments is all wrong and the timing is confused.

To my mind, music reproduction is being killed by the engineers at least as often as it has been well served by them. And it surely does not help that so many modern component designs are built from digital sources, which are far too low in information and resolution to serve this purpose. It's not just that everything sounds digital. Everything also sounds like its goal is to reproduce audiophile recordings. So much of what I heard at HES and in the high-end more generally sounds like it was built around recordings of Patricia Barber (who may well be very talented in spite of what the audiophile community has done to her).

Many systems at HES approximated a kind of ideal in terms of imaging, transparency, neutrality and crystalline clarity. In this regard, there is no doubt that the high-end has made tremendous strides over the past decade. There are very few painfully bad systems that have survived and that is all to the good. But almost nothing I heard sounds like music. I don’t mean music in the Absolute Sound sense of that term. I just mean music in the junior high school sense of the term. Something real. The sound I continue to hear is incredibly artificial to my ears: processed, disinterested, detached, exceptional but soulless and impersonal, lacking in texture and human interest. To my ear, so much modern equipment makes music sound like the best version you could possibly have of an mp3 playing through an iPod. I don’t want a playback system that aspires to make Lightning Hopkins sound as big and sweet as Patricia Barber or Diana Krall sitting in my lap. I do want a system that makes Lightning Hopkins sound like he is in pain yet happy to be alive.

Music playback systems are better than ever at reproducing something but I don’t know what the relationship is of that something to music. There is more and more excellence and less and less music – at least to my ears. In my heart of hearts, I believe that is one reason why so few people keep their systems. I have views about why this is so which I explore elsewhere, but for me the most educational aspect of HES was the disparity between how good things sounded in some sense and how little I cared – how little what the systems did engaged me the way music almost always does.

There were exceptions of course. The most obvious one was the Damoka room, which featured the Vitavox speakers (basically licensed Klipschorns with better drivers), Lamm electronics, a CEC digital front end and a Thorens Reference Turntable with a ZYX cartridge. Like most everyone else who sat for a listen in this room, I could give you a list of a dozen things that this system did not do well: the top end was a bit shut in; the bass was less than perfectly well defined; you could hear the cabinet and so on. On the other hand, nothing else at HES came anywhere near as close to making music. My only real complaint was that Vladimir Lamm likes to play the music too softly. It could have been played more loudly and if it had been, it would have been an even more impressive demonstration than it was.

In the HighWater Sound room, Jeff Catalano put together a remarkably satisfying musical system in a pretty small room. The quite impressive Tron preamp and 300B amp were driving the Hørning Hybrid Perikles, the babies in the Hørning lineup. The Perikles worked exceptionally well in this room and driven by the Tron electronics, the sound was natural and palpable. While the Vitavox is unobtainable for most of us, the Perikles is a bargain at around $8K. A 47Labs Flatfish/Gemini combination provided a very good digital compliment to the quite wonderful sounding analog front end consisting of the brand new Sound Engineering turntable boasting the aforementioned DaVinci arm and Dynavector cartridge. All sat peacefully on a double-wide maple Finite Elemente equipment rack that added just the right touch of quiet elegance to the room.

For me as well as for others I suppose, the real joy of the show is the opportunity to renew friendships, to meet new friends, to listen and to learn. In each of these respects, HES was personally very fulfilling, not the least because I met and spent some time with fellow writers including especially Kari Nevalainen of 6moons and the Finish HiFi Lehti magazine with whom I have corresponded for some time and who I had previously known of through mutual friends.

It was also a real kick to take around friends from my professional life. I spent half a day on Saturday with my pal Alan Schwartz who teaches commercial law and contracts
at Yale with me. He looks and acts like Woody Allen and spent most of the day acting like a kid in toy store. Of course he acts that way in the classroom as well. I spent much of Friday afternoon with two philosophers, Jerry Fodor and Paul Boghossian, both of whom are aficionados of classical music, go to dozens of live concerts every year and hold everything up to exceptionally high standards. It was interesting spending the better part of an afternoon with people who are not shy about expressing their views. And when they finally really liked something -- which they rarely did -- I found myself experiencing some personal relief as I were somehow responsible for the quality of the sound at HES.

Now -- and to be perfectly honest -- while I had a great time at HES, the highlight for me occurred on Friday evening when, along with a few friends, I heard my children's band Murder Mystery perform in a sold-out show at the Knitting Factory. My 21 year-old daughter is the drummer and my 23 year-old son is the guitarist, singer and songwriter. I don't want to brag but - I have seen the future of rock and roll and it is Murder Mystery. Now where have I heard that line before? It was pretty hard to listen to reproduced music afterwards but someone's got to do it - and to be honest, I kinda love doing it.