The NYC Audio Show 2018

It was back to the Park Lane Hotel for the Chester Group's New York Audio Show 2018. Hot on the heels of the Capitol Audio Fest, it was not surprising that the number of exhibitors was well down. Still, for those of us north of NYC, it is a much more convenient show to attend. Fellow Connecticut Audio Society members Jay and Dean accompanied me again. Because show reports that play endless litany of who was there are boring, I focus here not just on rooms that stood out for sound quality but also for other aspects I found interesting. In other words, there's nothing whatsoever egalitarian about my brief report. Steve plays favourites instead…

ESD Acoustic. Right next to the second floor's registration desk was the show's largest room occupied by Chinese brand ESD Acoustic. We were among their first visitors since the show had just opened. ESD made an all-out effort at a full horn system designed for all parameters of maximum fidelity. They showed a five-way system with carbon fiber spherical horns, field coils and individual active crossovers plus amplifiers for each driver. They touted beryllium diaphragms for the midrange and tweeter plus supermendur magnets for "the highest magnetic density achievable outside of laboratories". There was a mountain of electronics where each component held similar claims for being ne plus ultra for its application. This was a first-class operation all the way, with the company reps nattily dressed along with a lovely woman serving us hot tea. It was explained that for optimal performance, the room really needed to be at least a third larger. With this in mind, we changed seating to the back row. On the audiophile chestnut "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress", I noticed some sibilance on Radka Toneff's voice. Kenny G was up next and while his music is not my taste, it did demonstrate how this multi-part system seemed to integrate its five disparate horn drivers reasonably well. Compared to my wide-open Bastanis widebanders without crossovers, it was slightly veiled. However, that's true of many speakers. I don't think it fair to judge a system in a non-optimal room. This was perhaps best viewed as a technological tour de force to whet the appetite for well-heeled audiophiles to fly to China for their own personal demo. I did not ask for the price.

Robyatt Audio/Audible Illusions. Robin Wyatt, CEO of Robyatt Audio, is an enthusiastic showman who always catches my ear with tastes in equipment and music very similar to mine. He incorporates vintage and modern audio products, most notably with his $6'000 Quad ESL57 refurbished by Electrostatic Solutions and a Technics SP-10MkIIS turntable in a new Oswald's Mill Audio "hypoeutectic iron plinth" ($'9450 for just the plinth).

Robin spun mono records on a new $10'000 Technics SP10R mounted in a PBN plinth ($3'500) with Sorane ZA12 tonearm ($'2500) and Miyajima Labs Zero Infinity mono cartridge ($3350). From there the signal hit a Miyajima Labs ETR mono stepup transformer, then a custom mono phono stage by Steve Berger with selectable EQ curves.

The Quads were powered by 100-watt Butler Monad monos ($19'000) and the preamp was the Audible Illusions Modulus M3B ($6'890). A mono reissue of The Animals doing a John Lee Hooker cut was superbly musical. Switching to the stereo turntable fitted with a Schroeder CB Magnetic arm ($7'250), Miyajima Labs Madake Destiny cartridge ($7'500) and Miyajima KSW stepup ($2'495), the sound was very pleasing and more dynamic that I typically hear from Quad 57.

It also was good to see Audible Illusions back in the limelight [right]. I'd thought they were out of production but Alan Habib, Director of Global Sales and Marketing, explained that they never went out of business but are now simply reviving their presence again.

Pure Audio Project. Their speakers are a smart and economical approach to high-quality open baffles, offering a modular approach with various driver configurations.

At RMAF 2017, I'd heard the Quintet15 Horn1 ($9'900). It uses a horn-loaded midrange and 4 x 15-inch woofers per side (two above, two below the widebander). Being a fan of open baffles and owning Bastanis Sagarmatha Duo, I instantly found them appealing for their expected lack of box coloration and open and detailed sound. After hearing the Quintet15 with Voxativ drivers both last year and this year at NYAS, I prefer the horn version.

The Voxativ driver is very revealing and has a remarkable presence I like but I just don't think that these woofers match it well. Playing the Mobile Fidelity reissue of Janis Joplin's Cheap Thrills, the Voxartiv handled her powerful raw vocals well but the rest emanating from the woofers seemed more distant by comparison. The prices of horn vs. Voxativ (8'900 w/AC-1.6, $10'900 w/AC-PiFe) are not that different so choosing your own preferred main driver has no major cost penalty.

Convergent Audio Technology. The esteemed Ken Stevens, owner and designer of CAT, was in fine form when we entered. In addition to good sound, Ken regaled us with stories about finicky customers, past days of winding their own Teflon capacitors and an explanation of the extreme quality of his amorphous-core output transformers. He also rightfully boasted about his 'baby CAT' JL5 stereo amp ($15'000) winning the prestigious Stereo Sound magazine award for component of the year. Ken played digital sources only and was one of the few rooms where you could actually spin a CD. I neglected to write down what he used for transport and DAC—your photo would indicate Electrocompaniet – Ed—but the output played through his Legend preamp into his top-line Statement monos which powered one of my favorite Magico speakers, the S5 MkII. Dean handed Ken a Christine Lux CD to play. I had not heard it before but her voice cleanly projected dead center and sounded very natural with good body and no sibilance. Dean felt that the highs were a bit darker than on his system but not knowing the CD, it sounded very good to me and Jay. Ken made a pitch for the JL5 amp again and that if we came back later, he'd be playing it and that we probably would not notice much of a drop in sound quality.

Laufer Teknik/Absolare/Grandinote. Laufer Teknik by Sam Laufer are based out of my home state Connecticut and had two rooms. I preferred the sound in the room run by Sam's partner Buffer Ergmann with the Grandinote Mach 4 speakers ($26'000). This room had the full-boat version of Laufer Teknik's Memory Player with internal DAC (MP64-8, $25'000). I have heard the Memory Player many times and consider it among the best-sounding digital source components. It's analong output drove the balanced Signature version of the 150wpc Absolare hybrid integrated ($34'000). Its maker Kerem Kucukaslan had flown in from Turkey for the occasion.

Audiophile favorite Dead Can Dance played just when I entered and the system produced a warm inviting sound with an airy and enveloping soundstage. Buffer pointed out that he had the Stillpoints Apertures ($800/ea. plus $600/ea. for Aperture stands) and Bybee iQSE version 2 ($400/ea.) room treatments to help out.

The Italian Grandinote speakers were provided courtesy of Fred Crane of dealership Audio Prana. The little we were told about them was that they have aluminium drivers in an aluminium cabinet.

I did a little subsequent research and, to my surprise, learnt that they use no electrical filters. Instead four widebanders rely on mechanical roll-off via "special treatment behind their membranes". There is also a single tweeter.

Another interesting design feature is the cabinet's description of "between bass reflex and transmission line. Our cabinet is like a tube with a large downward port." A Donny Hathaway selection was the last song I heard and while it wasn't as good a recording as the Dead Can Dance is, it still sounded impressive. This system struck me as one of the best of show.

Laufer Teknik/Absolare/Spendor/Chord. This Laufer Teknik room was shared with Andy Singer of Sound by Singer. The equipment was similar but the Memory Player just used as server to send files to a Chord Dave DAC/upsampler. The same Absolare integrated now powered Spendor D9 ($10'000). The sound was rather thin especially in the upper midrange and for me didn't cut it. Something was amiss.

After the show, I called Sam Laufer who informed me that they discovered that the tubes in the Absolare were not up to snuff. After replacing them, the sound must have improved tremendously based on what others said about the room. I was there soon after the show opened at 11:00 on Friday so had I returned later, I might have heard the change for myself.

Bache Audio. Greg Belman, owner and designer of Bache Audio speakers, showed on his own this year rather than with his friend Alex Chorine of Alexus Audio. Alex had supplied his excellent electronics in years past but this year Greg wanted to demonstrate his speakers with a less expensive front end of Cocktail Audio X50D server ($2'495) and Cayin CS-55A integrated tube amp with onboard DAC ($2'499) powering Greg's Tribeca speakers ($5'600). He succeeded mightily! I Robot from the Alan Parsons Project sounded great with full mids, smooth highs from Greg's favoured Fostex tweeter and a solid bass foundation. I thought that this system was the best value at the show and sonically not too far behind the very best rooms.

Greg is a down-to-earth guy with a no-nonsense approach which perhaps doesn't strike a chord with the more elite reviewer crowd. I favorably reviewed his 002AB speakers and while I found them very appealing, I pointed out to him that its widebander was not as revealing as my Bastanis. The next time we talked, Greg had upgraded to a Tang Band bamboo fiber cone modified by Bache. I was flattered that he took my comment to heart.

Vinnie Rossi/Triode Wire Labs/Harbeth. The gang of Vinnie Rossi, Pete Grzybowski of Triode Wire Labs and Walt Swanbon of Fidelis Music Systems have been showing together regularly to have everything dialed in well. Vinnie showed his new L2 Signature preamplifier ($14'995, optional L2 DAC and L2 phono stage $3,495/ea.). His personal Palmer turntable did vinyl duty. Two Harbeth speaker models were on demo from importer Fidelis, the Monitor 40.2 ($17'990) and the little P3ESR ($2'890) with a Tron Trager stand ($1'695 for 40.2).

Show reports often overlook cables but these guys do a good job pointing out the contributions of their favoured Triode Wire Labs which here meant Obsession NCF Statement power cords ($1'399/ea.), American speaker cables (starting at $699/pr), Spirit interconnects ($399/pr) and Discrete digital interconnect ($299). The speakers were set up in a nearfield arrangement with the center front seat about 5 feet from them. As I confided to Vinnie before, I'm not a big fan of British monitor speakers. Nothing against Harbeth but my taste and system have gravitated to what might be the polar opposite, i.e. Bastanis open baffles.

Given this caveat, I must confess that their audio triumvirate really did have it all together. The system had that innate almost imperturbable tonal balance that seems to be a Harbeth trademark. My listening notes say "excellent vocals" even though I don't recall whose they were. Pete spun a Susan Tedeschi LP and another strength of the system was on display, namely full-bodied corporeal images projected well outside the speakers. From a marketing perspective, I think Vinnie's offering of a more traditional preamp and monoblock amplifiers will help attract more conventional customers.

Sonner Audio. While their flyer was sparse, an Internet search learnt that Sonner Audio speakers are designed by Gunawan Surya. It also appears that they are doing their level best to increase exposure by demoing at many hifi shows. The company is based in Merrimack, NH with a sprinkling of dealers at present. The stand-mounted two-way Legato Unum ($4'750 plus $750 for dedicated stand) played but they had also brought along their Legato Semis tower. An Abbingdon Music Research DP-777 SE DAC ($5'000) and Luxman L-550AXII integrated amp ($5'500) completed the setup.

To make a point, the gentleman running it played a large Stravinsky orchestral. There was a surprisingly convincing foundation to this heavy music that did not leave me feeling shortchanged. Even at low levels, the transparency and liveliness made for an involving sound that would be easy to listen to for hours. The host made a point that despite their 87dB sensitivity, these speakers were easy to drive due to a flat impedance and a nominal 8-ohm rating. Clearly the 20wpc class A Luxman integrated did a splendid job of it. Another plus for the Sonner Audio speakers was their attractive fit and finish. They should find little resistance related to home decor concerns.

My best-of-show sightings go to, cost no object, a tie between CAT and Robyatt; Laufer/Absolare/Grandinote as runner-up; and Bache for best value.