6moons industryfeatures: Chip Stern's report from HE2003 in San Francisco

Sound loves to revel in a summer night.
Edgar Allen Poe

Click here for Part 2, "Making Bricks without Straw", on Positive Feedback On-line

I'll charm the air to give a sound,
While you perform your antic round.
William Shakespeare

For better or for worse, these big extended listening parties present a somewhat misleading image of what the High-End audio industry has to offer. Mind you, I'm not complaining. As a devout gear head, I'm not all that different from your average cold-nose-to-the-bakery-window consumer eager to enjoy some larger than life audio systems. No doubt about it - taking any of these high performance systems for a spin around the track can be a profoundly moving experience. On the opening day of the Stereophile Home Entertainment 2003 Show in San Francisco, I took full advantage of my Press status to enjoy an authentic pedal-to-the-metal experience with some of the most jaw-dropping systems.

So compelling were some of these, and so generous their sponsors (in terms of giving me free rein to really air things out with a special CD compilation I had burnt for the show to trumpet my upcoming web site -- see above, track listing at end of my report -- and to leave behind as an audiophile gift that would keep giving), that I often fell into the deep linger mode. [He really meant to say peep lingerie mood - Ed.]. I thus spent so much time with one system or another that I missed out on the joys of certain equally significant rooms.

Still, when people query me as to who was best of breed -- what rooms had the best sound, and which were my favorite speakers -- well, that's a tough one, sports fans, because most of these systems offered a very profound portal into the emotional experience of music.

Does that seem like a cop-out? Well then, let me hip you pilgrims to one of the dirtiest little secrets of high end audio: As much as we prize the gear, and pant after new technology, effective room coupling and set-up amounts for maybe half the impact of a true high-end audiophile rig. Hardly a news flash, right? But I'll never cease to be amazed how many so-called audiophiles seek validation from me for their mismatched mishmash of trendy, high-priced components. You say you don't like the way it sounds? [Sarcasm alert.] Gee whiz, I can't imagine why it doesn't sound like a system. For some other thoughts on this and related audiophile phenomena, you might want to reference Srajan's most recent Auroville column in Issue Nine of Positive Feedback: On The Bigger S.U.C.K.

It's certainly not our intention to undervalue the impact that sophisticated components, full range loudspeakers, high quality cabling and pristine AC can have on system synergy. We're not suggesting that just any damn gear can deliver the oomph and spatial grandeur of live music. However, in our experience of HiFi shows, sometimes less really is more. In room after room, some of the biggest, priciest state-of-the-art reference systems operated at a peculiar disadvantage - like trying to contain a bucking rodeo steer in your linen closet. Inevitably, those big systems were critically compromised by the need for significantly more elbowroom than exhibitors could reasonably afford to invest in.

So in a weird way, those exhibitors with simpler, smaller-scale systems often enjoyed a competitive advantage over their more testosterone-happy cohorts. Among the most shameless manipulators in this regard is the estimable Roy Hall of Music Hall Audio who produced true no-compromise high end sound by rolling out a trio of new, high-quality components with a combined suggested retail price (not counting stands and cabling) of roughly $2300.00, all built around a remarkable set of stand-mounted mini monitors, the new Epos ELS-3 at $300/pr. Given Roy's space limitations, they were placed only inches away from the back wall to buttress their clear, quick, articulate bass response. In tandem with a pair of cost-effective new Creek components -- the CD50 CD player ($1195) and A50i integrated amp ($795) -- system dynamics and imaging were very musical indeed, with the kind of textured, detailed midrange and smooth top end that makes recorded music come alive. Needless to say, this 'entry-level' system wasn't capable of conveying the frequency-extension and absolute decibel levels full range loudspeakers and mega-watt amplifiers routinely deliver. But then audiophiles' eyes are often bigger than their stomachs. Our aural aspirations often exceed the ability of the room to reproduce the sound pressure levels and bass frequencies large-scale systems are capable of. So while reduced in scale, in terms of quantifiable audio excitement, this Creek/Epos system was an object lesson in system synergy, realistic, effective room coupling - and value, Value, VALUE. I played my own audiophile CD compilation in every room at the show, and my experience of immersion in the music was every bit as compelling in Roy's room as it was in the all-singing all-dancing rooms. I also came away duly impressed by Music Hall's new Maverick SACD Player, which offered exceptional resolution for $1495, as did a sexy new import, the $2695 Shanling SCD-T200 tubed SACD player.

Another damn impressive variation on a less-is-more theme occurred in the tiny Totem Acoustic room, where speaker designer Vince Bruzzese made a convincing case for big sound in modest packages. The Totem Acoustics Hawk is a svelte, two-way ported floor-standing design that offered authentic bass response well down in to the 30-35Hz range, but never at the expense of midrange clarity. I was also quite taken by the sweet, smooth top end Vince achieved with a titanium-dome tweeter (often the extra detail a metal tweeter can confer on a loudspeaker system is mitigated by oil can resonances or an edgy, forward quality). Using a custom integrated amp of his own design, Bruzzese's system offered a spacious, natural presentation, visceral dynamics, realistic timbres and a surprising degree of holographic detail in a room-friendly package that should rate a serious audition by those audiophiles who want to achieve something akin to full-range performance but are forced to accommodate a system to their living space, and not the other way around. At only $2295/pr, the Hawks represent another authentic high-end audio value.

For another compelling illustration of how less is often more, we turn to one of my favorite rooms where San José/CA dealer Jeff Wells of Audible Arts had assembled a superb reference system built around muscular amplification from Rogue Audio, loudspeakers from Meadowlark Audio, room treatments by Echo Busters, and a superb selection of cabling from JPS Labs. The latter including their tightly focused, smoothly extended Superconductor 2 speaker cables and interconnects, and their dynamically potent, high resolution AC cords (including the modestly priced Digital AC and their top-of-the-line Kaptovator and Aluminata). The Rogue Magnum 99 Pre-Amp ($2395), in tandem with the prodigiously empowered Rogue Zeus Amplifier ($5995), represents the best the American high-end audio industry has to offer by way of engineering, build quality and off-the-wall value (especially when compared with gimmicky point-to-point wired 60 watt push-pull designs selling for well in excess of $10,000). Weighing in at a daunting 200 lbs, and conservatively rated at 225/150w in ultralinear/triode, the Zeus' transient speed, dynamic headroom and depth of field were a wonder to behold, offering the browned-in-butter midrange refinement of tubes and the kind of bass control and focus heretofore associated exclusively with solid-state muscle amps.

The superb woodworking of the Meadowlark Blue Heron II loudspeakers ($12,000/pr) also evinced an impeccable level of American craftsmanship, what with their sculpted cabinet contours and detailing, elegant real wood veneers and solid hardwood baffles. Because these first-order, time-coherent transmission-line Meadowlarks employ top-of-the-line ScanSpeak drivers, they traditionally benefit from some fairly extended burn-in.

Thus day by day, you could hear these freshly minted beauties stretching out and settling in. By Saturday afternoon, they began to display the kind of visceral, full-bodied dynamic impact, robust bass extension, richly layered midrange detail and warmly engaging presentation they're capable of, all that particularly satisfying in conveying the immense cinematic gestures of Jimi Hendrix's "Drifting" while sorting out and delineating the complex swelter of images and shining an amber spotlight on his yearning vocals. Nevertheless, by Sunday, in search of optimum room coupling, a more modest pair of loudspeakers supplanted the Blue Herons. The Meadowlark Kestrel 2 ($1995/pr) is the newest iteration of the popular two-way floor-standing design that put Meadowlark on the map. In many ways, their performance suggested a more polished, expressive version of the upscale Shearwater Hot Rods I reviewed some time back for Stereophile. As it so happens, in the days leading up to the Home Entertainment Show, I'd heard how warmly involving, easy to set-up, smoothly extended and musically forgiving the original Meadowlark Kestrels were in my daughter's cramped little San Diego apartment; and in Mesa Boogie honcho Randall Smith's hillside home office in Petaluma (where they were strategically aligned behind a couch).

There was something very inviting and down-to-earth about these new Kestrel 2s, with their warm, non-fatiguing presentation, taut, focused bass and laid-back, capacious soundstaging. I was impressed anew by the honest musicality and real-world value of Pat McGinty's straightforward design, and their smooth, natural, unforced portrayal of Renee Fleming's vocals on "Ave Maria" - an instant classic.

Speaking of classic loudspeakers, cable icon Ray Kimber might have a pair of his own to crow about if he ever decides to market the modestly configured Kimber DiAural prototypes he employed to showcase some live recordings he made at a small hall in Ogden/Utah employing his 'Iso-Mike' technique. The design parameters reflected Ray's seeming fealty to certain shaved-skull Egyptian deities of the XIII Dynasty, as atop a conventional rectangular cabinet housing naught but a passive radiator coupled bass-midrange driver, there was this big white orb -- like the proverbial cherry atop an ice cream sundae -- containing a spherical array of little midrange drivers and a tweeter. Based on the empirical evidence, one may conclude that like his kindred spirit, big- band leader Sun Ra, space is the place for Sun Ray.

The DiAurals seemed ideally proportioned to the acoustic characteristics of the room, as these eye-in-the- sky loudspeakers threw a very spacious, convincing soundstage for a relaxed yet vivid presentation. When I auditioned this system with my upright colleague Paul Bolin, we were both impressed by the DiAural's off-axis verisimilitude, which served to illustrate the lifelike ambience and wide screen perspective of Sun Ray's recordings. When allowed to demo my own audition disc, not only was the sense of venue impressive, but the Kimber DiAurals exhibited very respectable pop and focus for an exceptionally engaging holographic perspective. And while big dynamic gestures weren't the Kimber DiAural's strong suit, don't equate these babies with some diaphanous water sprite of a loudspeaker. Both the percussive and harmonic aspects of Ahmad Jamal's piano on "Where Are You Now" sounded utterly believable in time and space. Or as audiophile Michael Corleone was heard to remark to Sun Ray: "Think about a price."