One of Walter Swanborn's actual Fidelis AV showrooms, used here purely for conceptual purposes

Most of the exhibitors at this year's Home Entertainment Show (HES) in New York City were trapped in rooms that were small, poorly shaped, badly constructed, ugly and horribly furnished. If the rooms were less than inviting to guest registry, they were even less hospitable to good sound. The task of creating high end sound was daunting and precious few exhibitors were up to the challenge - often through no fault of their own.

Unsympathetic rooms were only half the problem. The other half was the ubiquitous presence of Home Theater. More and more, the HES has become a home theater show. To be honest, I don't get home theater. To me, viewing a movie at a theater is a social experience. It involves larger spaces, the interactions among individuals, attentiveness to the reactions of others and so on. Home theater is something else. I simply cannot grasp its value to the human experience. But that's just me.

The main problem with home theater at HES, however, was neither conceptual nor normative; it was practical: Noise - lots of it and all of it loud. Home theater displays were so loud as to make walking the halls of the Hilton painful. Showgoers were under constant attack from enemies lurking behind closed and far too often brazenly open doors. It was extremely difficulty to spend the requisite long hours which show coverage requires. It was harder still to find rooms that were sanctuaries of sanity and peace.

No one in their right mind could survey the environment whetting her lips in anticipation of good sound. No audiophile or reviewer would think it fair or rational to draw inferences about the musical qualities of most gear at the show; but I assure you that would not (and most assuredly, did not) keep reviewer and audiophile alike from waxing poetic about the multitudes of failings in virtually every system on display. One of the things that separates audiophiles from emotionally balanced folks is our total lack of regard for context - not to mention our natural capacity to dwell upon shortcomings in the face of our good fortune. It's charming in a way - but only from a distance.

I know our job is to listen critically -- with the emphasis on critically -- but I couldn't bear to do it this time around. I'd rather kvell than kvetch and to be honest, under the conditions at HES, I have no confidence that the assessments I might make would stand up
under more musically friendly circumstances. Moreover, we are a privileged group given the opportunity to spend a few days in the presence of truly amazing equipment, brilliant designers and interesting people. We get to put faces on names and play hooky from ordinary life. And do it all in NYC. What's not to love?

Talk about love: Many of us got to hear the Siemens horn system in a ballroom more suitable to weddings and bar mitzvahs than audio. In my review of the Shindo Laboratory Sinhonia amplifier based around the F2a output tube, I discussed the Siemens Klangfilm project. I encourage you to have a look at that review if you haven't done so. The F2a tube was exclusively produced by Siemens for amplifiers -- typically in single-ended configuration -- built to drive the horn loudspeakers that were on display at the show. A critically inclined audiophile or reviewer could punch a million holes in the system to identify one weakness or shortcoming after another. But why? By comparison, all other sound, not just at the show but in virtually every home playback system everywhere on earth, is likely to sound pinched, forced and artificial. If you are in this business to display your ability to criticize with rigor and evidence, this room would have provided you with more than a few opportunities to do so. On the other hand, if you are in this hobby to experience the magic and glory of musical playback, this room provided you with more than ample satisfaction and wonderment. You can figure out who you are by sitting down with this system for an hour or so. Me, I could have taken up residence in the room.

During this same period, Siemens also made horn systems one size larger than the one at the Show and a couple of smaller ones. Jonathan Halpern, the importer of Shindo Laboratory products, told me that Ken Shindo himself has two pairs of the speaker system one size down from the pair we heard. When you are listening to an audio component as a reviewer, you often want to know what the designer or manufacturer is trying to accomplish. And by that I don't mean only his design goals but his musical ones as well. Music plays a role in peoples' lives; it adds value. The values it adds can vary. In a way, every thoughtful designer has a view about the relative importance of music in a fulsome life. The products they produce ought to express that conception to some degree. After hearing the big Klangfilm horns and learning that Shindo himself owns at least two similar pairs, I had no doubt about what Shindo is trying to accomplish in his product line: Unforced, natural, intimate and personal engagement with the music. More than that, I now have a sense of what those concepts mean for him. It's reassuring to know that a designer builds from a sense of the musical values he wants expressed in his components and a sense of the value of music in the human experience rather than from a computer program.

I had two unsettling experiences at the show oddly connected. The first came while listening in the Siemens/Lamm ballroom. A very well-known reviewer from a print magazine entered the room to spread good cheer, chat up the exhibitors and take a listen. Eventually, he took a seat a couple of rows behind Jonathan Halpern and me.
He then proceeded to display an incredible, nearly mind-boggling ignorance of what he was listening to as he asked question after question of his host, at a volume that competed with the level at which the music was being played back. From queries as to whether he was listening to a JBL system, to the utterly perplexing one of whether the speakers were loaded into a folded horn (I mean the speaker's mouth was right in front of us all), my heart sank with every inquiry. He displayed literally no knowledge at all of this part of the history of sound reproduction. Bad enough for a reviewer of any sort; worse for someone who has made a reputation in part because of his love of tubes. All of it made worse still by the need to share his ignorance with us all.

This particular reviewer is no dummy. He writes extremely well and often with real insight. I enjoy reading him. And so I attributed this particular unhappy event to show conditions. After all, there is no reason why adverse show conditions should affect only the sound coming from the rooms. It is just as likely to affect rational thought. Indeed it surely does, as my recounting of this second incident will no doubt attest.

Often people gather in the halls to chat and renew acquaintances. So it was that on Saturday, I found myself in the hallway of the 7th floor of the Hilton chatting with a couple of friends. In the course of the conversation, I overheard the following remark coming from somewhere behind me:

Joan Osborne has more soul than Aretha Franklin.

Ok, maybe I misheard the poor fellow. But no, I got it just right as he then proceeded to wax poetic about Ms.Osborne's contribution to the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown which celebrates the legendary funk brothers. I turned around to see who had voiced this opinion only to discover that it was someone involved with a record label.

Maybe you didn't read me carefully? This fellow actually said "Joan Osborne has more soul than Aretha Franklin." [He indeed did - I was right there myself - Ed.] After I got up off the floor, I started thinking of other similarly ludicrous things one might say: "John Atkinson has more soul than James Jamerson." For all I know, Mr. Atkinson may be a talented bassist but I doubt that he is as soulful as the legendary Mr. Jamerson. There's clearly no insult in that.

And on it went until I found myself laughing out loud. Why? Well, to be honest, the only thing I like doing more than making fun of myself is making fun of others. But I really enjoy making fun of myself – a lot. I have told friends for years that I wanted to be reincarnated as a black Blues guitarist. At some point, I began reporting to my friends that I am, in fact, a black man trapped in a white man's body. I have even tried to convince my children of this. My wife has too much evidence to the contrary, having lived with me for so long.

Well, just take a look at me.

There is an infinitely better chance that I am in fact a black man -- and thus the black Blues guitarist I've always wanted to be -- than that Joan Osborne has more soul than Aretha Franklin. Sorry Joan. As I said, the show environment is adverse both to sound and sanity.

It's pretty good for friendship though - making new friends and renewing old friendships. And it is in NYC. And we do get to play hooky from real life. And we do get to see some pretty amazing stuff and meet some pretty interesting and impressive people. And to be around what we love. As I said, we are a pretty privileged group.