Our Large Audio Note, Emm Labs, Nordost, HRS room at RMAF 2009

So, I would like to talk a little about the sound in our large room.

As a reminder (it has been a few weeks now. Time flies when buried in 1800 page show reports) we had the Emm Labs XDS1 single-box statement player driving the Audio Note M9 Phono preamp and Gaku-On amps. All cables were Nordost ODIN and all components were on M3 HRS platforms and we also used an HRS SXR rack

We had a little hiccup when one of the 211 tubes arrived in a non-working condition. Phil (thanks Phil!), a local audiophile, loaned us a 211 tube [and the next day Nick Gowan shipped us another pair. Thanks Nick!]. Neli arrived back with the 1st relief of 211 tubes and then left to pick up some HRS platforms we needed for under the Gaku-On amps.

All to say that I was left alone to position the speakers. [Yes!]

So, here we have 20+ feet of front wall space minus the 2 feet or so the rack occupies [also up against the front wall] – and the speakers will probably be fine anywhere.

Then Fred Crowder and Paul arrived. OK good. I moved the speaker and their comments and the expressions on their faces told me if it was for the better or worser. Every so often I would step back into the room and listen for myself. Surprisingly enough, this resulted in at least a locally optimized position for the speakers that was pretty decent. It was surprising to me because we seemed to flail around quite a bit, the sound getting a wee bit better or wee bit worse – but all of a sudden they were both nodding their heads a lot and when I stood back it really had snapped in to coolness. With only a few minor mods it became much more fun to just listen to music than it was to play with the speakers anymore.

—> Position 1.

After Fred Crowder, Paul and I positioned them, about oh, 3 feet from the side walls, and oh, 4 or 5 inches from the front wall. Angled in fairly severely to cross in front of the nearfield listening position.

This worked really pretty darn well. It was very engaging, quick, harmonic, with good soundstaging and imaging. There was enough bass reinforcement to be quite satisfying. And I would have been happy showing the system like this. Several people came and went and they all liked the sound.

Then Neli returned with the HRS platforms and we put them under the Gaku-Ons.

The added separation and tighter bass of the sound now wasn’t quite as engaging. It was ‘better’, but the speakers now had to be repositioned because, essentially, we now had a different [sounding] system and the sound coming out of the speakers reflected that fact.

So, I’m thinking… where are Fred and Paul when ya need ’em? :-)

Then Mario from the Audio Note factory just happened to show up at the door, and I remember that these guys do shows every couple of weeks in Europe [seriously] and they must have run into largish rooms before.

So we start moving them radically this way and that. What I really wanted to know was: What kind of sound does Audio Note go for with their speakers when they do a show in a big room like this?

I mean, I was pretty sure we could get back to the sound that we heard previously, in setup #1. And it really was quite good. But, hey, we got some time, let’s experiment.

We put them closer and closer to the corners – each time hearing no overtly deleterious effects, and each time hearing slightly more room engagement. They eventually ended up just about as far into the corners as we could get them.

—> Position #2.

The sound was very big, pressurizing the room. No lack of bass, let me tell you. In fact, more bass than we let the Coltrane Supremes have in that room [the Supremes could probably do real damage to the hotel fixtures. I mean 2000 watts, 12 9 inch drivers, very efficient speakers. Give me a break]. Perhaps we have been too shy with the bass on the Supremes [trying to differentiate ourselves from the big boom box systems elsewhere in the hotel – you know, the ones that win all the awards from the newbie and want-free-equipment show reporters], because the Audio Note speakers with their more present bass worked pretty well.

The bass and the dynamics was all hitting the big time [all the components in this system are world-class dynamic champions]. The harmonics were like those never heard before [thanks Gaku-On!]. The soundstage was the width of the room. Huge. The musicians were life size. It was like they were really there in the room. Standing in a line across the stage.

Which is also to say that the soundstage depth was not very deep. It was more shallow than it should have been for many people’s tastes. In some ways, this made it more realistic, but perhaps not as much fun. We think the problem had to do with the fake side wall we made on the left, and the big curtained window on the right. Certainly position #1, away from these less-than-optimal side walls, had no problem with achieving great depth of field.

We stayed with position #2, in large part [from my point of view] to further differentiate it from last year and invalidate any direct comparisons. This was a different system… evaluate it as it is, not as last year’s system with different speakers. This is also part of the reason we did not put the system over on the side of the room: to make the system and room look different than last year [the others being 10 meter ODIN is hard to come by – 10 meters is needed to reach the rack when it is on the rear/side of the room – and we were tired of lugging tons of equipment to the show and back].

It really worked and most everybody liked it a lot, in fact everybody except those people who really do prefer a sophisticated and very accurate sound [about 5%, this show is not very kind to these people] – and those [my guess about 20% of the people [NO, I really do not think it is as high as 95%, though an argument could be made… :-)]] who have no ears anyway and pick rooms they like more or less at random [using a algorithm, in any case, that has zero, nada, zilch to do with the sound. No, I do not think this is criminal – but when you read about what someone thinks about a show, keep these people in mind].


Compared to our room last year, this was a completely different sound.

Last year’s sound, the Marten Coltrane Supremes speakers with the Lamm ML3 amps, was a very, very sophisticated sound. The delicacy and detail, the preciseness of the harmonics, the shade and shapes of the images in a seemingly infinite 3D space was unheard of. Of course, to really appreciate it you had to know what imaging was, you had to be able to hear the harmonic structures, likely being revealed for the first time ever [they were to us], and you had to relax and trust that the system, rendering difficult notes, was going to do it correctly and so you could relax into the music in a way that isn’t possible with most [which is to say all but one or two] systems.

And this years sound, this year it was danceable, approachable, rocking, boogieable [well, it SHOULD be a real word]. Harmonics were lovelier this year, but not as nuanced or delicate. This year the sound was enjoyable, emotional, impressive. Last year it was OMFG. This year it was “Alive!”.

It is very, very much like Leonardo DaVinci versus Picasso. Leo [can I call him that? He ain’t here so…] paints with excruciatingly fine detail, it is amazing that someone could do that. It is more wonderful than real life photography. Picasso [and I speak only of his ink and brush paintings] uses a half-dozen strokes and makes a woman appear who is so evocative of a real actual person it is just amazing that someone could do that. It is more alive than most people are in ‘real life’.

I love both artist’s work – and the bizarre thing is that some people just like one or the other [yes, now we can put this into the context of some people liking our room this year more/less than the room last year]. I, personally, love both.

I think it is too simple to say that one is of the mind, and one of the body. Or right brain versus left brain. But I think it is indeed something like that. Just not that.

Anyway, since the mind and body [according to most people] cannot exist one without the other – we are now trying to build a hybrid system sound that is OMFG Alive!

And I think, I think we came really, really close the other evening – when Kevin, Neli and I ODIN’d up the system, with the Emm Labs XDS1, Audio Note S9, M9 and Gaku-Ons on the Coltrane Supremes. Horn-like dynamics and ceramic and diamond driver preciseness!

People at RMAF

These shows can be viewed as one big party [because that is what it is. But don’t tell anybody].

Not much drinking at these parties. [During the day, I mean. After hours people congregate in various rooms, crank up the tunes they REALLY want to listen to, and then try to talk to each other over the music… except for when everyone stops to listen]

During the day, people wander from room to room, running into friends, talking about what happened since the last time you saw them [often at the last show].

First person we run into each year seems to be Lou (Daedalus). We are unloading buddies: he is always unloading his vehicle about the same time as we [start] unloading ours. Daedalus has the suite right above us, and Lou likes to play the music loud, but the floors are so solid, we rarely ever hear them up there [except Saturday night. A little before midnight, I was uploading photos to the dailies, and Neli had gone to sleep, and the strains of either The Wall, or DSOTM, came wafting though the cement. Two of my favorite albums of All Time. My thought, at the time, silly me, was that he was going to get himself in trouble with the hotel management – and how cool it was that he was able to get away with this for as long as he did. (there is a 90dB rule at the show, which we certainly do not pay much attention to during the day, but… ].

Anyway, we get to know Lou better each year, and next we are invited to go upstairs and get falling down drunk and blast tunes. Not sure we will make it, but, well, maybe for one song. :-)

Next we see Ray Kimber and crew. In fact, we usually see him several times. We wave, we say hi. Ray tells us a joke. Ray, Ray says things with a straight face, and it could be a joke, it could be satire, it could be anything. Me, I do not know him too well, so, during conversations, I have to look at him several times, is several different ways, trying to figure out what is going on – is he serious, is he joking, is he asking me what I think… ? Ray is embarrassingly kind, but sometimes I must look like an idiot [hey, for you jokers out there, usually I hide it better than that].

This year we ran into Marjorie, the show’s organizer, before we had started unloading – and she looked amazingly calm for someone whose party for 3700 people plus 500 exhibitors was about to start in a day or so. I mean, she was calmer than Neli and I. With how well the show came off, and in bad times like these even, RMAF is going to be here for a long, long time. We also were greeted by the Tech Center Marriott director of conventions, or whatever, whose name I forget but who has been helpful several times in the past.

After we got our room set up [with only 3 working tubes we just warmed up one amp for several hours, then the other, back and forth], I set out to take photos of people setting up their rooms. I mean, I was curious about how they did it, and figured that many other people would be as well. Ray Kimber let me photograph their room, while showing me a tweak that was – I think – supposed to be both ironic [young people do not know that we had to rewind tapes – so the idea of rewinding CDs, to them, makes even less sense than it might to us olders] and humorous [audiophiles will buy anything if it has a chance of increasing their system’s performance]. Or is that satire?

Mike Latvis of HRS and Richard Vandersteen and several other guys were setting up room treatments – and I photographed them doing it. I asked them before hand – but no one was willing to speak for the group, so I snapped their photo anyway. Nobody has yelled at me yet, so… good.

Dan Meinwald [EAR, Marten, Jorma] had borrowed one of our wheeled carts and I was assigned the task [any husbands out there know what I mean] to retrieve it. There I met and photographed Dan and Joe Kubala [who is still irked at me for giving a negative report of his room at last years RMAF. You can look at the system and see what you think it would sound like, but the bizarre thing is that several ‘show reporters’ said it was great. But you all must know by now what I think of most of those guys – and this is supposed to be a fun post, so…].

Many of the people at the show were a little miffed [and I sugar coat it] at one person or another because of all the rapid change that is happening in our industry. Importers are dropping lines and/or having them ‘stolen’ like there is no tomorrow [and there may not be]. Manufacturers are dropping and adding dealers – trying to get a better balance.

But we did get to see several combinations of equipment that we have not seen before.

Everybody is really quite friendly – to me anyway. I am sure some do not like my show reports much, but usually I just get one exhibitor each year who tells me so [maybe he is elected spokesperson for the rest?]

I met several people for the first time. Rachel Zhang of Grant Fidelity was very nice and one of the most … entrepreneurially astute and upbeat people at the show. In a building full of entrepreneurs, and in this economy, that is saying something [one of the things I truly love about this industry is that 90-95% of the people are entrepreneurial. In the software industry, it is more like 5%]. I can see why Grant Fidelity has been taking off [and their room was a runner up for best of show – but I just didn’t have enough confidence because of my very short time there spent listening (sometimes I do not listen while taking photos, though I did listen SOME and it was quite musical)]

We met Ken, who posts on the blog sometimes. He and his friend were a blast – so much energy and passion and humor, what this hobby is all about. Tom Frederick [Performance Acoustics Labs] who is helping contaminate us with the ‘listening rooms need audiophile-grade acoustical treatment’ meme.

It was great seeing Thom and Joan (Galibier). Yes they live here but no, we hardly ever see them outside of shows. Sucks, because they are such fun people [and because they like Blows Against the Empire as much as I do], but we fill up life with things to do and then find it is oh so hard to stop doing any of those things even when life becomes overflowing with ‘things to do’. Their table, just by surviving all these years, becomes more and more mainstream [that’s a good thing, guys and gals. Audiophiles – they either want it hot off the presses, or it has to have been around for a decade or two].

We got to see Wes Bender [helping out in the Galibier room. Call us, Wes, when you get the chance], Daniel Barnum [after hours, a most enjoyable conversation], Steven Norber [of Edge. Great to see Steven – who needs to eat more chocolate :-) So everyone, send Steven chocolate. Kelly, his wife, I did not get to see this year. No wonder the show kinda sucked. Add the rest who were missing: Lawrence Blair (Avantgarde) and Jody (Uh. That’s OK. There are a lot of ‘uh’ affiliations this year) and Eli Gershman and his wife – and yeah, this show really sucked eggs. Oh, back to the list of who we did see…], Shahin [Emm Labs, great fun touring rooms with, though we only got to do 2 or so. Just remembering the expression on his face leaving some of the rooms – makes me crack up even now], Joe and Vin of Nordost [so kind of them to take a break to visit our room – and its been several shows now since Vin has been at one of these shows], and Neli got to see often different people, when I was out snapping photos and she was playing music.

Special thanks to Kevin – who helped Neli out in the room, especially on Sunday when Steve [also a special thanks] and I conquered floors 4 and 5.

Thanks also to Mario [Audio Note] for sharing some of his knowledge about how Audio Note has set up speakers in large rooms at other shows, and for being kind about the [albeit killer] non-Audio Note equipment.

Thanks to Fred Crowder and Paul for helping lend two sets of ears on the first day of setup. Even though we later changed the setup radically [to engage the room more – mostly to counter-balance the presumed expectation that these small speakers would sound small. They. Did. Not.] , there was some aspects of the sound of this first setup that were more… audiophile-like(?). It lent a great deal of confidence that we could do pretty darn good sound in that large room with those small 2-way speakers. We relied on that confidence when we later moved the speakers closer and closer to the corners, eventually ending up there.

Oh, and the Ray Lombardi (ex Audio Note distributor) and Rob King (ex Colorado Springs dealer) duo were apparently AWOL (:-)) this year, but I did get to chat with Darrin and his dad Gene a few times (Audio Limits dealers in Colorado Springs) and Bill Parish (GTT Audio), which I always enjoy.

And, finally, thanks to all our friends for stopping by. Too many to name [and excruciatingly embarrassing if I forget somebody – which is a serious risk in this post already]

Kind of almost finsihed with RMAF Show Report 2009

Should go back and add links to manufacturers for the first 75 rooms or so. Ugh.

1800 pages. Do I dread CES 2010? Yes I do [I’m sure I will feel better, and more forgetful and stupidly trigger happy, by the time it actually gets here. Always do]

Curious about what people think of the comment-free pictures in one place and the comments on the sound here, in another. The idea is to try this for a year or so. It will only work if we can get the manufacturers and exhibitors to participate more – and if enough time goes by and they are still not interested then we have lots and lots of other ideas. But at this point I think that this approach is a much truer ideal if we want to bring the show to all youze people who could not make it [and all those who attended but could not make it to each room].

The next issue will have a ‘Most Photogenic of RMAF’ where I will get to post my favorite photos in full-window wall-to-wall format.

We will also be covering the Vietnam Hiend Show 2009, and introducing another writer or two.