News of the Week

A lot of unrated bits and pieces.

Apparently Hi-Fi+

was in dire straits when it was purchased.

Besides that nugget, 98% of what goes on Audio Asylum is bickering. So, yeah, nothing new there.

Mike (me) is miffed

that 1/2 of the hallway A on the 29th floor of the large photos section of the CES report was missing the photos and commentary and no one (NO ONE) told him (me). πŸ˜‰

I have been listening

to a hip-hop radio station and it is great. Well, except for the repeating of about 10 songs over and over (not kidding) and the SHOUTING at me between songs to buy stuff, or, as often as not, telling me HOW GREAT they are that they are not running a commercial that particular moment.

But they play the Hip Hop’s that is a blend of techno (electronics), disco (it has a beat), rap (one can understand the words and they use a lot of slang) and soul (it is not angry like rap, instead it is more like love songs and good times). Anyway, sometimes it is nice for a pick-me-up, and then switching to the classical station at the first commercial to balance out the hormones and minimize the speeding ticket income of the local police.

Let’s see.

The Kegon Balanced

amps kick butt. They control the Kharmas like nothing else I have heard. I just sit there and listen to them and it is so fun, switching between the glory of the harmonic structure and the beauty of the music and the impressiveness of he control.

Solid state amps on the Kharmas, and probably on everything, can be likened to SHOUTING [I know, twice in one post with the all caps shouting. What is with that?] when they get loud. The drive the speaker by punishing it. By throwing watts at it. But a great tube amp drives it by controlling it with an iron fist.

I am not saying that solidstate amps don;t have their place. Sometimes we want to punish the senses, to push them aggressively. After work, sometimes we might want to let off some steam, or to get a little rowdy.

Kind of like a couple of shots of tequila versus a glass of fine wine. I’ve enjoyed both [and now enjoy neither] and it is great that music, and our systems, can be tailored to suit our every mood and desire… πŸ˜‰

Danny Kaey reviews

the Audi car stereo over on sonicflare. This is probably a step above the one in my Audi S8, even though I had it replaced about 6 months ago [a pushbutton on the dash had fallen off, so they replaced the whole unit. Ah, German engineering. You have to love it. You have to wonder why.]. As I get older [yes, it happens here at Audio Federation too, darn it] I wouldn’t mind taking a look at that A8 V12. But just a look, mind you. A good… long…. look.

Oh, the stereo is decent. It is well-balanced, top to bottom for what it has to work with. A little tipped up [or more like pumped up, the port frequency of the door?] in the bass to counter the bass of the wheels on the road. I don’t listen to XM or Sirius – which needs like a tube radio or something to be moire than just bearable, it is so bright and neutral sounding [aka DIGITAL]. The stereo, for me, is better than the ones in the less expensive Audis and was way better than the Levinson in the Lexus, the Levinson being worse than the cheaper Bose in the Lexus. So, the Audi Bose system is nice, but no great shakes… it is not audiophile, IMHO.

How to Make a Successful Show System

Looking at the the rooms that sounded good at this years 2008 CES show, one might wonder, if one has the time to wonder about things, if there are any commonalities between the rooms that sounded musical [by which we mean a system that is engaging and has an audiophile performance commensurate with the price].

But, looking at the rooms…

We CAN say that a lot of old wives tales [just who WERE those old wives, anyway?] and rules of thumb are not really rules that people should be paying a whole lot of attention to.

For example:

* Always use small speakers in a small room, and big speakers in a big room.

But the huge Evolution Acoustics speakers sounded just fine thank you in a tiny room, and the Classic Audio Productions horn speakers sounded darn good in the Atma-sphere room, and similarly the Hansens [though this year they did bring a somewhat smaller speaker]. Now, mind you, they didn’t try and turn the systems all The WAy UP – not while I was there – and I am sure they could overload the room just fine. But that capability can also be a real plus when you think about certain genres of music that can use a little volume. On the other hand, the Cessaro speakers in the Zanden room did feel a little too large – that the room was impacting too much on the music.

It seems much more true that small speakers in a large room do not fill the room satisfactorily – though the little Magicos can do well [you just need to drive the poop out of them] and many small speakers in the best of show rooms filled their side of the room quite nicely indeed.

OK, what other rules can we throw away πŸ™‚

* It costs a lot of money to make a great sounding system

This one is easy. It takes a lot of money to make a great PERFORMING system, one that is at the leading edge of humanity’s ability to reproduce music, one that has all of the audiophile attributes associated with the ‘high-end’. But if someone just wants to enjoy listening to music on a system that sounds good – that is not embarrassingly offensive – that was not built by people just trying to put out product without any thought to the performance that CAN be achieved at their asking price – then this is possible at all price points.

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And then there are rules that do seem to always apply [it is so like life to have some rules that work and some that are more flaky].

* Its hard to make a system sound good when the source equipment is severely compromised with respect to the rest of the equipment.

Many rooms had problems associated with source equipment that was almost an insult to the listeners – almost a ‘no one cares about how it is going to sound’ attitude. They used everything from DVD players to CD carousel players to iPods to laptops with cheap soundcards. EEEEwwwwww!!! They sounded… how shall we put it…. severely compromised.

This rule really is: Source components won’t Make a system, but they Can break it.

* Things like cables, equipment racks, power cords, etc. rarely make or break a system.

These are really ways to refine a system and get the most out of it as one can. But at a show – this level of attention to detail is appreciated, but systems can sound good at shows with cables and racks that we would not be caught dead using here.

* It is the amp / speaker combo that determines in large part what the system will sound like. This is what Makes a system.

If this ain’t right – well, might as well go home. Luckily a lot of combinations do work.

Sure would be nice though for some exhibitors to realize that their combo does Not work and try something different one of these years.

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Shows are one great laboratory where one has a lot of experiments running at once – about 233+ of them.

OK, I’ll add to this list if we come up with some more lessons learned. A lot of the lessons have to do with training the ear – learning how things sound… low efficiency speakers, different kinds of solid-state amps, different kinds of speaker cabinets, different kinds of cables and… on and on.

The thing, for me, at this years show was being able to tell if the exhibitors paid attention to the details of system configuration. No, I probably couldn’t do this blind, but with the help of looking at a system, I think I can now hear how there are fewer problems in some systems, that they played with things enough, optimized things to a point where a lot of the things wrong with other people’s systems – things that one just accepts at a show like room problems, vibration-induced congestion, etc. were reduced quite a bit if the exhibitors spent some time on system setup.

Again, this didn’t Make or Break the system, perhaps, not going to turn a sleeper system into a Standout, but it did make the systems more enjoyable – and more likely to get on the Best of Show list when perhaps otherwise they would otherwise just be mediocre and kind of annoying.

CES 2008: Ear to the Grindstone

One of the questions we get asked a lot by people is “Did we hear anything great” that they should know about… that might affect their purchase plans over the next few system upgrades.

Thinking back to other shows, we, like most audiophiles we talk to, only find a couple or three things we think change the high-end landscape at each show.

On the plus side we have

Amps:


the $139K Lamm ML3 and the $85K Audio Note U.K. Kegon Balanced. There are now two more ultra-fidelity amps added to what is still only a handful of ultra-fidelity tube amps.

Since these two brands, which we happily carry and use on a day to day basis in multiple systems [:-)], already had most if not all of the amps in this category to start with [Kondo is great, but their purpose is very different, and somewhat inaccessible to the American taste] – they have just solidified their reputation even more.

And, with the proliferation of so many newcomers, with amps from $30K to the sky, having brands with a reputation for building world-renowned amps for more than a few months should appeal the the buyer who wants to get their monies worth.

What does this mean for people with, uh, restraint? While the Kegon Balanced is like a 300B Gaku-On [the Gaku-On uses 211 tubes], Audio Note does use lots of the same technology in their new P4 Balanced [which is MUCH less expensive – the exact price of which is waiting on us to finish staring in horror at the British pound / U.S. dollar charts].

It is very unlikely that Lamm will come out with a ML2Prime or something between the ML2.1 and ML3 [unless everybody clamors for it – and even then, likely not] but the ML3 does increase the worthiness and renown of the brand [not that they needed it – so this is not major].

Speakers

Let’s just go through them quickly and see which ones merit further discussion vis-a-vis people changing their buying decisions [as opposed to being pleasantly surprised that their previous choice is now sounding better than ever]. The $45K or so Audio Note AN/E SEC Signature now with high-efficiency hemp driver and high-resolution AlNiCo tweeter, The $16?K Classic Audio Reproductions with Field Coil midrange, … well, then we have the usual suspects: Hansen, EPOS, Audio Machina, Sunny Cable.

But new this year we have the Cessaro in the Zanden room [first time at a U.S. show], and new Kharma, Marten, Acoustic Zen speakers [are they trying to drive us nuts?]

For Kharma the new 3.2.2 [introduced at RMAF] and the new Galileo Exquisite [maybe I now will learn how to spell Galileo] make those who had the decision to make between going with the smaller 3.2 and the larger Midi Exquisite much more difficult – which these two speakers filling in that gap. For prospective Marten purchases – the new Form series competes with their Miles III [choose Form’s if you prefer lively and forgiving over accuracy and transparency, is the way I look at it]. And Acoustic Zen, with their new six foot tall statement speakers [I think these are still in prototype – but they sound ready to me and they are full range and somewhat forgiving].


The Cessaro – it is so much easier to talk about things we don’t sell, mostly because I want to be completely accurate about the pluses and minuses about the things we DO sell, and the things we don’t… well, I can just give kind of a general recommendation – that it ‘looks good’ at first blush [or second or whatever]. So, uh, yeah, the Cessaro horn speakers sounded good within the constraints of a room that had giant speakers and no room treatment. The highs were pure, the midrange was decent and the bass was attached and not under- or overwhelming – very much that ‘big horn sound’ done correctly, to my way of thinking, so that it sounds like the music other speakers make, just bigger and more relaxed and more dynamic. To be explicit: these sounded a lot like Acapella speakers – the sound quality [and appearance :-)] of this particular pair roughly falling between their Campanile and Triolon models. I say roughly because I only heard a few songs here – it was just a first blush.

Cables?

We are still staggering under the blow that the Nordost ODIN has delivered to our expectations of what cables can do. Specifically the interconnects. They rock.

Turntables?

Well, besides the Audio Note TT3 Reference [which we will post LOTS about over time here], the other tables I did not hear – and many I did not see. The big Transroter – seen and not heard. The, geez I do not know their names off the top of my head – the table in the Sanders room and the one on the 7th floor of the Venetian with a granite platter – I did not even see, much less hear [so the names won’t do me any good anyway].

On the minus side, we have


1. the commoditization of what was the hallowed [by some, admit it] Continuum turntable. Being heard, as it was, in so many systems, and many that were not WOW systems, the hype bubble surrounding the Continuum has leaked a little of that hot air.

2. the proliferation of new expensive amps and speakers from companies, new and old, that have never built one of these things before – and whose core competency, whether it be cables or whatever, is being neglected with respect to advances that one might imagine [or not] they could be making instead.

What does this mean? More choices and more confusion for the consumer. The beginning of the end of a number of companies [well, it does portend big problems in other industries, anyway, usually to do with money squandered and focused competition grabbing market share].

3. The [growing?] disrespect some exhibitors have for the sound. Maybe it is just more obvious now. But with iPods and sound cards and laptops and cobbled together media servers going into so-so DACs – many exhibitors just did not care if the megabuck things they were supposedly trying to get dealers to sell sounded good or not.

4. In a similar vein – the media server craze. The number of media servers in the prototype stage at CES was amazing.

In the early days of the PC, say 83 to 95, it was obvious that the PC would kill workstations. So some people used the PC [DOS and Windows] to do their work for all those years, even though it was inferior [and still is to some degree]. People may not remember, but there was a Win286, Win386, Windows 3.0, 3.1 and finally 95 that almost really worked for the first time. I know because I was one of those people and I own all of these.

Again, we have high-end audio companies spending their research dollar on this stuff – instead of better sound – when at the end of the day, Amazon, for example, can just keep your music server on the net for you, never any risk of hard disk failure, available at your friends house, in your car, on your cell phone, wherever – and you just have to click on ‘buy’ to have any track or CD added to your server instantly. All these hardwired incompatible GUIs, having to manage a physical CD or inferior MP3, worrying about format changes as they improve download speeds and the MP3 format… it will all be done for us. But hey, maybe one of these companies will beat Amazon and Microsoft and Apple – I certainly would be over-joyed to see it. But…

Hope all this was more or less in English – cause I need to boogie. I’ll re-read it later. Or get Neli to do it πŸ™‚

[Oh, but I should add photos too…]