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Positive Feedback ISSUE
THE N.Y. '05 HOME ENTERTAINMENT SHOW
As I got on an elevator the first day of the Home Entertainment show at New York's mid-town Hilton Hotel, I noticed some guy staring at my identification tag, as if I were a babe with an amazing rack. I nodded and smiled a show of non-combativeness. He said, "At least ‘The Truth-Tellers' are here." Now I come from a whole family of native ironic speakers who never mean exactly what they say, nor say exactly what they mean. It depends on how they say it: like, "Luh-ove your tie" means "Where'd you find that tasteless atrocity?" You know how it goes. When an Angeleno says, "Have a nice day," it means, "Go fuck yourself." When a New Yorker says, "Go Fuck Yourself," it means, "Have a nice day." That type of ambiguity made me a bit apprehensive about how many levels of irony were at play in his greeting. I asked, "How do you mean that?" He answered, "A lot of audio journalists are @#!$%^&* liars." I'm a great advocate of first amendment freedoms, and when he spoke with such emotionally charged machine-gun rapidity of language that nearly made me blush, I concluded he was serious as a dose of the clap. I'll try to live up to his judgment, as an individual truth-teller and as a representative of Positive Feedback Online, in what follows. I'd like to emphasize these are only my impressions of the show.
[By the way, one recent summer, at a lobster restaurant in Maine with Corno de Bassetto and our wives, we overheard an interesting exchange when a dispute arose over service and tipping. A young waiter felt a customer's gratuity was inappropriate to the amount of service rendered. The older gentleman, nattily dressed and topped by a Panama straw hat, said he felt he was kept waiting, then given short-shrift. The youngster had the temerity to avoid the old axiom, "The customer is always right," and raised his voice. The older gentleman, already publicly embarrassed, and with nothing more to lose, raised his voice and said, "You want a tip?? I'll give you one. ‘Avoid the clap!'" The youngster, not disingenuously, queried, "What's ‘The Clap?'" My memory often gets things jumbled. Could I have been the churlish gentleman who answered? "A gonorrhea infection, you putz." That's for those of you who are too young to know about the clap to figure out.]
My first impression was how much smaller the HE Show was compared with, say, three years ago, even two years ago. There were far fewer of the industry's big players exhibiting. No Sony, no Technics, no Monster, no Linn, no large record labels. There were fewer presentations from (what YOE David Robinson terms) "fine audio" firms. No Rives, no Epiphany, no Pipe Dreams, no Quad, no Krell, no ClearAudio, no Lowther, no Grado. No Blue-Ray Demo's, not much SACD multi-channel, not much DVD-A multi-channel. (So much for the long awaited price war.) Compared with recent years, whole floors seemed missing, and I wondered what was holding the hotel upright. Dr. Gizmo's absence was felt in increasingly distant pangs. Nothing hurled me into the slough of despond, but I must admit to moments of mild sadness when I thought about it. An industry adrift? That's my overall impression, unless I'm forced to focus on Home Theater.
There were no signs, like One-Way arrows, pointing to a new direction → the audio industry is aiming toward, like last year's, → BACK TO THE FUTURE. There were little clusters of activity: experiments with new speaker materials, new cable material, fancy DACs, and such. For example, there is a flurry of interest about Jeff Smith's insanely expensive Palladium alloy cables ($4k/meter for interconnects?), of which one veteran reviewer who has auditioned them in his home said something to the effect of, "There is more there, there." I take that to mean there is more resolution of fine detail, more ease with loud climaxes. Another guy, a retailer whose speaker taste runs toward mellow Harbeths, whose ears I trust equally well, says; "Palladium cables seem to have a little too much midrange glare for me." Before the final West Coast precincts are counted, I'll venture this fence-sitting cop-out: "It's too soon to tell." And for those of you who believe in such counts, Socrates once said (words to the effect of), "Max, is TRUTH subject to a vote?"
But someone has written somewhere (The Merck Manual?) that the electrical conductivity of Palladium (Atomic number 46: "a silver-white ductile malleable metallic element of the platinum group that is used esp. in electrical contacts." Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary) is twenty-five times that of Silver, or about fifty times the conductivity of Copper—no matter how many nines. I'd hazard the comment, "It is still metal," and all metal audio cables and interconnects are still subject to the vagaries of metallurgy (signal passing noise within the metal crystals themselves), physical chemistry (dielectrical absorption co-efficient of insulation), geometry (rope lay or other lossy configuration of the windings), skin effect (time smearing due to time of arrival variability due to fewer collisions on the surface compared with the center of a metal filament), further time smearing due to ratio of thin and thick filaments, cable susceptibility to EMI and RFI signals, ground loops, etc., none of which affect fiber-optic cables. Gentlemen: Choose your colorations! http://www.harmonictech.com, or http://www.silversmithaudio.com.
I met, in my wanderings around the show, some Pos-Feed readers who delighted in reminding me that my enthusiasm for fiber-optic connector cables was not universal, that some audiophiles didn't fall head-over-heels in love with Harmonic Technology's CyberLights. These reminders were offered either by metal cable manufacturers, or distributors of metal cables. If fiber-optics are used by the military and NASA, where appropriate, I'll say they're pretty good, and they have some credibility for being reliable and doing right at least the minimal things (like Jacks or better to open). In my opinion, metal cables force the audiophile into the unenviable position of choosing the lesser of evil colorations. Or viewed inversely, they offer the deep pocketed audiophile the trial and error luxury of effectively post-production equalizing (or voicing) his system. I don't think too many folks would disagree.
To my ear, fiber-optic cables more nearly match the ideal of coloration-free cables. I can see how some auditioners would feel CyberLights were lacking. They are lacking in colorations. There is talk of an after-market power-supply in the pipeline, designed especially for CyberLights, that will give the cables more shimmer, and more zotz, (that's more startlability and robustness). As a rule, regarding capacitance—the more the merrier. I have requested one such power supply for review, but as yet my request has gone unanswered. Meanwhile, I will call on Silversmith for a set of Palladium cables for review. The clash of the Titans: Fiber-Optics versus Palladium, King Kong versus Godzilla. Well, you have my prejudices out-front in this public forum. I realize I may be mistaken, yet again, and that could put me in strange company. A generation ago, inside-the-beltway-wags said of Vice President Spiro Agnew, "He only opened his mouth to change feet." My headstone epitaph may yet read: "Max Dudious: He only opened his mouth to eat his own words." Audio makes strange bedfellows.
This year, manufacturers seemed eager to experiment with what is often termed "materials research." Like, theoretically, what substance would make the best tweeter? mid-range? woofer? It seems we've been locked-in to convex fabric domes (treated with various substances) as tweeters and mid-ranges for some time, though the limitations have been known for a while. Hemispherical fabric domes become misshapen at certain specific frequencies where they produce their own audio distortions. The Vifa ring-radiator, with its center pole piece diffuser, and its pleat and roll topology, has improved performance a noticeable notch with what is essentially a clever, if minor, variation on the standard hemispherical dome, fabric tweeter. I say "minor" because, though its configuration is new, its shape is related to a dome, and it still uses the same materials. It is cost effective, and a major step up in performance, most audiophiles agree. Enough so that a handful of speaker manufacturers are using variations on the ring-radiator tweeter in their top-of-the-line speakers. It is pretty terrific.
Suppose we could form Beryllium (atomic number 4) into a concave dome tweeter; wouldn't that be a major development? a change in materials? an obvious improvement in performance? It has proven so for the Focal Corporation. How about vapor-deposited carbon (atomic number 6) particles under heat and pressure shaped into a one-inch concave-dome tweeter? Wouldn't that be a major development? a change in materials? a major improvement? The "diamond-tweeter" has likewise proven so for Kharma speakers. Recently, Kharma has ventured to tie its tweeter to Diamond's coat-tails, cost be damned.
Diamond in this configuration is relatively light, nearly maximally rigid, and has an exemplary heat dispersion characteristic. I think their concave dome may be all one molecularly interlocked carbon lattice structure—like a miniaturized Buckminster Fuller dome—only a tad heavier than toxic Beryllium. The design goal was to make a small, light, loud, rigid, heat resistant tweeter, with previously un-imagined structural integrity (no break-up with resonant frequency or hellacious volume). Whichever way it is manufactured (I'm not an engineer, so I apologize for any errors here) the "diamond tweeter" sounds pretty damn clean. Clean as I've heard, and at $20,000/pr. at retail, it ought to sound as amazing as it does. God only really knows (GORK) what the cost of production might be. Kharma must sub-contract for the manufacture of the domes, because the capital outlay for a lab to make only such an item would be too much for most speaker manufacturers. But if the "diamond tweeter" is already here at $20,000/pr., can an industrial sapphire model at 90% (or more) reduced price be far behind? That might prove good enough for me.
Similarly, the ceramic midrange. We've known for some time that porcelain is a good insulator and has a strength-weight characteristic that makes it good for high-tension electrical lines. It is said that it would also be an excellent (lighter) substitute for cast-iron automotive engine blocks, perhaps with steel cylinder liners. Again, excellent strength/weight ratio, excellent heat dispersion characteristics—that's why amplifier manufacturers chirp proudly when they feature ceramic tube sockets. What would happen if we could cast midrange drivers out of ceramic materials? Could we get it light and delicate enough to be fast? Shapable and strong enough to maximize its structural integrity? Rigid enough to retain pistonic behavior without distorting while in use? Sonically inert enough to be coloration free? Amenable to laser-trimming for uniformity and tuning? Apparently so.
Again, the engineers at Kharma have made a fast, clean, loud, seven inch mid-range they claim is a nearly perfect match for their "diamond tweeter." For now, the price is cheap when compared to what a "diamond mid-range" would have to cost; but high, at $750@, when compared to fabric dome models. That "high price" is true of all technologies when new materials are employed. Do you remember when the first quartz crystal watch movements were introduced? They were expensive. Today we can get a quartz crystal wristwatch for twenty bucks that will keep excellent time, and a wristwatch tuned to the Atomic Clock's beamed wavelength, which promises accuracy to one second per century (and they're working to improve that), for a hundred bucks. Obviously, even industrial quality sapphire will be expensive compared to fabric dome tweeters, but mass production usually leads to impressive reduction in costs. Diamond-coated saws and drill-bits used to be prohibitively expensive for weekend warriors, but are now available at Home Depot® for prices you and I can afford. I guess others will embrace the new direction of materials and begin using diamond for tweeters that are lighter, stronger, faster than anything in use now, and thinner than a sheet of computer paper. Meanwhile Sapphire waits demurely, but seductively, for her day in the sun.
I think the materials revolution will create a vogue for ceramic mid-range drivers that are light, fast, strong, good heat dissipaters, and relatively free of coloration. YOE David Robinson has already reported on Kharma's Ceramique speaker with most favorable impressions. Fellow cheapskates: Our day will come, as it has with quality time-pieces, and diamond coated drill-bits. I can see clearly now the day when such drivers will become cheaper and more generally available. I can see no obstacles in their way. What with their Kevlar-cone/Kaptan-voice coil woofers, the rain has gone, and Kharma is leading the field in "Materials Research," most of which goes on in Amsterdam. Even in usually dreary Holland, sound-wise, I can see a fine, bright, sunshiney day. I really appreciate firms that expand the envelope of the accepted audio wisdom. I hope to get a pair of Kharmas in for review to see how they sound with my gear in my room. For more information, see the Kharma website at http://www.kharma.com.
The next thing I can report on that gave me a smile is Mark Levinson's, er, um; rather Red Rose Music's, er, um; actually the Daniel Hertz Advanced Audio Designs outfit: distributors of the new, Dick Burwen designed Burwen Bobcat software/DAC/package system that, in Dick Burwen's words, "is good at turning grungy high frequencies into music, making it sound smoother, fuller, with extended bass, and easy on the ears. It is not designed to remove ticks and pops, hiss, or any other type of noise.” Clearly Daniel Hertz hopes it has the potential to become as universal as Dolby's compensation system was in the era of cassette tape's heyday. I'm not sure that it will happen, because there is many a slip ‘tween cup and lip: but I can see the possibility of how it might. Of course, I can see the possibility that with the industry's technological volatility and political turbulence, such a software/DAC/package could be made obsolete with a chip-set. But franchise arrangements, like the one Dolby offered, could be established for such a software/DAC/package, even as a software/chipset, or an optional board to be installed in a computer. An option for personal computers? For top-of-the-line CD players? That is for the industry to work out. Right now, the price looks prohibitive for all but the most diehard techno-freaks, one of which I may be becoming. But, large scale production pulls prices down. So...
Imagine this: There is a software/DAC/package out there that can allow us music heads to correct many of the badly engineered early CDs. Such a device could take digital data and "dry-clean" it. Or, in connection with some other hardware, take analog and convert it to digital, where through the Burwen Bobcat (depending on how you want it to sound) it would be subjected to one of a menu of algorithms while in the digital domain, then convert it back to analog for playback. That's what this device can do. That would allow the user to process, actually re-master his favorite LP albums, remove the grunge of wear, even expand the sound stage, and then write them onto blank CD-Ws with this Burwen Bobcat software/DAC (digital to analog converter) connected to a moderately capable computer. I say a "moderate" computer to differentiate from anything approaching a "state-of-the-art" personal computer rig.
This "dry-cleaning" of old music would make for large scale savings on archival treatment of our favorite old LPs, enough so at about $15/CD, the Burwen Bobcat would pay for itself with about its first 100 copies, at $1500 retail—if my old math serves me well. If you have numerous CDs and mp3 files (and you want to compute your cost per unit) divide that number into $1500 and you probably will find the the cost comes down to pennies or dimes per CD or MP3 file. And that would be with the first generation outboard DAC. I'm sure before the general public gets this product at prices resembling an inboard Dolby tape processor, a lot of audio hobbyists will want one, and be willing to pay for the DAC and its controlling software package. I see this product as filling a need that has existed since the advent of the CD. [This product fills a much needed gap in the audio hardware store shelf?!?] It sounded real nice at the show, and I'm hoping to get one of these little Bobcat kittens in for a full review, with my gear in my room, A/B testing processed vs. unprocessed LPs and CDs. I am sanguine with optimism. I am purple with hues reflecting off my prose. See their website at www.danielhertz.com, or www.redrosemusic.com.
Some other firms that are not such household names as the above also impressed me. Silverline Audio Technology's Alan Yun was displaying some very nice sounding triode amps of Alan's design, and a wonderful three-way Bolero loudspeaker ($8500/pr.) utilizing Dynaudio drivers that I thought was as good as I've heard for a three way (overcoming a terrible room), lately. There is something magical about those drivers being driven by tubes that I find particularly appealing. Silverline's solution to the mid-range was to cross its woofer high, and its tweeter low, using gentle 6dB slopes, giving the mid-range the function of gently blending the higher and lower drivers through a small window of opportunity. As a solution to a technical problem, it works well. I suspect the amps have a lot to do with how the whole system sounded, which was excellent. See http://www.silverlineaudio.com for more info on other models and pricing.
Jim Thompson was also displaying a fine two-way loudspeaker, the Fontaine II of the EgglestonWorks line at $5500 per pair, also with an extra-ordinarily lifelike midrange. Don't get me wrong; the highs and lows were excellent as well. But the mid-range, where most of the music goes on, was very striking. Like Silverline's speaker, the Eggelston uses the Dynaudio tweeter, but uses doubled Morel 6.5 inch mid-woofs, transmission line loaded, which allow them to carry the bulk of the music—with significant response down to 41Hz. This design keeps the mid-woof and the tweeter, theoretically, well within their comfort zones. It also allows this mid-woof, one of my favorites, to show its stuff, which is worth a peek. This is another example of a well-conceived, well-executed loudspeaker that rewards the listener with excellent sound. See their website at http://www.egglestonworks.com for more information on other models and pricing.
I'm always interested in what Art Almstead is doing at Twisted Pair Design, a small cable company in upstate New York. Art is one of the industry's good guys, and he's usually one of the guys who are pushing the envelope in subtle ways, typically by trying to get an edge by doing a better job of engineering, and/or keeping down his cost to the public by keeping down his advertising costs. I think he succeeds. If you are interested in getting good value for money, rather than prestige for money spent, get in touch with Art at his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tetra Speakers was showing their 305 Model, a tweeter plus 4.5" woofer two-way with a rear firing port for $3450/pair. This small footprint speaker seems to have been designed with the smaller room in mind, and had guys looking behind the curtains for the non-existent sub-woofer. The bass from such a small woofer was prodigious and got down to the low 40 Hz range. It did a pretty good job on rock and roll, but I didn't hear it do full orchestral works. People who liked it, loved it. Another "good-job" from designer Adrian Butts. See about this line at Adrian's web site, http://www.tetraspeakers.com.
Long time modifier George Kaye was present with his hybrid tube/transistor amplifier, a 200 Watts per channel Model 401 sweetie from his new firm, Moscode. This is a well built, premium parts piece, the result of over a decade of perfecting this design with features too numerous to list here. In common with many tube amps, the owner can "voice" the amp according to room and taste by switching tube sets in the front end from among eight commonly available. At $5000 the Moscode 401 could be called "the poor man's Lamm." (And that's a compliment to both amps.) Anyway, that's the way it sounded to me. Check it out at http://www.moscode.com.
As usual, I had fun chatting with David Chesky about music and recordings. He can be a lot of fun, when he's not being sardonic. He makes fun of me, ironically calling me "hip Dude" with a sneer I probably deserve. Amanda Sweet keeps me informed of the doings at Telarc, with a smile I probably don't deserve, while she tended their booth. She kept up a knowledgeable discussion with me while charming three or four customers into buying Telarc CDs. A valuable bit of woman-power she is, probably worthy of higher placement within the Telarc bureaucracy. And running into other Pos-Feeders I'd only met in cyberspace was cool. Marshall Nack and I discussed symphonic hall acoustics and Bob Levy and I discussed (...what else?) cables.
All in all, it was a good (if smaller) show. I learned as much as I could assimilate. But I'm glad I don't have to go around the country, Europe, Hong Kong, doing such shows. It would run me into the ground.
That's it from the Chesapeake, where the season is rounding into its most glorious form at nearby Sherwood Gardens. Go to Google and type in the box the words "Sherwood Gardens, Baltimore." Then find http://www.pbase.com/333/sherwood_gardens and click on.
I'm the guy scratching his back on the tree in one of the group shots.