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The State of the High End Audio Show

06-05-2017 | By Jeremy Kipnis | Issue 91

High End Audio Show

Jeremy R. Kipnis & Bob Carver at New York Audio Show - Nov. 2016

As a teenager of 17, I was introduced to CES: The Winter Consumer Electronics Show by a close engineering and audiophile friend, Richard Mintel. Back then, this monumental event, taking place in Las Vegas from January 6-9, 1983 sprawled countless hotels across the strip and beyond, featured tens-of-thousands of brands and dealerships, and defined the cutting edge for all NEW product rollouts all over the world. I was particularly interested (as you might guess) in the Audio & Video offerings, which for the very first time would feature the Compact Disc; this was also the first time a consumer digital audio device was being offered for use in the home. Trying to get a listen to the Sony CDP-101 & Philips CD100 in demonstration (at two different locations—miles from each other) was both annoying and difficult in the huge ballrooms purchased by Sony & Philips (among others)—the co-creators of CD.

What struck me as I sat there in row 10 of 250 (towards the middle) was the disparate nature of in-home audio being demonstrated under such huge and unfamiliar circumstances. Between the size of the rooms and all the people around me, I just couldn't figure out what I was hearing. Sure it sounded noise free, with no hiss or pops/ticks—the familiar distortions when listening to analog tape and LP records of the time. And the dynamic and frequency ranges were impressive (almost freighting) coming from the enormous B&W 800 loudspeakers at the front of the room. But this listening environment had nothing to do with our living room or anyone's for that matter, and it was impossible (anywhere) at such a large show to go find a more intimate demo without having to wait online for hours. High-End listening this was not!

Of course, I attended many more shows between that first one and now, and I remember in particular the first New York Audio Show I attended in Spring of 1990 at the New York City Hilton. This was vastly smaller than CES, taking up but five floors of the one hotel plus some ballrooms and the promenade. And as populated and packed as it was on that weekend (and always has been ever since), it was actually possible to get into the "Sweet Spot" of any particular room or exhibit and even to be allowed to play a track or two from a CD one had brought with them! For me, this is as close to heaven as an audio show is going to get: a reasonable number of exhibitors and rooms carefully considered; all concentrating particularly on the high-end audio segment of the market and music as the core of that experience.

TAD Beryllium Speakers with Niro Nakamichi Amps – T.H.E. SHOW NYC July 2007

At this particular 1990 New York Home Entertainment Show (produced by Stereophile Magazine, and later to become T.H.E SHOW), I got to meet Dan D'Agostino for the first time (then CEO & Designer at Krell) and to play a fantastic stereo performance of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky with Leopold Stokowski conducting (Music & Arts CD – transferred from the 1st generation original analog master). And hearing this familiar live 1970 performance replayed on his $125,000 demo system consisting of Krell KSA-250 amps powering Martin Logan CLS Monolith Speakers was absolutely flooring. Here I was able to distinguish things in the recording and performance that had been previously obscured but were now obvious, for the first time, here on this system. I thought, "Isn't this amazing how so much musical and audio information can be hidden in the same CD!" Here was the whole purpose of high-end audio, neatly made available to me (and without judgment from leering audio sales people) for less than $1 per room at full ticket price.

You should have seen the look on my face when I came around back of Gail Sanders' CLS speakers to see Noel Lee's Monster Cable M2 Sigma Speaker Cables… "Hoses instead of wires." I thought. "How much?" $2000 per meter! Too rich for my blood… but it did get me to go borrow some older M1 from my local Take 5 Audio dealership (in New Haven, Connecticut - USA) and eventually buy them—I still own and use them in my many review systems to this day. And it is a testament to any gear, wire, stands, or tweaks (if I am still using them today) that they first caught my attention at one of these small show demonstrations where the manufacturer was on-hand to ask questions directly.

Naturally, the perceived success of any particular show is often measured in terms of attendance figures and dealer participation. This has often led me to shows in the last 27 years that are simply unpleasant for a variety of reasons. The first is elevator—always crowded or waiting. Then there is the fact that high-end audio shows inherently involve (for me) listening to gear in hopes of reaching that ultimate level of transparency and musicality. Even when I couldn't afford to own that truly mega expensive premium audio gear, I still wanted to listen to it for myself; bring it to life off the pages of the audio magazines I loved: Stereophile, Audio, The Absolute Sound, High Fidelity, Fi, etc. I learned all about brands like Threshold, Audio Research, Theta, Goldmund, Infinity, Cardas, AudioQuest… now legendary names in high-end audio. But one can hardly hear oneself think sometimes because the rooms are too hot and crowded; it's enough to cause a panic, at times.

Scaena Speakers & Plinus Amps at The New York Audio Show 2006

There was also another aspect about smaller shows that had not crossed my mind until this time; having the opportunity of meeting the people that make the recordings I listened to (and eventually would work alongside, in many cases). I've been going to recording sessions thanks to my father (Igor Kipnis – harpsichordist, pianist) beginning as early as 1969, when I was four, and was lucky enough to get tutored early on in the function and use of microphones, mixing, speakers, tape recorders, etc. from Grammy winning producers and engineers (like Carson Taylor – EMI/Angel & Paul Meyers – London/Decca). But this is a rare occasion in any case, not a daily affair, and since everyone is working, there are only limited opportunities to ask questions; questions like: What microphone(s) are you using? How were they arrayed around the musicians in your earlier award winning recordings? Why did you choose those tunes and were there any songs left on the cutting room floor? Can you explain why you use analog tape to record or 128x over-sampling for digital?

Only at the smaller audio shows could I have gotten down and dirty with the production teams at various audiophile labels. I've been extremely blessed to meet Wilma Cozart Fine & Dennis Drake (Mercury Living Presence CDs), Marcia Martin & Keith Johnson (Reference Recordings), and Todd Garfinkle at M•A Records. These opportunities led me to meeting and eventually working for Bob Katz and later David & Norman at Chesky Records as one of their Producers & Engineers (1990 – 1993) and being involved in the creation of 100s of albums; many cut to LP from original analog source tapes using the best hand-built electronics we could create!

Lawrence of Lawrence Audio & David Chesky of Chesky Records – 2016 New York Audio Show

Often, as a result of working on so many audiophile albums, I've been the lucky recipient at smaller audio shows of detailed and eager questions. Interacting with fans at Capital Audio Festival (which this year falls from Nov. 3-5, 2017 at the Hilton Twinbrook Metro, MD) or the Rocky Mountain Audio Show (14th consecutive years, Oct. 6 – 8, 2017 at Denver Marriott Tech Center, CO) has always been a pleasure and a welcome opportunity to find out what fans think of new and old albums alike. No matter how many times I play an album, it is always rewarding to hear it on a well considered and set-up system (especially those that grab at my heart-strings). And when someone strikes up a conversation because they recognize me as the producer and engineer of one of their favorite versions of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (CD78 on Chesky Records) or the classic Decca / Reader's Digest Series (I was remaster director from 1991-1994), it really makes me feel great to be part of a larger community working to bring joy and happiness through the appreciation of music. Being able to bring recordings I've produced (even some on LP that I cut to lacquer myself) to shows and then play them is an even bigger treat. Going carefully from room to room has allowed me a continuing evolution of my understanding as both a professional producer / audio engineer and an audiophile hobbyist. And since each show often feature some of the same brands and dealers, there is always some familiar elements to refer to and remember.

I get to control the preamp running these Magnepan 3.7 speakers – 2015 NYAS

Consequently, I find myself drawn to the smaller audio shows, such as the upcoming California Audio Show (Oakland, CA - July 28 - 30, 2017 – now in it's 7th year) and T.H.E. Show (Hilton - Anaheim, CA - Sept. 21 – 24, 2017, 27 years running) precisely because they are geared to a smaller (400 – 1000+) attendance featuring less rooms (45+) that are all separated from each other so that leak-through of adjacent sound is minimized. I find this vastly more rewarding too, since I can actually get through the entire show without having missed anything. Rather than being subjected to the (often) over-crowded mob conditions associated with large shows like CES or Munich Audio Show (the later finishing up as I write this)… remind me for all the world of a typical Boat, Auto, or Food Show I attend at the Jacob Javitz Center in NYC: attending mega audio shows where there is so much to see (and digest) often winds up overwhelming me to the point I just want to leave after only a few very expensive hours ($100+ sometimes). But to have the option, instead, of relaxing leisurely for $1 or less per listening room while having the pleasure of hearing one's own choice of music (often played from HD sources like a USB stick, these days) on some truly amazing and often beyond-beyond priced systems… this is audio show heaven!

Vincent Bélanger plays his Magic Cello live at David Pope's AUDIO NOTE room at 2016 NYAS

Again, this pleasure was immediately obvious at last year's New York Audio Show 2016 (with this year's also being at The Park Lane Hotel – NYC Nov. 10 – 12, 2017). The careful choice of a new location finally met with both dealer and attendee's expectations. And who should I run into right in the first room but Bob Carver, himself! He was delighted to meet me and happy to engage in extended conversation with anyone who came along with an inquisitive attitude. We spent almost an hour chatting. And I was able to continue and cover the entire show… in three days. Speaking with Christina Yuin at CYA Shows, she reported strong turnout of about 2,000 people and solid dealer support with 39 rooms manned by 48 exhibitors demonstrating 108 brands. Ticket prices were $25 per day at the box office.

Likewise, Christina mentioned that CAF (Capital Audio Festival - 2016) also had about 2,000 in attendance enjoying 42 rooms manned by 48 exhibitors, again demonstrating 108 brands. Ticket prices were $20 per day at the box office. That's a lot of entertainment value. And it clearly indicates that both of these audio shows are back on track after a few shaky years and that audience support has increased, noticeably as a result of better show execution. Constantine Soo at Dagogo (owner of CAS - California Audio Show, the second longest running audio show in the US) also mentioned that online ticket sales for his upcoming California Audio Show (July 28-30th, 2017) were on projection with 400+ tickets sold and 700+ expected to attend over the three days. With that said, I hope to be one of those lucky people, since I always enjoy visiting the San Francisco Bay area. Perhaps I can also request a tour and write about the current quality at Skywalker Ranch & THX Limited Sound Systems; post separation of corporate elements from Lucas to Disney.

I always come prepared to play LPs when at a smaller show, like this VPI at 2017 NYAS

So if I had a choice between going to a large, 100 – 550+ room audio show (of any kind) or attending something with less than 50 rooms … I can see my way to enjoying those 50 rooms over the course of several days. In fact, I'm really looking forward to bringing my latest CD album (and high-resolution DXD on USB stick) of Baroque Flute Chamber music, called Concerts Royaux (Epiphany Recordings Ltd. EP-23) so that I can (again) return to hearing it on a wide range of adroitly set-up high-end music systems. When I consider how much more difficult it has been at times in the past, not to mention more expensive and back breaking these past 34 years to make the experience of a high-end audio show one of joy and musical enlightenment (on all three sides of the aisle: hobbyist, manufacturer, and as critic), I am much the happier at the prospect of the this upcoming year's worth of shows that promise some significant days of enjoyment listening to great gear and recordings while hopefully stumbling upon some of the hidden geniuses lucky enough to be walking the halls around me. Stay tuned for my next show report!

AC amps power these huge beryllium tweeter speakers at 2008 T.H.E. SHOW in NYC

Mat Weisfeld, President of VPI Industries and myself at 2013 New York Audio Show

Jeremy R. Kipnis is a Producer, Director, Tonmeister, and Impresario. His heritage includes four generations of musicians and conductors. Working for various record companies, including Columbia, RCA, Nonesuch, Decca, Chesky, and his own label, Epiphany Recordings Ltd, he has been responsible for more than 450 award winning albums, LPs, SACD, and Compact Discs. His passion for photography led him to study briefly with Ansel Adams and Youssef Karsh. And his love for movies and television led him to design and create the Ultimate Home Cinema in the world, known variously as the $6 Million Kipnis Studio Standard (KSS)™. In addition to creating new cutting edge ultra immersive audio & video suites, Kipnis researches and reports on many topics in his three monthly columns, as seen in The High Fidelity Report, Widescreen Review, The Stereo Times, and Positive Feedback magazines.

Kipnis Studios (KSS)™ – www.JeremyKipnis.com

Epiphany Recordings Ltd. – www.EpiphanyRecordingsLtd.com - New CD Album