April 2001

The Future Is Now: Consumer Electronics Show 2001

Well, here we are in Stanley Kubrick’s favorite year, 2001, and though our computers might be able to sing “A Bicycle Built for Two,” maybe even scat it just like Ella or Mel, they can’t push us out of the space shuttle, or doom us to eternal hibernation. But, according to the buzz at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, held in January in Las Vegas, our computers, satellites, super-talented hard drives and other formerly nonentertainment oriented devices are, if they are not already, going to be employed more and more to enhance our personal amusement—in fact they will be central to our home entertainment systems.

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Wavelength Audio Triton Signature Amplifier
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Legend Audio Design Starlet Amplifier
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Genesis 450XS Speakers
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Kerbango 100E Internet Radio
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Red Rose Music Baby Reference System

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Convergence is what this blending of technologies is called, and it seems as if there was more convergence proffered in Vegas than five-buck prime-rib dinners: MP3 players in our cell phones and wristwatches, AOL television (where Instant Messaging will place far-flung families around far flung tubes to have a shared experience watching reruns of Buffy), time-shifting personal video recorders (like TiVo and ReplayTV) and, of course, broadband transmission of music, video and games.

Many of us have already had a taste of convergence in the form of Napster or other MP3 services, online gaming or Internet webcasts of music. But what is coming in the near future will blur the lines even more, so much that the computer-related parts of your living room system will be incorporated into various black boxes sitting on your television or stereo, inevitably to disappear into the units themselves sometime in the not too distant future.

Case in point: TiVo, one of the pioneers in the emerging area of PVRs (personal video recorders) will be hawking its service in an increasingly large arena that will encompass music, games, personal photo albums and the data to organize it all. PVRs, including TiVo’s principal competitor, ReplayTV, are basically sophisticated computer hard drives that currently hold up to 30 hours of video. By 2002 their capacity will grow to the equivalent of 500 hours of video, thus opening the gates for more varied programming to be stored. Plus, the units will be so small you can take them wherever you go to catch up on your archived library of films, television programs and music.

A step beyond this is the Nokia Media Terminal, which uses your television as a display and combines computer functions like chat, mail and Web access with the ability to download MP3 files, the ability to view video-on-demand services, play 3D games and record all this digital content on its enclosed PVR. The Media Terminal can be connected to computers, digital cameras, game pads and printers in the home to allow sharing of content and information from one device to the other; home networking is on the horizon. Now that is convergence!

Not everything at this glittering extravaganza chased the holy grail of convergence. Some exciting rumblings are underway in radio land, which just might make driving across country in the near future a lot more fun; major automakers are even parked behind this one. If rival companies Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio get their wish, many of us will be spending just a bit more for our car radios in order to receive as many as 100 CD-quality stations whose signals never disappear, no matter how far we drive. This cablelike service for radio will feature stations broadcasting just for subscribers and can thus offer a wider range of music than traditional stations. Jazz lovers can rejoice because there will be lots of our music represented. And at least in the case of Sirius, the service will be commercial free, though there will be a monthly fee for subscribers of around 10 bucks. Manufacturers are gearing up for our pent-up demand: Alpine, Kenwood, Panasonic and Jensen lining up behind Sirius, while Sony, Alpine and Pioneer are set to produce receivers for the XM system. Some auto companies have promised receivers as an option by the end of this year. Satellite radio seems like a sure winner, but it’s unfortunate we have to choose between noncompatible systems.

Now, what about good old-fashioned sound systems for listening to some steamy Charlie Parker or some quiet Bill Evans? Well, interestingly enough, much of the high-end audio equipment on display was, in fact, old-fashioned, or at least harked back to ideas most think of as obsolete. At least half of the show rooms that featured pure audio (as opposed to home-theater setups) included vacuum-tube electronics driving the speakers, and possibly 60 to 70 percent of the rooms had turntables in their systems. There were even several CD players with tubes in their digital-to-analog converters.

And almost every room I entered utilized jazz as the demonstration music of choice for equipment large and small, affordable and stratospherically priced. Jazz has definitely taken over the world of high-end audio.

“Jazz is the perfect music for this kind of equipment,” explained Allen Perkins, a jazz drummer turned turntable designer whose firm, Immedia, now distributes Audio Physic speakers and Lyra cartridges in addition to his RPM tables. “The typical intimate recording style of jazz, when reproduced on the good stuff you see at this show, allows the musician’s spontaneity, dynamics and tonal harmonic structure to come through, and those are the qualities that allow you to distinguish one player from another like the swells of Coltrane and Cannonball on Kind of Blue. You can hear all the details that help put you in the same room with the musicians.”

Some of the sweetest sounds I heard came from Patricia Barber as reproduced by Wavelength Audio’s diminutive Triton Signature New Century Edition tube amplifiers driving the marvelous JM Labs Mini Utopia speakers; 15 watts of power never sounded so good, palpable and lifelike.

A small company in Berkeley, Legend Audio, is creating some amazing music with some even smaller components. Their Starlet integrated amp delivers 40 watts of tube power and when combined with their small pyramid-shaped Legend speakers, can reproduce the dynamics of live music more accurately than any system I have heard in a long time. A bit of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue proved this. If you have a small living room or want a killer system for the bedroom, this is an exciting solution.

The name of McIntosh has always been synonymous with high-quality sound and the company is still at it. McIntosh’s room in the Alexis Park Hotel was chock-full of their commanding amplifiers (many still featuring tubes), aglow with that familiar blue light emanating from those large power meters, and towering loudspeakers capable of shaking the walls with amazing lifelike music.

Another company dedicated to creating wonderful sound with the power of “burning bottles” (as tubes are often called) is Rogue Audio. Owner and designer Mark O’Brien told me he creates his products with the sole intention of reproducing music as close to the original as possible. The resulting equipment proves this out. I heard his signature product, the M120 Magnum Monoblocks, which will provide just about any system with enough juice to put Wynton and company squarely in your living room, and if you aren’t careful, in the living rooms of your neighbors!

One of the most exciting manufacturers exhibiting was Red Rose Music, the new company headed by the legendary Mark Levinson, a noted jazz musician (most notably with Paul Bley) who has designed some of the most critically acclaimed audio equipment of the last 20 years. His latest line includes the modest-looking but spellbinding R3 speakers and the impressive Model 5 integrated amp—a mere $11,500 for the combo—and ranges up to the R1 ribbon speakers ($45,000) and the Model 3 Silver Signature preamp ($10,000) and the Model 1 Mono amps ($25,000); this system was used to demonstrate the latest in the Sony/Philips SACD project, and the results were nothing short of breathtaking. Levinson’s bass was present in the room in every detail. I’m digging through sofa cushions now to come up with the change for these.

If the idea of changing tubes every few years bothers you, there is still plenty of great stuff to check out.

Linn, the revered Scottish concern that helped save the turntable from extinction with its standard-setting Sondek LP12, was there with its best. A team of their Klimax 500 amps powered Linn’s new top-of-the-line loudspeaker, the Komri. Ring up another victory for Linn. In another room they demonstrated the Linn AV51 home theater system, which has become extremely popular with high-end custom installers (and their clients) because of the breathtaking sound quality and the flexible multiroom zone system it also allows. Since Linn engineers everything from the ground up, you know this stuff is built to last.

Conrad-Johnson and McCormack Audio now work under one roof, but the companies displayed in different rooms at C.E.S., reflecting their different product lines: C-J offers some of the most respected tube gear in the industry while Steve McCormack has designed very affordable solid-state gear whose sound belies its price. If you want high-quality power and lots of it, this is a place to look.

New speakers were in abundance and I heard some mega-buck systems that I would love to own. Genesis was showing off the 450XS, which presented every nuance of Mighty Sam McClain for just under $40K. And Patricia Barber made another almost-live appearance thanks to EgglestonWorks’ latest, the $39,900 Savoy, powered by some impressive Krell amps—music this good hasn’t come out of Memphis since Booker T. & the MGs. Thiel offered two recent innovations, the SW1 SmartSub subwoofer and its acclaimed PowerPoint surface-mounted speakers, which, together, presented a fantastic wall of sound, perfect for home-theater installations. I also liked the open, solid sound of the brand-new ProAc Future Point Five, still officially unpriced, but should run around $6000. They feature a tweeter and midrange unit that is open in the back, a design technique that helps get away from the boxy sound demonstrated by many speakers.

With literally thousands of exhibitors, this short survey barely scratches the surface of what is or will be available from retailers over the next year. In future issues of JazzTimes we will examine other topics in detail, including surround sound and home theater, new developments in the digital music realm such as SACD, HDCD and XRCD, and the world of smaller and smaller portable players.

In the meantime, don’t be afraid to quiz your favorite dealers about what is coming from the equipment lines they carry. And, as always, carry your own source material when you go shopping so you are totally familiar with the content of the music or video you will use during an audition. If you have an idea of what your content should sound or look like, you are that much closer to making the most informed choice when you are ready to purchase.

Internet radio

I just have to throw out that two-bit word again: convergence. If you have a computer and are up to date with your MP3 and other streaming audio plug-ins, you can experience convergence now, and listen to an unimagined variety of wonderful jazz in the process. If you are not hip to the world of Internet radio, both traditional broadcasters and webcasters, you are in for a treat. Get ready to converge.

Practically all radio stations that program jazz, primarily public stations of the NPR variety, are now equipped with streaming audio facilities that broadcast most of their local origin programming over the Internet. You can just poke around your favorite station’s Web site and you will probably find a button to connect you to their live programming. Real Audio is the most common player for these stations and a free copy of the latest version can be had at www.real.com. Some of these stations program jazz 24/7 and provide a delightful backdrop to any work environment. Check out some of the country’s best, like KLON in Long Beach (www.klon.org), WWOZ in New Orleans (www.wwoz.com), WBGO in Newark (available through www.jandr.com), KJAZ in Los Angeles (www.kjazzla.com), KCSM in the SF Bay area (www.kcsm.org) and the little known WBEE in Chicago (www.cd1570.com), among many others.

The recent phenomenon of webcasting—broadcasting a program exclusively on the Internet—has taken off like wildfire and offers an interesting mix of excellent and mediocre programming. Several portals for such stations have sprung up around the Web, including WebRadio.com, Spinner.com, AltaVista Radio (altavista.com) and my favorite, www.Live365.com, where amateur enthusiasts do most of the programming with no actual radio experience. But the resulting mix of music can often be exciting and educational, and always entertaining, because, when it’s bad it’s really, really bad.

Live365 features more than 25,000 stations and of those, more than 300 program some form of jazz. “We have some of the richest jazz content available,” according to Live365 Executive vice President John Jeffery. “If terrestrial broadcast stations had anywhere near what we offer, more people would discover the wealth of jazz available.” The cool thing about this free service is that you can pick your programming in as narrow a niche as you care to. I found many stations dedicated to bop, handfuls dedicated to smooth jazz, a number play some mix of Latin and Brazilian jazz and, amazingly, three or four are sequenced by hardcore Hammond B-3 organ fans. I am hooked. And if you don’t have a computer, there can still be Internet radio in your future. Philips is now producing its Infinite Radio with an Internet radio option, and several automakers will offer Internet radio as a standard option within the next 18 months. Be forewarned, however, that most of these programs are a set length, anywhere from three to 12 hours, and are essentially endless loops (though some are set on a high-tech random shuffle). So if you listen regularly you might, over the course of a week or two, encounter some repetition. Of course you can always choose one of the other 25,000 stations, but any way you stack it, this sure beats playing the same CD over and over and over and over.

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