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Electric Candy Test: Home Entertainment Show 2004 East is a sweet feast

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I used to always wonder what the expression “like a kid in a candy store” meant. Where I grew up, there were absolutely no candy stores so the expression didn’t really resonate with me. Yeah, you could get a couple dozen different treats at the checkout stands of supermarkets and convenience stores where there was also an aisle dedicated to various bars and bagged sweets, and then that ubiquitous end cap featuring self-serve bins of nasty hard candies and aging caramels. But a whole shop dedicated to candy where one could, presumably, find a nearly infinite variety of the stuff? No way, no way in the world.

Clearly one’s choices in the retail-shopping universe are limited when living in middle America-likewise in the world of high-performance audio where this same restricted variety is the norm outside a very few major cities.

With hundreds and hundreds of brands to consider, typical retailers, restricted by tighter and tighter budgets, have to be very, very careful about the lines they choose to display, and usually opt for products that already have a long-standing reputation. Thus, many of the esoteric newer, smaller, often cutting-edge manufacturers are left out of the mix, shelf space being limited to members of the high-end elite. So if you live in St. Louis, Raleigh, Houston or Boise, though you may have a few audio-goody stores in your community, your access to many of the hand-made truffles of the audio industry is probably going to be noticeably skimpy compared to the selection available in a mega-metropolis like New York or Los Angeles. But believe it or not, even in those seemingly unlimited big-city cornucopias, it is often difficult to find some of the hottest cult products transiting the high-end sphere.

So where does one turn?

Perhaps the closest approximation of one-stop shopping is the overwhelming Consumer Electronics Show held each winter in Las Vegas. Though still not complete, it offers what has to be the largest single concentration of home entertainment equipment on the planet, from the pedestrian to the sublime. One major bad thing, however: It’s not open to the general public.

But if one is willing to travel, albeit still to New York or San Francisco, Primedia Inc. hosts what is certainly one of the largest hi-fi expos aimed directly at Jane Q. and John Q. Consumer. These events create one of the most well-stocked ear-candy stores the average person can revel in. The Home Entertainment Show 2004 East, held recently in New York City (the West version of the show will be November 5-7 in San Francisco), featured more than 200 different brands of components on display in over 80 rooms of the New York Hilton, attracting nearly 15,000 home entertainment enthusiasts like flies to honey. Add to that 2,500 members of the electronics trade and 450 “working” journalists and the halls of this enormous hotel suddenly became very small indeed.

But putting up with the cramped quarters was well worth the effort. In addition to listening to an amazing array of equipment, show-goers could meet and converse with the creators of most of the products exhibited-chats which provided interesting insight into the hows and whys of audio and video component selection.

Jim Luce, a music fan who’s produced numerous jazz programs for National Public Radio as well as jazz festivals in the Northeast, has attended many of these Home Entertainment shows. Stopped in the hall, he took a few minutes to explain why. “I admire the passion of manufacturers who love music enough to make small batches of wonderful, usually handmade equipment available to the general public, and I have a great curiosity about how close they can actually get to the music itself. I also have the desire to witness firsthand the passion of people who love music enough to keep two-channel audio a priority in this age of mass-produced, portable digital everything.”

At a marketplace like this, one soon learns that, as with candy, there is truly something for every taste and, of course, for every pocketbook-a pair of nice sounding $900 speakers might be next door to a pair of $15,000 speakers which in turn might be one floor up from a pair of $85,000 speakers.

The good thing about this diversity is that, though most of us can’t work the $85,000 boxes into our homes, being able to listen to such pricey components sets a standard for which to strive when selecting equipment for purchase. The idea is to, within a given budget, get musical reproduction as close to that standard as possible, and the more such references available in the aural memory, the better. And so there we are, back to the beauty of a show like the HES-the name of the game is exposure to lots and lots of the good stuff, no matter the price. At this year’s HES, there was absolutely no shortage of good stuff to be heard.

At every audio show I’ve attended, it has never failed that one or two products, up to then unfamiliar to me, have caught my attention and presented me with serendipitous delight. A couple of years ago it was the stupendous Triangle speakers from France-captivating performance worth far more than their asking price. Ditto the Joseph Audio and Tetra speakers heard at this year’s CES in Vegas.

The magic for me this time appeared in the Totem Acoustic room which, by the way, was one of those exhibits that had no trouble engaging continuous swarms of people-literal throngs seduced by the wonderful sound produced by these nifty Canadian speakers. Totem, like Triangle, was founded on the principle that accurate, spine-tingling sound does not have to be expensive. Though each of them offers products in the $5,000-plus range, the biggest surprises come from their very affordable models hovering around $1,000, give or take a few hundred bucks. For example, at this show, Totem unveiled their new Rainmaker ($900/pair), a smallish wood-veneered box capable of producing music with surprising authority-real bass and sharp, crisp attacks. Hearing them made me an instant convert to the Totem fan club, dazzled by the quality woodwork as well as the liquid sound. Then Totem designer and president Vince Bruzzese cranked up a pair of elegant, slim towers he calls the Arro ($1,100/pair). Again sporting a handsome finish, these created music that was quick and smooth and had no trouble handling the percussion-heavy Brazilian jazz I requested-the top was light and airy, the bass was chest-throbbing and the imaging was superb. Impressive. I’m sure you’ll be reading more about Totem in the future.

Luckily, in another room, I had another chance to sample wares from the above-mentioned Joseph Audio. Though I was suitably impressed by their new RM55LE ($12,500/pair)-at that price I’d expect the thrills they in fact delivered-the real goody in this room was the Insider ($1,999/pair), Joseph’s entry into the realm of in-wall speakers. No one in the room could believe such powerful, accurate sound was emanating from these diminutive in-walls; most assumed the music was coming from the larger RM55s. Though the Insiders were located high on the wall, the music was very good at ear level and the dispersion was excellent. On the classic Getz/Gilberto rendition of “Girl From Ipanema” voices floated in the air and were believable and palpable. On other selections, percussion was crisp and strings were appropriately rosin-y. For anyone interested in home theater speakers that disappear into the wall but still perform at audiophile levels, these are definitely worth an audition.

One of the standout systems I heard over this long weekend came from the magical combination of a price-is-no object amplifier, the wondrous VAC Phi Beta integrated amplifier ($19,000) and the reasonably affordable Von Schweikert Audio VR-4jr speakers ($3,995/pair). The VAC delivered 110 delicious tube-powered watts and can truly be called a work of art; designer Kevin Hayes has painted yet another sonic masterpiece. I’d heard these speakers before and they sounded quite good, but the VAC drove them into another league altogether. Music played through this system was incredibly lifelike: vocals were present and immediate-even capturing the singer’s breathing and lip smacks-and guitar strums were markedly three-dimensional. Bass extension was downright scary.

Speaking of bass, Internet-only retailer Outlaw Audio debuted their LFM-1 subwoofer ($579) which produced some earth-quaking lows from the Freaky Friday DVD they used to demo these high-value products. Outlaw features a full line of amplifiers and other electronics as well as this great sub. They also offered a sneak peek at a new receiver they call “The Last Great Stereo Receiver” which features a very cool retro-design; the goal is to start shipping it by the end of this year.

Though it’s great to see so many new names, it’s also comforting to see some of the established audio industry classics represented at these shows. In a room just a tad small for the system assembled there, a wall full of thoroughbred McIntosh electronics, including the state-of-the-art MX135 A/V Control Center preamp/processor ($7,600), along with MartinLogan speakers brought a DVD of Seabiscuit to life with startling clarity. I felt like I was in the middle of the racetrack surrounded by an unleashed herd of thundering hooves.

In the Anthony Gallo Acoustics room there was another demonstration of a surround-sound system utilizing speakers that have won critical acclaim for their two-channel performance. The multi-channel setup was based on the Gallo flagship Nucleus Reference III ($2,599/pair); the film this time was Drumline and the sound was as precise as the drum corps featured in the film. It had punch and was ballsy beyond the modest size of these speakers: the tight-knit drumming came through perfectly. By the way, Gallo also offers a nifty surround-sound ensemble they call Home Theater in the Round ($999) which features five of their legendary spherical Micro speakers and their TR-1 sub.

Jazz bassist George Kaye, most recently providing bottom for Houston Person and Etta Jones, also happens to be one of high-end audio’s minor cult figures. As designer of New York Audio Labs’ Moscode amplifiers in the 1980s, he created a product still much sought-after on the used market; I used one for many years and often wish I had never sold it. Kaye was roaming the halls of the Hilton when he cornered me and proudly announced he was reviving his classic amp now called the Moscode 401HR ($4,295), which should be shipping by the time you read this. The 200-watt per channel amp combines the best of tube and solid-state technology so you get clear, solid bass and a warm, transparent midrange. Based on past performance, this should be a good one.

Another great bass player much in evidence was Abraham Laboriel whose talents were put to good use in demonstrating the sheer prowess of relatively new speakers from Gilmore Audio, distributed by Glacier Audio. The Glacier folks had Laboriel playing live through the Gilmore Model 2s ($19,500) to show off not only the speakers’ astounding capacity for low bass but also their unequaled power handling ability. Running an electric bass through most any other loudspeaker would result in an immediate blitz of the voice coil, not to mention probable sparks and possible flames. But the Gilmores evidenced not a whit of strain handling Laboriel’s trademark fretboard acrobatics. Driven by another Glacier product, a pair of impressive, behemoth tube amps made by Atma-Sphere, the system performed equally well reproducing recorded music. The Gilmore lineup includes smaller units as well, and all behave with the same aplomb as the Model 2s.

In another well-orchestrated demo, Paradigm opened the curtain on their brand new Reference Signature series speakers powered by corporate sibling Anthem Statement electronics. The surround segment of the presentation was duly impressive, showcasing enviable authority and finesse from equipment many audiophiles would consider highly affordable. But it was the two-channel offering that affirmed the true value of the Paradigms. Playing a Patricia Barber disc through the pair of front speakers, the Signature S8s ($5,400 or $6,000/pair depending on wood), the vocalist and band came to life in the room. There was lots of air and space around voice and instruments-all rendered properly and solidly across the stage-without a hint of harshness or distortion. The piano sound was rock solid. In fact, the sound overall was unexpectedly good, continuing to prove that Paradigm quality extends from the most affordable products to the top of their line-unquestionable value at every price point.

Other impressive audio was heard in rooms featuring the modernistic Chord electronics and Living Voice speakers; DeVore Fidelity Silverback speakers (astounding) and Sim Audio electronics; Reference 3A speakers and Antique Sound Lab amps (sweet speakers and sensibly affordable tubes); Naim speakers and electronics (slick synergy between components); Tetra speakers (talk about musical!) and Birdland Audio; Red Planet Labs amplifiers; Wilson Benesch speakers and Cyrus electronics, both U.K imports; and Bel Canto Design who debuted their newest universal disc player, called simply the PLayer PL-1A ($6,990).

A couple of other systems offered some of the best sound heard at the show. One featured the Grande Utopia Be speakers ($85,000/pair) from JM Lab powered by a VK-51SE preamp ($8,500) and a pair of VK-300SE Duo Block System amps ($36,000/pair) from Balanced Audio Technology. I couldn’t find words to describe the enormity, the realism, perhaps ultra-realism, of this system-the only drawback is it doesn’t make cappuccino. One of the other most satisfying sounds was heard in a room featuring Audiopax amps and speakers from Brazil and the stellar CD system (transport and digital-to-analog converter) from Zanden Audio Systems of Japan, now distributed in this country by Avantgarde-USA. The Zanden system is not inexpensive, pushing 40 grand, but is reputed by some of the best ears in the business to have no equal in CD reproduction. Music through this Audiopax/Zanden rig was relaxed, open and natural. With clean, clear highs and mids, it was accurate tonally and soothing to listen to-in short, it was enjoyable and fun, the way music should be.

Obviously the HES gave potential consumers much to hear and consider. Totem Acoustic’s Vince Bruzzese elaborates on his impressions, “This show allows people to get their bearings and compare things more directly. What captures their musical psyche, the looks, or the musical performance?” Certainly Bruzzese thinks it’s the music; his speakers were great evidence of that, but in addition, to show his dedication to music, he snuck me a copy of a jazz CD his company helped produce featuring Canadian saxophonist Francois Carrier along with Paul Bley, Gary Peacock and Michel Lambert.

Jazz producer Luce, who also intends to attend the San Francisco HES this year, sums it up this way: “I have the luxury of presenting music live, hearing it in the studio and also for pleasure at home. All three environments offer ‘real’ music, but each is a different experience. I am content in realizing that there are many approaches to enjoying music, and that’s reflected in the character or personality of a home audio system. There’s enjoyment to be had so long as I keep the focus on the music and not the equipment. I offer sincere thanks to all who pursue the beauty of music and help make it available to us fans.”

Can be just like giving candy to a baby.

Originally Published