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Living-Room Audio

Manhattan Hosts the Home Entertainment Show

At the recent Home Entertainment Show in Manhattan I fell in love with a musical gorilla and deep-fried pig’s knuckle. No, I’m not crazy. We’ll get to the magical gorilla in due time, but an amazing Filipino dish called Crispy Pata discovered in the wilds of Queens produced some of the best sounds I heard all week: The perfectly brittle skin made a great popping noise, as crackling as a potato chip.

Regarding the consumer-oriented audio show, more than 250 manufacturers spread out over five floors of the New York Hilton. Obviously, there was enough auditioning to be done that my appetite was more than primed for a pig’s foot and a bottle of beer at the end of each day.

As always at these shows, the primary music used for auditioning equipment was jazz. But for those who preferred the sounds of live music, XM Satellite Radio sponsored a concert benefiting the Elf Foundation featuring Medeski, Martin & Wood-standing room only, of course.

In the halls, it was clear that vinyl remains a healthy playback medium-turntables were still out in great force, represented by Music Hall, VPI, Continuum Audio Laboratories, Clearaudio, Oracle, Avid, Brinkmann Audio, Sound Engineering and others. With prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to 50 grand, there were tables for every music fan.

On the high resolution digital front-SACD and DVD-A-there was much talk over the long weekend that both formats seem to be dying a slow death due to lack of support from their respective format developers and a shrinking supply of new titles. The exception to this trend is the continuing release schedule of exceptional jazz SACDs from Groove Note, Telarc, Fantasy, Concord, Chesky and Mobile Fidelity and a few others. But what will the future hold in the digital domain? At present, it seems like we’ll have to be satisfied with the status quo, though next month the story could be totally different. DualDisc DVDs, Blu-ray technology and a few more are simmering on the horizon, but at this point it’s unclear what format our music will take next.

In the meantime, here are some highlights of equipment auditioned at HE2005, but before beginning, it must be said that meeting the folks responsible for this equipment-designers and marketers alike-is as enjoyable as listening to their amazing gear; like going backstage after a particularly satisfying concert. Most of these companies are small, run by a few individuals who typically build their products like the craftsman of days gone by-one-by-one-driven by the desire to reproduce music believably and soulfully. Had I a hat, I would certainly tip it their way.

A good example is Hyperion Sound Design (hyperionsound.com), a team of young innovators who have been making deep splashes recently with their HPS-938 speakers ($4,500). These sleek, piano-black beauties evidenced amazing clarity, speed and transparency in their handling of Ella Fitzgerald singing “Love You Madly.” A snare-drum attack on this record popped like a firecracker, startling everyone in the room-a sure sign of realistic reproduction. A bit of Diana Krall helped confirm the speakers’ openness, pinpoint imaging and ability to convey a convincing sense of the ambience of the performance space. These guys also introduced a new line of tube electronics including the 18-watt HT-88 amplifier ($2,800) used to power the Hyperion speakers. The two mated perfectly, and together represent a great value for the level of performance offered.

Likewise the affordable products showcased by Almarro Products of Japan (almarro.com), whose Yoshihiro Muramatsu has chosen to focus on efficient speaker designs capable of being driven by the low-wattage amps he also produces. Even when powered by the diminutive five-watt Almarro A205A amplifier ($800), the system projected extreme musicality and an uncanny definition of instruments in space, each distinct and individual, as well as a special, hard-to-define characteristic of certain tube-amplifier designs such as this. In conjunction with the Almarro M2A loudspeakers ($2,300 to $3,000 depending on finish), this is a system you want for a candlelit living room for an evening (or lifetime) of sheer bliss. The holographic imaging and the seductive sonic wizardry suck you into the performance and must be experienced to be properly understood.

As much as I’ve loved Tetra loudspeakers (tetraspeakers.com) in the past, their pairing in a demo room with Chord’s electronics (bluebirdmusic.com) made them sound better than I’ve ever heard them before. The Chord CPA 4000 preamplifier ($15,300) and SPM4000 stereo amplifier ($18,900) were clearly in absolute control of the speakers allowing them to replicate, with absolute faithfulness, the musical signal they were being fed. In addition, Chord has some of the most visually striking cosmetics of any electronics on the market today.

Rogue Audio (rogueaudio.com) is a Pennsylvania-based maker of tube amps and preamps. Designer Mark O’Brien has recently unveiled his new Titan Series of compact, entry-level priced equipment including the Atlas power amp ($1,395), the Metis preamplifier ($995; $1,095 with remote) and the Cronus integrated amp ($1,795), which was cranked up to good effect in a room shared with EgglestonWorks loudspeakers (egglestonworks.com). The Cronus may be small but it’s no lightweight: capable of 55 meaty watts and weighing in at a more than respectable 50 pounds. O’Brien pays particular attention to stable circuit design and its subsequent extreme reliability, a trait for which Rogue has become justly famous. Combined with Eggleston’s Fontaine II speakers ($5,500), the Cronus juiced the room with impressive sound indeed, especially for such a modest, though quite cool-looking amp. Some complex Brazilian percussion I auditioned was reproduced flawlessly, with great authority, clean distinct instrumental lines and tonal accuracy from top to bottom.

Outlaw Audio (outlawaudio.com), a pioneer in direct, online sales of audio gear, was strutting its stuff with a new home-theater marvel, the Model 990 7.1 channel preamplifier/processor ($1,099), which is outfitted with the absolutely latest technology for networking all the components of even the most complex audio/video system in a logical, completely flexible manner. Add the appropriate number of amplifiers to create a system that will be nearly impossible to beat at the price, and thanks to its firmware and software upgradeability the 990 will remain the affordable A/V standard for years to come. Outlaw’s demonstration of the unit, featuring a scene from the easily forgotten flick, Flight of the Phoenix, had my body literally shaking, due in large part to the dynamics and power of the two Outlaw LFM-1 subs ($579 each). An Outlaw spokesperson also announced that the long awaited Outlaw 2150 stereo receiver (price TBA), replete with strikingly handsome retro design, should be available by the time you read this.

Pianists know that the name Bosendorfer (bosendorfernewyork.com) equates with music of the highest caliber. Now we civilians can reap the benefits of Bosendorfer’s Viennese quality in our own homes with the recent introduction of its ingenious line of stunningly finished loudspeakers. Famed German speaker designer Hans Deutsch was employed to develop these new products, and the result is a speaker that takes advantage of essential resonances of the cabinet itself to achieve a startlingly lifelike sound. The results I heard from the model VC-7 ($17,000 to $25,000 depending on finish) were spectacular. Powered by the peerless Art Audio Adagio single-ended tube amplifiers ($20,000/pair; artaudio.com), a level of emotion and detail rarely heard poured into the room. There was an exceptional presence, razor-sharp precision, extreme openness and naturalness, and bass was astoundingly clean and tight. A dynamic piano solo came across as one of the most believable reproductions of the instrument I’ve ever heard. A second visit to the room confirmed my suspicions that these were speakers to be reckoned with-a sample of some wonderful Gary Burton allowed every nuance of his mallet strokes and the gentle vibrato decay make it seem as if he were playing in the front of the demo room. And just as Bosendorfer’s pianos are works of art, its speakers, available in a variety of ultrahigh-grade finishes, can fit into any environment or decorating scheme.

Italian audio design has rarely failed to impress, as much in the visual as the aural, and Ars Aures (arsaures.com), a relative newcomer to these shores, continues strongly in that tradition. A lengthy audition of its Midi Sensorial speakers ($19,000) was a very good investment of time. Powered by Art Audio amps that were custom painted by Ars Aures in a Ferrari blue to match the speakers on display, the sound was nothing short of jaw-dropping, particularly considering the low end was produced by two woofers of a mere four and one-half inches in diameter. A recording of Ray Brown and his legendary stand-up was absolutely spot-on and musically involving, the bass going down to unbelievable depths. Musicality is not easily achieved, even by speakers many times the price of these Midis, and they forked it over in spades, creating a credible sense of real music.

Albert Von Schweikert, a former guitar player with Sonny and Cher, displayed his speakers (vonschweikert.com) in several rooms, perhaps to greatest effect with the VAC (vac-amps.com) Phi Beta integrated amp ($19,000), a pairing that consistently wins accolades for being one of the best sounds at the high performance audio shows where they appear.

Down the hall, Von Schweikert’s VR4 Jr loudspeakers ($3,995) were teamed with George Kaye’s new Moscode 401HR amplifier ($4,995). Kaye is a musician, most recently handling bass duties with Houston Person and Etta James, who has turned his highly tuned ears toward perfecting exemplary audio gear. The 401HR is a tube hybrid amplifier combining the best qualities of tubes with the muscle of solid-state devices-it can pump out 200 watts of push and pull-but it’s also a high-current device, and in the long run it’s a strong current that’s needed to control speakers properly. As a result, since the 1980s, Moscodes have been a fantastic amplifier choice for anyone needing to bring difficult-to-drive speakers to life. Kaye has chosen to market his new products solely via the Internet (moscode.com), and he offers the world’s only 33 1/3-day, no-risk home trial!

Mark Levinson is another jazz bassist who has led a high-profile life in the audio world for the last two decades. He was at this show with a new product marketed by his Red Rose Music firm, which is aimed at coaxing a more analog-like sound from standard CDs and even MP3 files. Called the Burwen Bobcat after its designer Dick Burwen, it’s a PC-based software package that works with a dedicated USB digital-to-analog converter that transforms a standard laptop into a high-performance, digital-playback system. His demo was impassioned and fascinating, and the results were certainly convincing, but I’d like to take an up-close and personal look at this possibly miraculous cure to digititis in a future column.

Without question, my favorite sound at this confab was produced in a room hosted by Simaudio’s Moon electronics (simaudio.com), Analysis Plus’ value-packed cable (analysis-plus.com), Pagode isolation audio racks (finite-elemente.de) and DeVore Fidelity loudspeakers (devorefidelity.com). Moon introduced a new integrated amp, the i-7 ($4,500), and a new CD player, the SuperNova ($4,500), both exhibiting Moon’s typical solid-build quality, superb cosmetics and superior sonics. Pagode racks are the result of extensive German research into the elimination of distortion-producing resonances that significantly degrade the musicality of any audio component; I hope to test them soon for a future column. Analysis Plus wire has been praised in this column several times and remains one of the best deals in the cable category.

OK, so that gorilla I mentioned at the top? The DeVore Silverback Reference speakers ($14,000) were the closest thing to the perfect speaker I experienced in New York-true alpha-male dominance of the loudspeaker pack. They committed neither sins of omission nor commission; nothing missing and nothing false added-just damn good music across the audible spectrum. Designer John DeVore is a drummer, which helps explain why cymbal reproduction was as close to real as I’ve ever heard through a hi-fi system-from the initial attack of the stick to the ringing of shimmering brass, and the latent “hang” and decay. The effect was uncanny. In the Silverbacks, bass is handled by a pair of eight-inch woofers whose lighter mass produces a far “faster” bass than with typical 10- or 12-inch drivers. The resulting low end was pitch-perfect and completely lacking in boominess.

Clarity of detail, so critical in the ability of any speaker to be convincing in its performance, was seemingly limitless in the Silverbacks. I was spellbound listening to “Mermaid” from vocalist Ann Dyer’s When I Close My Eyes. I’ve seen Dyer perform live, and the Silverbacks replicated that experience to the letter, revealing all the special vocal inflections she possesses as a result of her dedicated vocal studies in India-rapidly moving, subtle microtonal shifts included.

DeVore’s profile is beginning to rise quickly in the highly competitive category of high-end speakers, and the Silverbacks are the supreme testament to his talent. How DeVore could surpass them is difficult to imagine, but I’m sure the mental gears grinding beneath the seemingly quiet surface of this unassuming New Yorker-who, by the way, will not shy away from Crispy Pata-that we are only at the beginning of witnessing his romp through the jungle of audio.

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