Music Hall: Hi-Fi for Everyone

Earlier in this show report, I mentioned that the excellent music played in Jeffrey Catalano’s High Water Sound room served as a reminder of my passion for the high-end audio hobby. And it’s true: From time to time, I do need those gentle reminders. So much of high-end audio remains so completely foreign and unobtainable that I sometimes feel entirely out of place. And this is coming from me—a guy who’s spent the last decade of his life devoted to this stuff. I, of all people, feel out of place at a hi-fi show. Imagine how the rest of the world perceives the hobby.

And the fact remains: Even in those rooms where I can relate to the music, I often can’t relate to the gear. I can’t afford it and, quite honestly, even if I could, I doubt I’d ever want to spend so much of my money on hi-fi equipment. There are things I love more: family, friends, music, and food, for instance. (Not to mention hanging out with family and friends, while listening to music and eating food.)

Thank goodness, then, for Music Hall, a company that consistently provides good sound and great music through products that almost invariably represent outstanding value—products that bring the hi-fi hobby down to earth, products that my family, friends, and I can actually afford.

While many exhibitors highlight their expensive systems and relegate their more affordable products to dark corners and silent displays, Music Hall consistently takes a different approach. The company’s Roy Hall and Leland Leard were anxious to show off their most affordable products. In the context of any hi-fi show, but especially the Consumer Electronics Show, this approach seems courageous, bold, and extremely cool. Leard eagerly directed me to a system fronted by Music Hall’s USB-1 turntable ($249.99) equipped with the company’s new Magic 2 MM cartridge ($150). The ’table sent signals directly into the phono stage of Music Hall’s A70.2 integrated amp ($1499). Speakers were Music Hall’s mighty Marimbas ($349/pair), which were placed on the company’s new, American-made speaker stands ($250/pair).

The sound was excellent—warm, detailed, engaging, and, most of all, fun.

Music Hall also introduced their compact, attractive WCS-2 record-cleaning machine ($595). Roy Hall admitted that the WCS (“Wets, Cleans, Sucks”) runs very loud, but joked: “Do we sell a product that really works, but makes audiophiles deaf? I’m considering including earplugs with every unit.” According to Hall, what makes the WCS-2 special is its powerful, 1200W motor, which enables the machine to dry records with only a single revolution. So, while it may be loud, at least it gets the job done fast.

You may want to play those just-cleaned records on Music Hall’s beautiful new Ikura turntable. James Kyroudis, Music Hall customer and Chicago-based industrial designer, is largely responsible for the turntable’s sleek, modern look. Says Hall: “We wanted a design that better distinguished us from everybody else.”

In NYC, Ikura is a great little Japanese restaurant on 1st Avenue in the East Village. In cuisine, ikura refers to salmon roe (yum); the turntable, then, takes its name from the spiraling patterns of dots that decorate the uppermost level of the split-plinth design. The Ikura uses a Pro-Ject carbon-fiber tonearm and will be available in either black-on-black or black-on-white finishes. Look for it sometime this April with a price tag of around $900-$1000.

People sometimes ask if I’m satisfied reviewing affordable equipment or whether there’s even enough of it out there to keep me busy. Happily, thanks in part to Music Hall, the answer to both those questions is yes—without a doubt yes. Sam Tellig raved about the Music Hall Marimbas in our December 2012 issue, and I’ll do a “Follow-Up” in a future issue. I’ve got a pair of the new Music Hall speaker stands coming in, and I’ll keep the Magic 2 phono cartridge in mind for my friends Natalie and Kristen, both of whom have been spinning lots of used and new vinyl on their USB-1 turntables. Birthdays are coming up. With the money saved, I’ll take the girls out for dinner. Japanese, perhaps.

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COMMENTS
Frank.hardly's picture

Stephen, I agree about wanting to spend a limited number of $'s on audio products and I usually reward companies that present products that are overachievers relative to price. I'm astounded how many companies are competing in the high price high end space. Coming from a formal marketing and economics education, I wonder how many of these companies really devote the effort to doing things like price elasticity studies or positioning studies with a view to developing products that present a unique value proposition from an attribute and price perspective and how many of them would sell alot more products and make more money if they were more affordable. I certainly see this as a big issue in the pricing of Hi-rez downloads for example.

Concerning Sam Tellig raving about the Marimba's, I have a distinctly different interpretation of his article. In fact, I remember him being very uncharitable towards this product (maybe his tongue was firmly in his cheek) and Roy Hall sending a justifiably incensed response to your mag. concerning this.

Frank

Stephen Mejias's picture

Concerning Sam Tellig raving about the Marimba's, I have a distinctly different interpretation of his article. In fact, I remember him being very uncharitable towards this product (maybe his tongue was firmly in his cheek) and Roy Hall sending a justifiably incensed response to your mag. concerning this.

Hi Frank. Sam concluded: "The Marimba is an astonishing little speaker, as long as you don't expect it to do too much. They imaged and soundstaged like krazy, recalling (for me) such minimonitor classics as the original ProAcs and Acoustic Energy AE1s. . .Maybe the best thing about the Marimba is that you need not take it seriously. Much like Roy Hall himself."

Perhaps that's not a rave -- though I would say positive comparisons to speakers costing fives times as much is a pretty big deal -- but I certainly don't see it as being uncharitable.

In response, Roy concluded: "Sam, the review of the Marimba was good, but not good enough. . .perhaps you should stick one of the speakers in your ear, or any other part of your anatomy."

Roy and Sam have a long history of prodding one another. I suspect the exchange was (mostly) very lighthearted.

ednazarko's picture

I find myself getting fatigued with reviews of five-digit-dollar-priced components to the point of not even wanting to visit the site or read the physical version of Stereophile. I'm sure there's a market for them, but I wonder if that market is big enough to sustain an editorial business focusing on them.

In some research I've done to see whether maybe I'm missing how stunningly superior these components may be to four-digit-dollar-priced components, I've included some of those mega-priced components in my listening tests when shopping in my price range (four digits and below). I have yet to find any component where after listening comparisons I think, wow, if I could only spend five digits, even when comparing complete high end systems to complete affordable systems.  I have frequently found that the highest end components were fussier about placement (if speakers), environmental factors (amount of heat dissipation required), and other things that made them impractical in anything other than a designed listening room.

I'm glad people are working the extremes of technology to keep discoveries moving forward.  But I'm much more excited by components that raise the bar, and then invite everyone to have a drink... (to stretch an analogy until it screams...)

Stephen Mejias's picture

I have frequently found that the highest end components were fussier about placement (if speakers), environmental factors (amount of heat dissipation required), and other things that made them impractical in anything other than a designed listening room.

On the plane home from Las Vegas, AudioStream.com's Michael Lavorgna asked me if I'd heard any systems at the show that impressed me enough to want them in my own home. I share your enthusiasm for lower-priced components that nevertheless offer outstanding performance, and I agree that many of the highest-priced components are often fussier than more affordable products. But I confessed to ML that there were several systems that totally blew my mind -- not just for their high prices, but for their remarkable sound.

Systems like those presented by Joseph Audio/Bel Canto, Luxman/Vivid/Mola-Mola, Wilson/dCS/D'Agostino, MBL, and Sony/Pass Labs, among others, offered truly exceptional, transcendent sound -- I can't help but think that the high cost is justified. Whether those systems make sense for everyone is another matter.

I think we can take for granted that the great majority of cost-no-object gear is designed to perform best in dedicated listening spaces.

volvic's picture

I would like to echo some of the comments from fellow readers above, by all accounts the Sony/Pass Labs combo was considered by Stereophile and other magazine's editors as one of the best sounding rooms of the show.  Having said that I have been to many shows over the last 25 years and can count on one hand the truly extroardinary products I have heard.  The rest while good products were not worthy of the asking prices, and other magazine editors (2 of them) have echoed those same sentiments to me in private over the years.   This is not to say they were horrible, but the price performance ratio just wasn't there for me, but that is my opinion, others may think 15k for horn speakers is well worth it others not.  The point being there is enough of a price/performance range that can make many of us happy.  I will call out though 20k interconnects and speaker wires and 50k stands.  While these products might properly compliment gear that is worth over 350k they cannot in my modest opinion be worth such an outlay when a component costing the same can make a more impactful improvement to the hi-fi chain or other similarly competitively priced products, but that's just me.  

Nick  

MikeMercer's picture

Stephen always highlights the central points - being discussed here - in the coverage above: 

Companies like Music Hall pioneered exceptional musical performance for the money with Roy Hall's Creek line many years ago!  Now more than ever, you can get more for less.

I mean, what about Andrew Jones-designed (of TAD) SP-FS52 Pioneer bookshelf speakers, sold for $89.00 at Best Buy!  Also noted as an excetional performer in SPhile.

You will always have the bigger systems.

It's like Andrew Jones said himself: Building a better loudspeaker with 100 grand at your disposal is easy compared to building one that should sell for 100 bucks...

Cost doesn't factor-in for me.  I listen to everything from Music Hall to CEntrance, dCs, EA.R, and Nordost in my system. Purchase that which excites you!

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