To Play or Not to Play
Vad, who at RMAF 2014 also appeared in an "Experts Ask the Experts" panel discussion, and presented formal demos of the same recordings in the Parasound and Sony rooms, had brought along a flash drive containing high-resolution tracks from SFS's new, Grammy-nominated West Side Story and Masterpieces in Miniature SACD/CDs, both conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The latter included a performance of Fauré's Pavane whose beauty nearly overwhelmed me in the room shared by VTL, Wilson Audio Specialties, dCS, and Transparent Audio.
"I wasn't asking to play cuts that were overly challenging, such as something by Anton Webern," Vad told me after the show. "I thought they were selections that would be entertaining, and I knew them really well. But in most cases, if there wasn't a technical snafuthere were some playback systems that couldn't grab the materialthere basically wasn't one room I went into where people didn't want to get my music off the system."
What Vad found especially confusing was that his music never drove other show attendees out of rooms. In fact, at his formal demos, people were enthusiastic, and even applauded. "There was a sort of ubiquitous editorializing going on," he lamented. "It was almost as if there was an invisible hook, and a feeling that, somehow, there were so many problems that this material brought out, either in the components' integration or execution, that exhibitors didn't want to be heard. I'm assuming this, because it happened to me many times."
Exhibitors never declared that Vad's West Side Story tracks sounded poor. Instead, they stopped them midstream.
"It's not that I went in there undercover, pretending to be someone else," Vad continued. "My nametag clearly said I was connected with the San Francisco Symphony. By the end of the show, I began to wonder if I had to be a Stereophile reviewer to be treated decently."
Not really. I'll never forget the time John Atkinson and I visited the room of a certain loudspeaker manufacturer at T.H.E. Show Las Vegas. When I asked to hear a bit of a CD of Puccini's Tosca that the late Harry Pearson had considered a wonderful recording, the exhibitor waited a whole 90 seconds before exclaiming, "That's room-clearing music!"
Given his experiences, Vad asks an essential question. When an exhibitor discovers that a recording either won't bring out the strengths of the system being exhibitedor, worse, exposes its flawswhat should that exhibitor to do?
At least one exhibitor has publicly addressed the issue of what sort of recordings to play, and how to play them. In "RMAF 2014: 3 Simple Rules for High-End Audio Show Attendees; Or, How to Avoid the Utter Humiliation of Being Thrown Out of a Hotel Room by Your Favorite Audio Icon," an essay published on November 14, 2014 by the e-zine The Audio Traveler, Marc Phillips, of Colleen Cardas Imports, decries attendees who request inappropriate volume levels, or ask to hear a bootleg recording of ear-splitting heavy metal through tiny minimonitors powered by low-powered single-ended-triode tube amps. "I won't do it," he proclaims. "Most room exhibitors will do it, and a few I know openly solicit the attendees for their musical choices because, as one person has told me, 'That's the best way to discover new music!' But some will not, and it's important to know why and to not hold it against them."
Phillips tells the tale of a reviewer who visited his room and asked to hear a track from his "special" trade-show mix CD. Unfortunately, his burn stankevery track sounded "thin and harsh and barely listenable." Others in the room began to wince and depart. Worse, another reviewer, this one from a "major publication," who had strolled in during the debacle quickly joined the retreatthen mentioned in his show report how bad the sound had been.
Phillips's solution was to play only vinyl at RMAF 2014. Because few people bring along their own LPs to audio shows, he managed to control the music "without looking like a total asshole" and telling people to stuff it.
Both Vad and Phillips have valid concerns. Attendees with ears as finely tuned as Jack Vad's deserve to hear familiar recordings that will reveal components' strengths and flaws, especially recordings of acoustic classical music in which, for example, the differences between the reproduction of a timpani's fundamental low frequencies and its higher harmonics erodes the presentation. Exhibitors, in turn, want to play only tracks that will showcase their systems in the best possible light.
There must be a way to honor the needs of both. To make that possible, attendees should stop asking exhibitors to play poorly recorded or inappropriate tracks. It's equally important that exhibitors be up front about their ground rules, and politely explain what sort of recordings they are and are not willing to play. But it would also be great if they did everything in their power to arrive at shows with their equipment already broken in, and do their best to ensure proper setup in the limited time available. If every exhibitor and manufacturer had their act together, whenever someone like Jack Vad brought them superbly recorded, full-range music that can all too easily expose flaws, there would be few, if any, flaws to expose.Jason Victor Serinus