An Ultra HD Experience: Sensorium AV & MBL’s Multichannel Demonstration
There was certainly a lot of hype surrounding the room: the long lines waiting to get in the demo, the even longer lines waiting for tickets, and the crushing riffs of Rush’s “YYZ” emanating out into the hallway. Attendees strolled out of the room giggling and carrying gift bags. While all the other rooms at this hi-fi show were the same walk-in, knock on the speakers, and walk-out ordeal, MBL and Sensorium AV wanted to make this an experience to remember.
MBL’s Jeremy Bryan performed what I could only imagine was a harrowing setup prior to the show. This eleven speaker system included a pair of MBL 111 Fs up front, an MBL 120 RC as the center channel, a pair of the MBL 116 Fs as side speakers, stand-mounted MBL 120s as rears, and four JL Audio Gotham active subwoofers for the room-shaking low end.
A stack of various MBL amps, preamps, media players, and DACs lined the left rear wall. A United Home Audio Phase 11 reel-to-reel glowed in the rear-center. The reel-to-reel’s intertwining imprints and royal ivory finish buried amongst the interspersed potted plants echoed of the Alhambra.
To enter, patrons slashed through these sound-proofing trees, turned a dark corner, and glanced upon stacks of glowing amps: the dashboard to this spaceship. Celestial blue columns dotted the floors in the black room and guided listeners to the cockpit.
What was this majestic alien aircraft?
The demo began with Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela” in stereo. I’ve never heard drums with such startling impact and realism. Like last year, I was blown away. Wooh Wooh!
And then the multi-channel demonstration started.
This was my first experience with multi-channel music. While a couple of very reputable sources loved it in print (Michael Lavorgna at Audiostream and Michael Fremer at Analog Planet) and even more in person at the show, I can’t say that I enjoyed it. Multichannel music was an uninvolving experience. Rather than letting me fall into the depth of the recording and music, it threw the instruments and soundstage in and around me giving me no choice but to submit. Rather than have the music invite me, it invited itself.
The sound was pristine, loud, and clear, but I had trouble cleanly identifying where objects were in the soundstage. Were they in the center? Were they left-center? Damn that center channel speaker.
Why do I hear the audience both in front of me and behind me? Things were happening everywhere.
The Beatles Yellow Submarine video was especially involving, as it combined the psychedelic landscape of colors with all of these aural hallucinations.
The Incredibles was perfect use of the system adding a razor-sharp clarity and thrilling three-dimensional excitement to the darting superheroes and bladed enemy UFOs. But when we returned to music, I was confused again.
I left during Neil Peart’s drum solo. Blasphemy. How could I leave during The Professor? I did. I’m sorry. I had to.
Kudos to the folks at MBL for truly making a magical experience for all of those who attended. I apologize for leaving the demo early. I’m sorry, Jeremy. I’m sorry, Sensorium. I’m sorry, Kal. It had to happen. Two speakers are just enough for me.
Stephen Mejias adds: This demo, with its incredibly high volumes and unusual length (some sessions went as long as 45 minutes, I was told), was not for the faint of heart, but it did a better job than any other at creating an experience. There was nothing typical about it, and, because of that, it's a demo that I will likely always remember.
And while some attendees resented having to wait in line, I suspect even more were tantalized by what pleasures were kept behind the closed door: MBL and Sensorium created a buzz that whipped through the entire Palace Hotel. And, besides, attendees who waited were well rewarded: As Ariel mentions, most people left the demo with huge smilesan unusual sight for a hi-fi show.
This was more thrill ride than hi-fi. I felt like I was a kid again, enjoying a trip to the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando.
I was surprised by the intense volume. But what surprised me more was that no one complained: Audiophiles, in my experience, tend to be unusually sensitive to high volumes and will happily walk out of those demos deemed too loud. Yet, for whatever reason, no one walked out of this particular demo. Was this because the system never broke a sweat, maintaining its clean, distortion-free sound throughout? Possibly.
Finally, I cannot stand Rush. I don't even like to think about Rush. My notes, scribbled frantically in the dark, read: This will be the first and last time I ever actually enjoy Rush. Remember it.