Upper East Side Fringe: The Show at Lyric
Stephen Mejias: On Thursday, April 12, Stereophile’s editorial assistant, Ariel Bitran, and I left the office at around 5pm, walked over to Grand Central, hopped on the 6 train, and made our way to New York City’s Lyric Hi-Fi.
As Ariel discussed last week, Lyric was one of two premier NYC dealersthe other was Stereo Exchangethat opted against participating in the New York Audio & AV Show, and instead held their own events.
Because both Lyric and Stereo Exchange are successful operations, run by smart people, we figured they must have good reasons for doing things their own way. But, even as the weekend approached, those reasons weren’t fully clear. Were financial obstacles impossible to overcome? Were issues of logistics too much of a burden? Had there been some sort of communication breakdown between the dealers and the show’s organizers? Did it simply make little sense for Lyric and Stereo Exchange to participate, or were they just being hard-nosed, stubborn, elitist?
Perhaps we would find some answers inside.
Ariel and I weren’t merely curious; we were excited. Though I’ve heard many great stories about the shop, this was actually my very first time visiting Lyrica point I’m embarrassed to admit. And, for Ariel, this was an even bigger firstfalling on the eve of his first ever hi-fi show, this was Ariel’s first big dealer event of any kind. He was practically buzzing with energy, and I was psyched for him. I was reminded of my first CES, only Ariel seemed infinitely better prepared than I had been.
Ariel Bitran: Ugh. Stephen is so embarrassing. Yes, I was excited, but, jeez mom, do you have to tell everyone this is my first show? Either way, the trip up the 6 was amazingly short, because Stephen is lying. We took the express 5. But I’m such a newbie. We got out of the train, and we saw a Best Buy. I asked Momma Stephen, “Is this it?”
SM: Michael Taylor of Nordost gave us the old power cord demonstration: Starting with the Simaudio CD1 CD player’s stock cord and moving up the Nordost line, Taylor explained the benefits of Nordost’s designs and also played some very good music.
I think this was the first demo we experienced, and it was also my favorite. I don’t know if exhibitors realize this, but listeners really enjoy these kinds of simple, straightforward, routinized demos. At least, I do. I find such demos much more interesting, entertaining, and informative than the more typical sort where you just walk into a room while someone’s playing music. I want to learn something.
AB: This was easily my favorite demo of the event as well, simply for how interactive it was. I think that represents the same sort of relationship we have with our hi-fis at home. Nobody just sits there with reference recordings playing at them. Rather, we integrate ourselves with our systems, using our ears to figure out what changes we can make. Gear is static. We make the changes, especially if we have the money. Speaking of the money, Taylor demoed the Blue Heaven ($300/2m), Heimdall ($800/2m), and Frey power cables ($900/2m).
SM: Taylor also employed that common demo trick where the presenter asks you what differences were made by swapping components. You know the one: You listen, he changes something, you listen again, and then he asks you what you heard. As you answer, you sort of search his face for clues or affirmation. “Uh, I heard more presence…” (He nods.) “Greater image focus…” (He nods again.) “And…improved bass?” (He smiles and nods.) Whew!
But what do you think he’s going to do? Tell you, no, you didn’t hear those improvements?
AB: Well I certainly heard improvements and/or changes from these power cables, although I was kind of afraid to say them out loud. What if I got them wrong? Is there such thing as wrong in hearing?
SM: Only if we’re talking about Justin Bieber. God, why do people like that kid? Anyway, I don’t mean to give Michael Taylor a hard time. I thoroughly enjoyed the demo, and I really did hear those improvements. But, the next time a presenter asks me what I heard, I think I’ll say, “You tell me.”
AB: Go get ‘em tiger.
SM: Dave Gordon (left) of Audio Research and Charlie Randall of McIntosh Labsscandalous!
AB: It’s like the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame of Hi-fi!
SM: I’m always kind of intimated by Charlie RandallI think because he hangs out with John Varvatos and Perry Farrell and stuffso, I tend to make myself invisible when I see him, but you went straight up to him and were all like, “Yo, Charlie, what up?!” I think you even fist-bumped with him. Like you guys have been best buds forever. Nice.
AB: I’m not sure if he really knew who I was.
SM: Nola’s Carl Marchisotta stands beside his Concert Grand speaker system. Yow! That’s a lot of drivers. This demo was billed as an “exclusive preview” for the Nola speaker, which is just a step down from the company’s top-of-the-line Grand Reference VI. The Concert Grand was driven by Audio Research Reference 250 monoblocks, equipped with KT-120 tubes. Audio Research’s Ref 5 SE tube preamp and Ref Phono 2 phono preamplifier handled signals from a dCS Scarlatti system and an AMG Viella 12 turntable.
The Nola Concert Grand was physically and sonically impressive. I thought highs were extremely well-extended and vibrantthe system seemed to excel in terms of transient snap and articulationbut I was less impressed by the system’s midrange, which, to me, sounded thin, at least in this room and with the material we heard.
AB: These speakers seemed to be pouring air and space out of themselves. While the Focal Grand Utopia EM’s we had heard a few minutes before seemed too big for the room, I don’t think these speakers really cared about the room and successfully recreated a spacious aura to everything we listened to. As a result, dynamics on “Ciao” by Henry James had room to breathe with clearly distinguished passages of soft to very loud. The high-end extension and forceful delivery recreated tactile and reedy woodwind sound, but these speakers still seemed a touch brittle. Like in that Fleetwood Mac live recording we heard “Go Insane” from their Live 1997 record; now I know Lindsay Buckingham plays a little guitar (as in small), but this thing sounded like a tin pan with rubber bands. Very strange. Fortunately, we heard some Billy Gibbons who plays the axe like a man!
SM: I think the speakers came into their own, though, with that Dire Straits song. You used your iPhone to Shazam it, and I was totally jealous. It was “Telegraph Road,” and, to me, it sounded a lot like a Springsteen arrangementall triumphant and haughty and stuffbut it went on forever. You seemed to really dig it, busting out into air drums and all.
AB: I really should not leave my house.
SM: Gerald Jakob (left) of AMG and his US distributor, Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings, stand beside the lovely AMG Viella 12 turntable ($17,000) equipped with a Benz cartridge. This front-end did double duty, delivering sounds to the Nola Concert Grand as well as the majestic Focal Grande Utopia EM. What a lucky turntable!
AB: Aww, lucky indeed. My favorite moment was Garth sneaking into Carl’s demo to play a record amongst Carl’s CDs. Sometimes it is lonely out there for a turntable, and we need to show it some love through the backdoor.
SM: Gross, dude.
SM: I think the AMG Viella 12 is really cool. I love the simple shapeit seems that nothing is wastedand the fact that it can also play 78s is pretty rad. The one on displayLyric is the exclusive NYC dealerfeatured an all-black plinth, but the turntable is also available in gorgeous solid wood wraps.
AB: And it plays rap music.
SM: Woot woot! Wait, don’t say “rap” in a hi-fi shop. You might get shanked, homie.
AMG stands for Analog Manufaktur Germany. The Viella 12 sounded smooth, sweet, and detailed. Under the admittedly casual circumstances, the Viella sounded just as clean and detailed as the dCS Scarlatti system.
SM: Back out in the lobby, we spotted this McIntosh MXA60 mini stereo system ($7500). Charlie Randall just gave a bunch of these to John Varvatos and Perry Farrell.
AB: The Varvatos/McIntosh alliance is strong, and I think a solid move for their brand. Hi-fi is fashion and art and music all at once, just like Varvatos.
SM: Or Mikey Fremer’s hair. No, seriously. McIntosh presented each of the 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performing inductees with an MXA60 system. I read it in one of the 57 press releases I received from McIntosh last week. Recipients included Slash, Flea, The Small Faces, The Famous Flames (is that a real band?), The Blue Caps, The Crickets, and The Comets. They sure don’t make band names like they used to.
AB: You forgot ?uestLove, Steven Adler, and the Beastie Boys!
SM: Who the hell is Steven Adler?
AB: Goddammit, mom.
“Do you know what that is?” Lyric’s co-owner Lenny Bellezza asked.
“A Telecaster.” AB answered.
“An original 1952 Telecaster!”
“Oh, wow,” SM said, stepping away.
AB moved closer to it, then joked, “Can I touch it?”
“No, no, no…don’t touch it, don’t touch it!” Lenny stammered.
SM looked at AB and shook his head slowly. “Dude, don’t touch that guitar.”
SM: This Epiphone was signed by Les Paul and Twisted Sister. Which is kinda weird.
AB: Actually, Jay Jay French and Mark Mendoza of Twisted Sister are regular customers at Lyric, but I was informed that Lenny’s wife, Ruth, won this guitar at a raffle.
SM: Here you are, attempting to get us killed.
AB: But…but…she smells good.
SM: David Steven of dCS. This guy is the mac. He was talking with a beautiful blonde when we went into the big Focal/Nola room, and, when we came out, three hours later (after that Dire Straits song finally ended) he was still talking with her. You gotta respect the guy for that. Also, his company makes some amazing digital products.
AB: dCS stands for big pimpin'.
SM: Simaudio’s Moon 180 MiND (Moon Intelligent Network Device). Did anyone ever figure out what this thing does?
AB: I think so. The MiND is not a DAC, unlike many computer audio products released daily, but instead acts as a networking hub for all of your music. You can connect it to multiple systems in your house. Just plug in your hard-drive via Ethernet to get your music onto the MiND, and then control your libraries and system via iPad app. Future versions hope to include a DAC.
SM: ...zzz...zzz...Networks, Ethernets, DACs...zzz...zzz... I’m glad somebody was listening.
SM: This was an interesting demo. The new Classé CP-800 preamp/DAC was partnered with Classé’s M-600 600W monoblocks and B&W’s lovely 802 Diamond loudspeakers. B&W’s Scott Jordan connected an iPad with 16-bit/44.1kHz files to the CP-800’s front-panel digital input. We compared the playback of those tracks against 320kbps Spotify streams upsampled to 24-bit/192kHz resolution by an Autonomic MMS-5A digital streaming device ($3995).
Before that, however, Autonomic’s Michael Toscano wanted to know what I’ve been listening to lately. I knew where he was going with this. He would find my answer on Spotify and play it through the system. My mind raced through my recent pleasures: Drake (no, can’t play that), Kendrick Lamar (no, can’t play that), Danny Brown (no, REALLY can’t play that).
“Um, I’m thinking…I always have a hard time with this question,” I stalled.
For some reason, the words, “I’ve been listening to a lot of electronic music lately,” came out of my mouth.
Toscano waved his remote control. “Anything in particular?”
I felt like the kid in A Christmas Story when Santa’s asking him what he wants for Christmas. (“How about a nice football?”)
Upon hearing that I liked electronic music, the kind older gentleman seated behind me mentioned that Kraftwerk had been playing at the MoMa that week. “Kraftwerk are playing at the MoMa this week,” I repeated aloud. I felt my face turning red and I finally blurted out, “James Blake!”
Audiophiles seem to like James Blake, so I figured it would be a safe choice.
Toscano quickly found James Blake in Spotify and selected a track. Ten seconds passed before the kind older gentleman got up and left the room. Gah! I hate when I do that.
AB: Hey dude, at least you didn’t ask for Rush (like me). That makes everyone leave the room.
SM: Autonomic’s Mirage MMS-5A digital media server. When 320kbps Spotify streams were upsampled through the MMS-5A, it did seem that the soundstage opened up and images became clearer. I don’t really understand upsampling, though. How do you take a 320kbps stream and turn it into 24/192 data?
AB: You’re asking the wrong person, but I certainly enjoyed this demo, too. It signaled a promising hi-fi future for streaming music. Now are you gonna start using the Spotify account I made for you?
SM: Oh, snap.
Christa and Dan Mondoro, co-owner of Lyric.
SM: Lyric’s Lenny and Ruth Bellezza are a truly lovely couple. They really seem to complement one another. Ruth is all hugs and smiles and sweetness. And, when Lenny shook my hand, I thought he was going to crush it to pieces.
I kid. Seriously, I appreciated and enjoyed Lenny Bellezza’s candor. He wrapped his arm around my shoulder and said, “Let me tell you something.” As he pulled me aside, I caught Ruth rolling her eyes and letting loose a long sigh. “Alright,” continued Lenny, “I read what you wrote…”
“That wasn’t Stephen,” Ruth objected. “That was Ariel.”
I nodded vigorously.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Lenny.
“I want you to understand that what we’re doing here tonight is not some attempt to ride the back of the Waldorf show. You think I care about that? I don’t. This is Lyric. You think I wanted to do this?”
“Nuh-uh,” I said.
“I didn’t want to do this,” he continued. “I did this because our manufacturers asked us to do it. They saw the show happening at the Waldorf and they said we had to do something, so we did this. But the people here are my customers. VIPs. We’re doing something special for them.”
Lenny proceeded to give me a tour of the entire showroom, emphasizing the great efforts put into building rooms with the best possible acoustics, highlighting the importance of Lyric to the NYC community. Lenny Bellezza struck me as a proud, strong, caring individual. Yes, he’s confident and he can be arrogant, but he has every right to be. Lyric is, indeed, a special place, and “The Show at Lyric” was a success.
As I made my way through the lobby, I stopped to say goodbye to Ruth. She gave me a warm hug.
“It was a pleasure meeting you,” she said. “We’d love to see you again. Please come back any time.”
I think I will. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.
AB: I hope they didn’t notice that I took that Tele.