Graham Nash Visits Ayre Acoustics in the Venetian

[Note: click here for background on this project and here for how we set up the equipment.]

Graham Nash seemed to know right away that these were the guys that provided the guts for his buddy Neil Young's Pono player and wanted to know all about it. After all, there is a version with Nash's signature on it.

L-R Ayre's Brent Hefley and Alex Brinkman discuss Pono with Graham.

Nash is one of the most curious people I know, so is always asking questions. In fact, pretty much every time I've met up with him (or Stephen Stills and David Crosby for that matter) the question pops up about how the market is reacting to Pono and what is the long term prognosis. And I always have to say, it's going to be tough for Pono to succeed in spite of Young's evangelism and in spite of the fact that the player represents real sound quality value.

And sadly, I don't recall any evidence of Pono anywhere at the show this year, except when Graham mentioned he will be releasing his album through the Pono music store (in addition to HDTracks and others). Bringing quality sound to the masses is always a hard nut to crack.

We then settled down to focus on the system at hand, hit play on the laptop connected to the Codex (review pending), and listened to several selections from This Path Tonight. Considering the somewhat odd layout of the room, I thought it sounded intimate and wonderful.

Nash: "As usual with these high end systems, they're putting me closer to the music. You know, we're shortening the distance between the listener and that guy or girl that actually made the music. And the closer we can get, it's better for the music."

I asked Graham why he started adjusting the volume up and down at one point, during an acoustic number from his album, something I've seen recording and mix engineers often do in the studio.

"I wanted to see how these systems played. It's okay to blast it out on big speakers, but how does the sound translate at low volume. Does the balance and feel of the song change? And it impressed me. My voice sounded right."

L-R Alex Brinkman, Graham Nash, Brent Hefley.

In a previous entry in this series, reader Anton commented that "I sense that all the systems are going to sound great to Graham, in different diplomatically couched ways." And certainly that was the case here.

To be sure, every system we heard did sound good on Thursday, partly because I had checked in on each room the day before just to make sure that was the case. Why waste our time if a company was having trouble with their suite when there is so much great audio at CES?

And if we agree that there is more than one path to successfully reproducing music in a room, we'd be wrong to assume that there would have to be clear winners and losers at an event where so many participants are experts at getting maximum musical enjoyment out of their products.

All that said, there was no guarantee that Graham would like high-end audio sound, but it turns out he does.

Equipment List (used for demo):
Ayre Codex DAC $1,795
Ayre AX-5 Twenty integrated amp $12,950
Ayre L-5xe AC power filter $1,500
Vandersteen Quatros $13,900
Harmonic Resolution Systems stands
Cardas Clear cables

Allen Fant's picture

for his age, does GN still have excellent hearing?

jmsent's picture

Stephen Stills is nearly deaf. So is Pete Townsend. Neil Young has pretty bad Tinnitus, Phil Collins gave up in 2011 over hearing issues, Eric Clapton, Ozzy Osborne, Brian Wilson, Franki Valli....the list goes on. The Hollies was a pretty loud band, and that was the mid 60's when nobody wore protection. Hope Graham escaped the curse, but one really has to question...

John Atkinson's picture
jmsent wrote:
Neil Young has pretty bad Tinnitus...

Bob Stuart told me a while back that when Bob was working on the early Pono project, Neil would remove his hearing aids for listening tests and proved an extremely perceptive listener, identifying very small changes under blind conditions.

The ear is not a microphone.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

jmsent's picture

I understand...Beethoven was deaf when he wrote some of those incredible symphonies, etc. But the fact that Neil wears hearing aids and has tinnitus in the first place does indeed suggest rather compromised hearing function, and without knowing the conditions of those blind tests we also have no way of knowing if or how they were "tweaked" to accommodate Neil's hearing deficiencies . Surely you're not suggesting that such things are of no consequence? I have a good friend who is totally deaf in one ear and half deaf in the other. He's an absolute hi fi nut who enjoys listening every bit as much as I do. And surprisingly, he picks out some subtle stuff from the equipment he hears as well. Never mind the fact that he hasn't heard a stereo image in over 30 years. BTW, I have tinnitus too (but little hearing loss) and as long as music masks it you're good. But when music elevates it or creates intermodulation effects, the first thing you want to do is turn it down. Rumor has it that Harvest Moon, an uncharacteristically laid back Neil Young album, was his way of dealing with a particularly bad bout of tinnitus.

Jon Iverson's picture
I was wondering that too when we started. In normal conversation he always understands what I say, never asks me to repeat myself. But I was surprised how carefully he listened on Thursday, calling out details like any of us might.

But keep in mind, as a songwriter and performer, he was listening for something a little different: does his musical intent come across. He's not going to worry about technical details if he feels emotional connection to the song.

One other thing to note - Graham is not an electric guitar player or drummer.

corrective_unconscious's picture

He'd sort of be expected to know Ayre had something to do with the Pono player. Is there veiled surprise that he was aware? Is there a certain uncertainty in the "Nash _seemed_ to know right away"? A smidge of doubt? I mean, these 60s and 70s rockers are old, but it's not like they're comatose and being wheeled around to the various suites on hospital gurneys. Or at least the photos don't show that to be the case.

Jon Iverson's picture
Yeah, I didn't ask him before we walked in if he knew the connection, so when they started talking about Pono I had to assume he knew. But since I didn't know for sure, I reported that he "seemed" to know. But you're probably right, he knew.
AudioMan612's picture

Looks like Jude from Head-Fi was in there as well. Ayre was on Head-Fi TV not too long ago.

Johnny2Bad's picture

I've had Tinnitus since ... well, I don't actually remember anytime I didn't have Tinnitus.

I first got into Sound Quality audio when I was 14, the required $560 saved from my first summer job, buying a Sansui AU-101 stereo integrated amp, a SONY belt-drive manual table and cartridge, and speakers I built out of ¾" MDF with the venerable Phillips AD 0160 dome tweeter and a Celestion 12" woofer, carefully managed with a single film capacitor.

Phillips 0160 dome tweeter: yo've seen this baby, or a variant of it, on every second loudspeaker manufactured during the late 70's and 80's:

They were ten bucks each at the time; that's $ 44.11 in 2016 dollars.

I also learned my first "audio value" lesson; the SONY 'table was cheaper than the next available option by about $20, and it was noisy and crude. It was replaced with a Thorens TD145 / ADC XLM mkII as soon as I could afford it ... after the next year's summer job.

I had Tinnitus then.

I have owned a HiFi store, have operated a home recording studio, have been called to concerts to run the console when people were ill, in jail, or missed the bus (Muddy Waters, Supertramp), have DIY'ed amplifiers, countless speaker systems, every car audio system in every vehicle I've owned, and I still get calls to work concerts and offer advice to people who know me from my more serious professional audio days.

Tinnitus was ever present, through all of it.

I still have it, of course ... I need a radio or some kind of music or television playing in order to get to sleep at night most of the time.

This has led to my lifestyle habits of never going to bed before 1 AM in my life, staying up late to do work or hobbies, a preference for movies over television series', and living quite happily on 5 hours of sleep (once you wake up in the morning with Tinnitus, well, you are staying awake, trust me).

It doesn't affect my ability to critically listen, and my self-trained ear is reasonably well regarded amongst people who should know the difference.

I regularly have my hearing tested by an audiologist (every 2~3 years) and as of my last, in October of last year, she's steady as far as my hearing history goes, good to 17K, but no more, at 58 years of age.

I am going to suggest anyone who is curious about it to think of what they themselves are doing when engaging in critical listening ... you don't listen to the bass response and the vocals and the cymbals all at the same time, you concentrate on one or the other, and move about, listening to this aspect or that, evaluating in stages, until a picture made whole starts to emerge.

If you are simply relaxing, set in the listening chair, enjoying the music, that is another way to listen, however it's important to note that it's when you are engaged in a listening experience, that's when you don't notice and are not bothered whatsoever by the Tinnitus.

You might even go as far as saying it's because of Tinnitus that I enjoy audio as much as I do.

I know many musicians, of course, given my background, and I can honestly say there are few whom don't have one hearing issue or another. It doesn't affect their ability to listen as much as someone who has no significant hearing issue beyond maybe not hearing a steady 19KHz tone.

It kind of comes with the territory, since we learn as we go and youth encourages mistakes. But they do hear better than many people who are the same age that I know, who have damaged their hearing from steady-state environmental noise from their "real" jobs, and it really doesn't affect the ability of the musicians I know to play by their instruments, to sing, or to play with others.