2005 CES: The Last Report

It's the final day of the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show. I'm walking down the Alexis Park's long corridors, beneath its archways and palm trees, wondering where I'll end up next. The air is cool, but the sun is out and I'm feeling very much alive, energized by all the morning's music.

As I walk, certain sounds are becoming more distinct. I'm making my way toward the music. It's coming from the Audio Note room, and it's suddenly violent and aggressive. Soon I recognize the band to be Rage Against the Machine. They're cursing and screaming about something political, I suppose, something about taking the power back. There is no trace of guilt in their demands. They know what is necessary for what they feel is essential change. I walk into the room to find four young, messy haircuts banging their heads to the rock. I smile. "Perhaps," I think to myself, "I'll stick around here for awhile. Maybe this is the right room for busting out more DFA 1979, more Champs."

All too soon, however, the music comes to an end, and the messy haircuts leave. As they do, one of the older gentlemen in the room announces: "It's amazing who will stick around and listen to that stuff."

"Me?" I'm thinking.

And he continues: "It's not good to go deaf before lunch."

I can't really argue with him there. But still.

Another listener offers: "Here. Put this in," handing the first gentleman a CD. "It's something a little different."

As the music begins, he continues: "Turn the volume down. Lower. One notch lower."

It's some sort of female operatic stuff with cello involved, I think. I'm not at all familiar with it. While it couldn't have been any more different from what was previously playing, it's still captivating and powerful, and though the volume on the system has been turned down dramatically, the music is still quite loud. I leave, however, without getting any information on the system, somewhat miffed by the way these men were so easily turned off by the aggression of Rage. Shouldn't they have embraced the younger generation's passion for music, as Focal-JMlab's Gerard Chretien suggested to us on Day 2?

I'm looking for music. Music is the reason I'm here. I'm drawn into the Focus Audio room by male vocals and acoustic guitar. Instantly, I hear similarities to the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt. The chord progressions and melodies and the deep, longing voice are all there. I sit and listen. It's beautiful.

Afterwards, I introduce myself to Focus Audio's Marketing Manager, Roger Kwong, and ask him about the song.

"It's called 'Vincent,'" he tells me. "Sung by David Roth."

Of course, being young and silly, I'm thinking: "Diamond Dave?" But it's not that David Roth, and I say nothing of it. Instead, I ask him if I can hear a track from my mix CD. He gladly obliges.

"It's a song by the Magnetic Fields," I tell him. "I'd like to hear it because that last song really reminded me of it. It's got similar male vocals and acoustic guitar."

He smiles, and loads the CD.

The song is called "It's Only Time," and Stephin Merritt sings:

"Why would I stop loving you a hundred years from now?
It's only time.
It's only time."

We're listening through Focus Audio's Master Series loudspeakers, which retail for $19,000/pair, and I find that individual layers of the song are much more distinct than I ever heard. Instruments and ambient noise aren't just floating around aimlessly. They aren't all mashed together like when I listen at home. Instead, they're definite, individual pieces that fall perfectly into place, making one meaningful whole. Though I'm very familiar with the song, it now seems completely new to me, and I love it much more. I imagine that this is the way Merritt intended the song to sound. I wish he were here. "In a way," I think to myself, "he is."

As I leave the room, I'm left with echoes of the song's final plea, Merritt asking, "Marry me, marry me," and I'm drawn to the next room down the corridor, where I hear: "Love and marriage, love and marriage / Go together like a horse and carriage...."

"Funny," I think to myself. What room is this? It's Soaring Audio, where representative, Lois Avery can't seem to control her happy feet. Dressed in green and with a bow in her hair, tap tap tapping her happy feet to the music, Lois Avery can't help but dance. It's an institute you can't disparage.

"Soaring Audio?" I wonder. "What the heck is it?"

Lois seems to read the question right from my face, and as I approach, she informs me: "We have amplifiers and an audiophile-quality media server."

"Okay," I say. "Thank you."

I stop in for only a moment. I watch Lois dance for a bit. She catches me looking, we exchange simple smiles, and then I leave.

I see the Aaudio Imports room where Acapella Audio and Einstein Audio are located. "Why not?" I tell myself. As I enter, there is a wall obstructing my view of the system, but I hear what sounds like a very live drummer. Seriously live. I walk into view, and am momentarily stunned: "Whoa. Those are weird horns!" I read the display standing behind the speakers to learn: "Acapella—The Inventor of Spherical Horns."

I wonder if it's true. And, if so, so what? What does it mean? What do they do? I don't know, exactly, but I can tell you that they really convey the sound of live music. I'm not an audiophile, but I am a musician, and it's almost as though I can hear our drummer there in the room with us, banging away. Which reminds me:

Q: How can you tell when a drummer's at the door?
A: The knocking gets louder and louder and he's never on time.

Or something like that.

I'm out the door and on my way to meet Stereophile's Jon Iverson and Wes Phillips for a brief visit with Mobile Fidelity's master engineer, Shawn Britton, and their executive VP, John Wood. We arrive at the MoFi stand, where Shawn and John generously and happily load me up with a few of their recordings. There's so much I see and want—R.L. Burnside, Sonny Rollins, Sonic Youth—but I feel badly about taking these discs for free. They're much too valuable, it seems to me. Before too long, though, I'm carrying Jim Hall's Concierto, Aimee Mann's Lost in Space and Bachelor No.2, and Dave Alvin's Blackjack David. They insist that I take them.

Shawn and John talk about their work with a sincerity, pride, and passion that I admire, and which increases the value of the discs they've just offered me, as well as the generosity of the gift. "Is there anything you want to know about the mastering process?" John asks.

"I guess my very simple question is: why is mastering necessary? What exactly does it do?"

"Well," John tells me, "it's the last chance to fix anything that needs to be fixed. Ideally, a recording won't need anything done to it. But there are many variables involved. Say, for instance, there's something wrong with the room that causes a slight hiss. We'll fix that. And, of course, it can be a track by track thing. Some tracks might not need anything done to them. We'll leave them alone. Other tracks might need a lot of work. We'll go over them meticulously until we think it's right, polishing the work until it's smooth and clean, not taking anything away that should be there, not adding anything that shouldn't. Then there are times where we'll work straight into the night, and we'll wake up in the morning and find that it's total crap and we wonder, 'What the hell were we thinking?' But that's the way it goes. We'll start right from the beginning until we figure it out. We consider ourselves lucky, though. For the most part, we get to work with music that we really love, so it's a great pleasure for us to be able to do what we do. Of course, we don't like every piece of music we deal with. But I always come back to something Shawn tells me—it really almost gets me teary-eyed thinking about it—he says, 'Even though I don't like this piece of music, there's someone out there who's going to hear it, and it'll remind them of something important to them, or of a special time in their life, and they'll love it.' That's really why we do this. To communicate that emotion."

I feel very lucky to have spent some time with Shawn and John. (I haven't mentioned much about Shawn Britton, but it would be almost impossible for me to capture his verve and sass here on a computer screen. He's a gentle, caring, funny-as-all-hell, one of a kind dude.) It was a total pleasure.

Hours later, I'm on my way to deliver my day's work to Jon Iverson, so that he can post it on the Stereophile website. Along the path, I'm happy to see John Wood.

"There he is!" he exclaims.

"Hello, John."

He's got a stack of Mobile Fidelity albums tucked under his arm. "Want some vinyl?" he asks.

I shake my head. "I feel like you've already given me too much."

He gives me a look. "What?! Don't feel guilty. Listen, it's our pleasure to share this stuff with you. Like I was saying before, this is all about sharing the music. And I really think that what you're offer the hobby of high-end audio is essential. We have to get this stuff out to the younger generation. We have to let them know that it exists. Maybe we can work on that together."

"Alright," I tell him, "Let's do it."

He smiles. "Okay."

We start to go our separate ways on the path, when John yells out to me: "And stop feeling guilty!"

I smile. "He's right," I think to myself. "About everything."