Great Sound, Cool Designs Abound at HE 2001

In suite 949, Nashville, TN-based Nearfield Acoustics debuted an unnamed new model in its PipeDreams series of tower loudspeakers, one that sounds very promising. To sell for an estimated $10,000/pair, the speaker boasts a 98dB sensitivity rating and improved coherence over its predecessors, the result of using a horn-loading technique for the tweeters, according to company principal Craig Oxford. The new cabinet design is rounded in the back, allowing a single piece of veneer to be wrapped around it, yielding a literally seamless look. There are big bucks awaiting whoever comes up with a suitable name for the product, Oxford mentioned. "Opium" was my suggestion. Hey, it works for perfume.

Some extremely impressive demonstrations were taking place on the Hilton's 42nd floor Here we found some of the best sound so far at the show, and some of the most outrageous industrial designs. EgglestonWorks' multi-driver creation, the Savoy, was a pleasant surprise. Although somewhat inelegant from a visual perspective—they are imposing and boxy—the big black speakers produced quite an involving and believable soundstage, with satisfying dynamics and a natural tonal balance.

Berkeley, CA's Legend Audio Design has spruced up its bare-bones industrial designs with the addition of several color finishes, including at least three flavors of metal-flake enamel for The Legend, the company's inviting two-way pyramid loudspeaker. Legend Audio Design electronics are also now available in colors, including a grape-purple all-tube Starlet integrated amplifier.

Niro Nakamichi, of cassette deck fame, has of late been pouring his brilliance into amplifier development, including some unique research on the audible effects of vibration and mechanical resonance on electronic signals. Nakamichi believes that too much effort has been directed toward improving circuit designs, to the detriment of the mechanical aspects of amplification. With that as a conceptual cornerstone, in 1998 he founded Mechanical Research Corporation, whose mission was to create a new type of amplifier, in which every imaginable type of resonance has been minimized.

The results, on display in suite 4237, are as expensive as they are stunning. The $22,000 Niro 1000 Monoblock Power Engine easily ranks among the most outrageous and obsessive designs ever conceived. Capable of 150 watts of "pure class-A" power, the "engine" is said by Nakamichi to "change the way amplifiers are engineered." Details previously ignored in amp design, such as heatsink resonance (the Niro 1000 has fins of varying lengths for wideband frequency dissipation) or vibration induced through the AC connector (the Niro here features a spring-loaded connector "with an appropriate stabilizing pressure"). Wiring is kept as short and straight as possible, with no overlaps. The input stage, most sensitive to noise, is furthest away from the power supply, whose connections to the output stage are as far away as possible from the output connector, to minimize any "communication" between them.

The Niro 1000 is also available in a two-channel version, and there is a "control engine" (or preamp) and an integrated amp in the series. All of them are beautiful, and Nakamichi promises "musical transparency and authority never before achieved in an audio amplifier." Perhaps some lucky Stereophilian will get to review them.

Joseph Audio set up their always wonderful-sounding demonstration in Room 1019, spotlighting a La Luce turntable, Spj arm, Cardas Myrtle cartridge, Brightstar Air Mass 19 isolation base, Herron Phono Stage, Marantz SACD player, Classé Omega preamp, Classé CAM 350 amps, Cardas Golden Reference Cables, and of course, a pair of Joseph Audio RM33si Signatures. Maybe it's because Jeff Joseph always hands out free M&Ms, but in a packed show, no room was more consistently overflowing with listeners than his. Could this be where "packed to the hilt(on)" came from?

Special praise must also be showered upon Impact Technology, a relative newcomer to the high-end audio field, but whose efforts here presage great things to come. The four-year-old Ambler, PA–based company had an incredible loudspeaker system on display in suite 4239, which was cosponsored by Avalon Audio Video and Harmonic Technology. It's been a long time since I got choked up during an audio demo at one of these shows, but hearing Sonny Rollins' soulful rendition of "What a Difference a Day Makes" through the Airfoil 5.2 literally brought tears to my eyes. The system—two nine element towers, two "coupling woofer bases," two "Dual 12" powered subwoofers, and one electronic controller, with Plinius disc player, preamp, and power amp—offered something nearer to real music than anything I've heard at the Hilton so far. (No, I hadn't had the opportunity to attend any of the live events, to my regret.)

The external surface of the Airfoil towers is an irregular curve—hence the name—and contained therein is a line of nine "bending wave drivers" that superficially resembles a ribbon element. Set up here, they are oriented to face each other—a seeming violation of one of the most fundamental audiophile principles—yet they launch an immensely realistic waveform toward the listener. The combination of the drivers (invented by Paul Paddock, of Portland, OR, an Impact Tech partner) and the curved towers results in a 150-degree horizontal dispersion pattern for all frequencies above 160Hz. "Room-filling sound" doesn't begin to describe what the Airfoil does: create a natural, believable acoustic that continues to image even if people are standing directly between you and the loudspeakers, an effect for which I have no ready explanation.

Below each tower is a "coupling bass" enclosure that houses two small woofers, operating in the 80Hz-160Hz octave. The subwoofers, housed in lightweight cylindrical cabinets, handle low bass duties, of course. "The subs' walls are only 3/8" thick," said Impact Technology president Mark Conti, "but you can put your hand on it and you won't feel a bit of vibration." The entire Airfoil system is rigidly built, but so lightweight that "it's all UPS-able," as Conti put it. Impact Technology doesn't believe that High End means Heavy Weight.

The Airfoil 5.2 system seems a remarkable bargain at $35k. The company makes three other systems that step down in complexity and price, bottoming out at $22,000 for the Airfoil 4.1. Stereophile's Brian Damkroger has already requested the 5.2 for review, said Impact marketing v.p. Lawrence Blair. My bet is that Brian will fall in love with this system the way I have. I doubt I'll encounter anything better during the show's remaining day