HE 2001: Many Paths to Sonic Bliss

The packed house that was Home Entertainment Expo 2001 on Saturday thinned to a manageable level on Sunday the 13th, allowing most of the Stereophile crew ample opportunity to visit all the displays they had missed the previous two days. Toward the 6 o'clock closing time folks were still wandering the halls, and talking amicably and enthusiastically with friends they see once or twice a year. There is always a great deal of continuity in these shows, not only in the products, but also in the people.

That's one of the most charming aspects of the high-end audio industry, which isn't one where conceptual breakthroughs happen very often. They do happen, of course, to us newshounds' great delight, but for the most part, progress consists of many minor refinements piled one atop the other in a sort of archeological accumulation of knowledge and technical skill. Shows such as this, where a good cross-section of the industry is represented, are competitions between the good and the better, leaving the impression that the quest for good sound is a widespread obsession. It's also one that is, for the most part, achieved. There were no bad products at this show.

In fact, there were few that could even be called mediocre. They're almost all good—a fact that makes specialty show reporting doubly difficult, because if one were to give every product on display the ink it deserves, the result would be nothing but a list of names and specifications. Not very entertaining, even for the most fanatic gearhead. The task then becomes not to give everyone equal time, but to draw attention to whatever truly stands out from the crowd.

What audio products and design trends impressed me this time around? Apart from Niro Nakamichi's new amplifiers, they were almost all loudspeakers. JBL's new TiK series, in the Home Entertainment Designs. suite looked very promising. A rounded, truncated pyramid finished in a pale wood veneer, the Ti 10K is the beneficiary of Harman International's deep research and development program. Sporting newly designed drivers, the 10K has a look that is truly modern, and a sound worthy of a deeper pursuit than any of us were able to give it at the Hilton. A DVD of Roy Orbison performing with an all-star band sounded wonderful.

The pyramidal (or obelisk) loudspeaker cabinet, long popular with makers of stand-mounted mini-monitors, as well as with companies like Green Mountain Audio and Gershman Acoustics, appeared here in several guises. One that I visited repeatedly was Talon Audio Technologies' X-Khorus, a mid-size contender with a truly big presentation. Quite appealing in glossy black, the X-Khorus stands about 3 feet tall and reaches from 17Hz to 35kHz without apparent strain. Said to be capable of handling up to 1000 watts of input power, the speaker's claim to fame is a "revolutionary port design" and "group phase technology" that dissipates the woofer's back-wave pressure.

As mentioned before, EgglestonWorks' Savoy was a memorable performer. It won't win any awards for sleek visual design, but the sound is first-class. So is Roman Audio Systems' Centurion, a $5400/pair newcomer. Roman Audio is a DiAural licensee, and like all DiAural speakers I have heard, it exhibited effortless openness, uncompressed dynamics, and excellent imaging. For sheer value, it would be hard to top Polk Audio's Digital Solution 7200, a new multi-channel audio system, which includes five two-way speakers, a powered subwoofer with an integral multichannel amplifier, and a tuner/processor/preamp—all for $2200 retail.

On the ninth floor, Alan Yun enjoyed three busy days demonstrating his new Silverline Sonata. "Great attendance," he said. The Mk.II version has been considerably reworked from its predecessor, with greater bass potential and better power handling. Immediately next door, Berlin-based manufacturer MBL was doing its usual exemplary job of showing what great audio is all about. Pictures at an Exhibition over the omnidirectional 101s was a show highlight. MBL principals Wolfgang Meletzky and Peter Alexander concurred with Yun's assessment of the show. "Excellent," said they.

David vs. Goliath: the giant killer here was the Red Rose "Baby Reference" system, demonstrated with aplomb by Victor Tiscareno. Consisting of a Sony DVP-ES-9000 DVD/SACD player, a Red Rose Model 5 integrated amp, and a pair of diminutive R-3 stand-mounted speakers, the system kept showgoers in musical awe. "No acoustic treatment," Victor pointed out, "And the whole system is under $13,000, including the Target rack and stands, and the Foundation III power conditioner." Red Rose played nothing but SACDs during the show, to the dismay of some attendees who had brought their own CDs along, Tiscareno mentioned. Michael Fremer's glowing report on the R-3 in the May Stereophile generated plenty of interest, it appeared.

JMlab's Grand Utopias in the Lamm Industries room occupy the other end of the hugeness scale. A J-10 favorite, they sounded marvelous driven by Lamm ML-2 monoblocks. Source was a dCS SACD transport, feeding a dCS Purcell/Elgar combo, in turn feeding a Lamm Reference preamp. FIM Gold cabling linked it all together. I neglected to calculate the system's total retail cost, but suffice it to say that it's out of reach for all but the most upscale audiophiles.

For far less money, one could order up the Airfoil 5.2 speaker system from Impact Technology. This stunner knocked me out on Saturday, and was not surpassed by anything I heard on Sunday. In hallway discussions late Sunday, both Ray Kimber and Bob Deutsch mentioned that they, too, had been mightily impressed by the Airfoil—Kimber, by the technological leap, as well as the sound; Deutsch, by the sheer musicality. (Over to you, Brian Damkroger . . .)

Best New Name: Wisdom Audio Corporation announced the latest addition to its speaker lineup. Around July 1st, the company will introduce a product in the $6000-$7000 range by the name of "Baby Adrenaline." Ad campaign suggestion: "So good, you'll cry for mama." After three days wandering the NY Hilton, I'm there.