HE2003—Day One

The first day of the annual Home Entertainment shows is traditionally devoted to "trade" access only—that is to say, set aside for press conferences and dealer demonstrations (ie officially sanctioned schmoozing and cruising).

This year's event was far heavier on the real work of gleaning information from an unceasing barrage of press conferences than on the less arduous and more fun hanging out with the usual suspects.

Arduous is such a relative term, however, since this year's show actually produced a ton of interesting products and philosophies.

Sony had a huge presence here in San Francisco, scheduling a new product launch, which announced an entire series of multichannel A/V receivers featuring high-powered amplifiers utilizing new "digital drive amplifier with S-Master Pro-Processing," which, Sony claims, is ideal for reproducing high-resolution stereo and multichannel music. The $4500 STR-DA9000ES, the company's new flagship receiver, employs Sony's new digital amplifier design, which keeps signal paths simple, offers zero cross distortion, and provides linear current and voltage characteristics. Interesting as those features are, however, what drew gasps from the press was the announcement that the receiver included an i.LINK digital input—which hints at products that output DSD data via an IEEE 1394 interface (utilizing the new "5C" Digital Transmission Content Protection).

One promising product that does employ the i.LINK output is Sony's new flagship SACD player, the $3000 SCD-XA9000ES, a multichannel-capable player which features a "frame and beam" chassis, said to reduce resonance, as well as a dual discrete laser pick-up mechanism, which pairs two independent lasers with a single optical lens, providing (Sony claims) "optimum performance for Super Audio CDs and CDs, as well as CD-R/RW discs."

Sony's demo paired the i.LINK-connected STR-DA9000ES and SCD-XA900ES with five Wilson Audio Systems WATT/Puppy 7s and a Watchdog subwoofer, producing impressive sound from some newly remastered Bob Dylan songs (Sony Music will release 16 hybrid SACD/CD discs from the Dylan archives on August 19) and from a newly remastered Gaucho from Steely Dan. Not bad for a receiver!

Other news on the SACD front: ABKCO announced a series of remastered hybrid discs from its Sam Cooke catalog, including a 5.1 channel version of Sam Cooke At The Copa. Harmonia Mundi will release six SACD titles in early Autumn, including 11,000 Virgins by Anonymous 4. Blue Note, Groove Note, Fantasy, and Concord Jazz are also climbing onto the SACD bandwagon.

Tannoy showed an innovative active loudspeaker that incorporates digital processing capabilities. The Eyris iDP interactive digital loudspeakers are biamplified designs. The speakers have flexible voicing options built into their digital logic system (including EQ and notch filters that can be format specific for stereo CDs, multichannel SACDs, and DTS and Dolby Digital DVDs). Although the speakers can receive and process digital signals, they also accept analog inputs. System prices for 5.1 channel combinations range from $25,000–35,000.

Distributor Pure Audio was demonstrating an impressive system based around the $35,000 Dali Megaline line-source loudspeakers driven by two sets of the $10,000/pair Ming Da tubed MC300B/845 monoblocks (which use 300Bs as drivers and 845As as output devices). The system, which also contained a Ming Da preamplifier and Xindac power cords and speaker cable, also featured active-signal interconnects from the Dutch company SEEC. The SEEC cables utilize small amplifier modules that "correct" the impedance of the cable/signal combination to 75 ohms, allowing audiophiles to run ridiculously long interconnects without degradation. We'll have to take that on faith, however, as the distances being covered in the demonstration were relatively short.

The sound of Minnesota choir Cantus' newest work in progress—recorded only last week in South Dakota by John Atkinson—was undisputedly sublime through Pure Audio's system. The group materialized in the room, standing in a semicircle that arced from one speaker to the other and deep into the room. Cantus' voices floated in the room, filling the space with a hushed beauty that even quieted the loiterers gossiping in the back. It was the sort of moment that reminded us of why we fell in love with hi-fi in the first place.

Which, not so coincidentally, was the topic of both keynote speakers at HE2003's Press Luncheon.

Head Monster Noel Lee spoke passionately about the absence of passion from the sales floor at most audio emporia, observing that the problem with the flagging audio marketplace was "that most of our customers are either retired or dead." But the graying of the traditional audiophile customer isn't necessarily cause for alarm, Lee argued. There's a great crop of high-resolution products available today and customers who want to make the most of them—but only if the merchants and manufacturers stop telling them they're wrong to want to use these products in non-traditional ways.

Customers are as passionate as ever about music and home entertainment, Lee opined. That creates opportunities for savvy manufacturers and dealers to prosper, if they’re smart enough to listen to what the consumers want and capable of delivering what they need.

David Hyman, chief strategist and creative vice president of Gracenote, operator of the familiar CDDB on-line music database, expanded upon this theme. Answering Noel Lee's rhetorical question ("Where does all the money go?"), he responded, "The money all goes to computers." However, he argued, lossless compression, digital storage, and the affordability of massive capacity hard drives does not add up to an attack on traditional audiophile values so much as present an opportunity for high-end manufacturers to lead the way to new products that exploit those properties—which people are demonstrating that they value in record numbers—while establishing a higher standard of sound quality.

The existence of products such as Linn's Kivor, to cite just a single example, illustrates the compatibility of the two seemingly opposite approaches, Hyman argued. He predicted that the success and growth of specialty audio depended on companies' ability to fuse them in ways that compel customers to desire better sound quality in addition to convenience.

A comforting thought for a troubled industry, but whether or not it proves a prophetic one is something only time will tell.