The Fifth Element #21

To the great surprise of not that many people at all, at Home Entertainment 2003, as at the two immediately previous shows, the room featuring loudspeakers by Joseph Audio was voted by showgoer ballot "Best Sound of Show" (see September 2003, p.62). I'm not going to pick a fight over that. Not only was the sound very, very good; the entire vibe was confidently relaxed, while at the same time being purposeful in a manner businesslike yet friendly.

Some other manufacturers and exhibitors could learn a few things from Jeff Joseph and his co-exhibitor colleagues. Not everyone, of course, is blessed with Jeff's winning sense of showmanship; but even on the basic level of what happens once someone walks into an exhibitor's suite, in many cases there was ample room for improvement.

The management axiom "if something is everybody's job, it really is nobody's job" was proven true, time and again at HE2003. I refer to "jobs" such as saying hello, explaining what the system is, and offering to play some music or to change what is playing.

Not every company has to run a well-oiled get-out-the-vote machine eerily reminiscent of John Kennedy's early election campaigns in Massachusetts (or his presidential race in Illinois, for that matter); in fact, that would be a real downer. There's a lot to be said for free-form, no-pressure, come-as-you-are demoing, as opposed to timed, scripted run-throughs that have people lined up in the hall, waiting for the next one.

I'm always a bit leery of getting locked into timed and scripted demos, if only because, if I have to leave early to make a previous engagement, negative inferences might be drawn. The other side of the coin is that in San Francisco there was one particularly loud press demo I wanted to flee, but instead just sat there with my index fingers in my ear canals. (Hint, hint.) One other exhibitor was playing his setup so ridiculously loudly, for his sole enjoyment (he was alone in the room, and you are just shocked), that I sent in a foolhardy volunteer, asking that he turn it down so I could enter. Seriously. I suppose that, in the land of the deaf, he who can hear a little is king. As my safe-hearing guru Bob Ludwig asks, usually both rhetorically and to little effect, "Do you plan to make a career out of using your ears, or are you in it just for today?"

Speaking of fingers and ears, here is some handy practical advice from loudspeaker manufacturer Duntech's website: Take your thumb and first two fingers and rub them together in the nearly universal "It's a matter of money" gesture (my characterization, not theirs). Do this reasonably close to, but not right on top of, one of your ears. If you do this close to your ear while you're playing music but can't hear your fingers, you're probably playing the music too loudly. This is a rough and ready measure, obviously, but it seems to me a very sensible and portable, no-tech test. Pass it on!

Getting back to HE Show voting—and, again, going somewhat out on a limb here—I am often left with the sneaking suspicion that the polling results would be tighter if more exhibitors had spent more energy envisioning creative ways to use limited amounts of time to let consumers (and even journalists), who perhaps had not previously even known of a product's existence, hear something of what it can do (footnote 1).

To digress for a bit, and without taking away anything from the fine sound achieved through the hard work of Jeff Joseph and his colleagues (in that room, the Ensemble Amarcord CD I raved about in the September issue, had people holding their breaths), other rooms I found to be on an equally elevated level of sonic and emotional involvement were (in no particular order):

Triangle Magellan speakers, with Hovland electronics: This room featured tremendously involving, authoritative (but most assuredly not "in your face") playback of one of my own unreleased organ recordings, yet it scaled down just fine for small vocal groups. I have in the past had problems with (and mentioned in print) the tipped-up tonal balance I heard with some of Triangle's speakers, but that was not the case at all with the Magellans.

Dali Megaline speakers, Ming Da amps, etc.: A different take on the Magellans' modular construction technique—yet, curiously enough, at the same $30,000/pair price, and with a similar name—the Megalines sport ribbon tweeters running nearly full-length along the insides of ca 6" stacked (three per module) woofer-mids. As heard with Ming Da's classy tube amps, the result was a lighter yet sweeter, more Romantic sound, with supernatural imaging between the speakers. I buttonholed several journalist peers and dragged them into a room they doubtless had walked past many times on their way to the press lounge. Once they'd sat and heard, though, not one objected to the imposition. These speakers deserve a full review.

Wilson Benesch loudspeakers: both the home-theater setup—with Naim electronics powering Chimeras at the front, W-B's dedicated center-channel speaker, and Arcs at the rear—and the two-channel setup, with the jewel-like dedicated rack of Chord separates powering the remarkably smooth and supple Discoverys (which I raved about in my January 2002 column. Not to pig-pile, or kick a dead horse, but I still think that Diana Krall is to jazz what Ann Coulter is to political discourse. And, furthermore, that the popularity of both is more related to the oft-revealed flawlessness of their lower limbs than to anything else. Nonetheless, I confess to having been uncharacteristically mesmerized by a music video. Because of the sound.

Cabasse speakers, Butler Audio amplifiers: The speakers resembled Cyclopses who had entered the Franciscan order, but that was soon forgotten as the near-magical imaging and tonal trueness became apparent. Finely scaled dynamics, which made setting the proper volume level for each and every track a near necessity, were probably due in equal measure to the Butler amplifiers, the operating principle of which I failed to grasp—but they appeared to be getting crazy amounts of power out of one tube per channel.

Back (for the last time) to the HE "Best Sound of Show" voting: The other factor possibly contributing to the outcome, apart from Jeff Joseph's showmanship and marketing, appeared to be that the brands selected to display together worked well together, both in the audio and personalities senses.

Few things are more cringe-inducing than the (one is to be thankful, rare) experience of walking into an audio demonstration room where things have not been going well on the audio side, and as much or more energy is being dedicated to apportioning blame than to fixing the problems. One even hears of "quickie divorces" and "second marriages" in the early days of a show (usually at the Consumer Electronics or similar shows), when brands that had fallen together by chance, and perhaps had never before met or auditioned together, fall apart from audio or personal incompatibility.

Footnote 1: Having long ago been involved in politics as well as having made an academic study of aspects of it, I know that it is not quite all that simple. There is doubtless an "incumbency effect" at work here as well. Showgoers will naturally seek out rooms that have scored well in the voting in the past, to hear what all the fuss has been about. And some rooms are located more advantageously than others. But it is a multifaceted problem. One great-sounding room in San Francisco (Dali Megaline speakers, Ming Da amps, etc.) was almost directly opposite the elevators, yet many people seemed to bypass it to go wait in line for the Joseph-Manley and/or VTL-Wilson Audio Specialties demos.