Analog Corner #113

Richard Vandersteen at the 2004 THE Show in Indianapolis, where Audio Research demmed their MP-1 six-channel preamplifier and 150M multichannel power amp with a Vandersteen speaker system. (Photo: John Atkinson)

CEDIA's annual late-summer Expo, held this year (as in most) in Indianapolis, came just in time for me this year. I hate the excruciating noise at the Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association's gathering, but I get the same charge from high-resolution video as I get from great audio, and the Expo is all about the highest-quality images. Audio? If it's loud, surrounds you, and goes deep enough to massages your innards, it seems to be good enough for most home theater aficionados—and if the source of it can be hidden in the walls or ceiling, so much the better.

Sound has always been subservient to picture in films, probably because movies were silent at first. Read a film-credit crawl sometime. It seems as if the chauffeurs and caterers are credited before the sound people, yet soundtracks often add more to a picture than the picture does. Next time you watch The Fugitive at home, turn the sound off and watch the train crash. The train is a miniature model, but the convincing sound sells the illusion that it's full-sized. Silence makes it ridiculously clear that it's a toy.

The Sound of Expo
Loud, cacophonous, and barely about music, the CEDIA Expo is mostly a celebration of explosions and the pushbutton submission of technology to our every whim. It's about in-wall and ceiling loudspeakers that have gotten "really good." Maybe devotees of distributed music want their tunes pouring down from overhead like sonic rain, but I don't. When apologists say that distributed music is only for background listening, and I ask how many people who have speakers in every room do any foreground listening, the response is usually a sheepish grin of acknowledgment that few do.

That is a major problem for the audio industry, for the music business, and for recording musicians. Instead of paying attention to the music and to the creative efforts of musicians, consumers are becoming habituated to background listening, which at best is a parasitic activity in which the host musicians' energies are sucked out by the semiconscious listener and used to fuel activities like cooking, cleaning, reading, and partying. We all do that sometimes, but we also take the time to just listen—and that is becoming a lost art, even in conversation. If you've ever wondered why more and more people pay hundreds of dollars for concert tickets, only to sit there and rudely yak at full volume throughout the show, wonder no more.

Home theater has taken over from big two-channel rigs as the electronic penis of choice for conspicuous consumers. No doubt about it. Big Krell monoblocks and towering Apogee ribbon speakers have given way to dedicated home theater rooms, some so grotesquely executed they take your breath away—for all the wrong reasons.

Each year, CEDIA runs a competition wherein designers and installers submit their best work, which is voted on by peers. "Some of these installations," I wrote last year in Stereophile Guide to Home Theater (now Stereophile Ultimate AV), "sport more wood than the crowd at the Bada-Bing! Club." This year, I found out that the entry that inspired that remark ended up winning in its category.

"Louis the XV meets John Travolta," boasted the description submitted by one of this year's entrants. I couldn't have said it better myself. Gilded lion's-head armrests, red velvet walls, red- and gold-fringed drapes of blue velvet—all that was missing was a guillotine and a disco ball. (Correction: I've just referred to the equipment list. It does include a disco ball.)

There was a log-cabin motif home theater for a "displaced Texan," featuring fake windows overlooking a faux outdoor panorama, an Egyptian setting complete with stone-columned façade, a puppy-sized gold-leaf scarab beetle, and, on either side of the screen, a larger-than-life, gold-bosomed African servant bearing a platter on her head. The room was finished off with enormous leopard-skin throw pillows big enough for a camel to lounge on.

Another unforgettable entrant had a tiki-bar theme, complete with straw-fringed screen and night-sky ceiling. One installation looked like the room Keir Dullea died in before becoming an embryo in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet another customer desired and got "an Italian courtyard... without sacrificing sound quality." A "leading name in the theme park industry" was consulted on this baby; if you'd seen it, you wouldn't have been surprised.

Last year, SGHT readers accused me of "hating the rich" for mocking tacky taste. Bad taste knows no economic bounds, though some of these installations cost in the neighborhood of $1,000,000—not for the house, but for the home theater and distributed A/V.

The Search for Sound
There was some good sound to be found at CEDIA Expo 2004, including one demo literally just beyond my hotel room door. By coincidence, Musical Fidelity's American distributor, Signal Path Imports, had set up shop next door to my sleeping quarters—floor space at the Expo was sold out by the time they decided to show. Signal Path demoed Musical Fidelity's new X-series electronics as well as the new Era line of compact loudspeakers, built for Signal Path in China. Despite their small size, these little brutes delivered surprisingly robust, open sound, thanks to beefy, sophisticated custom drivers designed from scratch by Aerial's Michael Kelly.

The smaller Signal Path Era speaker ($600/pair), has a 4" woofer and a 1" dome tweeter. It played impressively loudly without noticeable compression, down to what sounded like the mid-50Hz region. The bigger speaker ($900/pair) has a custom 5" woofer and 1" tweeter and sounded like a much larger speaker. Both models have attractive, curving, and well-finished cabinets veneered in wood. Musical Fidelity's new X-150 integrated amplifier ($999, complete with built-in phono preamp) and a pair of the larger Era speakers gets you into a real hi-fi system for around two grand. A powered sub will soon be added to the Era line.

I'd made an early-morning appointment before the show to audition NHT's new Xd DSP-driven satellite and subwoofer speakers in a hotel room. It was an impressive demo. The two-tone, art deco–ish system is stylish yet compact. Each small satellite, in an enclosure of molded composite and MDF, contains a 5¼" midrange and 1" tweeter. The powered bass module has opposed 10" drivers and a 500W amplifier. A compact, low-profile chassis houses the DSP components, four channels of 100W class-D amplification, and 24-bit/96kHz A/D/A conversion.

The Xd is a collaboration among NHT, DEQX (Digital Equalization and Crossover), and PowerPhysics. NHT designed the speakers and has them built in China, PowerPhysics devised and supplied the digital amplification for the satellite and subwoofer, and you know what DEQX provided. DSP is not used for room-specific frequency-response correction (though that will become available later), but to provide active, steep-slope (100dB), phase-coherent crossovers and frequency-response correction designed specifically for the drivers used. The only user control allows for boundary equalization based on speaker distances from the side and front walls.

NHT claims that the Xd produces measured response that is unusually flat and phase-coherent, and noticeably low in distortion. Sounds great, too, they say, over a wide range of rooms, placement situations, and listening positions. All the buyer needs to add is a preamp and sources, or a source with a volume control, such as an Apple iPod or portable CD player. At $5500/system, the Xd is not inexpensive, but it does include sophisticated signal processing, all amplification, and a DSP-compensated powered sub—essentially, it's a compact, nearly full-range, two-channel system.

In the hotel room, the Xds sounded extremely smooth, coherent, and detailed over a wide listening window. The blend of satellite and subwoofer was particularly seamless and coherent, the soundstage was unusually large and well-developed for such a small system, and it played loudly without strain. The Xd is a dream come true for audio enthusiasts who live in small apartments, but NHT claims it can also take the place of much larger systems in fairly large rooms.

Despite difficult listening conditions, and the fact that it digitizes analog signals for processing, my impression of the NHT Xd was of a superbly performing small system that still sounded like a small system—but that might sound much larger in my listening room. I hope to find out. Modules can be added for multichannel operation, the software is upgradeable, and a wireless subwoofer option will soon be available.

If the Xd is as good as I think it is, I hope it finds a place in the two-channel market. It must have taken a great deal of time and effort to design and develop the system, and guts to bring it to market at a time when interest in two-channel audio—when interest in listening to music at all—seems on the ebb. Sitting and listening to the Xds, I thought of how 1950s audio enthusiasts might have reacted to such a system. I think they would have been amazed, even confused by such coherent, full-range, dynamic sound coming from such a small package.

This was only the first day of Expo 2004, and I'd already heard two good two-channel demos. Unfortunately, that was it until the show's fourth and final day. In between, I saw some spectacular-looking high-definition TVs, including two 1920x1080p full-resolution devices, one each from Sony and Sharp.

At a Tannoy press conference, I saw but couldn't hear what looked like a promising home theater system—and perhaps a two-channel sat-sub system as well, should Tannoy offer it that way. The Arena array's curvaceous satellites feature a 5" version of Tannoy's famous Dual Concentric driver. Bass comes from a 300W powered subwoofer that appears to be influenced by the looks of the Apple iPod. Price of a complete Arena surround system is $2199.

As I waited to enter Sony's demo of their Qualia SXRD front projector, a guy in the line spotted my badge. "Stereophile? All the audiophiles are dead!" he exclaimed. "They've died off!"

"Not quite," I replied. But judging by the CEDIA attendees I met, it was difficult to argue with him. It took a fellow audiophile to prop me up.

"Don't forget what we call our industry," he reminded me. "It's 'specialty audio'—it was never mainstream."

He's right. Anyone who thought SACD and/or DVD-Audio was going to be hi-fi Viagra was dreaming.

Sony's demo included a multichannel surround system featuring a pair of Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7s in front, a Watch center-channel, six WATTs for the surrounds, and a Watch Dog subwoofer. Sony's STR-DA9000ES 7-channel digital A/V receiver drove the punishing load effectively in a large venue. The prerecorded male and female narrators emerged from the Watch center channel with a clarity, focus, solidity, and believability that must have startled attendees used to lesser center-channels. It sure took me by surprise. A trailer for Spider-Man 2 sounded equally impressive, but it took a 24-bit/96kHz multichannel remix of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" to reveal the system's musical potential. It was probably many Expo attendees' first exposure to anything remotely resembling "specialty audio."

Hey! I thought of that first!
A few years ago, I proposed that the Consumer Electronics Show hold an Audiophile Olympics. Identical hotel rooms would be used, each containing a complete two-channel audio system in packing boxes. Teams from the various magazines would be given a day to unbox and set up the system—including a turntable and cartridge—to their liking. Judges would go from room to room and, using the same source material (and without knowing who was responsible for the setups), decide which system had the best sound. I thought it was a great idea, but no one else did, and it went nowhere.

CEDIA held an Installer Olympics at Expo 2004, with various teams competing to perform certain custom-installation tasks. I happened on one competition being videotaped in hi-def by HDNet, Mark Cuban's pioneering hi-def channel. The team's task was to fit a large pile of boxes into an empty van in as short a time as possible. Not exactly what I had in mind, but close enough. I still think an Audiophile Olympics would be fun, but if it doesn't happen soon, there might not be enough competitors to make it worthwhile.

Back to Expo 2004
With HDTV well established and high-definition optical recording (Blu-ray and/or HD-DVD) still a year or more away, there wasn't much that was truly new at Expo 2004. Plasma TVs are still expensive, but with few exceptions, picture quality remains mediocre. Yet people clamor for plasmas, mostly because you can hang 'em on a wall. I had to scour Expo 2004 to find "old-fashioned" CRT-based sets, whether direct-view or rear-projecting, yet CRT still provides the best picture quality. The analogy to vinyl is accurate and ironic: consumers want "digital," even though "analog" offers far better performance for far less money—and there's little argument about that among display experts. Fixed-pixel digital offers convenience and crisper pictures, but I don't want "crisp" pictures, let alone "crisp" sound. Evidently, plenty of others do.

I stopped into a small, noisy booth to introduce myself to Definitive Technology's Sandy Gross, whom I'd never met. I'd heard good things about DT's speakers, which are supposed to be reasonably good performers at their moderate prices, but I'd never heard them. So I sat down and listened to a CD-R I'd brought of Mel Tormé singing "New York State of Mind," from Mel Tormé and Friends at Marty's, through a pair of moderately priced slim-line Mythos Two ($499 each) towers. Through the noise, I could hear that this was a pretty damn good-sounding little speaker. [It was announced in October that Definitive Technology had been sold to in-car specialist Directed.—Ed.]

There were so many speakers of so many brands—many of them Chinese firms of which I'd never heard—that I wondered how long it would be before many well-known brands of drivers and finished speakers would be driven from the marketplace. The quality of the Chinese speakers appeared to be quite good, though of course it was impossible to hear any of them on the Expo's display-only floor.

Triad is a well-respected brand in home theater, yet because they distribute exclusively through custom installers, most audiophiles will probably never get to hear any of their speakers. I noted a pair of Gold Monitors—small, compact boxes containing a Scan-Speak ring radiator and a top-shelf, labor-intensive Scan-Speak midbass driver I'd seen being made when I visited the Danish company's factory last year. The solidly built little Gold Monitor will set you back $3400 each. It might make a decent pair of small music monitors, but unless Triad goes retail, we'll probably never know.

Speaking of expensive, Linn's Brian Morris treated some of us to a demonstration of Linn's new Artikulat line of powered speakers, which feature active servo bass, the familiar 3-K driver array used in other Linn speakers, and Linn's new Chakra power amplifier. The three full-range models are available in all-active and active-bass-only versions. We heard a DVD-V of a live performance by Calexico via a pair of Artikulat 350A floorstanders (1000W of power each), a five-way 340A center-channel, a pair of 340A compact surrounds, and a 345 subwoofer, all models self-powered.

Some of us didn't share Morris's enthusiasm for Calexico, which struck me as warmed-over, formless, spaghetti-western rock dressed up with mariachi horns and presided over by a frontman with little charisma. But all agreed that Linn's Artikulats sounded promising and looked dramatic. Prices have yet to be announced, but $20,000 each for the powered 350A wouldn't be too far off.

Meanwhile, over at T.H.E. Show...
In a brave attempt to bring genuine high-end audio to the home theater crowd, Mike Maloney and crew brought T.H.E. Show to the CEDIA Expo for the first time. (T.H.E. Show is the other consumer-electronics show that takes place in Las Vegas each year, concurrent with but not sanctioned by CES. "Parasitic," is how some at CES describe the relationship.)

T.H.E. Show took place at an office-building conference center a long walk from the Indiana Convention Center, the venue for Expo 2004 (there was a shuttle bus). T.H.E. was small and sparsely attended, as far as I could tell, but it was a start. One floor had Conrad-Johnson and Magnepan in one room; Epiphany Audio, BAT, and Shunyata Research in another; Wisdom Audio and Jeff Rowland Design Group in a third; Bel Canto and Cabasse in a fourth room; and InnerSound in a fifth. On the next floor I found Audio Research and Vandersteen, and that was it. But after three days of mostly noisy chaos, it was a pleasure to luxuriate in two floors of genuine musical performance.

Conrad-Johnson and Magnepan demonstrated that planar speakers can work in a large home theater and make beautiful music as well. Their system included a McCormack MAP-1 six-channel preamp, a pair of McCormack DNA-500 power amps for the left, right, and center channels (only one channel of the second DNA-500 was used, for the center-channel), and a DNA-225 amp for the surround speakers. The source was a McCormack UDP-1 universal player. Speakers were Magnepan 3.6s in the front, a CC-3 center, and two 1.6s in the rear, all tethered with Cardas cable—a lot of it. C-J also displayed their gorgeous new ACT 2 triode-based preamplifier, as well as a new six-channel preamp that might end up being named the MET-1 and might cost between $7000 and $8000.

The room shared by Epiphany Audio, BAT, and Shunyata demoed a large-scale home theater system featuring the super-sensitive (96dB), 7.5'-tall Epiphany Model 20-21 line-array speakers in front. A model with a long array of drive-units had been laid on its side across two Epiphany E-Cube subwoofers to serve as a center-channel. The surrounds were a pair of smaller but similarly configured speakers with ribbon tweeters and stacks of 5" woofer cones. As at Ephiphay's display at last January's CES, which included Edge electronics, the sound, this time driven by BAT gear, was way too bright and forward for my taste, though it was dynamic to an enormous scale.

Wisdom Audio and the Jeff Rowland Design Group showed a DVD of a movie not yet released in America, so I had no idea what I was listening to or how well the speakers were delivering it—a dumb way to demo. Better to show the "Diva" clip from The Fifth Element for the zillionth time than something totally unfamiliar.

Over at the InnerSound room, the sound was of genuine audiophile quality, with InnerSound's iControl Stereo preamplifier ($4500) and DPR-500 reference stereo amplifier driving Kaya Reference loudspeakers, these models featuring electrostatic panels and a 10", transmission-line–loaded bass driver driven by an external crossover and bass amplifier ($20,000/pair). The References have been improved enormously since CES; they now have far greater high-frequency extension and clarity, while retaining the prototype's rich midband and 3D imaging and soundstaging. Now that was a memorable room!

Across the hall, Bel Canto electronics drove Cabasse loudspeakers, including a pair of Cabasse's famous Baltic II eyeball-on-a-stand three-way coaxial model, augmented by two Thor II Artis subwoofers. An early version of this system sounded discombobulated in my old listening room. But what I heard at T.H.E. so impressed me—even under show conditions—that I requested a chance to review this new, thoroughly improved, well-integrated version.

Upstairs, Audio Research used their new MP-1 six-channel preamplifier and 150M multichannel power amp to drive a Vandersteen Audio speaker system comprising two 5As, a VCC5 center, and a pair of VSM Signature on-walls plus a pair of subs for the rear channels. The source was an Esoteric multidisc player. Because the Vandersteen 5As are powered and the surrounds were subwoofed, the .1 channel was spread throughout the room rather than being fed to a dedicated subwoofer.

The sound all around T.H.E. Show was a welcome respite from the explosions and noise at Expo 2004, but whether or not T.H.E. Show can survive in the long run in the Expo's shadow, and whether or not actually sitting down and listening to music can once again become a pastime for more than a few, remains to be heard.

Oh—there were no turntables this year, either at T.H.E. or at Expo, though there were a few last year. I don't see that as a trend.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Rickie Lee Jones, The Evening of My Best Day, Diverse Records 180gm LP
2) Karrin Allyson, In Blue, Audiophile Master Records translucent blue 180gm LP (2)
3) Carla Thomas, The Queen Alone, Sundazed 180gm LP
4) Bjork, Medúlla, One Little Indian 180gm LP (2)
5) Norah Jones, Feels Like Home, Classic 200gm Quiex SV-P LP
6) Patti Smith, Trampin', Columbia 120gm LP (2)
7) Holly Cole Trio, Don't Smoke in Bed, Classic 200gm Quiex SV-P LP
8) Sarah McLachlan, afterglow, Classic 200gm Quiex SV-P LP
9) Eartha Kitt, That Bad Eartha, Speakers Corner 180gm mono LP
10) Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose, Interscope CD

Mdnicke2's picture

Heh. Funny!

hopper32's picture

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