Saturday, October 24, 2015

audio mart confusions

I've been registered and happily using US Audio Mart for the last couple of years as an alternative to Audiogon. Managed to buy and sell there without a problem, though the other parties did not seem too quick to bother with feedback which might be problematic for some. Surprised I was to quickly type '' into my browser and up comes that exact site, only not what I expected. Yes, there is a live, but it seems newer, has far less content, and you have to register to really see the ads. Sort of confusing, can't determine exactly which name came first but in case you're interested, check out

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Feelin' Kind of Blue..again

Ever wonder what vinyl records audiophiles are buying?  MusicDirect released an ad today listing the top 10 sellers for October. Here we go:

1. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
2. Roger Waters, Amused to Death
3. Nirvana, Nevermind
4. Elvis Costello, Trust
5. Miles Davis, Filles de Kilimanjaro
6. David Bowie, Five Years 
7. Queen, The Studio Collection
8. Simon and Garfunkel, Complete Columbia Collection
9. David Gilmour, Rattle that Lock
10.Mad Season and the Seattle Symphony, Sonic Evolution

Prices range from $28 to $399.  Ok, draw your own conclusions......

Monday, October 19, 2015

Audioengine B2 speaker makes music anywhere.

I've been playing with the B2 for more than six months now, and it's done duty in every listening context that matters to me: kitchen, living room, outside space. Remarkable sonics for little outlay, and so easy to set up. Oliver's review in HiFi'Zine was excellent, mine are just follow up remarks.  For those on the fence about a bluetooth speaker, here's my take: Audioengine B2 review.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

RMAF - summing it all up

It's hectic, it's impossible to hear everything, and sometimes it's impossible to know what is even there since rooms get assembled in many ways. I wanted Quad and failed to notice they were in a DCS room (no listing for them in directory). The importance of asking folks cannot be overestimated. A casual chat at the bar where I mentioned Tech Das sent a chap racing off to hear it since he'd not known the table was present. So, busy but friendly, a sort of 'we're all in this together trying to squash as much as we can into limited time'. Where else can you get access to so much great gear? Consider it an education.

Room set up is all over the shop. Some nail it from the outset, some get there over the weekend once they hear what attendees hear and how the room changes with more bodies packed in; and some just suck all weekend (or have equipment failure). Music could be more varied (Venessa Fernandez  still popular, Norah Jones, Krall etc, you get the idea. Way too much Dire Straits for my taste too). I know it's handy to have a reference but it does get tiresome if you don't actually care for the music). That said, who'd be a rep or room host at this meeting? - it would tax human endurance by Saturday pm, no wonder so many rooms shut down right on cue!

What I learned

I find uber-resolution tiresome. There's a kind of audiophile sound that is super crisp on transients, particularly on digital sources, that can impress with details but become sort of irritating quickly. I'd not really found a way to describe this before RMAF but after a day I came to sort of recognize it, usually in the more expensive set-ups, and to dread it when volume went up. When coupled with the sort of deep, strong bass that the high end speakers emphasize just to show you they can, it is often disguised as 'resolution' but it's not the same thing. That leading edge crispness can kill the natural sound of instruments and ruin the illusion of music. Now I know it when I hear it.

Real instruments are recognizable when reproduced but there's a level beyond recognition that pushes the illusion of presence further up the scale of credibility. Harbeth rooms did that well. Von Schweikert's too, but the German Physiks room did it best on violin. Of course, that was just the speakers, each had excellent partnering gear and careful set up. I commented a lot on lack of soundstaging in many rooms, the pull of vocals or instruments to one speaker at the expense of the other. Am sure there's a ton of technology that can work on this but the basic rules of set up cannot be fought and even if they could, sounsdtaging won't ever replace timbral accuracy as the key for me. And back to that point about resolution:  real unamplified instruments never have that bleeding edge sound you hear in some gear.

Pricing bears only a modest positive correlation with quality. Once products are well designed, combined with some consideration of match, and set up to suit a space not fight it, then the results are generally pretty good. To move from good to great requires real effort and sometimes incredible cost. But just paying that cost is no assurance of improvement. Further, the improvement you might gain is comparatively slight. It's rare to hear something that is so far beyond the decent, well matched and set up system that you think the world has changed.  Accept this as the reality of reproduction and you will hear gear a little more clearly. The ELAC speakers are a classic case of what's possible on the affordable side and can really compete with more expensive speakers. Reproduction is an illusion anyway, the question becomes at what price you can get a passing illusion of musical reality. I think you can get 80% or more of the way to the ultimate for 20% of the cost of the very best equipment, maybe closer. There's a real 80-20 rule for audiophiles.

The medium might be the message but am not convinced that one format is best. I heard great vinyl, cd, hi-rez digital, tape,  and all fell a bit short of real life. That's ok too, our brains can fill the credibility gap and a system can help it to do so easily. I do think that I am of a generation or a personality type that likes the physical medium. Some computer-based front-ends sounded fantastic at RMAF but I do like my record sleeves and I enjoy the process of setting up an album to play. But I recognize this as something in me, it's not a principle of sound quality. And I would say the same about tubes and solid state amplification.

Finally, despite all the talk of obscene  upward spiral of prices, I actually think there are some downward pressures at play which are offering us really good sonics and value for money. A few years ago I noted that $30k was the typical price of floorstanders. This year there were real choices, serious contenders for your dollars, at far less. Sure, you can drop more and you might be happier, but I saw a few components that I thought could help you put a killer system together for under $10k that would be a delight in most rooms. Of course, I like learning about the top end, and seeing how far the art can be extended, but I no longer feel that I'm missing much by not being able to afford it. In fact, I don't think I am missing too much at all.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

RMAF 2015 Day 3

Small window today due to travel so I decided to concentrate my efforts in revisiting a few places that left questions in my mind. Magico were not showing Sunday so no chance to revisit thus hauling self back to the Marriott, I had to make a visit to Prana Fidelity whose room captivated me last year. Set up on the long wall was a pair of floorstanders that were rocking the joint driven by Prana amplification and a Kuzma vinyl front end (as last year). Selections of vinyl inclued Yello, which had the drivers oscillating in and out before a note was heard, quite a sight, and an amazing recording of Fiona Apple as well as Vanessa Fernandez, all sounding very, very fine. Speaker price? $6950....I mean really, these guys can play with the biggest boys out there. A very cool, welcoming vibe in the room too. Main guy, Steve Norber, is a very special designer combining chops in amp and speaker design, really onto something. Maybe he should talk to the Synergistic guy about explaining those secrets of the physical universe.

Had to pop back into the Von Schweikert room since it was close by. It was even better than I remember. Host Damon kept the tunes moving through all genres, rock to symphony, ambient to jazz, I sat there while people came and went, very impressed by the VR55s driven by Constelllation, YFS and VSA's top cables. Small room, full range sonics, no boom at any volume, resolution assured. Yes, what I heard Friday was true, and if anything it was better today.

A segue sideways into a Devialet /B&W set up was disappointing. I know these speakers and I know people who love the Devialet, but this room sounded constrained and just lifeless. Midbass just choked and the music never flowed. Good deal to be had on the shiny piano black B&W's which were being blown off for $12k as a show special. I know they sound better than this...not sure what to blame.

Quick run over to the Tower, slowed only by the pesky elevators, I hit the 10th floor so I could recheck the Emia room (quasi Quads and idler drive table). Ladysmith live was spinning, but the music was just vague and sort of not there.Yes, vocals were articulate and spread across a soundstage but the whole sound was as I said yesterday. I even came back in after another room visit when I heard piano playing through the open door but nothing worked. This was a near six figure set up that just did not sound ready for the show. I guess the msytical Quad experience will have to wait for another time.

What did live up to memory was the German Physiks/Ayre/Merging Technologies room. Now I hogged the sweet spot and enjoyed another listen to that special violin recording they used. Magic. I know some folks might think there is an absence of bass in these but I suspect it only seems so in comparison to the floors of boom on display here at RMAF. A driving bass solo track reveals that the crossoverless German Physiks do bass just fine - tight, articulate, clear.  For those of us who crave timbre and out of the box sonics, these speakers (and let's be clear, some superb partnering gear and clever set up by Michael Broughton which had the speakers physically exposed but sonically invisible) brought something special to the room. A clear winner for me.

Wanted to hear the Revels again but time was just too tight and I enjoyed a couple of rooms so much I had probably used up capacity. Bumping into Eleanor McEvoy in the elevator as she hauled a couple of guitars down to her final live performance, I decided to end the weekend listening to her to purge the sonics of reproduced sounds.

Missed a few mentions of good things (the Vapor room had real quality, never heard Dark Side of the Moon quite like I did here in the sweet spot, but they were pricey; Well Rounded Sound offered a $5k speaker that could do justice to any music; AudioKinesis just do it differently and well), will get to them but am en route home. It's been fun but it's hectic. While it costs to travel and attend (no, I do not get paid for this), the lessons learned will pay for themselves several times over as I upgrade, if I upgrade. I have a real sense of what money thrown at the issue of audio reproduction cannot get you. More on this when I try to pull it all together.  Well done all who are involved in this show - it's a non-trivial undertaking.

Day 2 cont

One room which stood out for the right reasons was the German Physiks/Merging Technologies NADAC/Ayre amps, on Sistrum platforms with Purist Audio cables.. I always admire the sound of these speakers but here they raised their game further with a combination of hi-rez tracks that sounded spectacularly real. Even sitting close to the left speaker in the front row, you could not quite determine where the music was coming from, it just emerged in the room sort of between but also around the speakers. A solo violin recording privately made by Merging Technologies (I think) was absolutely stunning to my ears with a resolution and timbre so close to the real thing that I felt here is a system I could live with for the long haul. One of the best of show for me.

Nearby, I heard the PS Audio room with YG Acoustic speakers. I know this front end, it's excellent, so I really wanted to know how the new BHK monos sounded. Hard to know from this exposure. The room was huge, the speakers were so far out from the far wall that they threw an interesting soundstage. I generally find the full YG speaker to be highly resolving but hard, much preferring it in normal rooms without the last woofer stage (for example in the excellent Rowland room here, where his integrated and a Bergman Sindre table partnered well).  Here, there was no hardness, but also it was a room with so much traffic, most of whom talked loudly and endlessly, so it was impossible to form a reliable opinion.  Sort of bland, as was most of the music being played.

Winner of the great fun room award has to be Russ Andrews with their 'what can you get for $1500?' challenge.  Their response was to buy decent used gear on ebay and then add $1k of their cables to it. They invited people in to listen to the system with stock cables, then switched them out for their own (Kimber sourced?) wire. It took all of 5 seconds to hear the difference even on a Neil Diamond track. Not sure I'd go with this as a path to spending $1500 but the differences were obvious and should be a required experience for those who claim wire is wire. Great part of the proceedings, and a cheery bunch of folks too, they know how to make room visitors feel welcome. Listen and learn others - this is the type of room that encourages people to enjoy RMAF and the audio hobby.

Some oddities. I really wanted to hear a top end idler drive table but these were thin on the ground until I entered room 1010 where I gound the Saskia table (over $50k!) with a great Schroeder arm and Ikeda cartridge playing through a highly renovated Emia ESL which seemed like old Quads in furniture wrap. Well not seemed; they are. They're also quasi direct driven by a series of tubes built in. A vintage dream? Not to my ears. Sorry, but this sounded decidedly uninvolving. Need to give it another listen if possible, maybe my ears were tired.

Odd but fascinating is how I found the Haniwa Real3D set up which invited us in to listen to (and see) some of Harry Pearson's LP collection digitized from a special phono cartridge/stage combo tuned to each other and replayed via small cube speakers, the HSP line with digital amp and a low watt tube amp. Not quite sure how it all worked but it really did work in terms of making lovely music from small boxes.

Odd, fascinating but not sure why, the Synergistic Research folks were up to their usual conjuring routine, this time courtesy of a non-inline atmosphere setting device which certainly changes the sound. My request for explanation yielded little other than it 'acts on the RF in the room'. A couple of small resonators also did wonders (sort of) for cleaning up the bass just by being moved into the room. Again, no answers on how it worked really. In the next room where 'deals' could be had on these, I was told in no uncertain terms by a young man that the inventor was 'a certifiable genius who knows how the physical world works and how you perceive sound'. Further questioning not welcomed. OK....that explains it.  Scientology for audio?  Well, they were disappearing faster than anything else was selling so maybe folks getting them can chime in. The resonators might be the better option for folks who don't like bass traps.

Oh, many other sounds were good: Gibbon X speakers made it worth staying awhile, Audiokinesis room was pleasing on the ear, Vandersteens  sounded sweet with ARC amp, a sort of sound you could live with longtime.  JMW used monkey pod wood to good effect, Triangle Art make amazing looking tables, Linkwitz can get music from a PVC tube.  A VPI multi-armed table through Joseph Audio speakers revealed how different cartridges matter, it went on and on for Saturday...almost need the show to stay open until 9pm. And I still never got to any of the talks or panels I wanted to attend.

RMAF Day 2

This is the longest day, starting with a waitline for breafast at the Hyatt but as luck would have it, the gentleman in front of me, planning to dine alone, invited me to join him in an open table for two. Turned out to be Bruce Kinch, writer for Positive Feedback and lifetime vinyl collector. This could not have been more fortuitous as he proved an amiable, witty and insightful conversationalist. Great start to the day.

Since I was staying in the Hyatt, I took advantage first of the Magico demo in the Presidential Suite. Much loved by the audio press and somewhat maligned by audio forum posters who complain about prices and endless rave reviews, I have to say the Magicos have always demo'd well at RMAF for my ears. They do continuity through the range and I particularly like the sonics of the smaller models. Here, launching the new 7(?), the filled a large space with that sort of clarity that captures attention but in some speakers goes too far into etched. No doubt these are well made, the on-display skeletal m-cast framework revealed an incredibly solidly built speaker, no simple boxes of wood or mysterious X materials. I am intrigued by the use of bolts internally, I believe racing cars have developed alternatives, but am assured these never vibrate loose. Just as well, could you imagine fanatical owners having to send them back for annual tune-ups!  And the sonics? Good, sometimes great, but again, if I did not sit in the sweet spot, the image pulled to the nearest speaker in a way that might be set up, might be the recordings (most noticeable on jazz vocals, less so on orchestral), but a pattern I kept hearing again and again in other rooms with big speakers.  Interestingly, a conversation outside with a Magico owner checking the new model out revealed he thought they were insufficiently better than his current pair to warrant further interest. Which confirms my own view from RMAF that good sound is found at well under $10k all in if the components are well designed and you don't need to fill a hall. After this, you pay disproportionately for incremental improvements, and many of those are in areas that are not essential for typical homeowners.

The JBL Everests are another imposing speaker. Set up on the long wall of a regular room, with seats along the other long wall, they look super-imposing with their drivers exposed and all that curved woodwork,  The sound however, was quite delicate, almost disarmingly disconnected from the visual experience. I thought the sound was good, but not great, and mostly because sitting anywhere but the middle seat, all I heard was one speaker. Seemed to me, even on a sofa, only one person could listen appropriately to these in a space like this, and even then, only if they sat in the middle. Will try to go back again to check on this as it's hard to be truly fair to them.

General pattern here, I was concentrating on speakers for while, just seems the easiest thing to get a handle on in a strange room. I've complained at the lack of Revel demos in the past and was delighted to see the Salon 2s in use, albeit alternately, with a lower priced model. Lots of traffic here, but the Salons did everything quite well for my ears. Not a huge fan of the looks but they sort of capture everything the big expensive speakers do but in a more manageable, placement-friendly manner. On some familiar Keb Mo tracks, I thought they had a little more presence and detail than I am used to but might not have imaged the best in that room. Still, a good speaker, thoughtfully balanced.

Pioneer were there with an amazing $1500 Kef-copy white concentric drive monitor. Driven by a throwback dial-laden $1200 amp, they were really impressive. Much more so when this little system was switched out for their flagship floorstanders (circa $26,000). Yes more bass, yes more everything, but also far less left in your bank account. I suggested to the host that the difference in price should cause a massive difference in sound, should it not? He sort of admitted that such logic, while appealing, didn't really apply to audio. Once he played the expensive system, this truth was confirmed.

Of coure, no chat of the speakers and prices here can ignore the roll out of Andrew Jones' new ELAC models. A pair of floorstanders for $600 that sounded good and looked better finished than the old Pioneers that Mr Jones is known for, justifiably, as much as for his TAD award winners. Really, these speakers sort of give you so much in terms of room-appropriate sonics that you need to think hard about spending a lot more. My experience with the Pioneer 22s indicates that parterning gear way beyond the typical matching price can bring out a lot more from them, and I suspect these new designs can go a long way. Given the rather sycophantic reaction some of the press attendees present when I was there, expect a few gushing reviews soon. I sort of pitied the Cambridge Audio room a few feet away as they tried to interest folks in a similar sized $1200 floorstander. But at least the Cambridge folks served  decent beer, so they get a big plus for this!

Oh, and a note to some of the media folks....just because you get to sit in the sweet spot longer than most and make us listen to your selections, does not mean you should talk out loud, stand up blocking others and generally make a nuisance of yourself ensuring we all know you are a reviewer.  I mean, you review other people's audio gear for a living....think about that in the greater scheme of life. Show some manners.

more to come....

Saturday, October 3, 2015

RMAF 2015 Day 1

Despite the apparent crushes for admission badges, the general human traffic seems low. I found myself the sole listener in seversal rooms this afternoon, with the good and bad that goes with that scenario. Here's some quick reactions from Day 1 -- with placeholders which I'll correct once I get all my notes organized.

 Picking up registration I walked around downstairs, taking a few mins in the Legacy ballroom where their large (very) V speakers, with correction device, threw a great soundstage, totally enveloping form the sweet spot, but a little shart on transients. This preceded a step into a large room (sorry, can't recall which) where a large Martin Logan Neoliths  pushed out live Frank Zappa in 'you-are-there' realism. Gave up this in the drum solo section (really, you want us to sit through a live album drum solo?) and moved into a pleasant sounding Naim, Focal monitor set up.  Sweet, but a switch from 96 to 192 sampling on the same song from an attendee's own recording revealed more space and more congestion -- the former on top, the latter in the middle. No free lunch so I can see why some people claim the greater sampling rate adds little to their enjoyment.

A stroll took me to the Atrium, and what best way to start than going to the 5th (top) floor there and working my way down the next two floors of exhibits. Stop one was the VSA room to hear a Von Schweikert VR55 with YFS and Constellation. Don't ask the price, this is the high end. Last year I thought this pairing was uber-crisp but not quite the best, this year it  set the early standard for me. Real soundstaging, real presence, and a solid,  controlled bass. Not hard to enjoy at all but it meant I wanted to really hear only other great stuff from here for comparison so changing plans a little, I found myself spending more time than usual listening to some expensive set ups in the Atrium area, home to dealers showing the large Focals, banks of VAC amps and gorgeous looking Trans Rotor turntable.

Now I sort of prefer the smaller Focals over the large Utopias but given the opportunity to sit right in the sweet spot of the towering Utopias, it was impossible to resist. - this is the type of listening experience you normally only get to read about.  Lots of vinyl being spun and the sense of envelopment was truly impressive. That said, the room and position is everything you are told it is. Listening to a fabulous Milt Jackson recording of Round Midnight, the bass was so vivid you could almost touch it, except in some registers where it started to boom, ruining the illusion. I had to move to the back of the room to remove this spoiler, which worked, but then the sheer intimacy was gone. Lesson for me, I could never own a room where these would work at volume. That's why there are smaller models, right!

In fact, the lesson of room size and speaker  fit was obvious over the next few days and should caution anyone who thinks more expense gets better sound -- it often gets you bigger cabinets and calamitously difficult issues with placement and bass. But before this, I drifted into a fine sound room set up by Vinni Rossi, with his new line of LIO amps driving some big (for them) Harbeths (the 40s?). Ah, now this sounded really fine, and right sized. A lover of the P3ESRs, I'd sort of not given too much more attention to the larger Harbeths but assuming they must be good. Well on the experience of this weekend where I ran into a couple of other rooms running various Harbeth models, I'd say this is one speaker company that talks to my tastes - enough frequency extension to represent the musical details, but a midrange that sounds human, with timbre and tone preserved. If you need more, be careful what you wish for.

More to come, but the lesson of the day was size matters, just not in the way you've been told. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

RMAF 2015

Off to RMAF to catch up with what's happening there. Plans on specifics are hard to make, it tends to go belly up when you hit the venue. Was invited to various press only events in mass mailings but somehow the secret directions promised if I replied never materialized....I knew I should have faked an address!

If you're there and paths cross, say hello. I'll be the chap wishing they'd turn the volume down and stop talking in every room.