Twisted Systems

End of Summer Musings

How fast can the summer go?

It seems like it lasts all of 2 weeks.

So here I am, having returned to my renovated NYC apartment finally listening to my audio system (sort of) after a nearly 6 month hiatus which I wrote about awhile back.

My new listening room was a concession to my wife because of the redesign. My “new” room is actually my old bedroom that I grew up in but whose walls were realigned (actually made smaller!). The views out of my window are really nice, and as my desk abuts the windows it makes for a more pleasant writing experience.

As we live on the sixth floor, I actually look out my new office/listening room window and see the trees that line the street.

And oh…If these walls could talk…but that’s another story.

Approaching it as a listening room, the great challenge was/is what to do for speakers in my new space. The room is a rectangle 14’ x 12’; the walls were redone with Quiet Rock insulation. There is also a carpet and a sofa rendering the room a kind of insulated studio quiet atmosphere.

All kidding aside regarding the 24-hour “The City that never sleeps” experience, where I live on the Upper West Side, on a side street, it really is very quiet. Especially at night.

One of the many advantages of the renovation was that the building itself was completely re-wired during the building wide conversion to condos 5 years ago.

The sponsor increased the power into each apartment: originally we each had 100 amps per apartment and that number was doubled. This was done to acknowledge all of the new high end appliances that now are standard in this kind of building-wide renovation of pre-war NYC apartment buildings and consequently those of us using any kind of media also benefit greatly— as you can imagine.

Add to that, when our apartment was renovated, all new wiring was also installed with 4 dedicated 20 amp lines running into my studio.

This is about as good as it gets in an apartment building.

My former listening room was a converted dining room–a much longer space that allowed me to position the Wilson Sabrinas so as to move air around and behind the speaker. Although the room wasn’t ideal on paper, those who visited always remarked about how well the system imaged. It just plain works— because I know, through 40 years of stereo acquisitions, what it takes to get the room to sound good.

My concern now, however, was to find speakers that would work in my new room.

All the gear that was in storage finally came in May:

Pass 250.8 Power Amp
PS Audio BHK Preamp
Moon 810LP Phono stage
VPI HW-40 DD turntable
Ortofon A-95 cartridge
Marantz SA-10 SACD player
PS Audio P20 Power Regenerator

I just knew that the Sabrinas wouldn’t work, because there was no space behind the speakers in the new room. Consequently, I sold them to a friend just before the move.

Knowing that a decision needed to be made, I attended both the Las Vegas CES show in January and the Munich High End show in May, with an agenda to listen to as many speakers as I could. Maybe, just maybe, I would find something that could work.

The CES show in Vegas was primarily notable for its almost total disdain for the high-end audio world, the manufactures relegated and clustered into 2 floors of the Venetian hotel off the strip as an afterthought.

Most of the reviewers told me that this was the last CES they would ever attend, as it was obvious that the people attending were way more interested in self-driving car technology & smart kitchen and home appliances than audio— except where audio products like Sonos, could be switched on by a remote control.

Just as I thought that the trip was a waste of time I walked into the ELAC room and was introduced to their Senior Electronics Engineer, Peter Madnick. Peter was about to demonstrate some of their new speaker line and invited me to sit and listen.

Having attended many of these demos, it never ceases to amaze me that when a manufacturer wants to impress you and has a variety of gear set up they challenge you to pick out what you are listening to. It invariably results in the unit (speaker, amp, player) being the least expensive. This is to show what kind of a great value you would be buying.

So here I was, facing 4 pairs of speakers, in a room with Michael Fremer and Ken Kessler, and an ELAC rep plays music and says:

“Which speaker do you think you are listening to?”

The smallest one on display was the bookshelf size UB5. While that was the one playing (no surprise there) had he not said that, I would not have guessed from the back of the room. The sound was big, tonally balanced, expansive, articulate.

Then he says: “And this speaker retails for $500.00.”

OK, I walked out thinking that may be the best deal in audio, and went on my merry way.

Fast forward to Munich, where I heard many amazing relatively small speakers that could work in my room…most with exotic veneers, and costing a whole lot more.

Now I’m back in NYC in my new listening room and I excitedly set up all the gear, look at the way the room is now furnished and think…Whoa, here is 75K of front end gear and I need to bring out the best in it— but what will work, and how much will it cost?

At that moment I thought about the ELACs. I contacted Peter, who sent me a pair of UB5’s and hooked em up.

I hope as you read my articles, you can see that I write from the heart. No manufacturer has ever asked me to promote or write about their products.

It is important to say this because of my observations here, and not just about the speaker. It’s about how a speaker, which is the window into the downstream products you buy, actually sound.

Of all audio products, speakers vary the most dollar for dollar in comparison— meaning that if you spend x amount for an amp, a turntable, an audio player, the relative cost delivers pretty close results across similarly priced products. This is not the case for speakers. Speakers are the most artistically designed products, and have the most variables to contend with.

Room design and placement come into play, and the manufacturer can’t guarantee repeatedly satisfactory results, as the interplay of environment is the great unknown element.

What you need to do is hear a speaker in your home. That’s just the start.

If the speaker has great resolving power than everything you feed it will also be exposed.

I’m not presenting a white paper here. I will tell you that, feeding the ELAC UB5’s with my current electronics, in my room, positioned on a pair of ELAC stands, are flat out amazing and have me questioning where I really need to go.

These may be the best bargain in high-end audio. A $500.00 speaker connected to $75,000.00 of electronics!

The compact 3-way design is by the legendary Andrew Jones (KEF, Pioneer, TAD), and does everything right.

The only thing it doesn’t do is give the scale of a larger performance. A scale that a floor stander would probably achieve. What it does do is reveal everything downstream.

The quality you feed into it comes out of it.

For the present time, I am happy listening to my albums again….

It’s about f*ckin time!!

Enjoy Labor Day….

[The header pic shows the lobby of the Venetian in Las Vegas, where high-end audio exhibits at CES have been hosted for several years, and where Jay Jay heard the ELAC speakers. As Jay Jay noted, that venue is essentially dead for audio, sadly—Ed.]