NAMM: An Audiophile’s Perspective

The National Association of Music Merchants has been around in one form or another since 1901. It started as an organization for piano merchants, but soon expanded to include other instrument makers and merchants. It’s held an annual show since 1902. Previous participants included Thomas Edison and Charlie Chaplin.

In the 1980s the headquarters of the organization moved from Chicago to Carlsbad, CA, and in the 1990s, the winter show relocated from Chicago to Anaheim (sound move). Since 1993, it’s also conducted a summer show in Nashville.

The NAMM event is a trade show open only to NAMM members and selected guests like the media. I was lucky enough to be invited for the first time this year. Parking is a bear and the walk to the Anaheim Convention Center was a long one, but not just for me. Thousands of other people of all ages were doing the same thing. There was an air of anticipation and excitement that I haven’t felt at a CES since the early aughts.

The approach to the convention center, and the convention itself, was crawling with cops directing both vehicle and foot traffic. I found the Anaheim police force to be incredibly helpful and polite, especially considering the potential melee they had to keep organized and functional. The same was true of the private security force guarding the gates.

The first venue I wandered into was the ACC North building, a huge, new venue with two floors. It happened to house the equipment in which audiophiles are most interested – electronic gear and loudspeakers.

 

I was immediately struck with the youth and diversity of the participants, in strong contrast to most US audio shows. Their questions revealed that they were genuinely interested in electronic sound equipment.

 

This system drew a lot of attention.

 

Many demos and lectures were offered in all the show’s buildings, including all the ballrooms at the Hilton next door. They were geared towards helping young people create and market music, a valuable service which, no doubt, contributes to the convention’s popularity. Obviously, there is an interest in vintage equipment as well.

 

This stage provided an opportunity for budding sound engineers to work alongside established professionals (mixmasters?)

 

I overheard a number of conversations in which people were discussing how hard it is to make a living at the music business in the digital age. One lady responded to say it was just as difficult in the analog age. Except for a few top acts and a lot of music executives, nobody made much money. She lauded the digital age because it allowed unknown bands to promote their product independent from [email protected]#*&*^%#[email protected] music executives.

 

There were many interesting speakers on display at the show including many brands I’d never hear of. Most of them – even the small ones – were far more dynamic than the typical audiophile speaker. It caused me to wonder if that wasn’t one of the reasons young people were more attracted to pro gear. These units wouldn’t look out of place in a fashionable home.

 

Another fine speaker represented by a true audio enthusiast. The big ones were priced at $7000/pr. – the same price as many audiophile cables. They sounded great with Hosa cables, an inexpensive pro product commonly used in studios. Most of the systems in the hall were wired with Hosa or comparably inexpensive cables. This fellow told me the only reason to go to with pricier cables is for road use, which demands more robust products. Seems the industry producing the music is a lot less fastidious than the end users.

 

Alan Sides, who owns five recording studios across the country, knows how important it is to use accurate monitoring systems. He couldn’t find many on the market that satisfied him, so he decided to produce his own. He’s often appeared at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and in his first year, produced the best sound I’d ever heard from an audio system – and I’ve been to many audio shows. At the time, they cost $36,000, a bargain in audiophile terms, but they were just too large for most homes (and, as it turns out, most studios). So he’s now producing smaller models. He once said that the final mix can’t be any better than the equipment used to produce it. As well as the equipment, I would include the acoustics of the studio and the ears of the engineer.

 

To the left is an image of an actual speaker featuring four 15-inch, back-facing, dipole drivers surrounding a horn-loaded tweeter. Below them, in the white box, are two 18-inch woofers angled at 90 degrees to each other, also in an open-backed cabinet. I’m not really a fan of dipoles, but here’s proof that one’s preconceptions are always subject to change. Although these speakers were in a booth only about 150 ft. square, they were so dynamic, effortless and clean at high volumes, they reminded me of Alan Sides’ first speakers. Unfortunately, they present a facade about as large, with less WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor), so they are unlikely to be widely adopted by audiophiles. I’m using the promotional poster secured to the outside of the booth to illustrate the speaker as the booth was too dark to get a good photo.

 

Need more woof? Will 21 inches do? Want a Big Gulp with that sir?

 

Focal is a company most audiophiles will recognize. They presented as good a five channel demo as I’ve ever heard. The line featuring their beryllium dome tweeter is a giant leap forward for French-kind, and eliminates the last reservation I had to their sound. The exhibitor agreed to play a gorgeous Renaissance choral piece (a pleasant change from Hip/Pop/Rap), which demonstrated the system’s ability to produce loud crescendos without distortion, and a credible 3D soundstage.

 

Here’s a perfect recording device for those interviewing dolphins and whales.

 

If your drummer insists he’s head and shoulders above the other musicians, here’s the stage prop you need.

 

No stage show is complete without a light and smoke show, which is hard to photograph.

 

“Yes ma’am, the electronic stuff is very interesting, but I’m not an engineer, I’m a musician, so would you please direct me to the instruments!”

 

80 percent of the convention consisted of instruments, and surprisingly, 80 percent of them were acoustic instruments. I thought it would be all electric guitars etc. geared to pop music. I wasn’t disappointed. Who can’t help but love craftsmanship like this?

 

Or this.

 

Or this.

 

Or this.

 

That craftsmanship was matched by enthusiasm.

 

And talent.

 

And determination.

 

Here’s a drum set without drums. It sounded great with the help of a lot of electronics. It also called for great skill and accuracy, which were on display.

 

Lots of unique and interesting instruments.

 

The new Lumatone keyboard is completely programmable including the color of the 275 velocity sensitive keys.

 

Drop Labs aim to take audio to a new level by syncing music, movies and other audio to shoes that vibrate the soles of your feet. It’s like standing on the stage next to the musicians – an experience I’ve never fancied.

 

No idea who this guy is or why he’s being interviewed, but his ensemble reminded me of the flamboyant Jim Bongiorno.

 

Outside the Hilton, there was live music all day on the Yamaha stage. As you might expect, the PA system was as good as it gets.

 

In the final analysis, it’s the people that make the show. I was lucky enough to meet some very interesting ones. However, I didn’t have the time to meet the other 116,000 attendees, which is a shame because 20 percent of them were international visitors.The NAMM Summer Show will be in Nashville from July 9 – 11, and the next winter show will take place at the Anaheim Convention Center from January 21-24, 2021.

 

All photos courtesy of B. Jan Montana.