The reasons for audio shows are basically to sell product. Am I being too cynical? Perhaps, but almost everyone involved needs to have a positive ROI (return on investment), a not-unreasonable expectation.
It does cost an awful lot of money to participate. On a purely logistical basis, audiophile gear rarely fits in your pocket, with the exception of personal audio. The rest can weigh a ton (literally), like the speaker system I saw at the New York Audio Show a few years ago. The reason I know it weighed a ton was because I asked the gent who made the speaker. I said, looking up at this huge object, “that must weigh a ton!” And he replied, “yes. Each speaker weighs a ton.” Stupefied, I asked, “how did you get it up here, I mean, the weight…” and he said, “freight elevator.” He was quite serious, and it wasn’t even set up on one of the huge exhibit rooms on the first floor; it was in a normal hotel room, several stories high, so the speakers filled the room. I still think it was hilarious. They sounded great. But a ton, seriously?
Shipping such heavy gear can cost a small fortune, and the value of the components in an ultra-high-end system can approach almost a million dollars, as astonishing as that might seem. Then there is the cost of staffing, hotels, entertainment, and expenses. So what, you might think; that’s just the cost of doing business. And it is. But I think that events like T.H.E. Show have a more complicated agenda.
You’ll notice that many of my photographs are of people, as opposed to the gear. That’s because while these shows might be about products and sales and rare opportunities to audition components and speakers, they’re also every bit about the human connection, meeting up with friends, both inside and outside the industry and outside. Audiophile clubs love meeting up at shows, as do far-flung Facebook and Instagram friends, all getting together for a common passion.
As I mentioned in Part One (Issue 169), T.H.E. Show organized a serious set of lectures from a variety of folks. At the top of my list was the panel discussing the challenges of audio mastering, featuring Kevin Gray (Cohearent Audio) and Mitch Anderson (eCoustics), with moderator Scott Lylander (T.H.E. Show) attempting to keep things on track. Anderson was practically in tears describing what it meant to be in Gray’s studio and sit with one of his heroes. Holding a master tape in your hands conjures up scenes from Indiana Jones, as that is truly the holy grail of audio. I had that experience at Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings where I was able to hold a Harry Nilsson master tape. I’m happy to admit I was quite giddy. I totally got Anderson’s joy.
A few of us were able to sit and talk with Jamie Howarth, of audio restoration specialists Plangent Processes. His patented process looks at information other than the audio on a tape in order to pick out minute variations in tape speed, and then compensates for it. For example, a slightly out-of-round rubber capstan or roller on a tape machine can impart wow and flutter to the audio. The Plangent process determines those types of errors and corrects for them, with the result being a restoration of the audio as it should be heard. Even what was once unplayable can be restored, archived, and listened to afresh. A list of the titles Howarth is responsible for includes the entire Bruce Springsteen and Grateful Dead catalogs.
It does bring up a load of questions, mind you. Some folks insist that the wavering of the piano at the intro to Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” is proper. But that’s just rubbish. The machine had a problem, and Springsteen was delighted to finally have it corrected. It reminds me of all those doctoral theses written about the dark and muted palette of the Sistine Chapel, when in fact it was merely dirt, tallow, wax, and more. Basically, it was like a window that needed cleaning. Thanks to Jamie Howarth’s work, Springsteen’s piano finally sounds like a piano.
I suppose if unrestored audio is your preference, take some uncleaned garage sale vinyl and play it on a Crosley. Me, I’ve loved the high-resolution audio revolution if only because it can compel labels to track down and document the provenance of the source tapes (used for remastering) with more thoroughness. The dedication and work done by folks like Howarth and Gray is a vital contribution to the audio world, and we are all the better for it.
T.H.E. Marketplace had a variety of vendors. Charles Kirmuss (Kirmuss Audio) was there describing the ins and outs of cleaning LPs (and gave a presentation on the subject during the show). There was a positive energy in the room, with headphones, audio components, records, accessories, and more for visitors to peruse. Deborah Kayser from Tweak Studio had wares aplenty and a huge smile to boot. eCoustics set up an area to show off different headphones, amplifiers, and DACs, cleverly naming the area “Headphonium,” which was filled to the brim with happy headphone lovers.
J.R. Boisclair of WallyTools suffered the same fate as some other lecturers: not having the proper connecting cable available to hook up his laptop to the projector. So, even though suffering from exhaustion, he powered through his lecture (“When Stylus Meets Groove: Advanced Analog Optimization”) by holding his iPad for attendees and walking around the room getting up close and personal. It was truly impressive to behold.
Bruce Jacobs of Stillpoints gave a seminar (“Room Control: Listening Position Correction”) on the impact of room design and listener location on audio, and the need for acoustic isolators. Naturally he mentioned the Stillpoints line of vibration control products. Another fun event was the Booze & Vinyl 2 book signing with one of the authors, André Darlington, on hand, with a long line of enthusiasts on hand to get their books signed. I didn’t ask if they were fans of Darlington, booze, or vinyl, but I figured a combination of all three. T.H.E. Show co-organizer Emiko Carlin held two screenings of her award-winning video, T.H.E. Human Side, featuring the stories of audio manufacturers, hi-fi dealers, audiophiles, musicians, and sound engineers, and the impact of music on their lives.
Once again, one of my favorites was the Prana Fidelity room, which showcased its loudspeakers and components, Their room offered an easy, uncluttered audio exhibit. It was a simple room, with minimal gear, yet it was one of my favorite listening experiences. Although certainly not entry-level, it presented a simpler audio chain, which is the kind of system I favor.
A speaker whose design took me by surprise was being shown by the British Audio Guys and On A Higher Note room. Licensed from a design from the BBC, the Graham Audio LS5/5f speakers sounded marvelous. (The rest of the system is listed in Part One of this show report in Issue 169.) It was an interesting experience, complemented by a display of paintings in the foyer before the audio room. On a Higher Note’s Philip O’Hanlon led us in a lively discussion about about jazz, and we listened to a pressing of Miles Davis’ Tutu, which resonated beautifully in the room.
It was a treat to see Dr. Mark Waldrep of AIX Records at the show, where be presented a lecture, “High-Resolution Audio: The Myth, Mystique, and Marketing Mix,” and had a selection of his high-resolution discs for sale. Even more important was the presence of his beautiful dog, Charlie, a lovely border collie. We had a border collie ourselves, so that probably biases my reporting. Of note is the role Waldrep has played over years in his takedowns of what he considers ersatz high-resolution audio, with the stance that unless the audio was recorded in high-resolution, stayed in high-resolution through the post-production process, and was released as high-resolution, then it’s simply not high-resolution.
Later, I realized how complicated the idea of provenance really was. Unlike a painting, where there is only one original, audio recordings can be really complicated, with lots of tracks recorded all over the planet, assembled and mixed, and even then, there might be many variations for the masters: a stereo transfer, a flat transfer, a radio mix, mono, compressed, non-compressed, and so on. Add to this conundrum, that when many record labels trashed their “old” tapes, it intensified the search for high-quality copies, even if second- or third-generation.
We won’t even go to the 2008 disaster that struck the music vaults at Universal Studios. I look back at my efforts as naive, and while well-meaning, not all that practical. Once, I was working on a project with MCA, and there was a Motown CD that was issued with a major error. The tape machine that was involved in the transfer started to slow down mid-track, and no one noticed till after the CD was issued. It was quickly recalled, but not before some folks in the office grabbed a few of the bad CDs.
While some labels saw this as an opportunity to put pressure on for better-quality CDs, others just didn’t care; it was just a way to make a quick buck, as per Matt Groening’s 1988 “Life in Hell” classic cartoon which stated, “So grab your wallets and rush right over to Akbar ‘n’ Jeff’s Compact Disk Hut…with Compact Discs you get no distracting artwork, no tedious lyrics…no weird, obscure, non-conformist music by unpopular artists you’ve never heard of.” If you want to see the cartoon, click here.
I was working with a few record labels at the time, so was aware of how hard some folks, like Rhino, for example, were endeavoring to locate master tapes, and just how difficult that was. Blue Note’s CD releases set a gold standard in my mind with their prominent mention of working from the original tapes, and inclusion of mastering chain information. They were luckier than most labels, as they kept their master recordings carefully stored, archived, and accessible. (Thanks to Joe Harley for the clarification). The Beatles’ last two release cycles went to a lot of trouble to explain the mastering process to the public, which was fantastic. Fortunately, many labels and artists do that today.
Back to the exhibits: two of the most enjoyable rooms were hosted by the folks from Audio Group Denmark. Peter Hansen, the American sales manager held sway over one room, while Tyler Mueller (Owner of Next Level Hi-Fi) held sway over the other. Spending time with Danish components from Ansuz, Aavik, and Børresen Acoustics and some really nice guys was a pleasure. It’s a rare treat to hear that gear. I was especially interested in hearing some Børresen speakers, which did not disappoint. They were a reminder of just how much great gear is out there.
In Oz Turan’s room (High End by Oz), it wasn’t only Oz having fun. Michael Vamos, the president of importer/distributor Audio Skies was there with Greg Beron, chief tape winder for tape deck manufacturer and audio dealer United Home Audio. Their late-night listening parties, which I heartily recommend, were as much about having a great time as being “forced” to drink top-shelf libations and listening to sterling reel-to-reel tapes. The sound was open, inviting, without a trace of harshness. Michael O’Neal, my colleague from Beginner Audiophile, brought a guest to the show who had never heard a real audiophile-level system, and she was suitably knocked out. Hanging out in a dark room, friends by your side, a cold health food drink in your hand, listening to superb audio – isn’t that how you should enjoy life?
The actions of Russia invading Ukraine was a quiet topic of discussion at T.H.E. Show, not so much the politics, of which we are all aware, but the impact on tube manufacturing and availability. While most agreed there were adequate supplies of tubes for now, the consensus was that the real solution was the creation of new vacuum tube factories, which are slowly coming on line. The global supply chain crisis is weighing on everyone’s mind, since not only is it difficult to fill orders if you don’t have parts, but the cost increases bite into everyone, from the margins of manufacturers and retailers, to the customers who have to shell out more. Hopefully, we will see a return to a more normal landscape.
Judging from the smiles all around the rooms and hallways, I’m pretty certain that everyone had a great time, and that next year’s show will be even grander. Till then, keep your wow and flutter to a minimum, and your tape stretch under control.
Header image: the A/V Luxury Group International room with a Margules Audio TT-10 turntable and ACRH-3 integrated amplifier, and RSX cables. All images courtesy of the author.