The Waldorf=Astoria is a grand ol’ dame of a hotel. The lobby has a decidedly 19th century feel to it, all old leather, Oriental carpet, dark and deeply oiled wood. Bell hops, strategically placed, are dressed in tidy uniforms and white gloves. Guests of a thousand different nationalities glide elegantly by. On Sunday, the lobby is converted into a near-endless buffet Lollapalooza, each table piled a foot deep in delicacies that not only would completely violate my diet, but were so temptingly over the top, my self-control leapt out of my body, struck me on the back of the head, and hauled me bodily out of there before I did something it would take 6 months to undo. It was a near thing.
For all the furor and frenzy 15 stories above, with the attendant dance beats, thunder crashes and train whistles that herald a regional audio show, the guests downstairs were not only blissfully unaware, they honestly couldn’t have cared less. There was at least one wedding, two conferences and literally thousands of those “just passing through” that had no idea of the mayhem above their gilded heads. If they had known, I’m not sure a single monocle would have even quivered. These folks have seen pretty much everything.
I’m considerably less jaded, I suppose. And I’m sure I’m terrifically impressionable, at least by contrast. So, after three days of throwing myself “once more into the breach”, I’m happy to say that quite a bit had caught my ear.
While there were a few modestly priced systems on display, the majority of them were solidly in that fuzzy middle bracket, and the best of them were on the high end of the scale.
And that’s only what was happening at the Waldorf. Two other local dealerships decided to stage an insurrection, of sorts, and host competing events in an attempt to bleed off attendees from the main show. Uptown’s Lyric Hifi postered the Internets promising demos of the truly wonderful gear they have on display. They were then upstaged by Stereo Exchange, downtown, that scheduled an impressive list of headliners to come through the store including John Stronczer from Bel Canto, Chris Connaker from Computer Audiophile, and several others. I actually wandered down there on Sunday, but I guess most of the fun had left the building by then. I did manage to spend some quality time rubbing up on the big Sonus Faber Aida speakers, which almost made up for the 30 minutes it took to flag down a cab heading back uptown. The big speakers had sound that had to be heard to be believed, paired with a fit and finish that befits their ever-so-lofty price … which is a good place to start with my list of show favorites. So, in no particular order, let’s do that.
I love hanging out with Vinnie Rossi of Red Wine Audio. He’s easygoing, tack-sharp, and so very obviously loves his music. His room, featuring the new Liliana monoblocks and some speakers from Kudos, was just easy and fun to be in. Sound stage was wide, dynamics were deep, and the sound quality was warm without sacrificing detail. I could spend all day in that room, which is probably why I stopped by something like 6 times.
Robin Wyatt of Robyatt Audio was demoing some antique Quad ESL-57 panels, loving restored by Quad expert Wayne Picquet of Quads Unlimited. Driving it were new OTL amps from Miyajima Labs. On the whole, this was the best surprise at the show. Ever wondered what all the fuss was about? Here was the answer.
Another surprise came from Gradient. Courtesy of a pair of Gradient Revolutions per side for more power “down low”, a Gradient active crossover, and a pair of Helsinki 1.5s for the “everything else”, the demo was simply outstanding. Power, air, finesse, and total dominance – to say that the room “sounded good” is an understatement completely out of character with the venue. Nice work.
Wes Bender was showing off the Hansen Prince speakers with Viola electronics, and I was pretty much convinced that there was no way this would work. Great big speakers in a little room? Ha! Yeah, I was wrong. Dynamics, slam and delicacy — who could ask for anything more? Aside from a seat, that is. This was a very popular room.
Zellaton’s new Concert speakers were being shown with Berning Audio electronics. I loved the sound of this combo, and all that silver and black really worked for me aesthetically, too. Johnny Hartman was intoxicatingly rich on this system!
Mark Conti of Veloce was running the newly revamped LS-1 linestage into prototype V6 monoblocks. The YG Kipods at the end of the chain made sound that was explosively dynamic, delicate, inviting – a must-hear, I was told numerous times, and was another of those rooms you had to muscle your way into. Very popular and for good reason.
Walker Audio was paired up with Burmester to produce a room filled with audio goodies that brought finesse and drama to the room. Yet another room where seating was at a premium, but no matter, the room was filled to the ceiling with alluring sound.
A room I really wanted to spend more time in was showing off the Amadis speakers from Verity Audio, paired with VAC electronics. The sound quality was outstanding. The line with the bouncer was not, but entry was worth the wait.
The Soundsmith room had an atmospheric charm lacking in a great many rooms. A big VPI table played into a full rack of all-Soundsmith electronics, with sound lifted out of the groove by a cactus needle. Sound crazy? Not as crazy as the sound that was coming out of the tiny Firefly speakers. A great case for matching gear to the room, visitors here were treated to immersive sound from a great selection of vinyl.
The room with Sjofn Hifi’s magical (the clue) was another hit with me. These speakers defy all logic and I seriously don’t understand why they sound as good as they do. Run with Hegel electronics, the music here was some of the most inviting at the show, and at one of the most affordable price points on display.
Hegel Audio also teamed up with Amphion to show off the new Argon 7L to produce deep, powerful bass, lightning-fast transients and dynamics that will lift your eyebrows right off your face. Magic combo! Not cheap, to be sure, but if you were going by show-acoustics alone, you’d be forgiven for wondering why you should bother with megabuck speakers after spending time in here.
Gavin Fish was running the Light Harmonic room and demoing the recently released Da Vinci DAC, here paired with Pass Labs electronics and Wilson Sascha speakers. This was a legendary match. Whether it was the DAC, the Pass electronics, or the Wilsons, is unclear, but I kept coming back here, and it wasn’t just the mood lighting. The tech in the DAC is impressive stuff and the music flowed like wine.
I was lucky to catch the back half of an Amber Rubarth show. I really liked the energy! Amber’s was laying down some great tunes, and try as I might, I have no idea how that beatboxer was able to make all that come out of his face. Holy cow.
Speaking of live events, I missed the Friday night mixer, courtesy of Burmester, who brought in a real DJ, but I did catch a bit on Saturday, where I was handed the largest glass of bourbon I’ve ever seen poured. Personally, scratching vinyl seems sacrilegious, but the music was fun and the crowd was clearly having a good time.
Saturday’s “Meet the Editors” panel overflowed with audio talent. Chaired with quiet British understatement, Stereophile’s John Atkinson fielded questions about review standards, or the lack thereof, and why the music selection at audio shows was so laughably bad. Later that day, TONEAudio’s own Jeff Dorgay hosted a get-together that was an exercise in opposites, with a down-to-earth salt-of-the-earth approach, talking about his magazine and their take on the things that audiophiles find interesting. Michael Fremer’s turntable setup seminar was full of useful, if unsettling, information. Other seminars on computer audio and the future of the high-end, I didn’t make, but it wasn’t because I didn’t want to. Too much stuff to do and not enough time to do it. Jeez, folks, there was show going on here!
Two nights in NYC and, because I’m lame, I only spent one of them out on the town. But that one night out was a treat – the dinner at David Chang’s Momofuku/Má Pêche with the crew from TONEAudio will live far longer in my memory than the hangover I carried around the following day (totally worth it). Lunch on Sunday came courtesy of Jeff Joseph of Joseph Audio, who dragged me out of the hotel on a quest for good food, which led to BRGR for, well, a burger and a shake. It was delicious, perhaps especially since I’ve been on something of a vegan kick lately, and well, if you’re planning to get run over by the diet wagon you just fell off of, NYC is certainly the place to do it. Good food is everywhere.
I can’t believe how fast those three days went. Yikes!