I used to work with a guy who was awfully cagey about how he spent his vacations. Eventually, I learned that he raced pigeons as a hobby, but he’d gotten so sick of being teased about it that he just refused to talk about his obsession.
I think of that fella every time I take time off work to go to an audio show. My co-workers are starting to get it; they’ve been to my house and seen my speakers, they’ve asked me advice about turntables and headphones. They don’t quite understand my level of interest, but they’re accepting, especially if I couch it in terms of “trade show to see all the new and exciting stuff.” That’s good enough for them, and for me; Bill wasn’t interested in trying to convince me to try out pigeon racing, and I’m not invested in convincing a bunch of librarians to check out an audio show. For one thing, it’d make it harder to get the time off.
Maybe the bigger question, though, is: why do I go? Why is this my third audio show in 12 months? And why should you think about going when the next one rolls around?
To See the Expensive Gear
The high price-point gear tends to be what garners the most attention in discussions about shows like this. $100k speakers, $50k amps, that turntable that looks like it’s part of the International Space Station. And for most of us, these shows are the only place to actually listen to this gear without any pressure or guilt. I wouldn’t go to an MBL dealer and schedule an audition for his highest-end gear, because that doesn’t feel right to me: I know I can’t afford it, he knows I can’t afford it, and I’d be wasting his time in order to satisfy my curiosity. When I walk into a room at a show and park myself on the sweet spot for a minute or two, however, it’s no big deal. I’m one of hundreds of people who’ll come through the room on any given day. If things are slow, I don’t even feel bad about saying, “Hey, do you mind if I throw on this track? I’ve just always wondered how it’d sound. I love your gear.” More often than not, I’m awarded with a grin, and we take it out for a spin. Which is pretty great, when you think about it — when was the last time you went to a car show and got to tool around the block in a souped-up Ferrari?
I have a mental lottery list that I’ve been working on since i got into the hobby, and during every show I revise it slightly. This time, I added a new set of speakers: Voxativ’s brand-new Ampeggio Due ($100,000 US). I was impressed last year by the Ampeggios, with their shiny piano-black finish and the way the sound of Tom Waits’ “Poor Edward” dragged me in from the hallway. The Due tops even that experience, offering startling bass (25 Hz, according to the manufacturer) and a soundstage I could stand up and walk around in. The delicacy and coherence were fantastic when I first walked in, and then someone said, “Let’s hear some analog.” Dave Brubeck went on the turntable, and three people in the room said, “Oh WOW.” I may have been one of them. KR Audio Electronics Kronzilla DM monoblock amplifiers ($20,000), Bauer Audio DPS turntable ($9,250) with ViV Laboratory Rigid Float 7/HA tonearm ($4,390), and the Aurorasound VIDA phono stage ($5,990) made this room score high on my Powerball list.
It feels a bit awkward to be in lust with something that is pricey enough to be featured on a website called BornRich.com, but honestly? I just kind of like knowing that this kind of thing is out there, somewhere, being awesome.
To Compare Gear and Get a Sense of What’s Available
Are you thinking about making a purchase sometime soon? Maybe you’re in the market for new speakers, or you want to upgrade your DAC? There is no better opportunity to listen to a ton of good gear in one go than to attend a show.
Now, it’s true that very little will sound its best in a show environment. Much ink (virtual and otherwise) has been spilled on the vagaries of sound at shows, and with good reason: the rooms are boomy boxes that vendors have limited ability to alter, the gear’s often been powered down for shipping and hasn’t warmed up completely yet, and the strain of dozens of high-end stereo systems on the local electrical grid can’t go unmentioned. And yet, as I walk from room to room, I find it remarkable how quickly I begin to recognize the sound signatures of certain components, and begin to pick out what I enjoy and what I don’t. For the past year or so, I’ve been looking for an upgrade to my DAC, so I spent quite a bit of time paying attention to what digital I particularly enjoyed — as well as what digital seemed to inevitably make me wince whenever I walked into a room. When you listen to over 100 different systems in quick succession, you start to get a sense for what floats your particular boat in a way you may not have experienced before. This show, I was very favorably impressed by the Antelope Audio Zodiac ($1,800), which is natural and clear with nary a hint of digital fingernails-on-the-chalkboard. I also found the Dragonfly USB DAC ($250) to be incredibly solid, particularly given its price. Of course, my expensive taste reared its head when I once again encountered Playback Designs, this time rocking out to the Playback Designs IPS-3 integrated amp ($13,000). I’ve been impressed with Playback’s digital audio in the past, and the internal double-DSD-capable DAC on this integrated unit sounded really sweet, especially powering the Evolution Acoustics MMMicro One speakers ($4,000), a pair of truly mighty mites.
My husband likes to laugh at me because of the way my weird predilections show up while I’m at shows. My love for unconventional speakers has already been touched on above; my love for HUGE speakers becomes even more evident, as I sniff and refer to TAD Evolution One speakers as “kind of small,” and he catches me yet again writing “great sound, for stand mounts” in my show notebook. Over the past three shows, I’ve also learned that I don’t always prefer tubes over solid state, and that sometimes digital can be good enough to fool me into thinking I’m listening to vinyl (sometimes). If you go in with the intention to learn and don’t fall into the trap of only paying attention to the speakers, you can learn a heckuva lot.
To See Stuff You Won’t See Otherwise
Don’t just go to these shows looking for the extreme high-end, or expecting to only hear stuff you’ve seen reviewed in Stereophile. These shows are a great way to get acquainted with manufacturers who are doing great things but haven’t quite hit the big time yet. Often, you’ll talk to guys who are doing their first show, or who sell direct, or who don’t quite have the dealer network built up yet. At this show, I got a kick out of talking to Ed Sheftel of Reite Audio, who were showing with the full line-up of a phono stage ($3900 without power supply; the power supply is an additional $1900 and will power both the phono stage and line stage), line stage ($9200), and 400 watt mono block amplifier ($25,000/pair). All of these items, plus 100 watt mono blocks ($17,000/pair) are just entering production. Ed tells me that as a professional trumpet player, he’s long been on a quest for the most “live” sound he can find, and he believes his stuff fits the bill, with low distortion and adjustable damping on the amps. The system certainly made Silverline Audio Technology’s Prelude Plus speakers ($1999) stand up and take notice. The sound was punchy and thoroughly enjoyable — I’d love to hear some Count Basie big band through that system. If I understood correctly, this was Reite Audio’s first show, although neither Ed nor his partner Bob Reite are newcomers to audio.
Because People in this Industry are Great
Last year, when I attended my first Newport show, I was too shy to talk to very many people, but the few conversations I had with attendees and folks in the industry really stuck with me. Everyone I spoke with was warm, friendly, and incredibly excited about sound. At RMAF last year I screwed up my courage and started talking to strangers — and met some folks I still talk to regularly (in fact, I believe this was the first time I spoke with our own Scot, although I read his blog regularly, and he and my husband had exchanged communication). This year at T.H.E. Show, I threw caution to the wind and talked to nearly everyone, and as a result, I had a complete blast. Try this: next time you’re waiting for the elevator (and the waits can be interminable), turn to the person next to you and ask how they’re enjoying the show. Sometimes the answer will be, “I’m NOT,” but my experience was that it was a great way to find out what rooms were firing and what was exciting.
Because It’s FUN !
You get to hang out for three days, listen to the best stereos in the world, and drink next to the pool with the hugest geeks ever. What’s not to love?