T.H.E. Show at Newport Beach 2013: What I Learned On My Summer Vacation

Scot was kind enough to give me a little space at the end here to think out loud about THE Newport Beach. I went back and forth a bit over whether I should summarize my feelings about the show [nobody cares], my thoughts on what the industry looks like [grey haired men in hot hotel rooms], the food at the bar [the nod goes to the Atrium on that one] or a best in show list [utterly nonsensical]. Instead, what I thought I’d do is wander around a few different show-related sinkholes

Room Sound

or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Diana Krall

The two most common sentiments about any audio show can be expressed by two simple phrases. The first phrase is “Show Conditions.” The second is “Diana Krall Again.”

“Show Conditions” seems to whip up more rage on any given discussion forum than the price of cables. “These are professionals,” the thinking goes, “they should have a handle on how to make a show sound good.” I’ll admit that I have some sympathy for that view myself.

The thing to remember, of course, is that these are professionals. They have a pretty good handle on how to make a show sound good. The problem, of course, is that a show is a hostile environment that fights back at every step.

I’ve referred to the problematic Hilton sound repeatedly. Bass was truly horrible. Not only was it boosted, but the room ringing led to an exaggerated decay that muddied up just about every system. It was inescapable. It was godawful. But you should have heard it last year! People had learned, and there was an almost across the board improvement.

But then, of course, the ice machine in the hallway kicked on. And so did the air conditioner. And probably the heat. And the soda machine started gronking through the wall. And the cleaning staff started vacuuming next door. And now this megabuck room is screeching some kind of harmonic that sounds like trash day at the rusty gear factory, and the next three people who go into the room think that this hi-fi is just “the biggest ripoff you can imagine.”

On top of that, most exhibitors aren’t in a position to show a single-source system, where one manufacturer has control of every bit of technology from the power conditioner to the speakers. McIntosh can do it — unless you count the phono cartridge. Everyone else is making a deal and crossing their fingers.

I mentioned that the Coffman Labs room sounded terrible on Friday. I’ve had their preamp in my house, and I’m a fan. Show Conditions happened to Coffman Labs in a big way. At this show, their components were supplied by at least eight different sources. Count them up: Audience for cabling and power conditioning, AudioMachina for speakers, Manley for amps, Sumiko for the cartridge, Music Hall for the turntable, Parasound for the digital, Sennheiser for the headphones, and finally, at the end of all that, Coffman Labs brought their preamp and headphone amp.

Have you ever suffered through one piece of gear breaking in? ALL of that gear needed to break in. Meanwhile, the folks across the hall were rocking out with open doors. If I’d been in my own house, with coffee, beer, and unlimited, guilt-free swearing working for me, I still wouldn’t have been able to get half as much out of that system on Friday as they did.

On Sunday, of course, it was an oasis that was one of my favorite rooms.

Which brings us to Diana Krall’s cover of “Temptation.”

I hate that track. I mean I really hate it. Sure the band is good, but in my personal life, I’d rather listen to a shot AM radio play Mr. Waits ripping out the back of his throat to warble the tune than ever endure that slick, over-rehearsed piece of audiophile pablum again. In fact, I’ve basically only put up with listening to that song in hotels and stereo stores.

Which is basically the point. We all know how it sounds. More than that, we all know how it sounds in lousy rooms. It’s inoffensive dreck, it contains traits that are important to a hifi, and there’s no way that overexposure can ruin that song for anyone. You won’t hear it on a great system and be brokenhearted when you’re forced to go home and listen to it on your Goodwill Special, and you won’t be personally offended if you hear it on a system that isn’t exactly firing because the Dr. Pepper machine at the end of the hall picked this particular moment to cycle its compressor.

In short: Diana Krall is hi-fi’s dipstick. Hotel rooms are crap joints that don’t deserve any better. If you hear really good sound, the system is probably capable of better. If you hear really bad sound, go back for another visit. Don’t sweat it if things seem to show a weird weakness. Blame the Dr. Pepper machine.

Nice Work if You Can Get it

or: I Have No Idea How That Sounded

Kirsten and I figured that subbing in would be no problem. We’d done shows before, we thought, and all we’d have to do is take some pictures. Some obvious flaws in that thinking should present themselves to you.

The first flaw is that I’m just no good at taking pictures. I hadn’t pointed a camera in anger in two decades. This led to a Friday in which I spent all of my mental energy just trying to keep my finger from smearing the front of the lens too much. Framing? Exposure? Metering? All these things fell by the wayside before noon as I zombie shuffled from room to room, snapping blurry shots and hoping that nobody would notice I was there. I remembered the fantastic systems, and remembered the fantastically bad systems, but in between those two extremes was a vast emptiness where there should have been memories of other rooms.

Nope. Nada. Completely blank.

By Friday night, I had a new appreciation for what the usual show reporters go through. When we go to these shows as fans, we’re completely free to poke our head into a room and simply turn around if it’s not our thing. Agreeing to report on the show means, though, that you have some small duty to listen to everything. Don’t like solid state amps, kiddo? Tough. Got a religious thing against metal cone drivers? Tough. Get in there and listen to that Norah Jones.

It’s all a haze, I tell you. If I hadn’t taken notes, I wouldn’t have remembered anything.

Mysteries of the Universe

or: I Have No Idea What I Just Heard

The problems with my memory were compounded by the fact that something like 80% of the exhibitors didn’t have anything remotely resembling a tear sheet. Learning what was in the room involved a five minute discussion while laboriously transcribing an increasingly bizarre series of model names and numbers into my completely illegible handwriting. Meanwhile, everyone who came to listen to this stuff got to listen to the spiel while getting whapped on the head with a notebook (sorry about that, whoever you were). Kirsten took that job over after her third attempt to read “TAD” out of my notebook failed. Her tries involved more legibility and less head-whapping. She broke down flailing within hours.

These shows have always been somewhat conflicted about their purpose. Are they there to get press coverage (ie: free advertising)? Are they there to sell components? Are they there simply to build brand awareness?

This leads to interesting problems. Think about bright, sunny, open rooms. They’re pleasant places in which to listen to music, but they’re lousy places to take pictures. If you’re there to get butts in seats, you want your shades thrown back. If you’re there to get a decent picture on a website, though, you want your curtains closed.

Similarly, if you’re there to get coverage or build awareness, you want to leave your air conditioning on. The sound will suffer, though, so if you’re there to sell stereos you may want to turn your AC off. Personally, I’m not likely to hear the whole audition if the room smells of three days’ worth of audiophile sweat, but that’s me. It’s a choice that an exhibitor can make that varies with the reason he’s at the show.

A piece of paper listing everything in your room, though, is a no brainer across all of those categories. It doesn’t have to be a branding exercise; it just has to be a sheet with your company name, your contact information, your room number, and a list of your gear and its prices. If you want to get really fancy, you can even toss on a url to more information about each product, but you don’t have to get fancy. Whether you’re looking for customers or press coverage, a list of what you have to offer is a good thing. There’s always a Kinko’s around, so there’s no logistical barrier to getting this done.

So why were there so few of these lists? It’s one of the mysteries of the universe.

Best in Show

or: Why Are All These Systems So Expensive?

There were rooms I loved going to, and there were rooms I loved going back to. The MBL system was frustrating and mindboggling all at once. The highend-electronics system with Voxativ’s Ampeggio Due speakers was intoxicating. I’ve already mentioned the Coffman Labs room repeatedly, I’ve plugged PTE repeatedly, I keep rambling about phono preamps, and the list goes on and on and on.

If I were to give a Best-In-Show nod to a system, of course, it would be for the little Pioneer room. I love that Pioneer has given me an answer for my not-yet-insane friends when they ask me what stereo they should buy. Was it because Pioneer’s system sounded better than Tenor and YG Acoustics’ system at 250 times the price? No. Not even close.

I didn’t even go back to the Pioneer room with its hundred buck speakers. I barely made it back to the Sony room with its six grand speakers. These shows are the only places where budget systems are competing for seat time with stratospheric systems, and there’s generally no way the budget systems are going to win that competition.

Which leads directly to the reasons you don’t see too many casually affordable systems at shows like this. Right off the bat is the fact that any reasonable system that sounds fine on its own inevitably suffers when compared with a system that simply outclasses it.

Take the unfortunate case of Vanatoo’s ridiculously good $500 system. It’s cool, it’s user friendly, it sounds fine, and it has real jump. At this show, they were surrounded by Empirical and Vapor’s room (demoing $30k worth of the best digital treble you’re likely to hear), and Einstein Audio and AudioMachina’s room (demoing an even more expensive system featuring Holy Reel to Reel Tape). Squeezed between those two rooms, even I walked in and thought “these don’t sound very good at all. There’s some some grain there, and they definitely don’t sound like 15″ woofers. Those just aren’t very good.” Are you kidding me? The Vanatoo stuff is GREAT for the cash, but I found myself grousing about it to my wife. Why? Because the immediate comparisons were just in another league. Any system at these shows isn’t being compared to its competition, it’s being compared to the very best the world has to offer. That’s not exactly fair.

The second reason that you don’t see too many affordable systems is related to the first. These shows are expensive propositions. Just renting the exhibit room costs thousands. Sleeping rooms cost hundreds more. Transportation, plants, insurance, freight, the not-inconsiderable expense of dining out for a week, and the opportunity cost of doing a show instead of running a small business makes for a best case cost in the high four figures. If you’re going to spend that money, you absolutely need to get the folks who attend to fall in love with your products. That’s hard to do when they’re wandering off to listen to statement systems.

Given that, wouldn’t you roll out your big guns?

That’s why a $20k system is often considered “affordable” at a show like this. No individual component is usually insane, but a grand here and a couple of grand there and some really good cabling over there can add up quickly. The benefit, though, is a well balanced system that can stand up even when surrounded by all the big guns. You can fall in love with it at the show, but pieces of it still seem like a good idea later. A prime example was Affordable Audio’s Exposure-driven system in the Hilton. Despite the fact that almost no individual box cost more than two grand, the system made a remarkably good showing.

So given the vagaries of room sound, the unfair competition, and the silliness of blessing any room with the dubious honor of saying I liked it, my “Best in Show” award goes to Patrick Fitzgerald, the extraordinarily efficient bartender at the Atrium. His speedy efforts to maintain my blood alcohol content at a reasonably high level were at least somewhat responsible for my optimistic outlook. If it makes you feel better about it, think of him as a dealer of a remarkably effective audiophile tweak instead of that guy who made sure that I didn’t run out of beer.

Mal Kenney

1 Comment

  1. Thanks to everyone for making these reports possible. I grew up in Orange County and this gives me a chance to reconnect with whats happening out there. Now, as a resident of Denver, I get a chance to anticipate things I might check out at RMAF.

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