Vancouver Audio Show 2016: A gear reviewer goes undercover with Audio Note UK
The man holding the CD wrapped in a handkerchief in one hand looked confused, and dismayed. In the other hand he had a paper bag full of hi-fi related brochures, what looked like a box of new interconnects, and a sandwich in tupperware. He couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t play the disc he kept waving in my face. I happily explained to him that I was only playing CDs, and LPs that had been brought by myself or my associates. He persisted. I smiled as I told him that I had no clue where he had gotten the digital file that he burned to the disc he kept trying to get me to take, and that because of that, I would not be playing it. Once again I asked him if I could play something for him from the few dozen audiophile-mastered CDs, or more than 100 Analogue Productions, Classic Records, or Mobile Fidelity LPs that were at my fingertips. He frowned, and grudgingly sat down, admonishing me to “play whatever you want.”
I put on the 2008, 45-rpm Analogue Productions holy-grail version of Ry Cooder & V.M. Bhatt’s A Meeting by the River. This is probably one of the best recorded acoustic sessions I’ve ever heard. It features Cooder and Bhatt jamming barefoot on a Persian rug inside a church in rural Santa Barbara in the middle of the night. Tim de Paravicini was a technician during the recording, and Water Lily’s Kavi Alexander set up two all-tube powered Blumlein Pair microphones for what is basically a jam session between the two.
Handkerchief CD-waving guy sat silently. Brooding. He then began swaying back-and-forth in his chair with his eyes closed for the next 20 minutes listening with a beatific look on his face while I spun both sides of the first LP. He then jumped up, asked me where he could find the album, and ran out of the room. I smiled to myself. This is cool, I thought.
Welcome to Audio Note UK at the Vancouver Audio Show.
Part-time Audiophile readers may recognize me by my scribblings from various audio shows around North America – and my gear reviews – so this piece of journalistic license is a tale of a very different stripe. Caught in a pinch, due to the retirement of Audio Note UK show stalwart David Cope, Don Thorne of Soundhounds (a close friend of mine) found himself with a show booked, and no one with any show experience to help run the room for the Vancouver Audio Show. So I decided to help run the room, and write about what it’s like on the other side for a change. I was no longer the scribe who gets to waltz in, take some photographs, have a listen, and saunter away to another of a dozen-odd rooms that I would normally try to cover in a day. I was part of this room for two-and-a-half days of doing my level best to draw in show goers, and keep them there for as long as possible. Our idea was to communicate to people through music as best we could the power of an analog rig running on vinyl, and tubes. And, I have to say, we had a blast doing it.
When I arrived Friday afternoon after working my day job, Thorne was wrapping up the first day’s listening sessions, and had been joined by Audio Note junkie Don Parkhurst. The two had (gratefully) taken care of all the heavy lifting involved in setting the system up Thursday night, and early that morning. After listening to the gear for a while, we decided to implement a few minor tweaks to help flesh out the sound, and add a bit more bottom end, which was suffering slightly because of a very regrettable room shape which forced us to pull the AN-E SPe/HE loudspeakers away from the corners, which they are designed to take advantage of for room-loading.
Getting great sound from hi-fi in a hotel room at an audio show is a dark art unto itself. I’ve been in literally, hundreds of room over the past year-and-a-half, and I can tell you; it is no easy thing to accomplish. I’ve seen grown men sweating bullets, fighting back emotions, and lost to despair while in the throes of attempting to dial-in a system in a strange hotel room, thousands of miles from anyone familiar with certain components in the set-ups. Speakers, amplifiers, or parts like tubes that were supposed to be broken-in, and arrive brand new in their boxes fresh from the factory can ruin a presentation. How about a completely different set of source components than you were expecting, and had planned for the system being shipped to you? Or the wrong cables? Or a gorgeous LOMC cartridge, and only an MM phono stage to go with it? All this, and more happens on a regular basis to the men, and women who are tasked with highlighting the strengths of the brands, and manufacturers who they represent. Audiophiles are not a very forgiving group of individuals in my experience, especially at shows. Badmouthing is common. I’ve overheard many brutal, nasty conversations in the hotel halls at shows when certain manufacturer’s rooms sound wasn’t up to expectations.
One thing that worked in our favor, and is a tremendous help when setting up an Audio Note UK showroom is the fact that Audio Note manufactures pretty much everything in-house; from cartridge to transducers, and all points in-between. So, putting together a synergistic, holistic, and organic sound is almost plug-and-play in many aspects. There’s no guesswork involved (other than what level you want to represent, there are basically five levels in the AN UK stable of products), or output-matching amps to speaker impedance, etc. But, in order to tame the room so to speak, we still had to do make some minor changes, and of course speaker placement. We did our best to get the most coherent, tactile, and engaging sound possible from the hotel room we had in Vancouver. Some of what we ended up doing I can tell you, other tweaks must remain a secret. But what I can say is that Thorne traded out the shotgun bi-wired strands of silver Audio Note AN-SPx speaker cables for their lower-priced copper Lexus cables. Audio Note silver cables offer a staggering amount of air, and detail (they tend to work best closer to the source in my experience – think from the turntable to the step-up, or from the SUT to the phono stage, CD transport to DAC, etc.) but can take away a bit in the lower octaves compared to the copper models, so adding the Lexus cables from the amp to the AN-Es gave us back more punch, and solidity down low, which we needed with the Es placed sub-optimally. Back once again were the Soundhounds specially-modified Ikea Lack tables for the system stands which were questioned by patrons of last year’s Vancouver Show. For 2016, Thorne showed up with new adjustable spiked-feet added to these low-mass, rigid tables for a colorful, cheap, and effective base for the gear. I swear, people were almost more interested in the stands than the cartridge, SUT (Audio Note AN-S8) or amplifier being used in the demonstrations.
Of course it didn’t hurt that Thorne, Parkhurst, and I were joined by world-class cellist Vincent Belangér in our quest to lure unsuspecting audiophiles to their sonic little deaths (la petit mort) in the room. I’ve written about Belangér’s playing with Cope at several AN UK showrooms over the last year, but this was my first opportunity to spend some serious time with the man, and I have to say he’s a live wire to hang around. His affable, good-natured Quebecois way is only bettered by his love of great music, and British Columbia’s burgeoning craft beers, which admittedly, contribute to his affable, good nature.
If you’ve never had the chance to hear Belangér play alongside himself with Audio Note gear, I humbly suggest you try to attend a hi-fi industry show where he will be playing. My understanding is that he will continue to be an Audio Note Ambassador for the foreseeable future, so I believe that the Rocky Mountain Audio Festival in October would be your next opportunity in North America. Belangér absolutely captivates an audience, and most performances he delivered in Vancouver were standing room only. Often people who had attended one of his live/recorded sessions came back to hear, and experience another the following hour – they also invariably brought someone with them too. It was also not uncommon to see patrons lost in reverie, their eyes closed, or overcome with emotion as the weight, impact, and intensity of his performance overwhelmed the room with a swelling crescendo of sonic colors. This was the first time I was able to hear him play alongside AN-E transducers (the largest speaker currently offered by Audio Note, with their Big-E still in development), as every other time it was either the new AZ Two D or AN-J loudspeakers that were being used as his accompaniment in the systems. The reason I mention this is because as good as every show was where I heard Belangér, and Audio Note together, this show was the best.
Why is that?
The AN-E is a formidable performer, especially when paired with the absolutely massive Audio Note Meishu Phono Silver 300B integrated amplifier that was on tap in Vancouver. This is a combo that added real gravitas to the live/recorded experience with Belangér. The Meishu puts out nine watts, and the listed specs for the AN-E are a frequency response of 17Hz – 22kHz at –6dB, with a nominal impedance of eight ohms, and a sensitivity rating of 98dB, so this was a classic SET/high-efficiency pairing that you read about when people write about Directly-Heated Triodes, giant hand-wound output transformers, and 300B bass bloom, and note decay. The heft, and sawed-off shotgun edge to Belangér’s cello notes being produced by the Meishu/AN-E duet rattled the bones in my chest, and at moments made me struggle to differentiate between live, and recorded. That is seriously fucking impressive, as this was never meant to be that type of performance. As Belangér says every time before playing “This is not a contest, because I always win.”
He’s right. He always wins, and again, it’s never meant to be a contest between the gear, and Belangér, what it is, is an absolutely spellbinding way to show off the coherency of the sound when heard along a live performance, and I think it never fails to impress show goers. I heard him play almost a dozen times over the weekend, and I never grew tired of the performance, or his banter with the attendees, and I was always blown away at how appreciative he was of their time, and attention during the performances. Belangér is a consummate showman, and is able to wrest the very best not only from his cello, but from those he shares his playing with.
OK, OK, so that’s some of what was going on in the room, but what was it like to really run a room at a hi-fi trade show?
It was shit-tons of fun. Sure, there were some weirdos, but they were super mild, and maybe just didn’t get out much, but you can’t fault a guy for that. I’m guilty of it far too many evenings for my girlfriend’s liking. Also, there were women, and families in attendance to our room. This something I’ve not seen close-up in my audio-show travels, and perhaps it’s because I’m always on the run, and can’t really take stock of the room attendees’ demographics per se. But, I admit, it was heartwarming to see fathers bringing in their sons, and daughters, or men bringing in their partners (young, and old), to just spend their time with us, in our room, listening to our tunes, and smiling, and laughing at our stupid jokes, and enjoying themselves. I mean, it’s kind of addictive in a way to be able to be partly responsible for making people happy on a continuing basis for almost three days straight. You can’t help but be infected in a sense with the good vibes that that imbues one with. Yes, there is a certain amount of pressure to be knowledgeable about the gear, to always be “on point” and aware of the room dynamics with guests coming, and going. There is also the playlist, being able to read the mood of the current crowd when switching up the tunes.
I think my best set saw two very disparate LP sides played back-to-back (Jerome Sabbagh, The Turn, (also buy it HERE), and the Gorillaz self-titled). Now, these two albums are extremely different, yet both are incredibly well-recorded, and produced sessions that highlighted the numerous strengths of the system: handling massive dynamic-swings with ease, deep, extended bass, smooth, extended high-frequency response, and a tangible, jammy midrange. So, it came as a surprise when the Doug-Sax mastered Sabbagh’s Euro-infused jazz quartet stopped playing, and the trip-hop cacophony of Damon Albarn, and Jamie Hewlett’s freshman effort started creeping into the room, and no one moved until the entire side had finished playing. The crowd consisted of completely varied age groups, men, women, ethnicity, and socio-economic strata. Not only was I genuinely surprised, I was exceedingly pleased that such a varied group would happily sit through such completely different musical selections, and not just a song, but two entire sides of two LPs. I took it as a sure sign that the system was capably translating musicality to our listeners.
Looking back on my time helping out in the Audio Note room, the parts that stand out the most are all the moments spent connecting with individuals about music, making fast friends with Vincent, and sharing laughs with the two Dons. There were certainly a lot of questions regarding the gear, but people seemed most interested in the music, and the way the system was able to speak to them with an emotional connection foremost. While many audiophiles live, and die by the gear, I’d like to continue believing that it’s the music which is the glue that holds our weird little hobby together.
That, and beer.