By Modest I. Predlozheniye
One of my favorite places to visit in all the world is Gibraltar since it is the intersection of so many different cultures. Where else can you stand on British soil surrounded by the Iberian Peninsula and stare out across the Mediterranean and view the African continent? The people of Gibraltar are equally fascinating. They have faint British accents and Italian surnames and love to order French pastries in Spanish. I always feel so invigorated by these sophisticates and I rarely visit this country without gaining a plethora of worldly knowledge. (No, I am not referring to the exquisite multi-lingual Gib prostitutes although they can be uncommonly informative regarding current events.)
The real reason I come to “the Rock” in early March is the Gibraltar Audio Show which was held at the Hotel Prudencial. Audio designers and engineers come from all over the world to exhibit at the show. The majority of these participants are fledgling entrepreneurs and crazy inventors rather than engineers from long-established high-end audio companies. In other words you will not see Sony, Harman International, Technics, Sealy Posturepedic, Marantz and Swarovski like you would see at most audio shows. You also will not see the DIY crowd who are selling schematics for a handful of euros while demonstrating speakers that are made from egg cartons and discarded pegboard from the recently remodeled Morrisons.
No, you will see something different. You will see mystery and imagination. You will not see the same old product as you have seen in Munich and Las Vegas and Heathrow and Montreal.
I’ll give you an example of this divergent style of thinking. I entered the Prudencial from the Europa Road entrance and paid my twenty euros for a day pass and received my badge. No more than twenty seconds later in was standing in the middle of my first exhibit room. I saw the usual equipment rack filled with amps and sources and festooned with all types of premium cabling but when I looked over at the 2-way bookshelf speakers I witnessed something I had never seen before. Instead of placing them on some type of stand, these speakers were both held aloft by a pair of brawny young men.
“Did you forget to bring a pair of speaker stands?” I asked the small, quiet gentleman who was streaming tunes from his iPad near the back corner of the room. That’s when he walked up to me and handed me his business card. At the top it said “Humana Speaker Stands.” How ironic, I thought, but then I slowly realized that the two young men were the speaker stands!
The gentleman introduced himself as Dr. Dententur, an acoustical engineer from Malta. “Many years ago I discovered, quite by accident, that most bookshelf speakers sound better when they are held snugly to the human body,” he explained.
“By accident?” I inquired.
“Yes,” he continued. “I used to be a stereo salesman in Sicily. My fellow sales staff and I would experiment with speaker placement thusly—two of us would pick up the speakers, hold them tightly to our abdomen and then move around until the soundstage came into focus. Then we would place them on stands.”
Dr. Dententur walked over to the young man on the right and grabbed his forearm slightly, making him lift his speaker about 5mm higher. “The problem was that we would always lose a little focus once they were placed on the stands. I realized then and there that most 2-way designed reached their potential only when surround by a nice, pliant human gut.”
I know what you are thinking, dear reader, but Humana Speaker Stands is not in the business of selling humans. But they do rent them! A pair of the Humana stands are rented by the hour, which makes them ideal for special events, demos or even those special occasions when you want to play one of those new reel-to-reel titles that cost several hundred euros apiece. While the hourly rate is not cheap, it’s roughly comparable to a new set of interconnects and will make a much bigger impact on soundstaging, deep bass response and inner transients. (Note: Dr. Dententur states that Humana Speaker Stands should not be used with rear-ported speakers or dipoles for obvious reasons.)
Humana Speaker Stands will soon offer a premium, signature version of the basic stands. “We have carefully selected sets of identical twins who are the same height and weight for the ultimate in fidelity,” Dr. Dentetur said. I’ll try to get some updates on pricing when the twins start shipping.
I am always intrigued with new ideas in the world of analog especially because we have been listening to records with a moderate degree of success for as long as I have been alive! That is a long time. I have always been interested in novel approaches to turntable bearings especially when it comes to magnetic levitation or air bearings. But here is an exciting new idea in bearings…helium!
The Cirque turntable from nearby Algeria features a helium bearing that is fed constantly through a somewhat ordinary looking tank that can be stashed behind most equipment racks. (In fact, Cirque is working on an adaptor kit that can be modified for use with any air-bearing turntable.) I loved the sound from the Cirque which was airy and light on its feet, but I had the distinct sensation that the turntable was running a little fast. Voices seemed higher in pitch than usual. Otherwise this budding new technology showed a lot of promise.
Are you one of those audiophiles who crave “subterranean” bass response? While I am not a firm believer in “satellite + subwoofer” set-ups I have to admit that I was enthralled by the new Terra subwoofer system from New Zealand. The Terra is a simple, somewhat porous box that houses either a 12” driver (Terra 1200) or a 15” driver (Terra 1500). These enclosures are then buried in the ground underneath the floor in your listening room. (Sorry but a concrete slab version is not yet available.) The result is a subwoofer line that is truly ground-shaking in every sense of the word!
Best of all you are not required to do the digging on your own. A certified Terra dealer will come to your home and enter the crawlspace or basement to dig the hole, install the enclosure and run the RCA cable to the SUBWOOFER OUT on your amplifier. Then the dealer will cover the hole with a special ferric blend of soil that is directional. When properly set-up, both the 1200 and 1500 should deliver single-digit low frequencies. During a demonstration of Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum, the bass response was so tactile and visceral that the top button of my dress slacks actually popped off!
While I am not the “tweakiest” audiophile in the world, I do enjoy audio accessories that provide sonic benefits in addition to a modicum of utility and practicality. In the MagicBlueTape room I was treated to a familiar sight in the world of high-end audio: small pieces of blue masking tape on the floor that marked the proper positioning of the speakers. But these pieces of masking tape were different!
“They’ve been treated with a ceramic dust that helps to absorb room reflections,” said Tim, a young and earnest sales rep for MBT. He then started moving the tape on the carpet in front of the loudspeakers forward and sideways in quarter-inch increments all while saying “Hear it? Hear it? Hear it?” It was hard for me to hear these subtle differences under show conditions, put I may just pull the trigger since the MagicBlueTape only costs about 75 euros a roll and that is a remarkable bargain when you see the prices of room treatment these days.
From my descriptions of the Gibraltar Audio Show you might assume that the focus was solely on the unusual, the daunting and the strange. But for every room that featured what the Americans call “out of the box thinking,” there were three rooms that featured conventional systems from well-known brands. I listened to a great many of these systems and came away thinking that the so-called state-of-the-art in high-end audio in 2017 had reached, dizzying and almost surreal heights. At the same time I felt that all these magnificent systems were all starting to sound the same. Perhaps that is the side-effect of approaching perfection, a homogeneity of sorts, but these levels of performance only made me yearn, dear reader, for the days where my engineer father and I would assemble crystal radios on the back porch of our summer cottage in Nigde while consuming large quantities of vodka. I thought the sound quality of our little radios were exceptional even though I was only ten or eleven at the time and had not yet heard a decent hi-fi. Sometimes I want nothing more than to capture that same magic in one of today’s audio systems.
These memories are perhaps why I was so intrigued by a sign at one of the booths out in the marketplace in the lobby of the Prudencial. It simply said “Change Your Perspective.” Underneath the sign sat a dark and sultry woman who was perhaps of Moroccan heritage. Although she might have been in her late fifties or early sixties, she was absolutely lovely. Her face was long and triangular, high of cheek with lovely clear brown eyes. Her jet black hair was braided and ran down the back of her folding chair and nearly touched the lobby carpet.
She sat quietly behind a folding card table. The only item on the table was a single plastic container, just like the ones pharmacies use for prescription medication. Inside the bottle were small white pills. I looked around the lobby, expecting Gibraltar law enforcement to be hiding behind the potted palms and waiting for money to exchange hands. The woman, sensing my trepidation, smiled and beckoned me toward her booth.
“Please,” she said in a voice that was both playful and exotic. “It is not what you think.”
She opened up the small plastic vial and poured a few pills onto the table. They didn’t look like they were evil or dangerous. They looked a lot like the Lipitor I take for my high cholesterol.
“These are simply vitamins,” she explained. “Mostly they contain megadoses of B-12, which is water-soluble and therefore safe in large quantities.”
“Oh,” I replied as a drew even closer and examined one of the small tablets. “I used to take B-12 back in college when I had to study for my final exams! They helped me focus and concentrate.”
Her beautiful brown eyes lit up from inside like an all-Shindo Labs sound system. “Exactly!” she proclaimed. “These vitamins will improve your hi-fi show experience. Your hearing will be more acute, and the music will come to life!”
Considering the relatively low price of fifty euros, I was in. I swallowed the pill, headed out to lunch at a bistro just next door to the hotel where I had couscous paella and a warm glass of port and waited for the pill to take effect. It was not quite noon, so the morning sun was still quite intense against the ornate tile floors in the lobby and out toward the mezzanine. The heat rising from the tiles almost made me sleepy and I could feel my eyelids getting a little heavy. A thought crossed my mind that I should not allow myself to nap because I had a deadline and my publisher was waiting impatiently for this report.
Suddenly a wave of euphoria swept over me, starting in my legs and pushing upward through my spine into my brain where everything tingled like an oversized dab of wasabi on the tip of the tongue. I suddenly felt awake and energized. With a renewed spring in my step I grabbed my notebook and started visiting the rest of the rooms.
At first I noticed that the bulk of the remaining rooms featured a sound that could be best described as detailed, but not overly analytical. Initially I ascribed this to the room acoustics since there were so many similarities in each system. Each time I entered a new room and sat down the music started sounding just like the last room I had visited. I know many people complain about hearing the same music being played over and over at these shows but this was something different and unusual. For instance I found that when I exited one room and walked out into the hallway and entered the next room the music would follow me, uninterrupted. I started to think about how clever the show organizers were, placing small hidden loudspeakers in the hallways for a more fluid attendee experience. After a few dozen rooms I started to notice similarities in the systems as well. Is everyone using KEF LS-50s this year? Or maybe these are not LS-50s but LS-50 clones, little black speakers with orange eyes that seem to be staring at you and judging you when you sit down in front of them. Oh, you think you can appreciate this midrange properly? You? I ran down the hallway until I found a room that featured floorstanding speakers and I sat down. I noticed the turntable was a VPI, and that Mat Weisfield was demonstrating it. “Hello, Modest!” Mat said to me. “It’s nice to see you again!” He played a beautiful recording of Ravel’s Bolero and it had an almost overwhelming effect on me, especially after my heart started beating in unison to the drums. Ba-da-da-da-DAH badada BAH BAH! I left that room and walked into the next room and was mildly surprised to see another VPI turntable. Again, Mat was running the demonstration and all I could think of was that Mat was such an energetic young man, full of life, and that he was either following from room to room just to gaslight me or perhaps he had come to Gibraltar on his own and had to cover multiple rooms by himself. After seeing him in four or five consecutive rooms I finally called him out and asked him if he was following me. He only replied, “My name is not Mat, sir, it is Eugenio.” I looked down at the VPI turntable and discovered it was actually an old Linn that used a tonearm made from popsicle sticks (the standard 9” length) or tongue depressors (the special 12” length). I asked Eugenio if the tongue depressors maintained the same rigidity as the popsicle sticks and he told me to sit down and listen for myself. Ah, such a knowledgeable and wise young man. I sat down, my heart still racing, and Eugenio put on some Miles Davis and I wasn’t sure which album, maybe Bag’s Groove, and I started hearing those wonderful sparse notes from Miles all framed by immense passages of silence and all of the sudden I could hear something that sounded like, well, I was pretty sure that I could hear Miles’ steady breathing as he waited to blast out the next lonely note or two and then after a few minutes I was absolutely sure it was his breathing I could hear. What amazing resolution! I also started hearing another sound every few seconds, a slight wet clipping sound, and then I realized that was Miles licking his lips before he played each note. Before the end of the song I could accurately predict the next note he would play based upon the way he licked his lips. I started shouting out into the room things like “Here comes an A-minor, folks!” and everyone in the room would clap when I got it right. Then something even more amazing happened. In between the notes and the licking of the lips and the steady breathing I could hear so much detail that I discovered that Miles was actually talking under his breath. Maybe he was talking to Bob Weinstock in the booth (Bob was wearing a white rumpled Oxford shirt that day and looked like he needed some sleep) but after a while it seemed like he was actually talking to me. He kept saying things like “Hey man, are you okay?” and “Next time why don’t you break the tablet in half?” The only thought in my head, dear reader, was digging what Miles was dishing. And baby, was he dishing.
The next morning I woke up in my hotel bed, rested but still a little groggy. I had no idea how I wound up there. I was even dressed in my pajamas! So I took a shower, got dressed and headed back to the airport. I had enough time to write-up this show report and send it to my publisher via email before my flight! Just before the doors of the airplane closed, I received a text from him:
Great report, Modest. Perhaps you need to tighten it up a little toward the end. But overall, a great Day One report. I can’t wait to read Day Two!
Oh dear reader, trust me when I tell you that it is harder to write show reports than you think!