There were good-sounding rooms, bad-sounding rooms and rooms that behaved like a soap-opera character; good one minute, bad the next. If you'd asked me on the Friday, I'd have said the Electrocompaniet room driving the Nordic Tone speakers, or the Hansen Emperors being driven by Accuphase's finest. Then, if you'd spoken to me on Saturday, it would have been a coin-toss between the VTL room featuring Avalon Indra loudspeakers and the ARC/Vandersteen room. Finally, on Sunday, I'd have been hard pressed to better the Sonic Studio/Ayre/Wilson Sasha room, although the sublime sounds made by Soundsmith were a close second, the Zanden/Karan/Cardas/Avalon room was proving very, very listenable and the AMR/Rethm room was making some distinctly un-horny horn sounds.
The Peachtree Nova, fed into Zu Essence loudspeakers. Using a line-up of inexpensive computer audio sources, such as a Sonos system and even an Apple TV unit, this room took a refreshingly no-nonsense approach to audio replay. A controversial choice given Zu's recent decision to walk away from its dealer base, but there's no denying that the system sounded very good, and yet cost less than a set of power cords three doors away.
Most Significant Product Introduction
Seen for the first time in the US, the Naim Audio S-600 loudspeaker - called the 'Ovator', nicknamed the 'Ovulator' (of course) - is a floorstanding loudspeaker with a distinct difference. It has a Balanced Mode Radiator driver in place of a tweeter. This BMR design - an off-shoot of the NXT exciter panel - is the first of its kind in high-end and promises a lack of discontinuities in the presence region, despite looking like singing cardboard where a drive unit should go. In the room, driven by half a wall of Naim electronics, the sound was remarkably natural in the midrange and up, and sounds very different from Naim loudspeaker designs of old.
Greatest Technological Breakthrough
The 'Knowledge Alliance' demonstration performed in the Nordost room, presented by Steve Elford of Vertex AQ and Roy Gregory (former editor of Hi-Fi Plus turned VP Marketing for Nordost) may hold the key to understanding why things like component isolation, power conditioning and cables are important in audio. It may even prove to be a new paradigm in product measurement. By using dynamic material (i.e. real music, and an intriguing 'ting' tone) in place of test tones to measure timing errors from a CD player's output, the team (including deep-geek mil-spec mathematician Gareth Humphrey-Jones) have been able to determine significant improvements in those timing errors when the player is appropriately connected and seated. It's very early days (the roving seminar is more a Call for Comments from the audio industry than anything tangible yet), but it has sent ripples around the high-end community. Maybe there's more to cable measurement than just resistance, capacitance and inductance...
Best Demo Music
Kudos to the Bryston/PMC room for playing 'Things Ain't Like They Used To Be' from The Black Keys Attack & Release album. OK, it's a distinctly lo-fi track from a distinctly lo-fi blues-rock duo, but it meant the room was making a lot of sense to the younger audiophiles at the show. At the other end of the scale, a bold congratulations should go to the guys playing Edith Piaf singing 'Non, je ne regrette rien' through the German-made single-driver Tocaro 40C loudspeakers. Apparently it was supposed to sound like a clock radio. Really.
Most Important Trend
Well, it comes down to two choices; Saturday afternoon power outages or computer audio. I'm going with computer audio. Specifically, systems featuring Apple computers using Sonic Studio's Amarra, especially when the Mac is running it's OS from a solid-state drive and with pimped out RAM. Put all that together and you get something wonderful. If this sounds complex, SimpliFi Audio lived up to its name by providing a complete 'turn-key' solution for Mac users - an bootable external SSD unit pre-loaded with Mac OSX and Amarra. Of course, the likes of Naim and Qsonix were showing that the dedicated music server system is still one of the most accessible (and good sounding) ways to make music in the home.
There is another important trend that might just get overlooked from a surface inspection of the show. There was a sense of people actually working together, and changing things for the better, that has hitherto been all too rare in what can be a cut-throat business. Trolleys were being loaned from company to company, advice was offered (and accepted), if a product failed (and sadly in the rush to build up a room, things go bad, or go missing), rivals set aside their differences and helped out. Some of that camaraderie was caught from the guys in the Head-Fi CANJAM arena, who gave the whole world of headphones a sense of tricked-out entertainment and sheer hot-rod fun that can sometimes be lacking in the rather serious world of high-end audio.