In a way, it was badly named; there was no ‘AV’ in the New York Audio and AV Show. There was a lot of audio though, and more than 2,000 attendees. Making it one of the most successful new events on the audio calendar.
It was a distinctly analog show, though. Turntables were everywhere, and even the occasional reel-to-reel. The positive analog vibes had a clear effect on my digital voice recorder, sending it into hashy-sounding hell for daring to convert sounds into ones and zeros. If only I’d brought my portable cutting lathe! So, rather than cover every room in the event, I’m limited to the ones that stayed lodged in my memory, because they were exceptional.
It was an ambitious affair, set aloft the 15th and 18th floors of the prestigious Waldorf=Astoria hotel in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. An Anglo-American event (staged by The Chester Group and The Home Entertainment Show) in the middle of April, it was a bit like setting your watch back 20 years, in a good way.
It could best be described as ‘uncompromisingly vinyl’. In many rooms, digital it seems was a passing phase, and they didn’t even speak the language of computers. Naturally companies like Soundsmith were always going to stress vinyl (the talk of the show was Peter Lederman’s outstanding $7,500 Hyperion moving iron cartridge that sports a cactus needle as a cantilever), but companies like High Water Sound were fiercely no-digits, even though the two-armed $40,000 TW Acustic is only one link in the chain. Silent Running Audio stands, GT Audio’s Tron amps from the UK, Pranawire cables and Cessaro Affascinate SE-1 horns made up the rest of the system. This was perhaps the most tweaked and changed system in the show, having been built and rebuilt at the end of the first day to sound at its best. Digital was not totally forgotten – the show did mark the first outing for EMM Labs new DACx2 (which sadly wasn’t playing when I visited the second Audio Doctor room) and the first public auditions of the DaVinci DAC – and even headphones had their place at Woo Audio’s fine stand, but vinyl predominated.
At opposite ends of the scale, this was the first time I got to hear both the Walker Proscenium Black Diamond III turntable in all its might (it’s not distributed in the UK) and the new Merrill Williams R.E.A.L. 101 turntable, and I was not disappointed in either case.
Exhibitors were divided more or less evenly between manufacturers and NY-based dealers showing what they do best. Some of these (Sound by Singer, MBL) ran ticketed demonstrations that were so well attended, waiting in line for an hour or so was the only option. Others had a ‘drop in’ approach, but yet again the rooms were frequently packed out. Of these, perhaps Innovative Audio had the most, er, innovative solution. Making a good sound from a Spiral Groove/dCS/VTL/Wilson system in its own right, at the end of each day at the show, the company ferried off interested listeners to its own Midtown store for a demonstration in more controlled surroundings.
I was also taken by Wes Bender Studio’s system, comprising Redpoint turntable, Lindemann and Viola digital, Zesto and Viola analog electronics and a pair of Hansen loudspeakers. The sound was excellent - all power and confidence - but the confidence of the team was even better. When I pitched up with my “I’ll show ‘em” test CD of James Blunt, they already had a copy pre-loaded on the laptop. And their collection wasn’t limited to little-known British post-dubstep acts; they had a play-anything approach that was a refreshing change to the semi-enforced sound of The Eagles burping out of hotel rooms around the world come showtime.
The rooms themselves were a problem. They always are when people attend a show for the first time; a couple of years in, when they are used to the sound of the room, they can tailor their system and room treatment – and sometimes even music played – to match the room. But this was a new show, with new room problems. Many of the rooms were made of thin wood partitions, faced with padded cloth, which hampered many systems attempting to recreate a full-range sound. The Sony loudspeaker through EMM/Pass Labs and the YG flagships played through Brinkmann turntables and Solution electronics were the first rooms most people encountered and they set the scene well. In fairness, the Sony speakers made an admirable sound given the limitations, but it meant chairs were lined up in a single line (like a rowboat) and the best sound seemed to be a foot from the floor and the unflappable Philip O’Hanlan made the YG-based system sing like an angel with some beautiful 45rpm vinyl, but break out anything with deep bass and the rooms began to sing along too, irrespective of room treatment.
Despite the rooms, there were several sounds that made the grade. This was one of the big questions at both ‘Meet The Editors’ sessions over the weekend, and the response was near unanimous. Almost everyone who heard the Scaena Spiritus 3.4 loudspeaker system, driven by a combination of AMR phono preamp and conrad-johnson ACT/ART amplifiers, being fed by a Kronos turntable and yet another dCS stack CD system on a decoupling of Stillpoints and a Silver Circle power conditioner, thought it sounded remarkable. It was well-integrated, possessed of deep bass (almost an impossibility given the room dynamics) and yet as fast as a small two-way sealed box. The ‘alien invasion’ looks might not appeal universally, but the sound certainly seems to.
Other universally liked systems took advantage of the room inequalities by either not playing to them or dialing them out altogether. UK passive magnetic preamp experts Music First Audio made something of a splash in their first US show, by making a fine sound through small, tidy equipment, playing tapes off a Revox reel-to-reel and out into a pair of old Rogers LS3/5a. This perfectly matched the limits of the smaller hotel rooms on the 15th floor. Similarly, Red Wine Audio’s increasing range of fine, battery powered amps were sounding great through a pair of Kudos Cardea C20 floorstanders, a MSB Data CD transport and Tellurium Q loudspeaker cables.
And then there was the Robyatt room, which coupled an Oswaldmill Audio Anatase turntable, King/Levinson preamp, Miyajima Labs output-transformerless tube power amps into a refurbed pair of Quad ESL-57. The OTL/ESL combination has long been thought of as a match made in heaven, but it was hell trying to extract any blissed-out listeners from their seats. This should be the note heard around the world, because it made you wonder if the last half century has really seen any tangible improvement in sound quality. Judging by this room, the jury’s still out.
Another fascinating take on retro was in the VAS/VPI room. This has perhaps two of the new stars of the show; the $1,299 VPI Traveller and the $4,000 VPI Classic 4. The couldn’t be more different; the Traveller could be called VPI’s Cub Scout, a trimmed down Scout complete with a wholly new gimbaled tonearm, that the lesser-spotted Harry Weisfeld has discovered can be made for less than a unipivot. The Traveller is a tribute to Harry’s late wife Sheila, who passed last year. Partnered with an entry-level Audio Note cartridge, this was making some very big, bold sounds through a VAS Citation pre and trio of monos into Aurum Cantus floorstanders to deliver trifield stereo sound from a late 1950s concept reborn. In terms of dynamics and scale, this ticked all the boxes. Where the VPI Traveller is a Scout on a smaller scale, the Classic 4 is the Classic built BIG; it’s basically a two-armed Classic 3!
A new deck for most people (myself included) was the Holborne, a minimalist Swiss-made £5,275 Analog 2 turntable with matching $3,475 turntable and a made-for-Holborne Benz-derived moving coil cartridge for just under $2k. Driven by a belt made of magnetic tape, the deck was sounding intriguing in a Berning pre/power (with the new 60w mono versions of the ZH-230), driving a pair of prototype versions of the Zellaton Concert, using Tellurium Q cables once again. The room desperately needed more people in it when I was there, but had distinct touches of greatness about it. As in, this was warming up to be one of the best sounds I’ve heard at a show. Perhaps any show.
For me, the best sound of the show probably wasn’t even the best sound of the show. It was sitting at the end of the Saturday in the Audio Note room listening to a Brahms piano intermezzo LP in its entirety. Four of us were in the room when it began, and all four were still in there when it ended. No rush, no fuss, no pressure from Audio Note’s David Cope… just good music, played in a relaxed fashion. OK, so the cost of the system was ‘meaty’ – nigh on $61,000, excluding cables – but I’d heard a lot more sound for a lot more money, but nothing quite so engaging.
At the completely loopy end of things, kudos must go to Burmester for setting up what must be the ultimate DJ system. As well as being used as a PA for the live music at the venue, and the sound reinforcement for the lectures, the company used its Reference Line equipment – including two Model 100 phono preamps – as the electronics for a series of DJ events on the Friday and Saturday nights. The Technics turntables were also atypical, featuring Soundsmith cartridges proclaimed to be ‘unbreakable’ (they comfortably survived two sessions unscathed… try that with most audiophile cartridges and tears will ensue). If you’ve ever wondered what hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of audio gear sounds like playing house music at club levels… it’s actually rather impressive!
Rather than draw in legions of new generation audio buyers, the New York Audio and AV Show reawakened the interest in New York’s audio enthusiasts of old. Which is half the battle. It generated enough interest for two of the major audio stores in NYC to establish their own rival events, and some of those attendees were manufacturers surreptitiously checking out the show’s potential for the future. And, judging by their response, next year will be bigger and better than ever.
Now... on to Munich!