HE 2003 Constantine Soo

Quite a few prominent manufacturers, such as B&W, Krell, Linn, Mark Levinson and Wadia did not participate into HE 2003. 

In addition to new DVD-related product announcements, Sony mentioned a new, 9.1 surround sound concept in their Press Day Conference. We were then ushered to a separate demonstration room on the other side of the hotel, in which five Wilson Watt/Puppy 7 loudspeaker systems were arranged: two in front, one at the center, and two more at the back on elevated platforms around 3’ high. Amplification was Sony’s new STR-DA9000ES receiver, playing newly re-mastered surround tracks by Bob Dylan and Steely Dan. Sitting in the front row just right of center, the music and vocals from the Dylan SACD were in front of me, with largely indistinguishable rear effects. On the Steely Dan remix, however, supporting vocals were coming from the rear, prompting one attendee to ask if we should be on the stage among the musicians at all. Sony’s David Kawakami answered that the remix was to provide a more “involving” experience.

Not discounting the possibility that the Sony receiver was inadequate in providing for the Wilson speakers, I found the music through the presentation too sibilant to my ears.

Tannoy North America debuted the Eyris IDP (Interactive Digital Programming) loudspeaker system. A fusion of Tannoy’s acoustic expertise and that of TC Electronics, its sister company, the series features Tannoy’s proprietary Dual Concentric™ and Wideband™ technologies in all five speakers, namely the bookshelfEyris 1, the floor-standing Eyris 2 and 3, and finally, the rear channel Eyris R and center channel Eyris C. The Eyris IDP contains an on-board digital processing and networking system that provides tremendous flexibility in “system-to-environment” matching via software packages. MSRP for the entire 5-speaker system is $25,000. Also, watch out for a review on Tannoy’s Churchill Wideband Loudspeaker System.

In the Martin Logan room, the main focus was not 2-channel audio but home theatre. They used their massive Odyssey loudspeakers as front channels, and smaller models in the rear. Representatives from video projector company, Faroudja Labs, were present in support of the presentation, showing a DVD of Sylvester Stallone in “Driven”. Amplification was by Manley Labs

A most interesting 3D visual demonstration took place in the Sensio Room, which reminded me of my recent 3D experience at Universal Studios Los Angeles’ “Terminator 2: 3D” show. However, the Sensio demo was a showcase of short excerpts from experimental films that I thought did not allow the system to prove its full potential. 

Named Sensio 3D, the $2,995 system connects between a DVD player and a projector. Sensio refers to this system as a “high-end plug-and-play product.” Compatible with conventional DVD players and CRT, LCD, DLP and D-ILA projectors, the experience involves wearing special LCD shutter glasses outputting 60 full frame images per second (30 per eye), activated by an infrared signal sent by an emitter installed above the screen. These active glasses can run for over 40 hours on two 3-volt, 2032 batteries for over 40 hours. Each customer will receive two pairs of wireless glasses, one DVD demo disc and a 3D movie; additional glasses will cost $58 per pair from a dealer. 

In software availability, Sensio claims that about ten 3D movies are in worldwide production, including James Cameron’s Ghost of the Abyss, plus 150 movies from the 50’s, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and House of Wax, starring Vincent Price. Thrillers from the 80s such as Jaws 3D and Friday the 13th 3D will also become available soon. At the present time, Sensio is in the stage of negotiating availability of more 3D movies from studios such as Sony Pictures Classics, Sling ShotEntertainment, MGM/United Artists Home Video, The Stephen Low Company and IMAX Corporation. Videophiles should be happy to learn that the visual aspect of a home theater system may finally be catching up to that of the audio.

Another prominent company featuring home theater was McIntosh. McIntosh used the smaller room next door to showcase their $18,200 XRT-28 loudspeaker system, the $4,600 C-2200 tube preamplifier and the $8,200 501 solid-state monoblocks. All new products, the XRT-29 is a two-way system with a column of twenty, 4” midrange drivers, sixteen 1” dome tweeters, and two 10” woofers at the bottom. The C-2200 tube preamplifier has output meters like the power amplifiers, features eight inputs (including a MM Phono stage), and volume and source knobs that looked quite conventional on the front, while operating on ground-breaking technologies. 

Quoting from the brochure, “McIntosh input selectors control state-of-the-art silent electromagnetic switches. Each switch consists of a glass tube containing oxygen-free gas and two signal leads separated by mere thousandths of an inch. The tube sits in a multi-layer copper coil and the entire assembly is encased in shock-absorbent plastic. When a DC voltage is applied to the coil in response to a switching command, current flow creates a magnetic field that causes the leads to bend and contact one another, completing the circuit. The inert gas eliminates corrosion of the contacts, ensuring a low-resistance, distortion-free switch that never needs cleaning.”

Ken Zelin of House of Music, McIntosh’s San Francisco dealer, stated in a casual presentation that the volume and source knobs of the C-2200 might feel like conventional switches but were actually operating in a nitrogen atmosphere, which would require maintenance from leakage of oxygen into the nitrogen environment every 300 years. Ken proceeded to stop the CD player and turn the idling preamplifier to full volume while running actively into the 501 monoblocks, then turning source selector to demonstrate the noiseless nature of the new preamplifier. He jokingly encouraged audiophiles to have other companies try turning sources at full volume, which he claimed would serve to eliminate the competition all together. A review on the 501 monoblocks is being arranged.

The Audio Note / GamuT Audio / Von Schweikert room displayed the $995 bookshelf VR1 and the $2,495 floorstanding VR2, supported by Audio Note’s $15,000 TT-Three turntable including tonearm, a $6,000 AN cartridge plus a $7,000 step-Up transformer, a $35,000 M8 preamplifier and the $16,750 Conquest Silver Signature 300B monoblock amplifiers. GamuT Audio debuted its new $4,999, remote controlled solid-state preamplifier, the D2R, which was connected to the company’s $5,999, 200 Wpc/8 Ohm D200 Mk III power amplifier playing music from its $3,500 CD-1. Despite their being the smallest models from Von Schweikert, the VR 1s and VR 2s exhibited full-range sound with either the AN or Gamut systems, prompting me to return to the suite twice a day throughout the Show. Watch for a review on the M8 and Conquest Silver Signature.

 Just across the hallway from the McIntosh 2-channel setup on the 31st floor,Nearfield Acoustics had three rooms of demonstrations with three different models of their Pipedream loudspeaker systems. The main system in the center room featured the Pipedream Hemisphere 18 with a $49,000 MSRP. Claiming an efficiency of 95dB at 8 ohms, Nearfield Acoustics utilized a pair of the $20,000 70 Wpc VAC (Valve Amplification Company) Phi 70 Ultriode Monoblocks as amplification for the tower of 36 midrange drivers and 72 tweeters. Two subwoofer modules, each consisting two 18-inch parallel woofers, were driven by a relatively inexpensive solid-state amplifier, which, according to Nearfield Acoustics, represented an economic benefit that would not impair bottom-end performance nevertheless. 

When playing vinyl, the sound was consistently dimensional, enveloping and dynamically full-scale. Within the confines of the listening room, listening to the $49k Pipedreams in either seated or standing positions behind the seats yielded equally full-scale sound. According to Nearfield Acoustics, the Pipedreams, with their ability to load and inundate the room, negate the need for acoustic treatment, as reflections would be drowned out by the predominating direct projections. The CD system Nearfield Acoustics installed for the Show was a modified Sony DVD player, originally intended for a later-aborted four-channel demonstration. The sound was inferior to that of the vinyl playback.

A few other large-speaker exhibitors also focused on 2-channel music reproduction.Avantgarde-USA, for example, with their $50k Trio 3.2/Basshorn speaker system featured 2 pairs of the infamous Basshorns that would only fit into the largest of listening rooms, such as the huge suite the demo was in. Emanating from the bright red Trio horns, the music was lifelike in dynamics, without a hint of the nasal quality often associated with horns. Instruments and voices were highly resolved, with amazing micro-dynamics. And in addition to the tremendous scale of soundstaging, the bottom-end was the most thunderous I’ve heard during the Show. The only aspect I found wanting was the blown up female vocals that did not communicate delicacy in scale when called for.

Technical Audio Devices’ (TAD) Director of Engineering, Andrew Jones, provided an informative introduction to the evaporated beryllium dual-concentric tweeter and midrange in their $45,000 Model 1, that he claimed would push the midrange and tweeter’s breakup modes beyond audibility. A cross-section of the TAD cabinet was on display, showcasing the redundant layers of machined wood for controlling resonance while reinforcing structural rigidity. Sitting at the center seat on the front row, five or six feet from the speakers, the music was the most detailed I heard during the Show, with breathtaking tonal vividness and most of all, a horn-like dynamic swiftness. Speakers like these are truly of monitoring stature.

The Taiwan-based Calix demonstrated its $67,500, five-way Phoenix Grand System horn loudspeakers. It has an imposing, top-positioned midrange horn above a 1-inch super-high sonic horn, followed downward by a 1-inch tweeter horn, a 2-inch midrange horn, an 8-inch woofer horn, and finally, a 15-inch Kevlar and Glass subwoofer. Deep-riding bass in the medium-sized hotel room notwithstanding, there were unmistakable horn dynamics within a vast soundfield. This horn system was able to deliver a refined Kathleen Battle, without a horrific magnification of the size of her head. In comparison to the 104 dB/8 ohm sensitivity of my Klipschorn, the Phoenix Grand Speaker is perhaps the least efficient of horn-based loudspeakers with an efficiency of 88 dB at 6 Ohm, and the recommended amplifier power is 100 to 1k watts. Krell users: this is one horn system that needs your power.

Lowther demonstrated the $4,000, crossover-less DX4/Medallion II speaker system. Using both vinyl and CD, sound at the sweet spot was spacious and dynamic, which summarily disintegrated when sitting one seat to either left or right. According to the representative, the asymmetry of the hotel room called for a more substantial treatment than his company was prepared for. 

Bang & Olufsen representative John Benz claimed that B&O had always gone its own way in producing music which could be considered high-end in all regards, and presently the company was re-entering the high-end with a complete System 5home theatre/music system. The demonstration consisted of a four-foot high, 42-inch plasma TV called BeoVision 5, featuring an anti-reflection coated screen with automatic brightness and contrast adaptation technology. Occupying the bottom half of the TV was an integrated center channel. 

A pair of slim 6-foot tall active, cylindrical towers housing midrange and tweeter units named BeoLab 1, assumed the front channels, and two smaller, BeoLab 6000towers brought up the rear channels. The BeoLab 2 active subwoofer provided bass augmentation. A thin remote controlled all functions and could even command the TV/center channel panel to rotate quietly 30 degrees to the left or right for optimum viewing. The sound had decent tonal delineation despite the smaller dimensions of the room. The representative further acknowledged a news leakage in the Show: that in addition to this $38,000 home theatre system, B&O was actively planning introduction of an $18,000 high-end loudspeaker system named BeoLab 5, which would automatically scan the acoustics of a room and adjust its outputs accordingly. A review is being arranged.

British amplification company Audion demonstrated its $8,995, 2-chassis dual mono preamplifier with phono stage, the Quattro, driving a $15,795 pair of the 28 Wpc, Level 5 Golden Dream monoblocks. Speakers were the $5,495 pair Cadence AudioArista Electrostatic Hybrid. At 88.5dB/m/w sensitivity and 8-Ohm impedance, the Arista was playing music that was as delicate as it was dynamic. Analog front end was a $3,095 Amazon Model Two turntable, with SME V tonearm and Benz-Micro L2 Bryuere wood body cartridge. The digital front end was a $3,095 Samuel Johnson PTS100 CD player. Stay tuned for a review on the Audio Golden Dream monoblocks.

Totem’s Vince Bruzzese exhibited his Forrest and Hawk floor-standing loudspeakers in a uniformly rectangular room, and he admitted to an overly damped acoustic, with the creation of an inner room by deploying floor-standing canvases on all sides. Amplification was a custom made, solid-state system. My first impression of the little floor-standers was that they played loud and clean. Although Vince’s Forrest and Hawk were both smallish floor-standers at around 3 feet high, he claimed excellent horizontal dispersion measurement of his speakers that negated a need for cabinets of taller stature. I naturally tried to discern changes at different heights; but the Hawk’s tweeter was still significantly lower than ear level even when seated. When a review opportunity arises, I shall be sure to raise the tweeter and report my findings.

At the Monster Cable-sponsored press luncheon on the press day, Head Monster Noel Lee reiterated that MC was no longer simply in the cable business. He stressed the new mission of MC as one of a total solution to home entertainment, manufacturing power conditioning and stabilization devices, Richard Marsh-designed amplifiers, and even a Monster Action Couch. You can write your own joke about what kind of “action” you can get on a Monster couch; unfortunately, what the couch could do was not elaborated upon. Lee believed that while it was important to increase sales, it was more important to present consumers with quality system solutions regardless of name brand, be it of Monster Cable or not. According to him, this benevolence of market mentality would be a key to survival for the industry as a whole.

Dolby Laboratories made its case for DVD-Audio in its San Francisco headquarters. Held inside the Dolby theatre with 100 or so industry journalists, Dolby chairman, Bill Jasper, first took the podium to briefly recount the historic stages of the company’s development. Afterwards, producers and owners of labels, such as Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and many others, gave presentations and music demonstrations. Although the main theme was one of multi-channel surround sound curiosity, Dolby’s Director of Consumer Electronics Technology Marketing, Craig Eggers, trumpeted the prowess of 2-channel DVD-Audio, going so far as to say that in comparison to DVD-A, CD was but a simplistic audio format.

He presented an argument directed to “the 2-channel diehard” among the journalists present, that the DVD-A 2-channel music application was of such high quality that it was designed with audiophiles in mind. According to him, audiophiles should not be intimidated by the video and 5.1 audio capability of the format, and should instead regard the extra information, such as artist bio, production specials and the surround mix, as additional content in the presence of the format’s 2-channel audio finesse. To reinforce this notion, he elaborated upon a newly-devised DVD-A functionality named “PGC”, which would allow the user to default the DVD-A player to 2-channel music reproduction in the same manner CD players do, dispensing with the need to navigate through a menu on TV. More details are available in the following internet .pdf document: http://www.dvdforum.org/Recommendation20020528.pdf

The last 30 minutes of the Dolby presentation was chaired by Bob Stuart of Meridian, who illustrated the chief benefits of the Meridian MLP process inside DVD-A. A soft-spoken gentlemen, Stuart’s presentation skillfully blended information with humor.

I had brief discussions with several reviewers from a prominent magazine who expressed inertia to the surround-sound aspect of DVD-A. For myself, the rejection of more than 2 speakers in the living room by my wife notwithstanding, I could never bring myself to acquire enough amplifiers and speakers for facilitating either Dolby’s 5.1 or Sony’s 9.1 setup, especially when the finance and time required to accomplish it would be mind boggling. Moreover, it is a fundamental disruption of expectations to put oneself in the midst of a music performance, while the rest of the audience was downstage. 
Furthermore, I don’t find the prospect of dispensing with significant amounts of money on pitch-identical rear speakers, merely for ambience reproduction—let alone surrounding myself with strange artists—terribly appealing. However, I may purchase Sony’s $1,000 Dream System just for fun.


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