|Hi-Fi in Paradise
Back Issue Article
July 2002The 2002 Mid-Season Jimmy Awards
The New York Hilton Hotel & Towers is no place to hold a home-entertainment show. The tower rooms are small, prone to standing waves, and cost a small fortune to rent. The meeting rooms are cavernous, prone to midrange garble, and cost a large fortune to rent. Choose your poison. My accountant would call this a lose-lose situation.
Nevertheless, some 150 exhibitors took the risk of attending Home Entertainment 2002 held at the Hilton for the second year in a row. Dame Fortune smiled on a handful. Doctor Death took the rest.
If I were to judge strictly by performance under such trying circumstances, the number of Jimmy Awards for HE 2002 would cover a single page. This result would hardly justify my expense report. Therefore, I have chosen a course of leniency. Wherever I heard or saw something that appealed to my highly regarded sense of aesthetics, I gave it an award. Such a loose standard makes for erratic grading. But so, too, were the exhibits erratic. The Jimmy Awards are small consolation for the monetary and sonic ague most of the exhibitors experienced. If it were in my power, I would give everyone a refund.
"On with the show, this is it "
My canvass began in the airless concourse in the bowels of the Hilton. Entering the Kimber Kable cave, I brushed against a monk-like figure lurking in the shadows. I recalled the priestly assassin in The Bourne Identity and instinctively cringed. The solitary soul was none other than Ray Kimber, looking more saintly than deadly. But wasnt Jason Bourne similarly fooled?
Rays mission at HE 2002 was to demonstrate music he had recorded using a special microphone-placement device he invented called the Iso-Mike Baffle. The Baffle resembles a childs mobile on steroids. Picture a gigantic orange-colored heart-shaped cushion hanging from the ceiling and pointing edge on toward the stage and you have most of the Iso-Mike system. A pair of Mini-Iso-Mike Baffles that control back-slap echoes trail behind the big cushion. Amazingly, Ray was able to convince a university to let him string these contraptions over the heads of a live audience.
The first disc Ray demonstrated was of a college orchestra playing a violin concerto before a full house, one that probably kept glancing upwards. The music sounded realistic, but the applause was even better. The pop of flesh on flesh was the most natural rendition I have heard from a playback system of any kind, anywhere, at any time. As Ray explained the technical aspects of the recording, I tried to shift him to the merits of the playback system. He demurred by saying the Krell electronics were off the shelf and the loudspeakers were prototypes put together in-house for the show. Ray uttered not a word about the patented Diaural crossover in the loudspeakers or the Kimber Kable used for hook-up. His interest was the recording process, pure and simple.
After playing a track of choir voices hovering like seraphim at the front of the room, Ray changed compact discs. "Heres a drum kit we recorded at the factory," he said. "Lets turn the volume up a little." At the first whack of the kick drum, I snapped back. The improbable was on display -- lifelike dynamics from a CD. I extend my compliments to the Krell electronics and the Diaural loudspeakers for the stunning playback, but I have to give a Jimmy Award to the source material, Ray Kimbers Iso-Mike recordings.
Getting up to leave, I expressed regret that Rays discs were not commercially available. "Wait a second," said Ray, "I may have extra." He dug out a copy of each CD and handed them to me. "Take them with you." Ray Kimbers kindness made a deep impression. Only after returning to Paradise did I realized Ray wasnt selling anything at HE 2002. What would Jason Bourne make of that?
Across the basement from Kimber Kable was the Paradigm/Anthem/6th Avenue Electronics room. Doug Schneider had suggested I visit the Paradigm exhibit to witness an impressive semi-new video technology. Glad I went. Following a tiresome space wars race sequence on DVD, the good folks from Paradigm played a tape of Spanish dancers on a JVC Digital-VHS VCR. The improvement in detail, color, and depth of field from the digital tape playback was astonishing. It revealed DVD to be a low-resolution medium. No wonder I get eye fatigue from watching movie videos.
Although nobody from 6th Avenue Electronics was on hand with information about the D-VHS VCR, the lack of zeal does not preclude a Jimmy Award for the JVC HM-DH300000 ($1995). I also grudgingly cite 6th Avenue Electronics for a mini-Jimmy because their Internet site shows the JVC player on sale for $1097. On the other hand, do sufficient high-definition sources exist to justify buying a D-VHS VCR at any price?
After a final concourse stop to admire the impressive-looking Dynaudio Confidence C-4 loudspeakers, I escalated to the second floor where Sharp, Zenith, and In-Focus were showing their latest video projectors. None of the big-screen demonstrations impressed me. The "new and improved" models seemed to project the same image quality as last year. Perhaps DVDs low resolution is the limiting factor. At any rate, the only projector that held my attention long enough to say "oooh" was the Dream Vision Cinema 10 Pro ($13.995). Of the DLP-based projectors I saw, the Dream Vision had the truest colors and best depth of field. Motion artifacts and rainbow effects were undetectable to these old eyes.
The only video offering I found exciting was the Samsung Tantus HDTV Monitor. Using DLP technology, a first for a television set, the Tantus made all the plasma monitors look bleached-out and fuzzy. While not of wall-hanging proportions, the 17"-thick Tantus is nonetheless a space-saver. Weighing 88 pounds, it is also installer-friendly. The knockout punch is the price. While plasma technology remains absurdly expensive despite the threat of being superseded, the new 50" Tantus has a suggested retail sticker of a rational $4500. The street price should be under four grand. Send a Jimmy to Samsung, as well as any other company that offers a DLP monitor.
With senses fully warmed, I began my hi-fi tour. First stop was the Gibson suite, site of the world premier of Wilson Audios WATT/Puppy System 7. Leashed to a Wilson WATCH Dog subwoofer, the System 7 proved once again that David Wilson likes things that work, though I wish he would retire the demo recording of "Things That Work." At $22,400, or $32,350 if you throw in the subwoofer (ha, it weighs almost 300 pounds!), the Wilson array was one of the few hits of the show. It earns a Jimmy Award for best speaker system over $20,000.
An hour later, I found the best loudspeaker system under $20,000. In the narrow confines of Room 618, the Silverline Audio La Folia began the show sounding fine and finished up three days later sounding miraculous. Silverlines Alan Yun managed to avoid room problems that demolished so many other exhibitions. Partnering his loudspeakers with $47,000 worth of components and cables was a cagey move. Such costly gear is usually overkill for $8000 loudspeakers, but the La Folia made the most of it. By comparison, based on parts quality and fit'n'finish, the La Folia's pricing seems like under-kill. I hope Alan Yun can make it up in volume. Meanwhile, hand the man a Jimmy.
The best vibrating-surface loudspeakers were at the Ellula US Inc. booth on the second floor. The Hot Air portable inflatable loudspeakers sell for $45 a pair at Bloomingdales. If Ellula made six-foot-high inflatable-giraffe loudspeakers, I would buy them for an exotic-dancer friend of mine. Meanwhile, the Hot Air Budweiser cans win a Jimmy for innovation. What will they think of NXT?
My favorite subwoofer at the show was not the wondrous Wilson WATCH Dog or the prodigious Paradigm Servo-15, although I would love to have either en mi casa. Rather, it was the dictionary-sized Virtual Bass Technologies Magellan VI ($800) that can function inside a dresser drawer. I could not tell whether the Magellan VI was subwoofing or merely woofing, but the little speakers mighty-mite ambitions won my heart. A JA goes to VBT.
In the category of high-efficiency loudspeakers abandoned by Avantgarde, the Classic Audio Reproductions Project. T 1.1.1 model ($15,750) was the winner. I thought the CAR system created a virtual surround sound out of two-channels. Of course, employing the holographic Atma-Sphere MA-1 MkII.2 monaural amplifiers was a great strategy. I hereby present Classic Audio Reproductions with a Jimmy Award for an enveloping soundfield, and bestow one as well on Atma-Sphere for its artful support.
Of the multichannel music demonstrations I attended, two rooms stand out. The Sony SACD demonstration with EveAnna Manleys Neo 250 amplifiers driving Egglestonworks Andra II loudspeakers was impressive in spots. But more astounding was the fact that someone convinced the suits at Sony to use high-end loudspeakers with purist tube amps. For bringing the audiophile faith to the corporate trenches, let us honor with a special Suit and Tie Jimmy, Colin Cigarran, manager of the Super Audio CD Project.
After a few overly digitized demonstrations, I swore off multichannel music reproduction. When SoundStage! colleague Tim Shea opined that the Von Schweikert System 35/Spectron Musician II surround system (about $19,000) was not one to miss, I pooh-poohed the idea. It wasnt until Tim caught my wrist in a judo hold and forced me down the hall that I realized the seriousness of his contention. He was right. The sound-pressure level of a battery of drums pounding at 100dB was persuasive. If done right, surround-sound can make the skin on ones face crawl, especially in total darkness. Thus, a Jimmy Award goes to Von Schweikert and Spectron for their convincing display. However, I think the drum kit in the two-channel Kimber system sounded more like the real McCoy.
More loudspeaker award winners
The best transducer under a grand was the Meadowlark Swift ($995 with pedestals). Patrick McGintys innovative transmission-line design proves that ingenuity can come from thinking about work at 3:00AM.
After 20 years of continuous development, the venerable Vandersteen 2CE ($1500) is the paragon of entry-level high-end loudspeakers. A show system comprised of Steens, Ayre Acoustics integrated amplifier and Ayre CD player sounded quite acceptable and would lighten ones bank account by a scant $7500 (sans cables).
The Wilson Benesch Arc ($3600 with stands) brings carbon-fiber cabinetry to the masses, while defeating all comers in its price range -- well, maybe not the Verity Parsifal Encore. Now, theres a shootout.
A shocker under $4000 -- or under $3000 if purchased at the Show -- was the new two-way from, of all people, the Brothers Chesky. With a profile to match Citicorps headquarters, the Chesky Audio C1 purveys maximum detail while sounding as sweet as a Chesky recording.
My third favorite loudspeaker at HE2002 was the Roman Audio Centurion. To my knowledge the Centurion is the only commercially available loudspeaker that uses Ray Kimbers Diaural circuitry. At $6000, the Centurion is not exactly the Blue Light Special, but it looked and sounded worth every penny.
In the field of electronics, HE 2002 gave me a chance to make several intriguing new acquaintances. Since the Hilton rooms were unfriendly venues, the Jimmy Awards for components have little or nothing to do with sound quality but much to do with appearance, perceived value, or technology.
Society hostess Pearl Mesta once remarked that "elegance is refusal." Pearl would have loved the looks of the Bel Canto PRe6 ($3500). This control unit employs the analog output from a DVD-A or SACD surround player to drive up to six channels of amplification. Could such a product signal the beginning of the end of digital surround-sound processors?
The big news from Balanced Audio Technology was that their preamplifiers have been updated. The VK-51SE looks as if it will challenge for top honors in the price no-object sweepstakes, an ambitious quest for a unit selling at a relatively low $8500.
Another debut product at HE 2002 was the two-chassis VTL TL-7.5 Line Stage Preamplifier ($10,000). Stereophiles Kalman Rubinson (right) took a peek under the hood and liked what he saw.
For me, the most lust-inducing preamplifier was the 64-karat solid-silver Viola Spirito Reference Preamp ($17,800 -- who thinks up these prices?). I doubt that the touch-screen control would work at my house, however, as I tend to eat potato chips and drink beer when listening to music.
I would love to try the Kora Explorer 905I, a 60Wpc hybrid from France, in a small room system. A Kora for a grand makes dollars and sense to me.
I liked the Roman Audio loudspeakers enough to credit the Plinius 8200 MkII 175Wpc integrated amp ($2995) and the MSB Reference Platinum CD Player ($4995) with serving well upstream.. Therefore, Jimmy Awards go to Plinius and MSB, as well as Roman Audio.
Bel Cantos eVo2i combines an eVo2 and a Pre1 in a new-look chassis for $3200. This seems to me an excellent value. A prototype I heard at the CES made sweet music.
Ayon Audio (left) drove their high-efficiency Dragon loudspeakers with a jewel-like integrated amplifier called the Sunrise, which uses a VAIC 320 output tube to produce 27 watts per side. At a tempting $6000, this silver beauty can also be used as one channel of a pair of monoblocks, thus permitting a cost-effective upgrade path. Why arent all integrated amplifiers designed this way?
Finally, I am compelled to recognize the integrated amplifier that drove the Silverline La Folia loudspeakers to such prodigious heights. The 20Wpc single-ended triode VIVA Musica Solista ($9500) shows that power ratings mean little when it comes to real-world performance.
The best-looking wallflower was the Mastersound 845 ($8000). I was told that Italys Mastersound was looking for a U.S. importer. If so, I sure hope they find one.
A stunner on active display was the Thor TTA-60 monaural amplifier ($16,000/pair). For audiophiles of aesthetic sensibilities, Thor components, featuring 24-karat gold accents, are artwork.
At $4000 a pair, featuring Baltic accents, the Audes NS1.1 monoblocks from Estonia might be called "the poor mans Thor" in circular appearance, at least. The Audes gives away 53 watts to the mighty Thor.
The hippopotamus-like GamuT S 300 ($30,000) wins a Jimmy Award for being outrageously rotund and proud of it. At 300Wpc and 400 pounds, the Gamut has the worst power:weight ratio Ive ever seen. But Ill bet it has lots of torque!
As the front-end of the award-winning Silverline/VIVA system, the Walker Audio Proscenium Gold Reference Analog Playback System is the only entry of which I am confident in this category. Costing anywhere from $24,000 with tonearm to $34,000 with phono amp (sans cartridge in either case), the Walker turntable and accouterments weigh even more than the GamuT amplifier while looking sleeker. To a wealthy vinyl devotee, the Walker Gold Reference may make sense. To a less-than-rich digit-head like me, it seems like a crazy self-indulgence. But self-indulgence is why we have Jimmy Awards in the first place. Pass the Jimmy to Mr. Walker.
The new Shanling CDT-100 Tube CD Player ($1995) is imported from China by Music Halls legendary single-malt-whisky aficionado Roy Hall. Rumor has it that the Shanling performs as splendidly as it appears in the flesh.
A reasonably priced CD player with impressive specifications is the Ayre CX-7 ($2950) shown in the Vandersteen room. Combining both Sigma-Delta and PCM conversion architecture, the CX-7 uses one filter to upsample to 176.4kHz at 24 bits and another filter to oversample to 1.4112MHz at 24 bits. Love those attributes. My main concern is the provenance of the transport mechanism, about which the brochure says nada.
The Simaudio Moon Nova 24/96 CD player ($2895) resembles more costly components. The heavy-duty remote control symbolizes the seriousness of Simaudios intentions to provide value for money.
More than a few manufacturers enhanced the sound of their wares by using dCS digital components. The combination of dCS Verdi SACD/CD Transport ($8995) and Elgar digital processor ($13995) guaranteed at least acceptable sound from any setup that used them.
Billing itself as "The Finest CD Transport/Player Ever Invented," the Reimyo CDP-777 ($15,000) may be just that. The CDP-777 is the result of a venture among Combak Corporation of tuning fame, Japanese Victor Company and Kyodo Denshi, a precision-instrument maker. Incorporating JVCs legendary (and proprietary) XL-Z900 transport mechanism plus their Extended K2 Processing, Version 2.0, as used in XRCD mastering, the Reimyo reeks of Rolex-like quality. I need a raise!
Cables and accessories
At the show, I presented Robert Lee with a Lifetime Jimmy Award for his years in the vanguard of cable design. At $995 (1m pair), his Acoustic Zen Silver Reference interconnects represent the current standard for (gasp) affordable excellence.
A cable designer who has chosen to compete at steeper price levels is Jeff Smith of Silversmith Audio (right), who displayed his long-awaited palladium interconnects ($4000/1m pair). The cables are beautiful enough to serve as a necklace for Mom to wear for the holidays before they go permanently into Dads stereo system. Gift certificate, anyone?
In Bel Cantos room I spied a pair of blue snakes powering the eVo2 monoblocks directly from the Hilton wall sockets. Talk about carefree living. The Eichmann Technologies AC Enhancing Cable ($300) is said to lower amplifier distortion. I understand the "network" is where the snake digests electrons. Have to think the Hilton power lines gave it indigestion.
Most audio-video racks are décor-impaired, but not the Soundations AV Cherry Version ($999). This television-friendly stand has the form as well as the anti-vibration function to please both mister and mistress. Too bad it has to come all the way from South Africa.
A final walk-through of the booth area produced a strange encounter. As I sauntered down the aisle, someone thrust a miniature pistol in my face and said, "Try it?" The pistol turned out to be a device called the Magnetic Silver Star Massager ($159, batteries included.).
The person holding the Magnetic Silver Star was a Korean monk in missionary garb (shirt and tie). He explained that the unit was a bio-magnetic therapy device. He asked me if I had any physical ailments. I told him of a chronic pain in my right elbow. "No problem," he said, and pushed the point of the little pistol into the elbow joint and pulled the trigger. I felt a needle-like pinch, but the sensation faded immediately, along with the pain in my elbow. Figuring this relief was a psychosomatic phenomenon, I thanked the man, picked up a brochure and sidled on.
A week later, I noticed the massager literature and realized that the elbow was still fine -- no stiffness at all. Interesting. Time to order a Magnetic Silver Star. However, to my dismay, the brochure has no company name, address or other contact information, only the phrase, "Copyright 1999 Creative Therapy Reserved." If anyone reading this knows how to reach Creative Therapy, please e-mail me the information. On the other hand, maybe the Magnetic Silver Star Massager never existed. Maybe the Korean monk placed a radio receiver in my arm. Maybe I am under alien control. Maybe I better skip happy hour tonight. Nuts!
At the end of the show, I was called upon to accept an award as Hi-Fi Journalist of the Year. As the photo shows, I was conflicted, not for being unworthy but because I did not have the cash to pay the taxes on it. Thus, an anonymous charity is now the proud owner of an Aston-Martin Vantage with Linn sound system ($150,000).
Note to the Nobel Prize committee: I can accept cash or check.
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