[SoundStage!]Paradise with James Saxon
Back Issue Article
March 1998


I once lived on the ninth floor of a "luxury" hi-rise in New York. My friend Vladimir, a Russian spy who later defected, lived on the third floor. Vladimir had been initiated into hi-fi long before I, and had a system of greater refinement than mine. Spying must have been profitable, although I could never figure exactly who paid him. On the few occasions I visited Vlad’s airless loft, I was always impressed with the "solidity" of the sound of his music. I attributed it to Infinity loudspeakers and c-j tube amps, which Vladimir acquired at export cost. Dutifully, I followed my leader and purchased "export" amplifiers and gray-market loudspeakers. Several upgrades later, I learned an awful truth. I would always have a fuzzier sound than Vladimir’s.

He explained it to me one day. "You have to be closer to the gl-l-lound. In Soviet Union, we have concrete apartments. Doesn’t matter. If you live on gl-l-lound floor, you get better sound than if you live on tenth floor. Here, we have good building, but still, you have to be near the gl-l-lound."

A few years later, I rented a second-floor apartment in the same building, one-upping Vladimir, so to speak. I was surprised by the improvement in my acoustic environment. Whether the lower floor was more immune to vibrational forces on the building, and consequently produced less smearing in my system, I have no proof. However, after leaving New York in the mid ’80s, I lived in other luxury buildings, on high floors with magnificent views. The sound of my stereo was never as convincing as it had been on the second floor in New York. Finally, I bought a house and installed my components on the ground floor, in fact on top of the very marble covering earth and cement. Without room treatment, except for upholstered furniture, the presentation was well delineated, with instrumental focus and tight bass. As Vladimir suggested, being close to the ground was good for the sound.

The inspiration for these musings was the memory of all the fine demonstrations I heard at the recent CES. The Alexis Park Hotel, site of the high-end audio convocation, is a grouping of two-storey buildings of solid construction with exterior walkways. After getting acquainted with the resort a year ago, CES regulars returned to the Alexis Park in 1998 with a modicum of room treatment, line conditioning, and resonance control, and nailed down a solid sound, shared by various exhibitors in many different rooms.

As an example, Merlin VSM-SE loudspeakers were used in four separate demonstrations, powered by OTL, hybrid, solid-state and push-pull tube amplification. Yet, each room sounded excellent. Of course, the Merlins are great speakers. The partnering equipment was also first-rate. But, in my opinion, the rooms at the Alexis Park also contributed to the good demos. They are all close to the ground.

In prior years, CES high-enders were lodged at the Sahara, which featured short, squat buildings, but those contained interior hallways, shared drywalls, and many, many vibrating surfaces, which no amount of room treatment could overcome. The Sahara also offered tower suites to those exhibitors who needed a larger room. Ironically, most of the worst-of-show demonstrations I heard in previous years were generated within the tower suites, all of which were above the building’s center of gravity.

Supporting my contention that the Alexis Park is good for hi-fi are the reports of my SoundStage! brethren. In over 80 pages of CES reports (40,000 words about the Show!), only twice was the phrase "show conditions" used. Tacit acceptance of show conditions may have been due to inexperience on the part of several writers who were attending their first hi-fi show. But 1998 marked the ninth year I attended CES, and never have I heard so many wondrous musical demonstrations, seemingly unaffected by show conditions.

Except for the occasional crowded room, I found little to dislike about this year’s high-end venue. For me, the rooms at the Alexis Park shared a "house sound," making it easy to evaluate price: performance ratios of the various demos, and come away instantly pleased or dismayed.

In reading the SoundStage! Show reports, I think most of our ten reporters agree with me. The Show provided a valid opportunity to listen to, and judge the merits of, many fine audio systems. As a result, our reports were meant to be taken as valid opinions, unaffected by caveats about "show conditions." As an audio dealer, how I judge a room affects my buying decisions. I have to be careful. Likewise, my fellow ’Stagers acted like audio buyers, time and again considering whether they would spend the asking price to acquire the sound they heard. As I read the reports, I found myself agreeing time and again about the relative merits of demonstrations. My colleagues were as careful as I, even though they had not come to buy.

I hope people who read the Show reports will not take them lightly. The well-considered impressions form an invaluable archive of mini-reviews of scores of hi-fi systems. If you’d like to know about a system (as opposed to a product in isolation) that sounds good, you can rely on our Show reports—at least those pertaining to the Alexis Park exhibits.

The point of my ramblings is to explain why I hesitate to do "The Shirt" routine at Hi-Fi ’98, which will be coming up in a few months. Even though I possess one of only three SoundStage! shirts in existence, and probably owe my employer another performance as a human billboard, I don’t see the point in going. How will I be able to judge the sound? Most of the demonstration rooms will be too far from the gl-l-lound.

In looking at floor plans for the Los Angeles Westin, the site of Hi-Fi ’98, I predict sonic chaos. Here we have a modern, twelve-storey hotel near Los Angeles Airport, which my gut tells me will reverberate like a giant tin can. The building was designed for 70% occupancy by sleepers, not hi-fi systems. It’s too tall and sways in a slight breeze. Hundreds of people walking the hallways will cause the upper floors to tremble unsympathetically. Nearby jet take-offs will provide sound pollution.

Talk about show conditions. If I were a manufacturer I would try to commandeer the Lindbergh room on the first floor, or the Stapleton or Templehof on the second floor. If I drew a room on a floor higher than the third, I’d put on a silent demo. If tall buildings are unkind to hi-fi systems—which I believe—the LAX Westin, I predict, will be cruel AND unkind. Under the circumstances, I fail to see how anyone can make sonic evaluations at Hi-Fi ’98. Show conditions will prohibit any component from performing the way it might in your room, or even the way it would at the Alexis Park. Rather than report on the sound of rooms at Hi-Fi ’98, I think SoundStage! should send someone to take pictures, interview a few friendly manufacturers, list prices for new gear and go home, none of which requires my golden ears in attendance.

I wonder why the sponsor of the Hi-Fi ‘98 marches it around the country like a circus? Is it a circus, meant solely for superficial thrills, or is it an opportunity for hobbyists to listen seriously to a lot of equipment in a central location over a short period of time? I think the latter. The Consumer Electronics Show, which is open solely to the trade, has a fixed site, and attracts a hundred-thousand people a year. Why shouldn’t there be an annual Hi-Fi Show, open to the ticket-buying public, at a fixed location? Why doesn’t the sponsor pick a low-rise building in a desirable city, with adequate electric service, away from an airport, and allow the manufacturers a chance to master the acoustic challenges of a permanent site? Then, at every show, we writers, buyers, and hobbyists could evaluate with confidence the sound of equipment we have come to hear.

When I am elected king of SoundStage!, I plan to host a SoundStage! Hi-Fi Show in Paradise, at a swanky low-rise resort, re-wired with 20-amp service in every room. The month will be May, when the sun shines gloriously and the tourists have gone. The bar at pool side will serve margaritas. At the end of each day, we will have live Mariachi concerts.

If you plan to exhibit, bring your own voltage regulator, and a UPS for the occasional blip in electric service. Consider carefully your anti-vibration devices. Buy earthquake insurance. We will be close to the gl-l-lound, and here sometimes it shakes.

...James Saxon

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