Ken’s report from the NYAS
On the morning of November 9th, 2018, Stereophile‘s caffeinated crew of Jim Austin, Sasha Matson, Herb Reichert, and myself arrived at the New York Audio Show with the intention to invade each exhibitor’s room as an opinion-bearing, glad-handing tribe. (“Hellowe’ve come from Stereophile to put fear into your heart and a quick step to your cueing finger. Now play me some Nils Lofgren!”)
That lasted all of two minutes after we entered the first room. The bigger problem, if it indeed it can be called a problem, was the abundance of sonic riches available in many of the rooms. We practically fought over who was going to cover what.
It was undoubtedly the smallest New York Audio Show I’ve seen. And that’s sad. But the sound in many of the roomsRobyatt Audio, Sound By Singer, Adirondack Audio/Luxman, AVM, Vinnie Rossi/Harbeth, Distinctive Stereo, Audio Note UK, and Sonnerwas, to my ears, of excellent quality and, in some cases, good value.
Even the more unusual demonstrations, such as the massive $800,000 ESD Acoustic horn system, provided the kind of over-the-top experience one rarely encounters at any time, anywhere. When ESD Acoustic’s Sales Manager Nicole He offered tea, and designer Jacky Dai played The Carpenter’s “Close to You” over their six-horn, 23-component system, I for one felt a tear. Hal Blaine’s drums and Karen Carpenter’s voice were never so thunderous or awe-inducing.
But good things come in small rooms, as I soon learned in the corner space occupied by Sound By Singer. One of the most experienced retail operators in all of high-end audio, Andy Singer (above) assembled a small system that produced a dynamic, tonally rich, and beautifully focused sound. Andy’s NYAS rig consisted of the Chord DAVE DAC ($12,488), Chord BLU MkII Upsampling CD transport ($11,788), Chord stand ($1995), the knockout 200Wpc Absolare Integrated Amplifier ($24,500/$35,000 depending on version), Laufer Teknik The Memory Player 64-8 Transport ($15,950), Stabilio Amplifier Stands, and Echole speaker cables and interconnects.
Cracking jokes as Spendor rep Chris Morris talked shop, Singer eventually got down to business: “The choice of the Absolare Integrated Amplifier was simple,” he said. “Overall it produces the most natural balance of detail and harmonic richness of any integrated amplifier I have ever heard. We chose the Spendor D9 speakers because its frequency balance and overall presentation is pretty much faultless in its price range, and simply marvelous on an absolute scale. The D9 reflects all of the technology which Spendor has developed over the years to improve dynamics integration, soundstage, and harmonic accuracy. It is remarkably adaptable to a wide variety of placements. It is also quite capable of bringing out the qualities of the electronics which precede them which is in large part put our goal was for this show.”
The biggest problem for any exhibitor is achieving a balanced, relaxed, and focused sound in the worst possible environment-a hotel room. Singer shared his experience: “Having really sensitive ears one can, by merely listening in the room and mumbling a few phrases while walking around the enclosure, determine where the standing wave build-ups are and how/where slap echo and ceiling and floor reflections are the most salutary. Then you figure out where low frequencies are the best, as well as how far the speakers need to be from each other in order to cancel out the worst standing waves.”
Also achieving what was frankly some of the best sound I’ve heard from any stereo system, Robyatt Audio’s Robin Wyatt (on the right in the photo above, with Audible Illusions distributor Alan G. Habib on the left) pulled out all the stops. He started by inviting Analogue Productions’ Chad Kassem to showcase two of his upcoming releases (Janos Starker’s Dvorak Cello Concerto with Antal Dorati/LSO and the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, both originally on Mercury Living Presence). Kassem also A/B’ed original LPs alongside his reissues; the jocular New Orleans native, joined by Tom Fine, son of famed Mercury Living Presence producer Wilma Cozart Fine and engineer C. Robert Fine, gave a veritable workshop on what goes into faithfully reproducing some of the greatest recordings of all time.
“A lot of these albums that I do we break even on,” Kassem said in Robyatt’s packed room. “Most of the time we do better than that, but some of them I will do even if we just break even. If I can reissue my favorite album and hear it like you’ve never heard before, it’s a great feeling. You ain’t even heard how good most of the [old] records can sound.”
Listing the playback equipment of some exhibitors’ rooms is an exercise in tedium, but for the Robyatt Audio room, knowing every detail of this miraculous music transporter device is essential. Let’s get to it: Beginning with the two separate turntable setups, the stereo player was a Technics SP10R turntable ($10,000) in an OMA Hypoeutectic iron 3D-printed plinth ($9450); Schroeder CB Magnet tonearm ($7250); Miyajima Labs Madake Destiny Stereo cartridge with tapered bamboo cantilever and fineline stylus ($7500); Wax Rax Turntable Temple stand ($8250); and Miyajima Labs KSW stereo step-up transformer ($2495).
Robyatt’s mono player: PBN Original Technics SP10 MKIIs with PBN power supply; PBN SP10 Groovemaster Vintage Direct plinth ($3500); Sorane ZA-12 Tonearm ($2500); Pneuance Equipment Air Bearing Feet ($1295); Wax Rax LP Consol ($8500); Miyajima Labs Zero Infinity Mono cartridge with 0.7µ conical stylus ($3350); and Steve Berger Mono MM single-channel mono phono stage (custom unit).
Electronics included an Audible Illusions Modulus 3B preamplifier with John Curl-designed MC phono board ($6890) and Butler Monad monoblock amplifiers (100Wpc into 8 ohms/200Wpc into 4 ohms$19000/pair) with Psvane WE 1:1 300B tubes/pair ($750), driving the Kent McCollum-refurbished Electrostatic Solutions Quad ESL loudspeakers ($6000/pair).
First, Kassem compared the original pressing of Duke Ellington’s Masterpieces with his Analogue Productions reissue. The difference was not subtle. Kassem’s reissue sounded like a different recording, each instrumental detail heightened yet without losing the organic wholeness of the original LP. Hearing the recording through the golden-toned, incredibly transparent and sensitive Quads was pure rapture. The room was dead silent, each attendee as stunned as I at the audio beauty unfolding before us. I overheard Brooklyn hi-fi dealer Wes Bender whisper, “I’m going to start crying now.”
Earlier in the day, Kassem played test pressings of his forthcoming Janos Starker reissues in the Robyatt room. The dynamic range and tonal beauty of these recordings was of another world, and hard to describe. You know when something exceptional is being reproduced before you, when your heart and ears connect and everything is in the moment, when it’s all you can do to follow the music, holding your breath. This was a one-of-a kind experience and everyone in the room knew it.
Tom Fine explained that the tapes used for the Analogue Productions reissues are the original three-track master tapes. “The way my parents would always record for stereo was always three microphones into three channels to tape,” Fine said. “Left, center, and right omni-directional microphones. Then they’d mix three tracks down to two. You need to control the balance between the sides and the center. When the mics are hung correctly and the atmosphere in the hall is correct, everything goes perfectly. But the atmosphere can be different around one microphone to another. [My parents] actually hand-picked which mic they used for left, center, and right [for the appropriate instruments in the orchestra] and color-coded them. I still have those microphones.”
“When are you going to sell those to me?” Kassem asked, to laughter.
Kassem went on to explain that “making LPs is so much harder than most people realize. There are only two tape manufacturers now, one in France, one in Pennsylvania. If either one of those two tape companies go out of business we’d be screwed. There’s also only two lacquer manufacturers, one in Japan, one in California. Sometimes the one in California isn’t perfect and they’ll refund your money. The one in Japan, if there’s a problem you’re shit out of luck. You get 25 lacquers for $1000 bucks. Either of those companies could go out of business and we’d be screwed. There’s only 500 cutting heads made, and there’s only one guy in America who fixes them and he’s 91. He’s due for open heart surgery and he won’t show anybody how to fix the cutting heads. There’s another guy in Italy. And a couple other people. It’s 5k to rebuild one. You can easily blow a cutter head. We have three cutter heads.”
“The moral of the story,” said Alan Habib, “is when you buy [an Analogue Productions] record buy two, don’t ask for a discount, it’s a lot of work.”
Adirondack Audio and Luxman USA once again brought Luxman gear to New York, paired with Triangle loudspeakers. Playing vinyl records including Hank Williams’s Timeless, Kat Edmonson’s Take To The Sky, and Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas, I loved the sound. Having reviewed the Luxman 509x integrated amplifier and currently using their 500-EQ Phono Stage, I always smile when I hear Luxman’s refined, sweet, and extremely focused soundsmile and play more records. Adirondack Audio owner Jason Tavares and Luxman USA president Jeff Sigmund (left and right in the photo above), along with Triangle National Sales Manager Frank Gazzo, did wonders setting up a complex rig in a very shallow hotel room.
“I think a big part of our success both last year and this year is that we prepare carefully chosen systems in advance,” said Sigmund. “We’ve run these combinations many times, both in trade show rooms and dealer showrooms, so we know the potential for great sound exists before we ever set foot in the demo room.
“The brands themselves also offer certain attributes that play well in these difficult environments,” he continued. “Luxman engineers take great care to ensure our systems can be listened to for as long as the user desires, with no ear fatigue. Whether we’re talking about small details like specific torque specifications for the physical construction, or major parts of the circuit like our negative feedback design, all of these items are designed with one goal connect the listener to the music on an emotional level. These qualities become especially important assets in challenging environments.”
Luxman’s NYSA rig included their PD-171A belt-drive turntable ($6995); the new PD-151 belt drive turntable, shipping February 2019 (price to be determined); 500-EQ vacuum tube phono preamp ($6495); D-06u SACD/CD player; and L-509x Integrated Amplifier ($9495); and JPS-15000 speaker cable ($3495/3M, with other Luxman 1500-series cable products. Also in use were a Melco N100 Compact Music Library and D100 Compact Optical Drive ($1295) and Triangle Magellan Cello loudspeakers ($13,000/pair).
David Stanavich of Brooklyn’s Wax Rax was onboard again, showing his extremely well-made, sturdy, and altogether bomb-proof record racks, which also served in Robin Wyatt’s room. The Wax Rax Turntable Temple stand ($8250), and Wax Rax LP Consol ($8500), were custom made for the Robyatt room, but Stanavich will custom manufacture and hand-build any size rack to any specifications.
“My stands are all about mass,” Stanavich said. “Quarter-inch steel in some instances, a massive framework. The base of the stand in the Robyatt room was designed to fill with lead shot. Steel allows an antique finish, a deco flair, and a weathered look to compliment the gear. Metal is my wheelhouse. And I utilize industrial strength machinery mounts that are anti-vibrational.”
Greenpoint’s Mytek held down a table in the main ballroom, to introduce their new Brooklyn Bridge: “It’s a $3000 product,” said tall wizard Michal Jurewicz, with ace setup man Chebon Littlefield (left and right in the photo above). “Essentially, the Brooklyn DAC+ with the network added. It has an ethernet connection, as well as the wi-fi antenna, so when you select a network input it defaults to antenna and it switches to DAC when it detects the cable input. It also has a USB port to which you can connect an external hard drive. So you have a self-contained small box, add an iPad with an app called M-Connect, then you can control playback from the iPad and stream Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, and Airplay, and play local files from the hard drive. Essentially you only need the Brooklyn Bridge plus an iPad or a telephone. It has the same circuitry and sound quality as the Brooklyn DAC+. And it includes a phono preamp and a headphone amp, also the same as the Brooklyn DAC+. We ship in January, with preorders accepted now.”
Who says the audience for high-end products is exclusively middle-aged (or older) and male? The three men and one woman running the Cambridge Audio roomNathan (27), Kiel (28), Gregg (42), and Genevieve (27)quickly imploded that adage. They are the future of high-end audio, starting from the ground up (ie, the manufacturer).
Products from Cambridge Audio’s new Edge line of electronics were paired to Audio Physic Avanti loudspeakers. The sound was somewhat diffuse and lacking clarity, but I had a ball listening to David Bowie’s Blackstar, and choosing old-school electronica and Britpop from Nathan’s handheld control center, his iPhone.
I asked for pricing info and one of the crew gave me a small USB stick encased in a white Cambridge Audio-embossed sleeve. Snazzy. Unfortunately, when I inserted USB stick in my laptop back home, there was no pricing info but only the usual PR stuff. Which I already had memorized from reviewing the Cambridge Audio Edge A integrated amplifier (coming to a January 2019 Stereophile near you). The sound in the Cambridge Audio room didn’t live up to the beautiful music made by the Edge A in my apartment, but hey, youth isn’t everything. Thankfully, publicist-extraordinaire-to-the-rescue Jaclyn Inglis knows where they keep the bodies and supplied the following info: “The cables were from Nordost Frey. The Cambridge gear was the Edge NQ + W. The NQ (pre-amp and network player) retails for $4000. The W (power amp) retails for $3000.”
Finally, Tal Levy (above) brought his Vitalis Audio loudspeakers, which definitely took home the prize for the most outrageous design parameters this side of, well, ESD Acoustic! Levy inserts Fostex drivers into cellos, violins, acoustic guitarseven in old B&W 602 speaker cabinets. A veritable plethora of Fostex-endowed goodness. The sound was lively and resonant, powered by Bryston and Phase Linear amplification. Levy also builds small tube-driven integrated amplifiers. The price for Levy’s Lowthers burrowed within a pair of three-quarter-size double-basses” $37,000/pair.
As multiple show entries pile up under my belt, I realize it’s rare to hear great sound reproduction at any show. New York Audio Show 2018 outdid the business-as-usual expectations, gave me oodles of pleasure, shocked me at times, and gave me hope for the present and future of high-end audio. Let’s hope NYAS 2019 upholds the standard set this year, and adds a few exhibitors in the process.
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