HE2006

Remember that I am a speaker guy, so I relate to speakers even though I know the sound is the end of a long chain. There was tons of eye candy electronics, I just don't relate in the same way.

First, it really was a fun weekend and I appreciate JA and the gang for putting it on and being available. The Stereophile gang really was "there" and walking around and talking to everyone. I must have run into SP people 30 times over the weekend and talked at least one or two people's ear off (and made an idiot of myself at least once). I especially liked talking with Kal Rubinson. He is a former speaker builder and just plain interesting. Stephen Mejias was also nice, Bob Deutch, J Skull, all the group. Not a sour grape in the bunch and totally available. What you learn from direct contact with this group is that they are simply passionate about what they do and write because they love it. It is not about money or fame, but about passion.

Loved Ken Kessler's Leica. That company has put out beautiful products for what, 90 years? Still miss my old Leica IIIg, why oh why did I sell it? How does Leica build a digital camera and still make if have that Lieca feel?

The show was smaller than last year in NY. I kept thinking I read something years ago from the last time it was in LA, JA came back with some comment about "never in LA again". So now it is 8 years later and he did LA again, will he say the same thing?

Also, people kept comparing it to CES and how big CES is and blah blah blah. Well, I have not been to CES but I have been to a lot of other big shows, and prefer the smaller ones. CES sounds like a nightmare of crowds and schedules. I pick smaller, more intimate shows.

I don't feel like as much a need to define best or worst as last year. There was a lot of good and some bad, but I think I better understand the struggle of presenting in the field. I think overall the hotel rooms were better suited to music than last year. The rooms were nicer and not a many power problems and odd issues. Most vendors got good results from what they had. Few ran into problems. So, on with the show . . .

Most annoying: I grabbed a small toothpaste tube on the way out of my house and it turned out to be bubblegum flavored. I am too cheap to buy new toothpaste and that was really annoying, bubblegum breath all weekend. Oh, wait, are we still talking about the show? Ok, most annoying: not having Singer Music to kick around and start a fight. Seriously, not much annoying at this event.

Missing: Conrad Johnson, Magico (sniff), Sonus Faber (sniff sniff), Quad, Boulder, Magnapan, Martin Logan.

Best in show: This year there were a lot of very good demos and I am shying away from a single "best". At the top of the list were:

Pioneer. They really went for it on this new speaker. They used BelCanto electronics. I think the BelCanto class D amps were not quite up to the task at the show, small, high power amps, not quite able to pull the db needed in the large room. But very very good. I really liked AJ's music and overall style. I spent more time in this room than any other. Just pleasant to be in the room and that is what it is all about.

Wilson. Class act with excellent sound. What more can I say? They deserve their reputation.

Joseph Audio. Consistently well done and great sounding. What I really want to know is how Joseph photographs so thin? I stand next to him and think we are similar sizes, but I look huge in pictures and he does not.

McIntosh. I am generally not a Mc fan, I don't know why. I think it because I associate their gear with the "doctor and lawyers" brand. But wow, what eye candy. Well built, powerful gear. Really nice and excellent sounding. I liked their speakers a lot. I generally don't like the line array sound, but these sounded great. Something like 200 (Aura) mids with a line of woofers and tweeters. Turned me on to the new western SACD from Telarc, a great test CD. I am becoming a Mc fan, albeit slowly.

Dynaudio. The one in the Origin room with the large Confidence. This is the first time I have heard them and was expecting less. I guess this set me up for a WOW! My main test track is "Duke's Place" and these speakers really staged well and got the horns and piano right. Not as crisp a high end as some, but excellent!

Coolest looking: Von Gaylord liquid cooled amps.

Onkyo gets kudos for a beautiful small speaker. Sound was OK for size.

Focus Audio sounded very good. I think I liked last year's two-way better. But good.

Should have been better: These are well received suppliers who just did not do it for me this time. Many times I don't see the midnight struggles to get the sound right in the rooms, the equipment damaged in shipping, the borrowed cable, whatever. So these guys might be greats, but not for me at this showing:

ESP, never got there for me. Beautiful speaker and interesting design. Stage and mids change a lot as you move forward and back, but never sounded right to me. This speaker has been praised in all the mags, so I simply missed something or it was the room, or I am deaf.

Acoustic Zen. Not even close for me. This is another speaker that has been getting great reviews, so I don't know.

Vivid Audio - odd looking and just not there. "How do you think you did tonight, dawg?" :

Lipinski - These are future speakers. They had the amps incorporated into the base. I think this is the future of speaker design as we move to wireless, electronic crossovers, DSP room balancing. These didn't do it for me, but the direction is right. They were trying to do surround in too small a space.

Esoteric - They were good, not great. Part of the problem with them was the music. I never got to play my CD and their music choices kept me out. Every time I walked in, I did not feel like sitting.

Totem - Totem has some great products at great prices. They like to promote the weird angle and play a lot of strange "music". This kept me out of the room for the whole show. Heard them last year and they were great.

Thiel - These must have been beta units. They look great and I like people who take chances. But I thought these were all over the place in sound. So let's assume they will "get there" and I just showed up too early. I know some reviewers are already singing their praise, but they must have been a different unit than I heard, or I am deaf.

General comments, not best or worst or anything -

Gammut - Ex Scan-Speak engineers take to speaker building. This one was on the edge of being moved to the "best" section. The clearly had a room issue with one speaker in a completely different space then the other as the room was at odd angles. Stage shifted left for me and gain was not consistent. But beautiful and well executed by a high-knowledge group. Talked with Lars at length about speakers and he was really nice to give me time. I would like to hear these again.

Vandersteen - This one also might be in the "best" category. They had two rooms and both were very good. I liked the smaller one better as it had better balance and stage in the smaller room. I can see why so many people like these, they seemed "safe" speakers to me. I felt like they were trying (and succeeding) to be very good but not excellent. Why did I think that? I have no idea. This is why I will never be a great reviewer.

Reference Recordings. OK, they are back. I really felt bad for them as all they did all day was talk about how "they are back". I bought a couple of nice CDs from them, Johm Marks "Beaded Room". Great group of people, I see why everyone wants them to make it, they are so passionate about what they do.

Telarc was another fun group of people. I really liked being able to listen to all the CDs at the show on the big CD server. But I had trouble since I simply wanted every one I listened to. I'll take that, and that, oooh, and that one.

Roy Hall gets my award for "staying in business while getting all kinds of crap from foreign suppliers". I don't know how he stands it, dealing with huge hurdles in language, protocol and culture. His room looked great with all the goods. He spent time with me and laughed at my jokes (another hurdle, being pleasant to everyone). Keep it up, Roy!

vonSchwigert - Before I die I want to spell that right just once. These guys are great every year. Not in the top rung this year for me only because I never got a good listen, but what I heard was excellent.

The SP "ask the editors" session was good. At least is did not get stuck on one topic like last year. Everyone seemed less tense than last year.

Zu speakers were interesting. These guys went back to the theory from the 70s, large paper cone woofers running full range, using the natural roll off. Then filling in the highs with a tweeter on low order crossover. I thought they were OK. Extra points for a couple of people going for it and building a beautiful product. Takes balls to quit your day job for this. BUT, these guys are like Apple computers, they just have a different feel in the room.

Bolzano - Beautiful speakers, with opposing drivers did not do it for me. I don't understand the theory of listening to drivers at 90o off axis.

The Nagra room was cool. I like the look of the electronics. The speakers were OK. The Verity speaker guys noted right up front they have been having a bad weekend and they were still trying to nail down a sound problem. So no comment on the sound, Looked great.

Acsendo - Looked great, the highs sounded off to me and poor blend to the woofer. Maybe another off day or I was tired.

Accapella - Cain - Rethm - all the single driver people - I have yet to hear a single driver system I liked. Sorry to dump y'all I the room together, but there were five or six rooms with single driver units, some very expensive and beautiful, but none sounded good to me.

Flying Mole - I could not get into the room far enough to sit. The tweeters were killing me. I don't know if I had bad luck and hit bad music a couple of times in a row, but ouch.

JAS Audio - beautiful, just never got a good listen.

Gershman - Only got a short listen off to the side. Seemed unbalanced to me.

KEF - These were very good. It took three visits to really get to hear them. The fourth visit, they were blasting some drum tracks. Can play loud, like 'em better soft. Look a lot like BW. On the surround sound, for the millionth time, the rears were just plain annoying. So I am supposed to spend the extra $5k on rears when nobody can come up with a decent surround sound disk? This should be the great challenge of 2006-2007, coming up with a good music surround disk. I don't mean three good channels with junk in the back, I mean all the channels making sense.

MBL - Once again the MBL group was odd. The first visit I was floored by how good they sounded. Really good. So I took a second visit and they were really good again. I wondered in a third time the next day and everything sounded off. I went a fourth time and stayed for a half hour or so and they were pretty good. Nothing like the first visit. This was the only room where I had this experience.

Usher - I was expecting less, mostly because it bothers me that they have been ripping off the Scan designs. But I have to say, most of their speakers were very good and beautifully made.

Sony - The new Sony gear looks fabulous. As expected, picture quality is going up, I think the Blue-ray disk demo was the first big screen demo I have seen where I could not pick out artifacts, ever. Also, if you are near a new HT amp as I am, wait until you can get HDMI switching and video up-sampling.

One thing to take away from this is how hard it is to go into this business. The people who are having a successful show had a lot of experience and backing. I think everyone at some point thinks they want to be in this business and if you look only at the Wilson, Joseph, Pioneer, McIntosh rooms, it looks great. But heading over to the small tube show next door and take a look at the people who are also trying to make a go of it but cannot afford the tuition. There you see people applying enormous hours for just a few eyes in a day and maybe no sales. We also see the Asian groups showing what they can do. But it is so hard to compete with similar looking goods, the aura of everything being knock offs, the lack of support. These groups are working just as hard as the small guys at the tube show, but spending at a higher rate. And they still may not get sales. It is a rough business.

The record pressing plant tour was very cool. Took over an hour to driver there, LA is big, really big. I put comments on that part of the trip with the pictures, link attached.

There are so many variables in a show like this that it is hard to talk absolutes. Not only are there room issues, but many times the test tracks are hard to follow since they are unfamiliar. When I read other people's raves about a system I did not care for, especially the single driver units, I have to think that perhaps they got to use their own test CD or was in a very small sweet spot while I was not. Or I was simply tired from a day of power listening.

If I were offered something to take home from the show, I would pick Erika Pearson, oh, wait! It has to be audio gear. Don't tell my wife I said that. Hmm. There were about a dozen CD/SACD players I really liked and will never afford. Other electronics would be AR or Linn. I know that is boring. Some of the stuff was just over the top, but there is a lot of gear I could be eternally happy with.

speaker icon

Copyright: Peter J. Smith 2006 Return to helarc.com