Mistah Kurtz - he dead
Before I showed up at the HE 2007 show, I was thinking about movies. And the one movie that seemed to possibly portend my ensuing audiorama experience was The Masque of the Red Death with Vincent Price. Price as Prospero holds a masquerade ball for the fortunate few to protect against the oncoming plague. But the Red Death shows up as party crasher supreme. Price frantically runs from room to room trying to escape the red-cloaked figure. Each new room is a new color - blue, yellow, purple, all precursors to the inevitable red.

Well, it turns out I was wrong. The HE 2007 show was loads of fun so I've settled on another old favorite flick of mine to guide us up-river so to speak and through a few colorful rooms.

The horror. The horror.
When you met your mate, did you do it blindly? Did you have to compare and contrast your beloved directly against many others to know s/he was the one? Was it work? Was it hard? Was it something you deduced based on the facts at hand? Height, weight, hair color, eye color, parts ratios and pertinent test scores? Without input from the intended? Without a voice of their own? Without interaction?

My guess is, it didn't happen this way for most of us. The idea that you can predetermine compatibility based on known things sounds like a great way to make money on the Internet but falls very flat when reality intrudes; when you actually meet those facts and figures first hand and they turn out to have a voice of their own. So why oh why do we think we can predetermine our hifi likes and dislikes? Isn't the relationship between us and our beloved tunes and the forces that mold them as mysterious and fragile as a soap bubble in the 19th century?

The HiFi divorce rate is nearly as poor as the marriage divorce rate. AudiogoN reads like a tale of woe, sadder than any drippy love poem or Hallmark sentiment. But with all this AudiogoN dumping, you'll never hear a harsh word uttered. "Great preamp only selling to upgrade within the line." Or "Must sell due to financial reasons". Or maybe even "Divorce forces sale". Never a bad review when you're trying to sell your stuff.

When you go to a hifi show, there are lots of professionals trying to sell their stuff. If you go to shows year after year, you get to see a lot of the same people - sometimes selling new stuff. And someone else will be selling the stuff they used to sell. Manufacturers who were once hard-core SET builders show up with digital amps, old school power houses hawk cutely named iPod docks. Things change, partners swap but in the end we're still looking for the same thing. Music.

But when your living is selling hifi gear and you have an opportunity to see and be seen, music moves to the background so the gear can be the center of attention. Step right up. The Audio Show is for me a bit like a blind date with a few thousand potentials who aren't allowed to speak their mind. So you're left to fend, guess and remain fairly superficial. Hmmm, that one's nice looking but a bit bottom heavy. And why so shrill? Room 1401? Yeah, I heard that one, too - thin for my tastes but maybe it was the room.

It was only after a long overdue cold beer that I realized this really should be fun. This isn't a job (well, it is for some but not for me) and I only had one day to cover as much ground as I could. So I dutifully downed another to ensure a new level-headed attitude and headed back into the heart of the beast. Up-river where rumor had it some designer's were operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct.

Disneyland. Fuck, man, this is better than Disneyland
The Cabasse La Sphere ($150,000/pr) is a huge sci-fi eyeball-looking speaker perched atop its integrated stand, itself resembling the mapping of a molecular or odd orbital path. The very genial Christophe Cabasse and North American distributor Kevin St.-John Leja couldn't wait to play me some drum music. "Do you like drum music?" Christophe asked. "Drums? Do you enjoy percussion?" Mr. Leja added. Kinda like when the largest kid is about to do his cannonball, the La Sphere's physique telegraphed the ensuing splash.

But you haven't heard an aural splash until you've heard La Sphere driven by a tidy stack of Bel Canto amps. Room-shaking power mimicked fault-line living as high-volume pounding hit the air waves. I was impressed, nearly giddy with the effortless whoosh of sonic impact. This is a statement product in all its somewhat irreverent glory. After all, who could house such a beast? But I don't think that was the purpose of La Sphere. For me the giddy delight in "because we can" was enough to add this room to my recommended stops list.

Are my methods unsound?
The quest to get a Lowther driver to lose its shout and work seamlessly with a powered subwoofer should be on the list of holy grails. Since we've knocked sequencing of the human genome off, I hold out hope for Jacob George and Rethm although I didn't get a good-enough listen to the new Saadhana ($7,995/pr) to know how close they've come.

Driven by Art Audio's gleaming Diavolo and the new ModWright pre suite, the music was enticing and solid, certainly not waifishly thin or abusively shouty. And I did not see any signs of room treatment beyond extra stuffing provided by a somewhat cramped second couch on the long-wall setup. I'll also say that Rethm designer Jacob George appears to be the kind of person you'd like to talk to. A few other people felt the same way and they unfortunately had Jacob's ear for the entirety of my brief visit.

What the hell do you know about surfing? You're from goddamn New Jersey.
Keep an eye and ear out for Sweden's Sjofn HiFi and their Guru QM10 loudspeakers. Think very big sound in a small box for $1,850/pr. I'll admit to aping the "where's the sub" routine, peering into corners and extra hard at potentially masquerading night tables. Alas, there were none to be found and that very buxom bass was being generated by that rather smallish stand-mounted speaker. Driven by modestly priced electronics from Xindak and cabling from fellow Swede Lo-Rad, this system toped out at $2,995.

Another $3,000 system that grabbed my ear was found in the DCM room. Yeah, the TimeWindow guys from 1974! While I'm not as excited about the name, the DCM TimeFrame Evolution 200 speakers at $1,000 were making some real music coupled with Jolida electronics. The TFE 200 is a three-way floorstander (30mm Teteron dome tweeter, 6.5" Kevlar cone midrange and dual 6.5" glass fiber cone woofers) and the Jolida JD 801A's ($1,550) 70 watts per channel had no problem handling their load. If I had to pick one word to describe this system's sound, it would be - smooth.

While we're talking budget systems and surfing, the audioengine 5 "works with everything" self-powered iPod and wireless-ready speakers in black, white or bamboo are way cool, especially at $349/pair. Their diminutive self-powered partners, the audioengine 2s at $199/pair, are simply too cute for words. With the iPod proliferation taking place all around me, there's little doubt a pair of these very musical sounding speakers will end up in New Jersey.

Why don't you Americans learn from us - from our mistakes? Mon Dieu!
At the end of one long corridor sat the Jadis room. And when I first entered, there was only one other person sitting contentedly listening to some polite acoustic music. Then he left. I breathed a sigh of relief having somehow found myself crowd-less for a few moments and soaked in the sound. And it was nice. A small, simple and not terribly flashy system -- one which did not cut any bleeding edges or scale any cash-infused heights -- managed to gently hold my attention. Featuring the Jadis E-50 50wpc integrated amplifier ($8,000) and Jadis CD player ($,3500) driving ProAc 3.8s ($7,500/pr), I'm still not sure if I'd call this room austere or soothing. Maybe it was both.

Each time I looked around, the walls moved in a little tighter.
Analog tape playing through the TAD Reference One speakers sounded damned good. The TAD/Pioneer speakers, all 60,000 dollars a pair and 350 pounds worth a piece put out some uncluttered and cool-sounding tunes. I certainly preferred the 15 i.p.s. tape to digital and while I didn't get any details, the Technics open reel deck was apparently modified quit extensively. Even with the very prominent cooling towers of the four MSB Platinum MS200s pumping heat into this crowded, already overheated room, the sound was cool and crystal clear.

Freedoms from the opinion of others... even the opinions of yourself?
Jeff Catalano of High Water Sound is 3 for 3 on my personal Show-going scorecard of great-sounding gear playing great music. Booker T and the MGs' Green Onions were cookin' in mono when I walked in for my 2nd visit to hear the Aspara Acoustics HL hornspeakers driven by Tron electronics and a pair of double-armed TW-Acustic Raven turntables. I'm not saying this was the only room at the show to exude this quality but Jeff's room exuded a love of music. And if you look around, you'll notice a heavy helping of tweaks - room correction, vibration control, resonance shifters and even some lava mood lighting. Since I didn't get to hear this room pre and post treatment, all's I can say is it sounded smooth, relaxed and oh-so musical.

In fact, there was so much to see in the High Water Sound room, I'm going to give you the complete component list for this setup coz it's interesting and informative to note what goes into making such an effortless-sounding system.

  • Aspara Acoustics HL ($25,000)
  • Tron Jubilant mono blocks w/ Harmonix Studio Master Power Cords ($25,000)
  • Tron Syren Full function Pre amp ($22,000)
  • Tron Seven Phono Stage ($4,000)
  • Tron Seven Reference Phono Stage w/ 2 inputs ($8,000)
  • TW-Acustic Raven AC w/ 3 motors ($15000), 2 arms/ Graham Phantom ($4,300) w/ Miyabi 47 ($4,000), Ortofon 309i limited w/ RS Labs headshell ($300) and Dynavector Karat 23R
  • TW-Acustic Raven One w/ 2 arms ($6,000), Dynavector 507 MK11 ($4,300) w/ Dynavector XV1-S Stereo ($4,200) & Dynavector 507 MK11 ($4,300) w/ Dynavector XV1-S Mono ($4,600)
  • AMR CD-77 w/ Harmonix Studio Master Power cord ($8,500)
  • Combak Reimyo ALS-777 power conditioner w/ Harmonix Studio Master power cord ($5,200)
  • Sound Application Reference Line Stage w/ Stealth M 5000 power cord ($6,000)
  • All cables WSS Platinum except where noted ($500-1,500)
  • Silent Running Audio Craz Reference isoRACK plus ($10,000)
  • Silent Running Audio amp stands ($1,500/each)
  • Acoustic System Resonators Gold, Gold Specials, Silvers, Copper, Platinum, Sugar cubes, resonators, Phase Controller ($200-$2,500)
  • 1 pair green lava lamps ($25/each)

Part of me was afraid of what I would find and what I would do when I got there. I knew the risks or imagined I knew.
There are a few other noteworthy items ticked off my list from HE 2007. The first and foremost was seeing people I knew and meeting people I didn't. There are a load of wonderful characters involved in this hobby and being in their company was pure pleasure. And kudos to Stereophile for pulling off what turned out to be a great, informative and fun time.

First a few quippy observations:

  • A spokes model serving drinks is the sure sign of a six-figure system.
  • Spokes models do not guarantee good sound.
  • If a component cost more than $100,000 I expect a lot. If a component costs $100 I expect the same – music.
  • Lots of audiophiles do not make an effective room treatment.
  • Many audiophiles clutch their bags.
  • People are even more interesting in person.
  • When given the choice between Norah Jones' "Come Away with Me" and the bar, I'll opt for the latter every time and twice on Friday. Or was that 3 times at the bar? I know I heard that CD coming out of at least 6 different rooms so I showed some restraint.
  • I prefer analog to digital.

While I didn't get to spend much time in the Rogue Audio room, I did manage to catch a minute with Rogue's Mark O'Brien. Like his products, I find Mark to be a no-BS, straight-forward kinda guy. Rogue was showing their new top-of-the line Hera reference two-piece preamp and the little I heard sounded like more.

One of the most interesting pieces of info I walked away with was from Sean Casey at Zu. They've been working on a modification for the Denon 103 cartridge. Yes, you heard that right - a mod for the Denon 103. I ran into Sean in the Hall and must have stopped dead in my room-sniffing tracks when he told me. I did manage a quick peek into the Zu room which featured a home theater setup but I grabbed some 2-channel time with the Druids and very much liked what I heard. Sean is another no-BS kinda guy and if I were a match-making type, I'd see some sort of Zu/Rogue setup somewhere down the road. All's I know is I'd want to be at that party [Zu's Adam Decaria runs a Rogue Zeus in his personal system - Ed.].

Vinnie Rossi of Red Wine Audio, Louis Chochos of Omega Speakers and Tom Hills from Hudson Audio were on hand and the banter between these guys never stops. The three musketeers of good, affordable audio. Vinnie was showing his new iMod based on the 5G/5.5G iPod Video models and Louis had his new Max Hemps. The air in this room was somehow less stifled than most and show goers seemed much more relaxed as if walking into their friend's living room.

I also ran into two Road Tour veterans – Joe G. from Road Tour 2 and Robin W. from Road Tours 3, 3B and 3 Revisited. It turns out Joe G's system has changed and believe it or not, so has Robin Ws. I'd actually hazard a guess that Robin's changed a number of times throughout the course of the show. Having spent a bit of time with Robin over time, I've yet to meet anyone whose curiosity is as boundless when it comes to all things audio.

Do you know why you can never step into the same river twice?
If there was a red-cloaked figure or morose colonel in a cave, I musta missed him. No hollow men, no stuffed men. How about a bunny? As good fortune would have it, I got to meet Art Dudley, something of an event for yours truly. Listener Magazine was very influential for its attitude, style and the pure pleasure of the read. It gave me a comfortable place to be an audiophile. And it also introduced me to Fi which would lead me to where I am today - audiophiley speaking. So without missing the slightly symbolic nature of Friday's events, I also got to meet Don Garber of Fi. Having drinks with Art, Don, Jonathan Halpern, John DeVore, Andrew Klein and another new acquaintance -- John Marks of Stereophile -- was the personal highlight of my day. Great people, great conversation.

But wait a minute. Come to think if it, there is something vaguely apocalyptic about John Marks. "Hey, man, you don't talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man's enlarged my mind. He's a poet-warrior in the classic sense." John Marks is passionate. He's animated about everything from ordering his drink to audio but mainly, it's about the music. In the course of one round of drinks, I got to hear a blazingly fast history of the reformation and its effects on consumerism and the audiophile; the price of admission to a live concert in the Czech Republic; church organs; American Idol (JM's plea - vote for Melinda Doolittle); music lessons; and how best to spend a sizable hi-fi budget (hint - take some of your money and tour Europe and listen to a lot of live music). Oh, and a full show recap and I'm certain I'm forgetting a few other topics. And I can drink fast but John Marks can talk faster.

My point with this slightly overdone caricature of JM is that people are complex and unexpected. If you read someone or email with someone or even speak to them on the phone, there's no substituting a face-to-face encounter. Gesture, tone and
mannerisms. Interaction. The subtle and sometimes not so subtle cues of meaning exist in person, in the present. While this may seem like stating the obvious, I think we audiophiles need to be reminded every once in a while that interaction in the physical world is the goal against which we want our hifis to strive. I don't necessarily mean "live" music. I do mean that ineffable quality of the expected and the unexpected all rolled up into one. Unraveling in time. And the only thing in hifi that contains this potential to surprise and delight is - the music. The music.