All the Vermeers in New York:
A Fractured View of
The Home Entertainment 2001 Show
by Clark Johnsen
All the Vermeers are not, of course, in New York. A hefty
chunk of them are, however, for a while, here at the Metropolitan
Museum. They comprise my primary reason for coming to New York
-- plus the promise of a ride back home on the Acela Express,
America's new high-speed luxury train. I have splurged on a
first-class ticket which entitles me to "a gourmet meal served
on real china" and a window seat to enjoy the vistas along New
England's shoreline, near which the tracks run for half the
distance; and like a small boy I exult in anticipation. Also
I am here for the show formerly known as the Stereophile Show.
But aren't these Vermeers something?! They positively glow,
even in the rich context of the whole Delft school in which they
are hung. As I exit and turn immediately right, there are
glorious van Goghs, multiple Monets, brightly-lit Renoirs,
descriptively-dark Gauguins, the occasional Rousseau ... It makes
one wonder about this phrase Harvey Rosenberg uses, "the audio
arts". Here is art; audio is ... what? Craft? Fine! Practicing
your craft can be just as noble, honorable and satisfying.
Back at the hotel the first people I encounter are Show
honchos John Atkinson and Laura LoVecchio, who look just fine
after their long stretch in Santa Fe. This coincidence augurs
well for my weekend, I figure. Later: Damn! I should have
reminisced with Johnny-Boy (his new Brooklyn name, he mentioned)
about our last time here together in New York, in 1991, on
occasion of the AES 91st Convention when for the first time ever
they invited the high end to lunch. Even I (a member since
1967) gave a paper, as did Bob Harley and many others.
One episode from those days has since become infamous,
a workshop provocatively entitled "New Cable Design: Innovation
or Consumer Fraud?" The discussion panel consisted of a
psychologist, a science writer, a consumer affairs advocate
and Corey Greenberg. The psychologist claimed the differences
were all in our heads; the science writer (a flack for Skeptical
Inquirer) instructed us that nothing in Ohm's Law allows for
audible cable variances and he projected graphs for proof; the
consumer affairs fellow, a government careerist, advocated
criminal prosecution of dealers who commit cable fraud; and
Corey Greenberg, under pressure, conducted himself surprisingly
maturely. A comparison test of speaker cables was presented
afterwards on a system supplied by Stereophile; under the
circumstances -- a huge room and some 300 in attendance --
nothing could be discerned, but many pounced upon the hapless
presenters anyway with a loud Aha! It was such a bad joke that Roger
Skoff, Michael Gindi and I arose in protest and departed
to the coffee shop. Later John Atkinson was positively livid
and quite unconsolable.
But that was then; first thing Friday morning now I've
donned coat and tie, a respectable sort of male drag, to scope
out all five exhibit floors during the two hours allotted
privately to the press. I know better than to listen seriously
at-this juncture, even though crowds are thin; instead I perform
the ritual triage. Roaming the halls later as a reporter
without portfolio, I am thus able to skip a third of the 44
rooms, 19 suites and 30 booths.
Concerning the sound at these shows, I operate with one
rule: If something sounds good, it may be; if it doesn't, who
knows? To some extent however, exhibitors themselves must still
take responsibility for most problems. There is no excuse for
drawing power right out of the wall, for instance, and in truth
many are careful in this regard. There is no excuse either
for not isolating equipment from floor vibrations, significant
in Manhattan, but many instead couple their gear to the floor
with heavy-duty stands. It beats me why anyone should want
to connect with all that energy -- seismic, acoustic and footfall
-- but there they are. Nor does anyone seem to bother to clean
their discs and records or any others brought for audition.
An aside: For LPs I employ the Disc Doctor process and
a VPI 16.5 with excellent sonic results; for CDs the procedure
gets more complex, involving trimming (Audio Desk Systeme),
polishing (Optrix et al.) and destaticizing (Nordost ECO et
al.). At the very least one might think a clever exhibitor
would prepare several items from which he might select
appropriate music for the particular audience, but I see no
evidence of such concern for enhanced software quality.
These treatments tame the punishing aspect of CDs and allow
them to manifest low-level resolution, which was there all along
but inexplicably uncapturable. Just believe me, after several
hours of show listening at fairly loud volumes a good ear becomes
highly sensitized to all digital artifacts and shortcomings.
These are present everywhere and can be ameliorated, in my
experience, only by the enumerated techniques. Why designers
have been unable to accomplish this undeniable betterment within
the vaunted digital domain, again, beats me! Meanwhile a modest
effort by those at the user end is highly recommended. And
here at the Show, such an effort could arguably be remunerative
as well. or so one might suppose.
Yet another factor influences my choice of rooms to enter
as I stroll by: The music must be playing in correct polarity.
When music is out-of-phase (oops!) it sounds muffled and lacks
transient punch, and even worse, the supporting bass line sounds
sluggish. Inverted polarity, an unnatural and amusical condition
enabled by electronics and loudspeakers, is abetted by lack
of polarity consistency in recordings. In fact these are split
50/50, a condition known for nearly fifteen years yet about
which nothing has been done by the AES, or anyone.
Click here for the next page of this report.
Click here to see
complete listing of show exhibitors.
Click here to see our
1999 show coverage.
Copyright© 2001 Clark