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The 10 Best Sounding Rooms from the New York Audiophile Show 2012

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NY_AV_Show_2012_Empire_State_Building.jpgThe High-End Audio Show returned to the tall skyscrapers of Manhattan with gusto, fervor, and commitment after an absence of nearly five years. Gotham City once again became the center of the AV universe, showcasing 107 different common and obscure brands from around the globe, meticulously assembled within over 70 larger-than-expected hotel rooms and suites at the world-famous Waldorf Astoria, 50th St. and 301 Park Avenue in Midtown New York City. The attendance from April 13 through 15, 2012, was solid and, in many rooms, the 1,600-plus audiophiles, engineers (who were playing their own recordings) and journalists encountered standing-room-only situations in some of the more popular exhibits. The variety of different tastes in music I heard afforded a spectacular opportunity to experience crazy opulent audio systems. The enthusiasm from the exhibitors added immensely to the event, which I attended on the final day, hearing the best possible sonics during the show.

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The previous New York Audio/Video show had been held in 2007 at the Hilton across town, but it was overly congested, making for long delays waiting for the elevators and in lines to enter popular rooms; progress was slow even moving from room to room. Sound quality, along with rising temperatures and humidity levels varied dramatically, with many exhibitors' tonal balances being so screechy and/or boomy they were nearly unlistenable. In the end, it was a very exhausting event that required several days, and even then, it wasn't possible to see everything. But this time, a much more relaxing experience was had by almost everyone I encountered (with a few notable exceptions). Only a few lines extended out and down the halls (as in the case of the MBL Suite, as usual). Exhibit rooms were spread out across the 15h and the 18th floors with sufficient spacing between them, so that little if any sound intruded from adjoining rooms. Fortunately, this gave me the perfect environment to utilize some of the more compelling audio analyzer tools on my new iPad 3. I was able to measure each room with several spectrum analyzers, SPL meters and FFT histograms. For the first time (in my experience), specific audio measurements could be correlated directly with my listening experiences for each system while I went from room to room. Some interesting and entertaining observations occurred, based on this unique technological and measurement vantage point.

Here, then, are my Top Ten picks for Best Sound at this show (closest to the impression of real musicians playing right there, in front of me):

NY_AV_Show_2012_Well_Rounded_Sound_01.jpgRoom #10 - Well Rounded Sound
"Corgi" Two-Driver Loudspeaker System ($799 per pair) (July 2012)
"Jack Terrier 2" One-Driver Loudspeaker ($299 per pair)
"Yorkie" One-Drive Loudspeaker ($249 per pair)

The only things that are small about these gems are price and footprint. Great surprises I stumbled upon were the new diminutive and inexpensive Well Rounded Sound's Corgi two-way desktop loudspeakers (40 Hz - 24 kHz), which simply sounded great, both for the money and because of the minimal real estate required to use them. NY_AV_Show_2012_Well_Rounded_Sound_02.jpgUtilizing a round enclosure resolves so many of the typical dynamic speakers' natural distortion predilections, improving upon Henry Kloss' Acoustic Suspension design from 1954 (along with Ed Vilchur at Acoustic Research). These little Corgi gems, as well as their smaller siblings, the Jack Terrier 2 and Yorkie, are as cute as their names, easy to drive with a few watts (particularly from a salon-built audiophile tube amplifier), and everyone that heard them began petting them. How can such a great and large sound come from such a tiny package, one that does not use equalization or even a crossover (they run full-range) to make the one- and two-driver systems here seem full-range? There was this glorious high-end sound coming from this tiny, unassuming room set-up with the nearly invisible speakers. It was a pleasure to experience the new Corgi design, which is both innovative and affordable, not to mention the extremely high Wife Acceptance Factor (WAF).

NY_AV_Show_2012_Sony_Pass_Labs_01.jpgRoom #9 - Sony / Pass Labs
Sony SS-AR2 Loudspeakers ($20,000 per pair)
Pass Labs X600.5
Pass Labs Pre-Amp
Pass Labs CD Player

A surprise for me was to see Sony's Motoyuki (Yuki) Sugiura demonstrating their newest three-way (with four drivers: one-inch soft dome tweeter with twin aluminum cone woofers) floor-standing SS-AR2 loudspeakers ($20,000 per pair), amplified by a pair of matching Pass Labs X600.5, a pre-amp, and a CD player. Clearly, Sony is trying to bring its image back toward that of a company that actually cares about sound quality. The double-length suite provided ample space for a fairly large sweet spot of fourteen chairs in which to listen to some glorious symphonic music from CD. NY_AV_Show_2012_Sony_Pass_Labs_02.jpgUnfortunately, having come from many previous rooms that were playing analog LP, I really didn't feel that the audio here was terribly inviting or musical, though the soundstage was very large, clear and holographic. Naturally, I wonder if a good turntable and arm would have done any better than the Pass Labs CD player, especially with so many turntables on audition elsewhere.

Also on display (but not being auditioned) were a Mytek Digital Stereo192-DSD DAC and several pair of Sony's SS-AR1 Flagship speakers, some of which offered an interior view of the finely-braced cabinet design. Both models of Sony Speakers feature a Japanese maple laminate for the front baffle and Finnish birch plywood for the balance of the cabinet. A knuckle rap on the top surface sounded appropriately wooden and braced, but not dead like Corian or Marble. My iPad 3 Spectrum Analysis for this room showed nothing out of the ordinary, with a fairly flat response from 40 Hz - 21 kHz. The thing is, I really wanted to hear the bigger Sony flagship speakers with the Pass Labs front end and Mytek DSD DAC. Alas, this will have to wait for a future show.

NY_AV_Show_2012_High_Water_Sound_01.jpgRoom #8 - High Water Sound
Cessaro Horn Acoustics Affascinate SE-1 speakers, $62,000 per pair
TW-Acustic Black Knight turntable, $40,000
two TW-Acustic 10.5 tone arms, $5,500 each
Ortofon A-90 stereo cartridge, $4,200
Miyajima Premium Mono BE cartridge, $1260
Tron Telstar 211 SE amp, $40,000
Tron Seven GT line stage, $18,000;
cabling by Pranawire
racks and platforms by SRA

NY_AV_Show_2012_High_Water_Sound_02.jpgJeffrey Catalano was displaying the most unusual-looking speakers in the High Water Sound room, and his thousands of LPs made for an impressive- looking and sounding room design. The TW-Acoustic Black Knight turntable with its 10.5 tone arms, Ortofon A-90 stereo cartridge and Miyajima Premium Mono BE cartridge really played amazingly though the Cessaro Horn Acoustics Affascinate SE-1 speakers, featuring an eleven-inch woofer in a back-loaded horn, a proprietary compression driver for the spherical midrange horn, and a modified horn-loaded TAD beryllium tweeter. The impression I got was very similar to listening to an acoustic recording replayed through and acoustic horn system: immediate. The wooden trumpet bell is flared in a way that projects the upper midrange and lower treble considerably, contributing greatly to several vocal albums I heard. I found the presentation to be extremely musical, if a bit forward in the 3 kHz range. This was confirmed by SignalScope Pro by Faber, another audio analyzer App for the iPad. There was a considerable hump between 2 kHz and 5 kHz. But with great vinyl playing, particularly some treasured favorites from the 1960s on the Tron vacuum tube amplification, I easily found myself wanting to hang out and admire the imaging, which extended well in front of and in back of the speaker's position.

NY_AV_Show_2012_LessLoss_Audio_02.jpgRoom #7 - LessLoss Audio
Kaiser Vivace loudspeakers ($42,500 + $2500 for Lamborghini Orange per pair)
Beyond Frontiers Audio - Tulip Tube DAC converter
Beyond Frontiers Audio - Tulip Stereo Integrated amplifier
Anchorwave Cabling & Blackbody Ambient Field Conditioning by LessLoss

Sometimes, great sound comes from small floor-standing packages that come in Lamborghini Orange finish. The Kaiser Vivace loudspeakers provided a large viewing window into several fine albums auditioned in the room. For one thing, the noise floor of the system was incredibly quiet, no doubt due in part to the Blackbody ambient field conditioning units, carefully located and aimed throughout the room. So besides some great-looking and sounding sources from Beyond the Frontier, I was surprised that this was one of only a few rooms outfitted with various acoustic and electronic tweaks that were added to control any of the remaining gremlins that invade an audio system (particularly at a show), making it sound less than stellar. Perhaps this is one of the identifying characteristics of audiophiles: they continue past the acquisition of great-sounding components assembled into a good room by testing and refining, using a whole bunch of different options. LessLoss went out of their way to treat everything possible, short of the ceiling. The result was very, very enjoyable listening.

NY_AV_Show_2012_Audio_Arts_01.jpgRoom 6 - Audio Arts Suite
German Podszus Zellaton Concert Speakers ($59,750 per pair)
David Berning ZOTL preamp with phono stage ($12,300)
David Berning ZH230 mono amplifiers ($18,400 per pair)
Holborne Analog 2 turntable ($5275)
Holborne Analog 2 tone arm ($3475)
Holborne MC1 cartridge ($1975)
Telluriuq Cables

NY_AV_Show_2012_Audio_Arts_02.jpgThis was the first room I ventured into at 10 AM Sunday morning. Inside, I found the handmade German Podszus Zellaton Concert Speakers ($59,750 per pair). The tweeter and four woofers are made from a custom sandwiched foam membrane called Pawel, which is a laminated metal foil that exhibits little or no resonances in the audio band, and consequently has very little sound of its own. The components included the David Berning ZOTL preamp with phono stage ($12,300) and a matching pair of David Berning ZH230 mono amplifiers ($18,400 per pair), connected by Telluriuq Cables. I was treated to several LPs (but no CDs) of intimate jazz, replayed on a Holborne Analog 2 turntable ($5275), with the Holborne Analog 2 tone arm ($3475), and Holborne MC1 cartridge ($1975) to delightful toe-tapping effect. This suite at the Waldorf had lovely tall curved ceilings with sufficient decoration along the edging and pillars plus carpeting, which provided the large living room-sized acoustic space with a solid, ample acoustic where it could shine. The first thing that struck me was just how analog the sound was, with rich, solid imaging and a firm tonal foundation that easily made me want to listen for hours. My iPad measurements revealed a slightly depressed treble response above 8 kHz, and some slight room echo in the midband around 800 Hz. None of this diminished the fine set-up and integration work, and the sound quality was nicely ambient and present in front of me, never sounding forward or aggressive in any way. This was indeed a really pleasant grouping of components to begin the day of show reviewing.

See the top 5 rooms on Page 2.

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