Dave's Website - Music Show 2004

2004 Home Entertainment Show, May 21-23, 2004


Diary:

The 2004 Home Entertainment Show was held at the New York Hilton on May 20-23. On May 20 it was open only to the trade. I attended all three public days, and had a great time as usual. There were five floors of exhibits. It is really nice to hear systems that I can only read magazine articles about the rest of the year. Saturday was by far the most crowded day, when it was difficult to get into some of the rooms. I haven’t heard any reports of attendance figures yet, but hopefully they got the number of attendees hoped for so that they will continue to hold this show.

I took the train in each day as hotels are so expensive these days. It is a three hour commute each way, so this made for shorter evenings in the City so that I could get some sleep, but I still managed to attend almost every hour of the Show (other than all-important lunch breaks!).

Friday: I spent the day getting an overview of the Show, and seeing all the small rooms on the 6th and 7th floors (where the smaller speakers and smaller companies demo in hopes of getting customers and distributors). I had brunch at the Marketplace buffet in the Hilton, and dinner at an Indian restaurant.

Saturday: Irv and I traveled down together on the train, and we spent the morning exploring the big exhibits on the 2nd floor. We had lunch at a Mexican restaurant. At 2P Boris and Margarita arrived, and together we toured the highlights of the big rooms on the Concourse, 2nd and 4th floors. We also had time for a whirlwind look through the best sounding rooms on the 6th and 7th floors. We had a leisurely dinner with a convivial conversation at an Argentinean restaurant.

Sunday: I spent the day viewing the remaining rooms I hadn't yet seen, and then going back to the exhibits I most enjoyed for a more leisurely listen. I had a late lunch at Wolf's Delicatessen.

There was live music at various times, most of which I missed, as I wasn't interested in the content or the timing conflicted with something else. There was a free movie shown again this year in digital format at the Ziegfield theater across the street on Saturday night, but we didn't go as it was "Van Helsing", which we weren't very interested in and it would have made for a very late evening. The remaining popcorn was handed out the next morning at the Show, which was nice.

News:

The theme of this Show was flat display screens! They were everywhere, even in some of the audio-only rooms. There were a couple of regular TVs being displayed in the display-manufacturer's rooms, but everything else was flat. Plasma still dominates the larger screen sizes, but LCDs are gaining and already dominate the smaller sizes. Prices are falling, but not as much as expected because demand far exceeds supply. The really big pictures are still shown via front projector. Front projector displays are common now and good ones are much cheaper than two years ago. For $12000 it is possible to buy a very serious projector, and even for $2000 it is possible to get a decent one. There still are some really high end ones available; I saw a big Runco for over $100,000, as well as several expensive projectors in the Faroudja line. Editorial: it is easy to critique this stuff and make fun of the prices, but a midrange projector with a good sound system will put a movie theater in your house that is much better than what is at your local public cineplex - this stuff must be seen and heard in person to understand how good it is. All high end houses now being built contain home theaters.

Monster announced a set of very attractive speakers and equipment racks. I attended a terrific presentation by Head Monster Noel Lee. (He doesn't walk well, and was getting around on a cool Segueway scooter!) Monster is trying to bridge the gap between high performance audio/visual equipment and interior decorating. Big audio/visual equipment is usually obtrusive and hard to decorate around. Monster now has a suite of tall thin main speakers ($4000-$7000) finished in aluminum and wood, with an irregular shape that can be toed in without appearing to be askew. They also have a flat screen display frame that holds rows of hidden speakers that provide high resolution sound, as well as low furniture that can hide equipment and small subwoofers. But the highlight for me was a huge subwoofer (15 inch driver, 1000 watt amplifier, $4000) that looked like furniture. It was triangular to fit in a corner, and finished with wood columns and a beautiful wood top so that it looked like an expensive end table! I can imagine putting one in each corner (that's what they did at the Show)... They demoed an MP3 off an iPod, a videogame, audio only tracks, and a movie track. Editorial: It was the introduction of the flat display screen that was acceptable to interior decorators that really made sales of them take off (cost is no object), so Monster may really be starting a trend here with fashionable but high end performance racks and speakers.

There were several speakers this year (in addition to the usual electrostatic panels) that were open in back. (Traditional speakers come in sealed boxes with the back and sides closed). This solves some speaker engineering problems but makes the speakers interact with the room. But set up properly in a good room they can sound spectacular.

There still were lots of tube electronics and massive turntables used to drive the demos, but a larger percentage of the rooms this year also had solid state source components and amplifiers. With the common availability of SACD and DVD-A (competing high resolution CD formats) and better solid state amps, many of the people with "golden ears" are finding the solid state sound to be competitive with tubes and analog.

Highlights:

Samsung was displaying a full HDTV (1920x1080) 46-inch LCD screen! It will be available in August for about $12000. This one I would like, and actually might buy when the price comes down. Most plasmas are still 1280x768.

JMLab had three different sizes of speakers used in demos by Sound by Singer (a high end New York City audio shop). One of the demos also included their flagship Grand Utopia Be (one of the world's best speakers) at $85000 per pair. All sounded wonderful - I am really impressed by this brand.

Integrated receivers (tuners, pre-amps, and amplifiers all in one box) were visibly on display. Sony, Yamaha, Marantz, Pioneer, Harmon Kardon, etc. have all added big new receivers that edge up into the sound quality previously available only from separate and more expensive boxes. The new Yamaha RX-Z9 was on display: 170 watts per channel, a digital iLink connection for a universal CD player, digital signal processing for room correction (!) and for sound effects, video switching, video format conversion, video scaling, etc. etc, at $4500. I am seriously considering buying this one when they come out with their matching universal player later this year.

Tenor Audio was playing their Epiphany speaker (a very tall stack of tweeters and midranges, $14900/pair), assisted by a big subwoofer, and getting a really nice sound. They were playing tracks from visitor's CDs, and one person played a song, Spanish Harlem, by singer Rebecca Pidgeon, on her Retrospective album produced and distributed by Chesky. It has very a spare sound with minimal instrumentation. It was so gorgeous that both Irv and I went over to the CD booths and bought a copy. If you like the Female Vocal category, this is a must-have CD. After listening to it at home, I have ordered all her other CDs also. Chesky sells them as CDs or SACD/CD hybrids, so they can be played on regular CD players, but the hybrids will sound even better on SACD players.

One room was playing big Thiel speakers with spectacular sound from very special source material, and it turned out they were playing directly off a Tascam cartridge tape unit. Tascams (very expensive) are used to record digitally, and apparently record in the same format as SACD. The tracks they were playing were recorded directly with no mixing, like Mapleshade does with regular CDs, so they were very clean-sounding.

One of the best sounding rooms was playing Alon's Proteus speakers ($45000/pair). These are not the top of the line; one of the world's best speakers is their Grand Reference at $120,000/pair! The Proteus speakers have sealed woofers and side-firing subwoofers, but the tweeters and midranges are open in back. With the speakers pulled way out into the room and the sound bouncing off the back wall, the soundstage was phenomenal. They played Louis Armstrong's St. Joseph's Infirmary, and it was stunning.

MBL was playing their big $45000 speakers. The speakers have to be seen to be believed - they look like small space ships – 4 foot black and chrome columns. Powered by their own expensive electronics they sounded really nice, and especially lifelike on loud brass instruments. They were playing at a reasonably low volume, as are most systems at the Show, to avoid disturbing the other rooms. But on Sunday, the last day of the Show, they turned up the volume and it sounded even better, although they riled all their neighbors.

The Krell/Faroudja room had three projectors ranging from $22,000 to $50,000 - the last threw a great 123 inch diagonal picture. They claim they sell a unit that will project a 40 foot picture, for a mere $340,000. The audio was handled by $125,000 of Krell electronics and speakers. So about $200,000 gets you a nice picture and sound, from these world-class companies!

Vandersteen, Joseph Audio, Thiel, Krell, and Wilson also had big speakers on display.

JVC was playing their 3-chip ILA front projector, and it was spectacular picture, one of the best at the Show. It is a full 1920x1080, and was shown on a 135 inch diagonal screen in a small room! There was NO pixelization. One of the tracks they showed was scenes from the Tonight Show (which is broadcast in high definition), and it was like being on the stage in person with Jay Leno. I don't know what this projector costs, but what a way to watch television at home!

The movies Drumline and Sea Biscuit were used almost exclusively to demo projectors. I got really tired of them, but admittedly it is a good way to compare different setups.

Sony is now selling little TV screens, from 7-12 inches, that are portable and wireless!

There were a lot of important people in the industry present, some of them even giving their own demos. I saw Noel Lee (Head Monster), Andrew Singer (Sound by Singer), Jeff Joseph (Joseph Audio), EveAnna Manley (Manley Labs - big tube amps), Joseph Kane (Joe Kane Productions – high resolution video), and several Stereophile magazine writers.

There are competing high definition DVD formats in development. One format has been accepted by much of the industry, but a competing format, Blu-Ray, is being pushed by Sony. Sony says it won't be available in the US until late 2005, but it had a sample working in demos at the Show! I didn't see any concrete example of the other format.

Cyrus has a full range of half width components which are small enough to look cute. They are high quality at a very reasonable price, but the amps go up to only 75 watts per channel. They also sell a 250MB hard disk server that can hold a lot of bit-perfect CDs with extras like cover art, for $7000.

Paradigm has a new top end speaker at $6000/pair. This is an important addition to a good line.

Creston control panels were common this year. Home theater systems are so complicated that a touch-screen programmed control is a big help.

The Goldmund room sounded great with small speakers, using a stack of electronics that turned out to cost 5 figures per box. Ouch! Likewise, Linn had its own small room packed with expensive stuff that I would like to have if it weren't for the price...

There were lots of booths selling audiophile CDs, at Show discounts, so I picked up some JVC XRCDs (specially mastered CDs). There also were booths selling headphones, cables, tweaks, racks, accessories, etc.

Delphi introduced a portable, dockable XM receiver that was just a bit bigger than a deck of cards.

There were a couple of electrostatic speakers being demonstrated, small ones by Martin Logan, and medium size ones by Innersound. Very smooth sound, but the big ones sound better, and they all need woofers for bass.

Glacier Audio showed their new flagship speaker, 60 inches of ribbon tweeter and four 12-inch open air woofers, at $19500/pair. They sounded really good.

I attended a panel discussion by a variety of big-name speaker designers, who made a few comments and took questions from the audience. They didn't say much shocking, but it was clear they each knew a lot about the complexities of sound reproduction and engineering and where trying not to get too technical in the time allotted. They also were careful not to directly insult each other's products. All agreed speakers are getting better, for a variety of reasons including new materials and computer modeling. It is clear the technology is changing fast, as in most fields. There is major disagreement about optimal speaker architecture: planar designs (electrostatic flat panels), point sources (the sound is focused to appear to originate from the center of the tweeter, and line arrays (tall columns of identical speakers). There are world-class speakers in each format. From my own experience they all have their advantages and disadvantages, but I'll spare you my opinions, at least this year!

For further information, see the following links. Strongly recommended for more detail and PICTURES:
http://www.enjoythemusic.com/hifi2004
http://www.audioasylum.com/audio/general/messages/330104.html (Also has replies, and there are other related topics in the General section).

'Til next year, good listening!