MusicShow2018

New York Audio Show 2018 – Report

I attended the NY Audio Show in Manhattan from Friday 11/09/2018 through Sunday 11/11/2018. Like last year, it was held at the Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South.

The Show:

Overview and background:

There are more audio Shows now than previously, so exhibiters are exhausting their budgets and themselves in trying to exhibit at all of them. This increase in Shows is driven to a large extent by the reduction in the number of brick-and-mortar audio dealers. There is a healthy online business, but it is getting so that consumers must attend a Show to actually hear the products.

There are now several audio Shows in North America that are bigger than this New York Show, so exhibitors are forced to decide where to exhibit which of their products. The larger and more expensive products entail more shipping and handling costs, and require large display rooms, so the costs are higher, and NYC in general is particularly expensive. This New York Show being a smaller show, many the world's really big speakers were not being shown, unfortunately, although fortunately there were a couple of large systems on exhibit. Many companies chose to bring their intermediate models, with good results, at system prices in the $100K range.

The Show was about the same size as last year, with the exception that the three ballrooms on the second floor were available this year and were well utilized. The remaining 23 exhibits were in upstairs hotel rooms. Being there all three days, I had time to do all of them carefully.

Attendance didn't seem strong, although many rooms were crowded on Saturday. Sunday morning I was able to get good seats in the rooms I wanted to listen carefully to. But the exhibiters I asked said they were pleased with attendance, which bodes well for having future Shows in NYC.

There were a large number of smaller exhibiters, including CDs, records, and headphones, set up in the third ballroom. I like buying CDs at Shows, but I've now got so many I need live access to my music database to know which albums I already have, oh well. One of the exhibiters was QoBuz, a new high-res streaming service, and a sponsor of the Show. Apparently usage of their service in the various demo rooms was crippling the hotel's entire bandwidth!

General comments:

Many of the systems can now be controlled with phone or tablet apps. Some of the older demonstrators were struggling with using them.

Apparently there were some extended after-hours listening sessions, where the equipment was (privately?) played for insiders. These sessions are alcohol-fueled, and likely are quite rowdy. It might be worth prowling the venue after hours at future Shows to see what is happening!

Specific interesting exhibits:

Martin Logan Neolith electrostatic speakers

Martin Logan was demonstrating their top-of-the-line "Neolith" speaker in one of the ballrooms! See picture at left. This was one of the Show highlights, and a contender for best-of-sound. They weigh 385 pounds each, and stand 74 inches tall. They cost $80K/pair, which is "reasonable" at current high-end standards. The Neolith is a large electrostatic panel mounted over a traditional cone-based but self-powered woofer system containing both a 12" and a 15" driver. Combining traditional bass speakers with electrostatic drivers is very difficult. Many have tried, and Martin Logan is one of the very few that have been successful. The sound from the mid-range on up was just spectacular - really clean. But there were some times that I felt the bass was separate from the upper frequencies, although this could be a function of seating location and room characteristics.

(Note: An electrostatic panel is very generically a diaphragm of clear electrically-charged plastic sandwiched between two perforated metal foil plates. By sending the audio signal to the metal plates the diaphragm is forced to move back and forth moving air like a speaker. An added bonus is that the panel is at least partially transparent so that it isn't too visually intimidating. This system has no cross-overs in the mid-range to distort the sound, and is very fast mechanically due to the low mass of the diaphragm. But deep bass is not possible as it would require too large a panel.)

Martin Logan was also demonstrating a smaller electrostatic speaker that also was spectacular (although it had considerably less bass than the Neolith).


ESD Acoustics horn speakers

In another ballroom ESD Acoustics, a Chinese company, was displaying an enormous horn system (see picture above). Note that this is in a ballroom with approximately 14 foot high ceilings; the bass horns are at least 9 feet tall! Not many people have a place to install such a system...

There are a total of 5 drivers per side, in a gradation of sizes. Left and right channels are pre-processed separately, and each speaker is driven with a separate amplifier (see the stack of electronics in the picture). There was room treatment on 3 of the 4 walls. The system sounded very good on large-scale symphonic music.

Horns are difficult to engineer to produce undistorted sound, but this company seems to be one of the few who have done it. Avantegard also does it.

The demonstrators were very courteous, and served cups of tea to the seated visitors.

Total cost: $500K, plus shipping!

Andrew Singer (one of the big NYC dealers) had a very nice sounding room. His customer base is primarily well-heeled NYC apartment dwellers, who have good ears, but limited space, and who need to limit the bass to avoid disturbing their neighbors. He showed a modest pair of speakers driven by top-of-the-line electronics, with the system costing just under $100K. The sound was superb: a bit mellow but definitely non-fatiguing, and very clean.

Technics is back in business, with a full stack of high-quality products. They demonstrated their top system including a turntable, preamp, amp, and close to full-range speakers, all by Technics, for about $100K. It sounded good, commensurate with its "mid-range" price.

One of the rooms was showing, off to the side of the audio setup, Sony's newest TV, a 55 inch 4K OLED, for $3500. It was spectacular! The contrast was the best I've ever seen, and the pixels were so small they were practically invisible even up close. (OLED is the latest display technology, which allows pixels to turn off completely, allowing deeper blacks and therefore higher contrast with the lighter screen areas.)

Triangle was showing a $13.5K pair of middle-of-the-line speakers, with metal tweeters. These are good speakers. They sounded really precise in the treble, but perhaps too bright and aggressive (when compared to the electrostatics, soft dome tweeters, and tube amps in other rooms) - it would be fatiguing to listen to for extended sessions.

GoldenEar was showing their top-of-the-line Triton Reference, a highly rated full-range speaker at the very bargain price of $8.K/pair. That includes a powered woofer section! They save money by not using luxury components such as exotic hardwoods in the cabinets. GoldenEar, and one of its predecessors Polk, specialize in shaking up the industry from a value point of view.

The self-powered woofers mean that the speaker can be driven with a modestly powered amplifier, further saving system cost. The speaker sounded really good, with good clean treble and mid-range, and no obvious problems. This is a speaker that can really rock out, but the demonstrators were reluctant to really crank it up to rock levels, so it was difficult to fairly judge its performance compared to my home system. This speaker is roughly comparable to what I have now, and would be on my short list if I had to buy new speakers right now.

PureAudioProject was showing their affordable modular line-source speaker. It consists of a single concentric treble/mid-range driver panel, and can be expanded vertically by adding woofer sections above and below it, limited only by ceiling height. Further, these speakers were open-backed - no cabinet at all! I was really impressed how well these speakers imaged given that they were firing both forward and backward, with no use of digital signal processing. This is one of the rooms I went into Sunday morning for an extended listening session. PureAudioProject keeps the price down by only selling directly over the internet with no intermediate dealer, and by the design of the product (no cabinets save a lot of money!). The larger configurations top out at $16K, which is a real bargain for that many drivers.


RUELaudio line source speakers

RUELaudio was also showing their line-source speakers (see picture above). These also are modular, allowing purchase of as many modules as ceiling height permits. Each module consists of a vertical array of 1.5 inch! speakers. The pictured system contained about 60 of these drivers, and costs $70K. The speakers were driven by a proprietary preamp/amplifier that does the digital signal processing that is required to drive such an unusual speaker. The speakers are designed to sit against the wall, making placement quite easy with minimal floor space usage.

(Note: Line-source speakers are designed to overcome a limitation of traditional cone speakers by launching a solid sound wave across a room that does not fall off with the square of the listening distance, which also helps to sonically load the room evenly. My main objection to them is that things that really are point sources, such as intimate vocals, sound like they are as tall as the ceiling, which can be rather disconcerting. Tall electrostatic panels also have some of this sound-height characteristic.)

The speakers sounded full range, with lots of bass. It was difficult to judge their overall sound quality because they overpowered a small room that had no acoustic wall treatment.

Two rooms were showing Magico speakers. Magico makes some of the world's best (and most expensive) speakers. They emphasize excellent drivers, and heroic cabinet construction in an attempt to prevent cabinet resonances. At this Show, two of their smaller speakers were shown.

One room showed their new and smallest speaker in the range, the A3, for only $9.8K. It sounded really clean, although with limited bass. This is a real example of trickle-down technology.

The other room showed an older but larger speaker, the S5, for $38K. It sounded much more full-range, and just wonderful. It was driven by tube amps though, and I've heard Magicos can be a bit bright and aggressive when driven by affordable solid state amps, so I'd want to hear that combination before considering a purchase.

For more detailed reporting on the Show, as well as pictures, here is a professional Show report with extensive coverage (they are based in NYC): Stereophile Magazine ; and another professional report from the other major audio magazine: The Absolute Sound.

Extra Curricular Activities:

I traveled to NYC on Wednesday, to allow for some sightseeing. I had a late lunch / early dinner at a Chinese restaurant, where I got my annual Crispy Fish. In the evening I walked over to the East River, and then went to the movie "Colette" which was surprisingly interesting.

Thursday I walked up to the Metropolitan Museum, where I saw both Delacroix exhibits and then went to the American wing to see among other things the Frank Lloyd Wright room. In the late afternoon I went out for a scrumptious Lasagna dinner. In the evening I went to Birdland jazz club to hear a Django Reinhart Festival band. They were very good. The volume level was pleasant. The instruments were acoustic, but with pickups feeding a sound reinforcement system with small speakers above the projecting stage. This reinforcement wasn't too obtrusive, and may actually have been needed in the rather large room, but it did have some effects. The sound in general did seem to be coming from the speakers rather than the performers, and since the speakers were small the only bass frequencies were coming directly from the instruments and so were significantly shelved down in volume. But overall the sound was quite listenable.

Friday morning I walked over to the Hudson River, to the park at 62nd, and down to the Cruise Ship terminal. Then I went to the Museum of Arts and Design at Columbus Circle. This museum represents leading edge Design artists, so most of the exhibits meant very little to me and I didn't stay long. I went to an Indian restaurant for a buffet lunch, checking off another of my NYC "must eats". After lunch I went to the opening of the Show, and was joined by James. We had a good day checking out the various rooms. We went out to dinner at Greek restaurant where I got a fresh whole flounder, and we talked about various things until the restaurant closed at 11P.

Saturday Ben joined me at the Show, and we had a great time listening to the various rooms. Ben apparently is very sensitive to mid-range distortion, and he really liked the electrostatic speakers that have no crossovers in that region. Ben escorted me to Chinatown for a Chinese feast. (We have a habit of doing this, ordering multiple dishes to share and then stuffing ourselves). But we weren't too stuffed to eat desert! Ben accommodated my need for a sweet non-Chinese desert by finding an Italian cafe where I had hot chocolate and my desired NYC cheesecake. A successful evening!

Sunday Paul joined me at the Show. We had lunch at the Plaza food court, which is a high-end multi-vendor space under the Plaza Hotel in the same block as the Show. We managed to get to all the Show highlights. Paul has good ears and experience with speaker design, so we enjoyed lots of technical talk. After the Show closed we had some time to talk further and catch up on our various programming activities. I went to dinner at Rosie O'Grady's where I had good seafood linguini before catching my train home.

Summary:

The Show was worthwhile. Overall, the sound was impressively good (and better than last year), given the small hard-walled hotel rooms. Many room were using at least a bit of acoustic treatment, which did help. It always is a good experience to get my ears recalibrated to really good sound. Overall I had a great and very busy time at the Show and visiting NYC.

That's all for this year! Hopefully there will be another Show next year, and I hope to see you there!

Thanks for reading this!

Dave