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The Beatnik’s 2014 California Audio Show Reports

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Jack Roberts Beatnik's JourneyThis year I want to cover the show a little differently. I’ll post some pictures and my usual turntable eye candy pictures. I’ll also give you an article about my six favorite rooms divided into the two best modern sounding rooms, the two best vintage sounding rooms, and the two best rooms that bridged the gap. But, I want to start with thought

The Blessings and Curses of Audio Shows
This year’s California Audio Show, the fifth by the way, was a real eye opener for me. The other night my wife said she had found the perfect T-Shirt for me, which said, “I don’t mean to interrupt, I just have random thoughts that excite me so much I have to share them.” I’m afraid that does pretty much sum up a part of my personality. So please indulge me as I start my coverage of this year’s California Audio Show with this little thought piece which I will call “the blessings and courses of the modern audio show.”

Audio shows are not like automobile or boat shows. (By the way most of this doesn’t apply to headphones, and since I don’t enjoy them, I wouldn’t be the person to write about them anyway.) You don’t just go to audio shows to see the newest, best equipment and sometimes some great vintage equipment. No! We go to audio shows expecting the most exotic audio equipment in the industry to perform great in a hotel room. A room that often is not as big as the one we might have an office system in. Then other rooms are large conference rooms that need a P.A. system, not a high end system to fill them with sound.

Just think about what a Ferrari dealer would say if you asked him to take you on a test drive around the inside of the civic center. Heck, you need to take a Ferrari to a track or at least to a highway on the coast of northern California to have any idea how capable it is of performing like you would want it to. Truth is a small Italian scooter would outperform the Ferrari inside the civic center. It’s not much different in the audio world, often audio systems that use small speakers also perform best at audio shows.

So, what are the blessings? In the U.S. we live in a day and age when we have fewer and fewer local dealers and for reasons I don’t understand, more and more high-end audio companies. So one of the blessing is the audio show attendee gets to see lots of great gear they would never be exposed to otherwise. Even bette,r at smaller shows like the California show you get to meet dealers who are in the area. Yes, you can buy something at the show and maybe get a deal, but better yet maybe you could make an appointment. Maybe, they could send someone to see your room and hear your current system. If that’s out of the question maybe you can set a time to go in or call and talk about those things. These days you can get on the computer and send pictures of your room and take the time to talk about the kind of music you love and what you want from an audio system.

Another blessing is that you may even get to meet the designer or at least someone from the company of the equipment you are most interested in. You will probably be surprised at the time they will give you, their willingness to correspond with you and help you get what you really want. Truth is by far and away my favorite part of going to audio shows has always been meeting new people and seeing old friends.

Another blessing is the chance to hear new music. I’m always hearing people complain about just hearing Diana Krall being played at audio shows. I don’t know what shows you go to or which rooms you migrate to, but this is not my experience. For example the guys at Zu are always spinning a lot of great tunes, many I am not familiar with. Just yesterday at the show I used my smart phone to take pictures of twelve albums I had never heard and want to try to find. I heard these in ten different rooms by the way. More and more shows have multiple dealers selling music at the show; these are another of my favorite things about audio shows.

There are a couple of other blessings worth mentioning. Most audio shows now days have some live music, which you shouldn’t miss if you like the kind of music they are performing. Another thing that is common nowadays are seminars where you can learn and ask questions about things like room acoustics, computer audio, setting up a turntable, how recordings are made and other subjects.

My transition in this column between blessings and curses is the fact that you can buy things at the show and if you buy the demos you will likely get a good deal. This is a real blessing if you go there knowing what you want, hoping it will be there and then getting a good deal on it. It’s a curse though if you go there and rely on what you hear at the show; that could be dangerous. If you buy things on impulse because you’re getting a good price you may also make an expensive mistake on what seemed like a good deal. Anyway don’t say I didn’t warn you this is both a blessing and a curse.

Now, let’s talk about the curses or at least major red flags. One of the things I like to do at audio shows is stand in the hall and ask people what they thought of the sound in the room they are coming out of. I think there are three common complaints about the sound; it was too bright, the bass was boomy, or there wasn’t enough bass. Let’s talk about brightness and bass.

Start with brightness, why do so many of the systems sound bright? I heard a couple of guys on the elevator talking about this. One suggested that it was because of all the digital sources, the other guy said it was modern speaker design. I asked them if they turned their system at home up way loud did it get bright. They said, yes but I didn’t see a light bulb go off for either of them, so I let it go.

Truth is, volume has a lot to do with it. When it gets really hot at home and I have to listen with the air conditioner turned up and the fan running full out, my system can get a little bright. This is minor compared to the noise that one has to overcome at an audio show. The air conditioning is running full out, there are people talking, sometimes in the room but always out in the hall. There are other rooms nearby playing music very loud. Even when the effort is made to not put systems in rooms next to each other, this only helps a little. If you’re at a show just stand in the hall and listen for a minute; it’s loud!

Another thing that contributes to the bright sound is the noisy AC. Most of us with nice systems use dedicated lines. We have found the best power cords for our system, and so on. One of the dealers had a little device I had seen before that actually amplifies AC noise. I had heard it used at a dealers before and yes I heard some noise when no filtering was used, but nothing like the noise I heard from the demo at the hotel. I know that many of the rooms used expensive power conditioners, but it’s hard to overcome the mount of AC noise and RF that a modern, full service hotel/convention center has.

Now let’s turn to bass. Too much, too little doesn’t matter, bass is a problem in every room. Not just hotel rooms but our rooms at home also. I was helping set up one room at the California show and I was walking around trying to find where the best sound was. The second best sound was with the chairs set up against the back wall, the best was in the entry way coming into the room. Well, no one wants to listen very long standing up in the entry way and you really cut down the number of people who can listen if you only put on row of chairs up.

One last thing that is generally forgotten, is what a hodgepodge of equipment is often used in a room at an audio show. This is where companies like Audio Note or even inexpensive company like NAPA Audio has an advantage at shows, because all the equipment they use is their brand and designed as a system. Other rooms use almost the same equipment at every show, but many do not have this luxury, either because they are a dealer for several lines, or other times because small companies need to go in with each other to share the cost. This is a real problem considering how many shows there are today.

So there you have it; my little rant about Hi-Fi Shows! I hope it at least made you think.

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