REPORT - SHOW
AUDIO SHOW 2013
Name: Audio Show
perfectly remember the day and place where for the first time I bought “Dom&Wnętrze” (“Home & Interior”) monthly magazine dedicated to interior design. It was 22 years ago, at the Aleje Solidarności (Solidarity Avenue, which I think already bore that name but I wouldn’t be my life on it), around the Swedish Park, in the Nowa Huta district of Krakow. I have no idea what I was doing there or why I came to this particular newsagent. I used to go that road back from school by bus but I never got off at this stop. Maybe we were out of school early, or the day was so beautiful that I decided to walk back home and took a longer route than usual. In any case, it was the 2nd or 3rd issue of the magazine, I don’t remember exactly, either. I must be getting old or something. I liked the magazine right away, because in addition to advice on interior design it contained short articles not necessarily directly related to it, and essays on art. It was a good magazine, just right for me. I used to buy it regularly for several years, then reached for it less and less frequently, until finally completely gave up the habit of sitting down in the evening with a cup of tea, headphones on my head and “Dom&Wnętrze” in my lap. The magazine started to irritate me with its poor articles that were getting dumber, and eventually it turned into an advertising leaflet with a few articles thrown in here and there that were actually more like advertising.
On November 9th, 2013, at 18:30, after a dozen year break, I bought the current issue no. 217 of the magazine. I was mostly tempted by its changed new layout and a few articles that looked promising. This is the first issue of the “new start”, return the magazine back to its place. I was not disappointed. I read the most part on the train to Krakow, coming back from the Audio Show 2013, satisfied and convinced that the new management had taken the right direction. Sure, I was irritated by the right-page ads, much more desirable by advertisers than the left, but then no one is perfect. In a perfect world articles would not be split by full-page ads (assuming that even there the magazine would need to be ad-sponsored) and they would all start from the spread or on the right page. Just as they do in the Japanese “Stereo Sound” audio magazine. Maybe the Japanese already live in such a world? Looking at what’s happening in audio over there it may well be true.
Reading the next articles, however, I was puzzled by something that wouldn’t have earlier drawn my attention: the authors of articles seem to pretend that there is no audio equipment in the homes they described. In the whole magazine I found one, attached as an ornament, Bang & Olufsen speaker on the ad of Woodwork Design furniture, a rather tacky mini-hifi hidden shyly in an article on Stéphane Arriubergé and Massimiliano Iorio’s Paris apartment (Moustache) and a pair of speakers that just couldn’t be cropped out, in an article on Caecilii Porter, an interior designer (incidentally, another model from B&O). Not a single photo of Ania and Piotr’s system, although the text makes it clear he’s an old punk guy, a graphic designer who loves comic books and vinyl. What does he listen his LPs on? It remains a mystery. After a long search, I found one speaker in the picture of his studio, but if I didn’t know what to look for I wouldn’t have seen anything. And nothing anywhere else, not a single bit, as if interior designers and journalists were giving the subject a wide berth. Of course, we can speculate that many audio systems are not entirely presentable or not very ‘design’ like. But that, too, is part of life; a very important one for many. Castrating descriptions from this sphere is plainly stupid and it distorts reality. Something has to change in this matter; people involved in interior design need to have some sort of mental switch triggered. It is necessary to understand that not everything looks like B&O. And neither it should. For now, everything that is good and well-arranged, is associated over THERE with that kind of audio. In turn, whatever is dirty, maybe even twisted – with vacuum tubes and reel-to-reel recorders, or with turntables. You don’t believe me? Please watch again the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with Daniel Craig and note the villain’s house (dir. David Fincher, 2011). To start changing it, the people responsible for what and how we live should once a year visit the Audio Show held in mid-November in Warsaw, which this year has reached its seventeenth edition.
Audio show is a place where distributors and dealers of audio products and their manufacturers present audio systems by playing music on them, while visitors go from one room to another, examining the components, listening to the music and having discussions with the exhibitors, manufacturers and other visitors. The Audio Show is a traditional show, taking place in hotel rooms. For the last few years, the AS has been held in three hotels. The of them are located next to each other – the Radisson Blu Sobieski and the Golden Tulip, while Hotel Bristol is 15-minutes away by taxi. Most exhibitors are located in the Sobieski, but it has the smallest rooms of all the three. The most expensive systems are traditionally found in Bristol, but it only offers a few rooms. The Tulip usually has expensive and very expensive systems located in a dozen rooms.
Visitors’ characters are clearly determined by the character of the particular hotels. This year, the Sobieski was crowded as usual, but – so it seemed – there were slightly less people than the last year, the best one so far. This did not prevent the companies from preparing the best presentations in the event history. Shortly after the show I was asked by Andrzej Kisiel, the chief editor of “Audio”, how I would briefly characterize it and it immediately occurred to me that it was completely “normal”. And so it should be, I think. It is the largest event of its kind apart from Munich, each year attracting most of the important audio manufacturers. There were fewer of them this year and, what’s more, I didn’t know about a number of them until the last minute when it was too late to arrange an interview. Most of those absent were attracted by an audio show in Moscow, this year taking place at the same time.
On the other hand, the music presented was even more nondescript than usual, which is also typical for big events. While I may have heard Nirvana’s vinyl in the room with electronics from Tellurium Q, Armin Krauss may have played Dire Straits on the Avantgarde Acoustic Zero1 Pro speakers, and the visitors could hear Kaczmarski’s vinyl on the Sugden system, yet even death metal played I-don’t-remember-where didn’t change the situation. Music was dull, bland, and usually very well recorded. This plagues well-organized events, where madness and folly gave way to planning and cautiousness. It will be really difficult to change that. It’s a package deal. That’s why it’s so important to take own CDs to an audio show and to ask for playing them, and to demand it if necessary. If you’re told it’s impossible, avoid those places; they are not worth your time.
What was the show like, then? Normal, as I have already mentioned. Very well organized. If you knew what to look for, you could see a lot of money invested in the arrangement of systems and rooms, and much work behind that. I didn’t find any room with the sound that would have floored me, as it had happened before. But there were also lots of systems that sounded in the way audio gear should, in my opinion. You will find their list below, after Mr. Wojtek Kotarba’s eye-witness account and before the report by Mr. Jacek Lewandowski who prepared it to the readers of “High Fidelity” for the third time (see his previous report HERE.)
THE SHOW THAT WILL STAY WITH ME
But enough digression. On the second day of the show, already a little tired, I found the TR STUDIOS room. I went in and stayed, or actually vanished, for two hours. The owner of the company was just introducing the technical solutions adopted in his systems. I listened with interest and I became more and more interested in the subject. I was sitting in the back seats. In a moment, the music played. The presentation was strong and full of dynamic contrasts. I could hear amplifier’s freedom and its tube sound (my home amp is the Jolida 300B on tubes from Create Audio, Siemens and Telefunken, driving speakers on full-range Lowther drivers). After a few minutes I was able to move over to the best middle seat in the first row. I was in for a shock. The sound was extremely precise and clean, with tangible phantom images, almost painfully tight and with a distinct imaging deep into the soundstage. Midrange purity had me on the edge of my seat. The treble was precise and accurate, cymbal decays accurate and full of sparkling detail, but conveyed without any aggression and exaggeration. The bass did not dominate the whole presentation, but only complemented other sub ranges, ready to thunder if necessary. It was the midrange that dominated, however. The sounds of individual instruments appeared as if by magic, here and now, without any sign they were just about to materialize.
They simply magically appeared and disappeared, leaving behind a black silence where they were just a moment ago – sheer perfection. No need for discussion about the attack or full bodied sound, imaging, just full holography. Barbra Streisand's vocals appeared, whom I really like. I heard it for the first time about ten feet in front of me, slightly to the right. Excellent, natural vocal reproduction. The vocalist was present in the room, gracing the visitors with her presence and voice, simply incredible! I stopped listening to the sound of the audio system and just sat there about half an hour listening only to the music because I hadn’t yet had a chance to listen to it rendered so beautifully. Most importantly, the presentation of what I think is most important in music – EMOTIONS – was perfect.
I don’t know when it will happen or what sacrifices I will have to make, but I will do my best to have the ZETA ZERO one day in the comfort of my room. I just can’t forget their presentation, naturalness and the emotions I experienced. I suspect that it will be my purchase for life, although we should never say never.
After the audition, Mr. Tomasz Rogula, the company’s owner, must have noticed my interest and the state of my mind, as he asked me for an entry in the book with opinions on the showcased equipment. I added my opinion, followed by a conversation with him that lasted a good half an hour. I learned much more about the technologies used and held in my hands the samples of material used to make the diaphragms of proprietary ribbon driver units. The Zeta Zero speakers above 500 Hz only ribbon drivers with unique parameters (this is not a description from the company literature, but my own experience based on auditions).
Mr. Rogala turned out to be an extremely nice person, an enthusiast and expert at the same time, of the kind who are harder to come by every day. He is a man for whom there are no technological barriers. He breaks through them in a typical engineering fashion by constant experiments. If he lacks some material he deems to be necessary for sound quality improvement, he proceeds to fight for it or to develop his own method of production. And if the said material does not yet exist? He will attempt to make it from scratch. I am very impressed with this man, his extensive knowledge and passion with which he strives to improve his products’ sound. To give an example, Zero Zeta cabinets are made of five kinds of deciduous trees. It is not a simple assembly of various cabined components made of different kinds of wood. The cabinets are made of several hundreds slices of five kinds of wood. It’s the first time I saw such an advanced design solution. Of course, the company also needs to be business-oriented, but this particular company seems to put the quest for perfection in the first place. It is unfortunate that in our times such companies and people with similar business approach are fewer and far between. Full respect.
WHAT WAS MOST INTERESTING, OR
Every year I face the same decision, and it’s not an easy one. Two reactions and two different forces brew within me, each trying to tip the scales to their side. Everybody knows that the sound at audio shows can’t be too great. Audio systems are based on a delicate balance that can be thrown off with a nut-shot from improper electric installation and/or bad acoustics. It’s hard to pick yourself up after something like that. The exhibitors arrive at the hotels on Thursday evening or Friday morning and have one day to get everything under control. Most of them finish setting up on Saturday morning, right before letting the visitors in, and they have to fight their sleepiness and fatigue. In spite of that, there’s no way that in 24 hours you can get the sound nowhere near the level that people strive towards for years in their homes. But there’s another side, equally motivational. If you go to a show and you don’t even get the chance to hear what all these components, speakers or even entire systems are really capable of, what’s the point of that kind of show in the first place? I’ll answer that from the depth of my heart and with all of my experience, although that will be my personal opinion. First of all, you get to see what’s currently available on the market and what’s important, and get a good orientation of how things are. Nowhere else will you get to see this many products, distributors and manufacturers in one place. It’s incredibly important to talk to all those people to first get some knowledge of what you’re talking about. Having a wider choice makes us better audiophiles and music lovers. And there are systems whose sound gives you a good idea of what you can expect of them in better conditions. It’s also a salute to the people who set them up, because there’s a good chance that they can put together an equally well-sounding system in your home, or at least give you some good advice on how to do this yourself. It’s really priceless knowledge that you can’t learn at an evening class – who I have lots of respect for – or from reading. You have to work it out. And that’s probably the best answer to “what do we need audio shows for”: to find people who can help us and to get to know what’s currently available on the market. And you can buy yourself a CD, and talk to your friends. It’s great :)
Text: Jacek Lewandowski
Another year, another show, and another mandatory trip you-know-where. Due to objective reasons I had to limit myself this year to one-day visit only. Contrary to popular belief, this can easily be done, even without any medical supplements. Below you’ll find my subjective opinion on this year’s show.
I’ll start by saying what upset me. I won’t say things like “this particular system was crap, my ears bled while listening to it” and other such nonsense. I’m talking about something else here. Having been to the Audio Show quite a few times already, I’m starting to wonder whether some of the exhibitors actually know anything about what they’re doing. In many cases, I’ve got serious doubts. I’m not saying I’m some sort of expert – I couldn’t do it better myself – but that’s not the point. When I go to a show, I pay for the ticket and expect a “product”, something like going to the movies or theatre. I expect somebody to get involved in preparing a presentation, doing everything to make it “work”. But then you walk into some odd room, and what? The presenter plays some track and after 15 seconds half of the people leave. There’s this one exhibitor – I visit them for half a minute at each year Audio Show and can’t believe that people buy their products at all. Someone can think that I must just be complaining, that the sound wasn’t my type, that maybe it was too warm or too analytical, etc. Aw, shucks. I believe I can tell bad sound from good sound, or at least a correct one. That can’t even be disrupted by the “music” coming from some rooms. But some pattern has formed over the years, where visiting some of the exhibitors you always get something nice to listen to, while with some others it’s just mission impossible. Someone can say, “Dude, what are you even talking about, it’s just a show!”, “You can’t judge the systems too quickly”, etc. But it seems to me that I, as a viewer, listener and potential buyer, have the right to judge even based on only a few minute audition. At least to form some basic opinion. Such are the times – you can’t really spend too much time deliberating over one product or phenomenon.
It’s the same deal with cars, wine and women. You either like them or you don’t. My boss says that “nobody cares what you have a problem with”. You can throw a fit about how this is an inhumane attitude, how can he be like that, and what a soulless man he is. But I think I’ll have to agree with that. When I come to the show I hope to hear (and see) nice audio systems and suggested configurations that I could buy in whole or in part, or at least try out with my own. Some exhibitors don’t give themselves any chance to exist in my – and not mine alone, I believe – conscience. If a manufacturer or distributor thinks that a customer, with hard-earned money in his or her pocket, will get interested in their products after listening to some crap at the show, they’re wrong. We later hear that the room was too small, the components weren’t warmed up, the acoustics was poor, the electricity was shit and there was a lot of noise from the street. You just have to remember that we rarely get a second chance in life. Maybe instead of embarrassing themselves, next year some of them should stay home with their family, cats and dogs. Choosing the music is a whole separate issue. I really don’t know if playing special compilations is somehow “obligatory”. If we get to hear pop or electronica it’s “the end of the world”. Although it’s a good thing that Armin Krauss, for example, never gives a monkey’s about that and his presentations are always the best parties. Quite surprisingly, his room is always crammed with people, but that’s probably because “people don’t know what’s good”. I laugh at stories about this or that component’s gut-wrenching bass or something, which later turns out to be some third-class musician’s farts. But the main thing is a reportedly “excellent production”…
Coming back to the topic, let me say a few words about what my eye and ear liked. Contrary to what one may think at this point, there was quite a bit of that.
The first system that grabbed my attention had JBL speakers paired with Mark Levinson electronics. The sound wasn’t strictly “audiophile”, but I could and would want to live with it. It was all very much alive, convincing and tangible. Just real – perhaps not “perfect”, but acceptable at the very least. One of the systems that make you scream inside “I WANT IT!!!” after hearing them.
Moving on, I had the great luck of coming across a fantastic discussion about music, life, and the hard life of a designer and consumer in the room with products from Extreo. Apart from an excellent (big) speaker prototype, there was also an exchange of words about audio-related sacrifices we make and the general pain we go through to taste these things in our life as we please. Whoever went there, knows what I’m talking about; those who missed it should definitely regret it. The only shame is that according to some rumours these speakers will probably be very expensive. Either way, one other thing that was established was that we all like bread with lard.
Sound-wise and music-wise, Lampizator’s room was also really interesting, with very original speakers to boot. I mean both their design and looks. I will probably never buy them, because my wife would kill me or worse, but I believe it’s a piece of modern art of sorts.
When it comes to one-brand systems I really liked electronics and speakers from ATC presented by Q21 (the SCM 11s were connected when I came in). Not a very expensive system, but very well-organized sound. The system may not have blown you off your chair, but it was the sort that made it difficult for you to get up and leave once you sat down to listen.
I was kind of forced to pay another visit to Pylon’s room – the second time this year – and I left it perplexed yet again. Their $500 monitors sounded so well that half of manufacturers with much more expensive products should hide in a hole and stay there, ashamed. I suspect that a direct confrontation with certain far more expensive designs could bring about a very interesting effect, but I fear that a large part of the competitors wouldn’t agree to such comparison for various reasons. Either way, they sounded really well for their price – maybe even outstanding. Right upon entering the room you could tell that something interesting was going on in there. Many visitors had quite confused faces after looking at the speakers’ prices. Bravo!
When it comes to the question of the Sound of the Show award, I won’t be too original and say that I would give it to the presentation of McIntosh electronics with the speakers from Rockport Technologies. The price was obviously astronomical, but what does that even matter. I can’t afford a Maserati Quattroporte either, yet I secretly dream about having one. This will probably be a similar story, but what would life be without dreams? After this show I could even accept that annoying glow from electronics. That was something! The only downside was the fact that they only played vinyl, and I wonder what the system sounds like with CDs or audio files.
The combination of the flagship Dynaudio speakers with Ayon electronics was also quite nice. Aside from the fact that the music choices were really poor, which took a lot of pleasure out of listening to it, you could feel that it’s a great, synergic system. Fantastic soundstage and lots of freedom..