The New York Audio Show 2014: Reality Check

I struggled with what I should write about my trip to the New York Audio Show, which ran from September 26-28. Normally, I’d write about my visit to each room and my impressions of each system. However, during this visit, I found myself in a different frame of mind. While I enjoyed some of the demos, the show left me wondering what purpose the $100,000 audio anachronisms on display serve in a world where competent amplification and signal processing are commodities. Six months ago, I asked if high-end audio was obsolete; thanks to the NY show, I’m wondering the same thing all over again.

This KR Audio Kronzilla VA680 amplifier is an example of the sort of gear that had me wondering if audio bling is taking over.

This year’s show came on the heels of CEDIA, unlike 2013 when the show preceded CEDIA by several months. My perspective shifted after attending ten Dolby Atmos demos at CEDIA 2014—exposure to so much immersive sound diminished the NY show experience for me. I know that surround sound is a niche format among audiophiles, but the 3D soundfield created by Atmos (and Auro, a competing immersive format) came closer to replicating the acoustics of a space than any 2-channel system I’ve ever heard. Furthermore, for contemporary recordings, the possibilities are nearly limitless—electronic and contemporary music sounds fantastic when played through an Atmos-based system, where anything goes as far as the mix is concerned.

At the New York show, 2-channel systems wired with pricey interconnects and speaker cables dominated the demos. Audiophiles on a restricted budget had little to choose from in a show where any gear that cost less than $10,000 started to look like a bargain. Salespeople betrayed no emotion as they listed four- and five-figure prices for individual components and six-figure prices for some speaker systems.

This system included $58,000/pair Muraudio Domain Omni PX1 omnidirectional electroststatic speakers.

Despite the 2-channel focus and the inherent acoustical compromises that come with hotel rooms, there were a number of impressive-looking and sounding systems at the show. The most notable was from Hsu Research, a value-oriented speaker and subwoofer company exhibiting at the New York Audio Show for the first time. Many AVS Forum members are familiar with Hsu Research because the company winds up on the short list of many home-theater enthusiasts looking to upgrade at a reasonable price. At the show, I had the opportunity to compare the sound of a Hsu-based speaker systemto pricey systems from a number of other brands; it was an ear-opening experience and a reality check.

Hsu Research demoed speakers and subs at the New York Audio Show. 2014 marks its first time as an exhibitor.

Before I found the Hsu Research room, I visited a handful of rooms that added up to millions of dollars worth of gear. The six-figure systems varied in quality; Sony R1 speakers powered by matched, two-of-a-kind monoblocks sounded quite profound. But a pair of $195,000 Focal Grande Utopia EM speakers powered by a pair of $115,000/pair VAC Statement 450 IQ monoblock tube amps had me running out of the room with my fingers in my ears. OK, I actually walked out… and the recording wasn’t doing the system any favors. On the other hand, I know enough about speakers to know that I have to take what I hear at shows with a grain of salt and give poor performing systems the benefit of the doubt.

At $195,000/pair, these Focal Grande Utopia speakers were part of a half-million dollar system

Focal showed up in another system that approached a half-million dollars, with sci-fi looking, $240,000/pair Naim Statement amps powering a $95,000 pair of Focal Stella Utopia EM speaker. It was another system that failed to impress in terms of audio performance, especially for the asking price. There were a few systems that I enjoyed a great deal, such as a $70,000 2-channel stereo from a Danish company called Gamut, which managed to render music with as much fidelity as any 2-channel system I’ve heard at a high-end show. It came across as a bargain compared to a number of other systems that did not reach its level of quality. The company’s $30,000/pair RS5 loudspeakers—featuring custom ScanSpeak drivers—produced highly tangible microdynamics that lent an air of realism to recorded performances that was missing from many other demos. Yet, when I listened to Gamut, it was before I visited the Hsu Research room.

This Focal/Naim system costs more than the average price of a house.

Gamut’s $30,000/pair RS5 speaker sounded excellent.

Dr. Hsu let his extremely modest system speak for itself. With an Onkyo receiver and a Sony 5-disc CD changer—the stuff you will find on sale at Best Buy—Hsu managed to present a demo that was just as profound as the monster systems. I dare say that, during some classical orchestral music, the bass beat any of the 2-channel systems, price being no object! This came as no surprise to me; I’ve heard enough AVS Forum members’ systems to know that a powerful sub, a few high-efficiency 2-way speakers, a bit of acoustical room treatment, and a competent AVR can go a long way toward achieving audio nirvana.

Dr. Hsu and his wife Lang Hsu pose in front of their demo system at the NY Audio Show.

Hsu Research introduced two new subs at the NY show, the $800 VTF-3MK5HP and the $900 VTF-15HMK2. The $800 sub performed the bass duties for Hsu’s demos; it’s rated at 119 dB peak output from 20 to 31.5 Hz. Hsu mated it with a pair of HB-1 MK2 horn-loaded bookshelf speakers ($160 each). The result had me thinking long and hard about the AVS Forum members who argue that all well-engineered solid-state amps and DACs sound essentially the same when operating within specs—I think there’s something to that perspective. As for the performance of various speakers at the show, the Hsu subwoofer/bookshelf system I heard costs under $1200, considerably less than one percent of the price of a pair of Focal Grande Utopias. Check out Dr. Hsu’s wiring, which cast serious doubt on the value of speaker cables that cost more than cars do—as long as you trust your ears instead of your eyes.

The wiring in the Hsu Research rig was a far cry from the five-figure cables found on other systems, yet the sound quality was superb.

Now, just because something is obsolete does not mean it isn’t desirable. I’ve often used a wristwatch analogy to make a point about obsolescence: The existence of smart watches doesn’t mean that Rolex is going out of business. It just means that a Rolex is an anachronism, a luxury. Nevertheless, a Rolex still has value, well beyond the price it would command if its value was based solely on its functionality. I view most 2-channel high-end audio gear the same way now—there is no clear correlation between price and performance; therefore, it is (more often than not) audio bling.

On a related note, at this year’s show, I got the impression that high-resolution audio—as well as uncompressed CD-quality audio—was gaining some momentum versus resurgent vinyl albums. I heard surprisingly little analog audio at the show, and the examples I did hear failed to stand out in terms of quality. I brought my own vinyl record to the show—”In Decay” by Com Truise—but none of the systems that I wanted to test it out on had turntables hooked up.

I did not see as many turntables as I expected to.

I mention the resurgence of digital music—especially laptop-based playback—because when I left CEDIA last month, I had a thought firmly planted in my mind: The audiophile ideal, a perfect facsimile of the original performance at home, requires the re-creation of the original acoustical space using a 3D, or at least a controlled 2D soundfield. The verisimilitude of the Atmos experience, and even that of 2D ambience extraction, beats the experience of listening to the same music in a reverberant room with an expensive dedicated 2-channel system. I’ve heard more than enough demos to know that the future of truly transparent audio playback is a system that uses many speakers, not the further refinement of systems that only use two speakers.

This was a common sight at the New York Audio Show—a laptop serving files to a DAC.

The price points of today’s elite-level audiophile 2-channel rigs are a clear sign that the law of diminishing returns is in full effect. The New York Audio Show and Dr. Hsu’s demo served as a reality check; it’s 2014, and I’d rather wear a smartwatch than a Rolex. In other words, I’m happy to go home to my surround-sound system and dream about upgrading to Atmos. I no longer dream about owning a stereo that only a millionaire can afford, because such systems offer nothing that can’t be had for a tiny fraction of the price.

One more watch analogy: AVRs are like Casio G-shock watches, and monoblock tube amps are like Rolexes. When Navy Seals go on a mission, guess which watch they choose: the G-Shock. Bling means nothing when it comes to performance, and the New York Audio Show had a lot of bling on display.