Year-end: Products, Prayers and Promises


By John Stancavage

This year has been a blur, covering three audio shows for Part-Time Audiophile and The Audio Traveler, reviewing gear and getting accustomed to what at first appeared to be a dream side gig.

I’d heard the phrase, “Be careful what you wish for …” many times, but I’m not sure I really gained a deep understanding of what it meant until I was wrapping up my 12th story on the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest at about 3 a.m. on a Sunday night a good month after the show ended. I learned that writing about a hobby you love can be as exhilarating as you’d always hoped, but also can be exhausting — especially when there’s pressure from your day-job company being bought by a billionaire, and from just everyday life.

But, if I was heading off in this direction verbally over lunch with a good friend of mine, I’m sure he’d stop me right here.

“Do you want some cheese with that whine?” he’d say. After a long glare from me, I’m sure he’d add something like: “A lot of people would love to have those problems. A lot of people would love to have one job, let alone two. A lot of people would love to have a stereo system like yours, too — you know, the one you won’t stop fiddling around with.”

As I’m sitting here with my laptop open, imagining this conversation, an email sits in my in-box from the Esteemed Publisher, wanting to know if I’m ever going to file a wrap-up on RMAF 2014. He stops short of reminding me the show took place in October and we are staring 2015 in the face. Yes, sir. Soon, sir, I reply.

So that brings us to another late night with the spouse already fast asleep. It’s perhaps the best time and the worst time to be writing. The best? Because you’re so tired there’s no filter. The worst? Because you’re so tired there’s no filter.

So, that pretty much sets the scene from where I’ll offer a few thoughts as we close out 2014 and prepare for another CES and all the promise that a new year brings for our hobby.

Most anticipated products

14photoSeveral veteran high-end brands already have pledged to introduce significant new products early in the year, perhaps in time for Las Vegas.

The one I’m looking forward to most is a new speaker from Acoustic Zen master Robert Lee. The San Diego-based Lee told me in August at the California Audio Show that he’s working on a new speaker that will fall between his smallest floorstander, the Adagio ($4,500) and the recently upgraded Crescendo II ($18,000).

Since Lee only releases a new speaker about as often as a full solar eclipse, this immediately made my ears perk up. His designs are, to me, the epitome of what the high-end should be. They simply are the kind of products that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up when you first hear them.

There are plenty of good speakers out there, but few exceptional ones. And, among those “best of the best,” each has an area where it stands out. In Lee’s case, it is his use of underhung voice coils and obsessive determination to produce flat response across the entire frequency range that combines to create speakers with extremely low distortion. That, in turn, allows the texture of instruments to come through while also allowing them to be physically separated in space, and their tones to decay naturally.

Still, you may not fully appreciate what lowering distortion can do until you hear vocals, particularly male singers, on a Lee speaker. For starters, they have none of the chestiness that can result from crossing over the bass too high, which is a common mistake. But perhaps even more importantly, they minimize sibilants to a level unmatched by any other transducer in my experience. I’ve heard some $20,000-and-up designs that made Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen sound like Daffy Duck after a trip to the dentist. Not so with Lee’s work. It’s just pure Zen.

Right now, the master’s Crescendo is hard to beat at any price, even though he offers one model higher (the Maestro at $43,000 a pair) that ups the bass output for larger rooms. But if he can bring to market something that is, say, 90 percent of his best at around $10,000 to $12,000 a pair, you very likely might see a couple of large boxes on my front lawn before the New Year is too old. So, get cracking, Mr. Lee.

12photoI am such a Lee fan that I almost am sheepish to admit that one of my other most-anticipated products for 2015 is another pair of speakers. Wilson Audio Specialties teased a glimpse of its forthcoming Sabrina at RMAF. Like Lee’s new creation, it also will be a small floorstander, most likely coming in at about $15,000 a pair. For Wilson, this is considered entry-level, but for anyone else it might be all the speaker they’ll ever need.

David Wilson and his brain trust at last report were still auditioning 8-inch woofers for the Sabrina, which is why it was on static display in Denver. One thing for sure, though, is that it will have the new modified silk tweeter that the company has steadily been working into its line. This change, to me, takes Wilson speakers up a significant notch in refinement. Adding to their already considerable abilities in bass slam, imaging, tonal color, pace and about the rest of the usual audio suspects, the upgraded tweeter brings the company to a formidable place in the audio kingdom. I’m betting that 2015 will be the year that if you haven’t listened to a Wilson product in a while, you will want to. Any preconceived notions likely will be blown back with your hair.

CES also is expected to feature much-anticipated new products from YG Acoustics, Thiel and Devialet.

Other hopes for 2015

There are some companies I’d like to hear more from. They include:

PonoMusic — Will the Neil Young-backed, high-rez portable music player take off or just become a Wiki footnote? I’m hoping for the former, but the CEO leaving last summer was a worrisome sign. Neil as a guitar-shredding musical genius? No question. As a business suit? Who’s the VP gonna be, David Crosby? I kid, but I’d really like to see this company take off.

Olive — This digital music storage/server was the cutest product I saw last year. And, for under a grand, it was also the most in-reach for the average guy or gal. I can’t wait to see what’s next from its creators.

Dan D’Agostino — The perfectionist founder of Krell, after leaving that company, has proven what he can do with a blank sheet and lack of price constraints. His Momentum reference monoblocks ($55,000 a pair) and Momentum preamp ($32,000) were among the best electronics I heard in 2014. Now, I’d like to see what he can do for those of us not managing a hedge fund. His newest integrated is a start, but it’s still $45,000.

Shindo — Hopefully, designer Ken Shindo’s family can retain the magical touch he brought to creations before his unexpected death this year. I’ve been working on an upstairs second listening room (cue’s spouse’s wild laughter in the background) for a while now, and I’m thinking low-watt, old-school tubes may be the way to go. Shindo is at the top of my list for more exploration.

ZMF — There were a couple of brands of headphones that got a lot of ink this year, but one new name that is awaiting its discovery as the next big thing is ZMF. This startup company, owned by a young married couple, Zach and Bevin Mehrbach, makes some of the best-sounding, finely crafted, attractive and — amazingly, for these times — reasonably priced ‘phones out there.

Their ZMF x Vibro, a collaboration with Vibro Labs, features a solid wood enclosure made with techniques Mehrbach learned from luthiers. Stain or paint color? You name it — literally. Cable? There’s a handful of choices, ranging from various types of copper to military grade silver.

The ZMF also sports super-soft, premium leather cushions that caress your ears instead of torturing them. The sound? Smooth, detailed and relaxing. They are just what I want when I pull on a pair of headphones. Finally, the clincher is the price: $699 to $799, depending on finish and wire. So, support two of the rare millennials in this hobby. Get yourself a pair now. By the time Stereophile and The Absolute Sound discover ZMF, you can yawn, “Oh, I’ve been listening to those forever.”

Acoustic Sounds2photo — I have a friend of mine who works for an oil company. Until recently, he would regularly get large bonuses (not that I’m the least bit jealous) which he often would immediately convert into huge, UPS-challenging orders from this Salina, Kansas, company. Owner Chad Kassem not only demoed the best vinyl at RMAF, he MADE it himself at a pressing plant that is adding a third shift because he is so busy. Keep on keeping on, Mr. Kassem. Now if I could just learn something about reservoir engineering and shale formations.

The hobby itself

I’ve attended audio shows for years, going all the way back to some of the Stereophile-sponsored events of the 1980s, but I’ve never done three in one eight-month period. The experience left me with a few thoughts.

First, it’s kind of amazing to encounter a situation where you have anywhere from 30 to more than 150 systems, made up of what reputedly is some of the world’s finest audio equipment, and all too often start the end-of-day download in the bar with:

“Didn’t hear that much today that blew my socks off.”

“Yeah, same here. Must have been the (rotate through the following: dirty hotel electric power, reflective surfaces, lack of warm-up, hallway noise).”

“Yeah. Maybe tomorrow they’ll have it sorted out.”

It never ceased to amaze me that so much high-dollar equipment could sound so, well, mediocre. Not terrible, in a mid-fi, department-store system kind of way, of course, but just not compelling, either.

I refuse to see where anyone would want to take a chance on bringing a system into his or her home that is so finicky the slightest oversight in wall treatment or choice of power cord could obscure what are supposed to be its wide-ranging audio merits. In my experience, a great system can overcome a lousy room, not the other way around. Yes, if you get all the details tweaked to a fare-thee-well, it will sound better. But it should sound pretty great no matter what.

The second thing that worries me about audio shows is what simultaneously is making them an indispensible part of our hobby. With the decline of the brick-and-mortar corner hi-fi shop, these events are becoming the only place you’re going to be able to hear all the stuff we read about.

I used to say that was true for anyone who lived outside a big city, but even that’s not the case anymore. For a while after most of my hometown dealers threw in the towel, I resorted to driving four hours to Dallas or Kansas City to demo and buy gear. In the past decade, however, probably a dozen of the audio shops there also have closed. And, even this year on a trip to Los Angeles prior to the California Audio Show, I almost struck out, with one dealer’s phone message saying the store was closed for a week while he was out-of-town and another retailer — a frequent full-page advertiser in several stereo mags — saying alternately he was “too busy” to see me and his “shop was a mess.” Only Brian Berdan’s new Audio Element, which refreshingly has old-school, no-appointment-needed shop hours in Pasadena, kept me from a third swing-and-miss.

But, basically, these days your best starting point remains the audio show. They can be great in that if you do hear something you like, the dealer probably will try to sell it to you then and there at a good discount so he or she doesn’t have to haul it back. But can I be faulted if I still long for the days when I could visit multiple dealers without paying for a hotel, a plane ticket and reserved parking? An era when I could load my 100-pound amp or five-foot-tall speakers in my brother-in-law’s truck for local service or upgrades, instead of having to pay $1,000 for crating and shipping?

For better or worse, though, it seems the audio mega-exhibition model is the way we’re headed. Some smaller shows are beginning to struggle in competition with these behemoths, too, which is a shame since the greater access and more time for questions and auditioning offsets the fewer systems on display.


Final thoughts

What do I want out of this hobby? As I suggested before, I think it’s the “Wow” factor we all are after. That just seems to be somewhat difficult to find right now. We are living in an age, unfortunately, when the most common way of obtaining songs is through a download system that strips the music of its resolution, impact and emotion. There are even veteran scribes for some well-known industry mags who have started to suggest that ultimately limited technologies such as Bluetooth and USB are “good enough.”

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get into this hobby for “good enough”. I got into it for “great”. I want speakers that reproduce the entire frequency range, not those sporting supposedly “fast” six-inch woofers and cutting off all the bottom end I expect from Ray Brown or even Dee Murray. I want the 1,000-plus CDs I’ve accumulated to sound as silky and warm as my equally large vinyl collection. I want to be able to listen until 3 a.m. — no, check that, I want to be compelled to play music into the wee hours — rather than run screaming to an audiologist after side one. And, I want some kind of packaging that comes with my album that contains photos, lyrics, a list of musicians and what they played on each track, and engineering and production credits. And, while we’re at it, liner notes. All in a type size I can read.

At the same time, I want a system that makes acquiring and playing music fun. I want it to be relatively easy and flexible. A rig where I can play a vinyl LP, or load up five or six CDs and program my own playlist (yes, I’m talking about a high-end CD changer). Or, at the push of a button of two, I’d like to make a high-rez digital download, or store on a hard drive the audio of a file someone put up on YouTube of an off-the-cuff song Ryan Adams made up in the middle of his concert in my home town. I want lights blinking, meters flicking and tubes glowing in my dark room and fascinating me as much as the deep blue dial and dancing green tuning scope on my 1974 Marantz 4430 quad receiver.

Did I mention I also want it all to knock my socks off, too?

Happy New Year

Despite my protestations earlier, this year has had its share of fun. Along with listening to more equipment than I though possible, I got to meet some very nice people, including the rag-tag, but amazingly talented bunch who contribute to this site. Reading their stellar work never fails to makes me want to do better myself.

And let’s not forget what brought most of us here in the first place. There was some terrific music released this year, including standout albums from Lucinda Williams, Beck, Sun Kil Moon, the Black Keys, Eric Clapton and The War on Drugs. Next year promises new discs from the Decemberists, Muse, Noel Gallagher, Bjork, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Mark Knopfler and Diana Krall.

Well, that’s my 2 cents, which I guess is only appropriate since that’s about all the money this hobby leaves in your pocket. I’d like to know what all of you think, though. What were the best products you heard this year? What’s your dream system? Rants? Raves?

I look forward to continuing our conversation in 2015.