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Positive Feedback ISSUE 36


Audience ClairAudient Line Source Array Loudspeakers - CES 2008 Report, Part One
by Jim Merod


Didn't I See You On the 44th Floor?

This high-end dog and pony audio show thing's got to get more real. The Venetian's stately marble manicure, its picture-friendly lagoons and manqué gondolas do not translate into musical engagement, sonic camaraderie, or anything vaguely audio-related ...instead, a grand canal for commercial shake downs, faux grooves, covert hustles, and sleepless dice.

I've had enough High Roller nonsense. In German that's spelled "enuff" (genug), but don't tell Hank Kissinger (or was it Harry?), that roly-poly Austro-Hungarian Poobah, once Amerika's most certified roller of fat cigars, a semi-hilarious anti-intellectual recently skewered by Christopher Hitchens, who won't soon let such immortal card sharking easily escape.

Declare victory and retreat from such a maelstrom. If you successfully slimmed your girth walking narrow halls radiating outward in clever three-spoke patterns on upper Venetian tower floors, congratulations. Otherwise, condolences for entangled searches, confused signs, and weariness from arterial blockage in halls clogged with absent-minded, gossiping human barricades to casual professional treks. Next year, a fold up chair and your favorite Dickens novel will serve you well. Set up your hallway camp-site with a battery-powered fan to counter dicey waist-high odors.

I love Las Vegas as much as the next recently lobotomized guy with five bucks to invest at a crap table. The City that keeps your secrets accidentally safe steals your heart right before your bank account. How do you not love a place like that? So I plowed through dozens of stalemated aisles in the Venetian searching for audio knowledge (to little wisdom), at last escaping to my old haunts, the St. Tropez and Alexis Park, where I found Harry Pearson holding court at breakfast and again, hours later, regaling Ben Piazza, of Shakti Innovations, in the St. Tropez foyer good as it gets. At least (admit it) the World of High End Audio has a real guru, a genuine Wizard of Oz, a man who makes, breaks, or reaffirms prestige claims with aplomb and discernment—a very nice fellow to boot.

There, with sincere pleasure and surprise (like I told my pal Moriarty after I staggered back from Nevada's audio battlefields), I heard a room worth writing about. Check. I didn't spend my five bucks on craps or anything but a few beers. Check again. My PFO pal, Greg Weaver, gave me several discreet shots of Macallans 18. Double checks. And, bless them, Rory Rall of Benchmark and his sidekick Dave McPherson shared their bottle of Macallans 12. A final check mark. I must've looked as if I needed a boost or two. They lent a gentle lift.

Getting Down With Harry

Hitchcock's comic movie about a guy named Harry, who we never meet once alive throughout the lark, has nothing on Harry Pearson. In my estimation, all those boosters handing forth praise and attention—all the reverential deference that Harry receives, day after day, year after year—must wear him out. Think about it. Have you ever been a Guru? Or a rock star? Have you ever been The One at any event who everybody wants to have a picture taken with? I thought not, but Harry Pearson is. And he's been in that precarious position of ongoing if vulnerable adoration for decades. Are you going to tell me that such fumbling, mumbling, clinging, cloying admiration is easy to absorb? Do you really want a maelstrom of self-serving energy coming at you year after year?

In the 70s I often walked the Cornell campus with award-winning poet, Archie Ammons, or astrophysicist extraordinaire, Carl Sagan late afternoons on the way down to the Big Red Saloon. That's as close as I want to get to someone hounded with attention. And that was a college campus, where people are understated and into themselves. Since Carl Sagan, like Archie Ammons, was an integral part of the college ethos and its interior self-regard, his light glowed steadily without overblown exterior claims to its warmth. Carl was cool and most folks at Cornell acknowledged his privileged presence with reserve (on occasion, with slightly gaping jaws). But one fact was always evident. Carl was The Man. Wherever he went, steps paused or dropped to a slower gait. A camera might appear for a stealthy snapshot. A grin here and there. A puzzled look. By so many incremental restraints, Carl Sagan commanded the focus of all around despite his relatively diminutive stature and almost constantly bemused self-reflection. The lesson was clear. If you have a weekly national television program about billions and billions of stars and the mysteries of the universe, you're likely to be admired (and envied) for anyone whose first hero was Albert Einstein or Lou Gehrig. Carl fit such a profile and I enjoyed his apparent inattention to it all, tho' I've sometimes wondered how many camera snaps caught my half-formed image at the margin of his mug shots. No one ever hunted me down to lay a welcome memento on ageless hope.

And there's my point precisely rendered. Only the most suave rapier thrusts go unparied. Harry has that down. I was, in fact, enlisted to be The Camera Guy on the morning of our crime, as a pal scooted into "the place of honor" next to Harry for a shot that will surely resound mutely across the world of cyber-audio celebrations. I hear it posting now.

Harry Pearson, you see, takes it all in stride as an Object Of Immediate and Lasting Audio Attention ...except, perhaps, on certain airplane rides when he sits, let's say, next to some ancient doyen heading back from London or Rome with her jewelry clanging too close to his astute hearing. Doubtless, such an old bird figures it's always about her pains and adventures, her glory and her baubles. So poor Harry, under duress, would have to cede her points with silent, gentle nods of indifferent agreement. Only then, in distressing if isolated partnership, would he know the fragile joy most of us luxuriate in. Pure and simple anonymity: the feckless luck not to be hounded by seekers after something. You'll recall Montaigne's argument concerning freedom's elusive paradox, the liberation of being alone, on one's own in the company of nothing but one's thoughts and thus never alone at all. Freedom from hounding. Protection from hounds and self-important doyens, tuned out by headphones (Sennheiser or Grado, surely) plopped square on your noggin.

You can see what I mean when I sympathize with Harry's potential need for the privacy of the homeless or the infamous or those less famous. Yet, as Sagan recognized, with barely a whispered complaint, even the cosmos becomes a small place once you conduct guided tours across its bounded reach. Earth is growing smaller by growing warmer and high-end audio may contribute to such shrinkage since, now that we communicate instantly anywhere, improvements in sonic fidelity make space smaller—a more enjoyably besieged home for rich and poor alike.

If most celebrity hounds are seekers after fame—their compensatory reach designed to overcome the awareness of charisma's absence or some badly wanted unmet need (call it "oomph,"): then it hardly matters which "star" one gropes toward. One serves almost as well as another. The impersonality of this difference and similarity—the objective and utter indifference of its abstract displacement in value at the heart of the search—secures both the secret and its joke right there ...a secret unlocked by "American Idol," or maybe "Star Search: The Sequel."

My point is why subject oneself to an objectively impersonal, thoroughly compensatory quandary, as The Object of Veneration for Multitudes, when Montaigne has been right about freedom for four and a half centuries?

Troubling Harry, or Joking at the Scene of the Crime

The simple answer is that such regard frequently comes with the territory. Fame is often endured for the sake of finding no obvious escape. Two years ago, the Los Angeles-Orange County Audio Society honored Harry Pearson with its highest recognition and honors evening to remember for many reasons, not least the dinner and drinks afterward where a small throng of privileged revelers sustained the honoree's blandishment with increasingly ironic jousts in his favor. Late night imbibing can bring out the best and worst. In this instance, it was all good.

That enjoyable night of barb tossing and gentle verbal mayhem proved that Harry Pearson is a truly fine fellow whose take is as generous as his give. When the gathering found its way to the outside lobby, concluding a spirited time, Harry waved adieu and was promptly greeted, as he turned to exit, by the appearance of a star-struck reveler without portfolio. I saw him smile in anticipation of a graceful, brief encounter. Then and there, again, I recognized the penalty of fame in any walk of life or field of play.

This CES just past, unrelated to our breakfast photo session, I came upon Harry once again after he and I had visited the Audience room at the St. Tropez in separate, but back to back, listening sessions. Returning home, I told Moriarity the Audience room was the one that most knocked me out. I spent almost an hour unable to pry my carcass from the centermost chair. John McDonald and his colleagues were splendid hosts, allowing me to indulge my listening (exclusively and hungrily) with music I recorded—discs I use to comprehend and evaluate the sound of expensive gear-laden auditioning rooms.

No room at CES this year sounded better than the Audience set up. No room sounded as sonically accurate, as emotionally and aesthetically beguiling, as musically truthful and flat out startling with dynamic rightness of weight and timbre—as melodically, angelically charismatic.

I was moved in every way that a caring, careful listener can be moved. When you spend long hours slogging heavy bags and boxes of recording gear across the globe (or to those parts that invite you to hang microphones); when you push your lower back to its full endurance in order to fulfill assignments as well as satisfy your own desire for musical perfection (or what part of it you can reach): then the act of hearing your own finished tracks well-reproduced is no casual moment's adventure.

In twenty five years of memories (augmented, on occasion, with notes) which, for me, encapsulate a personal archive of Magical Sound Reproduction, only a very few occasions linger as "voila!" or "Eureka" moments. These sketch internal equatorial lines that straddle mind's personal sphere of alert, instructed and astonished memory. Two years ago, S.P. Tech's big system scratched its permanent marks upon my witness. I now own their "Timepiece 2.1" speakers. This year, it was and is Audience's majestic eight-driver "line source array"—enhancing (in my hearing) their previous "flagship" sixteen-driver array—that earns my salute. I understand that the larger version has been reworked and surpasses what I took away from my auditioning of the eight-driver unit at CES. If so, I may not be prepared for the experience.

Audience Speakers: What did I hear?

I heard my recordings reproduced as if ClairAudient speakers, on their own, had recorded the music, captured the staging and recreated to perfect scale the ambient delicacy on discs we listened to. I dislike and distrust the vocabulary of "synergy," but a spooky sort of sonic matching and reproductive musical intimacy and textural rightness commanded my attention. Audience's eight-speaker line array seemed not to be there. They disappeared. Only the musicians and the sound they displayed with such ease and detail remained "on stage" before me. This experience was profound. I listen like a surgeon inspecting micro-morsels of flesh beneath a scalpel. That analogy is no doubt crude and somewhat brutal. But a live recording necessitates forensic attention. Understand, for what it's worth, that I do not want to hear my recordings on playback enhanced, improved, darkened, lightened, made more robust, or embellished any way. I want to hear exactly what is in the music as it resides on the disc: all of it without change or shifts or alterations. I work hard to capture music to the fullest of my ability and to the utmost of my gear's capacity to execute my sonic ideals without blurring or mere approximations. I seek to employ recording gear as it was crafted for use. On occasion, I experiment with my recording set up. Sometimes I attempt a counter-intuitive approach. For the most, I seek the shortest viable signal paths to push sonic accuracy to its full possibility. Silly, perhaps, but true. I do that to the best of my ability. It's an obsession. Thus, when I listen to my recordings, I want the sound and music given back to be precise—exactly as it existed "on location" when (and as) it was caught being born with nothing but its own naked energy.

Image by Greg Weaver

A while ago, a fellow noted, about one of my recent albums, that he wished the resolution of the back line had greater vivacity. I understand his wish. He's no dope. I do, too. But the fact of what could be captured twenty years ago in the cavernous space I recorded in, with limiting conditions that could not be altered by audio tricks or evaded by clever miking techniques, excluded the outcome he'd prefer. Taste is unpredictable. My intention, nonetheless, was then (as now) to render audio and musical truth, which may in fact violate the current standard recording model: carefully constructed instrumental equivalence of sonic weight enforced by multi-track recording and mastering practices. Against that practice, my reference – true to the event, warts and all—guides my iconoclasm.

In sum, I want to hear EXACTLY what is on recordings I've captured. "Exact," of course, is a difficult thing to find in the universe of audio (or audiophile) reproduction. On one hand, most listeners believe that sonic precision means "analytic" sound, somewhat "etched," but seldom or never seductively "real with timbral delicacy and spatial refinement." On the other hand, beautiful and engaging sound is thought to be "colored" and anything but accurate with hypothetically brittle analytic signatures.

Nonsensical options, both failures, but my point across these quarrelsome notes holds to a simple ambition. No speaker and no sound reproduction system that earns my devotion and respect, simultaneously, ever fails my hearing's objectively-dedicated reference. I'm aware that's my problem. But this is where the "crime" I've alluded to takes place.

After time in the company of the ClairAudient's essentially unrivaled set up, I bumped squarely into the man of the hour, Maestro Pearson. He was joshing happily with Ben Piazza, whose Shakti stones earn plaudits everywhere. Since I knew Harry's visit with Audience's glorious eight-driver marvels barely preceded mine, I asked him straight up what he thought of their performance.

The mensch he is, Harry squared his shoulders and averred that his reference disc, Holst's "Planets," had been renewed in his hearing before the Audience line source array: "I heard details there I've never heard on this disc," Harry insisted ...matching my amazement's enthusiasm with his.

I have no need or desire to verify my assessment of equipment (right or wrong, foolish or inadvertently confident). I'm pleased and impressed that Harry Pearson heard the ClairAudient's resolving power as I did. For me, it suggests that professionals at the outer reach of life's grace retain not only acuity of hearing, but nuanced audio discernment. Today, therefore, I raise a solitary toast to a man we admire. If he differs or defers, adds or subtracts from these notes, we'll be together once more in the serendipity of audio danger—where collegiality in crimes of audio prophecy trope bardic limitations. Hooray for ClairAudient's majestic resolution of musical delicacy and sonic depth. Hooray for an unscripted, non-conspiratorial crime of such virtual agreement between blokes who find joy among such innocent ruins.