Positive Feedback ISSUE 59
january/february 2012

 

 

Sonic Satori: CES 2012, A High End Odyssey
by Michael Mercer

 

 

 

2011 was a strange year for my family and many of my colleagues in the Hi-Fi industry. The economy seemed to rebound for a moment, then crash, or, for the most part, merely stay afloat. In the midst of that mess we lost a dear friend and soldier for the Hi-Fi community: Lee Weiland of Cryoparts/Locus Design (whom I still miss everyday). Top all that with the fact that I took my first break from Hi-Fi as a full-time gig for the first time since I was a teenager in the early 90's (minus a brief stint as manager of a surf and skate shop in the Bay Area—how I got that job I'll never know). As you can probably imagine, 2011 brought about great stress. Thankfully and mercifully, the year also provided some momentous triumphs for us and the Hi-Fi press in general (one of them being the Henry Rollins piece in Stereophile—bravo gentleman; another was watching TONE Audio magazine go fully digital via the Zinio media library app on the iPad). Here at Positive Feedback we have experienced unprecedented growth, and that instills a great sense of pride and teamwork in the heart of this writer. And so; drawn-out personal introductory ramblings aside, I have to say I was looking forward to CES 2012 with great anticipation!

Now, before diving into reporting on CES, I feel it's necessary to provide you with a looking glass into my thought processes going into this trip. So there is some more personal rambling ahead (please forgive me in advance). Following my brief exit from full-time Hi-Fi employment (and soon after RMAF 2011) I was offered the job of director of marketing for CEntrance, and I was honored to accept. I'd been a fan of their products since I first heard the DACport and DACmini CX prototype at RMAF '09), so the move felt natural. Then, just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in (for you Godfather fans out there)! Now, admittedly, I was momentarily disappointed that I could no longer run around Hi-Fi conventions and write about the adventures, but I also saw this new endeavor as an opportunity to write about CES from a different perspective (and for the record: I informed my editors here at PFO of my intentions before Mr. Marc Philips submitted his fantastic Diary of a Mad CES Exhibitor this month) so I'm not trying to bite off my friend, for all the haters out there.

They're just completely different worlds: Attending a Consumer Electronics Show as press rather than an employee or representative of an exhibiting company/brand. Working either side of the fence isn't easy, and each carries its own level of stress and rewards. Because of all the chaos throughout 2011, I was wondering if I could enjoy myself attending the convention and working for a company as much as running from place to place, snapping awful pictures (I can't take a picture to save my life) and heading back to my hotel every night to write my observations. Fortunately, I had a splendid time.

I'm also happy to report that despite a seeming drop in attendance at the high performance audio portion of the show, we had a blast all the same. My take on overall show attendance may be limited, as I was only at the Venetian on Thursday and Friday—my other time spent was at T.H.E Show in the Flamingo, where CEntrance had a booth). Our booth was located right next to registration, so no matter what, people would at least cruise by the booth. I credit the other team members at CEntrance for making that call (I was admittedly dreading it until we got set up and comfortable). Our neighbors were Jorge Cervera and his crew from Headroom (good people) and Jerry & Brittany Harvey of JHAudio. Our corner was a gathering of people that have been deeply involved for many years in the now exploding headphone-centric global market (special thanks to Jude Mansilla of Head-fi.org) as well as the affordable DAC/computer audio and headphone amp markets. I still have my original Headroom Total Bithead from 2005 or so (it was the first USB DAC/headphone amplifier I ever owned) and have traveled the country with that handy little unit (which can also run off four AA batteries for a few flights) driving my JHAudio JH-13 Pros (my original review HERE)! So obviously, I felt like I was right at home.

One of the most interesting experiences that stood out for us, while working the systems for demonstrations, was the surprising number of pro audio guys we ended up interacting with throughout the week. You see, CEntrance has this large backdrop as part of their display they've used at previous conventions like AES and NAMM. After using it at T.H.E Show last year, receiving a lukewarm reception from people who didn't know anybody on the backdrop, the team had justifiable trepidations about using it again. The backdrop features head shots of highly regarded voice-over artists, studio musicians, as well as producers, and mix or mastering engineers. I suggested we go for it and see what happened. Jonathan Mizel (manager of operations for CEntrance) and I were pleasantly surprised to meet more and more pro audio guys who knew their peers plastered all over the wall behind us! This showed me that people like Bob Ludwig, Frank Filipetti, and Rick Rubin (all music industry professionals with excellent stereo systems) are possibly not rare exceptions, rather there's a healthy number of music industry professionals who recognize the need for high end audio! After all, Arif Mardin loved the stereo systems we set up for him, and even Craig Kallman, Chairman of Atlantic Records as well (who had me running from room to room at the Venetian, and then to the Convention Center on Friday, but more on that in a minute). It was exciting to see the looks on the faces of the pros (and by that I mean pros in the music-making business) when we played music for them through our gear. Rather than taking a moment to pick apart the elements, they simply reacted to the sound and we ended up in all sorts of conversations involving music. This was truly a glorious surprise. Never before (except at AES or NAMM) had I met so many guys from another segment of the audio industry at a Hi-Fi show. There is hope after all!

Another highlight was Philip O'Hanlon's now notorious party at The Mirage. Philip owns On a Higher Note (importers of legendary Luxman electronics, far-out looking yet amazingly musical Vivid Audio loudspeakers, and critically acclaimed Brinkmann turntables, as well as a few select others). The suite was packed like a high school kegger (though people were better-dressed, at least for the most part anyway). I look forward to Philip's party every year, as it always gives me a chance to connect with friends I only see once or perhaps twice a year. The wine and whiskey are always first-rate, and Philip always puts in a great deal of time on his On a Higher Note compilation CDs: a wildly varied CD of songs that represent all sorts of genres and recording techniques. Though I know his focus is primarily on the music—many of the selections are obscure, and so the sound varies as much as the music from track to track—I never miss an opportunity to grab one before I leaving the party. Philip is a true gentlemen, and our shared music obsession is always an exciting topic for discussion.

I neglected to mention that thankfully, after driving to Vegas on set-up day on Monday (set-up day, long story) we were also able to grab the final moments of the Wilson Audio get-together at The Mirage. I was admittedly disappointed that we only got to see a static display of the upcoming Alexandria XLF loudspeakers. Now, I'm not saying that out of anger, but rather as a junkie who wanted to see what those babies could do. We're all different people, so I need to admit that I have only begun to love Dave Wilson's designs following the re-work of the Sasha's. I always had (and have) the utmost respect for Dave. He's a good-hearted man, but for years, his speakers have almost sounded too perfect for me (and we had a laugh over that last year at CES). That all changed when he and his wife returned from their world tour of first-class concert halls. While I missed Dave, rockstar Debbie Wilson was on hand as always with a smile and some laughs. Darrell Wilson did an excellent job of walking us through the improved design of the Alexandria XLF, and he left me wanting to hear something, but alas a static display! However, we (my co-worker Jonathan Mizel and I from CEntrance) had a good time and I'm glad they stuck around for us! Thanks guys. We even got to share some laughs from Gavin Fish, one of my favorite people in the Hi-Fi business (now with Light Harmonic and the mastermind behind AudioEvo.org).

Some of the other highlights were a few stand-out interactions with end users. In order to demonstrate the versatility of the new CEntrance Audiophile Desktop system I brought along a Music Hall USB-1 turntable (I love this $250 deck, with its on-board phonostage which isn't half-bad) and my iPad for use as sources. Our intention: not to exclude anybody who would approach our tables. Meaning with both vinyl and digital playback options, we appealed to both analog and digital addicts. I'll never forget this older gentlemen, had to be in his sixties, stormed up to me as I was spinning Plastikman's "Spastik" on vinyl (a record that never leaves my DJ bag). I was ready for the man to scream at me for what he might call "this repetitive nonsense" (I had the whole thing played out in my head). Much to my surprise (making me feel like an asshole) he said "what is this amazing music, this sounds like new Kraftwerk to me!" I smiled and said "Yes! While this song is not new by any means, you could hear it that way, as the progression of the sounds of Kraftwerk." He got on his iPhone and seemingly purchased the track right there (or at least he bookmarked it for a later purchase). This was one of the comments that made the convention for me.

Another highlight was having dinner with old friends like Paul Bolin (of The Audio Beat). Paul and I shared the experience of our first CES in 1997 when we both worked for The Absolute Sound—something I'll never forget) and another meal with Marjorie Baumert of RMAF and her nephews (which is becoming an annual event for us, and frankly I'm loving it). Marjorie is one of the kindest people I know, pure and simple, Hi-Fi interests or not. How she kept moving forward after the loss of her partner months before RMAF '09 astounds me to this day, and I am sincerely honored to call her my friend and to be a member of her RMAF team!

An experience that left the most lasting/positive impact on me at CES (aside of achieving our goal at CEntrance) was spending Friday with Craig Kallman (Chairman of Atlantic Records)... running around at a, no joke, New York pace! We managed to see and hear a few rooms and even managed to make it to the zoo at the Convention Center and be back before 4:30! The room that simply took my breath away? All bullshit politics aside: Lamm Industries, Venetian, Suite 35-305. This system actually re-introduced me to what was possible in terms of achieving sonic integrity in a hotel room! I'm not certain of all the componentry, but I know we were listening to Lamm ML3 Signature amplifiers (a pair), LL1 Signatures (a pair), and a Lamm LP2 phonostage deluxe. The speakers were Wilson Audio Maxx3's and the digital was provided by a NeoDio NR22 transport and NR22D DAC. They rocked an Onedorf turntable with a Benz Micro LP S cartridge. All of the cabling was Kubala-Sosna Elation series. This was probably (and I'm not exaggerating for effect) the only system I have ever heard in a hotel room that made me regret going home to my own reference system!

While I didn't get to spend as much time in that room as I would have liked, I did get the chance to meet Ester Lamm (who I owe an email), daughter of the genius behind Lamm's designs. She really understood what it's going to take to enroll the younger generation in this great hobby/industry. We talked about the twenty-to-thirty year-olds who spend literally thousands of dollars on their modded cars (rims, ground effects, nitrous kits, custom paint, etc.), bling, and fashion, and how this industry doesn't grasp the potential there. Our conversation sparked a great deal of thought on my part regarding the continuing fight to grow the audiophile market and that's what great conversations (and conventions for that matter) do. I have a distinct feeling this year is going to be better for all of us and I can't wait to see it happen. It's time to drop petty things and start thinking like the community we are! CES 2012 gave me a glimpse of the better side of our crazy industry.

Michael Mercer handles marketing for CEntrance.

 

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