While a good audio system is more about the results than the process, many enthusiasts take a particular pleasure in the process of selecting and assembling the parts. The result should be greater than the sum of its parts, but the parts are cool.
And that’s what an event like the New York Audio Show is all about—a celebration of both the parts (high-performance audio gear) and the results (sublime music). Visitors to this year’s event were surrounded by both. The world of the audiophile (as well as the home theater enthusiast, for that matter) is a curious place—on the one hand there’s a cogent obsession with hardware, and on the other, there’s the prevailing principle that the experience of music always rules. That’s something that makes buying and selling audio gear a bit of a challenge, not reliant on specs and formats, more magic than math.
“I hate speakers,” says Andrew Singer, proprietor of New York City’s Sound By Singer, and long-time champion of high-end audio. He’s being ironic, but goes on to explain that he’s yet to find a speaker that does everything he wants it to, sounds perfect in all situations with all music, which is the challenge and the obsession of the audiophile. The search is still on, though the $39K RAIDHO speakers he was demonstrating in the Sound by Singer suite were among the most impressive speakers most attendees heard that weekend.
Typically at shops like Singer’s and shows like this, audiophiles new and old come looking for something new for their system—the upgrade that will change everything. Is that going to be a new set of speakers? A tube amplifier to replace a solid-state one? An esoteric turntable cartridge? Singer suggests that before a person goes and upgrades a major component, they should take a look at some of the more mundane and overlooked parts of the system—power cords, interconnects and power conditioning. “Typically there’s one glaring imbalance,” he says and adds that some simple changes can make any system sound better, usually for a small investment.
Buffer Ergman, of the Roxbury, CT, dealer Laufner Teknik, says the first thing he considers in a new or upgraded system is the room. “You need to consider the room part of the system.” To that end, he puts a lot of stock in acoustic treatments, isolators and cables. “We help people turn their system into something special,” he says.
Speaking of rooms, Ali Jalalat of Matrix Sound and Vision in New York City, knows a thing or two about challenging room. A lot of the systems he designs go into Manhattan apartments, which means small rooms.
“My first recommendation [for an audio system] is always to go with full-range speakers, but you can’t always use floorstanding speakers in small room,” he says. “Also, today you rarely have a dedicated listening room. It’s going to be a living room and a listening room, so a lot it comes down to size and what the customer is willing to sacrifice,” he explains. Monoblock amplifiers or 6-foot electrostatic speakers are great, but they’re not always practical. As an example, he was demonstrating KEF’s LS50 bookshelf monitors, which sounded great connected to a tube amplifier and a DAC playing music off a laptop, but don’t take up the space of large floor-standing models.
Currently Jalalat sees two big trends in audio systems, and they’re polar opposites: digital and vinyl. When helping someone out with a new music system, he asks the customer first where their music is. If the answer is a computer, smart phone or tablet, then he knows that a system focused around a high-performance DAC will be good. “Most people now have more music on computers, so we’re doing more DACs than CD players,” says Jalalat. “You can’t beat having 60,000 songs at your fingertips.”
Good DACs and high resolution downloads make being a digital audiophile much more satisfying these days.
But at the same time, he’s a vinyl fan too. “It’s a fun thing, and interesting how many people say ‘yeah I used to have a record player,’ and then we make room for a good one in their system,” says Jalalat.
Check out the slide show to see some of the best sounding gear I found at the New York Audio Show.
3 Audiophile Systems for 3 Budgets
Review of Meridian’s New USB DAC
Marantz Unleashes Network Audio Player and DAC
Review of the Dragonfly DAC
AudioControl Realto for Digital Sources
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Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.