ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

February 1, 2008

My Time is Now

Traipsing the halls at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, lingering in rooms with audio I liked, strolling across the casino floor of the Venetian, going to buffets, a fancy French restaurant, and a cheap breakfast bistro, I found myself recalling how passionate my father had been about both Las Vegas and stereo.

He was a working-class, weekend gambler who played the odds and, by the time I was in college, had perfected his game so that he’d often come home a winner from the craps and blackjack tables downtown. A few hundred would be his usual swag -- though once he’d hit on a roll and brought back thousands. I’d get a box of woolen shirts in the mail and know my father had placed a bet for me that had come in on the fade. Or, out of the blue, I’d get a check for $500 -- a fortune in the early 1970s. When I was back home for spring break or a weekend (my college was about an hour away by car), he’d show me whatever his new stereo gear was -- a Japanese tube amp he’d assembled from a kit, a pair of DIY speakers he’d built from Scandinavian drivers, a new German turntable. I remember once being aghast that he’d given up his gleaming gold, belt-driven Empire 298 turntable (with the patented, elliptical stylus mounted on a molded green plastic chassis) for a new direct-drive, unsuspended Technics with strobe-ready calibrations machined and painted directly on the platter’s rim. Why give up elegance for efficiency? I thought.

When he converted from tubes to solid-state, that change alone made his stereo’s sound go from lush to dry. But we’d talk about it -- over a Japanese game we played sitting on floor cushions called hanafuda. The name of the game was, literally, "flower cards" -- a kind of rummy. But instead of shuffling the deck of small, stiff cardboard talents the size of a tall matchbook, we swirled it before us on the carpeted floor, or on a woven grass mat spread between father and son. We played for nickels, matching cards of cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey big-band music resounding in the room. Thus, he imparted to me something of his love of music and good sound.

But I never got to Las Vegas until I started going to CES. I’m not a gambler. And it doesn’t bother me that so many things in audio are outrageously expensive -- somehow, I don’t care. I like the sounds I hear, generally speaking, and I like the chance to survey so much of what entrepreneurial and inventive ardor have produced. If only my father could hear this, I keep saying to myself. If only I could haunt these halls with him, I find myself wishing. But he died, suddenly, over 20 years ago now.

I was at dinner with a regional audio society, and someone asked: What was the single most impressive or intriguing product you encountered at CES or T.H.E. Show this year? There were lots of opinions and a barge full of usual suspects -- the gargantuan Evolution Acoustics MM3 modular speaker, the esteemed Audio Note/Kondo Gaku-On amplifier, Harbeth’s new iteration of their traditional BBC-style monitor, etc. Everything named cost at least $8k, and some upward of $80k. Great stuff. I named the iTransport, a little iPod transport made by Wadia, which I’d seen decked out in a flame paint job and with a retail price of $350. By normal audiophile standards, it’s a tweak and no big deal -- it’s not even a DAC. The iTransport mainly links an iPod to one’s stereo system. The audio circle around me was appalled -- for $350, how good could it be?

"That’s just the point," I said. "It’s a port -- not so much for the iPod but for the iPod generation itself. To entice them away from inexpensive earbud audio and into two-channel, high-fidelity audio." I mentioned my college-age sons, who are hooked on iPod and portable, personal sound. What I’d noticed at CES was a lot of computer-based gear -- music servers, iPod docks and transports, USB DACs -- as well as budding cooperation between audio and computer companies (e.g., Wadia with Apple) or between audio companies about computer technology (Wavelength licensing their new A-sync USB DAC to Ayre Acoustics). This cooperation is perhaps a sign that not only is the audio industry embracing a trend, but awakening to and stimulating a new market as well -- the next generation.

There was a silence. Then the conversation moved on to more high-flown items, grander things on extended audio wings.

If we are to continue enjoying better and better sound from improved and breakthrough equipment based on entrepreneurship and excellence in audio research, then the industry needs to cultivate a continuing source of capital beyond the present dominant crop of audiophiles -- generally, we forty- or fiftysomethings who are currently so free to contribute our disposable wealth to the high-end cause. It needs to appeal to the twentysomethings with their (now) small fistfuls of dollars, but who will themselves grow their own deep pockets later. It -- we -- need to pass on some of our passion for great sound and great music, to invite those of Gen Y and Z into our world. My father did so for me. The point is that while my sons can’t buy an Art Audio PX-25 or the deHavilland GM-70 monoblocks now, they could buy the Wadia iTransport, an innovative chip amp, and decent desktop speakers. And who knows what in 20 years? They might then have become like me, finding that their most passionate decision comes down not to Obama or Clinton, Romney or McCain, but between indulgences: a Mini Cooper or a CAT amp.

My personal Bests in Show? Outrageously expensive, traditional high-end gear, the usual suspects: Nola and Vandersteen speakers, Herron and Aesthetix preamps, Audio Research and PBN power amps, Ayre and dCS digital, turntables from VPI and TW Acustic, Tri-Planar and Schroeder tonearms, and so on. After all, I’m Class of ’73, not ’03, and my time is now.

...Garrett Hongo

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