GreenHiFi was at The Home Entertainment (T.H.E.) Show, in Newport Beach, CA, again this year. In addition to some awesome sounding amps and speakers, there were also some very pleasant green surprises: several small manufacturers actually embraced green ideas and all was not what it seemed.
This was a tough weekend for me. While I was promoting my blog up & down the show, my website was also up & down online because of some irritating DNS issues with my ISP. If you tried to connect and you saw some generic advertisement site instead of my blog, then I hope this report will make up for it. I certainly have some great stuff to cover. So here we go.
Starting on a higher note
THE Show started on Friday, May 31st, 2013, promptly at 10:00am. Things started out well, and after the requisite LA and Orange County Audio Society (LAOCAS) trumpet call, the celebrity rope-cutting ceremony took place. Here's a pic:
I took several shots, but I was not able to get Robert Harley in there and only one with Michael Fremer - they're both a bit small, so they are hiding behind John Atkinson from my angle. If you look carefully, you can see Fremer's head-mounted webcam; he looked oh so Googled-out. Numbers-wise I think the show was a big success again this year, although the vast majority of these attendees were still aging men (see my previous post). It was a large show, spanning two hotels, and I did manage to get to every single room by the curtain call of 6pm on Sunday night, although I was clearly being rushed through by those last folks eager to start crating up their gear.
On to some surprises from the Show. I can't cover every room at THE Show, but I wanted to point out some stand-outs and perhaps also some names that people hadn't heard before. Along the way, I will touch on green issues and especially how these tie into the problem of appealing to a younger generation of buyers.
One of the first rooms I visited was a well-known brand: VTL (Vacuum Tube Logic) and I talked to Luke Manley. I've always been a big fan of VTL, and so I wanted to explain that I was interested in green initiatives without coming off too critical. Knowing this is a company that makes high-powered and high-priced tube amps, I first explained that I was also passionate about re-introducing young people to HiFi. This is a topic that is important to all of us in this industry, so I then explained that green issues are important to young people. I used this approach for the rest of the show and I found that this opened up a lot more doors than just presenting myself as interested in green issues above all else, especially if they were perceived to come before good sound.
Mr. Manley was actually very interested in bringing young people to HiFi and when I explained how green concerns tie into this, I think he saw the connection. I also explained that VTL, because of the way their components are produced, is also quite green according to my criteria. I really think this resonated well, but I will follow up and see if there is more that I can do with this. I really hope to be a resource for smaller manufacturers like VTL. Well, VTL isn't exactly that small, but compared to the Harmans and Sonys (who were also at THE Show), they are definitely smaller in scale and I think the priorities and goals are very different from the big guys.
Vanatoo is for You
I then made my way to a small room from a name I didn't know: Vanatoo. They make a small, active, sealed-enclosure speaker with a built-in DAC and wireless connectivity. It is called: the Transparent One, no joke. It's a cute little number and it sounds quite good. Of course, I wanted to know what the green creds were. On the surface, it was small, includes a lot in a compact package, and it has a cool millennial-friendly name. I could not find out if it was made state-side, though, and since it was relatively inexpensive, I presumed it wasn't. That said, they did hit many of the green criteria, so I'm not going to knock it. Truth-be-told, I actually thought that the whole package was extremely well executed. The plain-Jane box-speaker looks are a bit of a let-down, but it's a good overall product.
Vanatoo's Transparent One competes with a new, albeit more expensive, offering from KEF as well as the well established offerings from AudioEngine, but unlike those two it has wireless as well. The KEF X300A that I also heard at the show is particularly intriguing because it uses the same coaxial 'tangerine' driver as their well received LS50 (that is one fantastic speaker, by the way). The other advantage is that the X300A uses seperate class A/B amps in each speaker, which sound quite amazing to these ears. Of course the X300A also costs twice what the Transparent One costs, so there's that too. But ultimately, both products are marketed straight at millennials.
So this raises the question: does the amping matter enough for a millennial to pay twice as much for the speaker? The KEF does sound better, I'll admit, but my guess is that millennials will opt for the wireless capability instead of having to be tethered with a cable. The Transparent One also uses a Class-D amp, which is greener too. So my nod goes to Vanatoo, despite the clear difference in sound and here's why. Aside from hearing the two speakers side-by-side in a store, millennials will never hear the difference and therefore they will buy the Vanatoo. I do love the KEF, but this is a telling argument to make, and I am making it.
I really wanted to hit a few manufacturers that, in my opinion at least, priced their speakers in the stratosphere. I wasn't out for a fight or anything, but I really wanted to know what went into a speaker or amp that only the 1% could afford. So I made my way to the Kharma room. Now Kharma is prime Robb Report material. Their ceiling height speakers cost in the hundreds of thousands, they partner with auto-jewelry makes like Spyker, and they are big in China, the Middle East and the Russian block. I entered the room ready to pose some hard questions.
To my surprise, they were showing the much more down-to-earth Elegance Speakers (not the ones in the picture at right), and to top it off, they were clad in the calming and strikingly beautiful Sub-Zero Blue finish. The analog music playing in that room didn't grab me right away when I entered the room, but once I sat down and paid attention, I noticed how absolutely controlled and even the musical representation was from the lowest bass notes to the upper frequencies. I had to readjust my barometer, here, and take a closer look, or rather, a closer listen. I sat down next to the representative of Elite Audio (located in San Francisco, CA) and started to chat him up.
My first (incorrect) assumption was that these speakers were from China. They weren't. They were from the Netherlands, my home country! Now that is also a country where folks tend to be a bit more green and a whole lot more concerned about equality, than China, for example. How could this be? He pointed me to a young lady who was standing in the room as well, who I had hardly acknowledged when I walked in - I guess I do need to learn some manners, lol. This charming lady was Vivienne van Oosterum, Marketing manager for Kharma and consequently, also the daughter of the owner of the company. She had flown into town just the night before. I was a bit surprised, but I did manage to stumble a few words of Dutch just to confirm this all and she indeed spoke fluently.
Now my Dutch isn't up to par anymore, so I continued in English. I got to ask a few questions, but the music in the room sounded quite good, the speakers were small, and the zeal had left me. So out of deference, I didn't want to be too much of a pest, and I decided to come back the next day and bring some of my own music. I got to speak to the dealer and Vivienne a couple more times during the show and it has certainly piqued my green interest in the company, especially since the price issue hits at the heart of one of the biggest gripes about HiFi.
A few quick facts about Kharma that I was able to find out:
Kharma speakers are hand-made in Breda, in the Southern province of North Brabant, in the Netherlands. The company has about 50 employees, their primary market is the Far East, and they have three authorized dealers here in the US, although I only saw Kharma speakers on the site of Elite Audio, the dealer that was with them at THE Show. He was a pretty nice guy, by the way, and knew his stuff about audio - highly recommended if you're up in the Bay Area. The Elegance line comes in many different color choices and they include matching home theatre speakers and a sub. The beryllium tweeters are voiced to tackle the edge typical of metal-domed tweeters, and this certainly sounded that way to me. The cabinet is also made of extremely light but rigid materials. I guardedly asked about the high price (in my mind) of these speakers, but Vivienne pointed out that this was typical for this level of speaker and that they had speakers at higher and lower price-points too. She also explained that the Elegance line exists at a lower price-point to appeal to young professionals and to better compete with other brands.
Well, I do hope to reach out to Kharma in the near future and perhaps, next time I am in the Netherlands, I'll ask if I could visit the factory. I certainly have a lot more questions to ask. How are these speakers made? Where are the parts sourced from? What goes into a $39K speaker such as the dB9? What goes into the Exquisite line? How does this compare to the competition here in the US? I'm thinking Rockport carries similar type speakers (they were also being shown at the show). Also, how does Kharma stack up against the Danes (Dynaudio) & Germans (MBL) who I also saw at the show? Anyhow, lots more to ask...
Some General Suggestions for THE Show
Now with all due respect to the hard work of dealers and manufacturers who made up the show, I do have some suggestions for the organizers of THE Show if they want to appeal to a younger generation. These observations below apply to a lot if not most of the rooms I visited at THE Show.
- Too much jazz. Seriously, I am so Diana Kralled out, I'm starting to hate her. As a matter of fact, if you're in the lower price bracket, leave the jazz at home entirely. Don't get me wrong, I love jazz, but by the end of the show I think I had started to hate the whole genre.
- Don't play what you want to hear. If you're a sales rep or dealer, don't bring your favorite Springsteen albums intending to just enjoy some good music listening. This is a show for the visitors, so ask them what they want to hear. If you don't have it, play something similar. For that of course, you have to know enough about the music that millennials listen to (I'll cover that in the near future as well).
- Try some silence. Too many rooms were like concert halls with everyone afraid to ask questions. Totally wrong approach - you want folks to ask questions.
- Do A-B demos. These are great attention grabbers and will give the product more value. Value is good, it's one of the prime green motivators for millennials.
- Do not, under any circumstance keep people out of your show room. Magnepan, I love your stuff, but I heard up & down how much people hated the way you kept folks out "until the next demo starts." I'm guessing you lost a lot of business this weekend, including mine (I was thinking of those new bass panels).
- If your audio society is going to have a hospitality room, fill it with stuff other than drinks and alcohol. Every manufacturer at the show should have a stack of pamphlets or business cards in those rooms. Have some dealer coupons there, and some food coupons for local restaurants would be good too. As a matter of fact, have more snack-type food in the room.
- There should have been a hospitality room for the represented magazines. Stereophile, Absolute Sound, I hope you're hearing this. Have some discounted subscription forms there and other shwag. Have your writers and editors hang out there, too. Lots of folks have questions for them.
- Don't have dark rooms. Darkness is fine for at home, but at a show, you want people to see your gear.
- Advertise locally and especially at the local universities. I was at UCI, Chapman, and CSU Long Beach prior to the show, and not a soul knew anything about the show. Even if you hate young people (some of you certainly seemed to), consider that local universities are graduating around this time - this means that parents and donors are on campus, too.
- Triple the size of the headphone room. Allow headphone manufacturers to have booths or even rooms (open-backed headphones, hello?). Finally, have a transition from headphones to speakers - this is where your AudioEngine, KEF, and, yes, even Vanatoo should be located. It's not enough to cater to millennials with headphones, you also have to go the extra step of transitioning them to speakers and other equipment.
OK, that's it for now. I'll have more thoughts and suggestions in my next post. I'll also talk about more interesting gear, even a company that uses recycled airplane parts from the Cold War.
Leave me a comment below, if you like.