What it Means to be an Unsung Hero of T.H.E. Show
Robert Lighton Audio: Beautiful Woodwork and Beautiful Sound
Mola-Mola: Funny Name, Funny Fish, but Great Sounding Gear
Piraeus Audio: The Goddess of Everything. Bob’s Devices: Small, Simple & Efficient
PranaFidelity: Making noise in Ayre, Boulder, and PS Audio’s backyard
Audio Art Cable: An Honest Cable Manufacturer?
There are several other media outlets, blogs, and individuals that have posted their own show reports, including the big names, Stereophile, Absolute Sound, Positive Feedback and Enjoy The Music. They do a very good job of covering the show and it would be a waste of your time and mine to do the same. I am therefore going to concentrate my attention in this blog on those manufacturers that are likely not going be featured on those other sites. So if you’re looking for info on the excellent sounds emanating from the MBL, Focal, Schwiekert and Wilson rooms, please see those other sites. For the unsung heroes of the show, follow me.
What it Means to be an Unsung Hero of T.H.E. Show
I will focus on those manufacturers that in my humble opinion had something new, interesting, or very different to introduce. This doesn’t mean they are all unknown names; it just means that I didn’t know of them or their new products yet. As such, it’s quite possible that some of these may not be new to everyone reading this, and well, I can’t do much about that. In any case, I do hope this is, for the most part, a refreshing list of new manufacturers and products that maybe one day will become household names. Who knows?
This been GreenHiFi, I will also focus on manufacturers that had green aspects to their products. I know that it isn’t always possible to be very green for a manufacturer just starting out or who has just a small production run and needs to keep costs down, so I’m being very lenient here and focusing primarily on the more general aspects of being green: local or domestic sourcing, manufacturing and production, small & simple products, and energy efficiency - anything more will be a bonus.
Finally, I’m not going to re-hash what is on their websites and brochures; I’m providing links for that. What I will do, though, is tell you what my initial impression was, what I heard in the show room, and what I gleaned from my conversation with the owners, engineers, and sales people in the room. This is hopefully a bit different than what you may read elsewhere and also a glimpse into what the show was like.
Robert Lighton Audio (< link)
Beautiful Woodwork and Beautiful Sound
I’m a sucker for fine woodwork. I know that not all woodworking is completely environmentally friendly, but when it’s sourced in the West, it’s usually not as bad as what hails from the far East. This manufacturer makes a beautiful speaker from solid wood. People don’t always realize how hard this is because wood is resonant, a quality that is not desired in speakers.
Most speakers are made of wood composite materials and only covered with a light wood veneer. Not so here, even the flared port in the back is hewn from a solid piece of wood. It reminds me quite a bit of uber-expensive speakers from Zingali, but without the horns. Robert Lighton Speakers are breathtakingly beautiful, with a tapered and curved design that also matches up beautifully with the accompanying turntable and integrated tube amplifier, accentuated by gold-tone and mat-silver accents.
All this does not come at the expense of sound, either. The music was rich and warm, while still remaining pleasantly detailed. Granted, the electronics are made with Audio Note parts and so that British heritage is very much present, but the speakers are not. Robert Lighton Audio sources the drivers from Japan and this is likely how they eked out enough detail from the Audio Note gear to arrive at a very listenable balance.
Funny Name, Funny Fish, but Great Sounding and Very Green Gear
I have a love-hate relationship with Class-D (a.k.a. “digital/chip”) amplification. On the one hand, it’s green on the other I haven’t yet heard a Class-D amp I enjoyed enough to keep it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve owned amps from PS Audio, Wyred4Sound, Rotel, and several others, but I never kept them. They are great for bass, but they don’t shine in the mid-range. Every year, a number of new manufacturers try their own take on the technology, and every year, I pass. I guess I just like tubes better, but I’m always willing to learn.
Enter Mola-Mola. They are Dutch, a country that is rated as one of the greenest on earth. And I’m Dutch as well, but I don’t want that to enter into the equation. What I heard here was actually quite good. I was almost thinking they were hiding a Musical Fidelity tube-buffer somewhere. I can’t say I’ve lost all skepticism, and to be honest I didn’t stay in the room that long, but it was very nice sounding equipment.
The Preamp is an analog & simplicity marvel. It’s balanced and comes with optional dacs and phono that feature some of the latest technology in both formats. Did I mention that their amp can put out 400W into 8 ohms (700W/4ohms & 1200W/2ohms)? That’s some serious horsepower and because it’s Class-D, it won’t get hot and won’t draw too much on your electric bill. With all that, it still managed to sound very good. Very impressive indeed.
Also, what I liked was that the Mola-Mola equipment had a silver wave top over a black bottom. Very Scandinavian in its design. I guess that goes along with the Mola fish theme. Or perhaps the fact that much of the Netherlands is below sea level? Well no wonder they are green, their country depends on it. I do hope to one day be able to audition the equipment in my own home. It may just be the answer to my love-hate dilemma.
The Goddess of Everything
What if you no longer needed an amplifier, a digital processor, or even a volume control? Just plug the digital output from your laptop or DVD player into the Piraeus Audio Athena speaker and let the goddess do the rest. She even does her own room correction. That’s the idea behind this speaker. Granted, they aren’t the only folks doing this, but then this isn’t some off-the-shelf boom box from Best Buy either.
The Athena packs a punch, and then some: 750 watts! The speaker weighs a bit too, with all those electronics inside. The Athenas stand about 5’ tall, and sound incredibly good. With the midrange and tweeter high up near the top of the cabinet, it’s a lot like hearing someone speak while they are standing in front of you. The bass, unexpectedly, was also tight and detailed, quite impressive.
The cabinets have to be seen for full effect. The woodwork was strikingly beautiful (as I mentioned above, I’m a sucker for fine woodwork. The grain under that shiny gloss looked both natural and wild, like little flames that fit the character of the speaker to a T, although I’m not sure if that fits Athena the goddess as much. I probably would have gone with Ares instead, for the name.
So is this green? Well, it is big, meaning that a lot of wood was needed to create it. I didn’t get the sense from talking with the designer that being environmentally-friendly was a top priority; then again I also didn’t ask him straight out, either. They are domestic, from Santa Cruz, California, actually, but that also means that shipping this goddess to New York won’t be without adding to its carbon footprint. That said, there’s no need for an amp or digital processor, so it does eliminate those components and their carbon footprint. Then there’s the price. At $23,000, Athena doesn’t come cheap – there’s a whole lot of good that could be done with an equivalent donation to Doctors Without Borders, for example, but then you’d be stuck with that boom box from Best Buy and that could be a huge disappointment.
On green points, this one’s a toss-up for me, but it is an interesting approach, and one that sounded very impressive to these ears.
Small Simple and Efficient
OK, I’m still very new to mid-fi analog. My current turntable is a VPI Traveler with a Sumiko Blue Point No.2 Cartridge, and a Lehmann Black Cube Statement phono preamp. When I told Bob this, he explained that I didn’t need a step-up transformer (his specialty). Even though my cartridge is Moving Coil, a good thing, according to Bob, it’s high output, so most phono preamps, including mine would suffice. In the time that I spent talking with bob, I didn’t even get to hear what a low-output MC cartridge on a high-fi table connected to one of his devices could sound like. This was probably a huge oversight on my part. All that being so, the reason I’m including Bob’s Devices is because of the pleasant experience of speaking with Bob himself.
It was about a half an hour before the start of the show on Friday. I was wandering aimlessly through the record marketplace where people were still finishing their booth setup. Not Bob Sattin; he was wearing an official looking lab coat and walked right up to me, greeted me politely and inquired about my setup. I proceeded to describe it as above, and Bob listened. He didn’t have anything for me at my level in this hobby, yet he didn’t try to push anything on me. He took the time to explain the differences between MM and MC cartridges, the difference between low output and high, and complimented me on a good purchase with the VPI. He then offered to let me listen to his VPI Classic Turntable that he had setup with his gear at the table.
Bob was a really nice guy. He didn’t know me from anyone else and took the time to explain things in detail. He also had the foresight to bring a headphone amp and headphones rather than have people listen to speakers which would have disturbed the other booths in the room. If I ever do upgrade my cartridge, I will be sure to contact Bob first.
Are his step-up transformers green? Well they are small, very small actually, they are domestically designed, produced and assembled (by Bob). While I’m sure there are some internal parts from abroad, he does use top-flight parts, and this is likely not as bad for the environment as lower quality parts. The price is a bit up there, at around $800 and up, but considering Bob designes, manufactures and assembles them by hand, that’s not outrageous. It’s quite competitive actually, and he deals in other turntable-related products as well. You could say he is a very useful resource in this industry, even if you don’t buy from him. And that is indeed green as well.
PranaFidelity is located in Colorado, where a lot of other top names hail from – is it something about the clean air up there? Who knows, but I can say without hesitation that what I heard coming from the Vayu/fs speakers was amazingly good. Bass was tight and loud, midrange was clean and natural, and the upper frequency was all there. The coherency of this speaker was incredibly good and all for just under $7000, it was quite a feat. But I’m not including PranaFidelity here just because of the sound in the room, even though it was amazing. I’m including PranaFidelity because of the designer, Steven Norber.
Some people probably know Steven Norber as a founding partner of the now defunct Edge Electronics. What people may not know is that he still supports Edge products, where he can. He also responsible for the Vayu/fs, Fifty90, and the top of the line 108A loudspeakers, not to mention the 400W Purna/Ma amplifier, the wonderful Purna/ca preamplifier (with built-in phono stage), as well as a number of tweaks to well-known gear. All of these are manufactured in Colorado and while I didn’t ask much about them, I’m guessing they are pretty green all around. All that being said, he is also a very pleasant, genuine, and kind individual.
It was the end of a long, tiring first day of the show, and I was looking for a room to take the weight off and just hear some good music. I almost skipped by PranaFidelity (the name kind of threw me off as sounding a bit gimmicky), but the sound coming from the room was actually quite good. I initially didn’t think much of the look of the speakers considering they were just plain square boxes with black baffles. But looks can be deceiving…
Steve decided on some of his more adventurous records, ones that most definitely don’t quality as your usual Nora Jones / Miles Davis / Buddy Guy audiophile show fare that, frankly, I was quite sick of by now. It was the end of the show and this is usually when the exhibitors let loose a little - needless to say, Yello is music you really need to listen a little louder to. When it was finished he asked me if I had brought anything. I thought that they might want to pack up for the day, but I had an old standby: Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories – I’ve listed to that CD so many times I know every song forward and backwards. When I pulled it out, the other rep in the room (sorry forgot his name) said that he actually had that one on vinyl, which he gave to Steve to put on. It sounded amazing, and better than it has ever sounded at my house to be sure. Ouch!
It was such a pleasure to visit the PranaFidelity room, be welcomed in, even after a long day, well after the official show hours were over and to just listen to some good music. I was too tired to compare this to other systems I’d heard that day, and frankly, it was all getting a bit fuzzy in my head anyhow, but it certainly sounded very good. More to the point, the atmosphere in the PranaFidelity room was relaxed and welcoming – no high-pressure sales, no rush, no flashy lights, just good old vinyl listening. I may not be in the market for a pair of large floor standers, but when I am ready to buy, I’ll be giving Steve a call. Highly recommended.
Audio Art Cable
An Honest Cable Manufacturer?
An honest cable manufacturer? OK, I realize that’s a loaded question, especially on a blog talking about HiFi. However, I have a real beef with cable manufacturers. Simply put, some of the stuff is just too expensive and does not perform better. I’ve heard, auditioned, and owned hundreds of cables and while there are slight differences in sound, they are ever so slight. This is why I wonder if the sound passing through a $20,000 cable is really better than the sound passing through a $10,000 cable. More to the point, is it really better, or just ever so slightly different? From a green perspective, that extra $10,000 could go to a lot of good causes.
So it was with this skepticism that I approached the Art Audio Cable table. I’m guessing that Rob Fritz, the owner, sensed my trepidation and so he was not about to hit me with the standard sales pitch. He took his time, found out what I had, and then made his pitch. It was relatively painless though, and I appreciated that. Like all manufacturers, he gives a 30-day money back guarantee, but that’s standard. Not that I’m going to do this, but I would need a whole lot more time to figure out if his cables are better than my old base-level Kimber stuff that have served me well at a price point I can live with. I don’t know if he’s be willing to part with several cables for six months for me to run my tests. After all, he has to earn a living, and if every customer did this, he wouldn’t be able to stay in business. I understand that and so I’m probably not going to hear his cables in my systems.
That said, he did say that his cables were sourced from the US, a plus for being green. He also manufactures them himself, another plus that he’s not mass-producing these in some sweat shop. I can’t confirm any of this w/o visiting him in San Diego, and I might just do that. But it was his approach that put a positive spin on things. He was not high pressure, he was genuine, and he understood the issues that many folks have with spending good money on cables. Later that day, I took a peek at his website on my phone and he certainly lays it all out on his website as well. I’m not convinced yet, but I can say that if you’re looking to buy cable, Rob’s Audio Art Cable is as good a place as any to start.
Corrections: I need to make two corrections from my previous blog post, my pre-show report, where I mentioned that PS Audio would not be represented at the show. I did see a few rooms that had PS Audio power regenerators. So while they did not have a representative at the show, they were in use in some of the show rooms. I also mentioned in my recommendations that they should have a workshop on Class-D amplification. They did include one. Evidently this was something I missed when I read through the program the day before. I must be getting old...