Intro: Why do a Pt.2 of Unsung Heroes?
Sequels are always a gamble. Whether we're talking about a movie, a second CD, or a work of literature, they seldom generate the same buz as the original. So it's an uphill battle, but also a challenge. The fact is, we learn from the original, and all things being equal, a sequel ought to be more refined. I'd like to think this is too. My last post also generated a bit of interest with a few exhibitors asking why I didn't mention them. Well I can’t cover everything, but not to worry, I had already started to write a follow up as I couldn't fit everything into one article anyhow.
Aside from having to write a better article, I also struggle with my own biases. For example, like many audio enthusiasts, I’m biased towards speakers. They are the final component in the chain, the part that has the greatest impact on sound (according to the experts), and are the most visible component of the typical system. I would also argue that they are the most difficult to do right and easiest to do wrong.
For better or worse, I subconsciously focused much of my attention at T.H.E. Show on speakers. There were quite a few of them too, several made from unusual materials such as granite and glass. These unusual materials also tend to increase the price significantly and I’m not sure if this did much to improve the sound. Of course, if there was another reason for using said materials, such as that they are are more aesthetically appealing, or better yet, that they are greener, then that is what I am most interested in.
Below I've picked out a few more manufacturers that I thought were doing something different, interesting, or creative. Let me say, though, that not everything below is radical. Some items will need further explanation on my part or have only subtle innovations, but I selected them because they have a story and that’s what I’m here to tell. Don’t worry, it’s not all going to be about speakers, either.
More Unsung Heroes of THE Show
Snake River Audio
Poisonous looks for a rock-n-roll esthetic
If Alice Cooper was buying cables, I think he’d buy these. They certainly look like they would be right at home snaking their way between black velvet curtains to plant their fangs into some much abused deep purple loudspeakers (ahem… I’ve never been in Alice Cooper’s home, I’m just speculating). Snake River Audio also claims their cables sound great with classical and jazz, I should add, but I have a hard time seeing these grace the fine home of Sir Simon Rattle (not been there either – he could be a real goth-head). Anyhow, I like the fact that they have a distinctive look. With so many hundreds of cable manufacturers out there, it’s probably good business sense to differentiate oneself as much as possible.
Another reason that I included them here is because, of all the rooms where I dropped off my business card or filled out interest questionnaires, Snake River Audio was the only one to contact me after the show. Granted, it’s still just been a week, but being contacted is rare, especially since I write a blog about, of all things, environmental issues. Maybe they didn't read my card carefully enough, lol. Still it was nice to be contacted.
The green credentials are also worth noting. They hail from Idaho. Johnny Wilson, the owner, may not think of himself as a tree-huger, but he does seem to value the wide open spaces and the wildlife of his home state. The company seems sensibly run, too. He mentions on his website that:
“By design, Snake River Audio is a small company, employing only a handful of employees. We prefer it that way. Our goal is to make Snake River Audio a well-known company, yet not common. Just like an exotic sports car, every interconnect, speaker, and power cable is handmade with extreme attention to detail. Snake River Audio strongly believes that it is impossible to mass-produce true quality.”
I could be extra critical and ask if the component parts are also sourced from the US, but that would be rude, I think. As far as I can tell, Snake River Audio exemplifies more green credentials than any other cable manufacturer I’ve met or read about so far.
Of course, that they reached out to me directly, was nice too.
Shaped like a musical instrument – a modern take on the old cliché
Pearl Evolution hails from Italy, and it shows. What caught my attention immediately was the exquisite design work of this loudspeaker they had standing in the hallway of the 6th floor (good marketing technique, btw). When I entered the room, however, I was told that all they had to listen to was classical music (…not such good marketing). I considered handing them my 30 Seconds To Mars CD that I managed to sneak into the show without getting arrested by the audiophile police. I decided not to, as that kind of musical assault might have broken speakers as well as hearts. I’m joking of course; these guys were actually very kind and apologetic about the music.
What their speakers did do well, though, was female voices like opera – they’re from Italy, that’s kind of a given. They also presented a very full, tight bottom end (not sure if that’s typically Italian, too). It was clear that these speakers were designed from the ground up to be enjoyed with classical music and they certainly delivered the goods. I have full confidence these speakers would do a bang up job with Rossini’s Cenerentola, although I did wonder how well they would fare against the full Teutonic assault of Wagner’s Valkyries. That said, they sounded very good, and struck that delicate balance between romance and speed.
The reason I included them here is because of the design. They are a work of art to behold. They could be equally at home in a modern Scandinavian décor, bringing some warmth and color to an overly Ikea’d room (especially the gloss black speakers with red grills), as they would be in a more classical home hiding among the wooden antiques and fine bone China. I did not get a chance to ask about the green credentials, but I’m going to guess that being from Europe, they do have to abide by some stricter standards than elsewhere.
Their whole website is also in Italian, and while I do believe we Americans should learn more foreign languages, Italian isn’t typically at the top of our list (unless we’re aping Brando’s Don Corleone to impress a lady at the bar). Joking aside, it would have been helpful for me to have more information about what goes into the speakers’ manufacturing. Perhaps I can do a follow-up article on this unique speaker in the future when I find out more.
simpli fi audio
Poster child for Real Simple magazine?
Living simply is a guiding principle of being green, and here is a company that exudes it – they don’t even capitalize the company name, how minimalist is that? I met Tim Ryan, the importer of simplifi, two years ago at THE Show. At the time he was demo-ing room correction processors and the differences between the processor on and off was clearly audible. Unfortunately, this kind of tweak was a ways down the line for me as I still want to upgrade my gear first. Last year, I also popped my head in to the simplifi room where Tim was playing a pair of Swiss Klangwerk floorstanders, but at $7500 a pair, they were a bit out of my price range. Minimalist style is hard to blend with high prices, I think.
This year he was showing DLS Speakers, a Swedish company that makes very clean angular wall-hanging speakers engineered to disappear within the décor and to bring simplicity to a whole new level. When purchased with the sub-woofer speaker (wall-hangable as well), all the electronics are contained within the three boxes, including the amp, preamp, and the ability to stream directly from iPads and cell phones (it has additional inputs too, if needed). But that’s all one needs to start enjoying music: just hang on the wall, connect the two speakers to the sub, plug the sub power cord in and start streaming from your pad. Pretty cool.
Did I mention that the whole system costs under $1500? Well a Bose 3.1 system costs just over 1/3 of that, you might say… but this is no Bose system! The sound quality I heard from these speakers is astounding, especially for a wall-hanging speaker. It was actually what drew me into the room on Saturday – the thought that these were the Klangwerks again. Instead they were the little wall-hanging speakers. Even with the sub turned off, the quality of the stereo sound produced by these little speakers will easily take Martin Logan Tickets to task. They are more comparable to B&W’s PFM line, but at a fraction of the cost.
That said, they are not manufactured in Sweden, but Taiwan. This certainly does put a damper on the green cred for DLS. I realize that Taiwan isn’t China, but it still has its share of polluted sweat shops and well publicized outsourcing to the mainland. That said, the speakers are imported to Sweden too, so one would hope that they do adhere to some standards. I also have to applaud the company for combining true high quality sound with such simplicity and convenience.
The fact that they are able to do this at a price mere humans can afford is also a plus. I was so impressed, I referred two good friends of mine to Tim and it didn’t take long for them to be convinced as well. They are (ahem …were) Bose owners, by the way. They bought a set right then and there. Actually, they were ready to buy a room correction processor as well, but they decided that they would try the speakers in their home first. I am certain they will enjoy these for a long time – and if they don’t, heck, I’ll buy the set from them. It is that good.
Von Gaylord Audio
Tube amps, with some green cred to boot?
K, Von Gaylord gear isn’t exactly inexpensive. We’re still talking about thousands, but this isn’t your eBay-clogging questionably-sourced HLLY, Dared or Yaqin gear, either. Actually, the owner and chief engineer, Ray Leung, is also Chinese, but his equipment is of a completely different caliber. I imagine that being Chinese isn’t easy in this industry and keeps many people from even entering the show-room. This is a pity, because he hand-assembles everything right here in Berkeley, California, using high quality domestically-sourced parts. The gear simply breathes quality and dependability.
Take the Uni-Earth monoblocks, for example: they produce 180W of clean power and barely get hot. Even after being on all day I was able to put my hand on the massive KT-120 tubes. Believe me, I’ve worried about this when my daughter wanted to reach out and touch my other tube amps. The Uni-Earth monoblock amps are built like tanks, as well – they even look like little Panzers sitting there on the floor. At 75 lbs. each, they aren’t going to budge either. Anchor their spikes on solid wood blocks or amps stands, and you have a statement piece in your living room.
The amps were on display at the show and while the sound was wonderfully smooth, it was also authoritative. Yes, despite trying my very best to be being green and stick to Class-D amps, I still cannot help but be drawn to the warm glow of tubes. The Uni-Earth monoblocks aren’t inexpensive at $17,000 a pair, but if you consider the engineering and quality that goes into them, you should at least give them a listen. If that’s too rich, there is always the 50W per channel Starlet 4 integrated at $5000. Yes, it is twice the price of a mid-level PrimaLuna, but it’s made in the US. In my opinion, Von Gaylord gear is comparable to Manley and Carver; it even has the same esthetic. These amps are for those who aren’t trying to get by with sissy flea-watt amps, but want tubes to drive their Thiel floorstanders.
Modern Audio Design
A Sequerra Metronome styled for the millennial
Modern Audio Design is not a household name. It is the brainchild of Eric Madden from Pasadena, California. This is right here in my own backyard! I discovered several manufacturers who were local at THE Show, which is certainly encouraging, but not all of them produced a memorable product. However, Eric’s Impulse Monitor was certainly memorable. Right off the bat, I recognized the time-alignment of the drivers, reminiscent of David Sequerra’s inimitable Metronome speakers. The problem with the latter is that they are rather unattractive by today’s standards – comprising of a square box with a protruding bass driver that seems almost detached from the rest of the speaker.
The Impulse Monitor is a stark contrast to the Sequerra in terms of style. In short, it is absolutely stunning. Hewn out of solid wood, the cabinet was clearly designed to eliminate parallel surfaces, with beautiful, almost church-like curves around the front baffles. Even the external bracing reminds me of the set-offs on the outside of cathedrals to support the walls – one half expects the next model up to have flying buttresses. My comparisons to a cathedral notwithstanding, there are something inescapably meditative and sacred about the speaker, and this alone begs a more studied approach.
But it isn’t just about the design, a speaker also has to sound good, and I’m happy to say it does indeed sound very good. Perhaps it is the compact, curved structure that makes for such a tight sound, almost like a sturdy little bulldog, and I distinctly felt that there was something substantial doing the heavy lifting. This impression was there even when I was just wandering around the room, off-center, or speaking with Eric. The sound just seemed solid and present.
I didn’t get a chance to ask how green this speaker was. That said, considering Eric builds these himself by hand, we can say the work isn’t farmed off to some distant and miserable sweatshop. I am also going to assume the wood lacquer, paint and bonding compounds are not too caustic either because Eric said he had been doing this for years and didn’t show any signs of illness, lol. Of course this is all speculation, so I do hope to have an opportunity to interview Eric in the future about the manufacturing processes in place to produce the Impulse Monitors. Maybe I’ll have another opportunity to hear the speakers in a more controlled setting, too.
By the way, Eric Madden also happens to be an affable and genuinely nice guy.
A household name re-invents itself, again.
OK. I’ll admit that Benchmark is well known and will likely receive some coverage in the main press, so I’m only going to mention a couple of new items the company brought to the show that I hadn’t seen before. After the positive reviews and commercial success of their DACs, Benchmark didn’t sit on its laurels and came out with several new versions, each one with more useful features than the last, until they had a full-fledged remote controlled preamp. I liked it right away because it retained the half-width of the original DAC, yet offered all the features one needed and nothing extra. That it sounded great, was icing on the cake, but we would not have expected less from Benchmark.
This year they brought a new 100W amp to the show, the AHB2. What was interesting to me was that they focused on a spec that most other manufacturers hadn’t put as much emphasis on: dynamic range. Benchmark considered that because today’s hi res digital formats can range upwards of 125dB, so they made their amp capable of up to 130dB. While I didn’t have the chance to listen critically at the show, this is an interesting new take than they say makes their amp much quieter and composed. It will be interesting to hear the difference this makes – maybe I’ll have an opportunity in the future to do some critical listening.
Another new product they brought to the show is their SMS1 bookshelf speaker. What struck me immediately is how nicely designed it was. It was still a black rectangular box, but they braced it on the outside with stained wooden panels, similar to the bookshelves from Sonus Faber. They even added three little slits on the side, giving it a South-Western esthetic. On the front they placed a silver-tone grille that gives the little speaker a rock-n-roll edge. Given that Benchmark started out as a pro-audio company, I can see that influence trickling down to this speaker. Again, I didn’t get a chance to hear them, but I think they would sound quite good, especially when mated with the AHB2 amp.
Benchmark gear is made in the USA – they say so proudly on their brochures. That said, I would very much like to delve deeper into how green their products are. I’m sure I’ll find much there to like. The Benchmark folks just have a no B.S. approach to things that just wouldn’t be a good fit for low-quality parts sourced from abroad.
Conclusion: A greener path awaits
Well that wraps it up. There were many other companies delivering interesting new products and I wish I could cover them all. That said, I think these companies above deserve a second look, especially if you are one of those people who doesn’t always follow the herd. On the way you might also find that everything just sounds a little better, the air is cleaner, and the grass is greener. You’ll sleep better at night too.
If you have any comments or suggestions, please add them below.