I’m starting to feel that I might not be a true, dyed-in-the-wool audiophile. I dig Momus and Built To Spill. Boards Of Canada and Neil Young. Animal Collective and Sufjan Stevens. Plastikman and Bright Eyes. Peter Gabriel and Talk Talk. If Newport Beach taught me one thing: most exhibiting audiophiles don’t dig too much of this kind of music. Is it too poorly recorded/mastered to their ears? Or do they simply not like it? Much of the time, they put the cart before the horse. Chasing the best sounding recordings homogenises the music on offer.
Despite the rare alignment of stars, hi-fi show musical tastes seem to run contrary to my own…and also to much of the vinyl being sold downstairs in the Atrium. There’s tonnes of the stuff! Props to Amoeba (whose store on Sunset Blvd is something to behold) and Music Direct who had a good few boxes of LCD Soundsystem, Panda Bear, Bowie, Dylan etc. Evidence enough that there are people at the show who clearly dig this stuff as much as I. Surely my taste ain’t so leftfield?
For me it boils down to one simple question: do you listen to certain records primarily because they sound good OR do you listen to them because you LOVE them warts n’ all (with the recording/mastering/pressing quality a secondary concern)? I fall into the latter camp. Music first, sound quality second. A good song is a good song. Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs is a great record that sounds kinda shitty (on CD at least). Do I care? Nope. I love the songs contained therein too much to fret about compression. In short: great sound quality of the recording is a bonus – and a not a prerequisite – to my enjoying it.
Most of the music I caught at Newport Beach drove through well-worn, clichéd territory: Diana Krall and her acoustic clones, jazz quartets, string quartets. Occasionally you’d hear Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig In The Sky”. If you’re a Linda Ronstadt fan, you’d find yourself in hog heaven in the Soundsmith/VPI room. A young gun who doesn’t talk hi-fi 24/7, Mat Weisfeld (of VPI) is a top chap. He was as keen I that I should get my ears around his new Traveler turntable for ten minutes. The Traveler is VPI’s new budget ‘table that ships with aluminium platter AND Gimbaled tonearm for less than fifteen hundred sheets. Rega/Pro-ject be nervous.
I’d brought a couple of my own records: Portishead’s second album and Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, not giving a second thought to how they sound. (Remember: music first, sound quality second). With Soundsmith’s Peter Ledermann at the helm, neither were allowed to spin for more than a couple of minutes. Portishead apparently had a “weird EQ” and Dylan “goes on like that for six minutes”. My choices had cleared the room. Peter Ledermann threatened Ms Ronstadt once more. [Help?] The scene was a tad awkward. Politely explaining that I felt the same way about his Ronstadt record as others might about Portishead, a middle-way (compromise) was found from within Ledermann’s record box: The Beatles’ Love. “A Day In The Life” sounded stunning. And I mean STUNNING. My inner dialogue burst into a spontaneous round of applause – it was that good.
Given the narrow band of music I heard at the show, I’d wager that many other exhibitors don’t run an ‘anything goes’ or ‘BYO’ music policy. My point? Not all manufacturers/retailers/exhibitors are “all about the music”. Peter Ledermann is a brilliant engineer with a brain the size of a planet but I’m fairly confident he would concede that he’s “all about the music as long as it sounds good”?
The broader opinion here is that show organisers can’t complain that younger folk aren’t attending their events: if they don’t hear their music they simply aren’t gonna come. Audiophillia extends way beyond Jazz At The Yawnshop. The man in the street might not care – or know – that some of his favourite albums are terribly recorded or mastered but I bet he’d relish hearing them on $30k+ loudspeakers, of which there were plenty at Newport Beach: Sonorus, Tannoy, Swan, Magico. He might not buy on the spot but the seed would be planted.
The guys from Focal like to have fun with their music choices. In the bigger room, Lana Del Rey and Tom Waits both get a run between more traditional audiophile fare. As does Rick Astley (for shits and giggles) – ha!
At the other extreme of the music vs sound quality spectrum at this Newport Beach show sits a lone star: Zu Audio. Records are strewn everywhere. It’s as much as DJ booth as it is a hifi demo. Music dominates a simple setup: modded Technics SL-1200, K&K/Art Audio phono stage, Melody pre-amp, Audion Black Star monos pushing Zu Definition MKIV or the as-yet-unnamed budget coaxials. Sean Casey explains that this new Zu model sounds more incisive and revealing than the Omen and that it won’t be as affable as the Omen with poorer recordings.
Spend time in the Zu room and the gear novelty quickly wears off. Instead one is stuck by how much the love of music (that aligns perfectly with my own tastes) dominates this space. LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean” causes some folk to leave the room. Some enter and leave immediately. The rest stay and dig it BIG TIME. At no point does Casey fret (too much) about the quality of the recording(s) being spun. It’s a one-man DJ set with some inter-song banter about the loudspeakers on show: “It’s maybe only a 6.5/10 sound right now but there’s enough good stuff going on for you to get the basic idea of what Zu is about”. Saying that at a hifi show takes balls. Only in Room 426 is it all about the music, man.