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Blurred lines – are you sure you want it?

  • Mission im/possible. In May I took on three different hi-fi shows on three different continents during a four week marathon around the world: Fujiva Avic’s Spring Headphone Festival in Tokyo, the Hi-end Show in Munich and T.H.E. Show Newport Beach just outside of Los Angeles. On the in-between days I spent time visiting VPI Industries in New Jersey and checking out a host of hi-fi stores in Manhattan.

    Trying to cover the entirety of any show on your Jack Jones is a sure fire way of setting yourself up to fail. Besides, in firing from one room to the next, you risk missing the bigger picture. In Munich it took me two days to get the lay of the land before deciding upon which exhibits I would zoom in on.

    No-one does shows as thoroughly as Scot Hull. Under his Part-Time Audiophile moniker Hull enlists the help of two additional reporters at T.H.E. Show Newport Beach to produce show coverage that packs far more room range than I could ever dream of.

    Keiji Tsunoda and Kenji Oniki at the Fujiya Avic Spring Headphone Festival 2014

    However, to step back as an individual is perhaps a more effective way to observe trends and (especially) points of difference. There is no group consensus to be sought. I reflected on the patterns observed during May’s global assault in a recent piece for 6Moons: 4 weeks, 3 shows, 2 ears, 1 mind. That’s where you click if you wish to learn of my ‘Best in Show’ picks for both Munich Hi-end and T.H.E. Show Newport Beach.

    Of course, ‘Best in Show’ is a bit of a misnomer. At none of the three events attended did I catch even close to half the exhibits. In Munich, I’d be lucky if I scraped passed twenty percent. Instead, I chose to highlight the moments that cause me to mutter ‘holy shit!’ before my chin made a beeline for the floor.

    One of the things I enjoy most about hitting up hi-fi shows is connecting products – hardware observed as abstract items on the internet and in-store – with their designers . Behind every audio product is a person. And not every person is all business all the time. The sales guys presenting TEAC in Tokyo were happy to model my tremendous-sounding but funky-looking NAD Viso HP50.

    Yosuke Matsuno of TEAC at the Fujiya Avic Spring Headphone Festival 2014

    Alex Rosson of Audeze hides his deep understanding of planar-magnetic headphones behind a joker facade. He’s just as inclined to goof off as he is to talk shop. Rosson is likely the face of Audeze because of his youthful outlook and connections to the music industry; he’s a shot in the arm for an industry dominated by “Hotel California”-toting engineers.

    Alex Rosson of Audeze

    Rosson was available for product Q&A when I took both LCD-2 and LCD-X for a side-by-side spin in both Munich and Newport Beach; I much preferred the latter’s more upfront midrange and better defined lower frequencies.

    Alex Sventitsky of WyWires at Munich Hi-end 2014

    WyWires are a well established player in the custom cables space. In late April, company founder Alex Sventitsky announced that his Red Series would soon encompass Mr Speakers’ Alpha Dogs. I put my hand up for a trial. Sventitsky handed the cable off to me in Munich where it journeyed in my record case to Newport Beach. There, I immediately took it to Dan Clark for first listen. Acknowledging zero burn in time, Clark said the WyWires cable “remove some grain from the top end” of his stock; news that I took full circle back to Sventitsky and his wife at their Newport Beach exhibit.

    Alex and Nina Sventitsky at T.H.E Show Newport Beach 2014

    That Sventitsky’s cable costs half the entry fee of the Alphas themselves shouldn’t be seen as troublesome. It’s more an indication of the sky high value found in Clark’s modded Fostex.

    Bumping into Sventitsky unexpectedly in Newport Beach caused me to reflect on the individuals whom I encounter again and again. On this trip, I chatted with CEntrance’s Michael Goodman in Tokyo and Newport Beach. AURALiC’s Xuanqian Wang is a determined traveler but one who was clearly nearing the point of exhaustion by the time he’d done a day at Newport Beach. He too had undertaken the Munich Show two weeks prior and had journeyed back to China in between. I also spent time chatting with Steve Silberman and Stephen Mejias of Audioquest in both Munich and Newport. Winner of most airmiles for May though is James Lee of Astell&Kern – he and I exchanged salutations at ALL THREE shows.

    Richard Colburn and Xuanqian Wang of AURALiC with their Australian distributor George Poutakidis at Munich Hi-end 2014

    Often the first port(s) of call at shows is to visit site sponsors. That’s good manners, plain and simple. Thanking the guys that keep this content free for you to read is something worth acknowledging time and again. Their financial investment in DAR isn’t hidden though – it’s out in the open in the form of banner advertising. Think of it as a publicly available register of financial interests. Conspiracy theorists will likely continue to cast doubt on the influence of those dollars. I’m quite particular about pointing out to the Twilight Zoners that this money pays for my time and NOT my opinion. It’s a subtle distinction for sure but one that bears underscoring.

    At every opportunity I get – nearly always a stateside show – I take time to chat to Mike Moffat and Jason Stoddard of Schiit Audio, Sean Casey and his Zu crew, EJ Sarmento at Wyred4Sound and Mark Mallinson at Resonessence Labs.

    Another such sponsor is LHLabs. Their US$167 GeekWave is a ‘no compromise’ digital audio player that now joins the GeekOut and GeekPulse in a hatrick of crowd-funded success stories. They’re not just about budget audio though. Parent company Light Harmonic also delivers DACs to the high end of the market. Here’s the $32k DaVinci Dual DAC:


    I can’t tell you what it sounds like because I have no in-room reference point. But here are the supremely personable guys that made it happen:

    Gavin Fish, Sean Jiminez and Larry Ho of Light Harmonic / LH Labs at T.H.E. Newport Beach 2014

    Wanna see what a $20k+ headphone rig looks like? Here! The Woo Audio WA234 monoblocks (US$16k) and driving a pair of Abyss AB-1266 headphones (US5495):


    And here’s Woo Audio’s chief engineer Jack Wu (right) and his new media manager Michael Liang (left).

    Michael Liang and Jack Wu of Woo Audio at T.H.E Newport Beach 2014

    Some readers will know Liang as ‘Hifiguy528’, the personable fellow who runs a YouTube channel dedicated to headphone reviews and un-boxings. His fresh appointment to the manufacturer side of the fence raises some important questions about editorial partiality, both perceived and real. Liang is a also reviewer over at Audio360; there his bio has been appended to acknowledge Liang’s fresh industry appointment and that review coverage from this fella is off the menu for the time being — a clear display of Liang’s commitment to transparency.

    And it’s Audio360 who co-present The Headphonium exhibits in Newport. Working so closely in helping manufacturers promote their wares must place additional strain on staff writers Michael Mercer and Warren Chi when attempting to maintain professional distance as hi-fi commentators? We can’t touch it [T.H.E Show]!”, explains Chi when I comment on how much easier it must be to cover a show with more than one pair of ears/eyes. He understands the need for professional distance.

    Warren Chi, Michael Mercer and Kevin Venable of Audio360 at T.H.E. Newport Beach 2014

    The evening prior to the Munich show kicking off, the topic of maintaining clean lines between manufacturer and press formed the large part of a discussion with 6Moons editor Srajan Ebaen. His amiable manner masks a deadly serious concern for ongoing transparency among reviewer colleagues. Things become murky very quickly when readers aren’t made aware of the reviewer-at-hand’s other hifi-related financial interests. Unlike the openness of banner advertising, private consultant gigs and the associated flow of money aren’t visible to the reader. Intentional or not, such obfuscation erodes readers’ trust in not only that individual concerned but in hi-fi reviewers at large. Wouldn’t you want to know if the writer of a review, rave or tepid, was also on the books as a paid marketing consultant to several hifi manufacturers? I know I would.

    Srajan Ebaen and myself at Munich Hi-end 2014

    It’s easy to see how such appointments come about. Do enough shows and the after hours social engagements pile on top of regular daytime encounters too see initial exhibitor acquaintances slowly morph into friends. Show enough talent with writing and those friends might then see you as ripe for the tempting.

    One guy who knows a thing or two about the tough decisions necessary for keeping things honest in the audiophile press is Stephen Mejias. He recently surrendered his super-popular contributions to Stereophile after being snagged by Audioquest as their new VP of Communications. Catching up over a Bratwurst in Munich, Mejias confessed to it being one of the most agonising decisions he’s made in professional life to date. I bet.

    Stephen Mejias of Audioquest at Munich Hi-end 2014

    It’s easy to see why Audioquest hired Mejias. In conversation he’s more of listener than talker. He doesn’t blurt out the first thought that comes to mind so that when he does speak his opinion is softly spoken and well considered.

    Mejias is a sound example of someone who knew he could only do one or the other, that hi-fi journalism and Audioquest appointment were mutually exclusive opportunities. For those who remain squarely on the reviewing side of the fence, we must guard against both being (and appearing) too pally-pally with the guys that make the boxes we write about. There is an ongoing need for professional distance. That doesn’t preclude one from being friendly or personable but it necessitates some degree of formality. A handshake is more appropriate than a hi-5, a “how are you?” more appropriate than a “what’s up, dude?”. Without such subtle distinctions the waters between show exhibitor and show reporter soon muddy, making it tougher for the reader to discern between the two.

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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