American Made Audio
A site for audiophiles to discover American-made audio manufacturers
Los Angeles Audio Show 2017
The new reissue of Sgt. Pepper had me thinking about other things that change over 20 years.
I attended my first audio show next to LAX in 1997, 20 years ago. It was toward the end of a 10-year stint in the City of Angels, and LA was my home then. It was also the decade that sealed my fate as an audiophile. I realized that my mid-fi CD-based stereo wasn’t bringing me the musical satisfaction that my old turntable and my dad’s reel-to-reel did when I was a kid in the 70’s and 80’s. Plus, grunge, hair metal, and gangster rap had turned me away from popular music to jazz – a format that rewards quality reproduction more than others. I wasn’t sure what I’d find driving to the 1997 Stereophile Hi-Fi show in 1997, located in a now-forgotten airport hotel with expelled jet exhaust hanging over the sun-bleached streets and airport-convenient “gentlemen’s clubs”.
Looking back, the 90’s were an important transitional period for the industry. Manufacturers and retailers were chasing the home-theater market. After all, isn’t selling 5 speakers better than just two? Who knew then that 20 years later the larger consumer market would go the other way with people embracing sound bars and single “smart” speakers controlled by voice? Vinyl was at its nadir. Some of my memories from that show are some of my most vivid: Wilson Audio showed their ability to play big using a scene from Titanic; Starship Troopers got the deluxe treatment with a $60,000 projector and Faroudja line doubler playing off of a laserdisc; there was even an early demo of what was to become SACD.Plus, I had recently discovered a young Canadian singer whose new album I was using as
In 1997, Wilson Audio showed their ability to play big using a scene from Titanic; Starship Troopers got the deluxe treatment with a $60,000 projector and Faroudja line doubler playing off of a laserdisc; there was even an early demo of what was to become SACD. Plus, I had recently discovered a young Canadian singer whose new album I was using as a demo disc, and was amused when one exhibitor after another asked for her name: Diana Krall. I didn’t start the fire, but I might have fanned the flames a little bit, fellow audiophiles.
There will still plenty of Hi-Fi retailers at the time, at least in LA. Good Guys, Circuit City and LATronics owned the main consumer market, with smaller shops like Ken Crane’s moving upwards, and stores like Shelley’s Stereo, Optimal Enchantment, Brooks Berdan and GNP AudioVideo handling the high end. Interestingly, it’s the low and mid that have seen the biggest disruption, though some argue that high end has changed just as much with prices continually climbing and customers continually aging.
Today, audio shows are more important than ever: if you want to get a sampling of gear, where else can you go to hear so many brands in such a short time? While you can’t judge a component or brand by a single show, you can get a good sense of what’s worth exploring further. But it’s fascinating to see the way the trends from yesterday are still in play today:
Home Theater is still in play: a Dolby Atmos room bombarded guests with 4.3 google-jillion speakers (that’s an alternative fact) blasting well over 100 dB of explosions and gunshots (that’s a mainstream fact, as verified by my iPhone), Sony showed off their home-theater rigs and car audio systems. High-res is now pervasive with Tidal and Roon seemingly in more rooms than not, and MQA continues to grow, even though it’s not universally embraced. Wilson still plays big. Car stereos are still one of the biggest ways consumers experience audio. (More on that when we get to Mark Levinson.)
Plus: have you heard the new Diana Krall small combo album?
What’s new since the 90’s? The resurgence of turntables headphones would have surprised my younger self. The highest-end has only gone up in price.
Technically, the LA Audio Show is a new show with 2017 being its inaugural year, but it was born out of the ashes of the long-running T.H.E Newport Show. The actual running of the show seemed to go off without a hitch, at least from the perspective of an attendee. The rough edges had to do more with the location itself. Poor directional signage helped me log many extra steps on my fitness tracker; the large rooms on the second floor were acoustically poor with thin walls that rattled; and the registration was in between the marketplace/headphone section and the elevators, leaving marketplace exhibitors with relatively few customers. While the second-floor rooms were a real concern, not all of this detracted from the experience as an attendee – if anything the extra space and attention from exhibitors was welcomed. I walked away with the sense that show organizers would work out the kinks for next year and exhibitors would better be able to prepare for or avoid the difficult rooms.
Then again, maybe my flashbacks all started thanks to the registration booth freebie bag touting the enduring Compact Disc – after all, the tagline was “Perfect Sound Forever.”
I had two short days to see everything, due to family obligations. When I started this site, I figured that American-made was limiting enough that it would be easy to cover. I was wrong. There are over 200 manufacturers on The List, and four floors of rooms at the show: too many to give proper coverage to. Still, there were many highlights: a few truly great-sounding rooms, some new gear from old manufacturers, even a brand-new speaker manufacturer from Kentucky. Here are the highlights.
The morning started off with a quick visit to Kubala-Sosna (Kubala-Sosna Emotion is one of the AMA reference cables) and YG Acoustics. Unfortunately, a difficult room led them to playing at softer levels and didn’t reveal the potential of the system.
One of the nice things about audio shows is the chance to join seminars – here Paul McGowan of American Made Audio sponsor PS Audio joins legendary designer John Curl and Richard Vandersteen of Vandersteen Audio. Given that these gentlemen represent two-thirds of the current AMA reference system, I had to attend. John Curl recounted how being fired by the Grateful Dead was the impetus behind his career.
Let’s face it: all the great gear in the world makes no difference without great music to play on it. One of my favorite labels is MA Recordings whose mix of world, folk and jazz has been a constant companion on my system for the last 20 years. Todd Garfinkle was manning the booth and recounted the founding of MA Recordings which started when his classic album Prayers Wishes Illusions was rejected by Windham Hill.
Chesky Music brought music old and new stretching from Rebecca Pidgeon to Macy Gray, and Cookie Marenco’s Blue Coast Music not only had content for sale, but had live musicians accompanying themselves on recording. Blue Coast always features the most interactive rooms at the show.
Mark Levinson featured an almost entirely new range of products at the show, including a static display of the upcoming $12,500 No. 515 turntable, co-developed with VPI. Other than a different motor, hidden wires and Levinson design, the VPI rep was unable to detail how it varies from the VPI Prime Signature – more details to be announced as the table starts shipping by the fourth quarter of this year.
The driver of the new range of products was a demand from their automotive partners to regain a halo around the Mark Levinson name. Levinson is part of Harmon, who sells car audio to Lexus under the Mark Levinson name. It is the relationship with Lexus which both forced and funded the development of a new family of products. Most of the display was static and the room was not conducive to listening – I’ll look forward to future reports and reviews.
One of the most engaging rooms of the show was the room dedicated to affordable audio from Positive Feedback Online, including American made products from Schiit, Tekton and Magnepan, sometimes combined with American-designed products from AudioEngine and Elac. System prices ran from $600 to $5000 the sound was exceptional at every level. In an industry where mere cables can run multiples of $5,000 hearing a complete system that provided deep musical satisfaction for that price was extremely satisfying.
Sean Casey’s Zu Audio always provides a breath of fresh air, and worked with Nelson Pass’ Firstwatt at this show. Here’s are two modern American brands that take audio seriously, but not serious. Play good music, enjoy it and don’t obsess – let them do that for you. Nils Frahm’s innovative, electrifying and gorgeous Spaces album sounded exactly as it should on the Zu Druid speakers (this particular pair a tricked out version for the show) driven by the F7 amp. Speaking of affordable, both companies provide tremendous value. With Zu speakers starting at $1500 and providing an easy -to-drive dynamic sound they are the perfect starting point for many and the perfect ending point for some.
Speaking of affordable American-made audio, Paul and Judy Speltz’s Anticables grace many systems regardless of price – from humble setups to the recording system at William Ackerman’s Imaginary Road Studios. If that’s not enough, they’re offering 20% off when you buy online using the code LAAS17. We walked away with a pair of jumpers.
For those looking for a little down-home pride, look no further than ESS Labs, showing their bookshelf speakers driven by McIntosh electronics.
Shows are notoriously difficult conditions for audio manufacturers. It’s easy to get stuck in bad rooms (as did most on the 2nd floor this year), or face transit damage, or sapping power, or noisy ventilation… so my rule is if a brand or product can consistently sound good at shows they are well-worth further discovery. After visiting Newport 2016, RMAF 2016 and now LAAS 2017, Constellation Audio is smack in the middle of my radar. Here, Constellation chose the Wilson Yvette to highlight their strengths which is a dynamic sound that brings enough resolution and sheer musicality to just sound right. This was one of my top three rooms at LAAS, and the listening was simply a pleasure.
As much affordable gear as we saw, I walked away from Day 1 like a boy who found a box of puppies – I wanted to bring them all home. As my buddy and I walked back to the car from the American bistro near the hotel I ran across this sign… and passed on the super lotto but availed myself of the Scotch, which was sure to give a more reliable result.