I am drawn to spinning vinyl. It is no mere prejudice, it is an orientation, like being left handed, or a Mets fan. You are Born This Way, and Lady Gaga will only do it for you at 33-1/3rpm. I like records. I like CDs, much less so. I also like almost every unaffordable thing I'm shown in countless suites of fantasy systems.
Carrying on in living stereo for one weekend in April, The New York Audio Show 2013 (at the former Helmsley Palace on Madison Ave.) gave sound buffs the chance to hear what an amplifier that costs a kid's college tuition sounds like. Hobbyists either walk away in stride or fall off the deep end, returning home to mull re-purchasing their already pricey gear.
But what if you're just a casual observer? Can a non-geek really hear a difference?
The greatest challenge at these events is not to go into sensory overload. As with wine tastings, it's wise to take just a sip, spit it out and move on. Does a cursory sampling do justice to the artistry and workmanship at hand? Of course not, but I solider on through glowing and glistening gear, looking like it was built from recycled alien spaceship mystery-metal, hand-sourced from Area 51. How can such otherworldly devices create the illusion of visceral, live performance?
The gap between sound files and spinning discs (silver or black) is narrower in an Audio Show setting, where the super-fine quality of everything puts all sources in equitable balance. Digital sounds unnervingly analog-like, and most analog is squeaky clean. I heard lots of ornate tube gear that was utterly transparent and smoothly solid-state-ish; also much solid state amplification that flowed with tube-like effortlessness. At this level, it's all good.
Affable hosts indulged LP requests from patrons, a relief from the taciturn showroom playlists that sputtered out tepid renditions of the American Songbook by one mediocre chanteuse after another, alongside noodling jazz and new age sounds, the odd raga or earnest folk ditty, or deadening piano sonatas. Real people asked for some frickin' Zeppelin, for Hip Hop, Beethoven, Coltrane. Thank you.
An exception was the suite reserved for Coleen Murphy's classic album showcase, where one record is offered in the dark, amidst a hush of attention and appreciation. Friday afternoon's was a mid-'50s Julie London album of standards that stuck like butterscotch to all our senses (thanks, Joni Mitchell). They also provided something rare for an audio show: Real vintage vinyl, comparing different first-issue pressings in back-to-back spins.
The little suite occupied by British tube-amplifier maven Audio Note had a wake-like atmosphere that was eerily accented by Jeff Buckley's version of "Hallelujah," just a little too ghostly for comfort through visceral vinyl playback. But their digital approach impressed even more, with their "non-oversampling" D-to-A Converter, offering straight-no-chaser digital with only the gentle filter of a single glowing tube.
At Spendor's modest display it was comforting to see (as well as hear) a speaker that was recognizable as such, after room upon room of futuristic rocket capsules. It was a reminder that some names you know for a reason.
The most comical scene was in a suite devoted to tubed headphone amplification. All around, sound poured from everywhere — a mashup of piano riffs, guitar picking, symphonic swells and vocal wails — but in this little workshop space was utter silence. Patrons sat before impressive little kits of tubes and knobs, plugged in to bulbous headphones like wireless radio broadcasters. It looked like a press room from the 1920's.
So, there's an afternoon of browsing, and briskly, too. And I missed a ton, with barely any time for the men's room or to take a break and not listen to anything for a little while, just to let it all soak in. Sensory overload, where is thy sting?