Stereophile Show, Chicago 1999

OK, so you’re all wondering how our own Wendy Griffiths upheld the magazine’s honour during her Chicago debut, as a guest on the ‘Women In Audio’ panel. You’ll be pleased to know that she impressed all by being articulate (Yanks loved her accent and other attributes), while avoiding the usual lame, boring, overwrought feminist cant which turns every one of these sessions into the typical Bitch Wife From Hell Scenario. The session was indicative of the show, the American slant being so different from that of the Heathrow (next year: Hammersmith) and Bristol events that you might wonder, what’s it got to do with hi-fi? You know the drill: “Men only like hi-fi because they use it as an excuse to avoid doing the washing-up.”

Spare me. Wendy, to her everlasting credit, focused on issues like problems with retailers, differences between the USA and The Rest Of The World and other enlightening matters. Our own little Spice Girl, eh?

Another British visitor who scored mightily was Musical Fidelity’s Anthony Michaelson, who followed up his series of CDs with a live performance that impressed all who attended. (Hey, it was classical: you didn’t expect me to sit through it, did you?) It was quite amusing, as Anthony spent the days prior to the even in a totally nervous state, with stage fright like I’ve never seen before. The morning after? Relief like I’ve never seen before.

Given that the show clashed with CEDIA UK and the Frankfurt show, AND that it was a month earlier than usual, AND that it’s alleged to be the most expensive show (for exhibitors) – even more than CES – the public attendance was truly impressive. Hell, Chicago’s a big place and the Palmer House is smack in the middle, so no surprises there. But it was not bursting with new product launches, so I worked the show twice in case I miss anything.

Dominating the event was the format war between high-end audio DVD and Sony/Philips’ Super Audio CD (SACD). However smug the DVD consortium wishes to be, however much they think that it’s gonna be a shoe-in, SACD drew first blood with one very effective blade: while the DVD crowd talked about its new format, SACD’s supporters demonstrated the format with players dotted around the show. And it sounded good enough to make you reconsider the wisdom of launching a competing format. I’m not suicidal enough to make any predictions, and the wimp in me would bet on Audio DVD in the long term because of sheer numbers, but I have to say that SACD stands more of a chance than I would have thought even a day before the show.

You couldn’t escape SACD, but there were other highlights. Here are some which will have UK appeal:

LINN followed the high-end CD12 with two more affordable CD players. The Genki (£995) and Ikemi (£1950) are HDCD-capable players with Delta-Sigma DACs with 24-bit resolution, Brilliant power supplies, Knekt multi-room capability, two pairs of single-ended analogue outputs for feeding primary and secondary systems, optional RS232 comms module for software upgrades and connection to home automation systems, and Linn-standard 320x326x80mm (WDH) cases. What the Ikemi also features a custom-built transport with precision-machined drawer and shock-resistant suspension, Linn’s ‘2-D’ processing for lowest possible jitter, balanced analogue outputs, AES/EBU balanced digital audio output and TOSlink optical output.

MARANTZ showed the DR-17 is the latest CD-R/CD-RW recorder from the firm, with HDCD copy and playback capability, double-speed disc finalisation and sleek, low-profile looks. It’s fully compliant with SCMS copy protection and will cost Americans only $1499 in black.

ROKSAN surprised your reporter with is first A/V product, Caspian DSP. This comprehensive control unit provides seven digital and analogue inputs plus Dolby Digital via RF, tape, digital, and 5.1 channel outputs, delay adjustment, video switching, remote control, Dolby Digital and Pro-Logic surround processing and more. Also shown was the matching Caspian 5-Channel A/V Amplifier, rated at 5x80W, or 140W/ch in stereo mode.

More surprising still was a joint-venture with SPENDOR, a magnetically shielded loudspeaker to sell for £1100 per pair, or £2500 for five. It’s a two-way reflex design finished in grey, with a 480x156x285mm MDF cabinet and sculpted grille; the centre-channel variant features a neat, changeable ‘base angle bar’ to adjust the speaker relative to the listening position. All five speakers (a subwoofer is under development, too) use the same components, which include a VIFA TC20 20mm soft dome tweeter and two Spendor 130mm woofers. Prices include dedicated stands.
DYNAUDIO’s Contour 1.3 Special Edition was conceived as a 1.3 Mk II ‘designed without limitations’, but it became as a completely new speaker built into the 1.3’s 15x8x11.6in (HWD) cabinet. The SE weighs 22lb and uses all-new drivers, including a 28mm soft dome tweeter with pure aluminium wire voice coil and double magnet system and a 170mm polypropylene cone woofer in a die-cast basket, also with aluminium wire for the voice coil. The crossover is a 6dB/octave design with separate boards for each driver, and it’s terminated in WBT gold binding posts. Stateside, the price is $3499 per pair.

MONITOR AUDIO showed the 31.5×7.75×7.75in (HWD) floorstanding Silver 5, finished in cherry, Rose Mahogany or Black Oak. It’s a two-way system shielded for A/V use with a 1in gold dome tweeter and two 5.5in Silver C-CAM woofers. Bi-wirable, the rear-ported Silver 5 is mass-loadable and comes with a plinth finished in black.

SENNHEISER showed a bizarre device aimed at computer gamers and truly sad bastards. The Sennheiser Surrounder Pro is a collar – like an ox-yoke – fitted with front and rear speakers. Enough said.

(Inside Hi-Fi, 1999)