BLOG #60. CanJam NYC-2019: The Customer Is Not Always Right

This year StereoPravda has decided not to exhibit at the CanJam NYC-2019, which was taking place February 16-17 in New York at the Marriott Marquis hotel at Times Square.

There were several reasons for that decision; the main one was the current stagnation of the global portable audio industry, especially, in “The Western World” (at least to us, the scene in South East Asia looks much more lively).

Nevertheless, to be fully aware of all the latest news in the area, I decided to come the show.

My impressions from the show – this time as a common visitor – completely correspond to my impressions from the previous New York show as an exhibitor:

I don’t think that I will be able to add to those impressions anything truly substantial.

However, I will try anyway…

Because I was not constantly tied up to my “booth”, I could devote my time this year to look around and to see and to hear the stuff which I didn’t have an opportunity to put my hands and my ears on during the previous shows.

For the same reason, immediately after arriving to New York, so to say, “directly from the plane”, I seized a kind invitation from my former compatriot Sergei Porotsky, the owner of an Italian manufacturer Viva Audio, to visit him and to audition his two home audio systems.

What I heard there sonically left a favorable impression on me, possibly, because his room acoustics (in a brick condominium located in New York University area, which was built, I guess, sometime at the end of the XIX century) happened to be very good (despite the lack of any special acoustic treatment devices).

Nevertheless, as I successfully got done with all sorts of audiophile rush over super-duper expensive home audio many years ago (a pair of Viva Audio speakers in Sergei’s bigger stereo system cost a half of million dollars), I didn’t feel any nostalgia over the demonstrations. To me the visit to Sergei was no more than another proof that I can’t really see any sense in all the “dances with tambourines” around any exotic vinyl turntables and huge “closets” filled with acoustic drivers, which consume the most of a living room’s real estate. By using similar experiences from my own home audio legacy, and, as I see it, having successfully transferred the sound of suchlike systems to a truly portable platform, so, what’s the point?!

And now, regarding the show itself. However hard I’ve been trying to look around, I couldn’t see anything but “going through the same (fatal) motions”.

Despite that all the relevant technologies were “ploughed far and beyond” a long time ago, I didn’t see anything at the show that would indicate any attempts to create something that would even remotely remind me of a novelty.

For instance, I didn’t see any “active” portable systems. Or, I didn’t see any new ways to couple ear monitors to ear canals (in spite of that frenzy which caught each and every who’s who in audio business over patents for inflatable ear tips). Or, I didn’t see at the show any new products which would allow individual adjustments and tunings (either similar to those which are taken for granted in hearing aid industry, or similar to the “room-correction” techniques which are already widely used in home audio).

However, I did enjoyed some of the demoes at the show. For instance, a relatively inexpensive DAP HiBy “R6 Pro” ($700) impressed me quite a bit. No doubt, its very “clean” sound is its big pro. It goes without saying that some of its sonic crispiness is, sort of, like an artificial flavoring, which becomes obvious when you directly compare its sonic presentation with that of the flagship Cayin DAP. But, at the same time, that clarity becomes even more attractive when you start to compare the sound of this HiBy to, let’s say, much more dull sonic signature of another flagship model – this time from lotoo.

Also, time after time, I am constantly reminded at how “complete” the design of Sennheiser “HD-800” is. Taken as a benchmark, this venerable headphone demonstrates how “raw” most of the products on the market – including the “closed” version of this exact headphone – are (with some possible exceptions from higher tiers of Stax).

The problem with all the new models is a conceptual one, which is directly related to the Consumer Electronics’ priorities settled down under currently unquestionable paradigm of “The Customer Is Always Right”.

All these infamous public opinion ratings, both political, and the rest, do represent, obviously, some very useful information, but its concrete application should completely depend on a particular stage – a rise, a stagnation or a fall – of a given social structure or a given market segment.

So, if that stage is changed to a new one, then application of results of suchlike surveys, when being used to formulate some new action, and especially for some truly meaningful ideas and for some truly meaningful products, can require plans of action built on the direct opposition to the current status quo.

That’s why, when a previous concept starts to “slip”, then, say, for an industry to move forward it would, most likely, need to start to monetize a completely different concept: for instance, “The Customer Is Not Always Right”.

As they say, “the times, they are changing”, and my old venerable HiFiMan “801” still have been winning – sonically – over all these new DAP models mainly because it’s a product of a completely different stage of portable audio industry’s development. The reason it still wins is because this “niche” product was the first one of a company, which, at the time of its inception, didn’t really conceptualize it in terms of the manufacturer’s any plans for a wide expansion on the market.
Therefore, when HiFiMan started to work on it, they did survey the potential customers’ base (via forum), but the latter included only the minority representing the most “hardcore” audiophiles (which at the time was the only customer base for dedicated portable audio products).

Afterwards, when HiFiMan started to plan its substantial expansion on the portable audio market, it stopped to ever have a choice but to “crawl at its knees” before the majority of the new customers. That is, of their least discerning type, and, therefore, stopped to ever have a choice but to become a slave to all those, allegedly objective, marketing opinion studies.

Their latest “R-2-R” Digital Audio Player ($2 500) is a living proof to the latter. There is no doubt that the model is destined to become a complete failure. As, on the one hand, with its high cost, it’s not as “slick”-looking as some of the top DAPs on the market, like, for instance, Astell & Kern’s ones. And, on the other, sonically, it doesn’t have a chance against some relatively affordable competition, like, for instance, the aforementioned HiBy DAP. However, for some reason, HiFiMan continues to stubbornly promote this (still half-baked) product.

It’s worth noting that “801” is still very desirable for a lot of sonic connoisseurs. While the vast majority of “transitional” DAPs, with all their numerous “bells and whistles” on board, which, definitely, added a lot to their original cost, become obsolete “on the way from a store to a home”, and, therefore, become some useless junk very soon after they were brought to the market.

The best (or the worst) illustration of the latter was a recent phone call from an old client of mine, who installed a Home Theater at his apartment about twenty years ago. The projector, it was based on, is a CRT-one. If, at the time, he paid for the projector the price of a single-bedroom apartment in Moscow, then now he’s being moaning to me that needs to pay some more money to hire somebody to take the thing from his ceiling and discard it to a junkyard. While the audio part of the installation is still “the best it can be” by all the current standards.

Therefore, in the current corporate feuds, “The Customer Is Always Right” only when he or she is willing to shell out ridiculous amounts of money for some quickly outdated products, but the dictum immediately changes to “The Customer Is Not Always Right” as soon as he or she starts to raise (however humbly) a voice regarding some eternal values.

The constant manufacturers’ “tap dancing” in front of their potential customers to sale more and more expensive toys for the latter’s entertainment, and to sale more and more status symbols to satisfy their vanity lead to such awkward products as a series of hybrid ear monitors from oBravo. From the four models in the series ($1 800, $3 500, $4 500 and $10 000) I was impressed the most – as it often happens - by their least expensive one. Despite overall elegant touch in a “flavor” of their sound, the more expensive oBravo model I would audition, the more unbalanced sound would become, with less coherence in low frequencies and constant raise in “darkness” of presentation for every skip in the model’s price. I don’t even mention the design problems of these ear monitors’ in achieving stability when positioned within the ear canals, especially for the series’ much heavier top models.

In my opinion, “MySphere” headphones belong to the same group of “lunatic” products. I can’t really see what kind of a common sense can guide you to find an application for such a product. Despite their head-spinning design (it seems that only Germans can pull off such a trick so flawlessly), I am at a complete loss regarding whom this product can be addressed to. Especially considering its very low sensitivity and its relatively low impedance, let alone its quirky “wide” open design construction and a very steep price. During 15 minutes of my auditioning to “My Sphere” (including some stupid Russian pop music, God knows how to end up in the demo playlist) two Woo Audio portable amps’ batteries were completely discharged. Which indicated how “hungry” for current these headphones are; and even if that was a case of bad luck for the demo, as the amps could be used for quite a while before I showed up.

There was a similar case with the last “universal” IEMs offering from Campfire Audio called “Solaris”. The main condition to even start some discussion of an ear monitor’s sound quality are its correct positioning within the ear canal and its adequate seal. However, any attempt to resolve the paradox between the wide variance in human ear canal anatomies and some predetermined physical configuration of a pseudo-“universal” IEMs is a recipe for a failure.

To use a shoe analogy, you can either try to sale a shabby one-size-fits-all home slippers, or, alternatively, you can try to sale a good quality Italian shoe, but in the latter case, of a certain size only.

There is nothing in between, however hard you would try. So, you should honestly decide what you going to make: either one, or another, and even with a smart expression on your face you should not even try to fool anybody around you into believing that it’s both.

Speaking of which, our company has chosen consciously – in such a dilemma – figuratively speaking, “to manufacture Italian shoes of a fixed size” (yes, with a perfect fit only to a chosen few). While companies like Campfire Audio, in the same dilemma, figuratively speaking, have chosen “to manufacture “one-size-fits-all” slippers” (in which I “could barely slip my feet” and from which “my feet were constantly were slipping off” during their demo).

And all of us should be fully aware of a manufacturer’s choice in this “universal fit” dilemma (considering that “universal” fit technology still has some substantial advantages over custom-mold approach – but that’s another story).

Nevertheless, from all the IEMs at the show, the best fit I managed to get was from a model called “Anole VX” made by qdc (that was their flagship model for $1 750 in “universal” fit using silicon tips). I can’t help but should pay respects here to the growing competence of Chinese manufacturers in voicing the sound of their ear monitors. The sound of this ear monitors impressed me a lot (especially in its “neutral” mode).

There were some notable electronics’ exhibits at the show. One of them was Benchmark “DAC-3B”/”HPA-4” combo (the latter is their new dedicated headphone amplifier). The sound of the set via several headphones available there for auditioning was very robust, coherent and balanced, which obviously indicated how “polished” these Benchmark products are. They were obviously not rushed to the market “half baked”, but are results of meticulous effort to bring the products to the stage of “the best it can be”. The reason for such an approach to design is obvious: the company’s roots are in “pro music” environment, where it’s not enough just to “tap dance” in front of some silly neophytes. With professionals you can’t get away with just some colorful prose, over there you should deliver on your promises (the Sennheiser’s roots are the same, and that’s why the smash hit of “HD-800” is far from being just a strike of luck).

At the same time, we should always remember that the “pro audio” industry never set itself some absolute sonic tasks, while true High End Audio’s raison d’etre has always been a struggle for the absolute perfection. That’s why the best examples of the latter can demonstrate much more convincing results that even the best examples of the former.

In my humble opinion, considering the sonic tasks that we set out for StereoPravda, it was not a pure coincidence at this show that the closest approximation to the sound of our ear monitors via the HiFiMan “801” happened to be the Woo Audio/Stax combo.

And I am not over exaggerating here.

Despite numerous attempts at the show to demonstrate all sorts of exotic gear (SET-amps from Cayin can be a good example), Woo Audio’s products left an impression of the most “refined” ones, bearing a lot in common with the way such equipment looks and “behaves” sonically in the best home audio systems. The sound of Woo Audio woos (sic!) me in the most familiar realm of true High End Audio (the American origin of this company – vs Chinese origin of companies like Cayin - can indirectly indicate that they successfully graduated from the local highest education in sound, while most of the Far Eastern companies has not (yet)).

Running back and forth over Manhattan I’ve been noticing some changes which took place in familiar surroundings. And nothing described what was happening at the last CanJam better than that, in the last few years, all more or less affordable to mere mortals stores with the best quality products – be it High End Audio shops, cigar boutiques or clothes designer discount outlets – were replaced with some fast food cafeterias.

It looks as we recently again hit the next stage of the society development, when, due to gravitation of recently connected demand from various world’s peripheries, generated by the last cycle of globalization, the whole spectrum of social demand practically narrowed down (preceding the next world cataclysm) to just “bread and circuses”.

And the last CanJam in New York left an impression of such a “circus” for a jaded crowd that is overfed on “bread”.

The vast majority of that crowd is not really interested in anything substantial, it doesn’t really want to be involved,  it doesn’t want to invest any personal effort in anything beyond making their ends meet, etc. So, they come to such show for a little of “curiosities window shopping”, and it seemed to me that the show itself was for them, basically, just an escape from boredom on a February weekend.

It’s possible, that at the onset of the industry, when the life was much easier to a lot of the show visitors, and when they enjoyed much more stability, they became accustomed to “be always right”. Especially, because, at the time when proposition on the portable audio market was much more limited, it would be more difficult to make a decision which was, sort of, not right.

But all this has been already relegated to history, and it seems that the time has come when to be “always right” again in future, the customers should remind themselves about the roots of their enthusiasm for music and sound and to put up with a necessity to, at least, temporarily admit that sometimes they can be “not always right”.

19.03.2019 // Author:  (Bigmisha) // Number of views:  73

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