Nipper was the terrier that, around the beginning of the 20th century, was pictured listening to a gramophone. He became the much-loved trademark for the Victor Talking Machine Company, RCA Victor, HMV, and other record labels. Nipper continued to adorn labels of RCA LPs into the 1950s, and his image has been periodically revived.
Plaster casts of Nipper were available for sale at the Capital Audiofest, which I attended this weekend, in the Maryland 'burbs of Washington. A medium-size Nipper went for $37, and was practically the only item at the show I could afford. The Audiofest was a venue for demonstrating high-end audio equipment. High-end means, "If you have to ask how much it costs ... ."
Why go to the event if the gear would have knocked my budget into origami? I wanted to see (and, of course, hear) the changes the audio industry has gone through since I worked at Santa Fe Sight & Sound in 1988-1991. Even then it was tough to keep up with the new technology. Now it has gotten still more esoteric.
At least a couple of dozen manufacturers and one high-class retailer had rooms with elaborate set-ups of components and connections, designed to show what their products could do. In some ways the Audiofest resembled the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas I went to as an SF Sight & Sound employee, but this was more comfortable. It was limited to audio, unlike the CES (which had everything from car alarms to -- I kid you not -- a huge room dedicated to "adult" movies, with some of the, uh, actresses as greeters). It was large enough to be able to audition many systems, but not so huge as to generate listening fatigue -- well, not until it was getting toward the end of the day.
I've kind of followed the progress of the industry through publications like Stereophile and The Absolute Sound. But I don't go to high-end retail showrooms. Not because I can't resist temptation, but because it isn't ethical to take up salespeople's time when what they are selling is beyond my means. However, the Audiofest was different; you paid for admission and that entitled you to wander at your heart's content from one demo to another.
Music software increasingly consists of computer downloads rather than compact discs, or computer downloads onto CDs. Interestingly, while almost all the systems included CD players and turntables for vinyl LPs (all the fashion these days), in many cases they were secondary to computer files as sources for the playback demonstrations.
The problem with downloads is that most common file types, especially the dreaded MP3s, are compressed and the sound is compromised. I talked with one of the experts on hand about lossless compression for downloads, mainly .FLAC files. If I understood correctly, the trouble is that no equipment other than computers can play .FLAC recordings; they have to be converted to .WAV, which do retain all the original bits and sample rates (now often 24/96 or greater). It just seems like too much of a pain. When lossless downloads become easier, as they surely will, I'll sign on.
Separate digital-analog converters (DACs) seemed ubiquitous. A CD player has its own DAC, but like all components that marry different functions (in this case, the disc reading mechanism and the conversion of digital information to an analog signal), it is said that some compromise is involved. Voilà: your dedicated DAC housed in its own box. (I'd always pronounced it in my mind as "D-A-C," but the pros said "Dack.")
The demographics of the attendees were interesting. Unsurprisingly, 90 percent male, with a few wives and girlfriends; didn't see any women who appeared to be there on their own or with women friends. Generally middle aged or older. Prosperous-looking, no Great Recession here.
What did surprise me was how many well-to-do blacks were in attendance. The Maryland suburbs have a high black population, and I would guess most of those I saw at the show wear (or used to wear) U.S. government ID badges as bling during the week. To be fair, the same is probably true of many of the white men who showed up.
Many of the blacks brought their own CDs or LPs to listen to on the high-end systems; their music was generally jazz, and good stuff. I have always found jazz to be a good meeting ground with African Americans, and I tried to start up a conversation about recordings we were hearing, for instance Gene Ammons's Boss Tenor, which is in my own collection. (Serious listening was going on, but the semi-partylike atmosphere encouraged conversation.)
My attempts at cross-cultural interaction were disappointing. None of the blacks I tried to chat up were rude or hostile, but I got a lot of short replies and the impression they didn't have a lot of time for whitey's enthusiasms about "their" music.
Back to the sound reproduction. Were the examples of systems that cost more than my annual income mind-blowing? In a few cases, yes, but not necessarily. And given that each manufacturer was showing off what they considered their best products, it was remarkable how different they sounded from one another. All were impressive, but in different ways, some of which I liked, some not so much.
One problem was the music chosen by the proprietors for their demonstrations. Lots of jazz, particularly featuring extended drum solos. Some rock, which is useless for demonstrating accuracy: with electronic instruments, there is no way to know what they "really" sound like. It's understandable that a proto-sales event for big-bucks equipment encourages playing knock-your-socks-off recordings ... but really. High enders: can we take it as a given that all these systems with eye-watering prices are brilliant at transients (drum thwacks, plucked strings, etc.)? I want to know what they can do with more subtle and varied music. Eventually I went out to my car and pulled a disc out of the CD player, Brahms's Third and Fourth Symphonies conducted by the late Sir Charles Mackerras. I requested it be auditioned on two different mega-systems, and the manufacturer representatives were glad to oblige. The results were eminently satisfying.
These are hard times for high-end audio, a low-volume business at best and lower still in today's economy. But it was obvious at the Audiofest that there are still people who care about building equipment to make reproduced music come alive. Even though many of them could probably make more money at something else, their commitment to bringing the world's great musicians virtually into the homes of their customers is admirable.
Oh, about that sculpture of Nipper. I considered buying it, but the seller said it was the only one left, and I sensed that he wasn't too keen on letting it go. Good on him. Besides, $37 is a lot of money.