CES and T.H.E. Show 2011

Perreaux and Harbeth at T.H.E. Show 2011It’s a massively exciting time for us at Perreaux; we have got AUDIANT 80i tucked under our belts and are getting the chance to show it to the world at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.  All I needed to do was get my bag packed, my suit dry-cleaned and get to the airport on time.  I have never been to Vegas but I’ve seen Casino about 100 times, I got Keith Richard’s biography for Christmas, every Stones album on my iPod and I’m ready to eat some chicken fried chicken, whatever that may be.

After a plane ride to LAX, a shuttle ride to the Greyhound terminal in East LA and a seven-hour bus ride to Vegas, I checked into my hotel.  Put on some sneakers and go for a walk to try and find the Flamingo Hotel where The High End (T.H.E.) Show is going to be held. Not hard to find due to it being a huge 30 storey building with a massive pink sign that says Flamingo. That wasn’t the problem; the problem was once I got inside how to find anything. These places are vast and not designed to help you find anything except a way to spend money. That evening I couldn’t find the Perreaux room but I could have purchased an Elvis monopoly set, a yard glass full of cocktail or a person.

Thursday was the first day of CES and T.H.E. Show, the calm before the storm of the weekend. Arriving at 9am I found... the room was locked and my cell phone wasn’t going to play ball with American air. Then one of our rooms opened up. Walter, the US distributor for Perreaux, had two rooms booked at T.H.E. Show, mine was still locked but that gave me time to meet John and Holger.

John Park is based in Korea, his company Pyon Sound have produced a turntable that should have its own gravity, one of the most beautiful pieces I saw at T.H.E. Show.  Holger Stein, surprisingly, from Germany, gave me my first massive geek out moment.  Holger was there with his beautiful speakers, amazing room treatment Harmonizers and his Masterclass Amp.  When I met him I expressed my love for German music from the 60’s onwards – Can, Faust, Guru Guru, etc...  He told me that when he was young he saw Guru Guru play many times and that they were as wild as they sound.  I asked Holger where in Germany he was from and he told me that he was 10km from Düsseldorf; I got all nerdy and started babbling about Kraftwerk.  He fixed me with his gaze, maybe anticipating my woolly headed freak-out, and said “Ja, I know those guys, Florian, Ralf, sometimes I go to Kling Klang, when I am a teenager.”  This is like telling a movie fan about how you know the Coen Brothers. I was actually speechless.

I was helping John and Holger take their gear out of boxes, all the while looking at my watch knowing that start time was 10am and thinking about getting everything set up and ready in 20, now 15, now 10 minutes.  Walter finally arrived with the key to our room, I opened the door to find that everything was not only set up but turned on all night and nice and warm.  Our new AUDIANT 80i amplifier was waiting for me, a familiar thing in the sea of “whats that?” I’d been bobbing around in for 36 hours.  Plugged into a pair of Harbeth Super HL-5 loudspeakers, I grabbed the Perreaux/Dunedin Music compilation that we commissioned before Audiants release and threw on Hana Fahy’s “Ties” for a quick listen.  I didn’t need to touch the set up at all, the room sounded great, the music sounded natural and enveloping, I consider good set up to be half the battle – so half the battle was won.

The Flamingo Hotel, Las VegasThere are many layers to CES in Vegas. There was CES itself, The Consumer Electronics Show, that was in another part of town and dealt in things like 3D TV and cell phones. There was T.H.E. Show at the Flamingo, where we were, which was smaller rooms for hi-fi set up for actual listening. There was the Venetian Hotel across the road where there were a lot of brands set up in too small rooms, filled with too many people drinking anything free that floated into their field of view. Then there was something better again – the Mirage Hotel. At the Mirage were the real super-duper high end stereos. Normal people were not able to gain access to those rooms.

But first I should explain Walter. Walter Swanbon is Perreaux’s US distributor and advocate. He has been to the last 33 years of CES, he ran a marathon in 2hrs 26 minutes, which is fast even if you train on the Highveld. Walking down the strip with him during CES is like walking down the street with Mick Jagger. Everybody knew Walter; everybody wanted to talk to him about one thing or another, people even calling his name out of windows.

Lucky for me the first day, Thursday, started slowly, it gave me a chance to talk to Brookes Tanner the charming gentleman who was responsible for making the fantastic speaker stands that held the Harbeths. His love of sound and beautiful audio equipment was rivalled only by his love of high-power hand guns and well crafted guitars – in short, a man who had much to teach me. People were steady in our room. Never more than 30 seconds empty on the first day.

Although I love to be there, to be able to talk to people about our new amp and the Harbeths, there were two things that needed to be done and I got to do them at the same time. On the lower level of the Flamingo was food and more importantly, long tables with people selling vinyl. I went straight to the second-hand dealer in the far corner, who I noticed was just taking the covers off his stock. Asked my standard question first up to second-hand dealers, “You got any old Coltrane records?” He had 6, for five bucks each. I didn’t buy another record the rest of the time I was in Vegas, I had already pulled off a coup.

Records under my arm, jamming a sandwich into my mouth, I dashed back up to the room to find that the crowds were starting to swell. For the rest of the day the only time I stopped talking was to play music to interested people. Being partnered with Harbeth was great for us, people would look in the room and become interested straight away because of the excellent reputation of Harbeth loudspeakers. But when they sat down and heard the system they knew it wasn’t just the speakers, they knew that the Perreaux was working beautifully as well. Come for the pants, stay for the dancing.

Friday at the show was as we expected, a ratcheting-up of the tension before the predicted bedlam of Saturday. We had some interesting guests come by who made me puff my chest out with pride. Neil Gader from The Absolute Sound popped in. After listening to the system for a couple of minutes he turned to me, sitting next to him but also sitting on the edge of panic, and said “Sounds like you’ve got something special on your hands there.” My head starts nodding slowly but my stomach is doing a heavy cardio-jazz-funk-aerobics routine. I always knew we had something good with AUDIANT but to hear Neil Gader say it, well, to me, that is proof.

It was about that time that a strange buzzing sound started. It seemed to come from the walls of the hotel, word was David Chesky was in the building and listening to stereos. It would have scared the life out of me the day before but the good words from Neil Gader made me confident. I have always said that if you have good gear you don’t need to sell it, it sells itself, all I have to do is press play. Which is exactly what I did when David Chesky sat down in front of the system – I shut up, he passed me CD’s, I put them in the player and let him listen. I mean what am I going to tell the man who started HDtracks and co-founded Chesky Records?

Once he was finished listening he asked the inevitable question, how much? Perreaux is $3000, the Harbeth Super HL-5 speakers are $5000. He looked stunned and hesitated. My soul flinched in the silence. Then he topped me, “Wow is that all, it’s so great that you don’t have to be a millionaire any more to have a hi-fi. This makes some of those $200,000 systems redundant.” If I had a tape recorder, video camera or any composure left I would have tried to document those five seconds just to make the guys back at Perreaux HQ blow a pride valve.

The Mirage Hotel, Las VegasWalter reappeared soon after and told me go follow him as we were going to head off to explore some of the other venues. Stepping into the Mirage was like finding an oasis. No lines of punters, no massive signs or booming Lady Gaga records. I didn’t have a pass to be there, or a nice enough suit, but I followed in Walter’s wake and ended up in a couple of rooms that give me hope for humanity. If we, as people, can create things as beautiful as the Vivid Giya loud speakers or as graceful as the MBL set up, then there is hope for us yet.

The Vivid Giya speaker, powered by a Luxman amp created a sound stage so easy and expansive that I closed my eyes (I know it’s a terrible hi-fi nerd thing to do, but that system...) and could have sworn that Caetano Veloso was right there. The demo conducted by Philip O’Hanlon, a true gentleman in a bow-tie with a fantastic Irish accent, was superb. After a couple of days of Norah Jones it was shocking to see a super high-end demo with a live recording from a relatively unknown artist (though not in Brazil where Veloso is revered like Bob Dylan or James Brown). What could we hear? Everything, strings snapping, his foot moving, the air in his throat, the room he was in, the fact that the performance was so intense that everybody in the audience was stunned into silence. I could hear it, people hushed in reverence during the performance.

The MBL room at the Mirage was more like a gallery. If you have ever seen their equipment in the flesh you’ll know what I mean. Where the Giya speakers looked like sexy, cool speakers the MBL speakers looked like molecular transport stations. If you were to hold onto both of them you could be turned into pure energy, or a fly. The system was playing quietly and the very nice lady explained that they were having a meeting and if we wanted a good listen we would have to come back. One glance at the meeting table and I knew I was out of my fiscal comfort zone. There were chaps around that table who had haircuts worth more than my car.

Walter had meetings, so he pointed me towards the Venetian and next thing I’m standing in a huge line just to get to the elevators. Twenty minutes waiting and finally I get to jam myself in a sweaty box with 11 other audio geeks for the privilege of gazing at gear I could never afford in rooms too full of people to listen to anything properly. This sounds like a negative experience, which it could have been except... some of the gear I saw and heard made me forget about the crowds, the commercial squalor and  the evil vibe of the town.

I stood there, mouth open, eyes reeling, completely gobsmacked – the Avant Garde loudspeakers sounded so natural and transparent that if I’d had $36,000 American dollars my luggage on the plane home would have become a serious issue at check-in. The Macintosh room didn’t sound great due to huge speakers in a small space and dozens of people milling around talking, but it had more flashing lights and power meters than a Daft Punk concert. They must have had their own Mr Fission to power that room. Then the Wilsons. From the first time I ever saw a picture of them on the internet I knew two things. One, I had to, at some point in my life, hear them. Two, I would never, ever, be able to afford them. So I did. I got a chance to hear them, and confirmed that I would never be able to own them. Problem with the Venetian was simple, too many people.

I was enjoying talking to people about Perreaux, listening to music with them and, frankly, have my ego massaged by people saying nice things about our amplifier. So after checking out the Mirage I bolted back to the Flamingo for the last few hours of the day, five minutes after my return Pascal Tokatlian arrived. Pascal is the Perreaux distributor in France. In the dictionary under Cool French Guy there is a picture of Pascal. His English is way better than my French but luckily we both spoke the universal language of Miles Davis. I turned A Kind Of Blue on, Pascal sat back and very slowly, started smiling.

Saturday was like Friday only more so, no time to leave our demo room. The crowds were really piling in now. I had managed to get another demo disc to play because after two full days I was growing somewhat tired of all the music we had in our room. The new disc was a great find and featured a Willie Nelson track that sounded a million bucks and had a beautiful harmonica phrase that drifted out of the speakers like a spider’s web. By the end of Sunday I’d played that song so many times I was totally over that as well.

Sunday at T.H.E. Show was a deceleration after the pandemonium of Saturday. Our room was never empty but there were spare seats from time to time. With an end time of 4pm for T.H.E. Show, at about 2pm I felt it start to slow down. Then two people came into the room – a husband and wife from Brooklyn. I asked if they had any CD’s they would like to hear and he started slowly, playing a live-to-radio version of "Fast Car" by Tracy Chapman. Then a live version of "Tigerlilly" by Natalie Merchant. Then he pulled out a CD of Doo-Wop that had been recorded at his local bar two years ago. It wasn’t the greatest recording but they were both shocked by how good it sounded, they liked it so much that we listened to the entire CD. That Doo-Wop was pretty good, I must say, it made me a fan. By the time the encores were over it was almost time to begin the packing up process.

Everybody dug in and we had both rooms broken down and in boxes by 6.30 and we headed off to a Thai restaurant on the outskirts of Vegas. A word of warning, when eating Thai food with a Korean guy and a Turkish guy, never make the mistake of saying “Don’t worry about me, I like it hot.” They have different ideas about what constitutes hot food. Lucky I was sitting next to Holger so he kept the beers flowing allowing me to soak my scorched tongue in cold ale. This didn’t stop the bottom half of my face from going numb, but it did halt the vicious pain in the moment.

That night I got to check out of the Super 8 Hotel and stay with Walter at the Flamingo, which was a much nicer place with a great view. The next day, Monday morning, Walter had an idea. We were going to go for a run together, but not outside in the nasty dry Nevada air – we were going to run the hotel. Run along each hallway, then up the stairs and along the next hallway, for 28 floors until we got to the top of the building. Poor housekeeping, they are just trying to do their job and then there are two maniacs gunning down the hallway at them, drenched in sweat egging each other on. Walter’s theory was, we are checking out in an hour so who cares, if they don’t like us they can catch us. Good luck to them on that front ‘cause we burnt those hallways down. When we arrived at the top I got to commit a high-five with an American to celebrate a sporting achievement. Cool, next thing you know I’ll be able to dunk.

At the gas stationWe followed our exertions up with breakfast then Walter offered to save me a return trip to LA on the Greyhound and give me lift to LAX himself. He described the bus depot in East LA as “Taking your life in your hands” and I was glad to not have to face the crazy airport shuttle ride again as well. On the way to LAX we dropped in to visit one of Walter’s stockists, it was incredible. In this chaps living room was audio gear somewhere in the region of a million dollars. MBL, Conrad Johnson, Musical Fidelity, no holds barred. The best audio specialist retail shop in New Zealand couldn’t come close to what this man was selling out of his house. Astonishing.

After that visit taking longer than anticipated it was a bit of a scramble to get to the airport. Not for me, I had 5 hours to spare once I got there but Walter had an important meeting he had to make and LA traffic is foolishly bad. So Walter dropped me off at LAX we shook hands and said goodbye, he was an extraordinary cat and I’d like to think that he taught me a thing or two about the right way to deal with hi-fi and hi-fi customers. After getting dropped off it was bad airport food, reading about Keith Richards running amok in the Seventies, being kept awake all flight by the horrid kids sitting right in front of me and what felt like a nearly endless journey home. With a staggering piece of timing I left LAX on January 10th, crossed the date line and landed in Auckland on January 12th. My birthday is the 11th.

So was it worth it?  To have my birthday wiped out by dubious travel arrangements. To eat some bad food and drink even worse coffee. To have to listen to Norah Jones and the live version of Hotel California over and over again. To take my life in my hands in the back streets of Vegas or the Greyhound depot in LA. Was it worth it to be subjected to Las Vegas itself, a towering unsustainable monument to all that is wrong with the world and still one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been? To see flesh reduced to currency (stay in school girls) and to witness corruption encouraged and treated as normality? Of course it was worth it.

I got to meet a guy who went to school with Castro. A man who builds turntables that are, frankly, modern art pieces. A man who knows the guys in Kraftwerk and saw Guru Guru play. I got to blast down the corridors of the Flamingo Hotel on the Vegas strip scaring the life out of the help. I saw Phantom of the Opera from great seats and got to talk to the bass player from Tommy Dorsey’s band. I sat in a room with David Chesky and had him tell me how much he liked our amp. I got to share the results of our hard work with industry folk, hi-fi reviewers and normal citizens who were genuinely impressed. I got to play Dunedin music to people who had no idea where Dunedin was, and knock their socks off with it. I got the chance to mock Australians, which, while easy, is still a lot of fun.

It was worth it alright, to show people that while Perreaux had spent a few years off the radar in the USA, we were coming roaring back to life with a product that is a giant-killer. That could stand toe-to-toe with anything on the market at that level and be champion. To show the world that geography has nothing to do with quality or ambition because here, at Perreaux, at the bottom of the world, we set our sights high, our standards even higher. We cleared the bar we had set for ourselves with an immaculately timed run, a perfect take off and a graceful landing, arms in the air, face to the sun.

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