Breakfast in America
When Rich, the Product Manager at Parts Express and an old friend, sent us an email in February, it was not entirely without ulterior motive: “We’re throwing a party! Stop by and help us celebrate.” A little internet research quickly helped us find the Midwest Audiofest in Springboro, at the company headquarters in Ohio, where many DIY builders had presented their creations in previous years. Names like Joseph D’Appolito and Bill Waslo, Darren Kuzma and Tony Gee showed up on the list of projects on the PE website – an illustrious group.
Naturally we accepted right away, although it turned out there was more to it: I was supposed to be on the jury and contribute a project of my own, too. The second task would have been easy, but of course I bowed out of the contest if it meant I was going to be judging my own work. As a little surprise, I did screw an RS 100-8 into a small ACL cabinet with outside dimensions of 13 x 13 x 100 cm, to run on a DTA-1. There will probably be a report on that soon, but for now let me just say that our plan bore fruit.
I was secretly more resistant to the first task, because I felt like it was almost impossible to judge the submitted loudspeakers fairly without knowing anything about American preferences and living conditions. No matter, I was still invited to take my place beside two industry greats. Don Keele (his page is worth a thousand words) and Jerry McNutt, the head developer at Eminence (unfortunately I couldn’t find a website for him) were to be my skilled colleagues on the jury. Still, it was a long road to the United States, which could hardly have been any bumpier.
On July 11, my son took me to the airport; I got there less than an hour before takeoff. We had left the house at 6:30 am to account for the famous construction area on the A 52 freeway, so I wouldn’t be late getting to Düsseldorf. Just our luck that the asphalt on the one-lane road developed huge potholes that night, forcing them to add a detour through the construction site. It took us a good two hours instead of the usual 30 minutes. I raced to the ticket counter, where I found the young lady who was responsible for checking passengers in. Her manager confirmed that the security checkpoint was already closed and that it was too late for me to board. No matter that the plane wasn’t even at the gate yet. He had the final say, which he made very clear to me. The travel agent who spent two hours trying to find me another flight, regardless of the route, was much more willing to help. Still, she was unsuccessful.
In response to my email, Andreas Wolf, who had already arrived in Ohio, headed straight for the phone. “Tomorrow’s another day, and there are always more planes leaving.” The travel agency managed to find a free seat for me, and I took the train to the airport this time just to be on the safe side. Going through Customs in the United States was completely smooth. The man at the counter waved me forward – I was surprised to see a sign on my way that said “Diplomats only.” After a couple of friendly questions and a little small talk, I offered him my hand, which he shook – clearly surprised by my possibly unusual charm offensive – saying, “Welcome to America.” During the layover, I tried to announce my impending arrival in Dayton, using the cell phone my son had lent me. I tried dialing the number, but I couldn’t find a network. Oh well, Andreas was already waiting at the airport when I arrived at 6:45 pm local time, just a day late. I took my little bag to the hotel and quickly headed to the first event of the fair: testing the top-end Dayton class, which had been delayed by an hour on my behalf.
They must have been talking about me before I got there, because everyone in the hall knew who Udo was. Jerry and Don, both familiar with the proceedings, explained what we needed to judge, and we got started right away. Four loudspeakers, all from the free-standing box class, were competing for the highest score, and competing well. Please forgive me for not remembering which box featured which chassis, and I didn’t even have a chance to take pictures. The most common model was the Dayton Reference series, which is well-known here too and well-liked. We listened to three tracks on each box, each one warmed up for a minute after the volume had been adjusted using pink noise. The scores, along with brief notes, were recorded on a form. When the evening came to an end around 11 pm, after countless one-on-one conversations with members of the large audience, I was very glad to get to bed. After all, it was already 5 in the morning for me.
Still, I didn’t sleep very well, because when I tried to set the hotel alarm clock it refused to cooperate. Oh well, I could just plug in the cell phone – except I had left the adapter at home. I wasn’t sure how long it would hold a charge. After all, I had answered a couple of emails on the way and done some reading during the forum. If I wanted to be sure to wake up on time in the morning, I needed the connector for an American outlet. Of course I could have had the front desk give me a wake-up call, but I was already too worn out to arrange it on the phone or in person. So I checked the clock probably once or twice an hour, and spent the rest of the time thinking about my duties for the next day, which were preceded by another great moment: my first breakfast in America.
Andreas took me to see Don Evans, who lived across the street. The friendly waitress led us to an open table and asked what we would like. Unfamiliar with the choices, and not very well acquainted with the names of American foods after learning them in school more than 50 years ago, I left it up to my breakfast companion to choose a “brown” something or other and the right kind of toast for me. I was able to pick out the main ingredient, a giant omelet with a lot of mushrooms, from the pictures on the menu. The picture didn’t do it justice – I guess everything is a little bigger in America.
Revived by the coffee and fortified by my breakfast, I sat down with my friendly colleagues around 8:30 am. They once again greeted me warmly. There were three categories to be judged this time: under 200 dollars, over 200 dollars and everything else. The 21 boxes were briefly presented by their builders – there were an amazing number of mass-loaded transmission lines, and two to four open baffles were among the leading contenders. Ribbons, AMTs and cone tweeters were also common features. There were no wide-range or Fast speakers (what we call “Blubs” in German) at all, and two of the boxes used DSP. I was surprised by the size of most of the speakers. I always thought Americans had big living rooms, so I expected to see a lot of man-sized boxes. Not at all – they have to worry about the “WAF” too, and most of the boxes could fit on shelves. In fact, the 5-incher in a two-way format was more common than the 7-incher. Just like on our shores, the number of female attendees could be counted on one hand, the age of the combatants was well over 50, with a few exceptions, and the most common hair color was very light.
The test music changed for every category, which made it hard to find the standard for comparison right away. I’m sure the first boxes were at a disadvantage, since I first had to figure out whether I disliked them or whether it was just the music that sounded a little harsh. It also seemed impossible to judge the tonal differences between the second and sixth boxes fairly after hearing just three sixty-second pieces of music. When you also consider that the builders had designed their boxes for their own four walls, but had to present them in spaces much larger than 100 m², it quickly becomes clear that every ranking would probably have been completely different under different circumstances. Unfortunately, justice for all is not a criterion you can apply to a competition. How do you take into account the passion and the many hours that each participant poured into his construction ahead of time? The long distances traveled? In that sense, they really all deserved to be winners. I didn’t hear any bad constructions. Each one had its own tone, and in the right environment I’m sure they all would have been impressive.
The two most original boxes in the competition deserve a slightly longer description.
First there was a sideboard made of solid oak, which had mutated into a home of no fewer than 20 speakers. In order to keep the wife from complaining, they were covered by a nice cloth. In a technically very ambitious, but still very entertaining presentation, the inventor of the “Mirror” explained his reasons for building this particular box, which features five channels each divided into four paths, and uses a DSP distortion filter. The construction gets its name from a mirror placed horizontally in front of the box as a reflector to produce the music. Unfortunately we were unable to enjoy the resulting beautifully balanced room distribution. The long drive on the highway had apparently damaged one of the connections, so only the left-most channel was working. Still, I consider this unusual construction one of the absolute highlights of the event.
The second highlight, from a structural point of view, was without a doubt the “Picnic Horn.” Meredith A. Cargill transported the two loudspeakers, measuring about 1.5 m³, to Springboro in his van without incurring any damage to the horns or himself, in separate lightweight pieces and without any shortage of space. There he assembled the pieces within seconds before an amazed auditorium. The construction material was cardboard, along with a couple of containers repurposed as a bass, mid-range speaker and tweeter. The most impressive thing: it didn’t just make noise! His apt motto? “DIY means I can do whatever I want.”.
As it turned out, the jurors were fairly consistent about who should take the top three spots, which would receive gift certificates. I want to present the top of the class here too; after all, Bogdan used two chassis elements that were very familiar to me. He built his free-standing box – measuring just under 18 liters – with the SB 17 NRXC35-8, which we use in the SB 18, along with the Fountek NeoCD 2.0, which we use in the Axis 220 Neo. The tone was very harmonious and balanced, and all three jurors agreed that it deserved to win first place.
What I especially liked was that no one in the hall felt unfairly treated when the winners were announced, as I have often read is the case with similar contests. It was also worth noting that each participant came up with his own ideas – there were hardly any assembly kits. In that respect, we have a distinct advantage in Germany because we not only have original developments and ready-made boxes, we also have a third option for creating a customized dream box.
I don’t want to overlook the CDT 36, which was developed a couple of years ago and was presented by Don Keele while the scores were being tallied. With its elegantly arched Line Array, it illuminates the room without a narrow sweet spot, and creates an even volume level almost everywhere in the room. The Constant Beamwidth Transducer uses 18 small wide-range speakers, each of which is assigned a group of four mini-tweeters. Unfortunately there was no way to ask Don for more details about the circuitry during his presentation, and the problem with the brief listening test was that we were sitting in one place the whole time. More information about this interesting box can be found on Don’s website.
My official visit to Springboro came to an end at 5 pm, but Andreas and I weren’t sent back to Germany right away. We had done our duty, but we weren’t allowed to leave just yet. Around 7 pm, we were picked up from the hotel in style. Unfortunately the whole car wouldn’t fit on my camera.
The evening included a short visit to the Chicken Wing Festival in Dayton, followed by yet another highlight to round off the long day. Jeff, the PE boss, who in typical American fashion had built up his one-man garage business into a company with 150 competent, very committed employees, took to the sound board in a normal-looking bar that also served food; then his wife and her band rocked out live and in person, creating the best club atmosphere with direct access to the performers. It should be mentioned that I had the second part of my American experience here. There were real burgers and Budweiser. And that was absolutely American, too: of course everyone could eat during the great live concert, too.
Thanks go to Jill, Vivian, Rich, Karl, Rory, Mike, Jeff and all the other people who made our stay so pleasant. I’ve never had so many insights into a completely different world in such a short time. I can promise all of you that I’ll be back, because I still have to fulfill the last part of my American dream:
I’ve still never eaten an American steak.
Thank you for the great time
Udo and Andreas