"He Wears Black and Has a Beard"

Plasa Roundup 2013

Toby Roworth

Oct 8, 2013

Another year, another few trips to PLASA. Summary of this year: not as good as last year.
On Sunday we had our first Crown PA team trip to plasa. It quickly became obvious that there were fewer sound companies there than in previous years, and my team weren't that interested in lights. We mostly had a good few hours there, but it would've been a better trip last year. Allen & Heath didn't bother turning up, or Midas, Soundcraft, Sennheiser, Yamaha for that matter - they were all represented by distributors, each of whom only bought a desk or two with them.
This pretty much summed up the show. Though moving to the ExCeL was meant to make it bigger and better, I thought it felt smaller and a bit rubbish in comparison. To add insult to injury, it's now at least an hour extra to get there. Who'd've thought anyone would ever want E arls Court back!
Highlight of Sunday was probably on the Shure Distribution UK stand. This wasn't due to the several grand's worth of Radial DIs and fancy mics, or the really nice wireless stuff. It was because Michael looked up and saw this:

A '58 turned into a light! I've heard rumours next year that Robe are going to fight back by turning a Robin 100 into a condenser.
Another pleasant surprise was The Lecturn Company who make really nice lecturns. The guy on the stand was the designer so, naturally, we had a nice chat about how good they were - not only are they really pretty, but they're also well thought out, with integrated cabling and cable management.
We looked round the rest of the show, but we didn't see a lot to write home about - at least not compared to my visit on Monday.
Toward the end of the day I took my second look at the Sommer Cable stand, where Steve Warren caught me and told me off for looking at cables. This would have been fine, had he not caught me in exactly the same place, probably looking at exactly the same cable, the next morning. Yes, I'm a cable junkie.

The day ended with a good old-fashioned argument. CableJog make nice little cable testers, with fantastic build quality and some nice features. However, their £40/£60 offerings are in direct competition with the Behringer CT100, which can be had for £20. The CT100, like most Behringer products, has a sizeable feature set for its price, including test tone generator and intermittent fault finding (now on the CableJob products.
But the thing I really like about the CT100 is it's 3x3 LED matrix that lets you see instantly, at a glance, whether a cable's wired right or not. After a few dozen (maybe hundred by now) cables, I've got used to "diagonal line" for mic cables, "X" for mono leads and "sideways Y" for inserts, which means I don't need to think to be happy a cable's going to work.
I raised this with Mr CableJog, who didn't quite seem to understand my use case. The AudioJog has a memory function, so you don't need to watch a pin-by-pin analysis after the first cable. However, I only tend to test one cable at a time, which means this isn't very useful. As much as I tried to explain, suggest and persuade, I couldn't see us getting anywhere. This was a shame, as the guy was a gentleman and had a very-nearly-very-nice product, that I very-nearly-very-buy every time I see it. But the one feature it's missing is the one I'd really miss so, unfortunately, I won't be buying one yet again.
As way of condolence though, as I appreciated him as a designer, if you need to do a lot of cable testing, take a look at the AudioJog pro 3 or AudioJog pro 5 before plonking for a CT100 - the build quality is far better, they're designed and manufactured in the UK and will do a great job of testing a massive load of mic cables. (Of course if you want a glancable connection matrix, test tone generator and phantom power tester, you might actually be better off with the CT100, and you'll save some cash).
Speaking of Behringer, on the Monday I saw a Soundcraft desk. This doesn't seem to make sense - all gets explained in a few paragraph's time.
Monday started off with research for my final year major project, which is a hard-to-explain brief that boils down to completely re-thinking how a lighting desk works - potential working titles include "What if we didn't have faders?" and "More control; fewer controls".
This meant I got to go on a spying mission. I hid anything that could link me to Avolites and pretended I was Just Another LD, getting demos on all the main competitors products. This was very interesting, and gave me plenty of notes to write up for my major.
After all this clandestine action I felt a little exhausted, and tired of seeing lighting desks, so treated myself to a look at the Harting stand. They had some beautifully packaged RJ45 connectors - a real work of graphic and packaging design. At £14 each they're by no means cheap, but they're rated for 10G, so I guess thats comparable to similar products, and far easier to install. I also took the customary look at the HAN-modular series, got yet another different take on whether I can put coffee through the liquids, and had yet another discussion that involved far more talk about Avolites than I wanted - at least this time I cleared up the difference between me and JB, at which point something clicked and the Harting lady realised she may have made a terrible mistake last year! (Previous sentence may have been dramatised).
Whilst bored, I popped back to Harting and had what turned out to be a really interesting conversation about they're hardcore RFID stuff. Given that I started the conversation by saying "I'm bored and waiting for a mate", this was pretty good going.
I found my way to the Avolites stand (they had people I knew and peanuts) for another little break before setting off again. I should probably mention how the Avo stand is the best at this point. In all seriousness though, it probably is the best stand there, just from the shear number of products on show and people around the stand, and really shows up the audio companies who have two desks brought by a distributor. I might be somewhat biased though.
Surprise of the day was the Soundcraft digital desks (Performer and Expression series). I've always looked past these, not thinking much of their looks and far more interested in Allen & Heath's offerings, which look stunning whilst performing pretty well. But, just by chance, I had a little play on it, and really liked it. The "Totem" feature, by which any bus can be thrown onto the faders for per-channel level adjustments, is the most intuitive I've seen, being as simple as a single button press. The Expression series only comes in at a couple of grand too - X32 money, but Soundcraft quality. Having mixed on Soundcraft desks for over a third of my life, it would be nice to stick with them when I go digital.
During a pleasant discussion with the Harman (or more like distributer thereof, as mentioned above) guy, I slipped in a comparison of the price of these desks with the Behringer X32, and the conversation took a very interesting turn. Naturally, a £2K digital desk has shaken up the industry a bit, but seemingly more so than I expected. All the other manufacturers are having to try and meet this price - surely this is a good thing for the consumer, right. Except, without the power of a city in China, everyone except the German/Chinese hydra is having to cut their margins to hit the prices. This will eventually stifle the R&D, as there won't be so much cash to invest back into new stuff and, before we know it, the rate of innovation may fall. And I for one don't want to see cuts to R&D in this industry! This has genuinely made me look at Behringer from a different angle. As an impoverished student, it might not change my buying habits, but it can try!
And so to finish, my highlight of Monday. Great as the couple of free beers with Andy Bagwell were, that wasn't the highlight. Again it falls to Shure, only partly because they were one of the few audio companies there.
I got shown the PSM in-ear monitor stuff, and was given a chance to take a listen to the sound quality (really nice) on my headphones, which just so happen to be Shure SE215s. The guy incorrectly identified them as 535s - when I corrected him he told me they'd got a pair of SE846s. This confused me, as the 535s are the best, and bigger numbers mean better (from what I can tell, first number roughly represents sound (maybe bass) quality, second number is the number of drivers and the third number is arbitrary - I used to this this was treble quality, but a knowledge of the out-dated models in the range says different), and 846 is a bigger number.
Shure are releasing new IEMs!
What made this this highlight was getting a go on them though. Bought forth like the grail from a grail-hiding-place, we were presented with the hallowed SE846s. Bought forth like gravel from a garden centre was a pint-cup full of foam ear sleeves. Just like in a high-class suit shop (I assume - not my style), I was asked for my size. But just like in Primark, they'd run out of my size. I played some music through them - a bit of Nightwish, Dire Straights, Metallica (S+M) and Queen, and thought they sounded alright. Only alright? Yeah - I might've gone so far as "nice" or "good", but then I asked the price.
"RRP of £949 - so probably £900 once they're sold to you, sir"
That line makes very little sense - the shock of the first part makes the second part hard to read, so I'll extract the useful bit:
And to put into perspective, the item, and it's price, next to one another:
Headphones: "£900"
Given a bit more time with them, I might be more impressed by the audio. But from what I heard, yeah it was good - but not £900-good. Which is a shame, as myself and the sales man were pretty excited about them. In fairness, I don't think any headphones are £900-good but then I wouldn't even spend that much on a car, which has only ever ended well.
It was pretty nice to have a go on such a new product, but the disappointment needed something to bring me back up. This came in the form of a go on the SE535s - I've said before I'd like to buy these if I had the money, but would ideally like to try them first. And now it's happened - yet again, future-Toby's bank balance is threatened by Shure's in-ears. And now I've heard them, I'd say they probably are £300-good.
But the day had to end in disappointment - this is the real world after all. So this cynical man got onto the DLR, changed to the Jubilee line, waved goodbye to old-man Bagwell and put in his SE215s. Now I've heard the 535s, I don't think my headphones will ever sound as good again...