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The Monaco Yacht Show – The Audio Perspective

The Monaco Yacht Show – The Audio Perspective

A Superyacht: a private vessel above 30 meters, used for leisure. Total market for 2013: 75 new hulls. Worldwide. Only. Exclusive enough

Just getting aboard these floating mansions to test their onboard sound systems is almost impossible. In most cases, you will never be told who the owner is: even the shipyards, which built them, may never meet the commissioner in person, or are often bound by ironclad Non-Disclosures. Luckily there are events like the Monaco Yacht Show where about 100 of these ships gather to be sold or chartered. Some are so big that they cannot even enter Port Hercule, around whose docks Formula 1 cars race once a year. I’ve attended three of these shows so far, and, during the last one, I finally gained access to a few of them.

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I’ve seen worse alfresco cinemas… The Maltese Falcon’s DynaRig used for open-eyed dreaming

As one would imagine, Superyachts could be though of as, “such stuff as dreams are made on”. Things actually installed on a Superyacht (and these are not the weirdest) include: transponders identifying the vessel (like a commercial plane), a bespoke table designed by Brad Pitt, a professional gym installed under the guidance of Usain Bolt a “snow room” where children can go and play snowball / make a snowman while in the Caribbean, a fully fledged IMAX theatre (a $2 million undertaking in a residence), a professional recording studio where Peter Gabriel recorded some material while exploring the Amazon, two helipads (is one not enough?), panic room(s), an underwater escape pod for the owner and family, a 10m-tall “virtual aquarium” made of flat screens stacked on the walls of the elevator shaft giving the transparent cabin the impression of moving up and down an ocean scene (bizarrely, real fish in a onboard aquarium suffer from seasickness!), a submarine that can reach a depth of 1km, a laser system to blind long-lens cameras pointing at the boat, an underwater observation room with 20-cm thick glass, 100-metre tall sail masts, so tall that the ship will not be able to pass under the Golden Gate Bridge, and finally, a 100-metre yacht that is a submarine itself – and has a swimming pool inside (still just a project). Not forgetting room for the artwork, which is generally worth twice as much as the vessel itself…

But, in all their extravagance, how do Superyachts play music?

 

It’s a split world. Some are unbelievable installations, often talked about as if they were urban legends, as they are never showcased. Take SY Vertigo for example, the New-Zealand-built 67m dream-like ketch that features a multi-room JBL Synthesis system that has once awaken the inhabitants of a Pacific island: her master bedroom is optimized to sound best at ear-level of the owner sitting in bed. However, most other installations are ranging from expensive audio disappointments to outright dramatically underpowered, underspecified, badly designed and even worse installed systems. In most cases, the cars (vans, even!), in which owners and guests reach the docks where their splendid boats, costing from tens to hundreds of millions, are moored, can play music better than on board.

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SY Vertigo: 67 metres of true audiophile Dream Boat – and a high-performance party-pod

Audio brands on board

Audio systems on board are never conceived in isolation. In almost all cases where a valid one is installed, it comes as the 5.1 surround system for the AV theatre, which can take dimensions seldom seen even in the wealthiest homes. There are some notable exceptions, such as Roman Abramovich, czar of Chelsea, who, according to the late Dieter Burmester, has every environment where he listens to music Burmester-fitted (to the point that the billionaire confided to him of buying a Porsche solely because it would have the Berlin-made system installed), the Superyachting world is largely cleansed of all brand names.

Even if they weren’t sworn to secrecy on such things, no Superyacht crew member would announce, “we use McIntosh”, or “there’s a Meridian system in every room”. Rather they would refer either to the provider of the AV Management system (‘we use a Crestron system’), the main component hub of the AV system (“it’s a Kaleidescape” – citing the high-end Blu-Ray and audio juke-box/vault), or to the name of the AV engineering company; one of 20 or so specialists worldwide – some focusing solely on marine installations – that corner the market for system integration. So few master this field because the problems of integrating all that happens on board represent a very complex project, with kilometers of cabling and dozens of networks that need to speak seamlessly to one another.

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MY Suerte: 70  metres  of unexpected marvels – including ones you cannot possibly see…

One fantastic new build, the 70m Suerte by Tankoa, was introduced as the first yacht to have undergone a full electromagnetic emissions certification, for which engineers had to segregate cabling by type of signal / use, and map all radio and electronic equipment’s emissions to abate electro-pollution. Not your average minimalistic one-room stereo installation. Their zeal was evident in all the measures put in place for the full engineering of a system that needs to be as simple to operate as possible and yet maintained operational at sea, by people who may have never seen its ‘guts’ before. The forethought that went into the management of background noises to avoid using noise-canceling devices, which are not uncommon on these boats, was above and beyond what I had seen even in home installations.

The most popular audio names on Superyachts may be unfamiliar to readers:

Fusion is a producer of marine-grade single-DIN head units and weather-proof speakers whose audio prowess can be classed in the same league of some car systems of the eighties.

JL Audio, known to most for its automotive aftermarket origins and some spectacular home audio subwoofers, like the 11,000 GBP, 3,800 Watt Gotham, specializes in external speakers that make mp3 content sound well, but whose main atout is their impervious resistance to sun, salt and temperature excursions, but less so timbral finesse. On board it is more important to be hosed down clean.

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Setting up some CAT  “mobile” 200Kg speakers on deck… All is relative on Superyachts…

California Audio Technology (CAT) are purveyors of the “highest road” to audio among marine suppliers, with bespoke loudspeakers and amps, deploying the most expensive components (founder/owner Brian Barr is an advanced materials pioneer) for impressive installations of heavy-duty (and hefty) equipment whose performance is solidly in High End territory. Their installations can weigh tonnes and cost hundreds of thousands, but, having heard three systems (not on a boat), I can vouch that they are absolutely on the outer edge of what can be achieved, specifically because of their approach to bespoke engineering, design and installation. At one of the main yachting fairs, one of their systems would rock the entire hall where VBH, the company’s partner installer, responsible for almost 10% of the Superyacht market, played their demos. A 32-bit, 386 KHz recording of a huge tractor starting had me fooled into turning towards it in apprehension more than once.

On smaller boats, less custom-designed, Bose, the omnipresent “no one was ever fired for choosing IBM” choice, can be had for as little as $8,000 (whereas the equivalent for the home may cost $1,000). Putting this into perspective, this is an option worth approximately the same as the leather upholstery for one on board sofa. Harman systems are also involved in this end of the market, an off-the-peg solution in an inherently bespoke world.

Apple computer, and, more recently, Sonos equipment, often constitute the backbone for audio, for their capability to connect devices wirelessly and to integrate with devices already in the hands of owners and guests, albeit limiting the quality of the throughputs – a glass ceiling that no true audiophile is ready to accept, but which is more than adequate for those who think that an mp3 file is all you need.

 

Music listening and audio performance are often the Cinderellas among all technologies on board. The vast majority of installations inspected are plagued with disastrous design decisions, which would seriously hamper the performance of even the most well crafted electronics and drivers. I was really surprised to hear crew dissuade me from testing their boats more on the grounds of them not being good at all, more than because of privacy matters.

The main issue is that most yacht designers simply do not consider acoustic performance as a parameter at all. Loudspeakers must not be visible, ever. Their positioning is too often decided after everything else. Hence, incredible workarounds become the norm. One a project I saw featured a cavernous multifunction room of approximately 6,500 square feet. While music will be played in this ballroom-sized space, there is no provision whatsoever for loudspeaker positioning, with three of its four sides made in floor-to-ceiling glass, possibly one of the worst nightmares for proper musical performance.

Even when the acoustic design shortcomings are not so glaring, installation decisions may be just as appalling. On a Superyacht that costs almost half a million Dollars to charter (per week!), the best room for playing music was fitted with a 5.1 installation, where either someone had forgotten the subwoofer, or it was inexplicably turned off – and the engineer on board would not know how to activate it. On another equally exclusive yacht, the front three channels of the home theatre were fitted in the ceiling right over the listeners’ position.

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In-ceiling speakers only – yet voted one of the best on-board cinemas… Imagine the others…

Why does this happen? Is it just because owners do not care enough for music? Or is it because owners (and their decision-making associates, the project managers or owners’ representatives) have not been exposed to what properly configured hi-fi and home theatre can achieve? Considering how much they are ready to spend on any other detail, the audio industry has to do a better job at showing them what they are missing, for no other reason than having the same excellence that everything else on board exudes.

First and foremost, the attitude shared among too many designers that their lines must be unspoilt by such ungainly eyesores as loudspeakers. Hence the ubiquitous presence of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, which unfortunately leave little if not negative traces in the acoustic performance of the audio on board. Only on one Superyacht to date I have been able to witness the presence of ‘home-like’ speakers: a pair of Beolab 8000s to the side of a disappearing screen.

As a result, AV installers choose components more for their non-appearance than their quality. Speakers are installed for their 10-cm thickness, their flush mounts, their minuscule presence, weather-proofing, or the ability to pivot in and out of the scene on motorized arms. Notwithstanding these limitations, some systems still achieve little acoustic miracles. Most of the time they do not.

A ‘new build’, like any multi-million dollar project, has budgets and other priorities to adhere to. Competing AV installers have to submit proposals that will win them the commission, which includes major integration with AV, home automation, Navigation, Security, Internal Communications, Radio Communications, and all IT. Unsurprisingly, project managers will not be keen on allocating significant percentages of the total budget to audio performance unless specified by the client. Horror stories also abound about clueless workers in the shipyard cutting corners indiscriminately, moving the location of a speaker because “the cable would not reach there”.

The final insult comes in the form of sources chosen. Naturally playing vinyl is all but impossible, but none of the installations visited (eight “full tests” and 15 “impressions”) had anything better than mp3 for the Owners’ collection. Even services offered by professional DJs, who would charge “from $10,000” for a couple of party playlists and a few hundred songs, all loaded on an iPod. The audiophile’s heart, at this point, sinks.

 

Starting “small”: the Tenders

Most smaller boats at the show, in the range of 12-20 metres, were classified as tenders: utility vessels to ferry people and objects, when Superyachts are too big to enter certain marinas. Most of them had audio systems, but in the vast majority, powered by single-DIN Head Units of automotive origin or from specialist makers, none of which I could cajole into playing anything above mp3 quality, not even uncompressed wav 16/44.1.

Their overall performance was in all cases but one, vastly disappointing. Confused, underpowered, wrongly installed, rattling, with acoustically second-rate drivers driven by unspecified amps of no refinement, the musical experience on board could be summed up in one word: regrettable (and soon to be forgotten).

Only the biggest among the Pascoe tenders had a reasonably decent setup in the enclosed area for its 12 short-term passengers. Four satellite speakers at ear level in the corners of the enclosure and a 600W JL subwoofer provided a sound pressure level that was not drastically affected by spurious noises, nor excessive distortion. High-end audio it was not, but, discounting the fact that I could not play any of my audio content, but just mp3 files via a Bluetooth connection, it provided a lot more acceptable performance than much larger vessels at the show. One must underline, however, that the shipyard owner is a Mr. Ken Freivokh, one of the leading Naval Architects, responsible for landmarks like the 88m Maltese Falcon Sail Yacht, who, last year, presented plans for installing a full-size IMAX theatre on a Superyacht – whose dimensions must exceed 150m in length, just to accommodate the theatre… A rare designer who has an incline towards AV performance, at last.

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Ken Freivokh is an Audio geek indeed. How many of us dreamt of his GT2101?

Perhaps Freivokh’s audiophile intentions should not be that much of a surprise: as a graduate student in 1974 he designed the Gale GT2101, a direct drive, non-resonant, turntable floating on a magnetic bearing, which is still impressive 40 years later. Pity it cannot be used on any of his later designs.

Other smaller boats showcased all sorts of amazing technologies, including a single-structure 17-metre carbon-fibre hull for a dinghy, extractable wings and water-foils for exhilarating speeds, but none showed any proclivity to audio.

 

The Large Yachts

Even on Superyachts with over 60 crew members, I have not been able to spot a single Auditorium. Home Theatres, at best, or creative dancefloors: teak-clad helipads or swimming pools that raise their floor up to become a floating Studio 54. Booming, PA-like audio on board is a must for parties. And yacht parties, moored in port, out at sea, or in fantastically secluded bays, are quintessential to the “yachting lifestyle”. Again, hardly the place where one will try to assess accuracy in the sound of a Stradivarius.

Trump cards are Sound Pressure Level, and the ability to host a DJ console, possibly hooking up to portable PA-like components, neither in itself a guarantee of quality, but elements for turning the decks, the beach club, or an entire bay into a roaring club scene.

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SilverFast, a most modern and Hi-Tech MotorYacht

Some boats succeed at this better than others. The award winning MY SilverFast, a 77-metre, $90 million marvel from Australia, launched this year, sports an area that could easily host the biggest party most of us have ever been in, served by coaxial(!) JL speakers and subwoofers. These are thankfully not located overhead, but at ear and body level of revelers, powered, according to the Owner’s Representative, by 70,000 Watts. We could not confirm this, but the whole system seemed controlled by a diminutive Marantz receiver, embedded behind a hidden recess nearby. We could only play a few mp3s from the hand-held controller in his hands, and not at the volume I would have liked, lest we disturbed the afternoon of neighbouring Superyachts, neatly packed like thousand-tonne sardines in the most glamorous harbour in the world. But I was vastly more impressed by other details on this sleek boat, starting from the mesmerizing movement of the glass door separating the sun deck from the superb salon inside.

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Sea Force One’s Master bedroom may not sound as wonderfully as Vertigo’s, but wouldn’t you like to be awaken in it by the sea breeze as her owner can?

The morning after, I came across the same young gentleman as he was stepping out of a 54-meter all-Italian creation called Sea Force One, a 2008 Motoryacht that can be yours for a measly 22 Million Euro, and, according to many, the incarnation of the spare-no-expense floating “toy for big boys”. As he stepped off the gangplank, he uttered a very understated: “This one sounds better than mine”. Although this was the only boat whose owner I know personally, I could not “play her” or have any details about her system either via him, or the installer, Eggzero, one of the leaders in the field. Evidently they had a full “test” on it the night before, when the battles for top dog take shape in the form of glamour and loudness of one’s exclusive parties, and decibels are not an issue any longer. Perhaps we’ll be invited next time.

By Vittorio Mischi

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