Location, location, location . . . and, from Richard Beers and Bob Levi, a generous helping of brilliant organizing acumen. That winning combination means that, in just its third year, T.H.E. Show Newport Beach has already laid claim to the title of the top consumer “fine audio” show in the U.S.
What exactly No.1 means is another question entirely. While T.H.E. Show Newport Beach may have been spread over multiple floors in two adjacent hotels, as was T.H.E. Show Las Vegas of old, and offered, in addition to almost 140 exhibit rooms and an invaluable number of seminars, a corridor-long “cigar show,” a glitzy car show, wine show, gourmet food trucks, and multiple entertainment stages and markets, it’s hard to know if all that = “best.” And while attendance is claimed to be very high, it’s hard to know how many of the estimated 7500 attendees actually paid to get in, and how many took advantage of either generously distributed comps or membership in the Los Angeles-Orange County Audio Society.
What is certain is that, despite what JA told me was a surprisingly slow Sunday, there were people everywhere on Friday and Saturday. Everywhere, as in all over the place. And that means more than physically. People ran the gamut age-wise as well as interest wise, if less so in terms of the male-female ratio.
Following the death of his father in July 2011, Brian Berdan had been running Brooks Berdan Ltd, the well-regarded retailer in Monrovia, the suburb east of Los Angeles. But T.H.E. Show saw the debut of Brian’s new venture, Audio Element, which will open in Pasadena in August. Many of the brands that used to be sold by Brooks Berdan Ltd. are going with Brian to the new store. Many were exhibiting in Brian’s two rooms at the Atrium. In the first room, Sonus Faber Amati Futura speakers ($36,000/pair), which I loved when I reviewed them in March 2012, were being driven by VTL’s MB-450 Series III Signature tube monoblocks ($18,000/pair), VTL’s TL-7.5 Series II Reference line preamplifier ($20,000), VTL’s TP-6.5 Signature phono stage ($8500), and the fully loaded, four-chassis dCS Vivaldi SACD playback system ($108,496). Analog playback was with a Grand Prix Monaco turntable ($23,500) fitted with a Tri-Planar tonearm ($5800) and Lyra Skala cartridge ($3995). Cables were all Cardas Clear and Clear Beyond and racks were all from Grand Prix Audio.
The second Audio Element room was one of my best-sounding systems at the show: Sonus Faber Elipsa speakers were being driven by Ayre’s new VX-5 power amplifier and KX-5 preamplifier, with source the latest version of the QB-9 USB DAC, which can handle DSD data. The sound was more open, less dark than in the other Audio Element room, with more space around the instruments. The new Ayre preamp and power amp have much in common with the new AX-5 integrated amplifier, which Art Dudley will be reviewing in the August 2013 issue of Stereophile.
At $12,600/pair, the two-way S1 is the least-expensive speaker to come from Magico. Nevertheless, in a relatively large room at the Atrium, driven by the Constellation monoblocks ($54,000/pair) that Mickey Fremer will be reviewing in the October issue, and the Constellation Virgo preamp ($29,000) had an ease to its sound, coupled with an almost full-range balance with palpable imaging. Source was Constellation’s new
Cygnus server ($29,000), controlled by an iPad app, and cables were all Kubala-Sosna. Expensive electronics but this system was one of my best sounds at the Show. (And I’m not just saying that because Constellation’s Peter Madnick played one of my favorite Cantus tracks, an acapella treatment of Curtis Mayfield’s “It’s Alright,” which I recorded live at Minneapolis’s Southern Theater in 2008.
Winner of my “Tied for Best Sound on the Hilton’s 3rd Floor Award,” which must count for something in someone’s bookthe other was the Perfect8 and BAlabo room, Veloce Audio’s LS-1 battery-powered tube preamp ($18,000) and Saetta battery-powered hybrid monoblock amplifiers ($18,000/pair) were producing their customary luscious, warm, clean, and ultra-smooth sound. Using a PC source equipped with J River Media Player, a Stahl-Tek Ariaa DAC ($12,000), Purist Audio Design Corvus cables and Ultimate USB, and YG Acoustic Kipod II Signature loudspeakers ($38,800), the system sounded great on George Benson’s “Paper Moon” and Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass’ “Moonlight in Vermont.” I especially enjoyed the copious amount of air surrounding Byron Janis’ piano. Color this system maximally seductive.
Dexter Gordon was in the midst of turning head over heels, or vice versa, over the sound of his LP, Dexter Blows Hot and Cool, in the Venice Audio room. He may have blown a bit cool over the out-of-control bass, but he surely found the beauty of his tenor sax, and the clarity of the cymbals hot indeed.
PBN’s Peter Noerback always gets a good sound at shows and Newport Beach was no exception. The KAS2 speakers ($38,000/pair) might have thought to be too big for the room, but driven by the 200Wpc Olympia-AX amplifiers, bridged for mono operation when they deliver 800W into 8 ohms ($22,000 each), they produced a delicious full-range sound, even one that was a touch too mellow, on Madeleine Peyroux’s rendering of “Bye Bye Love.”
EAR USA’s Dan Meinwald had more to share than two new products from Tim de Paravicini; he also opened the door on lovely tube warmth. Thanks to two new sources, the EAR Acute 4/DACute 4 CD/SACD player ($13,000) and Helius Alexia turntable ($5500), the latter equipped with the Helius Omega 10” tonearm ($3100) and Dynavector KX-1s cartridge ($5450), an LP of doo-wop, and a CD of The Persuasions singing the Beatles had great height and exemplary center imaging. A Chad Kassem test pressing of the Ray Brown Trio’s Soular Energy further exhibited lovely and warm tube sound.
It appears I couldn’t go for an entire show without hearing Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo”one of the last rooms I went into on the Sunday afternoon, shared by Affordable Audio and speaker manufacturer King Sound featured the unmistakable sound of Victor Wooten’s deep-voiced bass guitar! “Electrostatics don’t have bass?” asked Kingsound’s Roger du Naier, “Listen to that!” And Roger was right, the Prince III electrostatic kicking major low-frequency bootie, and without too narrow a sweet spot, the other Achilles’ Heel of big panel speakers. Surely this wasn't all due to the presence of Synergistic's little ART bowls in the room?
From an engineering standpoint, Emerald Physic’s CS2.3 Mk.II loudspeaker ($5950/pair in gloss black with outboard DSP crossover), appears to do many things wrongthat large-diameter midrange unit, the coaxial tweeter with no apparent attempt at dealing with the symmetrical acoustic environment, the cavities between the 15" woofer cones and the front bafflebut I was pleasantly surprised by what I heard. The speakers sounded better than I was expecting on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Tin Pan Alley,” producing a big, easy-on-the-ear balance.
Dusty Vawter’s CIAudio, which stands for Channel Islands Audio rather than a governmental overseas espionage agency, was making really nice sound on a recording by Ben Harper. Doing the honors in this reasonably priced system were CIAudio’s Transient Mk.II asynchronous USB DAC ($699), VDC5 Mk.II 5V upgraded power supply ($329), PLC1 MKk.II passive line controller ($899), and D200 Mk.II 200W monoblocks ($3500/pair). Von Schweikert VR-22 loudspeakers ($2895/pair) completed a chain that began with a MacBook Pro equipped with Pure Music software, and also included a PS Audio P10 power regenerator, Billy Bags equipment rack, and GIK room treatments.
KEF, the loudspeaker company that has made sure that every audiophile on Planet Earth knows about their Blade loudspeaker, held a premier of sorts: the first showing of the KEF R900 ($5000/pair). The results were mixed. I’m a little unclear about the amplificationI was told that it was a Chord CPM 3350 integratedbut whatever it was, paired with a Chord Chordette DAC, Parasound Halo CD-1, and Wireworld cabling, I was surprised to discover that the CD player produced much smoother sound than the PC running J River Media Player.
My ears first opened to the tantalizing sounds of JansZen Model ZA2.1 electrostatic hybrid loudspeakers ($7495/pair) with AirLayer outboard side-firing tweeter option ($495/pair) at AXPONA Chicago. In California, they were again paired with an exaSound DAC and, I think, Bryston linear amplifiers. With the source a PC equipped with J River Media Player feeding the DAC via a stock USB cable, the sound was quite nice on a track of somewhat formulaic jazz.
Although plagued by “Noisy Neighbor Syndrome,” Colleen Cardas Imports impressed me with the great sound they got from a 45rpm Acoustic Sounds test pressing of Stevie Ray Vaughan playing “Tin Pan Alley,” reproduced by the Opera Seconda loudspeakers ($3995/pair). Yes, that characteristic Hilton room mode was still in evidence, but these big two-and-a-half-ways produced an otherwise smooth, sonically compelling balance.
The Taiwanese company Lawrence Audio was founded in 1996 but was new to me. Their speakers are impeccably finished and are all named after string instruments: the large Cello (right) features twin ribbon tweeters and two 8" woofers and costs $18,000/pair; the smaller Violin ($7500/pair) a single ribbon tweeter; and the smallest Mandolin (just out of shot on the left) costs $5500/pair. Demmed with the new 125Wpc Model 125 stereo amplifier from Jeff Rowland Design Group, with the source a Bryston BDP-1 media player, the Cellos produced a clean, clear sound on a Japanese transcription for tenor saxophone of the first Bach Cello Suite, with none of the otherwise ubiquitous upper-bass boom I heard at the Hilton.