Sound The Trumpets! THE Show is Off and Running

The ribbon had been cut and the trumpets sounded. THE Show Newport Beach, whose 2015 installment had moved a mile or two up the road into Irvine, was underway. Doing the honors at the ribbon-cutting ceremony were, from left to right, a gold chain-bedecked Steve Rochlin of Enjoy the Music, accompanied by his wife, Heather to his left, and an unidentified woman to his right; Michael Fremer of Stereophile and; David Robinson of Positive Feedback, Robert Harley of The Absolute Sound. Several folks were present on the stage later in the ceremony, including Carol and Dave Clark of Positive Feedback, Richard Beers of THE Show, and Bob Levi of THE Show/Los Angeles Orange County Audiophile Society. The big drama, besides the trumpets, was supplied by journalists jostling for a good shot.

It might have been a workday, but you'd never know it from the line stretching out the door at the Hotel Irvine. It reportedly took two hours for the first throng of registrants to get their badges and make it through the door. At least pre-registrants had a head start, having encountered a much shorter line. Nonetheless, given the fact the show was spread over nine floors, it was possible to snare a seat in every room I visited.

Up on the 5th Floor, Grammy-winning producer and recording engineer Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Records was prepared to host three days of live performances while recording, mixing, and playing back on the spot. Among the artists poised to perform was the lovely Fiona Joy, the celebrated Blue Coast artist whose Winds of Samsara received the 2015 Grammy for Best New Age album.


No less a personage than recording engineer Keith O. Johnson (right) joined Ric and Jan Mancuso at the busy Reference Recordings booth in THE Show's huge, T-Shaped marketplace. Vinyl lovers, too, were having a ball.

I got advance word of Reference Recordings' releases for the rest of the year: Rediscovering Moszkowski: Orchestral Works of Moritz Moszkowski, performed by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra conducted by Martin West (October); Wine-Dark Sea: Symphony for Band by John Mackay and other works from the University of Texas Wind Ensemble, conducted by Jerry Junkin (November); and Of The Free: Marches, Anthems and Songs performed by the West Point Band, conducted by Lt. Col Jim Keene (November).

From the Fresh! from RR series, which is recorded in DSD by SoundMirror and released as a hybrid SACD that includes a HDCD-encoded CD layer: Mahler: Symphony No. 1 "Titan" performed by the Utah Symphony, conducted by Thierry Fischer (September); Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7, performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Manfred Honeck (October); and Far In The Heavens: Choral Music of Stephen Paulus, world premieres of the last pieces Paulus wrote and recorded, just before his untimely death last year, with the True Concord Voices (formerly Tucson Chamber Artists (September 11, 2015). Holst's The Planets is due from the Kansas City Orchestra in 2016.

Virtually every system on the lobby level of the Hotel Irvine qualified as cost-no-object, with some being more stratospherically priced than others. What immediately seized the attention of everyone who entered this extremely large room was the marvelously full range, convincingly colorful organ holding forth from Tineo J Horn loudspeakers ($35,000/pair in rare Tineo Brazilian hardwood finish). Allied with Ayon Titan SET Gen 4 monoblocks ($53,900/pair), Ayon Spheris III preamp ($34,000), Ayon CD-3sx CD player/DAC/streamer/DSD ($9850), BBS Audio aluminum racks ($5600), and unidentified cabling, this was a killer system that displayed impressive control on everything from thunderous, full-range organ to electric guitar. Both speakers and racks are available in multiple finishes.

Dean Martin's Dream with Dean, a superb recent LP release from Acoustic Sounds, was graced by an absolutely gorgeous midrange on a world premiere pair of Evolution Acoustics MMTwo EXACT loudspeakers ($89,500/pair) with new outboard crossover (pictured alongside the loudspeaker). In a system assembled by The Audio Association of Anaheim, these beauties were joined by Evolution Acoustics cabling ($20,000); two new iterations of darTZeel products that are due to ship in June, the LHC-203 "DANalogue" streaming Ethernet DAC w/integrated amplifier ($15,000) and NHB-18NS reference preamplifier with integrated reference phonostage ($40,000); Wave Kinetics NVS reference direct-drive turntable plus accouterments ($47,400 total); Durand Kairos tonearm and tonearm cable ($8300); and Ortofon MC Anna MC cartridge ($9000).

If the midrange shone on Dean Martin's prime condition voice, the bass foundation on Zubin Mehta's performance of Mahler's Symphony 3 was equally impressive. With the only room treatment in the sonically daunting square space being draping, this system's beauty and control were outstanding. Given that the preamp was not broken-in, I can only imagine how good this system will sound by the final day. Hats off to Jonathan Tinn for pulling it all together.

The Bulgarian Thrax Lira loudspeakers ($20,000/pair) that were making their US premiere—I missed them in Munich—may have been small, but their high-frequency horn drivers and magnesium-diaphragm mid/bass drivers, housed in an all-aluminum ported enclosure, were capable of throwing an impressively large soundstage. The sound was warm and lovely on "Friend" from Pink Martini + The Von Trapps, and highs on Iván Fischer's version of Mahler Symphony 2, with the CD layer of the hybrid SACD upsampled to 32/384, were quite good. While the system couldn't nail the lowest bass line of the symphony, there was absolutely no distortion when the volume was turned way up. Furthermore, new bass modules are due for the speakers, which will surely address the low bass issue (which, of course, was compounded by the sheer size of the room).

Also heard: Thrax Dionysos linestage preamplifier ($21,500), Thrax Maximinus DAC ($33,000), Thrax Teres transformer-coupled hybrid amplifier ($30,000) that outputs 250Wpc into 8ohms and 350Wpc into 4ohms, Weiss Man301 Music Archive network player ($9083 or $12,262 with DAC), and Enklein David series cabling.

These photos begin to give you a sense of the enormous size of the Synergistic Research/Scott Walker Audio room. There was so much equipment here that it would take a half hour to type it all up. I believe we heard a Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference w/Alpha USB module ($17,895), Soulution 711 power amplifier ($65,000), Soulution 725 preamplifier w/phono stage ($60,000), Magico S5 loudspeakers ($32,400/pair), a large array of Synergistic Research Galileo and Atmosphere Level 4 cabling ($several hundred thousand), 10 Synergistic Research Tranquility Base XLs ($29,950 total), 2 SR Grounding Blocks and 24 SR High Definition Ground cables, a SR Black Box ($1995), and their Atmosphere, HFT, HFT 2.0, HFT X, and Acoustic ART systems.

By all accounts, this system should have sounded fantastic. In fact, I heard some of the same Synergistic Research products in the MBL room at AXPONA Chicago, and they helped contribute to one of the indubitably best sounds at the show. But for some reason, here, the sound on Elgar's Enigma Variations was very dark and strangely muffled, with no shine or life on top. Nor could the very different-sounding Metallica break loose. Yes, the image was far larger that one might expect, given the size of the room, but bass was boomy and ill-focused, as though it could not fully escape the speaker cabinets. I'm afraid the effect of the room's walls, whose acoustic paneling was designed to deaden sound, could not be entirely ameliorated.

In a smaller room with a far lower ceiling, superb full range sound poured forth from YG Acoustics Sonja 1.3 loudspeakers ($106,800/pair); Audionet's PAM G2 phonostage with EPX enhanced power supply ($20,200), PRE G2 preamp ($23,350), and MAX monoblocks ($61,000/pair); Kronos limited-edition Pro turntable ($38,000 with 12" Black Beauty tonearm ($8500); AirTight PC1 Supreme cartridge ($11,000); and Kubala-Sosna's Elation! cabling, world premiere Realization ($3500/1m) and Temptation ($600/1m) USB cables, and XPander ($4800). With the entire room treatment consisting of opening the heavy drapes a bit, the violin on Massenet's Meditation from Thaïs sounded absolutely gorgeous. Switching to jazz, a direct-to-disc LP of Charlie Byrd and ensemble depicted drums, gongs, bass, and guitar with absolute control and fabulous dynamics.

I am told this is the first time the Sonja 1.3 loudspeakers had been bi-amped in public. It certainly adds to the price, but it also worked wonders. Everything from the drum's decay to cymbals and trumpet was handled impeccably. On "Bluesville" from Count Basie's 88 Basin Street, the trumpet was depicted with a perfect combination of edge, with just enough warmth to leave me smiling. This system was a triumph.

At the same time that Doug MacLeod was sounding just gorgeous on the LP version of "Exactly Like This," who should appear in the second row of the On a Higher Note room but his bass player, Denny Croy? Shown to the right of On a Higher Note's Philip O'Hanlon, whose taste in music is impeccable, Croy was still smiling from the beautiful timbres of guitar and bass that he heard. I didn't see his face when we heard The Tape Project's transfer of Reference Recordings' Malcolm Arnold Overtures, but my mouth was agape at a superbly realistic presentation whose fabulously wide soundstage, depth, air, and slightly warm timbres were nothing short of remarkable.

This was the finest presentation of the Vivid Giya G3 speakers ($40,000/pair) I've ever experienced. A thumbs up to a Luxman PD-171 turntable ($6400), SoundSmith moving-iron cartridge ($7500),new Luxman EQ-500 vacuum tube phono stage ($7990), Luxman DA-06 DAC ($4990), Luxman C900u control amp ($19,900), Luxman M-900u stereo amp ($19,900), SonoruS ATR10 open-reel ($17,500), Otari MT20 ½" open-reel playing Tape Project masters, Apple MacBook Air running Audirvana, and Eclipse TD520 subwoofer ($3600) and Sonorus proximity subwoofer controller ($9800) that I'm assured were used solely to smooth out rather than extend the bass, given that the Vivid Giya G3's bass is already quite extended.

enjoythemusic's picture

Jason, a most humble thanks for the coverage. Always glad to help, as the lovely lady to my right is audio and music enthusiast Harmony Hicks.

Allen Fant's picture

As always, excellent coverage- JVS.
Great 1st pic w/ all of the movers/shakers in Audio.

Allen Fant's picture

Second Note;

in the pic, Steven Rochlin looks pimped-out.

David Pritchard's picture

I certainly enjoyed this 2015 Newport Beach Audio Festival. This was my third time to Newport and so I was not compelled to hear every room.
This year the Scott Walker- Synergistic Research team accomplished an amazing dual feat. First the demonstration of new products in and out of the system allowed me to hear what these products do and don't do to the sound. By demonstrating only two products at each demo, I was not overloaded and could digest the effects. Friday morning I heard the first demmo and decided to return for the last demo of the day at 5:30.
The Friday night demmo was quite a different experience. With all the Synergistic Research products in place the sound was stunning! This applied to all types of music. The manditory exotic female jazz sound, Rodger Waters post Pink Floyd, and then suddenly my 36 hour odyssey to California was worth the effort. Stevie Ray Vaughn was playing Tin Pan Alley. I simply have never heard Stevie sound so good. My listening to his records or live go back to 1982 when I could hear him play a club in Dallas, Texas. I was so impressed that I returned twice on Saturday to just hear the music- the sound was that good.
For me this room set a new bar for others to try and achieve. The room was enormus. The walls were thin and flexing. The Magico's were not large by any means. And yet I experienced a sound that was more emotionally envolving than any other room I have listened to for the past 4 years of going to Newport Beach and RockyMountain Audio fest. Music and feeling filled the room.
I quit thinking about does this amplifier, DAC, or speaker warrant the cost. I quit thinking about this or that SR product being demonstrated. I just sat still and heard a fabulous artist play his music like no other blues muscian.
This room made my trip to Newport Beach an unforgetable event.

Thank you to Scott Walker and the Synergistic Research Team!

David Pritchard

Stereoman's picture

Jason: clearly, you and I have completely different opinions regarding the sound we heard in the Scott Walker Synergistic Research demo room. I am a classically trained trumpet player, having had the pleasure of playing in--or listening to--several performances in some this nation's finest concert halls, including Eastman Theatre (where I cut my own teeth), Disney Concert Hall, Orange County's new Segerstrom Hall (where I had the honor of sitting in the best box seats in the house), and Boston's Symphony Hall. As a lover of high end audio and a person who treasures his hearing, I have had my ears audiometrically tested for several decades (the last time by the House Ear Clinic), and even though I'm over 50 years old, I can proudly say that my hearing is still 10-octaves capable.
So...I'm a bit disappointed that you gave the Walker Synergistic demo such a fleeting, lukewarm report. Admittedly, I haven't been a Stereophile subscriber for many years now, so I'm not familiar with you, your review history, or your musical background. I decided to google you to see what your professional resume included in the music and high end audio biz. I consider myself a pretty proficient whistler, but given your purported acumen and recognition as a subject matter expert, I don't begin to profess to be a whistling virtuoso in any way, shape or form. However, I have been told by my music teachers that I have perfect pitch and a gift for hearing and distinguishing subtle nuances in sounds that most trained music aficionados do not possess.
I have been a critical listener of music for as long as I can remember. I have attended high end audio shows for over 30 years. And this year I attended every minute of every day of THE Show Newport, as I always have. And every year, there are only about 5 or 6 demo rooms that captivate my ears for beyond perhaps a few minutes. In the decades that I have attended these shows, if I hear anything that holds promise of superior sound reproduction, I can attest that I always stay and listen to more than 2 recordings, which appears to be all the time that you committed to the Walker/Synergistic room (Shame! Shame! How can you make ANY judgment of a demo room based on such a short listening session?!) I always make a point to return multiple times to the rooms that give me the most musically gratifying experience. This year, without question for me, the Walker / Synergistic demo room was among those few.
You said that "...the sound on Elgar's Enigma Variations was very dark and strangely muffled, with no shine or life on top." Honestly, where were you sitting? On the floor in the back row? I heard only one or two other rooms with more natural, extended highs (Two immediately come to mind: Raidho's D1 demo and a Quad ESL 57 demo with an uber-cool super tweeter that probably cost 5 times more than the Quad's ever did!. But I was front and center, 5 feet from those gorgeous-sounding Raidhos and not much farther than that when I listened to the Quad's). Besides that, I heard nothing as clear, extended, or articulately defined. I heard this palpability over and over in the Walker Audio Synergistic room, especially on ride cymbals, triangles, and strings, on the numerous recordings I heard over three days.
I believe because of my repeated attendance on Friday and Saturday, Scott and Ted invited me to their special "closed" demo session on Saturday night, held after the show itself ended that day. Were you there? If not, you missed quite possibly the best sound at the show. We were treated with beautiful recordings from multi-Latin Grammy award-winning Yarlung Records, on both vinyl and analog reel-to-reel tape (with no hiss whatsoever!). Being a brass, percussion, and piano fan, I was particularly taken by the Sophisticated Lady Jazz Quartet recordings. The Duke Ellington cover of the same name never sounded better!
You also said, "...bass was boomy and ill-focused, as though it could not fully escape the speaker cabinets. I'm afraid the effect of the room's walls, whose acoustic paneling was designed to deaden sound, could not be entirely ameliorated." I completely disagree--in fact I heard precisely the opposite. Most other rooms, regardless of size or shape--except perhaps the rooms where speakers that couldn't reproduce the last half of the lowest octave--were boomy and bloated (the one totally unexpected surprise for me was Legacy Audio's DSP-corrected A-V room in the club/lounge on the 12th floor...I've never been enamored with any Legacy demo, but this one was tight, tuneful, expansive, and taught...awesome job in an equally, if not more challenging room, Legacy!).
That fact that the walls of the Walker Synergistic room were indeed acoustically dead presents a challenge to ANY music reproduction system (after all--it's a conference room, not a room designed for a concert, right?!). When I walked in the first time on Friday morning, I noted the padded walls and the hundreds of plastic or glass (who knows for sure what they were) lighting "stalactites" hanging from the ceiling. I immediately thought, "this room will be an acoustic nightmare!" The fact that Scott and Ted were able to recover as much ambience and reverberant character in such a dead room is nothing short of miraculous. Honestly, I have never been much of a fan of room tweaks. The gorgeous, 3-dimensional, indeed almost quadraphonic sound, which no other room in Hotel Irvine came remotely close to replicating (including all the other big ones) should be a testament to the genius of Ted Denney and the expert work of Scott Walker Audio and his [clearly] hard working team.
I also don't agree with your assessment of the YG Acoustics' Sonja 1.3 speakers. Although I am an avid fan of their speakers, I was gravely disappointed with their demo in the Shady Canyon room. The sound was the worst I've heard in years--it was flat (in a bad way), lifeless, and very 2-dimensional. And if I can paraphrase a comment from your report of the Walker Synergistic room, the sound from these otherwise superb-sounding speakers totally "[failed to] escape [their] speaker cabinets". These guys really should have spent more time setting up their room environment, to give this awesome speaker the showcase it truly deserves.