California Audio Show 2015: Day One

On paper, the 6th annual California Audio Show, taking place this weekend at the Westin SFO in Millbrae, CA just south of San Francisco, qualifies as the smallest consumer audio show in the United States. But you wouldn't have known it from the lines at the registration table at 10:30am on opening day. The place looked packed. And the reality was, given 29 active exhibit rooms, some with multiple systems, plus other active exhibits in the lobby, Friday's turnout felt perfect.

On Friday, August 14, only once did I find myself the sole visitor in a room. Often, in fact, every seat in the room was filled. The biggest problem, in fact, was not the lack of bodies, but rather the number of people who insisted on carrying on loud conversations right outside the door, oblivious to other attendees trying to listen.

Some people were still setting up when I arrived in the Westin SFO lobby to get my show badge. Cookie Marenco had told me that her Blue Coast Records wasn't going to exhibit this year, but clearly she changed her mind. Here she is (second from left) standing with CAS Show Manager Jim Arvantis (left) and her two assistants as they assemble a work in progress.

Not every exhibitor was a happy camper. Take, for example, the normally upbeat Randy Johnson of retailer AudioVision SF. The high-end roll of the dice declares that at least one exhibitor at every show will discover that equipment has been wrecked in transit. In this case, it was the Bel Canto Black gear at the heart of one of the AVSF's systems. I wish I had snapped my photo earlier, when Randy's face honestly expressed the living hell he was going through.

As result of Randy's mishap, I pledged that I would leave most if not all rooms on the lobby level until the last day, after replacement gear had been shipped and everything had settled into place. Many years of blogging shows have taught me that large rooms are the hardest to set-up and tune properly.

I am probably the last person in the entire high-end community to take a first listen to Pono. Crazy, I know, for someone who covered Neil Young's talk at CES just eight months ago, and who has since encountered the player on several occasions at audio stores and shows (when I always had something else assigned to cover).

Chalk my Pono-less existence up to life in Port Townsend, WA. While so many people love to push in their earbuds or don their headphones and groove out the world, I now find myself sated by the sounds of the wind rushing through fir trees, waves rising up from the Strait of Juan du Fuoca at the overlook two blocks away from our house, or our three part-terriers going nuts over anything and everything under the beautiful, blue, global warming sun. So, unless I'm listening to music on the reference system in the music room or the desktop system in the office, it's the world of nature and silence for me.

Be that as it may, it took all of a few minutes for me to hear why John Atkinson and so many others have raved about the Pono player. Listening in best-sounding balanced configuration through Audeze EL-8 open back headphones, I heard a "definitely walk into the line of traffic" rendition of music that was so warm and full and satisfying as to potentially render someone oblivious to their surroundings.

After my listen, I had a great talk with (left to right) Rob Jacobs, Jackson Galan, and Damani Jackson of Pono. My question was, given the dismayingly cynical reaction to Pono's hi-rez foray by the traditional media, what kind of reception were they experiencing when they exhibited the player at other than high-end audio venues?

Jackson, who's in charge of Quality Assurance at Pono, and the other men told me that when they had shown the player at Outside Lands, they encountered a surprising amount of skepticism. People insisted the quality of playback they heard was due to the headphones rather than to the files or the player.

"I just tell them to listen, and it's going to take time," Jackson told me. "But many of them won't listen."

Contrast that with the educated eagerness of the man listening next to me, who wanted to hear a comparison between balanced and unbalanced playback using the same pair of headphones. While I'm not sure that was possible, given how music and headphones were distributed at this particular demo, what he could do was listen to Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" in different resolutions, and then create his own file comparisons using Pono's desktop software. Pono calls it "The Revealer." Given how many times I've already performed the comparison on other playback systems, I didn't need convincing. Instead, given how many rooms I had to cover, I decided to leave the vaunted MP3 vs Hi-Rez challenge to others, and head to the third floor.

Standing in the doorway of the San Francisco Audiophile Society Hospitality Suite, which Burwell & Sons donated to the organization, SFAS Chief Troublemaker, Alon Sagee, had much to be proud of. SFAS, which signed up 150 new members at the last California Audio Show, was hoping to meet or break that record this time around. Given that first-time members have dues waived for the first year, and that next weekend, Michael Fremer is coming to address the society, was a definite enticement.

Inside the SFAS room, which was devoted to eat, drink, and schmooze, Dan Rubin, Director of Membership Development (seated on the left), acknowledged that the society did not have the capability as yet to track which of its last batch of "free" members had actually attended meetings, and which had sent in their dues for the next 12 months. Dan looks forward to the time when that data will become available. I, in turn, applaud this little collective of dedicated audiophiles who have taken the former Bay Area Audiophile Society to a whole new level.

I always enjoy encountering Joseph Kwong and being surprised anew by the really nice warm sound and fine midrange of diminutive, Chinese-made Napa Acoustic electronics. First I heard the company's Bluetooth Micro-System, which combines a 25Wpc NA-208A tube amplifier ($399) with NA-208S compact monitors ($199/pair). But as lovely as it sounded, bass sure got fuller and deeper in the second system, which consisted of the NA-208MP 24/192 digital music player ($499), companion NA-208Ae enhanced tube amplifier ($499), and BOW-3 speakers with tuned SW-801 subwoofer ($999). Napa Acoustics does most of its sales on the Web, and has its own store at

jimtavegia's picture

one of if not the, hardest working woman in audio land.

I did find it funny to those uninformed to think that Pono sounds better because of "cans" and then one guy wants to try to compare bal and unbal. That to me shows the difference between audiophiles who know and mainstream folks who are not quite there yet.

To me using better headphones on MP3s only shows up the weaknesses more. Great coverage as always.

As for delivery damage I remember someone showing me a video of the package delivery guy throwing a HD TV over a wrought-iron fence before Christmas. Priceless.

cookiemarenco's picture

I'm so glad we had an exhibit at CAS. I was planning to wander the rooms, but it was at the insistence of our young crew and interns to be there. We all had a great time -- especially the interns.

Saturday and Sunday had a lot of young audiophiles, which was fun. I entertained 8 and 10 year old daughters of one of our German music lovers with music from our catalog playing on Sony and Oppo devices. It was good to see them fighting over heads phones and showing each other their favorite songs and how to use the devices. They insisted (loudly) their dad buy them some new music from us. Can't beat that! :)

The show was small, but it gave us the opportunity to talk at length with people we rarely get to see. We reminisce how we got started with this passion and answer questions while looking someone in the eyes. No expectations, just listening. More enthusiasm than hype for 3 days. Being present without having to run off somewhere.

I'm ready for next year! :)