Sasha Matson at T.H.E. Show Newport, Part One

Stereophile Editor John Atkinson and I drove down from deepest Hollywood to arrive at T.H.E. Show Newport late on Thursday night, in time for the public opening the following morning. Traffic was okay— the best you can hope for these days in LA! Conferencing commenced over breakfast the next morning at the Hotel Irvine, where T.H.E. Show is now located. I can assure any lingering skeptics: the Star Trek-worthy prime directive remains to try to cover every exhibitor at these shows—no matter who they are or how many people has on-hand for each day. In his efforts to accomplish this goal, John Atkinson has tried every protocol there is, each with its own plusses and minuses; this time we mostly divided the chores by floors. (Other ways to do it are by budget, or by product category. )

I started my beat on the main floor. First up, in the Saddleback A room, I visited with Ken Boyce of Cake Audio—appropriately enough based in nearby San Clemente—which carries a lot of the good stuff. I heard an extremely fine, genuinely high-end system. Upstream was a Brinkmann Bardo turntable with Brinkmann Ront power supply, fitted with a 12" Brinkmann tonearm and a Dynavector VX1T cartridge. (In a wrong-footed start, I wasn't given current retail prices for this front-end, so I will quote Michael Fremer: "The Brinkmann Bardo is a contender for the best turntable under $10,000, and probably should be auditioned by anyone looking for a turntable costing $15,000 or even more." There.) This very fine front end fed the Vitus SIA-025 integrated amplifier shown above ($25,200), a solid-state baby that can run in either class-A (25 Wpc) or class-A/B (100Wpc). All cabling was from the Nordost Valhalla series (pricing not supplied). The CD player was an Esoteric KO1 CD player ($19,500), and the final stop downstream was the Rockport Atria floorstanding loudspeaker ($25,500/pair): a three-way ported design with aesthetics that are second to none, IMO.

Aaron Copland's Symphony 3, from a Telarc recording, created an immediate sensation of a very deep hall, in front of and to the sides of my seat. And like a good reviewer should, when I requested something to contrast with that, I heard Chet Baker sounding like your favorite friend sitting across a table in a restaurant, playing his trumpet just for you. Ken Boyce said of the Rockports that they "image like a panel, but with no downside." A very special system indeed.

Next in the series of rooms-with-names was Saddleback C, hosted by Swedish loudspeaker manufacturer Perfect8 Technologies AB and electronics manufacturer BAlabo (which stands for Bridge Audio Laboratory), based in Scotts Valley, CA—my old college stomping grounds near Santa Cruz. For sources we heard a Bergmann turntable (no pricing given) and the BAlabo BD-1 DAC ($37,500). Amplification was by the BAlabo BC-1 MKII control amp ($67,500) and BP1 MKII amplifier ($88,500), the latter of which puts out a tidy 500Wpc. The loudspeaker was the Perfect Technologies The Point MKII Evolution ($100,000/pair), the cabinets for which are crafted from thick glass that both displays the innards in an aesthetically pleasing way and, presumably, fulfills the designer's technical requirements. The lower portions of the cabinet are equipped with 10" side-firing drivers powered by 800W class-D amps; the two midrange drivers and the ribbon tweeter are housed in a separate glass-walled upper enclosure.

But it don't mean a thing if it ain't got…Dean Martin! Perfect8 Technologies CEO Jonas Rantila shared with us the finely pressed Acoustic Sounds 45 rpm LP reissue of Dream with Dean that has been making the rounds of hi-fi shows. I also heard some fine Peter, Paul & Mary off LP. Voilà: as with any fine time portal, we were there in the early 60's. That's the freedom of time and space travel that really great audio reproduction creates. Amazing stuff.

Having wound my way to the Trabuco A & B rooms, I enjoyed meeting and conversing with Ray Kimber, the long-time (since 1979) designer and proprietor of Kimber Kable. I sometimes ponder the dividing line, if any, between technically verifiable aspects of audio design work and "voodoo hi-fi" (or, as Charley Hansen of Ayre Acoustics terms the latter, the "woo woo" aspects of the high end). Such lines in the sand are usually in the minds of the beholders, but the whole genre of cable design and manufacture has long been a prime target of audio agnostics. Thus it was refreshing to chat a bit with the very down-to-earth and no-BS Ray Kimber, who described in plain English what he does with cable designs: "It's about controlling impedance numbers…impedance matching is the goal, particularly important with digital."

Kimber Kable, along with WBT-USA and WattGate, had two large rooms of static display going—quite a myriad assortment, way beyond show report parameters in terms of details. Instead, Ray Kimber chose to highlight a couple of things for me. We walked over to a display of headphones in the larger ballroom next door, designated T.H.E. Marketplace. (It would later revert to being the Versailles Room.) Kimber and I petted his new Axios headphone cabling, shown above ($700-$800/meter, depending on termination). This is indeed a visually pleasing variant. Braided in a way that is both elegant and that reportedly assists in performance aspects of signal integrity, Kimber Axios is offered with a choice of finishes on its wooden connector shells. Kimber Kable also distributes in the US the WBT brand, which focuses on termination options. Looking at their display was somewhat like going into a fishing store in the Catskills and seeing a handsome assortment of trout flies laid out in their cases: real serious attention to detail here.

ACA (Angel City Audio) and Melody were featured in another of the larger main-floor rooms. Early on Friday morning the system was down and being worked on. As you can see above, the setup process is indeed hands-on—or other parts of the body, as needed. Hugh Nguyen greeted me with a big smile, but regrettably I was not able to listen to the Seraphim Prime floorstanding loudspeakers ($22,000/pair in Piano Rosewood finish), the Melody MN845 monoblock amplifiers ($15,299/pair), or the Triangle Art Signature turntable ($19,995). The turntable was fitted out with all-Triangle ancillaries—the Triangle Art Osiris 12" tonearm ($5,800), a Triangle Art Apollo cartridge ($8,000), and the Triangle Art Reference Tube 2 phono stage ($12,995). The handsome Seraphim speakers are manufactured in good old Los Angeles: The three-way, 48"-tall Seraphim Prime towers feature a SEAS Millennium tweeter, and boast a sensitivity rating of 91dB. Internal wiring is—wouldn't you know it?—from Kimber Kable. I did get to hear these speakers last year, and my general recollection is that they were terrific. The Melody line of amps is a partnership between Australian and Chinese companies; as the name MN845 implies, these particular monoblocks utilize 845 triode tubes, and the amps output 150Wpc.

Next on my Day One rounds was the appropriately named—at least for a hi-fi show—Think Tank room. An array of gear was featured by Moorpark CA-based Precision Audio and Video. The front-end was well served by an Audio Union Helix 1 turntable ($37,500) fitted with the Audio Union Schroeder CB tonearm ($4,000). From there, most of the rest of the audio journey in this room was handled by the Thrax company, based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Thrax had it covered for both electronics and the loudspeakers, with their Orpheus Phono tube preamplifier ($19,500), Maximinus DAC ($31,200), Teres 250W hybrid mono power amplifier ($28,900), Lyra two-way stand-mounted loudspeaker ($19,500/pair), and the separate Basse subwoofer ($40,000). Interconnects, USB cables, and speaker cables were from EnKlein—and the room was large enough to not get in the way of all this fine gear.

From LP I heard Pink Floyd's "Is There Anybody Out There?" The sound was suitably spacey, an effect that might have been enhanced by sitting fairly far back in this large room. I wish I had had more time, or that Pink Floyd had taken less, so I could have heard another genre of music: it's helpful to hear more than one, and if you're considering a serious purchase, the more kinds of music you can throw at a system, the better! In any event, what with Putin and Medvedev both being high-end audio buffs, things are looking way up in the former Eastern Bloc!

The Santiago Room was devoted to Burmester Audiosysteme GmbH, hosted by Playa Del Rey-based retailer Tweak Studio West. Founder Dieter Burmester left high scratch marks on the audio trees when he passed away in 2015. Visiting here with Rob Niemann of Burmester, it was good to be reminded that one of the main things in life is to take it all the way—halfway doesn't get it. Composer John Adams said that to me many years ago, and I thought of it while admiring the visual element of the Burmester designs. The quality of the presentation in this room was enhanced by strategic placement of panels from Artnovion Acoustics. Niemann kindly provided me with an overview of the Burmester hardware lineup in the room, which included their BA31 speaker ($25,000/pair), 911 amp ($35,000), 948 power conditioner ($10,000), Phono 100 phono preamp ($20,000 to $27,000), and 111 Musiccenter server ($55,000). The one non-Burmester component was a Thorens 550 turntable ($15,000). Looking at all this silver-faced gear, one had the feeling of entering a vault of safe-deposit boxes.

And out of all those handsome faces I heard from LP the recent Malia/Boris Blank album Convergence. This is full-bore techno with female vocals, though what particular subgenre tag might be best, I haven't the faintest idea. Good to be outside my musical comfort zone and get that blast of kicking, uptempo sound, delivered with total authority. And for contrasting flavors I was offered Chris Botti with orchestra, and Shelby Lynne doing "Just a Little Lovin'," all controlled with a Burmester app on an iPad. The sound was flawless in this room.

The Quail Hill Room had been staked out by distributor Blue Light Audio, based in Portland OR, and local retailer Alma Music and Audio in La Jolla, CA. This was a super-enjoyable visit, involving varied outstanding hardware manufacturers, and with sources including both LP and analog tape playback. Featured was a Wave Kinetics NVS Reference direct-drive turntable system ($45,000), fitted with a Durand Kairos tonearm ($6,450). Analog Audio, Inc. President Leslie Brooks was there to roll 1/4" tape on his handsome Studer tape deck. Amplification was by darTZeel: their NHB-18NS Reference preamplifier with phono stage ($40,000) and NHB-458 Reference monoblock amplifiers ($180,000/pair). And making a lot of (great) noise was the world premier appearance of the Evolution Acoustics MMThree EXACT Reference loudspeaker system ($104,500/pair). Evolution Acoustics provided their own cabling: the TRSC loudspeaker cables ($10,000/pair), Link 50 ohm BNC cable ($6,500/pair), and a TRPC power cord ($3,500, lengths not specified). Evolution Acoustics' Jonathan Tinn was on hand, and he made me smile when he put on the MoFi LP pressing of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman doing "Friend of the Devil." This is a great track, and it just sounded wonderful: love it! As if that wasn't enough, I turned around and Leslie Brooks hit Play on his Studer and we heard from a 1/4" tape Duke Ellington doing "Blues in Orbit." Absolutely killer: as Ahmet Ertegun used to say when he liked what he heard in the studio, "That's the shit"—and it was!

HughACA's picture

I'd like to thank Sasha for visiting our room.

Please kindly correct my first name.
It is Hugh and not Hu.


Hugh Nguyen

Art Dudley's picture
Thanks, Hugh—we have made the correction. :-)