T.H.E. Show Newport: Can It Really Be This Good?

Was it really possible that so many excellent sounding rooms, both large and small, could be located on a single floor? To someone who does not bullshit about what he hears or wishes he could have heard, and who has covered more rooms at more shows than your great-grandfather has wrinkles on his face, such seemed to be the impossible-but-true case as floor 2 yielded another first-time revelation: Natural Sound Europe from Slovenia.

Natural Sound Europe's sonic presentation was very clear and detailed, and the bass great on an excerpt from Stravinsky's Firebird. A request for opera yielded, of all things wonderful and strange, Montserrat Caballé and Freddy Mercury performing "Barcelona." Hoping that you are not tiring of my frequent superlatives, "totally fabulous" is what I wrote in my notes. Might I add that I also heard beautiful layering on a track from Paul Simon? This system conveyed voices so well that my only disappointment was that I had to keep coaxing the presenters to turn the volume up, up, and up. After all, symphony orchestras and opera singers do not whisper their way through fortes.

Heard: Natural Sound Europe's TFA-9501 preamp ($69,000), TM-9801 8Wpc 6AS7G tube amp ($49,000), TEA-2000 push-pull phono preamp ($20,000), and Model 1 97dB-sensitive, 8 ohm stable loudspeaker ($45,000/pair) with field-coil drivers. Also in the system: Audio-Technica cabling and a Vertere Acoustics turntable with Koetsu Coral Stone cartridge. Heard in my head: Once these folks have enough dealers in the US, their equipment cries out for a review from Art Dudley. [Fine by me!—AD]

Eric Clapton was born 3-1/2 months before yours truly. Hearing him sing "I'll Be Seeing You" quite touchingly on a 24/192 Bernie Grundman/Bob Ludwig track made me sad—not because of the sound, which was very clean and quite lovely, but because the wobble in Clapton's voice at the ends of phrases brought back the reality of my own mortality. This sad, sad commentary on life in the human body is perhaps another way of conveying that this system, both on this track and on a very spacious and dramatic presentation of Adele on vinyl, touched me in unexpected ways.

Rather than spend God-knows-how-long writing out everything in the Technics room, and then correcting all my typos, I shall take the easy route and include my photograph of the equipment line-up. I was told that the Technics 32/384 networking digital amplifier derives from their reference-system amp, and has a very high switching speed. Referring to the sheet, I believe we heard the SB-C components, SL-1200GAE limited edition turntable, and Nordost Tyr cabling. Just in case I've erred, you now know everything except my dear departed mother's middle name.

This photo is misleading, because Magnepan's 20-minute timed demos were held in the dark, literally. I was admitted after the door was locked, thanks to press privilege (if you consider the fact that I had over 40 more rooms to cover in a limited amount of time a privilege) and a lot of understanding on Magnepan's part. Even my back-row, far-left seat could not conceal that the system was maximally transparent, displayed great image depth, and had really beautiful tonalities. True, the volume was kept surprisingly low—were the three Magnepan MMG loudspeakers ($600/pair) not capable of playing loud enough to fill the large room?—but their mating with a modified (for three-channel) Bryston SP3 amplifier, Kubala-Sosna cabling, and computer source delivered really beautiful sound.

Dean Martin sounded so wonderful, smooth, and seductive on Aaudio Import's system that, despite that cigarette dangling from his mouth, if he had been a used car salesman I would have paid hard cash for whatever he was peddling. (Don't believe it, but you get the picture.) From my close-up seat, the system sounded very silent and clear, with a beautiful midrange, on what I believe was a track from the Bottlefield Blues Band. Sound on an LP of Shostakovich's Piano Concerto 2—imagine hearing that at an audio show!—was a little too warm, and the piano got noisy when things got going full force (the recording's fault?). Nonetheless, the pristine silence between notes was commendable.

What's essential to note is that Brian Ackerman, aka Mr. Aa, intended as his speaker the Lansche No.3.1 with plasma ion tweeter ($36,000/pair). When one tweeter was damaged in transit, Acoustic Zen Crescendos ($22,000/pair) came to the rescue. So who knows what the system would have sounded like as intended? What is known, besides the fact that it sounded pretty wonderful with the Acoustic Zens, is that we heard a Thales TTT turntable ($13,200) with Simplicity II tonearm ($9200) and Ikeda Kai MC cartridge ($8500), Ypsilon VPS-100 phono stage ($26,000) with MC26L step-up transformer ($6200), Metaxas Ikarus modular-design integrated amp ($32,500), lots of Stage III cabling, HB Cable Design PowerSlave marble power distributor ($9900), and Finite Elemente Pagode APS HiFi Rack ($8970).

I'm not sure I've heard the Nola loudspeaker/VAC combination before, but I sure hope I hear it again. I thought the sound very fine, with tremendous depth and fine piano timbres on a DXD-to-CD recording of the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio. A classic Saint-Saëns track on LP, whose name I've intentionally blanked out due to overexposure, sounded exceptionally smooth, with beautiful timbres. I would have wished for a bit more bottom-end weight and color from timpani, but the system's smoothness and musicality were exceptional.

But wait: Those observations, I've now learned, were made during a compromised performance. On the last day of the show, while I was away from my e-mail, Kevin Hayes of VAC wrote, "Just discovered someone had bumped the balanced/Se switch on the preamp. We've been running until now with one hand tied behind our backs. Really wish you could hear it now!…It is the irony of the zero feedback, step down transformer coupled preamp circuit that it can swing enough current to continue working fairly well even when half of the output is short-circuited. Sadly, it does take away from bass extension and general dynamics. I am quite chagrined and embarrassed! It is not like me not to check that periodically."

So there you have it. The only fault I found with this otherwise superb sounding system was the one thing that the correct preamp setting could have remedied. With the caveat that some of my prices may be off, hats off to Nola Studio Grand Reference Gold loudspeakers ($19,800/pair), VAC Signature 200 iQ amplifier ($14,000), VAC Signature IIa line stage with phono option ($26,000), discontinued VAC DAC Mk II, Esoteric K03 transport, and Acoustic Signature Challenger mk III turntable with SME 309 arm, Lyra cartridge, and Synergistic Research RCA phono cable. All other cabling was Nordost Odin 2, with Nordost power treatment added to that mix. What a great way to end my time on the amazing second floor!

Anton's picture

I am also impressed with the improvement in demo quality the last several years.

The room quality at THE was above average, as well.

I think most rooms were set up rather well, and many had portable room treatments that helped, too!

I noticed the pics from Munich looked like people are paying attention to the rooms, as well.

supamark's picture

The photo doesn't display large enough to actually read it - and I'm on a 27" monitor @ 1920x1080. You should either crop and repost, or link to a larger image so it can be read.

They taped a piece of paper over the display on their tablet computer, which amuses me.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Actually, they pulled the one equipment sheet they had out of a drawer, and I placed it a way where I could move far enough back to take the shot in focus. But I do agree, much to my chagrin, that the photo is hard to read. With a big pet to your bunny, I have just learned that what I thought I heard is not at all what I heard. According to Bill Voss of Technics, I heard the new Technics Grand Series consisting of SU-G30 ($3,999) Networking Amplifier & ST-G30 ($4,999) Music Server through the SB-C700-K ($1,699/pair) speakers. We listened to a 24/192 presentation of Eric Clapton's new album from the SSD of the ST-G30. And, of course, Nordost Tyr cabling was in the mix.

Here's hoping Technics will supply detailed equipment list for hapless members of the press next time.

supamark's picture