Tom Norton's Day 2 Report

Headphonium, Earphonium, Canjam. Every audio show has its own name for a section set aside to serve headphone enthusiasts, an increasingly active audiophile sub-segment. The one at this year's Newport show was smaller than the one I recall at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest show last fall. But among the newcomers were headphones from Mr. Speakers (like the $1499 planar designs shown here). Astell&Kern also has a new, even more upscale portable music player than its well-received AK240. The $3500 AK380 offers 32-bit/384kHz Bit to Bit and DSD playback, 20-band EQ with 0.1dB (!) steps, and more. The Mr. Speakers/AK380 combo did indeed sound excellent.

I'll admit that the world of portable audio players is still terra incognito to me. Of course I've heard of the iPod and the portable features of smart phones. And I certainly know of Astell&Kern's premier, pricey offerings and the Pono high-rez player. But Shinzen, China's Questyle was a blank slate to me, until their PR agent, Jim Noyd, put one in my hand at THE Show. I still can't comment on its performance, but two versions will be available, the QP1 at $599 and the QP1R (R for Reference, with higher spec'd parts) at $899. Both will handle PCM at up to 192kHz/24-bits, FLAC, AIFF, and WAV files (though no mention yet of MQA), and DSD at both DSD64 and DSD128. They ship in late June.

Questyle makes a slew of other products, all of which are interesting and appear to be well made. These include the CMA-800R current mode headphone amp ($1999, available now), the 150i current mode integrated amp (100Wpc into 8 ohms, price and availability date TBD), and the 192D DAC ($1999). The latter is available now; it accepts PCM at up to 192kHz/24-bits, supports DSD64 and DSD128 directly without converting them first to PCM, and has coaxial, optical, and asynchronous USB inputs with digital filtration said to eliminate digital pre-ringing).

There are also wireless stereo (50Wpc into 8 ohms, $999) and monoblock (200W into 8 ohms, $999 each) amplifiers (prices include the wireless transmitters; the receivers are in the amps). These employ B&O's class-D ICE technology and switching mode power supplies.

As I entered Questyle's show room they were just hooking up the diminutive monoblock amps to a pair of B&W's flagship 800 Diamond speakers. Time, however, is an occupational hazard at hi-fi shows. I had to move on and was unable to pay them a return visit to get a good listen. That's something I'd like to correct by checking them out at home.

The big Cabasse La Sphère loudspeakers aren't new—Michael Fremer reviewed them for Stereophile in June 2008—but remain a sight to behold, particularly in a small hotel room. They each employ a 20" woofer, which gives you an idea of how large the sphere is. The whole affair is quad-amped using active crossovers, with a coaxial driver at the front center of the cabinet handling all of the chores above the bass. Cabasse was quick to point out that this is a coaxial driver with the individual drivers located in the same plane, not a concentric. (The latter is the type used by KEF, Tannoy, and TAD, where the tweeter is at the apex of the woofer/midrange driver's cone.)

You'd expect this speaker to be expensive and you'd be right. Its $180,000/pair ticket would buy you two Teslas with gobs of change left over for the insurance, or a modest house in some parts of the country. And that's before you pair it up with amplifiers (not included in that price). The whole affair was driven by the room full of Esoteric electronics shown in the photo.

Somehow, however, as I stare at the La Sphères I can't help seeing either a gaggle of Martians asking to be taken to our leader or two smiley faces grinning back at me.

No designer, it seems, is as active as Albert Von Schweikert in launching new models. And "active" is the operative word for the new VR-55 Aktive. It uses its own internal 525W subwoofer amp to drive its two cast-frame, honeycomb-ceramic cone, 8" woofers. This allows the user to adjust the level of the bottom end to better match the listener's room (no manufacturer can predict the bass gain that a specific owner's room might generate). Response down to 21Hz is claimed (a mighty feat for a pair of 8" drivers).

The top end is handled by a tweeter with a damped beryllium dome, the midrange by a 6.5-inch ceramic cone with Kevlar backing. At $60,000/pair the VR-55 Aktive wasn't the most expensive speaker I heard at the show, but certainly could party hearty with that group. The sound was tight, crisp, and dynamic.

Everything Old is New Again at Janszen! The first Janszen electrostatic speakers were add-on tweeters that appeared back when Adam and Eve dropped the stylus onto their first LP. Then came a long hiatus. But the Janszen electrostatic panels, updated for the 21st century, are now available in two full-range models: the floor-standing zA2.1 with two conventional woofers and two of the square-shaped electrostats, and the zA1.1, with one of each. The prices are $9990/pair for the floor-standers and $4995/pair for the stand-mounts.

Both of these speakers have been available for some time with passive crossovers. But new at the show was the zA2.1A-HP, a self-powered version of the zA2.1. It's biamplified by two 190W amps, using electronic crossovers and offering four factory-customized balance settings. The powered version adds about $3000 to the zA2.1s price.

The zA2.1A-HPs were driven full-range, while the zA1.1 was paired with two SVS subwoofers. I was impressed by what I heard from both, but the small hotel room didn't allow for evaluation of the speakers' horizontal dispersion, a potential limitation of the square electrostatic tweeters. While the zA2.1, powered or unpowered, may have an advantage in that regard with its two tweeter panels, I marginally preferred the zA1.1 with subs. The result could well have been different in a larger room.

The $4000 (factory direct only) Mariana 24SR subwoofer from newcomer Deep Sea Sound is said to dive as deep as 10Hz—thus the Mariana designation. It employs a 24" (!) driver, is driven by an internal 4000W plate amp, weighs in at 200 lbs, and measures 28" x 37.7" x 21.3". Can you say, "Not in my living room, you don't?" The standard version is a prosaic box; the version shown here is dressed up to look like a (very) large end table for at least a small improvement in the WAF. Designer and company chief David Gage is shown here for a size comparison. The left and right speakers shown are also David's own design. They are not commercially available, but he plans on offering high-end speakers in the future using compression drivers (horns) for the midrange and top end.

This was, as far as I could tell, the only exhibit at the show to use any form of video material for demonstration purposes. A setup issue prevented playing music when I saw and heard the sub late on Saturday. That didn't bother me; a sub like this is made for home theater—or perhaps a dual-use, music and home theater system. But David was hoping to have music up and running by the next (and last) day of the show. Unfortunately I was on the road by then.

Among the panel discussions at the show was a discussion on loudspeaker design, moderated by Robert Harley of The Absolute Sound, with panelists Andrew Jones of ELAC America, Michael Borreson of Raidho Acoustics, Richard Vandersteen, Albert Von Schweikert, Arnie Nudell, and Kevin Voecks of Harman Luxury/Revel. Topics included measurements vs listening—all of the panelists agreed that both are important—and how speaker design has changed over the past two decades (improved materials and test gear were cited most often). The discussions were interesting, though not deeply technical.

Questions from the floor filled out the hour. I avoided asking a question I've often though of, fearing that it might make the audience's collective eyes glaze over: How do you design for the inevitable 2pi to 4pi transition. Some call this "baffle step," in which the speaker transitions from the mainly frontal (2pi) dispersion in the midrange and highs to omnidirectional (4Pi) in the bass somewhere south of 500Hz? This transition significantly affects the overall balance of a speaker. But just how much will depend on the room a factor that will vary from listener to listener in a way that no designer can predict.