The past few years I've been pretty soured on the whole Audio Show routine. Too much excessively high priced equipment being demonstrated to appeal to a smaller and smaller market of ultra rich clients, left me feeling I'd be more welcome in a yacht club membership committee meeting than most of the rooms exhibiting at the show. If anyone wanted to get a feel for what the top one percent live like, stop in most any room and feel the angst of trying decide which five-figure priced cable might make your six-figure priced speakers sound some minute bit better.
Oh, and you better like bland jazz, classical warhorses, lounge singers, bad drum solos or boring shit that no one would listen to if it wasn't so well recorded.
"Can you play something I brought?"
"No, we don't want to sully our reputation with anything so common...." or something to that effect…
I almost decided to never attend an audio show again.
Yet, attending this year's installment of T.H.E. Show Newport has left me invigorated, and renewed my enthusiasm, not just for audio shows, but for the future of this bat-shit crazy hobby.
Why, you ask?
I heard more good sounding systems that weren't ridiculously priced, found more displays willing to put the old boring audiophile approved standards aside to play some music the rest of might want to hear, and most importantly, found less of the uppity, snooty, and condescending attitude that has run rampant in the past.
In other words, this show was fun!
Of course the show was still dominated by the mega-priced showcase systems, as most manufacturers trotted out their flagship models. I still wonder if they might do themselves a favor by showing some of the middle line or even entry level products, with the understanding that T.H.E. Show does try to bring new people in, and maybe the flagship systems aren't the best way to get someone to buy their first or second high-end system.
T.H.E Show itself did have some changes from past years, most good, some not so much. The new venue (the Hotel Irvine) was able to host the entire show over seven floors plus the ballrooms on the main floor. This sure beat spreading the show out over two hotels like they had been doing the past few years. Some exhibitors I spoke with liked the new rooms, others had greater than usually difficulty getting their systems sound dialed in. If you've been to enough of these shows (I've been attending big audio shows since the mid 1980s) you can easily tell the difference between room issues and equipment or system issues.
Unfortunately for many of the personal audio and headphone exhibitors, the Headphonium took a back seat, being relegated to a structure out back on the other side of the hotel's pool. Inadequate signage left some people not able to find it, or possibly not willing to walk over to it. The times I went there traffic was unfortunately light. Several of the exhibitors in that venue expressed their displeasure to varying degrees.
With all that said and done, here's part one of my show report. This first part will be the handful of rooms that just really impressed me, without being too outrageously priced. Not limited strictly to budget gear, but no $50,000 speakers or $20,000 amps yet. Those come in part two.
So, in alphabetical order, here we go:
Angel City Audio – Skogrand Cables.
Angel City Audio has always had nice sounding rooms at past shows, but this time around they seemed to get everything right. Though they showed in three rooms (all sounding very good using their new Seraphim speakers and various Melody electronics) it was in this room where the sound was at its best.
Fronted by a VPI turntable and ModWright phono stage, the Seraphim speakers ($7999 to $10,999 depending on finish) being powered by Melody Pure Black 101 preamp ($4999) and PM845 mono power amps ($8499/pair), all hooked up with Skogrand cables, were unfailingly musical and powerful. Plus, they put the audiophile music aside, and rocked out for us. The played the entire Sublime LP my son and his girlfriend brought. It was a real treat spending that much time in this room. .
Audio Skies – Larsen – Gamut – Pear Audio Blue
Last time I heard the Audio Skies exhibit at a show, they were playing the larger Larsen 8 speakers with Gamut electronics and the top of the line Pear Audio Blue turntable. This time they were playing the middle range Larsen 6 ($3800), with the Pear Audio Blue Robin Hood table and a Gamut integrated amp. Thoroughly engaging sound, and more musical and natural in its presentation than many of the more traditionally placed speakers.
Channel Islands Audio
Channel Islands Audio usually has one the nicer, low key suites at any show, usually showcasing their affordably priced and overachieving Class D amps, DACs and passive line stages. This year they were once again also showing their prototype small speaker system. CIA's Dusty Vawter says they should be ready in the near future, and they certainly appear to be well worth the wait. Excellent overall sound, driven by the new E2500S stereo amp ($2500) and PLC-1 Mk II passive remotes controlled line stage. The source was a YFS modified Mac Mini with a CI Transient MK II USB DAC ($699).
Chapman – Ampsandsound
Chapman Audio Systems speakers is another exhibitor that always does a fine job at shows. Their new Model T-5 Custom Tribute Edition ($7495) is basically a more attractive looking version of the standard T-5 ($4995). Powered by newcomer Ampsandsound's Casablanca monoblocks ($2800) this may have been the best sounding display I've heard from Chapman speakers.
I already have an Ampsandsound Stereo 15 amp ($1500) in house for review. Pretty excited about that.
EAR USA – Marten – Helius – Jorma Design
Dan Meinwald's EAR USA rooms always turn up on the lists of best sounding rooms at any show where he exhibits. It's not just the combination of EAR electronics, Marten speakers, Jorma cables and Helius products. Dan is a master of setup, and one of the few exhibitors that brings gear well suited to the room being used. So, instead of showcasing the $15,000 Django XL or the $80,000 Coltranes with the big EAR amps, this show he scaled things down with the small stand mounted Marten Duke 2 speakers ($8500, plus $1250 for the stands), which suited the room perfectly. Of course all the electronics were from EAR; V12 integrated amp ($9795), 324 phono stage ($6095), Acute 4/DACute4 SACD player ($13,000).
Analog was the superb Helius Alexia turntable ($5000) with their Omega Silver Ruby arm ($5225) and a Kiseki Purpleheart cartridge ($3200). All cables were from Jorma (ranging from $3200 to $9900).
Certainly not a low budget room, but one that stood up to any room at the show, regardless of price.
ELAC America by Andrew Jones
Certainly the item that created the biggest buzz at the show in terms of price, the Andrew Jones designed ELAC B5 monitor stood out not for its high price, but for sounding incredibly good even though having an MSRP of just $229 the pair. When I sat through a demo the first time, people were asked how much they thought they would cost. I already had been tipped off, so I kept quiet. Most guesses ranged from $800 to $2500 for a pair. Unlike his previous highly thought of budget speakers from Pioneer, these looked much more expensive too. I've already requested a review pair.
Fritz Speakers – Triode – Wywires – Affordable Audio
SoCal manufacturer Fritz Heiler may be the lowest key, easiest going guy in audio. Yet, for several years now has produced a truly fine line of small speakers that have received numerous positive reviews and awards in various publications, included several in our pages here at PF. This year Frtiz showed something new; a larger, floor standing pair of speakers. The Fritz Carrera 7 Beryllium ($5000) sounded magnificent powered by Triode eTRX 1 Preamp ($3200) and TRV35SE integrated amp ($2700). Digital source was from a Baetis Revolution Media Server ($4495) and Triode DAC 1.0 ($2499 for the DAC, that had $600 worth of mods from Affordable Audio). They also has a Pear Audio Blue Robin Hood turntable ($1995) and Grado Reference Sonata 1 cartridge ($500) playing through a Goldnote PH7 phono stage ($1200). WyWires Blue and Silver series cables connected everything, and affordable room treatments from GIK Acoustics certainly help in the overall excellent presentation.
Gene Rubin Audio – Harbeth – Vinnie Rossi Audio – Acoustic Signature
Veteran retailer Gene Rubin dazzled folks with his exhibit. Harbeth's newly released HL5plus speakers ($6695/pair) sounded wonderful in every way powered by Vinnie Rossi's LIO integrated amp ($3400). Front end was analog from a Jon Palmer 2.5 turntable with an Origami arm ($11,900).
Music Hall – Tweek Studio – Creek
It's always a treat to stop by Music Hall's exhibits at shows. They always combine good sound, nice reasonably priced gear, and usually the friendly and inviting hosting duo of Roy Hall and Leland Leard Roy didn't make it to the show this time, so it was up to Leland to show off the gear. The entire Creek/Music Hall system playing was under $5000, yet played music beautifully. Highlight of one visit to this room was watching Leland teach a young boy (I'm guessing nine or ten years old) how to properly play a record (one of the new Beatles mono re-releases). He had this child handle everything himself, and the look on this kid's face when the music started up showed the power of great music and sound.
Stepping into the ever growing world of headphones, Music Hall was showing their first headphone, the de-be (phonetic spelling of dB of course), seen here being modeled by Leland. Though small, these closed back cans sounded really nice especially for just $199. They are efficient and present an easy load to match up well with an iPod, phone or high resolution PAD.
Odyssey Audio – GIK Acoustics
Odyssey Audio is one of the exciting companies that proves you can have moderately priced American made gear that sounds great. Though the Symphonic Line CD player used is pretty pricey, the rest of the system from Odyssey was under $8000 complete.
GIK Acoustics partnered up in this room, and ran a great demo on the effectiveness of their very affordable acoustic room treatment. Played the same track ("Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen when I was there) three times; first time with no treatments (they had them all out on the balcony), then with just corner and first reflection treatments, then with several more panels. It was not subtle, and GIK appears to make very effective products.
Prana Fidelity – Groove Note Records – Basis Audio – Luxman – Audio Conductors - Ampex
Steve Norber's Prana Fidelity line is always one of the must see (or I should say must hear…) rooms at any show. For some reason (maybe the sound?) it seems like it should be way more expensive than it really it is.
Prana's Vayu/fs speakers ($6950), Purna/ca preamp ($4500 to $9950 depending on configuration), Purna/ma power amp ($8950) played extremely well with a Luxman D-06u SACD player ($9900). I didn't hear any demos from either the large Ampex tape deck or the Basis turntable. Wish I had, as I figure they would have sounded even better.
Profundo – Blackbird Audio – Heed – Viva – Trenner & Friedel - HiFiman
Another room we've come to expect good sounding demos from is the room hosted by importer Profundo and San Diego area dealer Blackbird Audio. This year they did something different, showcasing headphone systems (using Viva amps and HiFiman headphones) as well as a more budget-oriented system using a new Heed Elixir integrated amp ($1295) and Trenner & Friedel's little speakers (approximately $3000). Surprisingly big sound from some of the smallest speakers at the show. I already have an Elixir in house for review.
Precision Transducer Engineering – WyWires
PTE shows up in all my show reports. They consistently get great sound from their large, powered Phoenix SG monitors ($9500). Considering all you need to add is a source and gain control, these are quite the bargain. WyWires continues their run of supplying the cables for some of the best sounding rooms at the show. PTE comes from a pro audio background, so it's no surprise that this system gets the dynamics and excitement of the real thing down so well.
Ryan Speakers – Auralic
Last year, Ryan Speakers teamed up with Auralic electronics and blew the price/performance ratio up with their awesome sounding $3000 speakers. This year, they brought their flagship speaker ($5000) and did it again. We spent a lot of time in this room, and everything we played, from old Genesis to Sublime, just killed. There were only a handful of rooms with under $15,000 speakers that even came close.
The Auralic electronics are not necessarily expensive, but nor are they inexpensive, and as such they offered great performance and seemingly unlimited power and dynamics.
Spatial – Red Dragon – Anticables – Spiritual Audio
I love a bargain, but I love a bargain even more when it isn't just another box with stuff in it. A bargain that offers cool technology and great sound is the way to go. Spatial Audio's latest iteration of their open baffle speakers (model M3) utilize two dual-concentric 15 inch drivers (tweeter disabled in the lower driver) to offer phenomenal sound for just $1500/pair. Driven by a Red Dragon Class-D amplifier and Spiritual Audio VX-6 line conditioners ($1200) and connected with Anticables wires, this system sailed through my 24/96 track of King Crimson's Sailor's Tale like few systems could. Huge soundfield, with great detail.
The friendly folks at Zu were once playing analog on a pair of turntables. A Black Crows LP sounded properly powerful and gritty on their new Omen MK II speakers ($1800). I'm guessing Zu's sound isn't for everyone, but if you would rather listen to music with life, energy, and excitement and be moved by it, than Diana Krall or Keith Don't Go, then you'll probably like what Zu does. I certainly do.
That's part one. If a room didn't make this list, it was probably just that I didn't get to it, it was out of the price range for this part, I didn't think the sound stood out as noticeably better than average for the show (and price range), or you insisted on playing tired old demo tracks that I've been hearing for ten years or more at shows, or you had a limited play list of a dozen "demo tracks" that made me want to fall asleep or leave. I will not sit through "Hotel California", "Keith Don't Go", or bad covers of Beatles songs.
Part 2 will be up soon, showing the high priced rooms that I thought sounded really nice.