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HI-FI ONE: Rick Brown’s Gang Shakes Up Newport, or Re-visiting THE Show 2015

09-21-2015 | By Jim Merod | Issue 81

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Preface Without Mirth

How many years will it take to tame, or dissolve, mind-numbing noise suffusing "audiophile" events? Year after year, more than twenty five in my experience, any expectation of focused attention with music and superior audio gear—formerly at CES and now THE Show Newport Beach, as elsewhere, where the claim of audiophile privilege beckons interest—arrives dead in its tracks: a beguiling false promise skewering audio hope with discordant aims.

I wave a white banner high in retreat. Only a fool or audio masochist attends such clattering conclaves believing that three days of agony fighting crowds and slow elevators yields informative pleasure among gaggles of expensive gear and bombast. The Bard reminded us that our darkest mischief is not found in the stars, but in ourselves. I agree. My once stubborn hope to find new audio instruments evoking musically accurate, genuinely involving sonic bliss gathers barnacles on sea rocks where it's stranded.

Without hesitation, I doff my cap to the estimable Bob Levi, whose ardent commitment to build the globe's grandest audiophile association has succeeded beyond his original goals. With less truncated outcomes, I'd celebrate that feat to an utter maximum. It genuinely deserves kudos. While the trouble with noisy auditioning dens is not derived from the booming audience for high-end interest that Bob Levi's Los Angeles-Orange County Audio Society has amassed, the correlation between bigger attendance and lessening aesthetic joy at THE Show Newport Beach (for example) invites a welcoming pace akin to Satchel Paige's sage nostrum:  Don't look back, since someone might be right on your tail.

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I modify ol' Satch's wisdom to emphasize my point. You need room to breathe, dig in a bit and smell the vinyl, suck up great music and sometimes even greater sonic reproduction, if you're to have a chance at fulfilling any audiophile's youthful eagerness to hear what's there to be heard clearly, unimpeded with sonic delight. I'll doff another cap to Richard Beers, who's crafted THE Show's brilliant mayhem. His vision, long ago, successfully found means and motivation to make the high-end component of the CES extravaganza, in Las Vegas (at the Alexis Park), irrelevant. That victory is now enhanced with fanfare and huzzahs in Newport Beach, undergirded by unrestrained market logic. Let those who pay their way monitor themselves regardless of what an earlier era would call tact and appropriate courtesy. Maestro Beers, an astute man with precise goals, does not map his success in the guise of an audio cop (perhaps with an exception, now and then). But one wonders if a gentle reminder, to all who enter his elegant Halls of Potential Audio Enchantment, that this annual west coast music party deserves respect for the celebration of music alongside unfettered attention to the astonishing sonic instruments assembled with considerable care. If the Village Vanguard and the San Francisco Opera House can remind patrons of everyone's right not to be jostled by cell phones and mindless yattering, perhaps this important event can achieve a new level of professional dignity and aesthetic hipness.

No reason to quarrel with success. I hear catcalls of Ozark wisdom clearing their throats right now. Nonetheless, in an abominably distracted commercial culture everywhere one travels, an experience of absorbing musical immersion is personally redemptive. It is, also, opposed to the covert dog-and-pony show ideology: "move ‘em in and flush ‘em out" characteristic of big tent "professional gatherings" in the second decade of the 21st century.

My gripe is not directed solely at the Newport Beach extravaganza. When was the last time you visited the NAMM Show in Anaheim? How about, on a smaller scale, the AES Show, especially in New York? AES is all about the technical enhancement of sonic pick up, music production, and a sub-textual avant garde working at the margin of the recording industry that pushes the limits of audio resolution. NAMM, like CES at the Las Vegas convention center (and NAB, the National Association of Broadcasters), define the scope and vertiginous assault of commercial insensitivity to interactive consumer-producer-sales common sense. In the Era of Big Everything (hyper-exuberant mega hype), should the tendency toward the erosion of quiet space and calm conviviality lead to the maintenance of de facto permanent superiority?

Two possible antidotes seem available. Number One:  A personal revision of listening strategies across such terrain. That stoic hope is vulnerable to unmitigated, unaltered clamorous environments. Number Two:  Expanded implementation of simultaneous auditioning alternatives—genuine "audiophile" listening rooms and isolation areas to supplement audio business as usual suites and cul-de-sacs—could give a modicum of disabused listening enhancement for carousing, doubtless crotchety, audio pilgrims to visit happily with least resistance.

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Hi-Fi One:  Audiophile Hipness @ Newport 2015

Two suites stood out in my auditioning at Newport Beach '15. I wrote about one of those earlier. The other had to await my return from Europe.

An extraordinary team of Rick Brown (CEO, Hi-Fi One), Steve McCormack (Founder/President, SMC Audio), Paul Wakeen (Designer/Owner, Stillpoints), Tom Kleinbeck (Designer/Owner, EnKlein) and Arian Jansen (Designer/Owner, Sonorus Audio) gave special and profoundly detailed attention to achieving precisely those values my preface, above, finds lacking in contemporary audio shows.

Many rave about the unrivaled superiority of the Munich Audio Show. Also, the legendary intimacy and welcoming professional exchanges reported to be The Rocky Mountain Audio Show's signature make it unique from all that I've heard. Despite my irritation with less than professionally-adequate presentations of hugely expensive (musically promising) audio gear in Newport Beach and elsewhere, I'm pleased to register the plain and simple fact that I've rarely heard a sound system at any audio show that rivals sonic glory achieved by the Hi-Fi One Gang this spring at THE Show.

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There was nothing, in my estimation of the essentially iconoclastic and flat-out Olympic height of this suite's beautifully-integrated audio accomplishment, which inhibited or detracted from its spectacular outcome. Each piece of a very complex, hugely expensive and thoroughly well-planned set up contributed to an utter maximum listening experience. If any element had fallen short, the entire system would not have established a virtual benchmark in audiophile resolution in what amounted to an inherently compromised public (commercial hotel) space.

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Here's an analogy by way of framing the delicate power and soulful musical elevation this partnership's intuitive, scientifically-precise audio craftsmanship accomplished. Anyone fortunate enough to spend significant time listening to Billy Holiday's final recordings doubtless knows that an unusual conjunction of sensitive musicianship by every member of her group was lifted to Zen perfection by Verve's recording capture. Lady Day's respect among peers and colleagues exceeded every normal degree of adoration and personal commitment. The result is a set of tracks and albums that will never lose their allure and their enchanting artistic perfection. Billie, fragile but never more seductively sympathetic, is vocally compelling beyond expectation at every point. Each time you hear her angelic vocal warmth, in the embrace of Ben Webster's majestic tenor sax and Sweets Edison's puckish staccato punctuation, the frisson of their musical wisdom revitalizes attention.

Just that revitalization of sonic awareness and musical appreciation occurred in my hearing for three hours early on the show's first morning. The calm lyric focus which the Hi-Fi One suite commanded exactly augmented the immense tact and stunning musical beauty at stake.

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That aim, to establish a whole-hearted uncompromised "musical listening experience," is exactly what the acute synergy of these four audio pros insisted upon and created. At the risk of descending to a somewhat technical vocabulary, this audio presentation set an asymptotic standard for virtually celestial sonic purity. It achieved its goal without a trace of audio bullshit . . . not a jot of sonic bombast, exaggerated staging, frequency over-emphases, cartoon reverberation, overwrought upper octaves . . . negatives avoided, named here to underscore the complete absence of typical flaws that even the most overpriced "state-of-the art" systems often demonstrate.

Let me put this more affirmatively. The Hi-Fi One system—with the most minimal dollop of the bottom octave's slight lack (perhaps minus 2dB @ 70 Hertz with a Q around 2 on a scale of 10, an artifact of the suite itself, despite the best room preparation treatment I've yet heard in such a space)—is one of the four or five greatest audio delivery packages this writer has encountered anywhere, ever. It may, in truth, be better than that. However I rate what I heard, it offered an astonishing musical experience first and last. It delivered, no less, a virtual textbook demonstration of sonic coherence and lyric delicacy that comes close to standing alone.

The most sobering element here is that it's clear to me this system has achieved a height of transparent signal resolution that can be even more enchanting and revealing when changes on the way (relatively minor, but not negligible) are soon accomplished.

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The Rub-a-Dub Nub

The Hi-Fi One system maps like this: $180,000 of EnKlein cables. Forty- Four state-of-the-art Stillpoints Ultra 6's at $899 each (just shy of $40,000). A $17,500 Sonorous ATR 10 R2R tube output tape machine accounted for a significant chunk of the magic here along with a Sonorus Proximity Room Controller. Steve McCormack's SMc Audio/HiFi One Silver Signature edition line-stage ($50,000) and a SMc Audio/Hi Fi One Nexus AC power enhancer ($16,000) were in place alongside Berning/Hi Fi One 211/845 OTL mono amplifiers ($75,000/pair). Add to those a Stillpoints ESS Low Profile Rack ($8,295) plus Stillpoints ESS Grid racks ($21,000). Kaiser Kawero speakers ($65,000/pair) completed this spectacular sonic escapade. I'll note here that Steve McCormack's Silver Signature line-stage unit is the most musically delicate, sonically transparent preamp to cross my path to date: mind boggling!). The system's total price came to almost $600,000 . . . chump change for Donald Trump.

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For The Sake Of Disclosure and Veritas

I know the set of Ella Fitzgerald-Louis Armstrong recordings extremely well. Recent high-grade vinyl pressings have dug deeper into the soundstage and brought Pops and Ella much closer to our immediate world. On this occasion, without loss of any kind, Ella and Pops visited Newport with spooky immediacy via a R2R tape played on the Sonorus ATR10 deck (courtesy of the "Tape Project" collection). That tape was put together by Arian Jansen of Sonorus Audio. It began as a digital file fed, as an analog signal, through Arian's proprietary Holographic Imaging process. According to the designer, this process restores soundstage information already on the recording—image size as well as the placement and direction of reflections—and brings it all to original values and orientation. The results are astonishing and literally speak for themselves.

NEVER have those two majestic musicians come more fully to life with as much "you are there" sonic detail and musical grandeur! Twice I prepared to leave the room when the gorgeously brutal and totally compelling presence of their jovial voices, and Louie's trumpet, dropped me back in my seat. Although I find this hard to believe in retrospect, that experience—being physically in the same room with Pops and Ella: confronted with the absolute sense they were THERE, "with us" palpably—was, I believe, the most humbling, graphic and emotionally moving reproduced musical experience in my quite long life as a music lover and on location recording engineer. That emotional and tactile magic held me sequestered, unable to exit a profoundly sublime moment of aesthetic innocence.

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The Supreme Utmost of Sonic Transport

There are several litmus test checks on the truth and splendor of a listener's experience. One is how deep one's awareness is taken "into" a musical performance by a given recording and the system delivering it. Another is how proximate, how intimate and complexly "real" with unflawed sonic reproduction, a well-recorded performance is brought to your hearing. The third is less intricate with discernable details and acute audio awareness. This is it: if you're in the presence of music with tangible joy and seduction so your feet, your soul and body find it nearly impossible to move away . . . you've arrived where you want to be, always, in the center of a perfect world, just for you, since perfection's relative glory disappears when such counter-intuitive, infinitely erotic spirituality touches the inmost best in you, objectively, absolute without degrees of self-consciousness… to augment, and in part repair, our failed world.