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Impressions: Robinson's Audio Oasis! Awards for THE Show Newport Beach 2014

07-30-2014 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 74

Turning; turning back. 


Another year, another THE Show Newport Beach in the books. This has become a favorite audio event on my calendar; the combination of southern California weather at the end of May, a great venue, a solid organization, and a great turnout from audio and music distributors from all over. Richard Beers has developed this into what now looks like the premier regional audiophile show, with the skilled help of Bob Levi and the LAOC. 

While I haven't heard the official figure on attendance, this year the pond seemed to be better stocked and busier than ever. At this rate, the audiophile section of CES had better look out: THE Show is stealing your lunch! 

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get round and about at this year's THE Show, due to the fact that Positive Feedback ran its hospitality room again, with Dave Clark, Lila Ritsema, and I handling the hosting duties. So I spent a great deal of time in Hilton Room 711, playing Single, Double, and Quad DSD music, which was a knockout for me, and for the visitors to our room. I was also helping Din Johnson of Ristretto Roasters make our special PFO DSD Blend coffee with really fine coffee-making implements. Our room smelled heavenly, and traffic was heavy to get some real coffee. 

Din "Din Man" Johnson at the wheel for another round of brilliant PFO Blend DSD coffee from Ristretto Roasters… and just in time! 

Note that we'll be informing our readers about how to order the PFO DSD Blend online from Ristretto Roasters here in Portland in the very near future. They'll be setting up a Web page for ordering… the link will be available here. 

George Klissarov of exaSound, whose very fine e28 DSD DAC (a very rare 8-channel Quad DSD-capable DAC) was used by us in the PFO Hospitality Room, takes it all in. (fresco by Robinson) 

Also in serious rotation in the PFO room was a very respectable collection of bourbons, single malt whiskeys, and a sampling of solid wines. If you're going to have a hospitality room, you've got to be hospitable, eh? 

Mike Lavigne and Jonathan Tinn (co-owner of Playback Designs), relaxing for a bit near some of our bourbon; I had to keep a pretty careful eye on the bourbon and the single malt, you know…. 

PFO's Business Manager, Lila Ritsema, chats with Paul Waukeen of Stillpoints… these are some of the great human moments at audio events. 

One of PFO's honored veterans, Roger Gordon, essays a bourbon during a break in the action. (Fresco by Robinson) 

Gabby and Holger Stein of Stein Music take in some Quad DSD transfers from 15 ips half-track analog tapes produced by yours truly, courtesy of the Merging Technologies Horus/Pyramix 8.1 DAW, done back in the fall of 2013. The results were amazing in our room here at THE Show. 

Barry Kohan of Bright Star losing himself in the glory of some Double DSD unobtainium music… when music of the highest quality forces deep meditation…. (Fresco by Robinson) 

Jim Aud of Purist Audio takes in a session with Double and Quad DSD files… again, the deep relaxation that DSD can bring to our listening was in evidence. (Fresco by Robinson) 

PFO's Jim Merod and Dave Clark hobnobbing over drinks in the PFO room, not too long after Jim's spiritual experience with Quad DSD a bit earlier. The sweet spot became a wet spot, for sure! (Fresco by Robinson) 

So... all of this meant that I only got to get out from time to time, and not for nearly as long as I would have liked to have done. The result was predictable: I could only see a small percentage of what was there. Small. Like, really small, man. 

This means that if you didn't see me during THE Show, it was not due to any indifference on my part. Over 70% of my time was spent in the PFO Room. Most of our room-to-room coverage will therefore have to be provided by other members of the PFO community. Check their articles out for more of what I missed. 

Enough. On to my PFO Audio Oasis! Awards for THE Show Newport Beach 2014. 

The Awards 

I have been doing my Audio Oasis! awards for a number of years now… since CES 2006, in fact (see the launch of this award in Issue 26. It was an act of desperation, really. After many years of running myself ragged at audio shows, trying to cover all of the rooms…the good, the bad, and the godawfully damnable… I finally decided to scrap the crap. To hell with the rooms that just weren't connecting with me; I would find the rooms that compelled me to go in, sit down, relax, and really connect with the music. Any experienced audiophile knows that anyone who can produce noticeably good sound under show conditions deserves a medal! This is my recognition of those hard-working souls. 

My Audio Oasis! Awards for THE Show Newport Beach 2014: 

The Audio Association Room, featuring darTZeel, Evolution Acoustics, Wave Kinetics, Durand Tonearms, ATR Services, Ortofon, and KLAUDiO 

Simply put, the sound in this room was exceptional, allowing the usual margin for show conditions. I am quite familiar with these product lines, with the exception of KLAUDiO's Ultrasonic Record Cleaner, but some exciting and important new designs were in evidence. darTZeel's brilliant designer, Hervé Delatraz, had just presented his new reference LHC-208 DAnalogue streaming Ethernet DSD DAC with integrated amplifier, as well as his new version of his outstanding NHB-18NS reference preamp. Speakers were the Evolution Acoustics MMMiniTwo's, with TRSC, TRPC, and The Link cables doing the hookup. The turntable was the world-class Wavestream Kinetics NVS, with the new Durand Kairos Tonearm, and the Ortofon Anna MC.

We listened to open reel tape from an ATR Services ma-cheen, LPs on the NVS, and Double DSD via darTZeel's new integrated DAnalogue integrated with DSD DAC. The darTZeel NHB-18NS provided the phono amp via its exceptional MC module, running in bypass mode. 

What was not to like?! The sound was fantastic, and I stayed for a while, just soaking up the music. Despite the fact that my time was so very limited for listening, it was very hard to leave this room; judging by the traffic and those who stayed for quite a while here, I was not alone. Really stellar sound, by just about every measure. 

And a hands-down Audio Oasis! Award, without a doubt. 

The MBL rooms: 

1. Stereo room with MBL, United Home Audio, and Shun Mook room treatments 

2. Surround room with MBL, Sony, Stewart Filmscreen, Kimber Kable, Datasat, Kaleidescape, JL Audio, SMT, and Shun Mook room treatments 

MBL has a tradition of doing rooms for audio shows that really knock you out. I've been consistently impressed with their accomplishment since 2007, which has grown particularly noteworthy since Jeremy Bryan was named president of MBL North America. MBL doesn't do second-rate, but their two rooms at THE Show 2014 were real show-stoppers. 

First, I did a half-hour listening session in the stereo room. This had the extraordinary big 101 Xtreme reference speakers… one of the relatively few true world-class loudspeakers, in my experience… driven by the 9011 monoblock amps (four!), the 6010D preamp, and fed by the brilliant United Home Audio Phase11S reel-to-reel tape deck. Greg Beron of UHA was our gracious host, playing some excellent tapes of audio unobtainium for the general audiophile congress, assembled. Mainly rock and roll, which was a great relief to yours truly. I have had Greg's Phase11S in my listening room for an all-too-brief time, and used it to transfer some 15 ips half-track tapes to Double and Quad DSD via the Merging Technologies Horus/Pyramix 8.1 A/D system. I know the quality of Greg's work in this unit… MBL could hardly have done better in sourcing an exceptional RTR deck. (Note that Greg is a huge fan of MBL himself, and owns an MBL 101E Mk. II-based system for his own listening room. The affiliation is therefore a natural one.) 

The results were amazing! The 101 Xtremes came to life, and really lit up the room with full, round, holographic music that nailed me to my seat. The sheer scale of the audio presentation was epic; only the very finest (and largest) systems in the world are in the same range as the 101 Xtremes. And none of these are omnidirectional in their projection, which make the Xtremes unique in my experience. It was amazing… stunning… to hear open reel tapes on the MBL/UHA combination 

In the surround room next door, Jeremy Bryan hosted a very engaging set of 4K and 1080p videos, with surround sound provided by a set of MBL surround speakers, supported by video and audio processing by Sony, et al. As a long-confirmed and unapologetic videophile… I'm not just a hopeless audiophile, you see… I slurped in the astonishing and otherworldly 4K video samples before we shifted to some really fine 1080p material. The surround sound filled the room nicely, as we moved from scene to scene. Some classical, including remarkable ballet… some blast-o movies scenes. In it all, the components put together by Jeremy and company were a convincing blend for real surround sound spectacle… without losing the ability to deliver delicacy and nuance. 

This is why I love going to audio shows: To score!

Which is what I did in the MBL rooms… many thanks to Jeremy Bryan and MBL for a smashing time!

And Audio Oasis! Awards for all involved. 

GTT Audio/YG Acoustics/Audionet/Kubala-Sosna 

This is no surprise at all. 

Once again I went to Bill Parish's GTT Audio room; once again I was able to lean back with the "Oh yeah!" moments that can be hard to find at audio shows. Bill was featuring the YG Acoustics Hailey Loudspeakers, powered by the impressive Audionet line from Germany: The Pre G2 preamp, a pair of MAX monoblocks, the PAM G2 phono amp with EPC Enhanced Power Supply. Sources included the KRONOS Limited Edition turntable with KRONOS Black Beauty tonearm, linked by Kubla-Sosna Elation! cabling. The results were stellar… magic, all over again. Authoritative, deep, detailed, rich, powerfully dynamic, and room-filling sound. Plus, Bill and company always play real music… no Tibetan Yak music allowed! Speaking of the company in the room, this included YG Acoustics' Dick Diamond, and Joe Kubala of Kubala-Sosna… close friends, and folks who really get it

The system in this room reflected their musical wisdom. I'm all in… an Audio Oasis! Award for all of these folks! 

(And note that I now have the Audionet reference system in my own listening room for further evaluation….) 

Walker Audio/Pass Labs/Raidho Acoustics 

At last! After a hiatus of several years, Lloyd Walker and Fred Law of Walker Audio made it back to a show that I was attending. As a matter of fact, they were just down the hall from the PFO Hospitality Room, which made dropping by very convenient. And you just know that I would drop by to see the latest from Walker Audio! 

The room had the latest Walker Audio Proscenium turntable, which is the Black Diamond Level V, with his new and more compact reference phono amp. (Before the show and its aftermath, I was at Level III; after the show, Lloyd and Fred dropped by and upgraded my Proscenium turntable to Level V. More on that later this year.) The electronics in the Walker Audio room were provided by Pass Labs… their massive XS300 monoblocks… controlled by a custom tube preamp (not available for sale) that Lloyd brought along with him. The signal went to the RaidHo Acoustics D-3 loudspeakers.

Lloyd Walker at work… 

I know the Walker Audio turntable intimately… I've owned one for years now, upgraded several times…and so that was familiar ground, apart from the fact that this was the new Level V model. 

I've also had some exposure over the past year to Pass Labs electronics… their XA .5 line. Great stuff! The RaidHo D-3's were totally unfamiliar, however. 

Fred Law of Walker Audio 

When I dropped in on the second day of the show, the quality of the sound was not quite on. The presentation of several of Lloyd's reference LPs (RCA Living Stereos, quite often) was somewhat forward, and the bass wasn't harmonically integrated in the usual lively and organic way that I'm used to hearing from Walker Audio show rooms. Lloyd and Fred were working hard, but it was clear that things were still not quite together. 

No problem; many times, you don't really have a room hitting its stride until the third (or last) day of an audio show. In fact, I'm convinced that many reviewers and show-goers who make up their mind about the quality of the sound that they heard based on the first… or even the second… day of a show are missing the boat. Worse yet, they may share evaluations that are simply inaccurate. Most rooms improve during the 3-4 days of an audio event. Personally, I use the first day of a show to scout out candidates for later return. Anything that's promising on day one is probably going to get really better before the end. That's where I'll circle back for a more accurate take. So I resolved to return to the Walker Audio room on Sunday, and see how things were shaping up. 

Good thing. When I made it back late on Sunday morning, things were sounding much better. The forward edge was gone, and the bass/midrange/treble were now shaking hands and making real music. In fact, the same LPs that had been unimpressive on the previous day were now kicking some serious butt, and the RaidHo D-3s were sitting up and taking notice. The listeners seemed to have the same reaction that I was: This was world-class LP playback, without a doubt, whether we listened to classic, blues, or rock. 

So, the Walker Audio room went from "not so good" to "Oh yeah!" in 24 hours. Reviewers and show attendees, take note. 

Based on what I heard on the third day, when things came together, this room gets a well-deserved Audio Oasis! Award. 

On a Higher Note 

Mr. Philip O'Hanlon is an audiophile with refined and exceptional sensibilities. For years now, I have appreciated the unique combinations of audio gear that he has assembled for both RMAF and THE Show. The On a Higher Note room has a strong tradition of highly musical and enchanting playback, with Philip himself DJ'ing one brilliant recording after another. (Philip has introduced me to some LPs and SACDs that are very special to me now… a man after my own heart! I still lust for the German 45 RPM EP of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" that Philip shared with me a couple of years ago….)

This year at THE Show Newport Beach was no exception; once again, Philip's room demonstrated natural ease, transparency, and an organic harmonic structure that was irresistible. His featured equipment included the following products: 

Luxman PD-171 turntable, $6,400

Luxman D-08tu SACD player/USB DAC, $17,990; to be released on Sept. 14, 2014

Mola Mola Makua preamp, $13,450 

Optimal phono stage, $2500

Mola Mola Kaluga mono blocks, $18,000 per pair

Vivid B1 speakers, $14,990 per pair

Eclipse TD-520SW subwoofer (no price given)

SonoruS Proximity Sub Controller, $9,900

SonorouS ATR10 reel to reel tape deck, $13,000

Synergistic Research cables, rack, and room tuning

I've gotten to hear several different Vivid loudspeakers in the On a Higher Note room over the years, and was always very pleased with what I was hearing. This year was no different; the B1's obviously synergized well with the Mola Mola preamp and amps, with an effortless musicality that touched the soul directly. The new Luxman D-08tu SACD player was sounding quite refined and elegant… nothing to complain about there! Likewise the Luxman PD-171 did well with the 45 RPM LP that Philip queued up for me. 

I spent quite a while listening in here, though my time was really in outrageously short supply by now. There was no gainsaying Philip's taste in musical samples; in fact, I asked him to provide me with a list of the music that he shared with me, which he did cheerfully: 

Nina Simone, "Porgy I Loves You So," a 24/96 download from ProStudioMasters. This was sounding very good for a 96/24 PCM recording; normally I'm rather averse to these, if I can get better formats.

Jeff Buckley's cover of Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah," from the upcoming ORG SACD of Buckley's 1994 album Grace. (By the way, Ying Tan of ORG was kind enough to give me an advance review sample of Grace while I was at the show. Ever since I got back, I've been wearing it out… this is an excellent recording, with absolutely fantastic music, ranging from ballad-like to hard-driving rock. You really need to get this SACD when it is released! I give it my highest recommendation.)

Illinois Jacquet, "Birthday Party Blues," 12" 45 rpm single from Groove Note.

My time in the On a Higher Note room was a real musical treat for me, and left me feeling relaxed and mellow. That's always a great sign… and a likely harbinger of an Audio Oasis! Award.

Confirmed, and done!

Special Mention…

I can't close out this year's Audio Oasis! Awards without mentioning our own PFO Hospitality Room once again. The combination of DSD/Double DSD/Quad DSD via the outstanding exaSound e28 DSD DAC and PranaWire Photon USB cable, feeding the MBL C51 integrated amp with the MBL 126 speakers via the Skogrand SC Ignis reference loudspeaker was simply smashing, if I do say so myself. The response of many room visitors was that the PFO room was startlingly good… several had religious experiences… and I would have to agree that the MBL gear loved DSD as we served it up.

[All photographs and image processing by Robinson unless otherwise noted]