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THE Show Costa Mesa 2023 - Part 1

07-11-2023 | By Steve Lefkowicz | Issue 128

I was certainly looking forward to attending THE Show. Their move to the Hilton Orange County in Costa Mesa, CA meant I'd only have a short twenty-minute drive each day. And though health reasons kept me from submitting my report from last year's show in Long Beach, I heard enough good things there that I had high hopes for this year's show. I packed a few records and headed down (I took Katella to the 5 to the 55 and got off at Baker, for all you fans of The Californians.)

I was concerned by what seemed like many of the big names and usual participants missing from list of exhibitors on THE Show's web site. I figured that with the Pacific Audio Fest being just two weeks later in Seattle, potential exhibitors had to decide which one to attend. The cost of doing both would certainly prohibitive for many smaller companies, unless left in the hands of local dealerships.

I also expect that management of THE Show would have their organization in order, as they have been doing this for a long time, even with the change in ownership after the passing of founder Richard Beers some years ago. I've been attending THE Show since it first premiered at the San Tropez in Las Vegas back in 2001. There's nothing more fun than a well-run, nicely attended audio show, and I know Maurice and his team know how to put on a solid show.

Imagine my surprise when I pulled into the parking garage a couple hours before opening time and found that daily parking would be $39/day. No indication of any show parking or discount. I had to find out later by asking in the show office that there would be a discount to $28 when leaving by showing my badge. Then, on entering the hotel from the parking garage, I found nothing; no signs, no ads, no maps, nothing to even let me know I was in the correct hotel. I ran into another attendee waiting at the elevator who asked me if I knew where the show was. Best I could say was "probably find out when we hit the lobby."

Yet, in the lobby, there were still no signs, no indication that a show was about to open, and lots of other early arrivals milling about with lost looks on their faces. No indication where to go for those who wanted to line up to register or get their badges. No one at the hotel's front desk knew either, though they were able to direct me to the show's office. I ran into Ron Resnick of What's Best Forum, and we headed down there together. We were then told press badges would be available "later" and to come back in an hour. They were just getting ready to start putting signs up.

This lack of organization had real consequences. I had suggested to an acquaintance (a doctor I see somewhat regularly) that he might be interested in attending this show. We often talked about him setting up a system at home. He bought two tickets, brought his wife and spent a few hours on Saturday looking around. He never saw anything to direct him up the elevators to the upper floors, so only saw the handful of exhibits on the lobby floor. His wife's big question was "who actually buys this stuff?"

Finally, before talking about the actual exhibits I saw, I have one final bone to pick. This felt far more like a "luxury lifestyle" show than a home audio show. I understand to get the press and draw crowds most exhibitors like to showcase their top end models. But this time it seemed like 90% of the equipment on display was probably out of reach of 90% of the attendees. Even though I saw some younger attendees (maybe younger than forty years old) the extreme high prices of most displays seemed to be saying "this isn't for you…" For as much talk about "bringing the next generation in," shows that cater exclusively to the older and wealthier crowd don't really help towards that end. Shows have to figure out that, as much fun as it is for to see the extreme end of audio, a proper show still needs to also include gear that most people can afford.

I used to go to the LA Auto Show every year. Sure it was fun looking at the exotic cars and seeing the various Ferraris, McLarens, the occasional Koenigsegg or Bugatti. But that show also had exhibits from Lexus, Cadillac, and lower cost builders like Honda, Mazda, VW, and even Chevy and Ford. In fact, everyone who built cars was there. In other words, there was stuff to dream about and aspire to, but also things to consider getting while on your way. Audio shows need to learn this lesson.

Normally I focus show my reports on the lower cost, high value equipment that impresses me. So part one will be the rooms I heard that were based on speakers selling for less than $10,000 pair. I realized too late that I missed a few rooms, mostly due to lack of communication or missing price sheets where I was under the impression that the speakers were far over the $10,000 price point.

In somewhat alphabetical order:

Room 206 - Audiophile Zone, Perfect Bit, AGD Productions, ATC Loudspeakers, Synergistic Research, Playback Designs

I've long admired ATC loudspeakers based on past experiences with several models I've heard at shows, dealers, and Positive Feedback contributor Larry Cox's home. But this time, the ATC SCM 40 speakers ($5999/pair) sounded even better than usual. Natural, effortless, and hitting on all points. ATC under-specs their products (some refer to it as "conservative" specifications) so don't be concerned with the stated 48Hz bass spec! I stopped by this room a few times.

The system included some nice though pricey components: Perfect-Bit AX Server ($12,000), AGD Productions Alto Preamp ($4999) and Tempo power amp ($5500), Playback Designs MPD 6 DAC ($15,000), Mutec Ref 10 master clock ($4999), SoTM tX-USB Ultra reclocker ($1190) and just over $35,000 of Synergistic Research cables, power conditioning and tuning devices.

Room 334 - Black Ocean Audio

This was the second time I've heard Nick Tarnofsky's Black Ocean Audio LeChiffre[M] speakers ($4500), with last year's show being the first. These are extremely impressive and natural sounding monitors, actually designed for studio monitoring and mastering. This year they were shown along with their matching "bass extension" towers, The Pale King[M] ($5500 if sold separately). The display model was The [M] Stack Master Built version ($11,000) which uses "select lumber milled from the same tree, giving these projects a unique and timeless look." They were driven by a pair of VTL 450 monoblocks. Spotify streaming as a source. This was also one of the few rooms that wasn't afraid to play anything that anyone requested.

Room 241 – Cabasse

Maybe I'm wrong, but I've always thought of Cabasse as somewhat the French B&O. That is, they make uniquely styled, highly distinctive products that certainly don't look like anything else. On display was the Cabasse Rialto Powered, Wireless HiFi System ($3995) that just needs a source. Here they used Qobuz streamed from an iPhone using Cabasse's own app. The diminutive speakers use a 5-inch coaxial driver on the front and a 6.7-inch woofer on the back for a claimed 30 to 27,000 Hz frequency response. They are tri-amped, internally powered speakers with over 1000 watts available. Actually, they were quite impressive, though maybe better suited to a smaller room.

Room 235 – RSL Speakers

Way back in 2011 (Issue 58) I gave the original RSL CG4 / Speedwoofer10 combo a positive write up at its total $1250 price. Imagine my surprise when the current version (CG3M satellites with Speedwoofer 10S MKII) is only $659. I wish I had more time to actually listen to them at this show though, as every time I went into the room they either were weren't playing at all or the level of conversation in the room was as loud or louder than the music. They still seem very nicely made.

Room 326 – Oriaco

Oriaco is the new brand name for the speakers formerly sold under the Tonian Labs moniker. Same company and still the masterwork of speaker designer and recording engineer Tony Minasian. Using a Denon PMA-A110 integrated amp ($3999) and DCD-A110 CD player ($3499), they were getting really fine sound from the Oriaco D6 ($4500/pair). The sound was so inviting, it just drew you into the music, even under show conditions. The other two speakers on display were the small stand mounted G6 ($3500) and the floor standing D8 ($8500).

Room 231 - Von Gaylord Audio

Almost left this out as a miscommunication had me thinking they were playing the $11,900 per pair Legend Reference speakers. Later when I found out they were actually the $6900 per pair VG-18 speakers I was even more impressed. The system was all by Von Gaylord (except for a Cambridge Audio CXC transport) and included the Harmony Preamp ($5000), a pair of Nirvana Mono amps ($10,500) and Uni-DAC ($9500). One of my favorite rooms of the whole show.

I'll have part two ready in a week or two where I'll report on some other rooms that impressed me, regardless of price.