Alan Taffel on THE Show Newport Beach

Show report
Alan Taffel on THE Show Newport Beach

Exhibitors were skeptical but willing to give it a go. Organizers sensed an opportunity. Attendees couldn't believe it was even happening. And to the surprise of them all, the inaugural Newport Beach event turned out to be a real show.

All the touchstones were there: Rooms were packed; the industry's rock stars came out in force (“Look, there's Richard Vandersteen!”); exhibits featured all manner of drool-worthy audio bling; the press sent its heavy hitters (“Look, there's HP!”), and manufacturers could be overheard cursing their digs yet nonetheless managing to produce good sound. Yes, TSNB was a real show, and everyone concerned was delighted.

More than most shows I've attended, TSNB seemed to me primarily a speaker showcase. As I journeyed from room to room, I increasingly pitied Neil Gader, who was focusing on speakers. I was asked to comment digital gear, which I will, but because of the show's emphasis on transducers I will first offer some speaker-related observations.

 Some speakers seem to sound good no matter when or in what system you hear them. The TAD Reference 1, for example, has long been regarded as one such speaker, and TSNB was no exception. Other models now establishing this reputation include the Sony SS AR-1, Nola's Contender, and the GoldenEar TritonTwo. I have yet to hear any of these relative newcomers sound bad, and in SoCal they once again blew me away; the Sony for its overall excellence, the GoldenEar for its uncanny imitation of a Quad, and the Nola for its resolution and remarkable bass extension considering its footprint and price. The latter, humming along with PrimaLuna electronics, offered the show's best affordable sonics.

Several big speakers sounded better at TSNB than I have ever heard them. The MBL 101E Mk II, sandwiched into an undersized room along with the company's massive electronics, sounded calmer and more natural than they have at recent outings. Magico's Q5 seemed particularly happy to be matched to Spectral gear, delivering a glorious... um, spectrum of tonal colors and the best sound at the show. At a (slightly) more modest price point, the Wilson Sasha showed well with VTL's speedy new monoblocks. Finally, despite towering over and being mere inches in front of listeners' heads, the Focal Grand Utopia EM, driven by a refreshingly simple setup consisting of a Burmester CD player/linestage and a Burmester stereo amp, disappeared sonically and revealed elegant, delicate sound.

As close as most of us will ever get to MBL 101E Mk II.

One last speaker of note was the Gradient Revolution. Gradient craftily left their room door open, and I found myself incapable of walking past it without being drawn in by the wonderful sound. These speakers, at $8000 for the passive version and $12,000 in active form, are clearly worth further evaluation. They no doubt benefited from the Resolution Audio gear, including an upgraded USB DAC.    

And yet they disappear sonically. The Focal Grand Utopia EM.

Speaking of digital, I was pleased to see a proliferation of inexpensive but great-sounding (at least here) USB DACs. Particularly impressive was the Jolida Glass FX tube DAC, diminutive both in size and price—just $379—but not in sound. I also admired the Antelope Gold, with its slick controls, outboard power supply, and provision for both analog and clock inputs. The Gold is $4500, but by the time you read this Antelope will have released the $1800 Silver version, which dispenses with some features but not the core audio modules.

The diminutive Jolida Glass DX tube DAC

I was delighted, too, to see Theta Digital re-emerge as a show presence. The Casablanca III, which I previously reviewed and proclaimed the best-sounding digital controller extant, now has an HDMI capability that makes it fully competitive. The Theta demo configuration was novel and intriguing. An Oppo BDP-93 played SACDs, but not through its analog outputs. Rather, the Oppo internally converted the DSD-formatted data to 96/24 PCM, and then fed that stream to the CIII via HDMI. This elegant arrangement permits virtually any stereo or multichannel disc to be played through a controller—not necessarily one as ritzy as the Casablanca!—over a single interface. With Blu-ray gaining traction, the simplicity of such a setup could help revive multichannel music.

Another exhibit that caught my eye, quite literally, was the astonishing Meridian room, featuring its top-line D-ILA projector and a scaler that quintuples 1080p, all played out in stunning richness and clarity on a 16-foot (!) wide screen. I was also taken with the Sonorus PR99 tape deck (about $10,000). These units are not rebuilds but brand new machines, with Sonorus electronics and NOS Studer/Revox heads and motors.

The sexy new Sonorus tape deck

This was a show, though, where the gear was secondary to the spirit. Everyone had fun and got what they came for—and then some. Hopefully TSNB's success will spur other markets to take a similar plunge.