Neil Gader Reports on T.H.E. Show Newport Beach

The 2015 Edition

Show report
Categories:
Phonostages,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio,
Turntables,
Headphones
Neil Gader Reports on T.H.E. Show Newport Beach

Cool ocean breezes and sunny skies greeted this year’s ebullient installment of The Home Entertainment (T.H.E.) Show, Newport Beach. Celebrating its fifth anniversary, attendees were greeted with an exciting change of venue from the contiguous Hilton and Atrium arrangement of prior years to the newly refurbished Hotel Irvine just down the road. Spacious and generally well laid out (and more parking friendly), most observers considered the change a real shot in the arm for T.H.E. Show overall. General observations: Rooms presented the usual challenges and were accorded thumbs up/ thumbs down in equal parts from various exhibitors. This was also the first Newport Show that had scheduled a press day before the Friday opening, a move to allow journalists unfettered access prior to the maddening crowds. Unfortunately the Thursday 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. timing coincided with the frenzied exhibitor setup period. Anxious to dial in their room sound, many were unprepared for the likes of yours truly sticking a head in with notepad in hand and camera poised and at the ready. It turned into a kind of misfire for show organizers, exhibitors, and journalists alike. Still, all in all, (and  California’s historical drought notwithstanding), T.H.E. Show went a long way to slake the thirst of audiophiles bent on hearing the latest gear and reacquainting themselves with some old favorites. My category of coverage was a slightly schizophrenic smorgasbord of analog and digital sources, a vast range that extends from turntables to DACs and computer media—and peppered with some impressions of the personal listening segment of headphone amps and ‘phones. Here’s my initial snapshot.

Most Significant

D’Agostino Momentum Phono
Dan D’Agostino was almost apologetic about it having taken him so long to produce a phonostage. However, with the imminent release of the Momentum Phono ($28,000, pictured below), he has more than made amends, and can rightly be proud of the new and simply gorgeous component. A tour-de-force of execution and flexibility, it’s equipped with inputs for two mc and two mm, up to 78dB gain, and five RIAA curves, plus a fully balanced and single-ended hook-up, a MOSFET front end (and bipolar elsewhere), and automatic switching. All settings stored in memory. My only question is, what took him so long?


MSB Select DAC
MSB refers to its new Select as a “Hybrid” DAC ($89,950). An evolution of over twenty years of ladder DAC tech, the now-familiar dual-chassis “piggyback” features a  volume control with zero parts, yet it is an analog volume control (not digital), able to drive any cable/input combination while preserving dynamics at full spectrum. Even 32-ohm headphones can be easily driven. Fully modular, customer replaceable inputs make the Select virtually future-proof. Firmware updates can be downloaded from the website and then played in your song list, allowing you to hear voice prompts over your speakers to ensure success with verification. The Quad DSD USB input employs the level of extreme isolation technology learned in the Universal Media Transport V, making USB one of the preferred sources along with the new renderer input option. There’s also built-in power conditioning with a new, unique ground reference connection to other components in the system.


 

dCS Rossini DAC
Before leaving Brian Berdan’s Audio Element room and its superb dCS Vivaldi/Grand Prix Audio/VTL electronics and Wilson Audio Sabrina system, I almost walked by the new dCS Rossini resting quietly off to the side (pictured above). The replacement for the Puccini–a popular model and personal favorite in the one-box category–Rossini will come in two versions–the DAC ($22,499) and the Player ($26,999). The former features an array of digital audio inputs and is able to stream music from NAS drives and streaming services such as Tidal over Ethernet, or from Apple devices via Airplay. Both units use the latest dCS Digital Processing Platform and Ring DACTM technology, originally developed for the flagship Vivaldi series. The Rossini Player’s CD mechanism does not support SACD unfortunately, (a disappointment for me) but dCS reports that SACD data can be played via Dual AES output from dCS Vivaldi, Scarlatti, or Paganini Transports. The network streaming functionality runs at up to 24-bit, 384kHz and DSD128 supporting all major lossless codecs, DSD in DOP format, and native DSD. Both models with matching Rossini Master Clock (price TBD) will ship in July/August.

Simaudio exhibiting with The Source A/V demoed its 780D Reference DSD DAC ($15,000, pictured above). An all-out assault on the state of the art, it uses a chassis made of aircraft-grade aluminum, has a fully balanced differential, dual-mono design using two DAC chips—each with 16 unique DAC circuits—that can decode virtually all digital audio formats (up to DSD quad and PCM 32-bit/384kHz). Among the various digital inputs is Simaudio’s MiND (MOON intelligent Network Device) network player that allows for DSD streaming over Ethernet, and access to the Tidal music service. The nine digital inputs include USB. Due to ship in Q3.

Constellation Audio Cygnus Media Player ($32,000, pictured below-top and bottom) is a twin-chassis design that isolates the delicate audio and control circuitry from the power supply. Cygnus combines an advanced digital-to-analog converter with digital file access and browsing capabilities. It’s been designed so that audiophiles can easily access music files stored on hard drives or USB sticks, and tap the potential from digital sources as diverse as satellite radio, cable and satellite TV set-top boxes, and of course, the traditional CD player. The Cygnus contains four 32/192 DACs in a stereo balanced configuration, with separate DACs used for the positive- and negative-going signals of the left and right channels. The output stage of the Cygnus is the same Line Stage Gain Module found in the Virgo preamp, in a fixed-gain version. There’s full front-panel control via the 432 x 230-pixel display. Its power supply provides two separate power feeds: an analog circuit based on an R-core transformer to power the analog circuits, and another power supply circuit to feed the digital and control circuitry. Five traditional digital audio inputs are included: AES/EBU, two SPDIF coax, two TosLink optical.

Auspicious Debuts

AMG Giro G9 Turntable
The new AMG Giro G9 with 9W2 tonearm ($10,000, pictured) is a visual delight of dual circle design. The belt-driven platter is a combination of synthetic and aluminum materials. It uses the decoupled spindle design of the acclaimed AMG Viella turntable. Also, the platter bearing is a scaled version of the Viella’s. The plinth is machined from aircraft-grade aluminum and features both 33 and 45 RPM via electronic control.

Goldmund THA 2 Headphone Amp
The Goldmund THA 2 (Telos Headphone Amp) ($10,000, pictured above) includes binarual encoding that uses algorithms to transform standard recordings into binaural with a switch on the front panel. It also includes DSD over PCM capability, gain adjustments for sensitivity, and a front-panel digital volume control, plus USB/SPDIF/TosLink inputs and RCA analog. And though it’s always difficult to wrap my mind around so-called “lifestyle” products in the high end, but when the name is Goldmund I start to get interested. Its Talisman mini wireless hub with headphone plug is designed to be used with any Goldmund wireless speakers.

Ayon Audio and Accustic Arts
Feeling the squeeze from LP playback and computer audio segments, a couple of new CD players (remember them?) had coming-out parties. From Germany, the Ayon Audio CD-3sx DAC/DSD ($9800, pictured below) is a triple threat with transport, DAC, and preamp functions, including an analog domain volume control, in one neat, all-aluminum package. It features a Class A triode output stage with multiple analog inputs, plus a robust power supply with ten separate voltage regulators and separate digital and analog R-core transformers. All digital inputs are included, along with a USB input for 192/24 asynchronous and DSD playback.

A more traditional approach is the Accustic Arts Player II DAC/Transport ($9750). This Austrian-made, vacuum tube, top-loader CD player and high-precision D/A converter in one device offers Accustic Arts’ proprietary “tube hybrid” technology with ultra-precise 24-bit/192kHz upsampling. It's also quipped with USB. In chrome-plated brass, the build quality is sumptuous, displaying a solid, die-cast metal chassis with elaborate mechanical decoupling, drive-mounted in housing made from solid aluminum (a so-called sub-chassis design principle).

Aria Mini Network Server
Computer audio phobic? No worries, since no PC is required to operate the Aria Mini network ripper/server (pictured below between a CD ripper and a Lumin Music Player). I received an impressive demo of the new Mini—a product of DigiBit Corp of Spain—from distributor Source Systems Ltd., which was partnering with Sound Decisions Audio. It includes a 2TB HDD ($3800), optional 1TB SSD storage ($4800), a PCM/DXD/DSD128 DAC, and also includes Aria’s high-speed external ripper/tagger/indexer. Also, Aria is currently the only product on the market that rips and auto-populates up to 18 fields of metadata from five databases directly from the internet. 

T+A Electronics
Sunny’s Audio Video premiered the new R-Series from T+A, which included the MP 2000 R Player ($6500). The company proclaims that it’s more functional than a computer. Its D/A converts PCM signals up to 384kHz with the help of the quadruple converter—another in-house development—and it can even handle DSD files up to DSD256. It also houses a first-class CD mechanism, a digital tuner offering FM, FM-HD, and DAB+ reproduction, a high-quality Bluetooth streaming module for music from mobile devices, a streaming client with Internet radio for connection to the home network via LAN and WLAN, USB Master Mode and HD streaming, plus a digital connecting board with multiple inputs for external USB and SPDIF sources. The multifarious component also includes a remote control and the T+A Control App.

In Other News

Synergistic Research, in concert with dealer Scott Walker Audio demo’d a production version of its passive bass-resonance device, the Black Box ($1995 each), in one of the larger ballrooms. Anchored by a full-bore Soulution electronics/Magico S5 setup, the Black Box seemed to control and define the potentially unwieldy acoustics of this huge space and consistently lent a degree of image focus and even intimacy.

I’ve written extensively about the Lumin A-1 media player, but distributor Source Systems went one better with the new S1B, Lumin’s flagship high-end audiophile PCM/DXD and DSD network streamer/renderer (est. $12,000). The S1 includes dual mono toroidal external power supplies, LUNDAHL output stage transformers, a new clocking system, and a configuration of 16 mono DACs per channel.  

Pure Audio of New Zealand, an experienced brand led by former Plinius engineers, unveiled the Vinyl Phono preamp ($4500). Provocatively designed in a chassis of aluminum and stainless steel mesh, the phonostage is highly adjustable for mm and low-output mc with custom loading and gain controls available at the customer’s request.

Chord watchers will be pleased to know that it has begun shipping its most sophisticated DAC yet, the HugoTT ($4895), a more robust, fully balanced version of its original Hugo, complete with full-function remote control, plus a larger battery, too.

The TW-Acustic GT SE ($12,500; base GT model is $9500, pictured below) is a compact and impressive alternative to the company’s flagship products. Equipped with upgraded footers and platter, its motor is directly mounted to the chassis to preserve space, yet it is still capable of running two tonearms; an additional armboard is $800. Both a beauty and a value.

News to me: In exhibition with GamuT and Larsen and distributed by Audio Skies of West Hollywood was the gorgeous and organic Pear Audio Blue Robin Hood turntable and Coronet 1 tonearm ($2995, pictured below)—the entry-level offering. There are four models in the Pear Audio line and they represent the final designs from the late Tom Fletcher of Nottingham. The turntables are based on the marriage of materials in order to establish non-resonant synergies. The solid-wood birch plinth material of the Robin Hood, for example, has been engineered to be sonically in phase. Also shown was the larger Kid Thomas with Cornet 2 tonearm and optional power supply ($9995, pictured below).

Aesthetix Romulus now offers an upgraded version of its $10k Signature version with the new Romulus Eclipse. Added are Stealth caps, enhanced chassis dampening, and improved power supply isolation ($13,000).

The Oracle Delphi MkVI Second Generation turntable ($15,000) features a new, two-piece platter assembly which eases drive belt install and reduces resonances; plus the Turbo Power Supply MkII is now available as an option.

Esoteric is now shipping a couple of spin-off CD/SACD players derived from its flagship K-O1x and K-03x players–the K-O5x and K-07x ($8500 est. and $6500 est., respectively). Typically these models pack a terrific amount of value—and at some performance levels, they even rivals the top-of-line Ks.

LH Labs revealed the finished prototype version of its new Geekout V2 (pictured below) DAC/Headphone amp with ESS Sabre DAC and fully balanced 32-bit/384kHz with DSD128 due in July ($299). Also on display was the similarly crowd-funded and very stealthy Vi-integrated headphone DAC $4999 for connection to the home stereo. It’s equipped with dual ESS AQM Sabre DACs, dual Femtosecond clocks, and five digital inputs.

Best of Show

Best Sound (cost no object): A close call, if not a dead heat, between the balance and delicacy of Audio Element’s dCS/VTL/Transparent/Wilson Sabrina-based system, and the heft and dynamics of GTT Audio’s Kronos/Audionet/Kubala-Sosna/YG Sonja 1.3 rig.

Best Sound (for the money): Former TAD helmer Andrew Jones is already working his renowned magic just months after joining Germany’s Elac. If the modest Debut B5 loudspeaker represents the shape of things to come, watch out! Price: $229. (Yes, that’s right, the price is NOT a typo.)

Most Significant Product Introduction: The resurgent Elac brand, an old-guard German company with concentric-driver engineer Andrew Jones at the helm could be the story of the year. I can’t wait for CES 2016.

Most Significant Trend: The trend is moving inexorably toward streaming music and wireless connectivity, but I’m doubtful these will displace more traditional physical audio media anytime soon. Much like Amazon’s Kindle was supposed to spell the end of the hardbound book, traditional books are cool again. Just like the vinyl LP. 

Most Coveted Product: D’Agostino’s new Momentum Phono. I don’t even care if it even works. I’ll just sit there for hours staring at its sublime gorgeousness.

Personal Audio

T.H.E. Headphonium was a beehive of activity. Catching my eye was the AudioQuest Nighthawk ($599). Scheduled for a July release, it’s equipped with ergonomic right/left earcups. NightHawk uses a 50mm pistonic driver with a biocellulose diaphragm designed to take advantage of the material’s outstanding rigidity and mechanical integrity at high frequencies. A patented split-gap motor significantly reduces intermodulation distortion. NightHawk’s earcups are made from “Liquid Wood,” an environmentally friendly material of outstanding acoustic properties and apparently wide geometric potential. The earcup enclosures incorporate support beams that enhance structural integrity and minimize unwanted resonances and vibrations. Interestingly, NightHawk is the first completely original production headphone to use a 3D-printed part—a biomimetic grille that uses a complex diamond-cubic latticework to diffuse sound and defeat resonances.

Not every electronics manufacturer is taking the plunge to offer an outboard headphone amp, however. Remember when a headphone input could be found on virtually every preamp and receiver? Well, Zesto Audio has taken this to heart and added a headphone amp with front panel input to its upgraded Leto 1.5 tube preamp ($7500, pictured below). After listening to the MrSpeakers new Ether planar headphones ($1499) with a well-regarded tube headphone amp, I switched to the Leto using the same WyWires Red series cable. The difference in spaciousness, air, and top-end transparency was astonishing. The sound was less between the ears and more convincingly on a dimensional stage at eye level.

Astell&Kern gave me a walkaround of its new flagship model AK380 ($3500 est., pictured below). Said to be due in July, its new AKM chip with 32-bit/384 and native DSD playback with DLNA protocol “sees” everything in the network and includes twenty bands of 0.1 step eq. Includes standard 256GB internal memory and replaceable 128GB micro SD. Sensational yes, but the new AK Jr ($500) was probably more my speed. I admired its slim design, 64GB internal memory, and 192/24 playback—although its screen lacked the retina-quality display of the higher-priced models.

I was very impressed by the resolution of the newest HiFiMan HE1000 ($2999) played through a Blue Hawaii SE headphone amp. Said to be the only headphone brand to fully utilize Nanotechnology, the HE1000 features the world’s first Nanometer grade thickness diaphragm—less than an astonishing 0.001 mm thin. Seven years in the making and brilliantly ergonomic, these ’phones offer premium ear pads designed in an asymmetrical shape that follows the ear’s form, plus a comfortable headband designed to fit most head shapes and sizes. But it is fairly heavy, so prospective users should seek an extended audition. But then again, I'm weighing them against the industry-standard Stax SR-009 which I demo’d nearby. Expensive but still awesome, IMHO.

Later I got a listen to the down-to-earth HiFiMan HE400S (pictured above). The “S” designation is presumably for sensitive as the 400S was designed with a high 98dB sensitivity specifically for smartphone users. This planar magnetic will ship late summer ($299). Also unveiled was an upgraded version of the original HM901S portable player. The HM901S incorporates all the design features that made the original a reference product, plus it sports a luxurious aluminum housing for durability along with increased rigidity and heat dissipation. For ease of operation, the new HiFiMan player also has an improved UI with a more precise click wheel. For faster on /off times, a powerful CPU will now turn the player on or off in a mere three seconds. An additional improvement: The HM901S now plays DSD files.

ENIGMAcoustics, known for its loudspeaker design and innovation, has entered the personal listening segment in a big way with two releases: the Dharma D1000 ($1180), a hybrid electrostatic headphone, and the Athena A1 ($1480), a single-ended-triode, vacuum tube hybrid headphone amplifier. Utilizing EAs’ patented SBESL (Self-Biased Electrostatic) technology, the Dharma delivers electrostatic performance without the need for an external source of a bias voltage that permits use with any headphone amplifier. It utilizes a proprietary Wagami paper diaphragm for bass and mid/bass reproduction, and a phase-linear, high-pass filter to imperceptibly transition it to the electrostatic tweeter. The Athena A1 combines a single-ended-triode, vacuum tube front end, running in pure Class A, and a low-impedance, Class-A MOS/BJT hybrid output stage. It offers the high-input impedance and pristine sound quality of a vacuum tube design with the high-current, low-output impedance, plus the slam of a well-designed solid-state amplifier. This allows Athena to drive both high- and low-impedance headphones.

China's Questyle also debuted its own personal listening systems with the QP1 ($599) and the more sophisticated QP1R ($899). Both will handle PCM at up to 24-bit/192kHz, FLAC, AIFF, and WAV files and DSD at both DSD64 and DSD128. An AK Jr killer? We'll just have to see. Shipping is slated for late June.

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