Newport 2013

Analog and Digital

Show report
Digital-to-analog converters,
Newport 2013

Located directly across the street from the John Wayne Airport, the Newport Audio show would have done the Duke proud. Spirits were high, old hands abounded, and a few greenhorns showed up to sample the latest and greatest in audio way out West. By evening most attendees were tuckered out and restoring their spirits in the lobby of either the Hilton or Atrium hotels, both of which also abounded with purveyors of vinyl. Listen closely enough and you might even have heard a few show visitors humming a few bars from Sonny Rollins’ tune “I’m Just An Old Cowhand.” As for me, I got to play the role of the searcher.

The most amazing thing about the show this year wasn’t the sound—which ranged from middling to very good—but the ubiquity of the LP. The CD looks to be heading the way of the Dodo bird. TAS editor Robert Harley had asked me to cover both digital and vinyl, but it was the latter that, by and large, dominated. In almost every room, it seemed that a ‘table was present, whether a rehabbed direct drive Denon or a new take on vinyl reproduction. There was also a ton of vinyl for sale from the likes of Analogue Production’s Chad Kassem as well as a number of purveyors of vintage vinyl in the Atrium Hotel, including one hawking an original pressing of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue for $200. In addition, Ron Rambach, the head of Music Matters, which is releasing gorgeous editions of Blue Note LPs on 45 rpm, regaled all and sundry with tales about chasing after rare vinyl.

Does this mean that vinyl was always superior to digital? Nope. In Brian Berdan’s Audio Element room, which featured the $18,000 VTL MB-450 Series III Signature amplifiers, a VTL TL-7.5 Reference linestage, and VTL TP 6.5 Signature phono stage, the $36,000 Sonus Faber Amati Futura loudspeakers, the $110,000 dCS Vivaldi digital playback system, and the Grand Prix Audio turntable, I was distinctly more impressed by the digital sound than vinyl. I immediately recognized all the characteristics of the Vivaldi, which I’m using at home. The Vivaldi was simply smoother in the treble region and fuller than the Grand Prix, and not by a small margin, either.  The Sonus Faber speakers do not deliver the last word in resolution, but they sounded smooth and engaging. The VTL tube amplifiers are a steal at the price and supplied a wonderfully open and airy midrange, which Los Angeles audiophiles will shortly be able to sample when Berdan’s new store Audio Element opens this summer in Pasadena.

Close by was the $12,600 Magico S1 loudspeaker, which sounded splendid with the Constellation Performance series—engrossing and organic. It was a pleasure to listen to such refined sound. With Magico, it really was a tale of two speakers. The Q7, the company’s flagship situated downstairs in a large and square room, could hardly have looked more imposing, flanked as it was by various VAC amplifiers and a bevy of Synergistic Research products. Synergistic Research’s lead designer Ted Denney III always puts on a wonderfully evocative and compelling presentation of his wares. The actual sound, though, never really captured me, which I attribute to a room that was quite problematic. The sound was big and pristine, but I could have done with a little more harmonic refulgence.

An even more vast room was located in the Atrium where Dynaudio was demoing the new $85,000 Evidence Platinum loudspeaker, which I will be reviewing soon. Once again, the presentation was underwhelming, mostly, I suspect, because of the cavernous acoustics. “Lullaby” sung by Leonard Cohen sounded big and powerful, but also diffuse. Or maybe I should plead guilty simply to playing the track too loud, prompted by the size of the room. Nor did the Wilson Alexia coupled with Audio Research equipment truly grab me, at least when coupled with the Audio Research Reference DAC—the treble was way too acerbic for me, which I know, from using the Wilson XLF, is not the characteristic of the marvelous new silk-dome tweeter that the Alexia sports. So far, I have not been able to cotton to ARC’s digital efforts.

Initially, I was also puzzled by another big system staged by Santa Monica’s Optimal Enchantment--the combination of the megabuck Basis Work of Art turntable, the new Audio Research Ref 10 preamp, and the Vandersteen 7 loudspeaker. But when I returned on Saturday to listen, the sound was, in fact, enchanting—dynamic, fast, and articulate. Word is that new output tubes were inserted into the Audio Research 250 amps on Friday and needed some time to hit their stride, which they apparently did. I wasn’t the only person in the room listening intently on Saturday. A.J. Conti has clearly hit a home run with his new $14,000 Basis Superarm 9. Conti may groan, but I can’t help wondering what his ‘table would sound like if he substituted a heavier metal for his acrylic platter. It was also clear Audio Research has much improved the performance of its preamp from the 40th Reference Anniversary, which lacks the snap and speed of its two-box successor.

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