Alive and Kicking: Report from T.H.E. Show Newport Beach
Of the 70 or so hi-fi shows I’ve attended around the world, I’d have to say that T.H.E. Show held at the Newport Beach Hilton June 3–5 was by far the best. What made this show so exceptional? For starters, audio enthusiasts arrived in huge numbers—6000 unique visitors to be specific—and they were obviously thrilled to have a show in their own backyard. Then there was room after room of good sound, along with a few exhibits delivering truly great sound. Add in a wonderful venue and location, great organization, and a highly upbeat “vibe,” and you’ve got what was for me the most fun I can ever remember having at any audio event. The show was such a success that they’ve committed to doing it again next year.
In addition to the live jazz on the patio, a classic car show, and wine tasting, T.H.E. Show Newport Beach featured many outstanding audio demos and some cutting-edge product introductions.
The most technically innovative new product at the show was undoubtedly the Wadax Pre1 from Spain. This multifunction device can serve as a preamplifier, phonostage, electronic crossover, analog-to-digital converter, or digital-to-analog converter. A show report can’t do justice to the Pre1’s extensive technology, so I’ll simply describe its unprecedented processing of phono signals. In a nutshell, the Pre1 uses DSP to correct errors and shortcomings in vinyl playback, including errors specific to your particular turntable/arm/cartridge combination. In a demo between the uncorrected and the corrected signal, the improvement was immediately obvious. Moreover, the fundamental sound quality gave no indication that the signal had been digitized. That’s just the start of the Pre1’s innovative solutions—the unit has many other capabilities, particularly when coupled with the Wadax active Speak 1.5 loudspeakers that were demonstrated at the show. The Pre1 with phono capabilities has a U.S. retail price of $32,500, and is distributed in North America by Rick Brown of Hi-Fi One.
A more straightforward approach to vinyl playback was embodied in the Andros PS1 tubed phonostage from newcomer Zesto Audio. The PS1 offers separate mm and mc inputs, up to 60dB of gain, and a wide range of cartridge loading via rear-panel trimmers and balanced inputs. I’m surprised that more phonostages don’t offer balanced inputs considering that a phono cartridge’s output is inherently balanced. The hand-built Andros PS1 is available through dealers or factory direct for $3900.
LA's The Audio Salon showed the new Spectral SDR-4000SL Reference CD Processor ($19,000), a ground-up redesign of the fabulous SDR-4000 Pro. The new model uses a different transport, along with a newly developed buffer/clocking system. The player sounded spectacular driving a Spectral DMC-30SS II preamp and DMA-360 II power amplifiers and Magico Q5s in a large room. Cables were Spectral by MIT, and MIT provided the power conditioning. The room featured custom acoustic treatment from Acoustic Sciences Corporation.
Longtime Southern California dealer Optimal Enchantment put together a great-sounding system based on the new Vandersteen 5A Carbon loudspeaker. The $24,000 5A Carbon is very similar to Vandersteen’s 5A, with the big difference being the inclusion of the same carbon-fiber-clad-balsawood midrange driver as in Vandersteen's Model 7. Original 5A owners can upgrade to the 5A Carbon. The system also featured the new Reference 150 power amplifier by Audio Research, AudioQuest cables, and Basis Inspiration turntable demonstrated on Basis’ new custom Inspiration stand. The 5A Carbon had many of the qualities of the Model 7 (in the midrange) at about half the price.
The Wilson Sasha sounded terrific in two rooms. Retailer Brooks Berdan showed the Sasha driven by a VTL TP-6.5 phonostage, TL-7.5 Series III preamp, and MB-450 monoblocks. The front ends were a dCS Puccini/U-Clock/Debussy for digital and a Grand Prix turntable fitted with a Benz LP cartridge spinning vinyl. Cable was Cardas Clear Beyond. The system was very musical and engaging, with a tremendous presence and palpability to voices. The Sasha also sounded superb, but in a different way, in the room of retailer Sunny Components driven by an all-Boulder system. The Boulder gear brought out the Sasha’s dynamics, but was not as liquid as the VTL gear.
The new YG Kipod II Signature ($49k) connected with Kubala-Sosna cabling sounded spectacular, and was significantly better than the original Kipod I reviewed. The new model features the ForgeCore tweeter and BilletCore driver diaphragms machined from solid aluminum billets. The Signature version also incorporates a new crossover that reportedly reduces midrange distortion, along with a high-pass filter on the upper module. Amplification was the new Tenor Line1/Power1 preamplifier and 350M monoblocks.
Acoustic Zen always produces great sound at shows, and Newport was no exception. The Crescendo ($16k) disappeared as a sound source, throwing amazingly tangible images. It also went very low in the bass and was extremely dynamic.
Dan Meinwald produced an absolutely gorgeous sound with a Townshend Rock 7 turntable, EAR 912 preamp, EAR 890 power amp, and Marten Coltrane loudspeakers. It seemed odd to put a $3200 turntable at the front end of a system with $70k loudspeakers, but there was no arguing with the result, which was one of the show’s best sounds—liquid, communicative, and expressive.
The new MBL 101 E Mk.II sounded great despite being demonstrated in a too-small room. Overlooking the room-induced bass problem, the 101 E Mk.II exhibited all the famous MBL virtues of massive dynamics, huge soundstage, and a feeling of hearing live music rather than an electro-mechanical reproduction. MBL’s new stand-mount 120 was also terrific, with much greater image specificity than the model it replaced.
I’d never heard Lumenwhite loudspeakers until this show, and I was quite taken with the superb sound from the Artisan model ($35k per pair). Not only was the sound beautiful, but the cabinetry was stunning. The three-way, five-driver column features inverted-dome ceramic drivers and is reportedly time-and-phase-coherent. The Lumenwhite Artisan was driven by the Ayon Orthos 150W Class A triode monoblocks (280W in pentode), Ayon CD-5s tube CD player/preamp, Synergistic cables, PowerCell 10 SE Mk.II conditioner, and Synergistic Acoustic Art room treatments.
I finally heard Magnepan MG-3.7s and understood what all the fuss was about. Driven by Audio Research electronics in the room of retailer Hi 5 Stereo, the 3.7 sounded unbelievably lifelike in the midrange. I can imagine them really opening up in a space larger than a hotel room.
Two rooms stood out for good sound without an astronomical price tag. The first was the Nola Contender loudspeaker ($3400) driven by a PrimaLuna PA-1 integrated amplifier ($2995). The system sounded remarkably refined, detailed, dynamic, and uncolored. The second system included The One loudspeaker from Audience, a tiny cube housing a single full-range driver. Everyone in the demo thought that the subwoofers in the corners were active, but the full bass was coming from the $995-per-pair Ones. At the end of one demo, the guy next to me began applauding.
Jon Whitledge showed the latest incarnation of his “Magic Bus,” a van that houses what I called “The world’s best car stereo” when I heard it five years ago. Since then, Whitledge has taken the system to an entirely new level of performance. The design, construction, passion, and dedication that went into the Magic Bus are unprecedented, and it showed in the sound quality. The system had effortless dynamics, very high resolution of low-level detail, tremendous timbral fidelity, and threw a soundstage that rivaled that of a well-set-up home system.
Finally, artist Merryl Jaye showed her fabulous musician portraits, which are available as oil originals or as more affordable giclée (“zhee-clay”) reproductions. You can see Merryl’s exceptional work at www.merryljaye.com.
The Audio Salon: Spectral/Magico/MIT/ASC
Brooks Berdan: VTL/Wilson/dCS/Grand Prix/Cardas
E.A.R. USA: EAR/Townshend/Marten
Hi5 Stereo: Magnepan/ARC
Upscale Audio: PrimaLuna/Nola
Audience: The One loudspeaker