The Newport Show

Robert Harley on Loudspeakers Above $12,000

Show report
The Newport Show

MBL usually shows its big mbl 101 E Radialstrahler loudspeaker or its entry-level stand-mounted mbl 126, but rarely the mid-level mbl 111 F hybrid loudspeaker. The mbl 111 F ($42,000) features a Radialstrahler midrange and tweeter coupled to four cone drivers, two for the mid-bass and two for low bass. The 111 F was driven by the new MBL 500W Corona monoblocks and a Corona preamp, with a United Home Audio open-reel tape machine on-hand. No other company gets such consistently great sound at shows as MBL and Newport was no exception. Particularly with open-reel source, the MBL system had remarkable resolution and transparency, completely disappearing as a sound source. The mbl 111 F could be a great solution for those who lust after the 101 E but don’t have the room or budget.

Vandersteen continues to bring its carbon-fiber-and-balsa-wood drivers, originally developed for the Model 7, to more products in the line. The latest Vandersteen speaker getting the carbon treatment is the Quattro. Called the Quattro Wood CT, the speaker gets the carbon tweeter from the 5A carbon, crossover changes to accommodate the new tweeter, and slightly different tuning. The price is $12,500; a fabric version is available at $9800 per pair.

The Belgian loudspeaker manufacturer Venture introduced not just a new loudspeaker, but a new concept for the company: a three-piece system consisting of a pair of slim towers and an active subwoofer. The $37,000 Vinci includes two towers that feature four newly developed 4” drivers and a 2” tweeter, all of which employ Venture’s proprietary cone and motor technologies. The woofer has extensive adjustments and can be used as part of a theater system as well. The cabinetry was stunning.

YG Acoustics presented the first demo of its Sonja loudspeaker in its “1.2” form (the MTM midrange/tweeter module and single woofer enclosure). The price is $72,800, considerably less that the full-blown Sonja with two woofer enclosures. Driven by Tenor electronics and wired with Kubala-Sosna cable, this system was one of the best showings of the Sonja to date.

The Lotus Group demonstrated the latest version of what had been called the Granda loudspeaker, now called simply the G2. The three-way active system features dual 12” woofers crossed over to a 4” midrange and dual 1” tweeters. The crossover is realized in DSP, which means you’ll need four amplifier channels (one for each speaker’s midrange and tweeter, respectively) to augment the supplied 500W amplifiers that drive the 12” woofers. Price: $75,000 per pair. The sound was wonderful, with tremendous space and bloom.

Although not a loudspeaker, I must mention one of the coolest products at Newport, the Astell & Kern AK120 portable music player. Think if it as an iPod for those who care about sound quality. The AK120, which made its US debut at Newport, is designed and built like a high-end product in miniature, with dual Wolfson DACs, a high-quality analog-output stage, low-jitter clocking, the ability to store and play high-resolution files, and an elegant brushed aluminum chassis. The upscale feel continues with the Italian leather case. Its audio performance specs read like that of an upper-end DAC (113dB SNR, 128dB channel separation, 0.0008 THD, for examples). The unit comes with 64GB of memory that can be expanded to 192GB via microSD cards. The AK120 supports virtually all file formats (including WAV, FLAC, WMA, and even DSD). Note that the AK120 is a new upper-end model that joins the $699 AK100 that has been on the market for a few months. The AK120 sounded fabulous playing high-res files through the Pandora headphones from Japan’s Final Audio Design. Watch for a full review.

The two most memorable rooms at the Newport show fell at opposite ends of the price/complexity spectrum. The first was the debut of the Magnepan MMG Super, a $1199 three-piece system of two quasi-ribbon panels and a planar-magnetic bass module. To give you an idea of how this new Maggie sounded, a guy in his twenties who had heard the demo with me asked me in the hallway afterward what I thought of this system in relation to a similarly priced box speaker he was considering. I told him that it was possible to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a cone-based speaker and not approach the transparency and midrange resolution of the $1199 MMG Super.

The other system that knocked my socks off couldn’t have been more different. Orange County retailer Scott Walker Audio and cable manufacturer Synergistic Research teamed up to put on one of the show’s most elaborate and ambitious systems. The huge room housed Magico Q7s driven by top-of-the-line VAC amplification, all wired with the new Synergistic Galileo LE. This new cable incorporates the technology of the $50k Galileo that Jonathan Valin reviewed so favorably, but in a more friendly form factor and at less than a third the price. The room was also loaded with every Synergistic technology available, including Tranquility Bases under every component and Synergistic’s room-tuning devices. I heard the system briefly the first day and was disappointed that this magnificent loudspeaker wasn’t shown in its best light. I returned late on the last day for an extended listen and was floored by the way the loudspeakers and room vanished. This was one of the biggest and most open soundstages I’ve heard from a hi-fi system. The sense of immediacy and presence was hair-raising. Synergistic’s Ted Denney then demonstrated the effect of the Tranquility Bases and of the active biasing of the cable shields, both of which contributed significantly to the system’s overall sound.