T.H.E. Show at Newport in Southern California is a far more relaxed and convivial affair than the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Not least of its attractions is that it remains for the most part stubbornly two‑channel, which is also to say that analog, in the form of vinyl, tends to dominate. This year was no exception, though there was a difference: compared to last year, in fewer and fewer rooms was it possible to play compact discs, including SACDs. It struck me that a relatively large number of rooms relied on various sorts of files off hard drives, computers, music servers, and other virtual sources, as it were. This might have made for better sound and greater convenience for the dealers and manufacturers, but it also meant it was for all practical purposes impossible to conduct listening evaluations with source material one is familiar with, unless a particular room happened to have it in its music server. If the whole point of the recent proliferation of regional audio shows like this one is so that consumers can actually hear products they might be interested in purchasing, shouldn’t some provision be made for source material of their own they might to carry along?
The only other general observation I have is that, as was also the case last year, I did not hear much sound that struck me as very good. The typical rooms at the Hilton and the Atrium are problematic (most of them too small), and most reproduction struck me as entirely too bright, edgy, and analytical, while bass response was often woolly, bloated, and ill defined. Inasmuch as this is presumably an industry of professionals who’ve been to this venue before, why is it that they can’t manage better presentations?
As I’ve already observed, there was a lot of vinyl at this show, but there weren’t all that many new vinyl products. I wonder if perhaps a problem here is that Newport comes so soon after CES that there simply isn’t time to get out many new products (a number of manufacturers told me that come September they’ll have their latest ready to unveil and even sell). That said, here are my five Most Significant new products:
1-3: The redoubtable Bob Graham of Graham Audio Engineering had three on display: First, the Air Force One turntable ($110,000 table only—no, that’s not a misprint). Although out for a while now and even reviewed in some places, this, Graham informs me, is the final form of the actual product. Designed in Japan by Hideaki Nishikawa, a nearly fifty-year audio veteran, formerly of Stax and Micro Seiki, the AF One features an air-bearing that supports the subplatter while the entire chassis, a three‑part sandwich structure, is suspended using three air-filled adjustable chambers. The main platter is made from stainless steel with three different user options for the upper platter (aircraft grade duralumin, non-magnetic stainless steel, or black Acrylic resin) and optional vacuum hold‑down, powered by a super-quiet air pump outfitted with special air solenoid valves that filter the noise and ripples endemic to some vacuum pumps. Drive is belt, the asynchronous motor unit separated from the main chassis, electronic sensors eliminating speed errors while a digital readout makes it possible to adjust speed in +/-0.1 increments. Particular attention has been made to isolating the platter for the greatest possible immunity to structural-born feedback and to the selection and application of materials to suppress all spurious resonances. And, shades of some fancy Micro Seikis, two tonearms can be used. Review will be forthcoming.
Also on display, and absolutely brand new, is the Air Force Two, an attempt to bring much of the performance and many of the design elements of the One down to a more affordable price—though at $55,000, “affordable” is most definitely a relative (if not downright ironic) term here. Cutting a very different and somewhat more more traditional figure than the One, the Two is still a massive structure that features vacuum hold-down and a serious combination of materials and structural techniques to isolate the crucial stylus/groove interface.
Though Graham is only the importer of the Air Force turntables, he also had on display his latest tonearm, the Elite ($12,000-14,000, depending on arm length), with an improved pivot assembly, upgraded removable arm tube, and new alignment gauge. As in past Graham arms, 9-, 10-, and 12-inch lengths are offered.
4: Musical Surroundings’s new phono preamplifier for its prestigious AMG line was designed by Mike Yee, auteur of the highly regarded Phenomena phono stages. Priced at $5000, the AMG Phono Preamplifier is a true dual-mono circuit with both single-ended and balanced inputs and outputs. Like other Yee phono preamplifiers, the AMG is fully battery operated (custom NiMH batteries in a separate chassis) and includes gain and resistive and capacitance loading. Multiple equalization curves for RIAA, Decca, and Columbia are switch selectable, as is mono operation, absolute phase, mute, and battery charging.
5: Taking selectable equalization curves a step further is the Makura preamplifier by a company new to me: Mola Mola, a Dutch firm whose products are imported by On a Higher Note (known for Vivid loudspeakers and Luxman electronics). The Makura begins as a full-function linestage ($13,450) with an option for a highly sophisticated and versatile phono circuit ($2500) with fully independent moving-magnet and moving-coil stages. Gain is variable over 40dB and the available EQ settings are said “to cover practically all known cutting curves ever used, including most 78rpm).” In addition, each EQ circuit can also be tailored more or less along the lines of conventional tone controls. All remote operations take place via an electronic tablet, such as an iPad or Android, but the actual implementation occurs in the analog domain using relays in the main chassis.
Venice Audio of Venice, California, was making nice sounds with Well-Tempered Lab’s new Amadeus GTA Mk 2 turntable, Symmetrex tonearm, and DPS power supply ($4250 for all three) Featuring Well-Tempered’s novel “precision made golf ball suspended in silicone fluid for optimum variable damping,” the Symmetrex claims adjustment with a fixed headshell requiring “no fussy setup” (which would certainly be a first with this company). Audio Element of Pasadena, California, had on display Rega’s new RP-10 integrated turntable with Apheta pickup ($6495 for the combination). LKV Research of New Hampshire was showing its new Veros One Phono Preamp ($6500). Accommodating both MMs and MCs simultaneously, with both balanced and single ended inputs and outputs, the Veros One offers ten loading options for MCs and four gain settings in for the single‑ended outputs. Preamplifier circuits are fully differential, class A and two user selectable equalization networks are supplied, one RIAA accurate to within +/‑0.1dB, the other tailored for “a slightly warmer, more tube-like sound.” Highend‑electronics (Apple Valley, California) was showing the Soundwaves Cantano Grande Turntable/Tonearm ($26,900), imported from Germany. The main turntable bearing is a partial magnetic design, the arm a unipivot. Despite the unusual appearance, the design is billed as “plug and play.”
In other news:
First and foremost, hailing from Canada, was Muraudio’s Domain Omni PX1 electrostatic hybrid loudspeaker ($58,000 a pair). This speaker is unique inasmuch as it uses electrostatic elements in an omnidirectional array, which the designer told me was inspired by MBL’s Radialstrahler omnidirectional, a speaker he venerates. On the strength of what I heard, the tyro here eclipses the tutor. The electrostatic array crosses over—seamlessly—at 450Hz to three acoustic-suspension woofers arrayed in a triangular pattern. The sound in this room reproduced the most convincing facsimile of an orchestra I heard at the show and one of the most convincing anywhere. And better even than that, the tonal balance was natural, musical, and accurate with none of the aggressive highs and harshness I heard almost everywhere else. Yet detail was exquisitely reproduced and the sound was splendidly alive and realistic. Dynamic range was stupendous despite low efficiency, and the bass response extremely powerful and room filing yet superbly well defined and articulate, the best I heard at the show (acoustic suspension triumphs again over any sort of port). I hope a review of this is at the top of TAS’s short list.
Next was Benchmark’s AHB2 stereo amplifier, which despite its Lilliputian size (see photograph) boasts 100 watts/channel into 8 ohms, 170/channel into 4, and 340 into 8 when bridged for mono. This enterprising company never ceases to amaze with its combination of supreme technical knowhow and performance. The AHB2 also boasts an astonishing signal-to-noise ratio of 125-130dB (again, no misprint), 10 to 30 better than any other amplifier known to me and, indeed, quite unheard of in audio amplification. Special circuitry is claimed to eliminate crossover distortion. I can’t wait to audition one of these on my inefficient Quad 2805s.
Tim Ryan of SimpliFi (San Diego, California) was once again demonstrating his Antimode DSP unit, now in its latest iteration with an optional external power supply said to eliminate digital switching noises ($1200 for the DSP, $800 for power supply). The effects of DSP were impressive indeed, especially with respect to imaging focus and bass detail and articulation.
The Audio Salon (Santa Monica, California) featured Wilson Alexias (driven by Constellation electronics and new Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC Reference) sounding extremely transparent, powerful, and life-size yet also superbly detailed with extraordinary resolution. Of course it helps that what was being played were some of Peter McGrath’s personal recordings of professional musicians, always one of any audio show’s high pleasures. I heard part of a Schubert mass and some really remarkable piano recordings, the latter sounding as if the instrument were in the room.
Two venues allowed for exceptionally relaxed listening. The first was EAR USA, Marten Coltrane Tenor speakers ($85,000/pr), driven by EAR electronics. The second was On a higher Note’s setup featuring Mola Mola electronics, a Luxman turntable, and a pair of the smaller, stand-mounted Vivid P1 loudspeakers, which managed to project size comparable with Magneplaners. Speaking of those, Magnepan was displaying its .7 Magnepanar ($1300/pr), a wholly new model that as yet has no pricing information. But the sounds it was making might have been the best I’ve ever heard from this manufacturer (a pair of the company’s 1.7 subwoofer panels were in use as well): all the usual Maggie virtues with a surprising overall neutrality.
Best of Show (cost no object): Muraudio’s Domain Omni PX1 electrostatic hybrid loudspeaker. See “In other news” for complete description.
Best Sound (for the money): At $1300/pr, the Magneplanar .7 was quite astonishing.
Most Significant Product: I can’t think of another investment that will bring more improvement in sound for the dollar than SimpliFi’s Dual Core Antimode DSP with or without the ULN-3 PSU optional power supply.
Most Significant Trend: more and more exhibitors using hi-res digital files via music servers in place of CDs (and even vinyl).
Most Coveted Product: Annie Liebovitz’s collection of 476 photographs—magisterial, magnificent, masterly—in an oversized 20” x 27” book published by Taschen complete with its own tripod stand, offered by The Audio Salon.