What do soft sea breezes, Tommy Bahama print shirts, and Wayfarer shades have in common with high-end audio? It could only be T.H.E. Show, Newport Beach. Fresh off its 2011 debut, this consumer-attended success story is now in its sophomore year and has expanded beyond the Hilton into The Atrium, its next-door neighbor. To my eye attendance and enthusiasm were up thanks in part to the noteworthy loudspeaker segment that it was my assignment to cover. Here’s my snapshot.
Audience presented one of the smallest and one of the largest new speaker systems geared to promote the scalability of its full-range-driver philosophy. Driven by all Audience power was the new Mk II version of the ClairAudient 16+16 flagship ($72k). It continues as a bi-polar, one-way line source with thirty-two A3-S2 three-inch full-range drivers but has been upgraded with the addition of eight 6” x 9” custom passive radiators. To my ears the difference was quite startling with solid low-end response that didn’t inhibit the speed and crystalline focus that makes this design so listenable. In comparison and obviously bass-restricted, the tiny ClairAudient 1+1 was captivating in how well it retains the flagship’s remarkable voice and timbre ($1800).
The B.M.C. Arcadia ($36.3k) is the company’s first foray into loudspeakers and was impressive on every front. Sporting Art Deco styling, the 47”-tall, slender cabinet doesn’t hint at its 198-pound curb weight. Fashioned from an exclusive compound of aluminum-oxide-based ceramic with an acrylic binder this enclosure is inert, stiff, and resonance-free. Sensitivity is 91dB with a nominal impedance of 4 ohms. The bi-polar Arcadia is equipped with two side-mount 11” woofers, four 5” midrange drivers—two each, front and rear—plus dual Air Motion transformer tweeters. The 37-pound crossovers are external and entirely upgradeable.
Emerald Physics has been very busy and debuted ten products including a revised CS3 Mark II, which like its forbear, is an open-baffle design updated with a custom 12.1” woofer/midrange/tweeter point-source driver plus a 1” compression tweeter. Emerald also chose to replace the Behringer DSP and now uses its own DSP2.4 electronic-crossover/EQ for the system ($3495 with DSP2.4). Emerald is also launching a line of compact monitors, namely the MS1 ($1200), MS2 ($1800), and MS3 Isobaric ($3000).
Totem debuted the smallest speaker yet to join its stunning Element Series, the Ember ($4.2k). The baby of the lineup is barely a foot tall but this two-way with minimalist crossover (it was paired with Cary electronics) performed uncommonly well with a rich low end, full spectrum resolution, and pristine imaging.
“And in this corner!” is the latest entry in Nola Speakers hard-charging Boxer Collection that already includes the stand-mount Boxer and the small floorstanding Contender. So what else could it be called but the KO ($9.8k)? Its configuration is Nola’s mirror-image, short-line-source, open-baffle array that uses four 4.5” mids, and four 1” silk domes. Bass is handled by a pair of 7” woofers loaded in separate chambers in the lower half of the enclosure. Easy to drive at 90dB and 8-ohm impedance this speaker wielded a heavy dynamic punch and, as the name implies, was a knockout. Due this fall.
Over the last few months the $30k loudspeaker neighborhood has gotten really crowded and industry insiders acknowledge that this price range is a particularly rich vein to mine. The common thread of these speakers is their uncommon micro- and macro-dynamics, vanishingly low distortion, and ability to lob dynamics and low-end energy like shot-putters. Consider the TAD Evolution 1 ($29.8k)—in many ways the SlimFast version of the fabled Reference One. Like the wide body Ref, the E1 is a three-way, bass-reflex design, with a CST coincident mid/tweet (as is TAD’s practice). The tweeter is beryllium but a magnesium midrange diaphragm now stands in for the Ref’s beryllium cone. The sound is exceptionally transparent and dynamic at all levels, but it was the full-bodied reproduction of cello that floored me with its authenticity.
Decked out in Lamborghini Murcielago orange, the Magico S5 ($28.6k) was presented by The Audio Salon and brilliantly supported by Constellation electronics, the Aurender Music Server by WideaLab and MIT cabling. The three-way, four-driver S5 reproduced a solo piano playlist of Keith Jarrett and Vladimir Horowitz that was stunning at both micro and macro levels with full-blooded support of the keyboard at every turn—from soundboard launch to high-speed arpeggio runs to sustain and decay. Despite its curved all-aluminum enclosure and spider web of aluminum bracing, the S5, at 190 pounds, is a relative lightweight by Magico standards. It specs include 90dB sensitivity with a 4-ohm nominal impedance and was as invisible a source as I encountered at this show.
The Rockport Avior ($29.5k) represents another competitive entry in the $30k-speaker sweeps. Sporting an all-new beryllium dome tweeter, I can’t say that I got the full measure of this three-way, 220-pound black beauty in the small Atrium room but all Rockport hallmarks were there. The silent enclosure and superlative detail and soundstage made clear that in the right environment this will be a speaker to beat.
The YG Anat III Studio Signature ($82k) partnered with Brinkmann, Luxman, Accuphase and Kubala Sosna in a system that combined a stunning degree of space recreation, pristine imaging, and a rock-steady low end. Likewise omni-king MBL offered a big room mbl 101E ($70.5k) system along with a smaller room mbl 120 ($21.4k) system driven by its Corona electronics. Always a crowd favorite, each offers a command of space and immersion that is still hard to beat. Acoustic Zen’s Robert Lee was demoing the impressive full-range transmission-line Crescendo ($16k) with all-tube Triode Corp Electronics. An easy load to drive at 90dB and a flat 6-ohm impedance across nearly the entire spectrum, the smattering of symphonic, jazz, and pop music I heard revealed a speaker that is not only spacious and dimensional but has a welcome old-school warmth and weight that are often lacking in the high-end mainstream.
Always one of my faves for transparency in small environs, the $1395 Amphion Ion has been redesigned via an all-new crossover and new aluminum driver. Magnepan demoed a “domestic harmony” system with (nearly invisible) MMC 2 motorized on-wall mains, a Tri-Center center channel, and a pair of discreetly positioned DW 1 subs. Although the MMC 2s could be stowed unobtrusively again the walls when not in use, the sound was pure Maggie—all the speed and soundstaging I could wish for with impressively deep low-end reinforcement. Still waiting for stats on how many marriages have been saved.
The Marten Django XL ($15k, and a full Django Series in the works) was driven by EAR electronics, a Townshend front end, and Jorma Design cabling, and has never sounded more open, fast, or dimensional than in Dan Meinwald’s skillful setup. Finally I spoke briefly with Stirling Trayle of Spiral Groove/Immedia. The speaker lineup once known as Sonics has been reconstituted, upgraded, and rebadged as Canalis Audio. Well-regarded designer Joachim Gerhard remains at the helm. Stirling handed me the Anima CS ($6k), a heavy (28 pounds) and heavily massaged adaptation of the Sonics original I reviewed a few years ago. The CS is clad in a hyper-dense, Mao-bamboo, .75”-thick plywood enclosure with a massive stainless base plate, a decoupled crossover, and modified tweeter and crossover parts. If it sounds as good as it looks….
Finally, no show would be complete without a listen to the Lotus Group’s open-baffle Granada G2 ($75k), gloriously driven by a HanssT-60/Ortofon Windfeld front end with SMc preamp and Esoteric power and Pranawire. As always its fast, utterly transparent full-range sonics continue to score points with me.
Dusty Vawter the chief designer behind the brilliant, budget-minded Channel Islands Class D electronics is talking loudspeakers. Tentatively called The Soul Sister (or Sistas?), it will be a scalable line using identical custom drivers throughout and a wave-guide tweeter in an aperiodic enclosure. Vawter is aiming for an RMAF debut with a floorstander and a stand-mount compact estimated at $6k and $3k. The early compact version being demoed was extremely promising—very open and lively. Finally while listening casually to the Vandersteen Model 7 driven by ARC Reference gear Richard Vandersteen, at my urging, mentioned there could be some surprises at next year’s CES. Something he described as nothing less than “shocking.” An active-powered loudspeaker? A hybrid? Vandersteen just grinned.
Best sound—cost no object
My listening bias leans towards dynamic driver systems and the Magico S5, TAD E1, mbl 101E would normally and deservedly vie for these honors. But it was the Wisdom Audio system, LS4 planar-magnetic with STS subwoofers ($100k+) that reproduced the Rutter “Requiem” with a combination of soundfield envelopment, choral detail, and weight that was well, awesome.
Best sound—highest value.
The new Nola KO loudspeakers ($9.8k) really are a full-range, heavyweight knockout in this competitive segment.
Most significant product
A full-function, asynchronous, 24-bit/96kHz USB DAC in thumb drive form? Audioquest’s new Dragonfly at $250.
Greatest bargain (single product)
Again, the AudioQuest Dragonfly
That the Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Jennifer Warnes is as warm and charming in person as her gifted voice and intelligent music always suggested she would be.