T.H.E. Show Newport Beach is unquestionably a unique high-end audio show, and the 2014 rendition was a crazy whirlwind of rushing from room to room in search of that special system that grabbed ahold and wouldn’t let go. My assignment for this show was electronics, which encompasses preamps, amps, and integrated amps of all prices. In essence, this means covering virtually every single room (an impossible task, but one that we all strive to accomplish). This show pulled out all the stops when it comes to ultra high-end systems, but also provided some affordable surprises. There was a method to the madness that reflected Richard Beers’—the head honcho—own sui generis conviviality. From food trucks to poolside live music, exotic cars to sunny weather, smiles were plentiful and so was the hi-fi gear.
Napa Acoustic NA-208A Hybrid Integrated
The Napa Acoustic NA-208A 25W integrated might be a mere $399, yet this tiny little hybrid produced a seductive soundstage and lots of image detail and depth when paired with Napa’s NA-208S mini monitors ($199/pr.). Listening was nearfield from the comfort of a modified recliner that featured “wings” atop which the speakers were placed. The “wings” are hinged and allow for easy toe-in adjustments without leaving the chair. I didn’t have the opportunity to listen in a traditional listening position, but with the speakers about four feet away and toed in forty-five degrees, the system was rich with life, musicality, and produced sound quality far beyond my expectations. I discovered the room more by accident than anything; but I’m glad the lack of racks and floorstanders didn’t scare me away, as I was rewarded with a sonic treat. Total system cost, including the NA-208C CD player ($399) and NA-208S speakers? $1000. If that’s not a bargain in today’s high-end world, I don’t know what is.
FM Acoustics, Polymer, Weiss
The best sound of all the point sources—and possibly the best sound of the show—deservingly goes to the $130k FM Acoustics 115 monoblock amplifiers paired with the new Polymer MKS-X loudspeakers ($60k/pr.). These monoblocks fed the 4-ohm MKS-Xs with 500W of power, and will continue driving down to 1 ohm (and below, according to FM). The Polymers require some serious damping to control their woofers, and the FM 115s handled their hunger with aplomb and gusto, ready to deliver more when necessary. A Weiss Man 301 Music Server ($9500) and Weiss Jason Transport ($24k) were fed into a Thrax Maximinus DAC ($33k) and controlled by the FM Acoustics 245 preamp ($25.5k), all of which sat atop the amazing Krolo Design rack ($6400) and were connected by Enklein David and T-Rex cables. The very large room definitely allowed the Polymers to stretch out, as the soundstage was the deepest, most accurate presentation of the show. It was so deep, in fact, that I wished the Polymers could have been even farther apart to allow the soundstage width to match its depth. The deep, rectangular listening-position setup was the cause of this deeper-than-wider sensation. The FM 115s drove the MKS-Xs with such ease, though, that the normally difficult reproduction of my favorite reference music, Ludovico Einaudi’s In a Time Lapse, was a breeze for these incredible monoblocks.
Boulder 2010 Preamp
Let’s first focus on the four-chassis Boulder 2010 preamp. The 2010 preamp’s ($54k) left and right channels are fully isolated from each other, the control/display unit, and the power supply, which features three toroidal transformers for each channel and the controller. From the front, the 2010 preamp looks to be a two-chassis unit, but look from the top and rear, and you will see that each isolated channel fits neatly behind the controller’s front display. Multiple optical couplers connect each of the channels to the microprocessor controller, and the power supply—atop which everything rests—feeds each piece individually. This preamp is simply a work of art, weighs in at almost 100lbs., and features six fully balanced inputs.
Boulder 2050 Monoblocks
The Boulder 2010 is heavy for a preamp, but it’s nothing compared to the 2050 monoblocks ($98k/pr.), which weigh in at a whopping 240lbs. each and output 1000W into 8, 4, or 2 ohms. It was a struggle to lift even one end of the display model in the hallway. Paired with the enormous Focal Grand Utopias ($195k/pr.) and fronted by the Boulder 1021 transport/DAC/streamer ($26k), the sound was huge, not only in terms of width and depth, but also height. Imaging wasn’t the best I’ve heard from the Grand Utopias, but the room had been cut in half to create a second D’Agostino demo area. Despite a pretty terrible room setup for a system of this magnitude, it was easy to tell that the Boulder electronics would be incredible in the right setting.
MBL 9011 Monoblocks
Four MBL 9011 monoblocks ($106k/pr.) were driving the 101 X-Treme omnis ($263k/pr.), fronted by the top-tier UHA tape deck and the MBL 6010 D preamp. What can I say, many consider this system the crème de la crème of high-end audio. With 840W into 4 ohms, and almost 1400W into 2, the 9011s are as extreme as the X-Tremes. I would like to hear these one day in a proper room, not a hotel. At least at Newport, imaging lacked a certain specificity toward which I tend to gravitate. Besides that, this system was the most transparent of any at the show, thanks in large part to the amazing tapes on hand.
D’Agostino Momentum Integrated
The D’Agostino Momentum Integrated ($45k) is definitely something to be excited about. With 200W into 8 ohms at your disposal and the quality of one of the greatest amp designers, the Momentum Integrated is one amazing work of art—both inside and out. The only problem I see with the Momentum Integrated is a philosophical one: If an integrated amplifier has an outboard power supply, is it still an integrated?
The British manufacturer Roksan has made a pretty cool integrated amplifier with their new Oxygene ($5k), which outputs a health 75W, has three RCA inputs, and sixteen channels of Bluetooth input, and looks really sleek while doing so. Each of the Bluetooth channels remembers the unique device, so there’s no need to constantly reconnect devices.
Rogers EHF-200 Mk2
I wasn’t expecting to see the Rogers High Fidelity EHF-200 Mk2 tubed integrated amp ($15k) at Newport, but it made a surprise visit paired with Sonist speakers (which are quite a bargain for the sound quality) and Snake River cables. This is the best and most powerful full Class-A tubed integrated amp I’ve ever heard; with 112Wpc in ultralinear mode, this amp can drive just about any speaker out there with incredible sound quality.
Aesthetix Metis Line Stage and Atlas Monoblocks
The Aesthtix Metis line stage preamp ($20k) debuted for the first time in the U.S. at Newport, and sounded amazing alongside the Atlas monoblocks ($16k/pr.), Wilson Alexias ($48.5k/pr.), Clearaudio Master Innovation turntable and Goldfinger cartridge ($75k as displayed), and the Aesthetix Io Eclipse phono stage ($15k). This system really shined when we played my Buena Vista Social Club: Live at Carnegie Hall, with a presence and encompassing soundstage that could not be ignored. The cool thing about the Metis preamp is that when the unit is placed on a flat surface, the power supply decouples from the main chassis and floats within “invisibly” within the housing. No need to have a completely separate power supply with the Metis.
Stein Music Stateline Amp2
The German Stateline Amp2 ($3k) from Stein Music should prove to be an incredible integrated for the price tag. Keep a lookout for Stein Music at a show near you—you won’t be disappointed.
Dealer Tweak Studio was showing off Burmester gear over in the Atrium hotel, which included the O82 integrated ($20k), 061 CD player ($18k), and B25 loudspeakers ($15k). For a room that had no acoustic treatment, a big plate of glass, and awkward layout, the sound was surprisingly detailed, though maybe not as big as most people would like. The system was simple and beautiful to look at, which is what this demo was trying to show off—a system that actually looks good in a normal living environment. Cables were MIT SL Matrix series.
Astell&Kern Cube 1
Astell&Kern makes tubed integrated amps? Well, they are going to start. The company was showing off the Cube 1 tubed integrated amp, which will output a respectable 30Wpc. Pricing was a little vague, but somewhere around $12k-$15k. The room wasn’t really set up to show off the integrated, but rather the superb portable products A&K makes. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued and am looking forward to some serious listening.
New and Noteworthy
Ayon was showing off its Titan monoblocks ($69k/pr.), which displays its tube glory loud and proud. But it was the German Phyiks Borderland Speakers ($28k/pr.) that really grabbed my attention when paired with gear from Accustic Arts, including the Mono Amp II Mk2 amps ($13k/pr.), Tube Preamp II ($11k), and Ayon CD3s CD player ($9k). The German Phyiks speakers sounded superb despite being in a room far too large and cluttered, which goes to show their real-world functionality. While everyone was checking out the von Schweikert flagship speakers, I found a pair of VR35 MkIIs ($10k) hidden in a room with some new-to-me gear from a California amp designer name Belles. The Belles Soloist1 integrated sounded superb for the $3395 price tag, and drove the von Schweikerts with a healthy 125W of Class-A/B power. Surprisingly good sound can be had from little-known companies. Less overhead means (generally) more of the money you spend is on parts, rather than marketing and looks. I like finding the hidden gems in the hi-fi world.
Best of Show
Best Sound (cost no object): A tie between the MBL X-Treme and the Polymer/FM Acoustics systems.
Best Sound (for the money): The Napa Acoustics nearfield setup. For $1000, it is the best system besides the Audioengine active speakers.
Most Significant Introduction: By far the U.S. debut of the Muraudio Domain PX-1 omni electrostats. These speakers could radically change the high-end world and sound sublime.
Most Significant Trend: High-quality tape decks are making a comeback, and not just the United Home Audio systems.
Most Coveted: If someone could accidentally leave a pair of Magico S3s at my house, that would be great. Those speakers will fit in just about any system and sound amazing.