T.H.E. Show Newport: Neil Gader on Loudspeakers and Electronics Under $15k
As a first-timer attending the Munich High End Show this year I experienced an audio event as high-spirited and enthusiastic as any in recent or distant memory. Returning home I half expected the 2016 Newport confab to be something of a letdown, on a par with my jetlag. Really, how could SoCal’s venue, the Hotel Irvine, its lobby bedecked in retro-burnt orange pastels reminiscent of a Miami Vice episode, compare with the futuristic gloss and gleam of the Munich multi-level MOC atrium, and its vast, adjoining convention halls? No contest there. Yet, by virtue of a surprisingly large and enthusiastic crowd of attendees Newport not only did not disappoint, it rocked. And though there was not a whole lot of new gear in my sub-$15k speakers and electronics category (Munich stole that thunder) there’s was enough to keep me on my toes. Still, on a more somber note, 2016 also marked the passing of the Newport show founder, and indefatigable show runner Richard Beers. Loved by all, there was no more fitting testament than the enthusiastic crowds and outpouring of affection for this funny, smart, and warm-spirited booster of the High End. He will be missed.
Five Most Significant Product Introductions
Bricasti Design M12 Dual Mono Source Controller
In a rare show premiere, Bricasti Design debuted its M12 dual mono source controller ($15,995). Essentially a one-box solution (did I mention that it’s stunning?) that combines Bricasti’s M1 D/A with an analog preamp. The M12 features a host of digital inputs as well as accommodating balanced and unbalanced analog sources along with a precise analog-level control (a dual-mono resistor ladder capable of 90dB range in 1dB steps) and cutting-edge network interface. A unique analog DSD converter offers a pure DSD path with virtually no digital signal processing—typically the signal is converted to PCM. It was driving Bricasti’s own M28 monoblocks and the system included the transparent and effortless Tidal Piano Diacera speakers (bedecked with the seductive diamond tweeter), Silver Circle Tchaik 6 conditioner and Oyaide cables and Stillpoints.
Starke Sound IC-H1 Elite Loudspeaker
Prior to Newport, Starke Sound was an unknown loudspeaker company to me. Not anymore. Founded in California in 2010, the company is vertically integrated and a maker of amplifiers as well as speakers. The lineup is vast and includes towers, in-wall, and shallow-depth products. But a common theme across the Starke products is heavy aluminum front baffles and up to 45mm MDF rear panels plus aluminum internal framing. The magnet assemblies use a combination of ferromagnetic metals including neodymium, iron, boron, and ferrite. Most of the driver cones are British pulp mixed with fine carbon fiber, while others are woven carbon fiber; beryllium tweeters are used in selected models as well. Cabinets are manufactured in Asia, the electronics in Germany. Up until this juncture the manufacturer has emphasized the home-theater segment but have recently turned their attention to stereo. The three-way IC-H1 (pictured, $3120/pr.) features a sleek aluminum baffle with custom-designed carbon fiber midrange and soft-dome tweeter. A signature version ($5000/pr.) offers significant upgrades over the standard Elite including a beryllium dome tweeter and midrange, an upgraded crossover with high-performance capacitors, inductors, and resistors, improved internal wiring and binding posts, and a CNC aluminum grille.
Technics SU-G30 Network Audio Amplifier
So sleek and stylish was the new Technics SU-G30 network audio amplifier (and its companion ST-G30 music server) that even the Technics reps found themselves describing these components as a mini R1 system. Which makes sense since the new 100Wpc (4 ohms) amp is using reference-class tech such as the Jeno engine for jitter elimination, a high-speed hybrid power supply and load-adaptive phase calibration for achieving optimal gain and phase performance for any loudspeaker. The new network integrated amplifier will support a diversity of input sources from USB, Bluetooth, and Spotify to vTuner internet radio along with an array of digital and analog audio including line and mm phono, AirPlay, DLNA-compliant, and resolution up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD256. This is one handsome machine at its very competitive $4000 price point.
Aerial Acoustics 5T Loudspeaker
Aerial doesn’t come out with a new speaker very often so it’s always cause for some celebration when it does. In the case of the new 5T compact there are some real surprises too—among them is the accessible price: $3850 per pair for an Aerial is a real eye-opener. Another surprise is that the 5T’s performance has been designed to be wall-friendly—a boon for smaller rooms. It features the one-inch woven ring-dome, dual-magnet tweeter from the 7T, along with a new 6.7” long-stroke, papyrus-blend driver custom-made for the 5T. The stunning cabinet is a rigid and inert curved shape created by bonding multiple layers of wood that are then further cross-braced. The front baffle is attached to the cabinet face with damping glue to reduce the flow of energy from the drivers into the cabinet walls. Response is listed from 48Hz to 23kHz, and the impressive demo with T+A electronics gave me little reason to doubt these numbers. (Also, be on the lookout in a future issue for my T+A factory tour report and reviews of its new R-Series components.)
Ayon Auris Preamp
Modular and upgradeable are often more concept than reality but the new Ayon Auris ($8900) is intent on delivering. The pure Class A triode Auris is available in a variety of iterations: unbalanced or fully balanced, signature version, and phono mc/mm option for all versions. This is a pure vacuum-tube-circuit design with single gain stage and it incorporates only one coupling capacitor at its output stage. The chassis is of high-grade aluminum and uses a completely redesigned circuit board (a gold-plated industrial PCB) with the shortest possible traces. The purist 6H30 circuit topology uses zero dB negative feedback, and there are no buffers, no followers, or op amps anywhere in the signal path. That Auris uses special tube-rectified power supply and super-premium components selection goes without saying. Inputs abound with four RCA, two XLR, plus mm/mc phono.
Pear Audio Blue Classic Electronics
Pear Audio Analogue, the company behind Pear Audio Blue’s turntables and its importer Audio Skies (they also represent Larsen and GamuT), displayed the Pear Blue’s midlevel line of tube electronics. Available in three series, Elemental, Classic, and Reference, the full lineup includes preamps, power amps, integrated amps, and phonostages. These are minimalist designs that seek to place performance first with point-to-point wiring, short signal paths, high-quality valves, and large toroidal transformers; they’re also handmade in the UK. On display were Pear Audio Blue’s Classic integrated ($3995), a 55Wpc hybrid MOSFET output stage amp, along with the Classic phono ($1995), and the Classic preamp with phono ($2995). At the top of the food chain is the Reference line, all twin-chassis components that use an outboard power supply. The Reference preamp for example will list for $6495. However, entry-level prices for Elemental begin at $1495, with the Elemental integrated with included phono at a modest $2500.
Merrill Audio Christine Reference Preamp
Newport served as the venue to premiere the Merrill Audio Christine Reference preamp ($12,400), a gorgeous hand-built component that uses hand-routed PCB layout and traces, silver-plated copper with Teflon jacketing for the internal wiring, and offers four balanced inputs, and an external power supply. Joining Christine were Merrill’s Veritas monoblocks, its Jens Ref phonostage, VPI Avenger table, Equi=Core power cord conditioners, and the German Physiks superb omni-loudspeaker, the HRS-130. This was an exceptional sounding system—open, transparent, and effortless as the best omni speakers tend to be when driven by high-quality electronics and sources.
Emerald Physics EP-2.8
The latest from Emerald Physics, the EP-2.8, impressed on so many levels—fitted with twin carbon fiber 15” woofers, a 12” carbon midrange and polyester diaphragm compression tweeter power output, and a vast, immersive soundstage and naturalistic bass response. However, it was not alone; this was a fully tri-amplified setup with Emerald’s DSP2.8 four-way DSP crossover and one EP200 SE 200W stereo amp, plus two EP100.SE 100W stereo amps, and Exogal Comet Plus DAC. Emerald is looking to flesh out its robust line with a preamp/DAC later this year. There is a wide range of system options available through distributor Underwood HiFi but the standard EP-2.8 system with DSP2.4 electronic crossover/eq is $9995/pr.
Brigadiers Audio Compact BA-2
The banner read, Colleen Cardas Imports Presents “Down Under Audio”! True to form was an exhibit featuring the wares of New Zealand’s, Pure Audio, and Australia’s Brigadiers Audio. Pure Audio, whose founder Gary Morrison is a Plinius alumnus, offers a range of distinctively styled electronics that includes a stereo dual-mono amp ($9500), preamp ($9500), phonostage ($4500), plus more to come. The Pure Audio gear was driving Brigadiers Audio’s latest compact, the BA-2 ($12k). A couple years ago I reviewed the excellent Axis VoiceBox S loudspeaker, a small two-way ribbon tweeter/cone midbass mini-monitor. The BA-2 is a whole different beast. It’s larger, built with a uniquely variable, multi-layer cabinet construction, and uses a 6.5” mid/bass and Raal ribbon tweeter—and it conveys more weight and LF energy and larger-scale musicality. A real contender.
Jadis Orchestra Integrated
The Jadis Orchestra is actually not a new amp, as it’s been available in Europe for a couple years but it is news to most of us here in the U.S. Distributed by Bluebird Music, the Orchestra is modest is size but not in intention. Elegant in the distinctive and familiar Jadis mirror-and-gold finish, the 40Wpc model is driven courtesy of EL34 output tubes and, significantly, uses the maker’s own in-house custom transformers. Displaying with Chord and Spendor the sound was warm and inviting, nicely textured with solid top-to-bottom response.
In the next few months, AudioEngine will be debuting a follow-up to its HD6 powered and wireless loudspeaker. Tentatively called the HD3, it is notably smaller but leverages similar technology and visuals. Price is TBA but figure in the range of $395/pr.
Upscale Audio/PrimaLuna will be releasing its first headphone amp later this year. It should come in under $2k and will be based on an adaptation of its top-tier HP integrated and include PL’s adaptive auto-bias system which linearizes virtually any combination of output tubes (Upscale was demoing the auto-bias system with a potpourri of valves running simultaneously—KT90, KT120, KT66, 6550, and EL34 all at once—and maintains performance even as the tubes advance in age. Build quality is exceptional with dual auto-bias boards and pricey Fujitsu relays.
Besides the terrific exhibit that featured the upper-crust Gauder Akustic Berliner I was equally (almost) impressed with another Gauder offering, the modest 2.5-way Arcona ($8495) that fit the smaller room environs to a T. Driven by the AVM CS5.2 streaming receiver ($7950) or the LP setup courtesy of Transrotor, a Jelco 750, the flashy Shelter Harmony cartridge, and the AVM P1.2 phonostage.
Also from Colleen Cardas Audio Imports is the line of integrated amps and a DAC/transport from Aussie firm Redgum (familiar to Down Under arborists as a native tree known for its exceptional high-density wood, and used on the handsome faceplates of these components). These MOSFET designs with unique bottom-mounted heatsinking range in power between 60 and 200Wpc with prices coming in at a reasonable $2500 and $4500.
In the shipping news, the Wyred 4 Sound Statement amplifier appeared in what should be finalized 750Wpc form and will commence shipment by the third quarter. Eventually a preamplifier will join the party. Particularly stunning is its colorful, multi-graphic front display which allows selection options of VU meters and spectrum analyzers, and even permits the user to input loudspeaker sensitivity for calibrating the meters. Pricing for the stunning amp is slated for the $5-6k range. In this instance it was being driven by an SST Thoebe II preamp and into KEF Ref 3 speakers.
Also recently shipping is the Ryan Speakers Tempus III ($15,995) a five-driver floorstander with its narrow swept-back and heavily braced enclosure utilizing a precisely angled front baffle for ideal driver time alignment. The enclosure narrows around the midrange and tweeter drivers to minimize energy reflected off the front baffle to enhance imaging precision. TAS’ Andrew Quint is planning to review this speaker in a forthcoming issue. The sound was terrific, defined, and extended driven by an Aurender N10 front end and the powerful Modwright KWA150 monoblocks.
McIntosh demo’d the XR100 tower, which at $10,000 represents Mac’s lowest price offering in a full-range speaker sweeps. It was biamped with an MC75 for the tweeter array and MC301 monoblocks for the bottom end. The system reproduced a stunning and enveloping soundstage from the chorale track being played, a full-range high-energy sound that coaxed me into staying longer than I should have. At the other extreme is Mac’s RS100 desktop speaker system ($1000 per speaker), a nifty two-way that includes active DSP crossover, network, WiFi, and is configurable for mono or stereo and up to eight pairs for full home coverage. A special nod of appreciation to the Magnepan and Bryston presentation and the magic of its three-channel demo via a trio of MMGs—a system that never fails to inspire and remind me of why I made a career of high-end audio in the first place. Finally, my inability to elbow my way into the standing-room-only Elac room has almost become a running joke ever since the Debut and Unifi models debuted. Here I was again sitting off to the far side of the room as Elac’s Andrew Jones ratcheted up the gain on the Audio Alchemy electronics. Luckily for me I’ll be reviewing these very speakers in an upcoming issue. Audio journalism does have its perks.
Neil Gader’s Best of Show
Best Sound (Cost No Object)
The Lotus Group/Axiss Audio led by the Gauder Akustic Berliner RC-7 and Accuphase, Air Tight, and Hanss gear was quite brilliant, as was the Lumen White’s WhiteLight but my tip o’the hat goes to the Kyron Audio Kronos system ($112k) all the way from Adelaide. Its styling is not for the faint of heart but this dipole tri-amplified active system with amp and DSP control had a presence and sense of dimension that was unrivalled at the show.
Best Sound (For the Money)
As a turnkey system package it’s hard to beat the Emerald Physics EP-2.8 fully powered active/DSP system, but more conventionally the Aerial 5T compact two-way is a wonderfully svelte, civilized, and sonorous compact at $3850.
Most Significant Trend
Changes afoot? Many are talking about the momentum that is currently favoring regional audio shows over CES.
Most Coveted Product
Ypsilon Phaethon integrated amplifier. At $25k, it ain’t cheap but the 110Wpc tube/hybrid linestage amp looks like a dreamboat to me.