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Keeping it honest at T.H.E. Show Newport Beach 2014

  • THE_Show_Newport_2014He said, she said. Rumour has it that 2014 will be the final year T.H.E. Show will be spread across Hilton and Atrium hotels located directly across the road from John Wayne Orange County airport. Already mooted for 2015 (its fourth year) is a move round the corner to a single, as yet unnamed hotel. I didn’t sense too much unrest with the current arrangement but Jeff Fritz of Soundstage Ultra perceives a problem with the way the hi-fi industry promotes itself Stateside. Apparently, poke-y hotel rooms can’t compete with the brighter, larger listening spaces of the Munich Show that took place two weeks prior.

    It’s worth remembering that the Munich event is as much trade show as it is audition opportunity for the general public. Attendees in Germany are greeted with as many static displays in the three large Halles downstairs as they are private listening rooms in the Atria upstairs.


    Devon’s Graham Audio are good example of an exhibitor who brought their static display to life with a little music (played at sensible volumes so as not to disturb neighbours) whereas British standmount rivals Neat Acoustics, Harbeth and Spendor played it strictly silent, allowing the interface of conversational chitter chatter, often crowded out by music demos, to get their message across. Munich isn’t only about promoting to the public or broadening brand awareness. It is often where many manufacturers and their worldwide distributors converge for annual meet and greets.


    Fritz wonders why this type of setup can’t be emulated in the US of A: “It makes you wonder if North America actually has no facilities that are the equivalent of the MOC. But even little ol’ Wilmington, North Carolina — with a population just north of a 100,000 — has a convention center with multiple meeting rooms, conference rooms, and a large ballroom, that could easily support a small audio show. I refuse to believe that hotels are the best venues we can find for audio shows. C’mon, guys.”

    The Living Voice room in Munich must’ve clocked up close to a million bucks in hardware. It’s an example of what’s possible with untold funds and yes, it sounded bloody magnificent. If the sheer opulence of Living Voice Vox Olympian partnered with Kondo electronics is a turn-off, I can empathise. Would this kind of setup fly at the Newport Beach show? Depends. Perhaps these Brits would choose something from their Auditorium series for the Irvine Hilton’s smaller listening spaces.


    Put another way: why move the mountain when Muhammad could just as easily accommodate an attitude adjustment?

    Whilst getting good sound in what is essentially a bedroom isn’t easy, it’s by no means impossible. At T.H.E. Newport Beach this year the number of exhibitors who opted to leave the big stuff at home and kit out their room with more appropriately sized loudspeakers and associated electronics was palpable. This more often than not brought with it a dramatic drop in total system cost. Some of these exhibitors are singled out here for keeping it honest with box sizes and price/performance ratios.


    As has been the theme of late, an exhibitor’s attitude to listener engagement is just as critical as the hardware itself. Many Newport Beach go-ers know by now that the Zu Audio room is the number one place to avoid (the still too prevalent) music cliches but KEF is quickly garnering a reputation for doing likewise. A refusal to pander to the same-old-same-old of Stevie Ray Vaughan or the Krall always helps. “Rebecca Pidgeon? Absolute nonsense!”, scoffs Johan Coorg in full rabble-rousing mode. His music-fan-preacher-man posturing has a tendency to lock room attendees to their seats as much as his carefully curated playlist. KEF R900 loudspeakers (US$5000/pair) driven by Parasound electronics – Parasound ZDAC (US$475), Parasound P7 pre-amplifier (US$2295) and Parasound A21 power amplifier (US$2495) – give a cavernous Trentemoller cut just the right amount of low end heft for the room.


    In the adjacent LS50 demo space, KEF stamp on the notion that if you demo with standmounts people won’t stick around. Here we’re treated to David Bowie’s “Starman” before audiophile cliche rears its head again (at which point I make my excuses for a swift exit stage left). Bozz Scaggs? Absolute nonsense!


    It’s a shame the KEF’s ‘system in a box’ X300A Wireless sat silent for most of the weekend (such was the popularity of the R900 setup). The KEF engineers have added Airplay compatibility to the original X300A recipe (reviewed here). I cannot think of an easier plug n play setup nor can I conceive of a set of separates that will match the KEF’s all-in-one performance at their US$999 price point. The ‘what cable?’ dilemma also gets side-stepped. Unsure where to start in the mad world of high(er)-end audio? Look no further than these actives, each with in-built DACs, if system simplicity is your number one priority.


    Even though Anthony Gallo didn’t get the memo about a moratorium on “Spanish Harlem”, it didn’t stop this sparsely kitted-out room from sounding every bit as impressive as it did in 2013. The soundstage is HUGE and airy, imaging = sensational. The Reference Strada 2 (US$2000/pr) + twin TR3D subs (US$984 each) totalled US$4500 with stands to make for a simple, wallet-friendly system that acted out nicely with a modest supporting cast: Peachtree iDecco (running as standalone DAC) and an 840C (?) integrated amplifier from Cambridge Audio.


    The usual audiophile music was also enjoying heavy rotation in the Benchmark room but their pint-size setup stood out for its modesty of physical intrusion and kindness to one’s bank account. Here was a propulsive sound that didn’t first require wrestling to the ground with treatments. The tasting plate came courtesy of Benchmarks’s DAC2 L (US$1795), AHB2 integrated amplifier (US$3000) and SMS1 standmounts (US$2450).


    I kinda feel for Jonathon Derda of Peachtree Audio, now forced to go it alone with show demos since wingman David Solomon hoofed it over to Audioquest. Doubling up on the workload doesn’t dent Derda’s enthusiasm for Peachtree’s quietly launched Nova 220SE amplifier w/ DAC (US$2000). The 220SE has less rounded casework than previous models but it’s no less striking. If only all amplifiers looked this cool. The new styling hides an uptick in power output over the forerunning Nova 125. We’re now seeing 220 wpc into 8 Ohms and 350 wpc into 4 Ohms. Derda tells me that this new model has also been voiced for a punchier, more energetic sound with better microdynamics than the Nova 125. That’s good news all round.


    The Peachtree integrated is more than capable of driving the Martin Logan Montis hybrid electrostats (US$9995/pr) which might have been too much speaker for the room were it not for Sonic Studio Amarra 3.0’s iRC(b) Room Correction (US$329); a sure fire way to help hotel room and transducers get along better, removing the need for this manufacturer to make excuses that Fritz says he hears all too often from the high-end folk. “If you can’t make good sound in the room you’re displaying in — whether at the MOC or a hotel — then present a silent display, because what you’re doing doesn’t work.” Silent displays at T.H.E. Newport Beach? I’m not so sure. A more modest system shows that exhibitors don’t have to lay out the full feast when a tasting plate is often enough to get a hook into attendees’ consciousness.


    Whilst we’re talking Peachtree, their all-new BT1 Bluetooth streamer comes with aptX codec and Wolfson digital re-clocking for US$99. In the main Sonic Studio room, another sneaky surprise: a prototype of the Peachtree Audio Sona DAC/headphone amplifier could be found lurking in the darkness. “Sona isn’t done but we’re 85% of where we want to be with it”, says Derda. If production goes ahead, expect an RRP of US$1500 or higher.


    Another man taking the Zen approach to hotel room presentation is Channel Islands‘ Dusty Vawter. Again, standmounts lead the charge: UniField II (US$7995/pair) from Von Schweikert. Upfield, a Mac Book Pro feed the CI Transient Asynchronous USB DAC (US$699), which in turn push into a CI PLC-1 Passive Line Controller (US$899) and then the new E-200S 200wpc dual mono power amplifier, a Class D design that runs with Hypex modules and in-house designed input stage. Vawter is extending the show’s introductory pricing of US$1995 for a limited time after which it reverts to an RRP of US$2500.


    I REALLY dig the substantial bang for buck of Fritz Heiler‘s standmounts. His 7″ Scanspeak Illuminator-ed Carrera 7 doesn’t disappoint. Heiler’s speakers also feature in the Wyred4Sound room where EJ Sarmento has them hooked up to his trio of mPRE + mAMP + mAMP (reviewed here and here).


    Even though the skyscraping Magnepan models play really well in smaller rooms, Wendell Diller is introducing a new model in the 0.7, one that will ultimately replace the MG12. The ‘point seven’ is expected to sell for US$1500 when it goes into full production later this year. Still to be decided is ‘which stand?’ with Newport attendees being asked to vote on which they prefer. Undoubtedly. these will prove exceptionally popular both for Magnepan newcomers and those upgrading from the always-impressive MMG. Just be prepared to drop disproportionately more coin on the amplifier that drives them.

    However, it later transpired that Magnepan had deployed a hidden centre-channel during their 0.7 demos and omitted to tell (most) attendees about its existence. It can’t just be me that thinks that in doing so Magnepan have besmirched their otherwise stellar reputation with a party trick that’s a long way removed from keeping it honest.

    Further information: KEF America | Anthony Gallo | Benchmark Media | Peachtree Audio | Channel Islands Audio | Fritz Loudspeakers | Wyred4Sound | Magnepan Inc.

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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