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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.

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

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

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. Open layout seems much better IMHO! The rooms sound terrible anyway… It should be more about engaging the customer than doing the dog-and-pony-show. Me likes this rumor. 😉

      • I don’t think the rooms themselves sound terrible if, as we see here, exhibitors come with appropriate kit. But yes, demo quality is pivotal to listener engagement.

    2. Nice coverage John. You touch on an interesting point. The dilemma of what the hell to play. I’ve worked rooms where the organizer had a bevy of high rez recordings which were really the only offerings on hand. Yes even some Becky Pidgeon, (I wish she had stuck to The Winslow Boy) and she does break one of two old neighborhood rules-‘don’t do ‘Retha and stay the hell away from Stevie’. I have had rooms of my own run by people I knew to have vastly different taste than myself, as I was in an adjacent room spinning my versions of music. I think the most popular rooms have been those where reservations are taken and there is a set ‘show’ of about 20-30 minutes addressing several tastes. People like the uniformity of a show, and it’s harder to walk out on a set presentation. Last year at Newport, Maggie did that and it worked for them. MBL too, has adhered to something like that at several shows to great success.

      Still, I don’t know if it’s my cupper.
      What I’ve come up with is this…you have to spend more time establishing a real play list, than on choosing equipment to show. In general, I think there is often much less attention put on getting great recordings that aren’t off of the shelf easies. By the time many of the smaller purveyors, (like myself) get done trucking a load of equipment settling helpers, plugging in gear, and trying to get some semblance of burn-in, so that you can sound good by Sunday, you’re toast. I think having the public playing their own sides is great too, but it rarely works for most people in the room.

      I’d be interested on your thoughts about what ‘makes’ a presentation sing, when so many tastes are present. I think you’re in a great position, because you clock some serious show hours!! When we’re working them, we may or may not see that much.

      many thanks,


      • A ‘singing’ presentation is one that shows thought and, perhaps, candour. Also passion. Essentially, it’s the opposite of just setting up and then throwing on the usual stuff. Playlists can be curated and honed over time and long before any show setup begins. Finding music that’s unfamiliar but palatable is often the key. Over at KEF, Johan Coorg’s presentations have a preacher man air to them…but that’s not a one size fits all alternative to Hotel California ad nauseum.

        Set demos can work well. Introducing every (Nth) song if FAR preferable to letting each one flow into the next in an 8 hour playlist. With planned demos on the hour, the music can still vary wildly each time. It’s like being The Cure on tour – having such an enormous catalogue from which to draw means things don’t need to get dull, repetitive.

    3. Dear John,

      I really appreciate your work and find your reviews and articles to be very valuable. Really enjoyed this piece too, especially Magnepan’s introduction of their new “point seven.”


      Jeff Curry
      Gig Harbor, WA

    4. KEF doing Trentemoller?!!?!?!?
      I guess there’s hope for he industry yet. Maybe next year they’ll invite Ricardo Villalobos or Craig Richards to do some live sets. Hah!!

      Actually, that just might be the answer. Find a strip of nightclubs and have em rent out the spaces. Or maybe they could do the festival thing – find an open field in summer or fall and set up those air-conditioned igloo-tent things we see a lot at dance music festivals. I bet overall cost would be very competitive with what most hotels charge anyway. Not sure how well the acoustics would compare to a regular conference room, but I’m sure they could make it work.

    5. What gets played in the rooms is important, but so is the overall ambiance. I actually think Zu Audio does a good job with both, and their down-to-earth approach is both welcoming and memorable. It led me to buy a pair of Soul Superflys on the spot a couple of years back. Sean has no problem playing whatever you want to bring either. Hi-Fi is a hard sell, but somehow Zu is still able to make things happen for them here in OC, and that’s not something to scoff at.

      What I think is key, is to understand the visitors better. In South Orange County, Jazz and Classic Rock will only go so far. I didn’t hear much else, but I did hear just about everyone complaining about it, including the exhibitors themselves. Yes, for the older white males who make up the vast majority of the attendees this may be OK, but this is a shrinking group. This is too bad, really, because young professionals in OC have the interest, resources, and knowledge to buy Hi-Fi, but are turned off by the stereotypical approach of the vendors, which includes the music played as well as the whole ambiance in the room.

      • That’s right. The attitude is as important as the music. Often the two are intertwined. Sean Casey’s playwhatyouwant attitude to demo music is a million miles from the snobbery that sadly still pervades many people handling show demos. I agree – I heard far more attendees complain about the music at Newport Beach in 2014 than in previous years.

        I think exhibitors know in their hearts that things need to change but they don’t have the courage or wherewithal to make it happen. It’s like a endless game of chicken: no-one wants to be the first to move for fearing of driving people alienating listeners. So they end up playing music that offends no-one and pleases no-one. Not so in the Zu room. And KEF America are coming up a close second with Johan Coorg’s evangelism for more real-world music selections.

        Music snobbery is also still a significant problem. In misconstruing something I’d written about hifi not being ALL about the music (partially down to some poor subbing on my part, now corrected), a US-based loudspeaker rep took me to task on his own Facebook page. “Then again, he has also written a column on Ten Pieces of Electronica for the Audiophile which, for me, read like the ingredients list on some mega-processed, infinite shelf life, food-wanna-be substance, so perhaps he did mean it.” I can only conclude that *this* is indicative of why we must continue to endure Jazz and Classic Rock and – as you say – why wealthier many younger people give audio shows a wide berth.

        If it weren’t for the likes of KEF and Zu (and a few others), audio shows music would be completely disconnected from listeners like me (and probably you) who gorge themselves on artists covered on P4K, RA and Drowned In Sound. For my part, I’m trying to connect Beatles and Stones obsessives, people who dig Sun Ra and Can, Kraftwerk geeks, indie kids, techno heads and new wave nerds with a better listening experience.

    KIH #11 – Purity or posturing?

    Long may you run with Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Picollo