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T.H.E. Show at Newport Beach 2013: Lucky 13

TAD

Floor 10 is the Penthouse Level, and you'll generally find the statement systems here. Pioneer brought two with them. TAD's resident genius Andrew Jones fronted the show in the big room. There wasn't much new this year, and a recent shoulder injury kept Jones from being too willing to move speakers around. Given that constraint, he simply went for the best from the start. TAD's $80k Reference One speakers were the stars, of course, fronted by a full line of TAD Reference electronics. The sound on Friday morning was stunningly cold and mechanical. The sound on Sunday afternoon, on the other hand, was simply stunning. It made for a fine reference point, but it was hardly the star of the Pioneer exhibit.

Pioneer

In a smaller room next door, playing the same tracks on tap in the big TAD room, was the little Pioneer room. How little?

The artistically named SP-BS22-LR speakers ($159 per pair) were fronted by the fifty-watt Pioneer Elite A-20 integrated amplifier (about $300). The most expensive in-use component in the room was Pioneer’s $700 Elite N-50 network streamer.

Given the vagaries of mass-market pricing and holiday sales, this is about a kilobuck of gear — or less than many systems at the show spent on *one interconnect*. This system made music, it was completely tolerable, and it was completely hi-fi.

No, it wasn’t as good as the TAD room. In fact, most rooms that cost more overshadowed it. The speakers evinced some boxiness, a bit of chestiness, and a loss of composure when pushed past their limits. The electronics certainly didn’t offer the last degree of detail or subtlety. Magico is probably not trembling in fear, Audio Research is probably safe for a while, and Rega doesn’t have to worry that people will stop buying turntables in droves. Again, I mean.

But here’s the thing: there’s a $300 amp option — with a phono preamp! — on the new market. This could put a real dent in a newbie’s enthusiasm for hunting down a mint NAD 3020. As for the speakers… My God! I would have given my eyeteeth to have these when I was a college student. I would have given a pair of molars to have them when I moved into my first apartment. Given an iPhone, a y-cable, and four hundred bucks, you can have a system that sounds like real music. I spent more in non-adjusted dollars on a minisystem back in the 90’s. If newspapers weren’t deader than disco, this system would literally cost paper route money. I’m so excited about this system that I want to make up new words to describe it. Over the course of the weekend, I mostly just flapped my arms and made happy noises when I sent people to this room. This is *killer*.

My advice? Before you go off and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a new interconnect, go buy a pair of these speakers, one of these amps, and put music in another room in your house. You’ll be surprised how much fun you can have.

Audio Summa

“You were listening to ‘System Number One,'” said the gentleman from Audio Summa who handed me the tear sheet.

Well I sure HOPE I was! I’d hate to see the new Kuzma Stabi M ($18,500) and 4-Point tonearm ($6500) exiled to the second system. Can you even imagine the kind of person who’d do that? He’d be criminally insane. This is a magnificent beast with the kind of rhythmic stability and penetrating detail that clearly separates it from Kuzma’s more accessibly-priced decks. The fact that it’s a hulking piece of industrial impracticality just makes it more attractive.

Speakers here were the excellent Silverline Sonatina MkIV ($6000) and amplification was all Conrad-Johnson for a dose of richness that started Friday morning off on a very high note.

Optimal Enchantment

Otherwise known as “The Big Vandersteen Room,” a full line of Audio Research Reference gear and a Basis Work of Art turntable demonstrated that Vandersteen’s Model 7 speakers have no shortage of dynamics. The entire system price was well north of $400k, and, for those who have that kind of cash on hand, the performance was unassailable.

The Other Optimal Enchantment

Otherwise known as the “Did you hear that Dragonfly DAC? Holy Crap!” room. Vandersteen Quatro Carbon speakers ($12,000) and an Audio Research VSi75 integrated amp ($7500) made up a startlingly good $20k system. The source was Audioquest’s $250 Dragonlfy DAC — and it was superb. AC/DC was playing at real rock levels when I showed up, and the nothing in the system sounded uncomfortable.

That $250 DAC sounded just fine in this system. A little edgy, sure, but surprisingly easy to listen to. It wasn’t at all out of its league here — especially not for rocking out. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would sound like plugged into that cheap Pioneer system.

bsg Technologies

Larry Kay was demonstrating his $4000 qøl “Signal Completion Stage” in this room. I think it’s fair to describe this as an effects processor. The all analog box provided a noticeable increase in soundstage realism when switched in, and a surprising increase in tonal realism. The effect, as such, was similar to what you get by adding a supertweeter to a system, but with a layered density that seemed somewhat shocking. In short: it’s a good effects box, and it has zero learning curve.

This clearly isn’t a product for everyone, but I’m expecting interesting things to come from bsg.

Totem

Totem‘s $6000 Forest Signatures speakers were being hustled along by a full chain of Boulder components. The sound of the iron-fisted 2060 stereo amp ($46k), 1010 preamplifier ($14k) and 1021 disc spinner ($24k) came through clearly enough to make this room a stunningly good showing for Boulder.

Silent on my visits were the Acoustic Element Metal speakers ($12k) fronted by a full rack of MBL’s Corona line of electronics. MBL displayed with these same pieces a few floors down.

Totem Tribe

Totem played Toto to demonstrate the prodigious bass their Tribe series of home theater speakers can develop.

Toto, people. Friggin’ Toto! I don’t ask for much, but I do have my limits. I will, on general principles, only cover this room in so much as I will say that Toto sounded like Toto. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not a good thing.

Channel D

Channel D demonstrated the capabilities of their (Not Quite $7000) Seta L Plus Preamp in a convincing demo. Channel D offers a menu of preamps that will fit almost any individual need, and this one seemed kitted out well enough to let you skip the menu entirely.

Digital phono correction offers an absence of smearing that is very enticing. Ticks and pops are handled in a way that minimizes their impact compared to any other system I’ve heard. This very interesting technology, and it’s always a fine demo.

As for the digititis problems… let me be honest: the sound of the Zu-bodied Denon was more in evidence than any digital nasties.

VonSchweikert

VonSchweikert’s UniField Two monitors ($8000 per pair) were the stars of this show, strutting their coaxial soundstaging and prodigious bass capability here, as well as offering a generous helping of that VonSchweikert warmth.

Following the trend of pairing super amplification with more reasonably priced speakers, we saw Constellation in use here, with their $29k Virgo preamp and $27k Centaur amplifier sounding as clean and grain-free as always. Digital sounds were sourced from a Your Final System music server and an EMM DAC2x.

Kubala-Sosna / YG / Tenor

The bad rap on YG is that they always sound metallic, shrieking and booming at unsuspecting listeners. People who’ve only heard bad rooms at shows can’t quite grasp what anyone would see in what honestly seem to be aluminum torture devices. There was nothing on display in this room to support that view.

The $73k Sonja 1.2 speakers (YG makes bigger) provided ample bass slam and texture for a hotel. Sitting halfway back in the audience still allowed you to hear a soundstage that projected beyond the rear wall of the room, and the detail presented was pleasantly incisive, preserving with surprising clarity — and placing with unnerving specificity — even the band’s mutterings on a Basie track.

Much of the credit for this would have to go to the remarkable signal chain. Starting with Luxman’s overachieving DA-06 DAC ($6000), which tends to err on the non-aggressive side, the sound was carried through a full chain of Tenor amplification. The two-box Line 1/Power 1 preamplifier ($75k) and the 1755 Stereo Amplifier ($55k) offered signal handling that could only be described as deft while being more than easy on the eyes.

Kubala-Sosna cabling and power products were, unsurprisingly, used throughout this Kubala-Sosna room. It would be very difficult to argue with the results.

Given a total price that could only be considered “down to earth” if that particular earth were made of solid gold and covered with winning lotto tickets, this is the kind of system that should be expected to achieve great things. I think it’s fair to say that the system more than met expectations.

Mal Kenney

6 Comments on T.H.E. Show at Newport Beach 2013: Lucky 13

  1. OK, We can drink to that! LoL

  2. I think you misunderstand me Malachi.

    I KNOW the QOL has an effect as enough trusted pals have told me so. I also have no problems with it being covered. I dont even have too much probs with the price. I was really asking for an opinion on whether aligning phase would be waaay more cost efficient and effective solution.

    In an ideal world, the more complementary tweaks the better, but where finances are constrained, what in your opinion is the better approach (theoretically)?

    • Norman: Cool. I was worried that you were angry about the coverage. I’m with you on the importance of phase. My wife can tell you about the afternoon I spent with a voltmeter tracking down the one power cord that turned out to be wired stupidly.

      Frankly, though, I’m not sure what the best approach is in a general sense. I suspect that there really isn’t one. The qøl may really be the best thing for some tastes and some systems. I really don’t have a strong enough grasp of its effect or of its internals to make that assessment. Even when it comes to power treatment, there’s a ton of variety on tap. I’ve seen too much of it that works well in one system turn another system into a dog’s breakfast. That said, the approaches and effect of each are very different. Aligning phase for a full system is wise, but aligning phase within every recording is an unattainable goal — you know what a mess some albums are. I’d guess that the qøl is almost certainly more effective within its limited scope.

      If the effect of the qøl is what appeals, you’re simply not going to get that from the Fikus box you pointed out. You *may* get something like it with a different stereo field processor, so the real competition becomes studio gear, home-brewed digital filters, or another audiophile box from FM Acoustics. It’s a completely different animal. The guy who wants one is not likely to want the other.

      I’d insist on hearing the qøl — and any gear that promised to change the sound in mysterious ways — in my own system before putting down any money. Short of that, I’d advise that the best approach is to keep drinking beer until everything sounds good. I’m a big fan of beer.

  3. Norman: I’d like to correct you. This didn’t dribble out of PTA’s keyboard; I’m the person responsible for any problems with this post.

    Since you seem to be talking about bsg’s “qøl,” let me say that I spent a few minutes in the room and it does have an effect. I’ll neither endorse nor condemn a product based on those few minutes, but I can say that that it does seem to do something. Whether that something is worth four grand or whether that something is even desirable aren’t questions that I’m willing to address based on my limited exposure.

    That said, stereo field processing is nothing new. While I may have no idea what the particular secret sauce inside the bsg box is, it does seem to share certain traits with some fairly common studio gear. What it doesn’t seem to share is the usual surfeit of knobs.

    I would suggest that mains filtering seeks to address a different problem set than bsg’s product — or any effects processor, frankly. Where a particular audiophile — and we’re all quite particular! — wants to concentrate his or her efforts is not something on which a quick blurb in a show report is likely to have much effect.

    At the simplest level, though, Larry Kay rented a room, played decent tunes, and was a charming host. It would be churlish to deny him the same (flawed) coverage that everyone else got just because he was selling an unorthodox product.

  4. PTA, dont you think that instead of $4K on a sound effect tweak, your money would be better spent getting something like a Lampizator Silk (phase Flipper version) that can power up to 4 componenets and allow you to perfectly match the phase in the entire chain. i have not heard it yet, but a good buddy in the UK confirms that its a MAGIC function.

    Now, I know its possible to do this manually with an auto-sensing volt meter, HOWEVER, it’s a PITA, as the manufacturer may have reversed power wiring on any given component and the different electrical plugs may also have reverse wiring. unless you use cheater plugs on 3 plug power connectors, you would have to open component cases and reverse wiring, efffectively voiding warranteis, etc. Much simpler to flip switches which can be easily reversed and you can be sure no wiring would be harmed in the search for Audio Nirvana.

    Here is what a pal said:
    Google “The Wood Effect” by Clark Johnsen. Clark has been talking about the importance of correct polarity between components for years. If you have an ohm meter and power cords that can be reversed (or Cheater plugs), the process is easy. Clark must be drooling over SILK because it works with any power cord and it allows experimentation without a lot of hassle.

    MORE;

    http://lampizator.eu/NEWDAC/Lampizator/NEW%21_SILK_AC_filter.html

    The PHASE FLIPPING VARIANT

    For those who want to squeeze maximum quality out of their system, (for which they already paid a lot) this phase switching is a must. Of course the phase alignment of all rack components can be done by the cables but our way is safer, faster and more precise.

    It is an unexplained phenomenon but two components of the stereo system (cd player, amplifier) do sound differently when one component is working from AC outlet with a given phase and the other with an opposite phase. As we know – in AC outlet one wire is called hot and the other is cold. For two components we have 4 possible combinations:

    HH, HC, CH and CC.

    If we have transport, DAC and amp – there is 8 combinations:

    HHH, HHC, HCH, HCC, CHH, CHC, CCH, CCC

    and for 4 components – we have 16 combinations.

    Only one of the given set of phase alignments produces the best sound. Namely, the characteristics becomes:

    more focused

    1.
    -more tight

    2.
    -center image is more central and better defined

    3.
    -stereo “wings” of the image become more naturally spread

    4.
    -voices sound more natural and more “right there”

    5.
    -everything sounds “more right”

    6.
    -bass is deeper, stronger and more pulsating.
    The extra price for four-way phase switching filter is 100 Euro.
    In the middle position the switch disconnects the outlet independently of the other three. It is usually better and easier than reaching to the back of the amplifier to switch it off.

  5. Thank you, great coverage, I really enjoyed readin all of it! And this has to be my favorite line: “Given a total price that could only be considered “down to earth” if that particular earth were made of solid gold and covered with winning lotto tickets, this is the kind of system that should be expected to achieve great things.” LOL!

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