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