I love California. I do! And that love really does reduce down to three fundamentals: 1) the weather; 2) the weather, and 3) the weather. Simple, really. I mean, after this last winter, what with all the White Walkers storming down from Beyond The Wall, I am kinda over the cold. In fact, I’m kinda over seasons. Yes, Southern California in late Spring is just alrighty with me. So, when Memorial Day rolls around, I’m pretty much packed up and ready to get on out to Newport Beach for T.H.E. Show.
I only wish United Airlines had been even remotely as ready as I had been. Egads.
I didn’t wreck my new car on the way down to T.H.E. Show (glad you’re okay, Kevin!), so yes, technically the trip could have been worse. I recall a trip out to RMAF that was particularly nightmarish, and by comparison to that one, this trip felt more bumbling than outright malicious. Still, not a lot of fun.
In short, I violated my own rules of travel: always fly direct and never fly day-of. Rules being made to be broken, I figured that if I caught the 6 am flight, I’d be in CA before ribbon cutting time. No one flies that early, right? (Ha. Wrong). I caught 3 hours of sleep, drove blearily out to BWI at 4 am, slogged through security and arrived at the gate with 15 minutes to spare. Sitting in my economy seat with my knees carefully folded across my throat, we were eventually told by an altogether too cheerful pilot that the computer needed to be swapped out. My plane needed … new parts? Yeah. I do wonder if this was this one of those instances where I would really have been harmed to not know this. Anyway, that 15 minute delay took over 90, and I missed an already tight connection. My options were to wait for the next direct flight to John Wayne Airport, which would be leaving in just over 12 hours and would have me there at midnight on Friday (instead of 10 am), or re-book on another two-legged flight and arrive only 5 hours late, and not 18.
At O’Hare, I had about 30 minutes to hoof completely across the airport to catch the new connection, this time to SFO. But SFO being SFO, they put a hold on incoming flights. Something about — and I’m totally not making this up — them “fixing some of their runways”. Palm, meet face. Repeat as necessary, until the world snaps out of it. Anyway, that delay was only an hour. Once in SF, I only had 20 minutes to catch the plane to SNA, but I walked up just as my boarding group was finishing up, so I strolled right onto the plane, sat down, and they buttoned us on up and Bob was my uncle. Or something. Bonus: my bag had managed to keep up with me, so after picking it up from the whirligig, I was out of SNA and boldly striding directly into traffic. One stumble later and I was done. I had made it to Newport. Alleluia.
First stop, food.
As I’m walking past the Atrium hotel at 3pm, on my way to the Hilton, something hit me. Something … delicious. And here begins my fawning adoration of show organizer Richard Beers. I love Richard Beers. Richard Beers is my hero. After that miserable experience of caffeine, sleep and food deprivation that was my go-stop-go-stop-go trip, finding fantastic food at an audio show was not only an act of divine grace, it was something of a miracle. Seriously. This is a lesson every other show really ought to take from the Newport experience — please? Please. Please don’t punish us with hotel food anymore. Please. I beg of you.
If you’ve missed the whole nonstaurant movement, that’s a pity for you. Being a savvy sort, you’re probably not surprised that overhead is the bane of most startups. In the food industry specifically, the vast hulking bulk of that burden is the lease, and meeting the demands of the lease is what causes most restaurants (nine of ten) to fail in their first year (as opposed to startups generally, where the failure rate is something like 90% in the first three). With a nonstaurant, like the food trucks squatting like gloriously perfumed peacocks strutting between the Atrium and Hilton hotels here in Newport, that overhead is dramatically reduced — but the quality of the food is every bit as awesome as you’d find in a traditional sit down. Maybe better. More profit means better ingredients, and that means happy-happy joy-joy. Shame that this probably won’t translate to Chicago in March, but it’d be awesome if it could — or would at any of the other shows.
Anyway, I rounded that corner and my stomach was growling like a baited bear, clearly audible at 100 yards. Okay, maybe that wasn’t my stomach, but hey, I was tired and hungry and so what if I started weeping and screeching like a preteen at a Beatles concert? Hello, sushi truck! And yes, it was fantastic. I went back for lunch every day and was absolutely thrilled each time. Richard, you are a genius.
T.H.E Show at Newport is spread between two adjacent hotels, the Atrium and the Hilton, and as such, it’s a bit of a problem to scramble across. A little bird told me that there might be some fundamental changes next year, but this year found even more rooms and more nooks and crannies to explore.
There was a small flotilla of awesome autos on display, and while these were largely neglected by the show-goers, I did manage to touch one before being run off by a large dude with a stick. I’m kidding. It was just Jon Derda swinging his golf club, but I ran just the same. Seemed wise.
I took full advantage of the fine wine and cigars on sale at the Hilton, spent far too many late night hours lounging in the cabanas pool-side at the Atrium, drank not nearly enough water, and generally soaked it all in. It was great to get “into it” and lift a pint or three with John Darko from Digital Audio Review. And chill out with Steven Rochlin of Enjoy the Music and his extraordinarily charming (and incredibly patient) wife Heather. And wander the grounds with rogue videographer and pro-photographer turned personal audio specialist Brian Hunter of Audio-Head, whom we’re also lucky to have here as a contributor at PTA. And bust a gut with Peachtree Audio’s Jon Derda. And get an impromptu maser class from Zu Audio’s Sean Casey. And hang with the whole Audio360 crew, including Mike Mercer, Warren Chi, Kevin Venable, Frank Iacone, Michael Liang and Ethan Wolf. It was an absolute pleasure to meet and chat with InnerFidelity‘s Tyll Hertsens. If you didn’t know, that man has moves. And it is always a pleasure to catch up with Uncle Bill Leebens and Nina and Alex Sventitsky. Good times, and far too long between visits, on all counts. For me, this is what the heart of high-end audio is about and why these shows are so fantastically awesome — it’s the community and it’s all about friends.
As T.H.E. Show opened, coverage from High End 2014 was wrapping up on Part-Time Audiophile. Inserting coverage for another show seemed superfluous and absurd, at least until that one spun out, so in case you were wondering at the delay, there we are. And now, we’re all ready to move forward.
As is becoming their wont and happily their habit, Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney and her partner-in-crime Mal will be joining me to dig into Newport. That coverage will probably last between six to six hundred and forty-three weeks. It’ll be awesome.
Before I move on, I just wanted to offer some observations.
First, I saw young people. It’s true! Not a horde or anything, but some. One of the most notable was Mr Wolf from Audio360, who at 15 is probably the youngest audio writer on the scene today. But aside from his good spirits, there were a notable number of folks in the sub-40 crowd. Good news, says I.
Second, the economy still sucks. There are a lot of high-end manufacturers still struggling with the effects of the recession, that’s pretty obvious. But with that said, it seems pretty clear that we’ve come a long way in the last 5 years, and that’s a good thing. My personal hope is that manufacturers will finally realize that Ultra-Fi prices are not only absurd but a complete waste of time and effort, and finally begin to focus their energies and not-inconsiderable skills to actually learn how to do business, and stop using past errors and failures of judgment to continue the mass screwing of their current and would-be customers. I’m going to have to unpack this at some point, but do check out Art Dudley’s latest column in Stereophile (June Issue) for sneak peek.
Third, the three-pronged hi-fi trend is accelerating along all three fronts of vinyl, hi-res, and headphones. On the trip home, I read that Stereophile has recently given AudioStream‘s Mike Lavorgna a monthly column in “The Book”. Great news, but still something of a face palm — what took them so long? They’ve had Mike Fremer doing a column on analog for decades … Anyway, it was a crucial gap to fill, and still rather timely, but … it also brings up the question of where the “headphone column” is, a question I gleefully put to Tyll several times this weekend. I also suggested that waiting for another 5 years (about how long “computer-based audio” has been a “big thing”) was probably not the best idea. Hey, I’m just trying to help out and I am always happy to volunteer others for more work, because that’s how I roll. Anyway, the larger point is that these are the three “topics” any serious hi-fi publication must systematically address in order to stay relevant; it has become crystal clear that haphazard coverage of them is a characteristic only a part-time gig ought to be showing.
Four, technology continues apace. I’ll put a line in the sand and say that, all in all, sound at an audio show has gotten consistently better in the last 5 years (since I’ve been covering audio shows). I’m not sure why, but I’m happy to hear it. The old adage “show sound sucks” is a canard, and one we should probably put a fork in and move on. By and large, the sound at Newport was very good — which makes the competition something interesting to track, even as it plays hell on the whole “Best in Show” thing.
So, with all that said, here’s some stuff that really stood out for me.
- Digital room correction. I really don’t want to like this. It’s like a shellfish allergy that I’m totally convinced that I really do have … but don’t. I’m a DSP hypochondriac. Anyway, I heard a demo of a DSpeaker solution in the smaller Emerald Physics display and I was shocked. I’m still not sure I want one for my “big rig”, but the impact of this demo was like an intervention. I was wrong. This is great stuff and the improvements were worthy of some truly cringe-worthy hyperbole. Then, in Darin Fong’s Out Of Your Head demo, I had the point ground into my psyche. It seems to be a software-based version of the wonderful Smyth Realizer product, and I heard some profound improvements. It’s not all roses, unfortunately, but the point is that this is all for-real tech, and it’s here today. And it’s cool. Room correction, in some shape or form, is not optional. Get over it and move on.
- Old school still rules. At least, it does for me. Over the last decade or so, I have become convinced that the best way to describe audio preferences is in terms of different audio tribes. The tribe I seem to be gravitating toward? Tubes and horns. What the hell. But I just love it. I do. So there.
- My patience for overpriced gear is pretty much exhausted. I’m feeling the need to bring back the Julia Rule and start swinging it like Jon Derda’s golf club.
- There are too many audiophiles that are wound too tight. Yeah. I said it. Ya’ll need to lighten up. This is supposed to be fun, remember?
- I don’t really understand the reaction that some audiophiles have when they see a woman at a show. Seriously, your mother raised you better than this. Here’s the short form: You do not get to behave poorly to a model. Ever. And yes, I’m serious. No snark. No smirk. No leer. They’re people, just like you, and unlike you, they’re probably working at the moment you chose to get superior. The fact that they’re pretty and you’re old doesn’t mean you get to play mean-girl. How about you just say “hi” and “thanks”? I mean, that is what polite folks do, no? If they’re not already fans of high-end audio, do you think being rude is somehow likely to win them over to the cause? Sure, you can flirt. Hell, that’s almost required. But grow up. You really should know better. You should know, for example, that if you do happen to find a woman at an audio show, it may be because she actually likes “this stuff”. It does happen. She may be an even bigger nerd than you, or as avid a collector or listener. She could be a DIY enthusiast, a professional designer, or even corporate spy. There’s no way you can possibly know at a glance, so that knee-jerk sneer is not only unwarranted, it’s stupid and arrogant. Yes, she may be a walking billboard whose sole job is to shock you out of your stupor. But she may also be the owner of that company whose literature you’re desperately fondling. Respect. It’s what’s for dinner. Your mama would slap you silly if she saw what I saw at this show.
With that said, let me offer a grateful word of thanks to Kendra Khesin of Polymer Audio Research and film producer Andrea Harrison who offered to help me show off my sweet new T-shirt design. You two didn’t have to do that, but I was just thrilled you did. And a very special thanks to the absolutely wonderful Angelie Wilson of Gradient Shift, Snake River Audio and Sonist Audio for actually designing and making those shirts for me. And thanks to Certified Sommelier and Secretary General of the North American Sommelier Association, (and marketing director for WyWires) Nina Sventitsky for actually wearing one in public! Much obliged to all of you.
All in all, it was a fine show. And over the next little while, I’d like to share that with you. Thanks for tuning in.