Looking back in the rear view at my time spent covering T.H.E. Show in Newport Beach this year, I can’t help but echo some of my initial impressions in my show opener; that the experience was going to be more about the people involved with hi-fi than the gear itself.
In the end it turned out to be almost equal parts.
Some of the most memorable moments involved the most memorable people, albeit memorable people who have incredible taste in music and the ability to build incredibly holistic and synergistic sound systems that just sing.
A couple of examples include Danny Kaey of Sonic Flare, who basically brought his living room to share with listeners at the Show. The combination of Wilson Audio speakers, Einstein amps and preamps, Brinkmann turntable and Transfiguration cartridge was close to unbeatable for its sound. But it was Kaey himself, his casual demeanor, his easy smile and quick laugh that made you feel welcome immediately, and his experience at presenting music in an effortless and completely natural-sounding system was apparent to anyone who heard his kit.
Likewise for David Cope and Warren Jarrett of SM Audio in the Audio Note UK room. These two gentlemen went out of their way to make their space not only sound incredible (without acoustic treatments or excuses for it being a hotel room), but stripped away any and all pretension that some may associate with hi fi and high-end audio in particular with their good-natured joking and incredible selection of vinyl.
Jon Derda from Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs and his hospitality will not soon be forgotten, and chilling out with him and John Darko while we sipped 12-year-old Taketsuru single-malt whiskey from Japan, distilled the essence of what got me into hi-fi to begin with: sharing time and music with others. It started with my father, and continues now with my children, and listening to Koetsu cartridges and Avid turntables with Derda and Darko, while we all smirked at the beauty of our situation, carries on that tradition of sharing.
Other Show standouts for me were Covenant Audio‘s rooms, particularly the Technical Brain and Silverline room featuring a modified Stellavox 5i-KC tape deck. Richard Brown of Open Reel Hardware & Software and Kenny Gunlock of Covenant audio made me absolutely squirm I was so uncomfortable with their setup; because I knew was completely screwed as soon as I heard the Stellavox and would now need to buy one (one thing at a time, turntable upgrade first Rafe).
The sound of great tape was the single-biggest impact for me out of Newport, so I’m giving Covenant the nod for Best Sound I heard at T.H.E. Show.
Listening to the Stellavox silently spin the hotel room back into time as an Impulse session from 1963 of Count Basie and the Kansas City 7 played was other worldly – spooky – and then hearing a 1/4″ tape from what I believe Brown said was a dupe of a remaster of The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” flicked a switch deep inside my mind and soul. Those sounds changed me, a subtle change no doubt, but not one that can be unchanged.
High Water Sound‘s room featuring the Miyajima Labs cartridges was another revelatory moment for me. The power of a true mono cartridge is something that must be experienced firsthand to truly understand and comprehend the amazing insight one can provide into mono recordings – particularly early jazz mono recordings – and I can’t recommend tracking down a Miyajima mono cart strongly enough if early jazz is your jam.
Other standouts for me included Tom Vu’s incredible, cathedral-like, altar-to-vinyl Triangle Art Ultimate LE turntable room, featuring the awe-inspiring NAT Magnetic Status pre-amp and mono blocks with the thermos-sized M100 tubes lighting up the entire room, and the incredibly tactile-sounding and musical Audio Federation room with its Audio Note UK digital front end and Acapella Atlas speakers.
Anton and Mike in the NFS (Not For Sale) room were another perfect example of how great people make audio. These gentlemen didn’t have a interconnect cable between the two of them to flog, but they did have one of the most inviting, friendly and groovy rooms at Newport Beach where the tired masses in the know (wink, wink), would come to wash away the day’s audio grit with cold beers, rum and Coke and delicious vinyl spinning on a retro system that sounded like Anton and Mike: non-fatiguing, unforced and coherent.
A look back has to include my partner in audio-writing crime – Malachi Kenney – a man whose ears are so finely tuned that he can literally hear VTA issues on a cart in five seconds. I learned a tremendous amount from Mal on the trip, and the bond we forged over cigarettes, beer and the relentless drumbeat of hitting room after room will always be a fond memory for me and one I hope to repeat with him again soon.
A shout out to Colleen Cardas for her friendship and grace and of course her soul mate and Vinyl Anachronist Marc Phillips, two highly recommended people to spend time with if you see them at the next big trade show.
And I can’t emphasize enough the sheer size of a show like Newport. There is so much to see and do, the main floor salons at the Irvine Hotel could take up two days alone if you were hunting for rare vinyl, wanted to listen to some of Bob Sattin’s step-up transformers, or take in the car audio demonstrations, and don’t even get me started on the headphone area, which swallowed Malachi whole for almost an entire day.
So, now that I’m back on the road, I’ve got my eyes once again firmly planted on the horizon, and I’m looking forward to my next chance to write from the show floor, and to all the turnoffs I can pull into for a spell, to sit down and hear what’s spinning on the turntable next. That’s where the memories happen. Until then ….