T.H.E. Show Newport — Fun in the Sun

The biggest system being demo’d by The Source AV included two Focal Grande Utopia speakers powered by Boulder 2150 monoblock amps, each delivering 1000W into 8 ohms. The preamp was a Boulder 2110 being fed by an outboard NAS hard disk playing 24/96 audio through a Boulder 1021 CD player/streamer/DAC. Total system cost was just under $400,000—and they sold two complete systems during the show!

Last Saturday, I undertook the long and arduous journey to Newport Beach—53 miles from my house through some nasty L.A. traffic—for The Home Entertainment (T.H.E.) Show at the Hilton and Atrium hotels across the street from the John Wayne/Orange County Airport. While the name of the show implies a wide range of electronic entertainment, the vast majority of exhibitors that filled the two hotels fell squarely in the 2-channel audiophile camp, including lots of headphones in two dedicated areas collectively dubbed The Headphonium.

I spent a few hours in the Hilton seeing—and, more importantly, listening to—as many demos as I could, which was only a small fraction of what was there. Here are my impressions…

I started on the lobby level, where several ballrooms housed the largest systems. The first room I wandered into had several systems assembled by The Source AV Design Group, which sells and installs a variety of high-end brands. I started with the system based on Boulder electronics and two Focal Grande Utopia speakers, which sounded fantastic. The track I happened to walk in on was from Nickelback—very loud, but super clean. I also heard a Count Basie big-band track, which was much more my style. Each instrument was cleanly delineated; I especially liked the sound of the trombone section, a sound I know intimately since I’ve played in many such sections in my life.

 

 

Also in The Source room—actually, a different part of a ballroom separated by a movable wall—was a system based on Dan D’Agostino electronics with Focal Stella speakers. When I heard it, that system was playing some orchestral music with exceptional delicacy and finesse.

In this system from The Source AV, two D’Agostino Momentum monoblock power amps (300W each) were driving Focal Stella Utopia EM speakers. A Sony HAP-Z1ES audio server played 24/96 WAV files converted to DSD and sent to a Momentum preamp. Total system cost was about $186,000.

Across the hall, The Source AV had also set up two MBL systems in sliding-wall partitioned sections of another big ballroom. One was a 2-channel rig based on the company’s flagship 101 X-treme speaker system, marking the first time west-coast consumers had an opportunity to hear it. The 101 X-treme is based on MBL’s Radialstrahler omni-directional design with separate subwoofer towers. The source device was a custom-built Tascam reel-to-reel tape deck playing Michael Jackson’s Thriller at 15 ips, and it sounded super clean with exceptional delineation between elements in the mix, though it also sounded a bit mellow without a lot of high-frequency sparkle and air, which I imagine was due to the source rather than the amps and speakers. I wish I had heard some true high-res audio on that system!

The MBL 2-channel system included the 101 X-treme speaker system, 9011 monoblock power amps, 6040 preamp, 1621 processor, and 1621 CD player along with a custom-built Tascam reel-to-reel tape deck. Total system cost was nearly $600,000.

Next door was a full 7.1-channel surround system with a Sony VPL-VW1100ES 4K projector, Kaleidescape movie server, and Datasat RS20i pre/pro. They played a bunch of clips, mostly from music videos (Roy Orbison, Sting, Verdi opera, Queen, George Michael) and only two movies (Chicago, The Incredibles). The sound was excellent, though I certainly wanted to hear more movie soundtracks—the surround sound on The Incredibles was wonderful.

The MBL surround system included two 111Fs for the front left and right, a 120 center-channel, and four 116Fs for the side and rear surrounds, all powered by Corona C15 monoblock amps, along with two JL Audio Gotham subwoofers. ASony VPL-VW1100ES 4K projector fired onto a 14-foot-wide Stewart screen (the rep didn’t know what the material was), and a Datasat RS20i did the pre/pro duties. Total system cost was around $280,000.

Before I left the lobby floor, I visited the AIX Records table, where founder Mark Waldrep was selling his 24/96 recordings on Blu-ray. He was also extolling the virtues of the new HTC M8 smartphone, which can play high-res audio files. Sprint sent Mark a sample of the phone, but the demo files on it had no extended content, which Mark pointed out to Sprint’s CEO (who happens to be an audiophile). After hearing some of Mark’s tracks played by the phone, the CEO delayed the phone’s shipment until he could get better tracks on it. I listened to it on a pair of moderate Sennheiser headphones, and it did sound very clean and well-balanced.

Mark Waldrep was very bullish on the new HTC M8 smartphone, which has excellent high-res audio-playback capabilities.

Next up was the GTT Audio & Video room, where the system included YG Acoustics speakers, Audionet electronics, Kronos turntable, and Kubala-Sosna cables. I thought the sound was a bit brittle.

The GTT Audio & Video system consisted of YG Acoustics Hailey speakers, Audionet Max monoblock power amps, Audionet DNC DAC, Audionet Pre preamp, Audionet Pam G2 phonostage, Kronos Limited Edition turntable and Black Beauty tonearm, and Kubala-Sosna cables. Total system price was nearly $200,000.

A Japanese company called dc10audio was showing the Kabuki speaker, which was touted as “wide bandwidth” thanks to a RAAL ribbon tweeter that is said to extend to 100 kHz. That piqued my interest, so I went in to have a listen. The speakers sounded quite good—nice and open—but when I asked what the source was, I was told it was a Sony CD player! The speakers were not being exploited to their full potential at all.

The dc10audio Kabuki speaker includes a horn-loaded RAAL ribbon tweeter said to extend up to 100 kHz. Low-frequency extension reaches 27 or 18 Hz, depending on the woofer you select, and a resonator on the back of the cabinet helps reach those depths. Power for the demo system was supplied by two Audio Tekne Yamato amps delivering 35W each, which isn’t much until you consider that the speakers have a sensitivity rating of 97 dB/W/m. Rounding out the system was an Audio Tekne preamp and Sony CD player. I didn’t get the total system price, but the Kabuki speakers are $24,000/pair.

I had not heard of Mexican high-end maker Margules before, but the company was showing its U280 tube-based power amp that can be switched from stereo to mono operation. In stereo, it can output 40 W/ch in triode mode or 75 W/ch in ultralinear mode, and these numbers are doubled in mono operation. The speakers were a pair of Dynaudio Focus 260s. I heard a bit of Kurt Elling singing “Norwegian Wood,” which had been ripped from a vinyl LP at 24/192 and played from a NAS hard disk through a T+A Music Player connected digitally to an Audio Research DAC. Kurt’s voice sounded lovely, but there was some mid-bass bloat in the string bass, which I tended to attribute to the room.

Two Margules U280 power amps in mono mode powered Dynaudio Focus 260 speakers. The preamp was a Margules SF220, and the source I heard was a NAS drive through a T+A Music Player and Audio Research DAC; total system price around $22,000. Also on hand was a Project turntable with a Palosantos cartridge and a Margules FZ47DB phonostage, which I didn’t hear.

I was eager to visit Emerald Physics, whose claim to fame is its open-baffle speakers. I’ve heard some Emerald Physicsspeakers in a friend’s home, and I fell in love with the sound. At T.H.E. Show, the company was demonstrating a prototype of its latest model, the EP-X, which retains the open-baffle concept for the coaxial tweeter/midrange driver, while the woofer is backed with a tubular, angled, vented enclosure. The frequency response is spec’d from 34 Hz to 20 kHz, and the bass can be extended further with an optional DSP. I heard some Pink Floyd, Supertramp, Boz Scaggs, and Fairfield Four (an a cappella male quartet with an impossibly low bass singer) played from a Mac Mini at 16/44.1, and the sound was liquid gold—smooth and sumptuous.

An Emerald Physics EP100.2SE power amp that delivers 100 W/ch in stereo or 275W in mono powered prototype EP-X speakers. The company’s DSPeaker Anti-Mode Dual Core 2.0 served as DAC, preamp, and room-correction unit. Total cost for the Emerald Physics components is just under $6000 list, but dealer Underwood HiFi is offering it online at an amazing $4000. Source components included a Music Hall MMF-7.1 turntable, PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter (which converts the analog signal from the turntable to DSD), and PS Audio DSD DAC as well as a Marantz CD-5004 CD player and the aforementioned Mac Mini.

Just down the hall from Emerald Physics was Spatial Audio with its own open-baffle speaker, the M2. Designed by Clayton Shaw, who is also responsible for most of the Emerald Physics speakers, the M2 utilizes two 12-inch midrange/woofers, one of which has a coaxially mounted compression tweeter, and both are mounted in an open baffle. Frequency range is spec’d at 48 Hz to 20 kHz with a nominal 4-ohm impedance. The power amps were Red Dragon M500 MkII class-D monoblocks (500W into 4 ohms), and they sounded lovely playing Livingston Taylor’s “Isn’t She Lovely” from a MacBookAir at 24/96.

The Spatial Audio system was the most minimalist I saw at the show. Each M2 speaker was powered by its own Red Dragon M500 MkII class-D power amp, which is quite small yet mighty. The M2 standard version is $2000/pair (pictured; $2500 for the Turbo version with premium circuit components and WBT NextGen terminals), and the M500 MkII is $800 each, or a total of $3600 for what you see here. Add a preamp and source device, and you have one sweet little system.

My last stop before the show closed for the day was Seaton Sound, which had a full 5.1 setup and an older Samsung PN63C7000 plasma TV. All five main channels were reproduced by self-powered Catalyst 8C speakers joined by four SubMersive F2 subwoofers driven by an SS2-8000 subwoofer amplifier. The pre/pro was an Onkyo PR-SC5508, and Mark Seaton, who is an Audyssey Pro calibrator, had tweaked the Audyssey XT32 room correction for the small room, which felt really cramped with all those large speakers. Still, the sound worked—so well, in fact, that it was among the best I heard at the show.

We listened to several clips played from a PC, including a k.d. lang concert video, the Eagles Farewell Tour, and How to Train Your Dragon in surround as well as several 2-channel clips, including “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo” by Bela Fleck (great bass!), “Straighten Up and Fly Right” by Take 6 and George Benson, a drum improvisation from a Sheffield Lab XRCD, and “Stairway to Heaven” by guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. Everything sounded exceptionally clean and clear with beautiful balance throughout the entire audio spectrum, including deep bass.

The Seaton Sound room was crammed with five Catalyst 8C active speakers and four SubMersive F2 subs powered by an SS2-8000 subwoofer amp; total amp power was 13,000W! The total cost for the Seaton products in the room was around $25,000. The pre/pro was an Onkyo PR-SC5508 running Audyssey XT32, and the sources were an Oppo BDP-105 Blu-rayplayer and a Baetis Audio Revolution II PC running JRiver Media software. The display was a Samsung PN63C7000 plasma.

After the show closed, I was delighted to hang out with about 20 AVS Forum members by the pool at the Atrium hotel; it was great fun to talk about our experiences at the show and other geeky AV topics. Even better, Mark Seaton and Mark Waldrep joined us to share their perspectives on high-end audio. A grand time was had by all, and I look forward to next year’s T.H.E. Show, when I plan to summon the AVS Forum tribe again for more fun in the sun!

AVS Forum members gathered in a cabana by the Atrium pool after the show closed on Saturday to talk tech. Joining us was Mark Seaton and Mark Waldrep, who had just finished a long day manning their booths. Thanks to all who dropped by!