Wrapping up THE Show Newport Beach 2015 – Green Hits & Misses

A New “Corporate” Character to THE Show? / Standing Out from the Crowd for Being Green / Some Exhibitor Misses / Honorable (Green) Mentions / Runners up in Being the Greenest Exhibitor / Top Greenest Exhibitor / Closing Thoughts on THE Show Newport 2015

This is the final part of my report on The Home Entertainment Show Newport Beach 2015. For previous parts see:

Part 1: A TALE OF TWO CITIES
Part 2: HOTEL QUAGMIRE
Part 3: TIME TO ROCK N ROLL

A new “Corporate” character to the show?

I started out my pre-show report asking if the change in venue to a more modern hotel in Irvine would change the character of THE Show. Ultimately I believe it did, although it wasn’t immediately obvious. One aspect of this is that the show reverted back to a more conservative understanding of HiFi, focusing on traditional audiophile values and less on more modern values. This was a good fit for the more corporate environment of the Irvine Hotel, but ultimately it felt more stuffy, rigid, and efficiency-driven than the more relaxed "beachy" feel of previous shows in Newport Beach. My personal opinion is that this did impact some exhibitors and visitors, and for some it was not a good change.

I’ve already pointed out some of the issues that I felt attending the show in my previous reports (see links above), but several other examples became apparent to me on the last day of the show:

  1. Prices seemed high and negotiating them during the show appeared to be difficult. I spoke to visitors to the show who expressed this to me. I also noticed that negotiating for better show prices was not always successful. There was a tension in the air about pricing that seemed to be higher than in the past.
     
  2. The Headphonium (along with the car show), typically a draw for young people located in the middle of the hotel, was this year relegated to a tent in the back of the hotel. When I finally found them on Sunday, disgruntled exhibitors were packing up and many had already left. I was told that they had been bumped out of the hotel at the last minute.
     
  3. In contrast, the Vinyl Marketplace was at the center of the hotel in the largest room with the most foot-traffic. I also noticed that almost every room had a turntable, many with incredibly large and unwieldy ones. There were also a lot of monster amps and monster speakers, perhaps not much more than previous shows, but certainly not less.
     
  4. As much as it pains me to reiterate this every year, but again the show was attended and presented by mostly white old men. I think I saw two African American people that whole weekend and women were one in 20, if that. Young people were hardly there as well.
     
  5. As for the raffle, out of nearly 400 dealers and manufacturers, there were only 8 items being given away. With 7200+ attendees, that makes the odds of winning a prize rather slim. If we also consider that half the prizes were cables and these comprised over 2/3 of the total value of all the prizes, this suggests that the exhibitors were not willing to give as much as in past years.

To me these examples and the whole atmosphere of the hotel point to a renewed emphasis on traditionally large, expensive, heavy and energy-drawing HiFi (big speakers, heavy amps, and huge turntable setups), and a de-emphasis on young/hip, more digitally-connected and small/portable HiFi. Perhaps the costs were also higher for the show organizers as well as the exhibitors. A final thought on this before I proceed to the exhibits that stood out to me:

From what I saw, the most popular exhibits were the ones that offered the lowest prices in comparison to the competition. For example, the Elac room was packed with people during most of the show. Why? Because they were selling pedigreed speakers at realistic prices. Anti-cables was another popular name that people gravitated towards rather than the uber-expensive brands. The $350 Riva Turbo X Bluetooth speaker drew massive attention as well. Several times throughout the show I heard people raving about Magnepan’s amazing new $1400 flat “.7” speaker.

The bottom line is that many, if not most of the show visitors actually don’t fit the traditional audiophile stereotype. I'm not sure if exhibitors and show organizers realized this. Most of the millennial visitors that came, were there more out of habit from previous years, but they left a little more disappointed than before.

OK, on to the exhibitors I felt stood out from the crowd for being ecologically more involved. 

Standing Out from the Crowd for Being Green

This blog is about being green, so I’m looking for manufacturers who build small efficient gear that fits into a modern household and appeals to a younger generation. I believe the future success of HiFi is intricately tied to following a more sensible approach to manufacturing and design. I give a nod if the design is well thought out and attractive, but if they also manufacture in ways that reduce pollution, treat workers fairly, and keep production local, I give them extra points for doing so. Please note that this is not a list of the best sounding gear – if you want that, there are many people already posting those, including the major HiFi magazines. The gear below still has to sound good, but in this crowded industry, I expect more than just that.

(P.S. I tried to take pictures in all the rooms I visited, but this wasn't always possible or convenient. I've had to use some pictures from the manufacturer's websites to compensate. My apologies about that. If you have any issues with the pictures, please leave a comment or send me an email.)

Some Exhibitor Misses

Below I list of folks who should have known better. They had my interest but then made a blunder, either in the product design itself, in what they said or because of something in the room that just missed the mark. This isn’t intended to shame anyone, but perhaps it’s something that can be improved upon.

Dealers and Manufacturers who don’t put the names of their products on their cards – no names, but you know who you are. I brought home over 200 business cards, and there weren’t more than a handful that listed their product(s) on the card. I’m sorry, but if I didn’t remember to jot down some notes on your card when you handed it to me, I can’t remember why I took your card in the first place. Look, I can understand dealers doing this because products change, but if you are a direct manufacturer, this is a big oops.

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Endeavor Engineering. They had an incredibly attractive speaker and I was drawn to the sheer size of it. However, I noticed that it sounded much better if I crouched down in my seat. This is probably because the tweeters were too low. Now I can forgive this error somewhat in a lower priced speaker, but these are high end speakers costing as much as a car, and a bit of a miss in my book. Considering how much they were tilted back, I think the manufacturer realized this too. In all other respects it was a great speaker, perhaps not exactly green, but it sounded very good.

Questyle had some really cool looking pint-sized Mac-styled gear. It ran cool, it was easy to use, and the quality engineering appeared to be all there. When I mentioned how Mac-like it was I was told that it was made in the same factory, FoxCon. Now I’m sure they work hard to ensure quality for this product line, but there are two things a manufacturer should probably not mention: that the product is made in the same factory as a consumer-oriented disposable computer and that it hails from a company that has been heavily criticized in the media for corrupt practices and employee abuse. I’d like to investigate this further and prove myself wrong on this one, but if I walk out and another visitor says “probably the wrong show for these guys,” that’s probably not a good sign. 

I’ve been a fan of Bel Canto’s engineering, style, and quality for years, but they came to the show with new generic-looking black-box styled full-sized gear. It’s their $15K and up “Black” series. This is their new showcase line of products and the sales rep explained to me that this is what they felt the customers here at the show were asking for. Considering how lightly attended this room appeared to be, I’m not sure he was right.

OK, this one is going to serve as an example to all the other me-too manufacturers who are adding headphones to their line-up. Just don’t. I wanted to like the new AudioQuest headphones: the Nighthawk, it even has a cool name, and the look and design looked very good on paper. But when I tried them on they were actually less comfortable than the phones they were comparing them to. The sales rep kept telling me how much better they sounded – well that’s fine, but if they aren’t comfortable, I’m not going to be wearing them. But more to the point, do we really need another headphone? Don’t we have enough? Did it sound good? Yes. Did it sound better? Meh. It sounded slightly different, but better, I’m not sure. For $500, I can do better.

I’m no fan of expensive cables, for the most part because I don’t believe they are a good value and at some of the top price-points, there’s more ecologically sound things we can do with our money. But when a manufacturer says they are doing something entirely different, it peaks my curiosity. HighFidelity cables appears to use magnetic conduction, and while I don’t purport to understand the tech, the hard-sell approach was irritating. I was approached by a plain-clothed fellow who said he wasn’t with the company, that he was just a satisfied customer, and the that the company flew him out to talk about it. As he was explaining the tech, he kept saying “we do this” and “we do it this way” etc. So if you don’t work for the company, why do you keep saying “we”? Sorry, but at the prices of these cables, and the fact that there are so many other manufacturers claiming to be different, I was done and moved on to the next exhibit.

Honorable Green Mentions

OK, now that we have those out of the way, below I list a few exhibitors that deserve mention because I really thought the product stands out from the crowd in trying to do several green things right.

Admittedly, Cloth & Metal is not a strictly a HiFi company, but it was founded by people who are audiophiles. In addition to HiFi they sell clothes, watches, shoes, tech gadgets, and other “guy” things. I know there are far more stores geared towards women than men, so I’ll forgive the one-sidedness of being a guy-only store. What is cool, though, is that they are trying something different and carrying recognized brands like Auralic, Nordost, Naim, Grado and Dynaudio. I don’t know if they can compete against the likes of Best Buy, but at least they are not using underpaid teen-age labor that knows as much about speakers as they do about vacuum cleaners. By the way, Cloth & Metal is a cool name, too.

The Tannoy Revolution XT6F speakers being displayed at the show were a very pleasant surprise. Yes, they are made in China, but that is really the only gripe because design, fit & finish, as well as the sound quality were very impressive. Despite the boxy look, the quality engineering is apparent: they have a concentric tweeter-midrange driver, there are no parallel surfaces, the ports are down and front firing so they can be placed near the wall, and best of all, the speakers are modestly small. They are also a standard 8 ohm speaker with 90dB efficiency, and rated from 75-300 watts, so they will not need monster amps to drive them. For a hair over $1800 a pair these speakers are also an excellent value.

I used to own a full surround sound Magnepan home theater setup and it was always a pleasure to watch movies with it. Unfortunately, it required amps that could displace a kitchen appliance. It was just too much for me and wasn’t very green. With the new .7 Magnepan speakers, the company has finally done what people have been begging them to do for years: improve the looks. The new speaker’s stands are much more stylish, the sound is still fantastic, and the price is still very reasonable at $1400 a pair. Driven with a decent class-D amp, they can be quite green as well. I would have given them a higher ranking, but the exhibit used a single .7 tall speaker as a center channel and left me wondering where one would put the TV/screen in such a setup, so this was not a convincing HT setup.

Gingko Audio is a company that deals in acrylic covers and vibration isolation products. Obviously, these types of products aren't powered in any way, so that's green already, but the reason I am mentioning them here is because of the genuine kindness and positive experience I had speaking with Norm Ginsburg and Vinh Vu, so much so that I purchased a turntable cover before leaving (and I rarely purchase anything at shows). When I returned to the room the following day, it was packed, but Norm was taking the time to patiently talk with another customer about their Cloud vibration control platforms and it was clear this customer was also impressed by the experience. This is the kind of hospitality and customer service that keeps the customers coming back.

Runners up in Being the Greenest Exhibitor

These exhibitors hit all the right buttons for a green-seeking consumer:

Densen is relatively unknown here in the US. They are a Danish company and with such competition as Dynaudio, Gryphon, Dali, Bang & Olufson, Raidho, Jamo, Amphion and others, this is a crowded market. Densen sets itself apart by creating efficient, upgradable products designed to last a life-time, and backs this up with a lifetime warranty. The designs are also sleek, efficient yet powerful, modern, and simple, perfect for that Danish esthetic.

AntiCables is well known for making great-value solid-core stiff cables. There is a whole philosophy behind the reason for using solid core and the copper used isn’t your run-of-the-mill hardware-store power wire, either. The reason I am including them here is because they are no-frills, honest, and down-to-earth about the cable insanity seen with many other manufacturers. Even their top-tier 9-gauge speaker wires are typically less expensive than some manufacturers’ termination plugs. I’m not sure about their USB cables as I don’t believe those need to be specially made, but genrally speaking, for a cable company, they provide excellent value.

Lambert Systems of New Zealand builds diminutive and stylish components that are scarcely 6” square and could easily fit on a little nightstand. But don’t let the size fool you because they are meant to be fully capable audiophile components. The little monoblock Class-D amplifiers can put out 100w each into 8 ohms, enough to drive most standard  speakers. The sources include tubes to help smooth out the sound, and the speakers are little power-houses with ribbon tweeters and an incredibly full, rich sound. But the reason they are here at the top of my list is because what Gary Lambert, the owner explained to me when I was in the room. The whole reason for the small size and the efficient class-D amplification is because he wanted to forgo the big, heavy gear of the competition, he wanted products that were efficient to ship, efficient to own, and that would last a long time for the customer.

Riva’s Turbo X Bluetooth single speaker box is incredibly well engineered with intuitive design cues like proximity-based button lights and an well-thought-out battery system, to name just two. The reason it is here is because how unbelievably good it sounded for its size. This little wonder could easily fill a room. At just $350, it’s likely made abroad (something I’d certainly like to investigate further), but aside from that it is a marvel of engineering.

Fujitsu isn’t a manufacturer that comes to mind at HiFi shows, but the Eclipse-based surround sound that I heard in the Fujitsu room was remarkable clear, smooth and full. Now in it’s second iteration (I believe), the bullet-shaped speakers do an excellent job of erasing box coloration, the kind of cupped-hand sound one often hears with conventional speakers. They are made in Japan, by the way. What was also a pleasant surprise was the new $1300 TD-M1 desktop system which not only sounds equally well mannered, but has a plethora of connectivity options including Bluetooth. They look ultra-modern and would fit perfectly in a modern household.

The Greenest Exhibitor

This space is reserved for the manufacturer that in my estimation has the greenest product(s) this year.

Joshua W. Miles of JWM Acoustics is a custom speaker designer and turntable rebuilder hailing out of Hawaii. The gear was beautifully finished and sounded great as well. But what was a surprise was that without prompting he started talking about how they only use fallen wood and that they actively go out and replant trees. He also explained how being green was a guiding principle for him, not just because this is important on an Island like Hawaii, but also because it is simply the right thing to do. Now I hadn’t said anything about my interest in the same things before he started talking about using ecological principles in his manufacturing, so this was a pleasant surprise. I do hope to follow up JWM Acoustics as this is right in line with what we do here at GreenHiFi.

Closing Thoughts on THE Show Newport 2015

This was a very interesting show. As mentioned, it had a different atmosphere from the Newport Beach location of past years. Not all of the changes were for the better, especially not for some of the exhibitors. For traditional the big, bold, and analog-loving visitor, this was your typical HiFi show, but for the hip, young and wired generation this show was a bit of a let-down. While the Hotel Irvine can’t easily change its location, layout or décor, it was certainly large enough to handle the show and the crowds, so I’m sure that in coming years things will improve as the regular visitors grow accustomed to the new location.

The bottom line is that most of the issues I noted can be fixed with a little elbow grease and adaptability. I still had a good time at the show and it was a pleasure to find many new products, some hailing from far away places – thank you for making the effort! I was able to meet new manufacturers, owners, and audiophiles that share my enthusiasm for this great hobby.

Have a comment or suggestion about this blog post? Let me know. I welcome all feedback.