It Was a Rough Start for Me, but THE Show Was Great
My day started out pretty bad with a car that wouldn't start (rats had decided to camp out in my engine the whole winter and chew on everything in sight). Fortunately AAA was awesome, the car dealership (DCH Tustin Acura - check 'em out) had a brand new TLX ready for me to drive off in, and parking at the show was plentiful and zippy. I showed up two hours late, completely missing the rope-cutting ceremony (way to show up on time, eh?), but I was determined not to miss anymore of my $15 investment.
Fortunately, the show was a hit. I could see that there were small but subtle changes here & there, but the most noticeable was that there were more women, young people (even some toddlers), and others who don't fit the middle-aged white male stereotype. What I also noticed was that the day was relaxed and the manufacturers and dealers in the rooms were upbeat, cheerful and welcoming. It might have been just first day euphoria, but it was a wonderful day for me as a visitor - thank you LAOCAS and THE Show organizers!
The Rooms That Stood Out
There was lots to see and hear everywhere, but this year I wanted to focus on the showrooms, so I stayed clear of the marketplace (you can easily loose track of time listening to all the headphones there). I also skipped the workshops - most of them didn't seem too riveting and a bit of a repeat of the previous years. Instead, I headed straight upstairs. I wanted to meet the people in the business and see who was doing new and different things - and especially if anyone was being green about it. Lots of folk claim to do something different, but these were the ones that stood out to me.
Technics (Panasonic) was at the show showing off their multi-award winning SB-C700 speakers, and their newly updated direct-drive SL-1200GAE turntable, but what caught my eye were the new EAH-T700 headphones. These aren't just any headphones, they have deep ear-cups and multiple drivers in each. They are also efficient headphones so they can easily play off of an iPod/iPhone's internal amp and replace those horribly bad Apple earbuds. Yes, I know that every other company is manufacturing headphones, but I had an opportunity to chat with Bill Voss and Fueki Tetsuya from Panasonic about these headphones and it was clear that a lot of time and effort went into producing these. They said they are available for reviewing (I prefer not to review), but these sounded good enough for me to want to actually own them. In any case, I do hope to continue our conversation about what sets these great headphones apart.
I tend to be cautious when bringing up new speaker manufacturers - the price of entry in this business is steep and many small companies that attempt to compete struggle selling their products at a profit when larger companies are able to bring comparable products to market at lower costs. This is a tough business after all. Starke Sound is giving it their all with these great looking speakers. With millenial-focused bright colors and aggressive brushed aluminum baffles, these speakers look the part. They aren't inexpensive at $5200-$23,200 per pair, but they just look like they mean business. What I heard was also a lively, forward presentation, which I think will also appeal to the sound that young people are accustomed to. Overall, gorgeous speakers.
Another new company I had not heard of before was Amps and Sound, which hails from right here in SoCal (actually right down the freeway from where I work). Good thing too, because these large speakers are probably not easy to shlepp around the country. I had an opportunity to talk with the Justin Weber, of Amps and Sound, at length about what goes into manufacturing a speaker such as these Seneca 2-channel horn-loaded speakers. As I've noted in previous blogs, it is hard, if not impossible, to reproduce truly big sound without a large cabinet - Amps and Sound seems to agree with that notion. The speakers sounded big & full and being horn-loaded, didn't require massive watts to play loud. I am including them here because although they look like many other speakers, there was actually quite a bit of engineering that went into them. The large cabinets are actually not very deep and Justin explained to me that his market research showed that this was actually what many customers liked about them. I can certainly see the point - they are not painted in loud colors (even though that does appeal to some), they are shallow, and they are highly efficient so they can actually fit in quite nicely in most homes, even here in overcrowded SoCal. I hope to follow up with Justin about these impressive speakers in the near future.
I was going to walk right by this room, but as someone was exiting I glanced an uncommon sight: Kharma Elegance DB7 speakers in beautiful gloss-white with silver inlaid accents. It's now been several years since I spoke with Vivienne van Oosterum, Kharma's marketing representative when they came to THE Show Newport to demo their amazing speakers. I later visited their factory in The Netherlands and there is something that is just right about the way Kharma speakers sound, something I heard again this weekend. Yes, they cost a mint, they are large, and they are a bear to drive (although the Elegance line is more tame in that regard), but this is a company that really puts a lot of energy, research, and know-how into their speakers. If you have a chance, you should take the opportunity to hear these exotic gems - truly a work of art.
There are many exotic designs out there, but the ones that last are the ones that are not only beautiful to behold, but also simplistically functional. Like a Beethoven symphony which is both simple and great, the Funk Firm Vector turntable follows these same principles. It is also a table you don't see everyday - in the sea of unbelievably complex, heavy, and cumbersome in-your-face turntables that I saw at the show, the Vector is like a mellow ambient groove playing in the background. Sitting atop a utilitarian birch-tone Ikea Expedit shelf unit (a legend in its own right with Vinyl collectors), it just looks like a typical millenial's living room. Anchored by the elegant yet capable Heed Audio electronics and the beautifully matching Grand Enigma speakers, it just felt like home.
Volti Audio is another company that makes a big hunking speaker that reminds me of the old Klipsch speakers. They are big, but also extremely efficient. They are also built by hand right here in the USA (in Maine). OK, so what sets these guys apart? Well, they were playing rap and playing loud! When is the last time anyone heard that at an audio show? Sure, I heard the occasional Linkin Park and Massive Attack timidly played elsewhere at the show (maybe some of them had read my previous blog post, LOL), but these Volti Vittora speakers were spitting hard core street lyrics, the kind mothers run to cover their children's ears for. Well it was refreshing, and the Vinnie Rossi electronics and Triode Wire Labs cables sounded fantastic too. Thank you for shaking the show up a bit!
There are many open baffle speaker designs out there, and some are so expensive you are left wondering what you're paying for (not the cabinetry, of course). The Pure Audio Project turns the whole concept of pricey speaker manufacturing on its head. They have designed a completely modular speaker system that they can build for you or that you can assemble yourself. They've done the hard work of testing out what components and parts work best together and designed a sophisticated cross-over, so all the customer has to do is assemble it, à-la Ikea. You can choose your finish, your drivers, heck they will even keep your plans on file for years in case you want to upgrade later. Their top of the line aluminum-framed 6-driver Stellar 12 model, just released, stands taller than I do and requires about as much space as a pair of Magnepans. When I walked in, I expected these to be in the $35K price range, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they sell for less than half that. The smaller speaker is no slouch either at about 4 feet tall, and starts at around $3500, depending on options. I really like the fact that this is a company that gives the consumer so much freedom of choice.
There were probably hundreds of DACs on display at the show, most of them with the majority of their manufacturing done in the Far East, yet commanding prices that would suggest otherwise. Then there was Prism Sound, who have been manufacturing pro-audio equipment for mega-rock stars back in England for decades. They recently introduced the Prism Sound Callia DAC, part of their "Audiophile Line" with the same pedigree as their pro-audio lines. I spent some quality time speaking with Graham Boswell, the Commercial Director of Prism Sound with a penchant for engaging conversations. He helped me understand that there is another side to the decision to manufacture in the Far East. Prism still manufactures everything in England. I applaud them for this because they can ensure that employees are treated well and that environmental regulations are adhered to. However, as I learn more about this industry, the reasons for where to manufacture are not as clear-cut as they seem. I certainly hope to pick up this conversation again as this is very interesting to me. of course, I also hope to hear that amazing DAC that was the talk of more than one reviewer at the show. Prism Sound must be doing something right.
Riva Audio is another one of those companies I can't ignore. When it was introduced, I was really impressed with their Turbo X, a $349 little wonder that was much more than just a Bluetooth speaker. It had a USB-rechargeable battery, regular analog input, the ability to answer phone calls, a cool millenial-friendly design, and 45 Watts of power that sounded much bigger than its small size (less than 10" wide) would suggest - this little speaker could really fill a room with sound. This year the same speaker is $50 less, but it's the little details that set this speaker apart, like an "analog mode" that boosts the 3.5mm input to accommodate the weaker signal typical of record players with built-in phono preamps. The company knows their audience. This year they pushed the envelope even further by coming out with and even smaller (no, not bigger) speaker, the Riva S. Again, they listened to their customers and they came to realize that young people wants smaller, not bigger electronics. The Riva speakers aren't made in the US, but with everything they do do right, I have to include them on this list.
Now for some honorable mentions. McIntosh Labs is a company that is well known and has a long history in Hi-Fi, but they haven't been resting on their laurels and have come out with new technologies too. One of these that truly impressed me was their MEN220 Room Correction component. The simple A>B testing they did for me was readily perceptible (unlike many other demos at the show) and gave an immediate improvement to the sound at the push of a button. I was so impressed I am considering purchasing one.
Another small manufacturer I come back to every show is Prana Fidelity. Steven Norber, the designer, is one of the kindest and most conscientious people you could buy from. His equipment sounds fantastic too and has a warm, relaxing sound, that is not unlike the whole ambience in the room. By the way, his floor-standing speakers can do concert rock too, if that's your thing. I had wanted to come back to his room later on during the show, but with so many rooms to visit I just ran out of time - maybe next year.
Finally, I have to give props to the Zu Audio, their room is never boring. While I'm sure they can play some Nora Jones for you (if you bring your own disk), the Zu Audio room is where you're much more likely to hear the Flaming Lips or the Silversun Pickups. Aside from that, they are also a great company to work with - they offer just about any paint finish on their speakers that you could want, their speakers are super-efficient, come at all price-points from $1K to $65K, and of course they are also made in the USA.
I had a great time the first day of the show. Despite my car troubles, everything just fell into place. I was able to see and hear some incredible equipment, talk to some fascinating people, and I learned a lot in the process. I was exhausted by the end of the day (walking up to the 10th floor will do that), but I had a great time.
The people I saw at the show were also more diverse. This was a pleasant surprise. The LOACAS did a great job this year. I've worked for conferences myself as well as been an exhibitor, so I know putting together a great show isn't easy. With crowds this large, it is quite a project. Nevertheless, the first day was a success. I was also happy to see so many innovative, creative, and new products this year. This gives me hope for the future of this hobby.
This was the first part (Day1 / Friday) of my report on THE Show Newport 2016. For part two, click here, and for part three click here. If you have any suggestions or comments, or would like to post this on social media, please don't hesitate to click below.