Landing at the Marketplace
I arrived early, was able to park in the structure right next door, and walked right on in though the side door of the hotel. I was in a good mood so I decided to cut through the marketplace to get to the stairs on the other side. I was in a hurry, so I didn't want to stop at any of the booths, but then I saw that there was this great looking new headphone amp from Manley Labs. I'm a big fan of Manley, so I had to stop and take a closer look.
Now it's a gorgeous little number, but I had to ask the rep: "don't those tubes get hot?" [long awkward pause] You see, those diminutive controls on the front are incredibly close to the first row of tubes, so someone is going to burn their fingers. The rep said: "That's the first we heard of this." When I mentioned that I was a blogger, though, he added "...but thank you for the input, we're always looking for good feedback." The fella was a pretty imposing guy with tats up & down his arms, so I asked if I was going to get a "visit" from some biker dudes if I wrote something about this. I was being facetious of course, but I'm not sure that was clear, so I quicky added "well I hope it won't be from EveAnna herself!" After which the poor fella smiled and we had a good laugh about it. To be honest, the volume control is the large dial below the controls on the front of the amp, so I'm sure I'm making more of this than I need to, but I'm a blogger, and well, it's my job to note these things...
Before leaving the market place I made a stop at the Audeze (pronounced Odyssey, like the Homer epic, I found out). Audeze is one of those companies your read about in magazines, drool over their kilo-buck planar headphones, and then realize, I live right down the street from these guys! I spent a good 20 minutes talking to a guy in a white lab coat, who explained that his company doesn't just pay lip service to environmental causes. Audeze actually hired a full-time person to ensure that their products adhere to environmental policies around the world. Now that's being green! Since they are in my neck of the woods, I really do hope to follow up on this conversation in the near future.
On to the Showrooms
I had spent entirely too much time in the marketplace already, so I ran out a side door and headed up the stairs. I had a bit of a climb because I wanted to start off where I had stopped the day before... 11 flights later... I was in desperate need of a rest so I stumbled into the Triangle Art room. The name sounded familiar, but I had never paid much attention to them thinking this was just another one of the many Chi-Fi companies offering ungodly low prices cutting who-knows-what corners to get there. Truth-be-told, the overwhelming chrome and bling in the room did not help shape a different impression.
I had been blinded by the bling, because I could not have been more wrong. Triangle Art is actually from right here in Anaheim. They started out as turntable manufacturers back when it had not yet become cool again to be spinning vinyl. To my surprise, they had been in the business for some time and had built up quite a reputation with positive reviews. I didn't really know how to react, so I feigned not ever having hear of them (probably not a good move on my part), but they were very nice about it. By the way, that gorgeous Reference SE turntable above is around $35K, which may sound like a lot, but for a 250 lb turntable that looks like that (gota love that signature record clamp, too), it competes with tables at twice the price. As I sat there I also heard a beautifully romantic sound coming from the electronics, not at all what I expected from the bright bling everywhere. Definitely a company I need to research further.
In the room right next to Triangle Art, was Usher Audio, another company that could easily be mistaken for your run-of-the-mill Chi-Fi, but that would be a mistake. I had stopped by Usher's room last year and promised to reach out to them but never got around to it. Another mistake. What struck me right away in this room was the size of these BE-10 Diamond speakers. With their back-leaning configuration, as if they were flying by. They have a very sleek and modern look to them. The sound was impressive too. So this year, I will make it a point to pay Usher a visit and ask them how they do what they do.
Up next was the Peachtree Audio room. Now these guys started out with a manufactured-in-the-Far-East business pan from the start, but as they grew as a company, they started bringing some of their manufacturing back to the states - it's still mostly from abroad, but there is hope. What is most impressive about Peachtree is their emphasis on the cool factor. With their retro curved wood-tone casing, their use of tubes, their high quality electronics and their willingness to work with other companies like Sonos, they should be on every millenial's shopping list. To top it off, they produce award-winning high quality equipment at very affordable prices. The demo, using an under $2000 system connected to Wilson Audio Sabrina Speakers that cost 8x as much, was truly impressive. Definitely a company to keep on the radar.
A company that has been on my radar for years now, is the all-American Schiit Audio. Much has been made of their name, their marketing strategy, and their whole philosophy, but after all the hyperbole, they also make great sounding, no-nonsense, hard-hitting amps at unbelievable values. This year, they were showing their top of the line Ragnarok integrated amp and Yggdrasil DAC. These are incredible electronics that compete with amps and Dacs at 2-3 times their price. I don't feel they were a good match to the speakers shown here, but that may also have been a room issue. I've heard the integrated amp previously and was thoroughly impressed by its capabilities. By the way, at least half the headphone manufacturers in the marketplace were using Schiit amps at their booths. That is why they can honestly say they really are the Schiit!
The Harman group was showing off several speaker lines. In one room they were showing their flagship Synthesis K2 S9900 speakers connected to Mark Levinson electronics, and it sounded like a live concert in there. But the room that stood out to me was the room with their Concerta line anchored by their F36 floorstanders in gorgeous gloss white. So why am I pointing out this company? Because (unless I missed a room) they were the only company with a HT demo. And it wasn't a typical 5.1 setup, either. No. They had a full 7.2 setup and it sounded fantastic. I can't remember a show were there were less HT setups, so I give props to Harman and Revel for doing something unconventional. I'm sure there were a lot of upturned noses that hurried by the HT room, but if so, they missed a great sounding setup. Bravo!
I've already covered Focal's incredibly gutsy move to introduce their gloss orange and gloss blue Sopra Speakers at last year's show. This year, they upped the ante and added a matching chrome orange amp. This is uber-cool. By the way, the combo sounded fantastic. I could easily see this system being installed in homes here in Newport Coast - it just fits the sunny California esthetic. Next time I run into Kobe at Fashion Island, and he asks me what speaker system I would recommend for one of his guest rooms, these Focals will be the first ones that will come to mind. Who knows, maybe I'll be able to buy myself a pair some day...
I see Peter Bichel Noerbaek of PBN Audio at almost every show, but I never quite have the courage to chat him up (he looks a bit intimidating). I've been a fan of his speakers and electronics for years. They don't exactly fall entirely in the green camp, but if you need to make a statement about your musical priorities, then some PBN gear is in order. Gorgeous wood cabinets are his signature, and his rebuilt direct-drive GrooveMaster turntables take this to a whole new level. There are others who have done this with the Denon tables, but PBN's are by far the most imposing and beautiful ones. They are unmistakably PBN designs that would fit very nicely into any modern home.
Another worthy detail about PBN Audio is that they offer a whole line of build-it-yourself kits. This is similar to the Parts Express catalog kits, but PBN has done all the research into designing kits that they know will sound good, with pre-assembled cross-overs, hand-selected drivers, and a choice of cabinets and finishes to suit any decor. Their entry-level penny-wise kit starts at just over $4K, but once assembled, this is far from an entry-level speaker. As a matter of fact, it is a serious contender that competes with much more expensive speakers. Did I mention it comes standard in a high-gloss Ferrari Red? I am so tempted!
I then decided to stop in the Merrill Audio room, where I had an opportunity to speak to mister Merrill Wettasinghe himself. It was a pleasure to discuss manufacturing and design with him. Now that I've had a couple of days to also check out the website, I have a growing interest in his Taranis amplifier - yes, it's the entry-level model, but it looks gorgeous, is class-D, puts out a healthy 400 watts into 8 ohms, is an award winning design with rave reviews, and costs just $2500. The fact that Merrill is such a knowledgeable and affable guy, is a plus as well - when I was taking pictures of the room, he offered to take one with me in it (it's the one I used at the start of this blog post). Highly recommended gear and a brand I intend to research further.
Now for something entirely different: an analog to digital converter called The Sugarcube (pictured above) from a company, appropriately called Sweet Vinyl. So what is it? Yes, that wasn't immediately obvious to me either, and this is something their marketing department should probably take note of. The Sugarcube does three things that stood out to me that no other analog-to-digital converter does: (1) it automatically splits up the tracks into seperate digital files, (2) it connects to the internet to download cover art, album and track info, and (3) it removes the cracks and pops on the fly, addressing the three main irritations of digitizing records. It does a whole lot of other cool stuff, but from a practical standpoint, these three issues are key. Here is a product that epitomizes the listening-to-your-customers concept. I was so intrigued that I was ready to buy one on the spot (then I remembered that I first need to purchase a good record cleaning machine... but I digress). In any case, kudos to Sweet Vinyl for their attention to what the customers really need. By the way, when I was leaving, Michael Fremer of Stereophile came in and had nothing but praise for the Sugarcube. Hmmmm....
Exogal is another new name to me. What was interesting to me is that they were showcasing an amp that was "directly" connected to their DAC. Putting out an impressive 125W of power and being connected with a proprietary umbilical to the DAC is something new. Of course, the fact that these were Class-D amps, made in the US, and came in such a clean-looking small form-factor, was all icing on the cake. I hope to reach out to Jeff Haagenstad of Exogal in the near future to re-visit what they have come up with here. It sounds very interesting.
Redgum is not a new name. Their well-known wood-fronted amplifiers with the signature key-locks, have been written up in several prominent magazines. What they were showing here is an integrated amp, part of their "Black" series, with some innovative design ideas that at first seemed counter-intuitive to me until I had a chance to talk with the designer about them. For example the placement of the cooling heat sinks on the bottom is more than a nod to Redgum being from down-under. This allows for a much larger surface area for cooling, and provides a very rigid, solid base to fasten the electronics onto. He assured me that this had no impact on the cooling properties of the heat sinks. Another neat "feature" is that there are no labels on the back for each input, they are simply color-coded. I first thought it was a manufacturing oversight, but no, this is actually intentional: each color matches a similarly colored LED on the front, it saves silk-screening expenses, and perhaps most importantly, it is international - no need to print the labels in different languages for each market. There are many other design features that make these stand out, but these stood out to me immediately. Very clever!
One of the hardest things to do in this industry is to design products that appeal to a new generation of buyers while also providing good value. One aspect of this is creating ever smaller electronics that still sound like they are much bigger. Silverline Audio has hit the nail on the head. These little diminutive SR7 mini monitors do this in spades. The sound I heard in this room, while perhaps not as perfect as in other rooms, was nothing short of astounding. If they had placed these little speakers behind a screen that was 5x as tall, they could be mistaken for floor-standers. Oh yes, and they cost just $600 a pair. Yes, I could easily see these everywhere from college dorm rooms to full 9.2 HT systems. What an impressive little speaker!
The Monaco 1.5 turntable from Grand Prix Audio is one of those products that most people, upon hearing the starting price tag of $25K, will dismiss way too soon. Yes, it's expensive, but that is because it is incredibly well made right here in the USA using sound design principles and innovative materials. The reason I am including it here is because of the design, especially in this metallic blue. It is absolutely stunning to behold. And yes, from what I heard at the show, it sounds as good as it looks, worthy of all the accolades in the press. A beautiful turntable that would be right at home in a young professional's living room.
OK, one more turntable. Here is the Bergmann Audio Magne turntable in beautiful gloss white (and would be a great match for those Revel speakers I mentioned above). This table is made in Denmark. It has the typical Scandinavian clean lines, not to mention ultra-precise engineering, a linear tracking tone-arm, and a price-point that is actually reasonable in this industry: about $12K. This is no small turntable either, but because of its clean lines it still fits the esthetic needs of millenials, I believe. Very nice, Bergmann!
This was by far the longest day for me. I spent the better part of it upstairs and walking between floors. There were a lot of other manufacturers and vendors I would have liked to include, but these were the ones that stood out the most. Some of them even have serious green cred!
This was the second part (Day2 / Saturday) of my report on THE Show Newport 2016. For part one, click here, and for part three click here. If you have any suggestions/comments, or would like to post this on social media, please don't hesitate to click below.