It was a beautiful day in Newport Beach this past Friday, and THE exhibitors at THE Show there made it even more beautiful as they created room after room of sound waves that engulfed listeners and created a sense of excitement and freshness. Actually, what struck me most about this recent show in Newport was the genuinely fresh and new approach that the exhibitors took with their musical selections and presentations. When I first started going to these shows not long ago, it often seemed stale and generic and irrelevant to me, but now the shows seem to have started to show more promise and genuine interest in catering to a changing demographic and economy. What was once only Diana Krall has changed to include more Lana Del Rey. And in some of the rooms, I heard music that I actually became excited about, that I needed to acquire. That hasn’t really happened before, not like this. It certainly needs to happen, in my opinion, for this business to thrive and grow into the future. As I’ve blogged about before, my peers are generally very HiFi unaware and that’s a result of the economics and disparity between their budgets and high performance audio. But the tides of the sound waves are genuinely changing at this point, and I like it.
There are still ridiculous systems out there and that’s part of the fun, and I hope that never changes. I started out this visit with some such systems, including Magico and MBL. I’m familiar with these brands and I’ve always liked them, no exception now. MBL always plays interesting music to show off their interesting system. Those radialsthrallers really do create the kind of room-filling sound that no other speaker does. It’s a speaker system I would use in a giant room of my giant house of the future, in which people would come to dance and enjoy the ambiance. Specifically this day, they played an acoustic guitar cover of Bohemian Rhapsody, and it was really cool; bigger than life yet realistically presented with the widest and tallest imaging I’ve ever experienced. It just sounded incredibly cool, like you could look anywhere in the room and see any particular particle of sound, distinct from the rest of the room, cohesive and spatially mesmerizing. The same was true of the music that a customer brought in, which was something produced in the 1980s by Propaganda, which at once sounded just as spectacular whilst also creating a palpable sense of the 1980s production styles and techniques. It was as if the speakers took on the character of this music to a degree I’ve rarely experienced, and invoked the sound of electrostatic speakers. In this sense it was very strikingly like having more than one speaker in one enclosure. The bass was good too though as a result of being created by a traditional woofer, it was not nearly as dynamic or spectacular. I recall this being a big differentiating factor between this middle-range system and their reference line, which consists of two arrays of giant woofers. That’s an antirely different experience altogether and more than double the cost of this already expensive >$100,000 setup. But for the money, dare I say this is a bargain? In truth, you’re getting the most unique kind of audiophile experience for this money, as you should. But with other comapnies offering similarly priced systems that generally don’t offer a fundamentally revolutionary approach to speaker design, it’s a no brainer to me what I would choose if I had that kind of dough. I’d get this system, and in another room in my house I’d get something more reasonable and ‘traditional’ that could for a fraction of the price give me something completely different. Well, if I had that kind of money, actually, I’ll re-assess.
And also as I mentioned, we started off with a room containing Magico’s venerable $60,000 Q5 mated to some giant electronic components. They played some high resolution Liszt piano works by a german engineer, and this was certainly the best I’ve heard the Magico’s. It’s not that they’ve ever sounded bad, or anywhere close to it. Rather, it’s true what the other reviewers say about them; they sound just like the equipment driving them combined with the source material. So much so that it’s likely difficult to get them to really shine as all-arounders. But at the same time it’s just this strength that in the eyes of many audiophiles, make these speakers the best all-rounders. I’m not sure how I feel about them. I think, for now, I’ll say that I would love to audition them and really explore this more, but I’m as of yet undecided about them. Especially at that price. In any case, the piano recording was obviously of a Steinway (of which I own a model B, and should know). It was also clear that this was a modern recording and it was also the most transparent piano sound, pure in tone and fullness, that I’ve ever heard short of the experience at CES two years ago. Looking at the soundstage with my eyes closed I would be hard pressed to really know if it was real or not. And that is, in my opinion, one of the most stringent acid tests any music system can go through. Well done Magico, well done.
There was one more unique room we went to before going down in price which was built around Scaena array speakers with a wicked cool Kronos turntable and VAC tubes. I actually had not really heard any of these components before so it’s difficult to really comment on them individually, but knowing what I’ve gathered thus far in my years of experience, I really think that these VAC tubes are something else, truly great. The system sounded dark, though most would in comparison to the MBL we had just heard. But in that darkness was a ripeness and richness that the other systems had not contained. The inner detail of the music was clear and readily apparent, though the sweet spot phenomenon was more constrictive. There was in a sense more realism to the tonality than the last two systems, and its sound with the material was very neutral and ‘live’. I enjoyed it, and want to hear more from these companies.
Cut away to the KEF blades. Wah Wah… That wah was directed at my corny humor, and is the antithesis of what these blades left me thinking. I’ve heard and read about these speakers but don’t believe I’ve actually hear them before. And boy was I pleased when I did. The unfortunate thing about this audition which the exhibitors pointed out was that the room they were heard in was entirely too small to really do them justice. It was obvious, especially when they started playing music I’ve become quite familiar with by Yello. But what I did hear was tons of tight, deep, accurate bass and gobs and gobs of clarity. When listening, the spokesman was talking to us, which was interesting because he wasn’t yelling and the music was actually quite loud. There was volume and power, but there was never a sense of being shouted at. It was very neutral and in reference to my ‘scale’ of neutrality it is really close to the middle. Sound came out and it also went in. There was a good amount of inner and outer detail both. Fortunately there is a local dealer who is going to be having an audition of these speakers next week, which I’ll attend and report back about.
Next of note is probably my favorite room of the day. As you may or may not know, I own a Plinius 9100 integrated amplifier, so I was excited to go into the Plinius room. And as you may also know, I have auditioned the PMC TB2i monitors before, though not in conjunction with my Plinius, and I’ve always been very interested in what this combo would be like. On display here was a pair of Plinius’ SB-301 amps being run in mono, delivering music through their new Tiki network audio player, driving PMC’s IB2 monitors. The guy in this room was really cool, and closer to my age than most of the other exhibitors, which also added a lot here because the presentation was much more relevant for me and my acomplice to the show (my 17 year old sister). He played some AC/DC and some electronic music by Hecq. All of these tracks he played LOUD. So loud that I was literally shocked. The room transformed into the music, the music engulfed me and created such a dynamic sound that I was flabbergasted. I had heard this music before, but not like that. Not in such detail and so big, nor so loud yet without any trace of distortion nor sign of compression or weakness on the horizon. The volume knob was more than halfway up at times, meaning a very large portion of the 1000 watts on tap from each bridged amplifier was going into the PMC speakers and the result was nothing short of spectacular. Furthermore, spectacular with material he played for me, not a generic audience nor something that was ‘audiophile ready’ from Reference recordings. I will however say that I had a couple criticizms, one of which is that the room was not big enough, and as such the bass didn’t bloom enough; there could have been more and I would even say a subwoofer could further augment this setup in the right room. Second, the sound was studio-monitor quality in many respects which meant that it was not during my audition as velvety or liquid as some presentations. This is not a bad thing, actually it’s praise, because it’s exactly what I want to bring to my studio to monitor my own recording process. It’s going to be difficult, after this presentation, to get PMC and Plinius off my mind. And lastly, all of this was accomplished through the new DAC and network player by Plinius, the Tiki, which I’ve been super interested in hearing. Well, based on my reaction, I have no complaints about that, and look forward to seeing how it sounds with my 9100.
We visited Totem’s booth, and their Element series was very nice, top to bottom, and had a signature house sound that was very enjoyable and as the designer himself explained, a very wide and coherent dispersion due to the design of their proprietary in-house drivers. Very nice indeed, especially for the price, and something I wouldn’t hesitate to try out in my own space, and something I would probably enjoy very much.
Then I heard a $200 USB audio stick that output sound so good that I was shocked. Played back to back against Audio Research’s own very expensive DAC, I was amazed at just how good it was. The difference was clear however, as vocals weren’t as precise and the soundstage wasn’t as defined, but for $200 with its own headphone output, this stick is going to probably end up in my travel bag. Amazing product by Audioquest, the Dragonfly. All of this analysis was made possible by Audio Research’s 60wpc tube integrated, and Vandersteen’s new Treo speakers which are passive versions of the quattros. I love Vandersteen speakers because they’re so nice sounding. And in this room, for the comparison between the DACs, the gentleman played Massive Attack’s 100th window, which I am very very familiar with, and that showed me Vandersteen in a light that I had previously not really seen. Though I’ve auditioned them here in Santa Monica, this implementation of them was just lovely. The bass was a bit weak but I expect that from 60wpc, especially while playing Massive Attack. That said, the bass that was there was really really nice and very lovely. In fact, the system managed to create a sense of bloom from Massive Attack that made me feel as if it was less compressed than I know it to be. That’s cool, and typical of ARC equipment, though not something I hear often. I wanted to listen to these speakers more, but I had to move on to the Vandy’s that I really wanted to hear.
Unfortunately, the model 7 never played Massive Attack. And yet I still have lust for these speakers. They’re still just as appealing to my eye as ever, and they have captured my heart in a way that no other speaker really has. I always give a nod to Mr. Vandersteen when leaving his room after a lenghty sitting. He probably has no idea who I am, yet, but I must tip my hat to him. His speakers are about music more than any other speaker in THE show. They exude musicality like nothing else. I want to sit and listen to these speakers for hours and hours and hours and days and days and days. Someday, I will own them, and hopefully some day before that I will audition them again. Every piece of vinyl played through the 7s, powered by ARC reference equipment, revealed the fullest detail and clarity and realism of the day, for me. It was so cohesive and coherent and musical, and simple, oh so simple sounding. It was music, and I loved it.
Last but certainly not least was a new speaker by Magico, their S5. I had not known they were coming out with this, but I was excited to hear it. Clad in an orange lacquer the color of my friends BMW 1M, they were visually very striking, much more so than the Q series. This S series looks to be more cost efficient too, which is a welcome change to their line. My hope is that they do a smaller version of this one too, and perhaps that will be a speaker for me. I didn’t hear much from these speakers, and the Constellation Audio equipment, but what I did hear was good. It was more in line with Vandersteen’s 7, and it was more coherent and simple than what I know their Q line to be. More friendly toward different recordings, while still getting things right and accurate, top to bottom. I’m really amazed by what this company is doing and in closing I think this is a great model for this industry to follow. They’re advancing themselves relentlessly, and with passion. It’s eerily similar to how Apple decided to create the best product possible without regard to cost, and what was at one time a cult brand, has become the leader in their segment. Magico, to me, has the potential and power to go there. A few other companies do too, but none in my opinion have the allure or, well, magic, of Magico. I cannot wait to hear more from these speakers in the future.
Many of the rooms I went into I did not mention, even though many of them were really good sounding. Unfortunately, they often sounded good, while also being completely irrelevant to me. Either the speakers were ugly, or the music was for older folks. I know that this older demographic is still most important, but am seeing a trend toward awareness of my generation, and a willingness to share the excitement of a brand in a new bright light instead of a dim one in the corner. Many of the exhibitors expressed this enthusiasm and eagerness to share their passion, and have not resigned to such. I welcome this approach and hope to see more of it. In fact, at THIS show, there WAS more of it, more than ever, and certainly more than there had been in Vegas. This is promising, and exciting, and really fun. This was the most fun show I’ve been to. I hope it keeps growing more and more like this for me, because I have a lot of projects underway that are bringing me closer and closer to the core of music, into the heart of sound, and these various tools of the manufacturers here at THE show are what I will use to gauge and work with my projects. It’s a beautiful relationship at its very early stages of growth, the stem coming into bloom. Very exciting times for me, and for all others I saw in these rooms with a smile, tapping their feet and nodding their heads, to Diana Krall and Massive Attack alike.
TagsAmphion analog audio audiophile audio show B&W B&W 804s bass Bryston Bryston B-60 SST Conrad Johnson Dali dynamics E.A.R. equipment reviews hifi high-res high end audio high fidelity ipad Luxman Marantz midrange music music streaming Plinius Plinius 9100 PMC preamplifier preamplifier reviews reference quality room acoustics Rotel Sherwood soundstage speaker speaker reviews speakers stereo system Totem treble tube preamplifier turntable tweeter woofer