Newport 2015

Newport 2015: VKMusic


THEShow_LOGO2015It’s time to check in with VKMusic and Victor Kung, who I am convinced is actually on a mission from God. Victor and his wife once again ran the kind of simple marketplace table that would be ignored by most audio snobs. Point and laugh at those poor snobs, people. They have no idea what they’re missing.

VKMusic’s line of kits covers just about all the bases. Whether you’re looking for a cheap, Class D amp that will snap together like a Lego set or a 300b SET for under a grand, they’ll have something for you. Cheap desktop speakers? No problem. NOS DACs and CD transports? No problem. It’s all there, and it all costs less than a pair of audiophile-approved interconnects.

My favorite category killer remains the single-ended Elekit TU-8200DX integrated amplifier ($725). It’s a straightforward kit with huge upgrade possibilities. Even stock, it offers one of the most fun headphone outputs that I’ve heard at a show. Want to tame that LCD-3 without breaking the bank? This is your huckleberry. Want to make things better? There’s room on the board to upgrade the volume pot, and there’s plenty more space to add in some boutique capacitors. Want more power? Switch the amp over to pentode or ultralinear operation. Want a single box solution? Toss another fifty bucks at it for a built-in DAC. I want one for my office. If the speaker performance turns out to be half as good as the headphone performance, I want another one for my living room.

Now there’s a matching preamp for folks with more traditional needs. The Elekit TU-8500 will run you $495. It offers a three input 12au7 line stage and op-amp phono stage that can even handle low output MC cartridges. I can’t wait to get my hands on one.

If you’re even slightly comfortable with slinging solder, you owe it to yourself to get some of these kits before you drop any more money on power cables.

Proud to sponsor Part-Time Audiophile and The Audio Traveler at THE Show in Newport 2015!






Newport 2015

Newport 2015: Rethm and Core Audio Designs


THEShow_LOGO2015I’ll admit that I’m partial to the speakers from Rethm. If nothing else, Jacob George’s magnificent aesthetic sense has made them — to my taste — among the most attractive speakers available at any price. Fortunately, I don’t have to be shallow. They also tend to deliver the high efficiency I crave and the kind of well-balanced audio performance that I don’t usually associated with whizzer cones. The Rethm room is always a high point.

This time, though, the Rethm room was also a surprise. After years of showing with some of the best tube amplification that money can scrounge (including his own), Mr. George chose an unorthodox partner for the bright white pair of his Maarga speakers ($9,000). Enter Core Audio Designs who brought a matching prototype of their new Harmony Integrated System ($18,000) to bear on the room.

I finally managed to get my ears on it late on Sunday afternoon, and quickly forget to write down which familiar audiophile tracks were playing while I was in the room. My notes tell me that I was surprised by how tolerable it was.

For your information, that is not “damning it with faint praise”. The Rethm Maargas may be easy to drive, but they are unforgivingly revealing of the flaws in their partnering amplification. Along with the speed, articulation, and clarity that are the expected hallmarks of digital amplification, the Core Audio system demonstrated a microdynamic facility that was surprising and a natural tone out that was honestly shocking. I didn’t spend enough time in the room to decide that, yes, I could live with this monolith, but I did actually spend time in the room. I’m not always — or usually, for that matter — willing to do that when it comes to digital amps. I’m more of a “vomit in my mouth and run away” guy. “Tolerable” isn’t a word I’m willing to use lightly.

This wasn’t just a system that lived up to its price tag, but a system that gave me real hope for the future.

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Newport 2015

Newport 2015: MrSpeakers


THEShow_LOGO2015It’s not news that MrSpeakers is waving a goodbye to the hacked Fostex models that made them famous. THE Show was the final bow for the Dog Kennel, with Mad Dogs making their last appearance on the show circuit. The new hotness from Dan Clark is the ETHER ($1499) that Josh Emmons gushed about in his AXPONA writeup. Back to back listening here made one thing clear: the Dogs are obsolete.

I won’t say much about the sound of the ETHER here. I haven’t, after all, auditioned them in any kind of controlled environment. That said, you probably shouldn’t expect me to review a pair. My plan, at this point, is simply to save my pennies until I can afford to buy them for myself.

Even limited to show listening, the ETHER so quickly established itself as necessary that I felt the need to borrow a pair from Dan whenever I visited a table that wasn’t already kitted out. It’s the very definition of reference hardware. I’m not sure that there’s another set of commercially available cans that offers this level of accessible transparency short of a spendy electrostat rig. Even ‘stats can’t offer this kind of wide amplifier compatibility and versatility.

ETHER is a game changer. It’s love at first sight.

And it should be shipping by the time you read this.

Proud to sponsor Part-Time Audiophile and The Audio Traveler at THE Show in Newport 2015!



Newport 2015

Newport 2015: VPI


THEShow_LOGO2015There’s something unique about T.H.E. Show. It’s a real party.

It’s not just that it seems to be packed with the most out there exhibits on the US audio show circuit. It’s the fact that it’s just so much of a good time that everyone wants to get in on the party — even when they’re not officially attending.

Take VPI Industries as your example. Mat Weisfeld and Jane Cai made a last minute decision to hop a plane to California just to hang out and enjoy the fun. They also brought enough cameras with them to pass for members of The Part-Time Audiophile crew. Between wandering around gawking and taking pictures, they also loitered in the lobby with the newly-reborn VPI Nomad ($995) all-in-one turntable.

The new Nomad is the product of a new supply chain and completely overhauled quality control procedures. The original may have been a hell of a deal, but it still showed signs of being an artisinal product. The new edition has more of an industrial feel to it, with more consistency and reliability as the main features.

Even with lobby power and a tilted table, the Nomad’s speed stability let The Stones punch right through a pair of KEF M500 headphones. I liked it. In fact, there probably wasn’t more elemental fun to be had in any exhibit room. VPI seems to have found its focus again.

But if Mat and Jane want to keep carrying stupidly large cameras around audio shows, we’re going to have to have words. Stay on your side of the industry, folks. You don’t see us making turntables, do you?

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Newport 2015

Newport 2015: Precision Transducer Engineering


THEShow_LOGO2015I’ve been doing the arm-twisting song and dance about PTE’s speakers since before I even started the show-report gig. After getting hooked on their Statement speaker back in 2012, I changed my show addiction to their smaller, stand-mounted speakers. 2013’s Phoenix SG ($9500) remains unchanged this year, and the show performance was as consistently ear-popping as ever. The problem for show-reporting is that “consistent” usually translates to “boring.”

Fortunately for us, Mark Thoke, PTE’s front man, just plain sucks at “boring.”

Anyone who’s been to a PTE room knows that Mark is going to drop a cinderblock on the gas pedal if things get boring, such as when he pulls out an unmastered, mini-disc bootleg of one of his favorite bar bands (“We just hung the recorder behind the drummer,” explains Mark) and cranks the volume to 115db at the listening chair. For some folks, this is the equivalent of chasing them out of the room with an air horn. Other folks stand up and cheer.

This room didn’t need too much in the way of Mark’s fetish for the volume knob to be exciting, though. Look at that perfectly maintained Studer R2R in the pictures. The sound of Tom Waits’ “Singapore” coming off that deck was nothing short of a religious visitation. It spoiled my vinyl for me — possibly forever.

If it’s possible to be even more exciting, though, the turntable managed it. It only looks like a Micro Seiki. In reality, it’s the creation of Classic Turntables‘ Mirko Djordjevic, another crazy man from the LA Basin. He took the basic Micro aesthetic, built a better bearing, milled out the massive plinth and forty-pound platter, and then developed his own, geared, drive system for the belt. This being a PTE room, a Soundsmith Hyperion cartridge ($7,500) got to be an old-school rocker for the weekend. Nothing Mark played could phase this table’s timing accuracy. It was solid. It rocked.

The expected price is $10,000. As for a name, Mirko’s leaning toward using “Mirko Seiki” until someone sues him into the stone age. This is one of the most lust-worthy decks I’ve seen in years. If it’s in your budget, you contact PTE for the details immediately.

Other electronics were PTE’s usual show-collection. An Antelope Gold crunched the bits, an old Philips player spun the silver discs, PTE’s own phono preamp managed the RIAA correction, and a T+A preamp was wasted as a volume control. This is the kind of room where they twist the knob to the right until it breaks off. Room treatments were provided by a bunch of empty boxes and throw pillows that finally found a practical use besides smothering an unwlecome houseguest.

You gotta love it.

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Newport 2015

Newport 2015: Perla Audio


THEShow_LOGO2015There aren’t many manufacturers that offer a soup-to-nuts system approach. McIntosh and Linn come to mind. Naim is up there. GamuT has been edging in on it for a while.

Little Perla Audio hasn’t been around long, but their line is almost as complete — and more weirdly esoteric. I enthused about their analog system last year, so I was delighted to see another analog system this year. The speakers were their familiar, aluminum-ingot, PRS-2 ($5,850 per pair). The Maestro handled line preamp duties for the Motiff phono-pre ($3,500 each), and the poweramps were the spanking-new, Righello monoblocks ($9,000 each). The sound was, if anything, better than last year’s — quicker, quieter, clearer, and meatier.

But excellence in sound is only a small part of why I love insane audio. Fortunately, the Perla guys cover the rest of the bases, too.

Just look at that front end! That’s a double-platter Lenco with a custom chassis milled to match the Perla gear. That’s a rewired oddity of an Abis tonearm. That cartridge? Perla knows metal, so that’s a Perla-modified Denon 103 with a machined body and new damping (you can get one for dirt cheap). It’s probably the first time I’ve heard a 103 that didn’t have any obvious trace of Denon grain. This kind of thing is supposed to be the bailiwick of anachro-fetish tube-o-philes and steampunk sympathizers. Seeing it paired with ultra-sleek, ultra-modern solid state? It’s mindboggling.

The whole system sounded so perfectly balanced at 6pm on Saturday that I didn’t even ask for specs on the gear. Instead, I gawked and gawped at those cartridge bodies while nerding out over the distressingly encyclopedic analog lore locked up inside of this brain trust.

These guys really are on to something. Check them out.

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Newport 2015

Newport 2015: LampizatOr, Salk Sound, Wells Audio, DanaCable, Gingko Audio


THEShow_LOGO2015Some folks just get used to winning. The 1996 Yankees come to mind. Sure, ’97 was an off-year, but you just knew what was coming. Walking into this room felt a whole lot like that moment when we all figured out what kind winners the Yanks were.

First you had a new LampizatOr Lite 7 ($5950) with volume control, big DHTs, and solid-state rectification. It may have given up some of the rich harmonics of its hollow-state elder sibling, but it more than made up for that loss with the best defined transients and quickest bass I’ve heard from any system fronted by a Lampi. This may well be the Lampi that most appeals to my tastes.

Jeff Wells‘ Innamorata Signature ($15,0000) is a buttoned-down tank of an amplifier. The Lampi front end woke it up like an amphetamine enema with a double-espresso chaser. As in Chicago, everything was tied together with about twelve grand worth of DanaCable‘s finest. As is tradition, everything sat on Gingko‘s rack.

The new member of the team was Jim Salk, who provided a Salk Streamer ($1495) source and pair of his Exotica 3 ($12,000/pair) speakers — and I’ve never heard them sound better. The Alnico magnets on the mids and tops gave a better-than-technicolor idea of just what kind of tonal wizardry the electronics bring to the table, while the dual, servo-controlled subs take any questions about bass right off the table.

This was nothing less than the best show performance I’ve heard from any of the players in the room. I have a feeling that it’s only going to get better from here.

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Newport 2015

Newport 2015: Whammerdyne Heavy Industries



This is why you go to an audio show.

We all say that we’re curious about the industry. We all say that we’re looking to hear a bunch of different systems. We make excuses about how good it is to see everybody. We talk about how good a happy hour the hotel bar runs. That’s all bull. We really go to audio shows in the hope that you get to hear something so totally insane that it makes us smile for days.

Whammerdyne Heavy Industries new “Truth” 2a3 integrated amp is totally insane. It sports NOS tubes, three watts of power, autoformer volume controls, Simpson meters, a $15,000 price tag, and industrial design that looks like they stole it out of a late Tom Waits song. Just seeing it glow in the darkness is enough to make you smile. Listening to it just makes everything better. Paired here with a pair of Zu Druids ($5,400) and fed signal from a fully loaded MSB Analog DAC (north of $14,000 as configured), this little monster made my weekend.

This was one of those times when Zu was the perfect match. The Whammerdyne powered them to the best performance I’ve yet heard from a Druid. Tone and detail were right on — not that you would have cared, because this little amp is fast. We threw four or five songs at it. All the usual fare was handled so perfectly that we even tossed the execrably recorded, instantly alienating, made-to-get-speeding-tickets, “Cowboy of Tchernobyl” by King Automatic into the system. This is a spiky, punkabilly, surftastic, one man wall of sound that makes “tubey” tube amps scream for mercy. The Whammer nailed it.

I shouldn’t be surprised. Whammerdyne may be a new company, but the folks behind it are anything but newbies. Pat Hickman is leading the charge. Matt Kamna is doing the circuit design. Dave Slagle is winding autoformers. They tell me that they’ve even dragged in Lynn Olson to write their manuals. That’s a deep bench.

I’m still smiling. I keep wondering what that amp would sound like on my Altecs. I just wish I’d spent more time here.

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Newport 2015

Newport 2015: Stillpoints and Exemplar Audio



Now this was fun.

“Show Conditions” don’t usually offer the chance to listen to gear that was recently living in your house, but the tenth floor room shared by Stillpoints and Exemplar Audio offered just that — with a source and amp that I recently wrote up as part of a long-winded piece for Positive Feedback Online. The Giant, John Tucker, was even using the same hard drive I’d become so familiar with when he left it at my house. It was easy to ask him to cue up a little Professor Longhair while I got to know his tiny, little speakers.

While I got to know his tiny, little, gorgeous speakers with alnico magnets and insane bass, that is. Four grand for the pair, built around drivers I would have dismissed out of hand, and wrapped in the best cabinet work that David Florio has to offer. There’s some deep magic in there.

Sure, the soundstage was a little bit constrained, and, sure, the dynamics didn’t quite leap out at you like a desperate mugger, but I wasn’t expecting that from the hard drive as a source. I also wasn’t expecting to walk away thinking that I’d wish I’d lived with these instead of the Big Duplexes. The music had a relaxed and natural quality that was, in every way that mattered to me, the opposite of cerebral. John had to kick me out when I tried to camp in a chair.

Some of the credit for this room has to go to Stillpoints and their “tweaks.” First up was the Entreq Silver Minimus ($729) that Stillpoints distributes in the US. This is a one-in/one-out box that works some weird magic on the AC ground. Then there were the Stillpoints feet — far too many to count — under everything. Even the speaker stands were breathed on by Stillpoints, and they cost a bit extra. Then there were the delightfully effective Aperture acoustic panels ($650 each, base price) around the room. I don’t even know how something that small manages to have any effect, but this was noticeably one of the best sounding rooms in the hotel.

The problem, of course, is that some of the credit also has to go to John Tucker’s one-off power conditioner — that’s the big, power-amp looking box at the bottom of the rack. Unfortunately, it’s not for sale. “It’s insane,” says John. “Do you know what that costs to make? I can’t sell that!” If it’s as effective as it seems to be, I think John may be underestimating the market potential.

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Newport 2015

Newport 2015: Spatial Audio, Red Dragon, Resolution Audio


THEShow_LOGO2015I’m starting to hate Clayton Shaw. His Spatial Audio Laboratory has been pushing my buttons for two years with reasonably priced, open-baffle speakers. The last few models even sported the kind of big coax drivers that make my blood uncomfortably hot. Now he’s released an evolution of the $4,000, 95db sensitive Hologram M1 that won my heart at last year’s California Audio Show. This new M3 Hologram lists for $1495.

I had to ask Clayton to repeat the price a few times. “Fourteen ninety-five.”

That price is not a typo.

Listening to it paired with a Resolution Audio Cantata ($6500) and a Red Dragon Audio S500 Amplifier ($2000) left me slack-jawed. It also left me asking more questions. “This sounds a lot like the M1,” I wondered, “is it actually different?” Answer: not by much. The biggest changes are the (obvious) baffle work, and the domestic-only, direct-only sales model. “We can’t ship these overseas,” Clayton explained, “the shipping would cost more than the speaker.”

The M3 seemingly gives up little (if any) performance to its older brother, and that pressure-bonded baffle neatly contains the crossovers and most of the absurd wiring loom that plagues every multi-way open baffle. It just looks better than the old model. Cleaner. More modern. More appealing. And you’re telling me it’s cheaper?

Clayton nearly took my head off when I expressed surprise at the lowered price. “I’m getting so tired of everything being too expensive,” he said. “We invested in a better build processes and larger order quantities to get our prices down. We worked at this. I don’t want to just sell toys to rich people.”

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Newport 2015

Newport 2015: Lounge Audio


THEShow_LOGO2015Robert Morin of Lounge Audio is a bad man. Here we are, basically done with the process of reviewing his $300, MM-only, LCR MKIII phono preamp (Spoiler Alert: it makes a hash out of any kind of “price/performance” ratio) when he decides to release a head amp for moving coil cartridges.

The new, $270, Copla preamp will take your tiny signals and boost them enough to use any low output cartridge with any MM only phono pre. Its standout feature, other than its price, is the easy, front-panel knob that adjusts gain and cartridge loading. Twist it until it sounds right, then sit down and relax. No math involved.

A quick listen to Dave “Baby” Cortez banging out “The Happy Organ” was enough to get me hooked. I probably don’t even have to tell you that the LCR MKIII review is delayed until one of these little guys shows up.

It wasn’t that long ago that a moving coil compatible, LCR phono pre was the kind of exotic kit that existed only in the minds of DIYers and Ultra Fi cultists. Seeing a small company bring the whole package in under $600 is something close to a miracle.

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Newport 2015

Newport 2015: Schiit Audio


THEShow_LOGO2015Schiit‘s Jason Stoddard, past Writer of the Future, smiles almost too easily these days. The Schiit machine has been spitting out winning products with an alarming regularity. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was starting to feel confident. What else could make someone trapped in the Headphone Shed for a weekend flash that grin so often?

Maybe he’s earned a bit of confidence. Schiit’s Shed-spanning display started on the left, with the low-end, $79 Fulla dingus driving a pair of Massdrop’s AKG K7xx bassmeisters to satisfyingly crunchy levels. The broad middle of their table was filled with the broad middle of their market-encompassing range. The far, right end of the display, though, was where the real draws sat: the Ragnarok amplifier ($1699) and Yggdrasil dac ($2299). There was already an audition line for those by 11am Friday.

Please understand: I don’t do lines. I’m not a patient person. As far as I’m concerned, lines are worse than Kryptonite Muzak. I once stayed sober at an all-day, outdoor Irish festival in July because the beer line was twenty jackasses too deep (and trust me, the music was bad enough that I really needed that beer). I don’t even care about this job enough to wait in any kind of a line.

I waited for my turn here as though Sister Celestine were still standing guard over my first grade class with a metal ruler. Then I went back for seconds. The rest is my private business. Our Esteemed Editor has an Yggy in his stereo cave right now. You can bug him for his report. All I’m going to say here is that Jason is probably going to keep smiling for a good, long while.

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Newport 2015

Newport 2015: Endeavor, Pure Audio, Oracle, Snake River, Aurender and Berkeley


THEShow_LOGO2015Folks reading the interwebs tend to be sensitive to some of the buddy-buddy relationships the hobbyist press corps has with some of the manufacturers. Keeping that in mind, this room, presented by Malibu dealer Sweet Spot High End and shared with Colleen Cardas Imports, requires a few disclaimers.

The first, and most obvious disclaimer, is that Marc Phillips, the hairier partner in CCI, occasionally writes think pieces and cigar reviews for our parent site, Confessions of a Part-Time Audiophile. The second disclaimer is that I tend to be a big fan of Leif Swanson’s Endeavor Speakers. The third is that nobody in their right mind trusts me to be nice in print just because we’re chummy at the bar. Heck, I’m not even all that nice at the bar.

Still, I have to admit that familiarity made me look forward to this room. It offered an amplification chain sourced from New Zealand’s Pure Audio, including the American debut of Pure Audio’s Duo stereo amplifier ($9,500). Scot recently raved about Pure Audio’s other electronics, and I was curious to see how this Class A/B chassis would compare to the frightening dynamics that their monoblocks showed at last year’s RMAF.

The system was fronted by an Oracle Delphi MK VI Gen 2 turntable ($10,000) with a SME 5 arm ($7750) and an Oracle Corinth Cartridge (price not listed). Pure Audio’s Vinyl phono preamp ($4,500) did the correction duties. Even with that heavy hitting lineup, the real star was Marc’s crate of vinyl. He pulled out an old copy of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s take on Rachmaninoff, and the gear basically faded into insignificance next to that particular freight train. You don’t get this kind of synergy in most show rooms, and it’s a little hard to be analytical when the experience is so captivatingly natural. Still, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a big, green check mark next to “dynamics.”

Other gear in the room included a full loom of Snake River Audio‘s Signature cabling, an Aurender N10 music server ($8,000), and a Berkeley Audio Design Reference DAC ($16,000 base). Sadly, I didn’t listen to much (read: “any”) digital while I was in the room. Gear can be fun, but it’s not every day that you get to raid the Vinyl Anachronist‘s back records.

We all have our priorities.

Proud to sponsor Part-Time Audiophile and The Audio Traveler at THE Show in Newport 2015!





Newport 2015

Newport 2015: HiFiMAN


THEShow_LOGO2015HiFiMan is a terrible pain in the neck. Without HiFiMan, we might have had an easy run over the last few years. Internet people might have come together to decide that Audeze or Stax were the best headphones in the world. Instead, HiFiMan, with their impossible to drive planars, turned otherwise reasonable people into speed freaks, completely addicted to the adrenaline-fueled presentation, insane detail, and British Roadster fit and finish.

Some of their headphones were more or less impractical. I think they made at least one model that needed to be driven directly by the outputs of a fission reactor. Other models were more reasonable, but their reputation as the hardest of the had core remained.

That’s all over now.

Meet the new HE400s, a 98db sensitive, 22 ohm, pair of planar headphones that will cost all of $299 when they’re released later this summer. They’re easy to drive, they’re detailed, muscular, loads comfier than I remember from old HiFiMan, and built like a very stylish bank vault. This is lust at first listen.

Even in THE Show’s noisy Headphone shed, the impact and fun factor of Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days” was pegging the lustometer playing directly out of my iPhone. Amping makes everything a bit better. Plugging it into HiFiMan’s own HM-802 DAP makes everything better. But hot damn, this is an entirely new game.





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Newport 2015

Newport 2015: Press Day


THEShow_LOGO2015The Home Entertainment Show has put all its eggs in one basket. After a gagillion years, they’ve abandoned Las Vegas to concentrate on the single, almost-in-Newport Newport show. After years of splitting that show between two hotels, they’ve moved in to a single hotel that offers shmancier, more upscale, less 70’s-retro-cool digs. There are more rooms, more stereos, more cars, more food, and more people than I really care to think about. Next to those teeny changes — and next to the absolutely brilliant on-site, all-night, convenience store in the lobby — the biggest change was that the T.H.E. show got expanded to four whole days.

The new day was an Industry Day, a “press slash VIP” day in which folks were supposed to wander the halls getting their impressions of the gear on offer. The theory, in part, was that the blogger scum might have a slim chance to avoid clogging up the hallways when the real customers came out to play. Like most theories, it needed a bit of work. Thursday was a day in which folks discovered that their cartridges didn’t work, that their drivers were blown, and that they had no idea where to store their boxes. I gave up being a journamalist after walking into a dozen rooms that, for all intents, still had curlers in their hair. By the time happy hour started at four, most other folks gave up, too.

So… “Industry Day” became about the industry. Setup, eating, drinking, talking, catching up on a year’s worth of stories, making new friends, and a bit more drinking. Instead of talking about audio, the day was about rediscovering one of the fun facts about the industry: we’re not just limited to one hobby. Cars, music, travel … fart jokes …. We covered it all.

Here are some of the faces that go with stories you’ll never hear.

Chebon Littlefield flies the Mytek flag at these shindigs

Chebon Littlefield flies the Mytek flag at these shindigs

Exemplar's John Tucker came to launch a dead sexy new pair of $4,000 speakers

Exemplar’s John Tucker came to launch a dead sexy new pair of $4,000 speakers

Warren Jarrett and David Cope argue about the value of VTA

Warren Jarrett and David Cope argue about the value of VTA

Tony Chipelo tells our own Rafe Arnott about his crazy new amp

Tony Chipelo tells our own Rafe Arnott about his crazy new amp

Colleen Cardas, Warrent Jarrett, Marc Phillips, Rafe Arnott, Brian Hunter, and Tony Chipelo after eating ridiculous amounts of food

Colleen Cardas, Warrent Jarrett, Marc Phillips, Rafe Arnott, Brian Hunter, and Tony Chipelo after eating ridiculous amounts of food

Brian Hunter, looking suaaaaave

Brian Hunter, looking suaaaaave

Dead Sober Rafe assumes the position for comedy purposes. No Rafes were intoxicated during photography. Honest.

Dead Sober Rafe assumes the position for comedy purposes. No Rafes were intoxicated during photography. Honest.

When the night starts to look like this, it's time to go home.

When the night starts to look like this, it’s time to go home.

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AXPONA 2015: Gingko, Wells, LampizatOr, Dana Cable


I’ve been hanging out in Gingko Audio rooms at shows since about 2006, and I’ve heard at least umpteen-dozen of their show setups since then. I almost always dig them. I dug them back when they were fashioning cardboard tubes into Tubulus Speakers. I dug them when they were hooking accelerometers up to audio gadgets to sell vibration control gear. And I’ve seriously, seriously, dug them since they upped their game with the ClaraVu 7 Mk 3 speaker ($8,995 per pair).

This room? I’m going to say that this was their best yet.

Part of that was obviously the LampizatOr Big 7 DAC ($13,500) that fronted the system. Part of that was almost certainly the Wells Audio Innamorata Signature amplifier ($15,000) that powered the top half of the speakers. The folks at Gingko would tell me that a big part of it was the full loom of Dana Cable that tied everything together (just over $12,000, if memory serves).

But, really, it was all about how good Barbara Hendricks & the Magnus Lindgren Quartet sounded with “Trouble in Mind” from Barbara Sings the Blues. Barbara Hendricks isn’t all that young anymore, but her voice has aged into something close to an ideal huskiness for this album. There may have been a touch too much romantic breathiness in this system’s presentation, but that was hardly unwelcome. The real star, surprisingly, wasn’t the glorious presence that the system gave to Hendricks’ voice (I’m past being pleasantly surprised by the LampizatOr dacs), but the perfect scale, perfect timing, and superb control displayed with Mathias Algotsson’s piano. This was the kind of piano that I expect to hear from a big stat, not from a small column festooned with mismatched drivers.

This was, to my taste, a brilliantly matched and implemented system.


AXPONA 2015: Classic Audio, Atma-Sphere, Purist Audio Design


Scot Hull likes to accuse me of being too negative. I keep trying to tell him that I’m not negative, it’s just that people keep shoving half-empty glasses at me. He tells me that I should try to concentrate on what I like. I tell him that I really like complaining. That’s usually about when he hangs up the phone in disgust. You have to admit, though, that complaining can be a lot of fun. That’s one of the hidden joys of audio. Since everything is a compromise, you can always, by definition, find something to complain about. Sure, complaining isn’t much of a hobby, but, sometimes, it’s just about the only fun I get in a day.

Which is why I have it in for these guys. They make it almost impossible to complain.

Let’s ignore the Classic Audio T-1.5 speaker. We’ve all seen show reports with it, and, frankly, those of us who write show reports have all heard it. It’s lovable, it’s excellent, and it’s $73,000. Yes, I want a pair. Yes, so do you. We’re going to skip it.

Let’s move on to a much rarer treat, the Classic Audio Hartsfield Reproduction ($72,000). For starters, I think we can all agree that nothing should be allowed to look that good. Certainly nothing that looks that good should be loaded with enough field-coil drivers to peg the audiophile lustometer. Never, under any circumstances, should something that cool and lust-worthy ever — EVER! — be played for a guy who likes to complain.

If you’re going to break those rules, you most definitely shouldn’t power those speakers with a custom pair of Atma-Sphere Novacrons ($19,200) featuring a quad of 7241 tubes each and kicking out 100 watts per channel. “I’m not selling you the tubes, and I’m not going to warranty the tubes,” says Ralph Karsten. “If you want ’em, you’re on your own.” Definitely don’t front the system with a discontinued Stahl-Tek DAC and a loaded Atma-Sphere MP-1 (just over $20k with options). You probably don’t want to wire the whole thing together with close to $40k of Purist Audio Design cables, come to think of it. Whatever you do, don’t hand your tablet over to some complaining jackass who’s going to dig Basie’s “The Daly Jump” right out from under the seat cushions of your playlist, because the first thing that jackass is going to say is “these aren’t audiophile speakers.”

Because they’re not. They are in no way audiophile speakers. Are you looking for a razor-sharp soundstage? Go look somewhere else. Are you looking for a heightened sense of detail? Go look somewhere else. Look fast, though, because a couple of minutes listening to this system is enough to tell you that audiophile speakers are just plain wrong.

Soundstage? Who cares about that crap when a big band is, as far as you can tell, jumping up and down on your lungs from right over there? Heightened detail? Who cares about that when actual detail is so obviously sufficient. Dynamics? Take your puny, little, drivers and go play with your other toys. This kind of stuff will rewire you. You’ll need to have entirely new standards.

In fact, systems like this are exactly what complaining is meant for. You have to dig to find complaints. You’re not looking to talk about the system’s strengths, because that’s just going to take too long. You’re looking to put your finger on weaknesses just so you can figure out if it falls short. Not even “how.” If.

I think I’d enjoy listening to this system long enough to be able to really complain about it. That seems like a pretty good goal. I know for sure that I haven’t listened long enough to be anywhere close to reaching it.




AXPONA 2015: Brokenpress Design+Fabrication


Not everything at an audio show has to sound good. That makes sense. If we were honest with each other, we’d admit that this “it’s all about the music” line of bull we peddle each other is complete nonsense. It’s not all about the music. It’s just as much about enjoying our stuff. Listening to it, touching it, and, yes, looking at it are all important.

Meet Brokenpress Design+Fabrication, a Chicago house specializing in bespoke interpretations of Mid-Century Modern styles. Or, as I like to think of it, simple stuff that looks good.

For what it’s worth: this stuff looks really good.

Jennifer Bakija hung out with a bunch of Brokenpress’s MCM consoles and answered questions all weekend. The biggest question in front of her, “do you ship to Oregon,” had a great answer. “We’re just ready to start shipping nationwide,” she told me. “We wanted to make sure that we could pack this stuff well enough to survive.” According to the listings on the Etsy shop, it’s also priced to be a bargain in audiophile terms.

Hey, you need a place to put your stereo, right? It might as well look good.




AXPONA 2015: Audio Note UK


I’ve started to worry that I’m becoming one of those guys who plays favorites with a brand.

It’s not about the ad money, because Audio Note sure as heck doesn’t advertise. It’s not about the comfortable rooms, because the company in question doesn’t exactly lay out the barcalounger and beer keg for visitors. It’s not even because I always enjoy the chance to shoot the breeze and trade music tips with David Cope. It’s really just because Audio Note, in show after show over the last three years, has been consistently, dependably, listenable. Audio Note has slowly become one of those brands that come up every time I think it’s time to pack in the reviewing gig and retire to my nice, well-built, enjoyable stereo.

This time promised to be special. A short conversation on Facebook let me know that David was driving to the show. David is so cursed by the freight gods that my usual question is “what got banged up in shipping this time?” Since he was driving himself, he planned to carry the exhibit gear in his car. This meant that he was bringing pricier components than he’d usually trust to the tender mercies of Team Brown.

The pricier gear in question included the Jinro Shochu “fully balanced single ended” amplifier ($31,000), the loaded, Level 4, M6 preamp ($20,500), a CDT Three/II disc spinner ($11,775), a DAC 3.1/II ($9,900), a pair of E/SPe HE speakers (the cheapest component in the room at $9,600 per pair), some speaker stands that felt like they were filled with spent uranium, and, just to screw with expectations, an equipment rack.

Now… I have a pedantic nit to pick before we get started. Audio Note’s definition of “fully balanced” as applied to the Jinro Shochu is not a definition I recognize. Yes, it sports a transformer input, a transformer coupled interstage, and an output transformer. Andy Grove and Peter Qvortup have made an argument that those transformers make it “fully balanced.” I disagree. I’d make the argument that anything that’s only amplifying one phase of a signal referenced to ground is, by definition, a single ended amplifier.

Hey, I warned you that I was going to be pedantic.

I wanted to bring this up because this kind of pedantic nitpicking is exactly the kind of gobshite behavior that will distract people from noticing that the Jinro Shochu is one hell of an amp. That input transformer is going to murder your ground loops and line noise. That interstage transformer is going to give your driver stage serious oomph without coloration. All that iron is going to help lock down the current loops inside the amp. You’re going to wind up with a dead silent, Nimitz Class monstrosity that pumps out all of twenty, clean, tone-monster watts with all micro-detail and small timing perfection that draw people to SETs in the first place.

I say it’s a single ended amplifier, but I wouldn’t care if Audio Note wanted to call it a Triple Balanced Steam Powered Amplicator. They can call it whatever they want as long as they keep producing the things. Anyone who has an issue with their naming conventions is free to take it up with the Audio Note mothership. I officially do not care. The amp seems awesome.

How do I know it seems awesome?

Because I started listening to the system on Thursday night. David Cope was one of the industry folks kind enough to give Josh an introduction to listening to gear at shows. He hadn’t quite finished placing the speakers (they only look like they get dropped carelessly into the corners), but, when we asked him to demonstrate what “overpowering the room” sounded like, the system wouldn’t do it. It loaded the room too perfectly. The system overpowered our ears, to be sure. We happily drove the speakers into distortion and the amp into clipping, sure. But, even out there on the ragged edge, there was no real loss of control. The recovery from clipping was basically instantaneous, and the sheer volume involved in driving the amp to clipping in that 400 square foot space was not a volume you’re likely to want to hit without ear protection.

The amp is a total monster.

Still, I walked away feeling that the system was just a little too warm and fuzzy. That was a completely irrational feeling, of course. We’d listened to nothing familiar to me. I think it was the soundtrack to the movie Glory for crying out loud. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to it before. Warm and fuzzy? That was probably the Thursday night beer talking. I stopped back in a few times over the weekend, when David wasn’t playing the system loud enough to make the walls flap, and I didn’t hear anything warm and fuzzy.


But the real action came on Saturday evening, when Charles King brought his battery-powered Cellovox (a Stellavox with his own Cello electronics) tape deck to bear on the system with a first generation tape of the Chuck Israels Orchestra playing in Portland.

The first thing you need to understand is this: if you haven’t gone to hear the Chuck Israels Orchestra blow the back out of the bar, you’re missing out on one of the finest experiences Portland has to offer. The second thing you need to understand, though, is that the next best thing to hanging on to your drink so the horns don’t blow it into your lap is getting to hear that tape in the Audio Note room. The system may have fallen a wee bit short of the maximum SPL of the live band (thank God), and it may have lost a little bit of weight on the bottom of Chuck’s bass compared to sitting in the front row at (the late, lamented) Ivories, but it sounded, both in SPL and in weight, damn near as real as sitting at one of the middle-of-the-house tables. That is what a stereo is meant to do.

Forget specs. Forget pedantic nomenclature arguments. I’m playing favorites because I’ve started to count on Audio Note to provide a reality check at these shows.

To be honest, I’m enjoying every minute of it.


AXPONA 2015: Fidelis Home Audio, Vinnie Rossi and Harbeth


Let’s just say that New Hampshire’s Fidelis Home Audio shared a room with the legend, Vinnie Rossi.

I wanted to start out with that third-grade book report opening to throw you folks off the scent. “Shared a room with,” doesn’t really give you the proper sense of “spent a weekend blowing minds.”

Front and center was a fairly well loaded version of Vinnie Rossi’s LIO (too many pricing options to quote) amp, dac, can amp, preamp, phono amp, desert topping, floorwax, and all-around, supercapacitor-charged miracle product. Sources were either a laptop or an Acoustic Signature Manfred MKII ($3,800) with a Soundsmith Sussurro cartridge ($4,900). Speakers were a glorious pair of Harbeth Super HL5+ ($6,800+ depending on veneer).

I’ve never heard a small Harbeth sound like this. It was direct, controlled, and forceful — more Monitor 40 territory than HL5 territory. Some Lucinda Williams sounded properly like Lucinda Williams, with just the right undercurrent of gravel in her voice rather than the usual, overly attractive audio-show presentation. A Katie Melua record on deck was captivating enough that I left the room fairly sure that she she would soon curse the next decade of Audio Shows the way that Diana Krall cursed the last decade. It just sounded too good, too tactile, too real.

From a pair of Harbeths. In a hotel room. That never happens.

Vinnie Rossi’s LIO is, at the very least, a career defining product. It’s going to take a while to fully assess the impact it’s going to have.