Newport News (No, Not That One)

I just attended all four days of T.H.E. Show Newport 2016. As, among other things, a "Vice President at Large" of The Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society (the world's largest Hi-Fi club and the co-sponsor of the Show), I had been delegated to head a committee of three to seek out, evaluate, and award to suitable exhibitors, the first annual "Richard Beers Award" for innovation in audio. (In memoriam of the recently-passed founder of T.H.E. Show).

AR-skoff12a.jpgOf the I-don't-know-how-many-hundred-exhibiting companies, twenty-six had been nominated for the Award, and it was our job to determine which of those had actually produced something that was really innovative instead of simply new, and to give them, by the Award, some of the recognition they deserved.

No, this article isn't about either the award or just its winners; I only mentioned the Award so that you'll understand my state-of-mind as I wandered the Show and also understand the degree of thoroughness with which I approached my task. What the article IS about, though, is what I saw and heard as I went in search of innovation and, after the winners had been determined, what kinds of other things appealed to me and what kinds of thoughts I've had about them, now that the Show is over.

Just to put things into perspective, I've never - in ANY field - been a big fan of anything at all just because it's expensive. When, years ago, I bought my Maserati Quattroporte, it wasn't just because it cost a lot; I bought it because it was beautiful; because it was the first high-performance luxury four-door I had ever encountered; and because (given what it was and what it had to offer) it seemed to  be priced fairly, at a figure I could afford. On the other hand, I've always said that, even if I could afford it, instead of buying a hugely expensive speaker system (there are currently some well into the million-dollar range), I would buy something very much more affordably-priced (the ACA Seraphims are my latest speaker purchase), spend a few thousand dollars on the acoustics of my listening room, and keep the rest of the money in my pocket where it would be safe or would be there for me on a "rainy day". Please keep both of those points of, depending on what you want to call them, either prejudice or experienced knowledge, in mind as you read the rest of this article -- or, for that matter, anything at all that I ever write or have written.

AR-skoff12c.jpgPerhaps because of what I just said, I found many of the most innovative or, for whatever reason, the most noteworthy, products at the Show to be either surprisingly modest in price or not very expensive at all, by ANY standard. Among the things that I found myself "blown away" by were the AudioQuest "DragonFly Red" USB DAC, preamp, and headphone amp, all in one, for less than US$200. Audeze also had -- and received an innovation award for -- their "Cipher" cable which (for their own products, only), does all kinds of good things, too, for a very attractive price. 

Following along in that same vein, the Revel F36 speakers (Ray Kimber called my attention to these latest beauties by Kevin Voecks) at just US$2,000 a pair, were among the most impressive of ALL of the speakers at the Show, regardless of price, and made great sound even as compared to a pair of US$55,000 JBL horns exhibited in the very next room. 

Also delivering far more sound per dollar than I ever expected were the "1 More" (brand) three driver in-ear headphones which seem (if looks can be trusted) to be of supreme high quality and are both gorgeously and elaborately packaged and sufficiently good-sounding that, after having listened to them play the Eagles'  "Hotel California" after I had heard that same song played on half a dozen other pairs of VASTLY more expensive 'phones (including a pair of Stax Lambda Pros identical to the ones I have at home) at the booths of half a dozen other manufacturers, my exact words to 1 More's top guy were "I still like my Lambda Pros better, but not all that MUCH better, than these".

AR-skoff12b.jpgThe 1 More earbuds are very highly recommended, as are the Revel speakers and, of course, Andrew Jones' latest speakers from ELAC. And so is, weirdly enough, the new laser-fabricated flexible wood headphone stand from Bendy-Head for only US$79. That's not to say that there wasn't a whole lot a very desirable new stuff from manufacturers at up-to-the-other-end of the price spectrum: The Christine Preamp (US$16,000) was another exquisite product and another innovation award winner, as was the latest innovation-award-winning version of the ACA Seraphim, (I abstained from the voting on that one) which was both significantly better (I'm plotting ways to afford the upgrade) and significantly more expensive (starting at US$15,000) than earlier versions, and was (again in my own, this time possibly biased, opinion) one of the very best-sounding products at the Show.

Although the very top price points were certainly represented at the Show, and although they, almost without exception, "delivered the goods" to justify their expense, the improvements at the very top seemed - perhaps as should be expected, given the Law of Diminishing Returns - proportionally less than those in the more affordable ranges. For audiophiles longing to finally be able to have world-class sound in their own System at a price that they can actually tell their wife the truth about, this is a fine thing. It reminds me of the old saying: "A rising tide lifts all boats", which, considering that this was, after all, the Newport Show, near Newport Beach, California; famous for Newport Harbor and the Newport marina; may even be metaphorically excusable. Perhaps the overall standard in our hobby and the industry that supports it has finally gotten so high that even the least expensive products and systems can still be outstanding. 

How's THAT for Newport news?

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