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Fifteen Sweet-Sounding Systems at Newport Beach 2015 – Part 2

Fifteen Sweet-Sounding Systems at Newport Beach 2015 – Part 2

This is a Part 2 of a two-part article called ‘Fifteen Satisfying Systems at Newport Beach 2015’.

To read Part 1, click here.

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, I heard a number of systems at Newport that seemed to maximise the potential of the equipment in play, and—in a number of instances—to find the magic in the music. With this thought in mind, I’ve highlighted fifteen systems that caught my ear as offering exceptional sonic merit. But please note: I’m not saying that these were the only great systems on hand (it’s impossible, after all, for one person to take in all that Newport has to offer no matter how hard one might try). But I am saying these systems, each in its own way, brought some very special things to the musical ‘party’ that is T.H.E. Show Newport.

Note: In each of the system descriptions below, I list the speaker manufacturer first, then the electronics manufacturer, and then the ancillary component and cable manufacturers, where known.


Meridian MQA

Like many of you, I’ve heard plenty about Meridian’s MQA system, but have had few opportunities to hear the system in action. That situation, happily, was put right at Newport through a combination presentation/demonstration session held in the Meridian room.

The system in play was comprised of a pair of Meridian 7200SE self-powered, MQA DAC-equipped floorstanding loudspeakers, a Meridian controller/preamp, a Control 15 server, and a series of MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) digital music files. As the MQA files played – most notably an MQA version of Roberta Flacks famous “Killing Me Softly” – I began to grasp the sonic potential of the format.

I have heard Meridian’s self-powered speakers many times before, but I must say the MQA files enabled them to raise their standard of performance in a major way. Thus, when fed MQA files, the 7200SEs exhibited much better rendition of low-level transient, textural, and reverberant details than I have thus far heard from any Meridian loudspeaker, plus richer tonal colours and a greatly heightened sense of three-dimensionality (and soundstage scale) overall.

My thought is that if MQA can unlock previously untapped levels of performance in Meridian’s own speaker systems, it could potentially do very good things for other systems, as well.

Quad – Balanced Audio Technology

Under the auspices of the very well organised MoFi (Mobile Fidelity) distribution company, the legendary British (or perhaps these days we should say ‘Sino/British’) brand Quad made a welcome return to the US market. MoFi showed Quad’s latest-generation 2812 dipolar, full-range electrostatic speakers ($11,999) as powered by Balanced Audio Technology source components and valve-type power amplifiers.

It is almost impossible to overstate the influence Quad’s electrostatic speakers have had on audiophiles in the US and if you were to poll a large group of American audio journalist my bet is that Quads would rank near the top – if not at the very top – of any list of the most significant speaker designs of all time. Hearing the 2812s in the MoFi room reminded me of why this is so.

Quads, unlike many electrostats and dynamic loudspeakers, have the uncanny ability to convey effortless transparency in a naturally warm and relaxed manner, without so much as an iota of hi-fi histrionics of any kind. When you get right down to it, I can’t think of any other speaker that does a better job of presenting so much musical information with so little apparent stress or strain. The 2812s are the latest evolution of an undeniably classic design and audiophiles in the US are fortunate indeed that the brand is now in MoFi’s capable hands.

 

Raidho – Aavik – Ansuz  

For Newport Beach, Raidho showed a system I have heard several times before – one comprised of the D1 stand mount monitors, a 300 Wpc Aavik U-300 Unity integrated amplifier/DAC, and Ansuz cables. But even though the system is not ‘new’, per se, it has proven to be a real ‘knock out’ every single time that I’ve heard it, so that it is a system I look forward to hearing over and over again.

The Raidho team, lead by Michael Borresen, has figured out a way to craft what on paper appears to be a highly analytical-sounding exotic stand-mount monitor, but in practice what consistently enchants listeners is the fact that the D1 monitors have got ‘soul’ and plenty of it. In a sense, then, the Raidho’s are a best-of-two-schools-of-thought design. On one hand they are uncommonly detailed and revealing, so that are capable of a terrific level of musical ‘information retrieval’; on the other hand, they don’t so much dissect the music (which can be a real danger with designs like this) as they ‘zoom in’ on the qualities that make music so rich, intoxicating, and captivating. To borrow a line from an old Jackson Browne rock tune, the D1’s ‘remember why we came’ (its for the music, right?).

The $30,000 Aavik U-300 amp/DAC, though very expensive, plays right along with this theme, offering abundant power and headroom coupled with plenty of subtlety and soul, and the Ansuz cables have the good sense to get out of the way and let things unfold as they are supposed to, always in the service of the music.

Sanders Sound Systems

Led by Roger Sanders, a man with more than 40 years of experience in electrostatic loudspeakers, Sanders Sound Systems produces hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers that combine electrostatic panels with integrated transmission line-type dynamic woofer systems, which typically would be powered either by Sanders’ distinctive ESL or Magtech amplifiers.

Sanders’ Newport Beach system consisted of a pair of Model 10D hybrid electrostats powered by dual Sanders Magtech Stereo power amplifiers, with crossover duties handled by a Behringer DCX24/96 digital electronic crossover. Although ala carte pricing is possible, Sanders typically sells a package including the Model 10D speakers, the Behringer crossover, and one Magtech amp for $15,000.

The Sanders speakers exhibit all of the expected electrostatic virtues (transparency, neutrality, superb detail retrieval, and lightning-fast transient speeds), plus something more: namely, astonishing dynamic authority and clout, augmented by robust, rock-solid, deeply extended, and beautifully defined bass. Integration between the electrostatic panels and the transmission line bass system was simply superb.

Given the terrific performance in evidence here, it remains a mystery to me why this brand is not more widely known on the worldwide high-end audio stage. In my view, it is certainly deserving of wider recognition (and wider distribution). At bottom, Sanders Sound offers us all the things we have always liked about electrostats, plus all the things we’ve always wished electrostats could provide (that is, authoritative dynamics and top-class bass performance), all at a very sensible price for the quality on offer.

 

Silverline – Technical Brain

Newport marked the return to the US market of the famous, ultra high-end Japanese brand Technical Brain, and with it the launch of the firm’s new TB-Zero/Int EX integrated amplifier ($26,800). Helping the Technical Brain components to strut their sonic stuff were a lovely pair of Silverline Bolero Supreme loudspeakers ($15,000/pair), which use some of the highest-grade Dynaudio drive units ever produced (sadly, the Dynaudio drive units have been discontinued, but Silverline has a big enough back-stock of the drivers to keep building Bolero Supremes for quite some time).

Technical Brain components are known for their uncanny detail, blindingly fast transient speeds, and almost ethereal sense of sonic purity – qualities the highly expressive Silverline speakers put to good musical use, yet without exaggerating or over-emphasising the Technical Brain’s sonic strengths in any way.  

Vandersteen – Audio Research Corporation – AudioQuest

The Vandersteen, Audio Research, AudioQuest system marked a number of firsts, including the first showing of the hyper-versatile valve-powered Audio Research GSi75 integrated amp/DAC/phonostage/headphone amp ($18,000), and the first opportunity to hear AudioQuest’s all-new Niagara 7000 power conditioner ($7,000), which is the company’s first entry in this important product category. The Vandersteen Treo CT loudspeakers ($7,990/pair) used in the system are also relatively new and gave listeners a taste of the performance of Vandersteen’s top-tier models (the Quatro Wood CT, the Model 5A Carbon, and the Model Seven).


 

Vandersteen’s standard Treo model is offered as modern day reinterpretation of the firm’s original, ground-breaking Model 2 loudspeaker first introduced decades ago, but with the performance bar raised through decades of ongoing R&D work. The Treo drive array consist of an 8-inch carbon-loaded woofer, and 6.5-inc ‘tri-woven’ woofer, a 4.5-inch ‘reflection-free’ midrange driver, and a roughly 1-inch tweeter—all configured in a time and phase-aligned array. But what makes the Treo CT special is that it gets fitted with the costly and ultra-exotic carbon tweeter (hence ‘CT’) borrowed from the most expensive Quatro Wood CT and the Model 5A Carbon). The result is a $7,990/pair loudspeaker that exhibits the high frequency purity, ‘air’, definition, transient speed and all-round treble panache of a far more costly loudspeaker.

Making the most of what the speaker had to offer was Audio Research Corporation’s remarkable new KT150 valve-powered GSi75 integrated amplifier, which combines a remarkable number of functions (passive preamp, very high quality MM/MC phono stage, very high quality headphone amplifier, DSD-capable DAC, and 75Wpc valve-powered amplifier) in one big, beautiful chassis. I was struck by the amp’s self-evident definition and agility, plus the sense of dynamic energy and life it managed to convey. Helping the ARC amp to do its job was AudioQuest’s first ever full-size power conditioner, the Niagara 7000. Far more careful thought and advanced technologies have gone into the Niagara than I have space to summarise here, but suffice it to say that the device is well worth checking out.

 

Von Schweikert Audio – Constellation

Albert Von Schweikert of Von Schweikert Audio showed his highly capable new UniField 2 Signature stand-mount monitors ($25,000/pair), which promise time and phase-aligned sound from a distinctive three-way design. Perhaps the single most intriguing element of the speaker involves its distinctive, purpose-built coaxial tweeter/midrange driver, which to my ears sounded very nearly like a single full-range driver. Not surprisingly the UniField 2 Signature monitor offers a pure and uncannily coherent sound, so that there is never – as with coaxial driver-equipped loudspeakers – any sense of hearing at tweeter that is ‘trapped’ down in the throat of a midrange driver. Instead, the Von Schweikert sounds light, lithe, open, and free.

According to Albert Von Schweickert, the UniField 2 Signature is intended for music loving purists who want top-flight performance from a speaker sized so as not to overdrive mid-sized listening spaces.

Ably abetting the VSA speakers was Constellation’s superb 125 Wpc, Performance-series Argo integrated amplifier ($25,000), which incorporates the firm’s FET-based Line Stage Gain Module and balanced bridged power amplifier circuitry patterned after the circuit used in the firm’s larger and more expensive Hercules II and Centaur power amps. Unlike other Constellation products, the Argo incorporates a powerful and very high quality headphone amplifier (a feature we heartily applaud), plus ports through which one can add options DAC and phono stage module. As you might expect, the Argo is every inch a ‘real’ Constellation whose sound leveraged (and perhaps enhanced) the sonic qualities of the VSA monitors.

Wilson – VTL – dCS – Grand Prix Audio – Transparent

Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion the Luke Manley of VTL not only knows how to design very fine pieces of valve-powered electronics componentry, but also has a rare and valuable gift for making Wilson Audio loudspeakers ‘sing’ and sound their best. At Newport, both factors were much in evidence as Luke and his team assembled a masterful system comprised of VTL’s new TL-6.5 Series II Signature line preamplifier, a TP-6.5 Signature phono stage, and pair of MB-185 Signature Series III monoblock amplifiers; a digital front-end consisting of a dCS Vivaldi DAC and UpSampler, an analogue front-end consisting of a Grand Prix Audio Monaco 1.5 turntable, Tri-Planar Mk VII US SE tonearm, and a Lyra Etna cartridge; Transparent Generation 5 XL cabling; an Audience AdeptResponse aR6-TSS power conditioner; and – here’s the other key ingredient at last – Wilson Audio’s new Sabrina loudspeakers.

I’ve heard the Sabrinas three times now and can say with certainty that this was the best Sabrina demo I’ve yet heard. Though the Sabrina is one of the smallest and most affordable members of the Wilson product family, the little floorstander can and does deliver a remarkably whole, complete, and accomplished sound that rarely leaves listeners wishing for anything more. The VTL electronics, for their part, really helped draw out the speakers’ capabilities in terms of nuance, subtlety, and tonal purity, while at the same revealing the inherent natural musical sweetness of which the Sabrina design is, at its best, capable (a quality that I think some of the larger Wilsons do not so easily express). The VTL/Wilson ‘marriage’ was, as it has so often been in the past, a joy to hear.

YG Acoustics – Audionet – Kronos – Kubala-Sosna

Some of the most – if not the most – accomplished sound at Newport Beach was produced by the YG Acoustics, Audionet, and Kronos system with cabling by Kubala-Sosna. The system consisted of a pair of YG Acoustics’ flagship Sonja 1.3 loudspeakers, an Audionet PRE G2 preamp and a pair of Audionet MAX monoblock amps, a Kronos Limited Edition Pro turntable with 12” Black Beauty tonearm, an AirTight PC1 Supreme phono cartridge, and Kubala-Sosna Elation! -series cables.

Honestly, I have heard almost all of the constituent components of this system before and many of them in concert with one another, but there was something very special about the demonstration system assembled for Newport Beach by Bill Parrish of GTT Audio and Kerry St. James of YG Acoustics.  Specifically, the components – each of which rightfully enjoys a strong performance reputation in its own right – achieved a level of synergy rarely seen or heard at trade shows.

My past experience with YG’s Sonja speakers and the Audionet electronics has been that they often achieve a highly detailed, pure, and precise sound, but one that sometimes just misses the more emotionally evocative and engaging qualities of live music. The Newport system, however, was different because it leveraged all of the components’ traditional strengths while also finding and deftly conveying the tonally rich and inherently soulful aspects of the music in a rare and beautiful way. As result, the music was able to breathe and flow, just as in live setting. In my view, hi-fi just doesn’t get much better than this.

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