From Clark Johnsen's Diary: A Short Report From Newport Beach
And no pics either.
But shorter than intended, owing to some missing notes. Looked all over for 'em! So this report must be condensed into whatever I recall three tardy weeks later. That's what happens when you jot things down to jog the memory. The affronted memory dumps itself into deep storage. My apologies to those who may expect more from me.
Okay, what do I remember? I still have the Best Three in my mind's ear. That's what most people care about anyway, so let's go.
First though, I must tell you I accept and enjoy a wide variety of sound reproduction. Loudspeakers manifest the broadest range, and while I myself own dynamics/ribbons, several good friends own horns, which I love. Another has Maggies, yet another has big Tannoys. Although no one in my circle owns electrostats. They're too wax-paper-and-comb for me anyway, and too often have poorly-integrated supplemental bass sections. As regards tubes and solid state, LPs and CDs, copper and silver—bring it all on!
But enough about me. Back to T.H.E. Show, and presenting, in no particular order:
Hsu Research. No, not the best sound. But very good sound, and inexpensive. Trouble is, Pohser is playing his big subwoofer in a small room, and it overloads. Plus his electronics are not of the, ah, most estimable variety (okay, Sony), because he disdains non-speaker nuts and bolts. He certainly could use some vibration isolation though, what with that formidable bass. But when you consider that this pair of Horn Bookshelf HB-1's costs only $298 (stands an additional $79) and the sub (he uses only one), the VTF-15, self-powered for $879, you have remarkable loudspeaker value. And I guarantee you, this system can be made to sound way better than Pohser's display. Any audio addict who acquires Hsu speakers for a second system may well end up listening to them more than to the main rig.
VMPS make an unusual showing this year—loudspeakers smaller than last time. Brian Cheney has concentrated his design elements into the RM30 Series II Ribbon, a "hybrid speaker, with dynamic woofers matched with push-pull planar magnetic midrange and treble drivers… including a high compliance 10-inch side-firing passive radiator, dual 6.5-inch woven-carbon-fiber cone woofers, three 4- by 8-inch planar mids, and a wide free-swinging ribbon tweeter." (I quote.) The sound is everything that great ribbons can supply, complemented by dynamic bass that only VMPS, in my experience, can integrate with disparate driver elements. (The larger models of course are better. Clement Perry wrote of the RM50's, "The best $60,000 speakers money can buy"—the joke is, they cost $14,900). But here's an even cheaper pair, easy to drive and sounding terrific, for $3500. Add $1600 for an electronic crossover with room correction facility. (Disclaimer: For over three decades I have been an admirer and user of VMPS loudspeakers.)
For the past several years Brian has mounted elaborate and expensive live-vs-recorded demonstrations that the major magazines have paid criminally scant attention to, despite extensive lip service given there to actual live sound. Just have to say that. Also, I ask Brian, an acerbic fellow, about another popular system on display and he observes, "The tweeter stabbed me in the ear." Could not disagree less.
An audient moment
The Audience Clair Audient 2+2 mini-monitor system is nearly sui generis, as no bass augmentation is needed. Really. The 3-inch drivers boast a cone excursion of 12mm and the effect is uncanny—no subwoofer, yet extremely clean wide-range sound. But I have to tell you, this little pair goes for $5000. Still… And Audience has even larger systems employing the same remarkable driver that go for more, and go way louder. Phenomenal, almost unbelievable, from drivers this size.
(After just reading the review in the July 2011 Stereophile I realize what I had forgotten, namely that each box also has two rear-firing drivers (in phase) and a six-inch side-firing passive. Certainly that makes the designation 2 + 2 more comprehensible.)
On an even more elevated price plane, in the Highend-Electronics room we encounter magnificent one-way sound from the German Voxitiv loudspeakers driven by KR amps and other great stuff distributed by a most energetic and engaging presenter, Alfred Kainz. A native Austrian, alongside his friend too—and his lovely American wife, whose names I missed. I go, "Grüss Gott." And they come back, "Grüss Gott!" (Although I do not speak Austrian—pace President Obama—I do know the proper greeting for Österreichians.) First up, Oscar Peterson's "We Get Requests" with Ray Brown on string bass, where his melodic runs through the lower range will reveal the wolf tones in any system's response. Few of those are to be heard here. The Ella cut I've been playing around, on a CD-R made from a 1963 master tape, sounds better than ever, but that's the problem: she makes everything sound good. There's other music, but need I go on? Twice I am to return for more.
One novelty on display is the Highend-Novum Passive Multi-Vocal Resonator, a 14-inch bronze alloy semi-bell-shaped articulated device that joins a growing array of exotic room-tuning gadgets. The difference here? This one at least looks large enough to have an effect. Do I hear it? Perhaps. But as Alfred explains, it has worked better in other locations. All such things are naturally room-dependent, so I have no reason to doubt him.
Did I lose count? That may have been four best…
And here be two more
Concert Fidelity and Reference 3A loudspeakers share a regrettably out-of-the-way room where one thing is done extraordinarily well—albeit an aspect I don't even much care for. Some call it accuracy, others call it detail, but I usually call it edge. In this case however, the operative word is "clarity". Clarity, in spades. While such sound is not my obsessive thing, I listen happily to a whole movement of Scheherazade on LP and feel fulfilled. Has such a lengthy audition occurred in any other room? No. Any problems? Yes, one. For whatever reason (although I'm certain it's not the Concert Fidelity electronics, whose full-range capability I've enjoyed at shows for many years), there was a distinct lack of bass. Doesn't matter, because I'm sure the situation could be corrected. I'd place this display up higher were it not for that diminished aspect.
And then, On A Higher Note, featuring owner/presenter Philip O'Hanlon. This exhibit defies any rating, because Philip, through clever choice of superior source material, sonically and musically, must be declared hors de combat. To rate him and anything he represents would be unfair to everyone else. And that's against the law of social justice. But it all sounds grand… and always does. Okay, I should say, what we audition are the new line of revitalized Luxman electronics, Vivid Loudspeakers (from South Africa, yet) and a Brinkman turntable. And more. Look it up. I urge you.
Then suddenly, here in the hallway is Bill Firebaugh, whom I haven't seen, spoken to, or heard of for over twenty years. Somehow, I forget how, I had become one of the earliest advocates of his Well-Tempered Arm, and we became confidants. Then he seemed to have dropped out of audio. "Clark! So good to see you! It's been too long." Yes. What have you been up to? "I've been working for fifteen years on a full-range electrostatic loudspeaker. It has really good bass too. You must come hear it! I'm only fifteen minutes away from here."
And so I go.