Impressive Speaker Designs at T.H.E. Show 2016

July 14 2016, 14:00
Recently I attended the excellent, The Home Entertainment (T.H.E.) Show in Newport, CA. Celebrating its 6th anniversary, and still mourning the tragic loss of its president and founder, Richard Beers, T.H.E. Show Newport exceeded its own 2015 attendance figures, with more than 10,000 attendees. I left with excellent memories of a wonderful organization, a very pleasant location (Irvine), and the motivation to return.

I didn't intend to write a review since my time at the show was limited and I was there mainly because of a few key meetings. Still, I found myself spending my available time visiting demo rooms and auditioning some excellent systems, which left me with enduring impressions that I thought fit to share in this space.
 
Prism Sound's Graham Boswell shows why his excellent new Callia DAC, preamplifier, and headphone amplifier excels on all fronts!
Not that I wasn't pleasantly surprised by electronics as well. I have to confess I stayed in ecstasy in the Bricasti design room, the Ayon Audio, and the Master Sound presentations (USA Tube Audio Labs room), and of course, it was a privilege to have an exclusive session with Prism Sound's Graham Boswell and an extended audition of its excellent Callia, DAC, preamplifier, and headphone amplifier. About the Callia, I am expecting to have a review in audioXpress very soon. In all cases, of course, excellent speakers were involved.

When looking at my notes from the show, I couldn't help noticing that the rooms that most surprised me and left me with long-lasting impressions where not the most expensive ones or the most "high-end." And it always involved mainly the speakers. I know it's not fair, but in the end it's always the speakers you remember the most - sometimes not for the best reasons. I know each room is the result of a complete audio chain, as well as the way the room itself is set up acoustically, with the sound resulting from the sum of the parts (and sometimes the music playing...), but speakers, and in particular, speaker design options, always create an impact.
 
Allen Sides is proud to show the Ocean Way Audio HR4 monitors in front of a high-end crowd. Glad he did!
The first day, dedicated to press and industry previews, gave me the chance to visit Ocean Way Audio and listen to their HR4 near/midfield monitors - which were an unexpected but very pleasant surprise. I had seen the HR4s previously, at the 2015 New York Audio Engineering Society (AES) convention, but this provided me with a chance to properly listen to what Allen Sides and team have been doing. The session was a very nice surprise and gave me "clean ears" for the remaining days, since these active monitors are clearly reference-class. The 100× 40° dispersion pattern and waveguide system design allows for an impressively wide sweet-spot. And considering they sound big, accurate and cost $6,000 a pair...

On the remaining presentation days at T.H.E Show 2016, among the rooms that impressed me the most was Merrill Audio, featuring the impressive German Physiks HRS-130 speakers. As always, this was a combination of excellent equipment, involving a VPI Avenger Signature turntable, Jens phono pre-amplifier, Christine Reference Preamplifier, Veritas monoblock power amplifiers, and EMM Labs DAC2X. Immediately upon entering the room and without having the chance to take a seat (this was always a busy room and I had to return), I could feel the musical sound emanating in an almost magical way. The German Physiks HRS-130 design is certainly not a conventional system and the term tridimensional immediately comes to mind.
 
This is the room that impressed everyone at T.H.E. Show 2016. Merrill Audio features the very impressive German Physiks HRS-130 speakers!
The HRS-130s use a single carbon fiber German Physiks DDD bending wave driver mounted on top of a floor-standing cabinet, with a downward firing woofer set in its base. These are detailed, transparent, immersive and, as I said, extremely musical. The auditioning levels were unusually high for this type of room, and still everything was balanced and coherent in all frequencies, even considering that they have an omnidirectional (spherical, according to German Physiks) pattern. The second time I visited the room, I found a seat that allowed me to listen to a very sweet-sounding stereo image and confirm my earlier impressions that these are some of the most "musical" speakers I ever heard. They didn't suffer from the smaller dimensions of the room at all. Definitely worth exploring more.

The next room that left me with enduring and very positive impressions - and I regret not having been able to return - was the Eclipse room (On A Higher Note), the high-performance loudspeaker division within Fujitsu Ten. I have seen Eclipse presentations in multiple shows, including the AES convention, but I never had the time to sit down and listen properly. At T.H.E. Show, the presentation was an impactful 2.2 combination of its "invisible loudspeaker" concept: two Eclipse TD510ZMK2 stand-mount speakers, complemented by two TD520SW subwoofers, incorporating ICEPower amplification. The room itself deserves a commendation for the fact that it allowed the sunshine in with the beautiful Irvine view in the background. This, not only caused a totally different impression, but also enhanced the unique Time Domain design approach used in this speaker design, using a single custom full-range driver in a diffraction-free egg-shaped design that generates an extremely accurate sound reproduction.
 
The Eclipse (On A Higher Note) 2.2 presentation was absolutely captivating. Playing music from CD, it sounded high resolution!
The result is not only "invisible," as the company claims, but also extremely pleasant to listen to, in this case with the enhancement resulting from the extended frequency response and extra dynamics allowed by the two subwoofers. Again, a tridimensional soundstage enhanced the CD source that was playing (so, no high-resolution benefits there...). This impression was reinforced by the surprisingly accurate and extended frequency response. In comparison with other more "boxy" speakers I had heard previously, I felt very impressed with the Eclipse time-coherent approach.

The next room that created positive impressions is on another - even more extreme - end of the speaker segment: a Bluetooth speaker, would you believe it! In one of the rooms, I was pleasantly surprised to find lifestyle brand RIVA Audio, which we have already mentioned a few times on our website. The RIVA Turbo X and RIVA S Bluetooth speakers feature technology from Audio Design Experts, Inc. (ADX), a company from California which was recently issued a patent for its Trillium sound system processor that "creates a broad sound field from a compact multi-speaker." This proprietary process up-mixes the left-right stereo signal and outputs it through three channels of amplification and seven transducers to generate a sound image much larger than the actual speaker size would indicate.
 
Yes, this is a picture of serious Bluetooth speakers at a high-end show. The RIVA Turbo X and RIVA S could impress anyone entering the room!
This was my chance to experience these speakers and I was deeply impressed with the results. A strange experience to get into a hotel demo room during a high-end show and actually be positively impressed by a very small (portable and battery-operated) speaker... Considering the RIVA Turbo X (the larger one) sells for $299 and that it would be hard to even buy a speaker cable for that price at the show, this is worth mentioning. The sound reproduction was clean, balanced to the low frequencies at impressive levels, with no unwanted resonances or distortion as we can find in so many products of this kind - some of which also cost much more.
I have also learned this company is working on more products and technology in the area of wireless speakers (including stereo pairing), and it certainly is exciting to learn about the potential for such small cabinets.
 
Andrew Jones' enthusiastic presentations always conquer the audience and those ELAC speakers do the rest!
In other rooms, I have listened to many more "conventional" speakers, two- and three-ways, with ribbon tweeters, AMTs, and all kinds of configurations, but I was probably more impressed listening to the affordable ELAC Uni-Fi range than anything else in that class. In a constantly packed demo room, Andrew Jones generated lots of surprise and compliments with its "music on-demand" sessions, proving that the new ELACs are able to perform as well as many speakers costing much more. Employing a new in-house developed concentric driver in a three-way bass reflex design, with three aluminum cone woofers, the floor-standing UF5 model, costing less than $1,000, the pair is stunning, to say the least.
 
Volti Audio's Greg Roberts explains why his Vittora three-way horn-loaded speaker (four-way with the ELF low extension) is a high-efficiency system that makes listening to music a pleasure!
Finally, on the always personal and subjective category of "what I would buy if I could," my favorite speakers were the Volti Audio Vittora. As always, this is the result of a nice sound chain and in this room the combination involved the outstanding Vinnie Rossi LIO directly heated triode (DHT) Class-A preamp, an Acoustic Signature Triple-X turntable with an Ortofon 2M Black and TA-1000 12" tonearm, all connected with Triode Wire Labs cables.
 
Vinnie Rossi explaining its LIO modular design and the Directly Heated Triode Linestage (LIO DHT PRE) Class-A magic!
I always liked Klipschorns and the Vittoras can be considered an evolution of that concept, coming from loudspeaker designer Greg Roberts, who started his career modifying Klipschorns. Effectively, the Vittora is an original design, in the words of Greg Roberts "a fully horn-loaded, three-way, high-efficiency speaker system that delivers wide dynamic range, high output, and extremely low distortion."
My impressions were totally positive. Balanced, smooth, dynamic and turned even more impressive by the addition of the extended low-frequency (ELF) cabinet, which removes the unwanted burden from the two top horn sections (each with a midrange horn and a tweeter horn), and the two folded bass horns. After the session, I would have ordered one if I could. In fact, I would order the complete setup, as it was so totally engaging. No doubt, the most accomplished demo room at the show.
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