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Sonic Satori: Cheer & Longing Adventures at T.H.E Show Newport Beach 2014 Report By Michael Mercer
Sonic Satori: Cheer & Longing
Adventures at T.H.E Show Newport Beach 2014
Show Report By Michael Mercer


  I was looking forward to T.H.E Show Newport this year like never before. My dear friend and partner in Audio360.org: Warren Chi, co-produced T.H.E Headphonium shows at Newport with me. He's an organizational monster, so I knew things would take on a life of their own once we got everything set-up for T.H.E Headphonium vendors (such a pleasure to deal with, as opposed to in-room demonstration systems) so my journey began in the early morning hours on Thursday before T.H.E Show opened. My wife's been battling an illness for over a year now, and her post-op appointment was scheduled in Berkeley the Wednesday before. So, needless to say, between packing clothes and all my personal audio gear (for walking the show and our hotel room) I managed to sneak in three hours of sleep before piling into my Mini Cooper and heading off to the 5 South towards Los Angeles. It's a solid seven hour drive from our new place up in Sonoma County, and I was prepared for an adventure. For the most part, I've spent the last eighteen months dedicated to helping Alexandra (my wifey) get well – with a couple of events sprinkled in here and there, but it was time to hook up with some friends in this wonderful hobby and enjoy some great music, sounds, and conversation. After all, many of us interact in the digital world consistently but we don't see each other in the analog world too often! So shows like these provide a splendid atmosphere for kicking back and enjoying each other’s company. We also get to meet new people, and forge new friendships, which is my favorite part of shows like this. Yup, I was filled with anticipatory excitement on the drive down. Add four Red Bulls into that mix (and I don't do energy drinks often), and by the time I arrived in LA on Thursday morning I was wired and fried!

My first task was picking Warren up in Marina Del Ray. Somehow we managed to fit all our crap in the Mini (a pleasant surprise thankfully) and we took off to T.H.E Show. The moment we arrived we saw Dr. Alex Cavalli of Cavalli Audio unloading his truck. Alex is the man behind the wicked Liquid Gold (my current top reference headphone amp) and the Liquid Glass, as well as some earlier models. I hadn't seen Alex since RMAF 2013. When I walked up to him he reminded me, instantly, why I love the guy. It's not about how great his gear is, it's about who he is as a person. I ran up to him and the first thing he said to me was "how's your wife?" That's human, real, it wasn't an immediate verbal launch into audio fodder like I often experience with others in this industry. We talked about real stuff: his daughter’s wedding, and other life-related topics. That's what I love most about the personal audio/Head-Fi community: We're like one big family. Sure, some of us have our quarrels like any other large family, but its clear we're all in this together. Unfortunately I never felt that way about the high-end audio community. Don't get me wrong, I have many great friends in the high-end, but the level of infighting in the Hifi press and between manufacturers was starting to drive me crazy a few years ago! So I'm psyched to be fully immersed in the personal audio community these days – and it is a community, in every sense of the word. The next person we ran into? Mr. Tyll Hertsens, the Grand Puba of the personal audio community! Mr. Hertsens needed a ride to go grab some sundries for his room and of course I obliged him. It was great, as we got some alone-time and had a chance to catch up. Tyll was also pumped for the show, and we were so psyched to have him back this year.

After sharing a smoke with Tyll, Warren and I bolted over to T.H.E Headphonium at The Atrium, making sure all the tables were labeled and there was power available for everybody. Oops: The outside area had tables, but no power! First glitch of T.H.E Headphonium 2014. We contacted Mr. Richard Beers, our boss at T.H.E Show, and he arranged for the hotel to send someone over. Next thing you know a maintenance man is handing me a pile of extensions cords that looked like they were sitting in a dirty garage for years. Some were three-prong, others were not, it was a real mess of spaghetti. Enter the strength of being part of a true community: I gave Alex Rosson, CEO of Audeze a shout. They were showing at T.H.E Headphonium too, but they were inside. I asked if he could pick up a bunch of industrial strength power cords ranging from 20ft and up. "I got you" he said "I'll have em there tomorrow morning". What a mench. He came through, and everybody got power! Whew, that kicked up my OCD something fierce!

Warren also checked out T.H.E Headphonium Too (the second Headphonium area at the Hilton) and noticed there were tables and power, but no chairs! Second glitch. He managed to sort things out without bothering the always busy Mr. Beers and we were set. All we had to do after that was get our hotel room in order. We brought a boatload of headphones and portable rigs to say the least. Warren also brought along the Vanatoo Transparent One powered speakers for the room that he's reviewing for Positive Feedback. I always bring my lil' Jambox by Jawbone for use in my room at shows. Warren's response to that: "we're not peasants, this is gonna be our after-hours spot". He nailed it. For the duration of the show we had a bunch of people up in our room, and the speakers were perfect! Hats off toVanatoo: Their powered monitors have an amazing set of features (all sorts of inputs and outputs) making them highly versatile. We could play from our laptops, DAPs (digital audio players), or even my iPhone. These proved invaluable for setting the mood every night. Pick the playlist, hit the button, and roll... The fun was about to begin!

We hooked up with fellow Audio360er Frank Iacone and luckily we got to experience a couple of new audio treats before the show even began! We stopped by the Sunset Lounge to check out the Astell&Kern boys, and were pleasantly surprised to see and hear their two-channel loudspeaker system! This new system: The Astell&Kern 500N, included a modern stack of components with 9 terabytes of music storage, a CD ripper, and a large touch-screen for the UI. They also had a gorgeous 300B stereo tube amp and a pair of two-way loudspeakers on stands. After we got it dialed in, the sound was natural, dynamic, and very easy to listen to. I was impressed, though admittedly I didn't stick around long enough to provide any detailed impressions – but what I heard was musically seductive and spacious. Considering all the glass they had in that room – the sound was impressively warm and textural.

Shortly after the listening sesh in the A&K room I ran into Michael Goodman from CEntrance. I used to work for him, and I took the job because I love his products! Michael's a mad Russian engineering powerhouse! If only I could tell you (hmmm hmmm, NDA's) how many audio companies rely on his USB solutions and other digital work. The names I can share however: Everyone from McIntosh to Playback Designs, Korg, and Benchmark. The man's got skills, and he's also a dear friend. But admittedly, the moment I caught a glimpse of the new portable component in his hand, that took precedent over catching up. Sorry Michael! We had three days to catch up. What was it? The soon-to-be-released Glove Audio A1 DAC/amp for Astell&Kern AK100 and AK120 DAPs (digital audio players). I was hooked by this lil' gem the moment I had it in my hand! The unit felt so stout in my hands, its brushed die-cast metal texture was futuristic and nostalgic all at once. I also loved the way the A1 latched onto the AK100 & 120! Everything about it screamed "listen to me now" as I'm a huge fan of both Astell&Kern AK100 and 120 DAPs! I had both on me in my messenger bag! Yeah, it's a fast-growing geekery virus: high end portable audio. My journey into that realm has only recently begun. I've been having fun with it for a couple years now – but it feels so much longer. Why? Because I often think about my bright yellow Panasonic CD Walkman, with all its rubber linings, supposedly making it "water-proof" (and in no way "Mercer-proof"). I used to tote that thing everywhere when I was a teenager! Don't you feel the same way about portable audio? Anyway: I got off-topic for a second.  Glove Audio is a new line developed by CEntrance, and I hope Michael and his team exceed their own goals and aspirations regarding a sizable market share! He's doing some cool stuff, and the Glove A1 is a magnificent out-of-the-gate product. Michael allowed me to plug in my own AK120 player and spend a little time with the unit.

It offers balanced and standard stereo outputs. I love that feature: I love the balanced out option on the Astell&Kern AK240 for example. I need headroom, and when I run my cans balanced on the AK240 I never consider needing an additional amplifier. Now, I may have to sell a boatload of stuff to buy one of those (don't wanna give it back) which is why the Glove Audio A1 is so attractive to me. Sonically, running it with my Audeze LCD-X and Double Helix Cables Molecule Elite, it's actually in the ballpark of the new Astell&Kern players that are replacing the AK100 and 120. However, I didn't have nearly enough time with the A1 to form any formal impressions: but its first impression, via Daft Punk's "Give Life Back to Music" (which is also, as we all know, the everlasting impression) was beyond my already-un-reasonably high expectations when it comes to CEntrance and Michael Goodman. Hearing "Giorgio By Moroder" off Random Access Memories as well, was just plain fun. The music was very spacious and dynamic, with the kinda punch I need in the bass, lower midrange, and midrange. The highs were beautifully extended as well. Overall it jumped out at me as a viable option if I can't afford to buy an Astell&Kern AK240 DAP after I return my review unit. The AK240 is King as far as I'm considered – and after living with it for a while I can't imagine my life without it! So the Glove Audio A1 could achieve a solid level of market share if they position the product correctly. I'm sure there are plenty of other thirty-nine year-old dudes who can't plunk down a couple K on a DAP at the moment. Curse on you Steven Rochlin! I kid – I knew Steven would buy one before he even heard it, as he's such an enthusiast. But the Glove Audio A1 is a splendid sonic achievement.

 

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