Show Report: T.H.E. Show Newport

Last time around I wrote about my experience in viewing Dolby Vision projection, part of Dolby’s Digital Cinema initiative. It features a laser projector from Christie Digital designed specifically to offer higher dynamic range in a theatrical venue. The result was spectacular, but there was an additional reason for my trip back to California. The annual Orange county Hi-Fi show was held on the last weekend in May, and I spent three days there.

The OC show is more properly known as T.H.E. Show (The Home Entertainment Show) Newport Beach (though it was actually in Irvine). “Home Entertainment” is really too broad a term to describe its emphasis. It was, with only one or two exceptions, an exclusively two-channel audio show. There are a number of similar shows in the U.S. and Canada each year—far more than as little as three years ago. The reason for the growth of these shows is the shrinking number of dedicated audio dealers. Yes, the Best Buys, Targets, Costcos, and Walmarts of the world sell their share of audio-only gear. But with rare exceptions (most prominently the Magnolia shops located in or near a select number of Best Buys), the type of audio gear you’ll find in such stores rarely interests audiophiles.

In wide swaths of the country serious audio products simply cannot be auditioned anywhere. The only option for audiophiles who live in these regions is either to buy from companies that sell Internet direct or via Internet from a dealer who may be hundreds of miles away. Serious audiophiles from such places sometimes fly to an audio show just to firm up their wish lists. A $1,000 trip makes sense when you may be considering a $5,000 (or more) purchase of gear you can’t otherwise see and hear up close and personal. Southern California doesn’t have this problem, but even there stores offering serious auditions of a wide range of products aren’t found on every street corner.

I won’t go into detail here on the show; you can read my blogs about it on our sister site,, along with inputs from other scribes. The prices of many of the products heard there can be off-putting. In the past 15 years or so the prices at top of the high-end audio market have soared into nose-bled territory. If you ask the cost of a new two-channel amp and the response is “50,” the respondent may well mean $50,000. You can develop a good poker face just by attending a few audio shows!

That can discourage many a budding audiophile, but there’s still plenty of great gear available for far less—some of it competitive with the best you can buy. Making that $50,000 product or system appealing to a potential buyer requires far more than just performance. It has to look the part. And that costs money. Big Money. Years ago a speaker manufacturer told me that the most expensive part in his (admittedly budget) speaker was the shipping carton! While this may no longer be true, the exotic, flawlessly finished cabinet on most big-buck speakers is likely to be, by far, its most expensive component. That’s why there are speakers selling for under $10,000/pair, or even under $5,000/pair, with less bling but capable of giving that pricier model a run for its money.

Once you get beyond a certain price point the law of diminishing returns sets in with a vengeance, with the incremental sound quality increasing far more slowly than the price. Where is that point? I’d call it $10,000 per component or pair of speakers, though you may disagree. But once you go beyond a certain point, pouring more money into a product may not buy you better sound; in some cases it can buy you worse. Personal taste, of course, plays an important part. If you fall in love with the sound of a particular speaker, for example, and your bank account can stand it, price will be no object. This has happened to me on a number of occasions, but the prices involved made a purchase out of the question.

But (surprise!) the story of the show was indeed a budget speaker. Speaker designer Andrew Jones, formerly with TAD and Pioneer, has moved over to German manufacturer Elac. Elac has set up a design studio in Southern California, and Jones introduced his first range of Elac speakers at the show, the Debuts. They’ll be available in the fall. The baby of the family, a small stand mount, was on demo, and many jaws were left on the Elac room’s floor after first hearing the speakers and then hearing the $240/pair price! For more on this see my report.

One of my biggest disappointments at this show, and at other similar shows I’ve attended over the past few years, was the virtual lack of serious home theater demos. Why? For starters, many audiophiles are uninterested in the combination of audio and video. That’s their loss, in my judgment. Even if we’re talking just about music, many forms of music really require visuals to achieve their full impact, whether it’s a elaborately produced rock concert or an opera. Many singers, for example, tell stories as much with their acting (body language and facial expressions) as with their voices.

Stories? Yes, a song is drama set to music, or it should be. The sound is only half the performance—though certainly an important part. Listening to music was a multi-sensory experience prior to the invention of the phonograph and radio, but everyone alive today grew up experiencing it primarily as audio alone—at least at home. That’s a hard habit to break. And it’s only recently that video technology has caught up with audio, enabling high quality presentations at home that combine both. That’s not to say that all of one’s experience with music should include video, if for no other reason than the mountain of great past performances in all genres for which no video exists. But video shouldn’t be ignored, either, when available.

A good home theater demo must also trade off between a small (and relatively affordable) hotel room that makes for a difficult setup, and a larger (and invariably much more expensive) space that better accommodates the multiple speakers required. It’s also more difficult to balance the difference between a timed, closed demo (which frustrates many show goers who don’t want to spend show time waiting in line) and an open demo that can result in overcrowding.

Then there’s the choice of source material for an audio/video demo. At big trade shows such as CEDIA the choice is often between loud and louder; the audience there expects such material (bring earplugs!). A consumer audio show, however, needs to strike a balance between an emphasis on audio/video music performances (as in reason one, above) and a movie selection or two. The latter needs just the right helping of dynamics (no explosions or chaotic action) and subtlety. And it’s even better if it demonstrates the importance of music to a film’s effect on the audience. For example, play few minutes from the beginning of Oblivion with its dynamic, under the titles music, then transition to a selection from Quartet, which takes place in a home for retired British musicians. Or perhaps try the opening scenes from the Flight of the Phoenix remake, with its old transport plane flying over sand dunes accompanied by Johnny Cash singing “I’ve Been Everywhere.”

Such demos should also rotate the demo material, using different selections on each of the show’s days. This will invite repeat visits, and isn’t that the whole point? It will not only energize show-goers, but also help save the demo room show runner from burnout. How often can you listen to, or watch, the same selections for three day’s straight without going crazy. Andrew Jones referred to that in his Elac demo by noting that he picked the audio selections he used not only on their sound quality but also on how much he liked them. I can’t recall of he chose them because he actually did like them (thus risking never wanting to hear them again after the show) or because he was indifferent to them (so it wouldn’t matter).

FYI, the exotic, Martian-looking speakers in the photo here are La Spheres from French maker Cabasse. They’re quad amped (four amps needed per side) and fall into “if you have to ask” price category. As I said in my report, you could buy two pair of them for the price of two Teslas—and have enough left over for a leisurely world cruise!

prerich45's picture

"In wide swaths of the country serious audio products simply cannot be auditioned anywhere". you know my pain!!!!

brenro's picture

Call me old school but I will always have a two channel music only system. I enjoy the Bluray concert videos I have but for the most part multi-channel music leaves me cold.

mikem's picture

I have an Oppo 103D and was wondering about settings. I have a Panasonic TC-P 55 ST30 that you reviewed in early? 2012 and use the 2D settings and Pro Settings you used in that review and they have served me well. The custom mode is my default for movies and tv. The question is when I pop in a BD what source - BD player or TV with custom settings - am I seeing? Am I seeing the BD players' video settings or the Custom settings in the tv?

Thank you.

Thomas J. Norton's picture
I've never found a situation where the Oppo's Picture Adjustment controls were needed. I've always left them at 0. If you have them engaged you'll be experiencing some combination of the settings on the player and the set itself, which may not come close to duplicating the effect of the settings we published in the review.

And as we always note, the review settings we provide are for guidance only. They're no substitute for using a test disc to set the basic controls (such as Brightness, Contrast, and Sharpness), and even then only a professional calibration can get you the best color the set can provide. Individual samples of the same model will vary, perhaps by as much as 10 or even 20%.