This is a great time to be an audiophile. No matter whether you are a staunch
two-channel, tube-loving analog guy, home-theater surround-sound-loving solid-state nerd, or somewhere in-between, life has never been better. No, really. Taking a step back this year and looking at what the industry has to offer really drove it home. There has never been a better selection of well-built, good (great - but not under show conditions) sounding, convenient
(Shock! Horror!), good-looking (many exceedingly good) and affordable (gasp) audio devices.
This year I decided to try to take in as much of the show as possible. Because of this, I was not able to "linger" in as many rooms as I would like. Therefore, the exclusion of companies from this report is not an indicator that I didn't like a particular product. Rather, I tried to focus on those things that piqued my interest. Also, this year I decided to expose decidedly my non-audiophile wife to the madness of CES so that she could understand why I normally return from CES with a s… eating grin upon my face every year. I can definitely say that the experience was enlightening for both of us. I gained a whole different perspective on things for sure.
Before I get on with actual room reports, I must say that it was quite refreshing to see and hear quite a few new products with legitimately new and intriguing new concepts and design topologies. This is in contrast to the plethora of rather "optimistic" marketing claims of "groundbreaking" new topologies and "advanced" new drivers that in reality are only variations of well-established design topologies and standard, off-the-shelf drivers that have some modest tweak applied.
One of the companies with legitimate new technologies is Impact Technology. In their room they displayed their top of the line Airfoil 5.2
($35,000/pr) speaker featuring nine bending-wave drive elements and balanced compression force subwoofer. As I was shown the inner-workings of the subwoofer unit and the methods chosen to combat distortion and vibration, I was struck by the relative simplicity, yet effectiveness of the design.
Talon must also qualify as a company utilizing interesting new technologies. Their speakers feature a variation of an isobaric bass loading system (two woofers - one directly behind the other) and aperiodic enclosure. What is interesting about this methodology is that the two woofers are "time-synced" together to reduce distortion and improve transient response. While I find the their claims of
"1,000 times faster" to stretch the boundaries of believability (sound travels at one speed and I have heard some other woofer systems with equally amazing transient response), the technique certainly has been able to alleviate the problems inherent with a standard isobaric loading technique, namely distortion, while keeping the benefits, namely much more woofer surface area for a given cabinet volume, and achieving excellent transient response, if not necessarily 1000x (or 10x) better than the best of the competition. While the new version of the Khorus X certainly was impressive (at a 20k pricetag), what really caught my eye was the brand new Raven speaker
($7,000). This two-way design with dual 10" woofers had amazing pitch definition, impressive dynamic capability, large soundstage, and a lovely cosmetic presentation. My wife also gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the design.
Clarity EQ of Australia, makers of DSP devices for loudspeakers, made a strong case for their technology. In their demonstration they compared a pair of active, powered NHT Pro speakers to a pair utilizing their proprietary digital cross-over, which incorporates both frequency response and phase correction. The results were not subtle. Instrumental textures were much improved as was, surprisingly to me, the soundstaging.
Cranking up the digital cross-over scheme to another level was Legacy Audio. A long time direct-order only company, Legacy has decided to take their show to dealers. At the show they were
demonstrating prototypes of their new DSP-crossover based Helix loudspeaker. The final price is undecided (they have not decided whether to include all of the necessary amplification in the package), but estimates were given at
Surround Sound is Here to Stay
This year I heard first hand the benefits provided by a properly implemented surround sound system. No, I am not talking about home theater here. Rather, I am talking about the benefits for music. (By the way, I
do not consider it heresy to think that one system can completely fill the bill for ALL my listening needs). I also heard the many negative attributes that drive purists nuts about surround sound, but consider that specific application/recoding technique problems, not something inherently wrong with the format.
The first of the surround-sound setups that impressed me was the Concept 2 System by ATC of England. Featuring 4 of their powered Active 10 compact (5" bass driver, 1" tweeter) loudspeakers
($2,700/pr), a C4c-a dedicated active center channel speaker (dual 5" drivers), and C2s-a Active 9" subwoofer. These very attractive speakers had dynamic contrast galore, realistic timbre, and low distortion. Used in both surround and
two-channel mode, the sound was impressive.
In the oh-my-goodness-that-is-expensive category of the surround sound spectrum was the Burmester room. All products were extremely well built and priced accordingly. Featuring a protype 008 surround-sound processor, 961 center channel (a very unique vertical design with the woofer firing at an angle towards the floor and I believe), B99 Reference speakers
($48,00/pr) for the mains, 949 speakers ($22,000) for the rear and a full bevy of equally expensive Burmester electronics. Wow. Extra kudos go to the tolerant folks in this room that allowed an audiophile weary of audiophile demo disks to listen to Marvin Gaye (in surround).
Equally impressive in a much less expensive way (actually more impressive considering the cost) was the Magnepan surround-sound system. Featuring two pair of the new "mounted" MGMC1 ($725/pr) and the MGCC2 center channel ($950), these speakers got out of sight both visually and sonically. Far less visually intrusive than conventional planar speakers and yet retaining the positive virtues associated with planars, this system has a lot going for it. I wish them well.
The best demonstration for demonstrating the virtues of surround sound was put on by Muse. Utilizing Muse's new M.A.P (Modular Audio Platform) Control Unit/DACs (approx.
$10,000 in the configuration shown), three model 160 amplifiers (1,900 each), and three pair of Avalon's new baby speakers
($3,750/pr) configured in the arrangement promoted by David Chesky (see the Chesky website for details) and Chesky recordings specifically recorded for that application, the presentation was eerily realistic.
One of the things personally holding me back from the promise of a combined music/home theater system has been the lack of either a high quality surround sound processor with analog bypass (so I can utilize a DVD Audio or SACD player effectively) or a high quality
six-channel preamp so that I can switch between the outputs of a surround-sound processor and a high-quality surround-sound music source. On the surround-processor front, Simaudio's Attraction Processor
($5,995) has been upgraded to offer analog bypass, while the visually stunning (it was on passive display) Aragon processor
($4,000) offered the same.
At least two high-end companies have decided to tackle the challenge of creating high-performance
six-channel preamps at affordable, if not mid-fi, prices. Bel Canto had a slew of new products including their 6-channel preamp, the pre-6 (anticipated retail of
$3,000), their new two-channel digital amplifier, the eVo2 ($2,900), two-channel digital integrated, the eVoi
($3,000), four-channel amplifier, the eVo4 ($3,900), and six-channel amplifier, the
eVo6 ($4,900). All of the new products share a fresh new industrial design. The two demos I heard utilizing the new products more than hinted at strong performance.
The other company featuring a six-channel preamplifier was Copland. The twist from this Swedish company, which is distributed in North America by Divergent technology, is that their 6 channel pre-amp, the CVA 306
($2,495) is a tube design. Yes, a six-channel tube preamplifier for $2,500. In addition to the preamp, Copland showed their new 2-channel solid state amplifier, the CTA 502
($2,495), five-channel amplifier, the CTA 535 ($3,295), cd player, the CDA 822
($2,495), and two-channel tube amplifier, the CTA 305 ($2,195). All the amplifiers appear to be meticulously built. I must admit to being highly desirous of a chance to audition them in my humble abode (what do you think, Steve?)
I love Italian Design
I must admit it - I find many of the designs coming out of Italy to be absolutely alluring. This year, I found many products of Italian design to drool over. The first Italian products to catch my eye were those from Audio Analogue. Paired with a pair of floorstanding two-way Dynaudio speakers, the Paganini
CD player ($1,295) and Maestro remote controlled integrated (at $4,495, an impressive (and physically intimidating) example of industrial design) were making fine sounds. Also making their debut were the Cellini multi-channel audio/video preamplifier processor and the absolutely hulking Michelangelo
five-channel amplifier. (Again, there is always a welcome place in my home for these products).
Also, proudly carrying the Italian mantle were the fine products from Viva Audio, including their new 300B integrated amplifier
($7,000), the less expensive amplifiers and speakers from Synthesis Audio, and the very attractive speakers from Diapason. I would be remiss if I
did not mention the "big daddy" in Italian audio - Sonus Faber. I have seen many pictures of the Amati Heritage before, but they didn't come close to preparing me for the in-person impression they make. Absolutely stunning.
I Do Not Like Horns
Or so I previously thought. Despite hearing many of the positive aspects of horn designs in the past, I was never able to get past what I considered fundamental timbral inaccuracies inherent to horn designs. I must admit that I was wrong. I finally heard horn designs that bring all of the attributes trumpeted by their fans, yet also bringing lifelike instrumental textures and timbres. The first to shift my paradigms (to borrow a TQM phrase) was the Little Big Horn from Carfrae
($23,000). These modern-looking horns artfully blended a nearly-full range Tractix horn with a powered bass unit. Powered by a Wavelength Audio
Cardinal X1, this system was able to reproduce the music in a soul-stirring manner.
Also impressive was the Phoenix Grand Speaker from Calix Technology
($50,000). These room-filling beauties were both beautiful of tone and capable of portraying the full range of dynamic contrasts.
Those folks who want to utilize low to ultra-low powered amplifiers, but don't want to empty their wallets in quite so dramatic a fashion or take up as much real estate in their listening rooms, would be wise to audition one of the new Von Schweikert Audio loudspeakers. Coupling powered woofer sections (either dual 9" or single 10") for high output and a high-efficiency midrange/tweeter combinations, the new DB-99
($6,000) and DB-100 ($10,000) appear to offer the audiophile a good value.
Also a suitable load for lower-powered amplifiers is the new Total Victory Speaker
($11,000) from Coincident Technology. Featuring the same driver complement as the Victory (ribbon tweeter, dual 3" midranges, dual 6" mid-woofers) along with an additional four 8" side-firing woofers per side, the Total Victory has
96dB/w/m sensitivity and constitutes a 14 ohm load. Playing tunes powered by an all-Manley front end, including the brand new 100w/channel monoblock Snapper amplifiers
($4,200/pr), the presentation had excellent body and life (I had to love some of the tunes that came out of the room, too)
Some Good Uns
In the Joseph Audio Room, I was impressed by the RM33si ($7,500/pr) powered by the Theta Intrepid amplifiers. I was more impressed, however, when I came back later and heard the RM25's
($3,500/pr) powered by the new Ayre AX-7 integrated amplifier ($3,00?). While not inexpensive, this combination showed some true high-end pedigree and out-performed many systems that had prices far exceeding this pair.
Totem Acoustics was showing a bevy of new loudspeakers, including home theater and in-wall speakers. What really caught my eye, however, was the new Hawk
($2,195) loudspeaker. This slender little design utilizes a very expensive (I don't know of many speakers less than double its cost that utilizes a driver of this quality). The 6.5" version of this driver is utilized in a well known amplifier company's
$10,000/pr two way. The speaker was coupled with the new Z-Series components from Myryad. These components are very well built, extremely user friendly (ergonomics were definitely a major consideration during the design of this series), an a good-sounding match for the Hawks.
VMPS was back and showing a very high value system. The Ribbon Monitor 40s
($4,600/pr) utilize four 8" neodymium ribbon midrange panels, two spiral ribbon tweeters, and dual 10" woofers in a 66" x 12.5" x 17", 260 pound package. The sound was among the best at the show at any price.
Wrappin' Up On A Good Note
While the high-end is full of stories of less than savory characters and bitter conflicts between highly passionate people with highly disparate opinions, it is also full of many good people who share a common goal of bringing an above average musical experience to the homes of consumers. The CES welcome party at the Alexis Park was an enjoyable experience where competing manufacturers
(three speaker guys - all selling into the same price range, among others) sat together and swapped jokes and audio stories and genuinely enjoyed each others company. Finally, " good guy" awards much be passed out to the kind folks at Viva Audio and to Barry Kohan, the gentleman owner of Bright Star Audio, who postponed their dinners to come to the rescue of another manufacturer plagued with car problems after show hours.