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By Phil Gold


  Never mind the sound quality who can tell in these conditions! How does it look? I am delighted to introduce to you the 10 best looking products on display at CES 2005 and T.H.E. Show. Let's start at the top.



1.  Chord Brilliant Mezzo 140. 120wpc Stereo Power Amplifier

First prize goes to UK manufacturer Chord Electronics. This year Chord introduces its Brilliant finish to a range of compact high tech electronics. Photographs don't do justice to this stuff. I'm highlighting the new Mezzo 140 power amp, which uses 4 of the Ultra High Frequency power supplies to provide massive power and headroom within a new double-size Choral series chassis. The Choral series is also available in the Brilliant finish, and this rack is clearly destined for a place in the Museum of Modern Art.




2.  T+A G10 Turntable and V10 Integrated amplifier

T+A offer a very impressive range of audio products, including universal players, turntables, amps and speakers. At the top of this range sits the V Series, which includes the V10 microprocessor controlled Tube Amp, the G10 turntable, available with phono preamp built into the chassis, and the upcoming D10 CD-SACD player. Very high engineering standards and great originality mark this German company, now expanding into the North American market.




3.  Combak Bravo! Speakers

Combak is a new name for me, but this Japanese corporation brings us the Harmonix range of cables and tuning devices, Reimyo CD players and electronics, and these Bravo! speakers. The one-point source driver used in the tiny Bravo! is very special. Designed by Combak with technology developed by Finland's Gradient and SEAS of Norway, it boasts controlled dispersion patterns and an ultra smooth spectral balance over a wide area. Available in black or cherry, these speakers look as good as a rectangular box will allow.




4.  Arcam Solo CD player/DAB&FM Tuner/Amplifier

Arcam introduced the petite Solo to an enthusiastic reception, and word has it this all-in-one unit sounds far better than it has any right to sound. Solo consists of an audiophile CD player, a 50wpc amplifier combined with a DAB digital radio and a high quality FM tuner all in a low profile box. Arcam shed their ugly ducking image some years ago, but for my money, this is the best looking product they have brought to market.



5.  Esoteric P01 SACD Transport + D01 Mono DAC

For a company whose least expensive SACD player, the DV50s is priced out of most people's reach at $6,000, this new combination from Esoteric is the ne plus ultra. To really make this sing you need 5 boxes for stereo, or 9 boxes for the full 6-channel sound. The 28kg P01 Transport is powered by a 16kg dedicated outboard power supply, then you need up to 6 D01 mono DAC's, each of which weighs in at 21kg, and you can tie the package together with a separate master clock unit. Each D01 DAC uses 8 Burr Brown PCM1704 chips. The drive mechanism is a refined version of the VRDS-NEO unit from the X-01, reinforced by a half-inch thick solid shaved-aluminum base plate. Madness this may be, but TEAC have spared no expense in the design department. Subtle curves and bevels combined with the highest possible levels of finish mark these units as the gold standard for high-end equipment.





6.  Halcro Logic SSP100 Surround Sound Processor

Here we go off in the opposite direction. Ultra high-end manufacturer Halcro is introducing a new lower-priced range of electronics, the Logic series. This is designed for home theatre applications, and all the units are suitable for rack mounting in a more conventional aesthetic than the DM series. The SSP100 processor exemplifies the new look, and can be yours for just under $10,000. There are 2 processors and 4 amplifiers in the range, and a universal player is expected later. Amplification is based on class-D LYRUS modules developed by Bruce Candy. The amplifiers incorporate Halcro Reliability Assurance Service (HRAS) which sends an e-mail alert to your dealer in the unlikely event that a fault occurs. You control the Logic system from a stylish touch-sensitive remote control complete with rechargeable batteries and docking station.




7.  Sony Qualia 010 Headphones

The Sony Qualia room (invitation only) was simply the most sensational room at CES. Qualia is Sony's ultra high-tech brand, launching for the moment in just two countries, Japan and the United States. Each Qualia product bears just a number, and an ambition to be beyond anyone's expectations. I fell in love with the Qualia 010 headphones, which sound superb and are extremely comfortable to wear. The unique construction of the driver unit provides tremendous accuracy, precision and a frequency response that reaches to an astonishing 120kHz. The extra-wide headband and an extremely lightweight custom-fit magnesium and carbon frame combine to achieve superb levels of comfort.

Also in this room the Qualia 004, a superb high definition home theatre projector capable of 1920 x 1080 resolution, shows Sony's design flair at its peak. This was the most gorgeous product I saw at CES, although since it is not strictly a hi-fi product, I cannot give it the award it deserves. If you want high definition but projection is not for you, the Qualia 005 is a no compromise LCD TV using Sony's new Triluminous LED technology. Not only is the TV itself a stunning design, but the picture it offers is by a long way the best I have ever seen. Color fidelity has never been this good. Bravo Sony!




8.  Pro-Ject 2 Xperience Turntable

A number of handsome turntables made their appearance at CES, and some over-the-top designs like the Audio Note were sounding wonderful.  My award goes to the Pro-Ject 2Xperience. Pro-Ject have set a consistently high standard for inexpensive turntables, and they look as good as they sound.




9.  Blue Danube Micro Record Cleaner

You may need a record-cleaning machine to go with that new turntable. Clearaudio showed a model that cleans both sides of the record at once, but these awards are for form, not function. So the award goes to the Micro from Blue Danube Records. This company, which hails as you guessed from Austria, is the only top ten winner this year from T.H.E. show.





10.  Focal iCub 2.1 Remote Controlled Amplifier and Subwoofer

Finally, a bit of fun. French speaker manufacturer Focal surprised attendees with the cheeky new iCub. Looking for all the world like a small sub-woofer, the iCub sports a large top-mounted volume control and a high-current output 2.1 amplifier, ready to drive a pair of stereo speakers and happy to accept analog inputs (mini jack or phono) or a digital optical input for direct connection of digital audio source, computer or WiFi station. A remote control adds to the convenience. Focal offer the Sib, Sib XL and Sib XXL stereo speakers to match the iCub.




That rounds out my top ten, but Best Sound of the show goes to the Gibson 90th birthday celebrations for Les Paul, featuring Les Paul and Ike Turner, but that's another story. Nothing beats live music!



My congratulations to all the designers who worked so hard to please us. I hope the insides are as well thought out as the parts we see. I'm a little disappointed to find no North American winners this year, but my grand prize last year went to VAC for their exquisite Phi range, so I know we can do it. Maybe next year!













































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