So many music servers and related products appeared at the 2011 CES, that we can now sort them into various sub-categories depending on what is included in the box. I was looking for new or upgraded digital products, but likely missed a few. Feel free to add what I missed in the comments.
Click through to see the complete list of what I found with links and an informal taxonomy.
The last time I attended CES was three years ago. Although many things have stayed the same, there were also interesting changessome of them profound. At the Las Vegas Convention Center, it seemed that almost every exhibit had to do with 3D, iPods, or tablet computers. At the Venetian, in addition to the traditional areas of speakers and amplification, it was music servers and related productsably summarized by Jon Iverson in his wrap-up. Cables were big. (More on this anon.)
It was a very crowded show. At the convention center, the scene was at times like being on a subway platform during rush hour. At the Venetian, home of high performance audio, there were long lineups for the elevatorssee photo. Although officially CES is not open to the general public, there were a lot of attendees with “Industry Affiliate” badges, and being an industry affiliate was apparently very broadly defined. This had the effect of increasing attendance, which I guess is not a bad thing, but it also meant that some of these attendees were really consumers, not industry people. One veteran speaker designer told me that some of the questions he was asked at this year’s CES were quite naïve, like “What if you played all these speakers at the same time?” He attributed this to these attendees being consumers (and not very knowledgeable ones at that).
My show report assignment was low-to-moderately-priced speakers, and I was very pleased to get this assignment, leaving John Atkinson to report on expensive speakers. As I said in one of my reviews, I’m more of a Volkswagen/Honda/Toyota than a Ferrari/Lamborghini/Aston Martin kind of guy. But CES had lots for the Ferrari/Lamborghini/Aston Martin crowd, and sometimes I was taken aback by the prices. In one case, I saw a three-way not-too-huge floorstanding speaker that I thought might be under the $10k that for me defined the top of the moderately-price range. I asked how much it cost. The answer: ninety thousand. I wasn’t sure I heard correctly. Nine thousand? No, ninety thousand. OK, this one is for JA.
PSB’s Paul Barton, proud designer of the new Imagine Mini. Photo: Bob Deutsch.
I complaina lotabout Vegas. I have to apologize to my family, friends, and colleagues for all the whining I’ve let loose over the last couple of weeks. I’m sorry.
I should apologize to you, too, Las Vegas, because there must be more to you than all your neon lights and annoying buzzers and piped oxygen and smoky casinos, your fancy facades and empty promiseseverything in Las Vegas looks beautiful from afar, but the closer you get, the uglier it becomes, the clearer its lies and flaws, the more readily apparent its cracks and hollow insidesI have to wonder: Are even the mountains a mirage?your insulting buffets and gaudy theme restaurants and those relentless dudes who crowd the sidewalks with packets of coupons for a good time: Slap, “for you,” slap, “for you,” slap, “for you.” I would love to knock you over. You make me ill, Las Vegas. You really do. Where is your soul?
I was apologizing. I was saying there must be more to Las Vegas; I was saying I’ve been unfair. Las Vegas is home to many beautiful people, and for one week out of the long year, the world of consumer electronics gathers in Las Vegas to share its stories, to reconnect, to recharge.
We call it the Consumer Electronics Show. It brings me to Las Vegas. At a little after 7pm on Wednesday evening, I arrived at the Hyatt and was greeted in the lobby by our web monkey, Jon Iverson. This was the perfect way to begin the show. I gave Jon a bear hug and almost knocked him over. We settled into our rooms and later met up for dinner with John Atkinson, Kal Rubinson, Bob Deutsch, and Jason Victor Serinus. We exchanged stories, we took pictures, we talked about music, literature, movies, and we devised a plan of attack: John Atkinson would cover expensive speakers, Jon Iverson would cover digital components, Kal would cover multichannel for his April issue column, Bob would tackle moderately priced speakers, Jason would hunt down accessories and cables, and I would be responsible for lower-priced products. (Subsequently Tyll Hertsens joined our team with some well-informed headphone coverage.)
CES represents the only time I get to hang out with most of these guys. (It was, in fact, the only time I’ve ever hung out with Erick.) And, for me, that’s the big story. More than for the gear, even more than for the music, I look forward to CES for the people.
My most emotional moment at the 2011 CES came in the Harman suite on the Venetian’s 35th floor. I finally got to meet Kevin Voecks, Revel Loudspeakers’ head honcho, and he is every bit the gentleman people told me he would be. Playing in one room of the Harman suite was a system comprised of Mark Levinson digital and amplification gear including the new No. 53 monoblock amplifiers ($25,000 each) and the Revel Ultima Salon2 loudspeakers. The No.53 is Levinson’s first digital switching amplifier. One of the inherent problems of a switching amp is that it creates dead bands in the audio signal when the output devices cross over from a positive voltage to a negative one. Levinson says they have eliminated this problem through a patented technology that allows both sets of output devices to be on simultaneously for short periods of time. This is designed to be done without damaging the output devices or reducing their life expectancy.
After listening to a bit of the sample CD they had playing in the room, I thought I would play the opening cut, Eric Whitacre’s “Lux Aurumque,” from the CD While You Are Alive, which I had produced with John Atkinson engineering. It was the best I had ever heard it. I sat there listening to this recording, into which I poured my soul, next to Kevin, who headed the speaker’s design team, that delivered my vision back to me in a way I’d not realized was possible. I felt so lucky and thankful that I live in a world where designers like Kevin, and so many others who show their heart’s labors at CES, can help artists connect to listeners and listeners connect to artists. All I could do was thank Kevin and give him a copy of the CD, as he clearly enjoyed listening to it almost as much as I did. I only wish I could have played him the high-resolution master files.
I told Kevin that JA and I mixed While You Are Alive on a pair of Revel Salon2s while John had the speakers in-house for review. Kevin looked at me with a smile and told me that I was listening to the very speakers John had in his house. Life is magic sometimes.
The No. 53’s were clearly doing a great job, outperforming JA’s Mark Levinson No.33Hes we had used during the mixing. I gotta stop dissing the digital amps.
My other joint best sound at CES was to the On a Higher Note room at the Mirage Hotel across the street from the Venetian. On dem was the G2Giya ($50,000/pair), which made its debut at the 2010 CES, driven by a Luxman stereo amplifier, and the Audio Aero La Source tube preamp/digital player, hooked up with Shunyata's new Anaconda line of cables.
The G2 has half the cabinet volume of the similar-looking G1Giya that Wes Phillips reviewed last July, and replaces the larger speaker's twin 11" woofers with 9" units. Whether it was the smaller speakers not exciting the penthouse room's acoustics as much as had the G1Giya the previous yearthe Mirage's glass-fronted rooms may give spectacular views of Las Vegas, but they also flap at low frequenciesor the new front-end and cables, but the sound on José Carreras singing the audiophile classic Misa Criolla, Peter Gabriel's idiosyncratic but convincing reading of Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble," and the unexpected combination of John Lee Hooker dueting with Miles Davis, from the soundtrack to the movie Hot Spot was to die for, the system simply stepping out of the way of the music. As it should.
I heard a lot of good sound at the 2011 CES and T.H.E. Show. But my joint best sound must go to the room at the Venetian where Convergent Audio Technology was demming the new Ken Stevens Statement tube monoblocks with a CAT SL1 Legend preamp, Vandersteen 5A loudspeakers and MSB digital front-end, with cabling from Stealth and AC supplied by The Essence Reference system.
As I walked into the room on the final afternoon of the Show, a Chopin piano work was playing. yes, the recorded perspective was close, but my goodness, the instrument was there in the room! (It was the Gold Collector's Edition on First Impression Music of Jun Fukamachi at Steinway.) Effortless dynamics, palpable instrumental presence, tonality, musical poweryou name it, this system did it.
More than once in my years of CES-going, it has come down to the last day of the show for me to discover an important product. That was the case this time. The product was the Triton Two, the flagship loudspeaker from GoldenEar, the new company founded by Sandy Gross and Don Givogue, who had been partners at Definitive Technology, Gross having also co-founded Polk Audio. The company is new, but it draws on a wealth of experience in the speaker business, and it shows.
There were quite a few speakers that impressed me at this show, but, taking price and sound quality into account, I have say that the Triton Two, shown here with Sandy, was my favorite. It’s a floor-standing three-way, narrow in the front (5¼”), widening in the rear (7½”), and just 48” high, making it visually unassuming. It uses an unusual driver complement, starting with what they call a High-Velocity Folded Ribbon Tweeter (a variant of the Heil AMT tweeter), two 4½” mid/bass drivers, and two 5”x9” subwoofers, each coupled with a 7”x10” passive radiator facing the side. Each subwoofers is driven by a 1200W DSP-controlled class-D amp. With all this technologyand truly full-range soundthe Triton Two costs just $2500/pair.
Without a doubt, the four-way, five-driver Magico Q5 that Michael Fremer reviewed last November was one of my loudspeaker high points of 2010. But at $59,950/pair, the Q5 is definitely a speaker aimed at the deep-in-pocket. Magico's Alon Wolf proudly showed his new Q3 at CES, which, at $34,000/pair, is going to appeal to a somewhat wider market.
A three-way sealed-box with three 7" Nano-teccone woofers, the 47"-tall floor-standing Q3 uses the same proprietary beryllium-dome tweeter as the Q5 in the same type of space-frame enclosure, with a 6" Nano-tec midrange unit. The lower woofers roll off earlier than the upper one, to optimize the crossover to the midrange unit. Frequency response is specified as 20Hz50kHz, sensitivity as 90dB (which is significantly higher than the Q5's 86dB), and impedance as 5 ohms.
I auditioned the Q3s in a system comprising Soulution pre- and power amps hooked up with MIT's new cables, and listening first to a Red Book file of Patricia Barber, then to a Jordi Savall/Hespèrion XXI recording of a baroque double-violin concerto, this was one of the best sounds I heard at CES, with excellent LF extension and definition, if a touch on the mellow side.
Magico were showing a prototype of the Q1 stand-mount in a back room, which they will be introducing at the 2011 Munich Show. This combines the beryllium-dome tweeter with a single Nano-tec midrange-woofer, but the price has yet to be decided upon.
Dan D’Agostino is no newbie to high-end audio, but his namesake company is. In the new company’s first showing at a CES, Dan brought in his new Momentum monoblock amplifiers ($42,000/pair). The amps, visually inspired by Swiss watch design, are among the most distinctive and beautiful pieces of equipment I’ve seen. The sides of the amplifier are made of copper, which not only gives the amps a lustrous, glowing color, but also serve as very efficient heatsinks for the 28 output transistors.
The amplifier is completely made in-house, including such things that are usually handed off to subcontractors, like stuffing the printed-circuit boards. There are no surface-mount parts used, Dan feeling that traditional through-hole parts offer better long-term performance consistency.
A 1.2kVA power transformer is packed into the compact chassis and in the tradition of Krell, the company that he cofounded 30 years ago, the new amplifier puts out 300W into 8 ohms, 600W into 4 ohms, and 1200W into 2 ohms, all with class-A/B biasing. Yet, there was nothing about this system that sounded like class-A/B amplifiers. Driving Wilson Sashas, the sound was warm, fast, open and generoustonally and spatially. Voices all sounded balanced, life-like and three-dimensional. Dan told me a matching preamplifier is on the way.
A closer view of the Dan D’Agostino Momentum amplifier, with its watchface-styled meter. Photographs just don't do this gorgeous amplifier justiceI just wanted to stroke that meter, caress those copper flanks!
Michael Fremer and I got up early Friday morning and headed to the Mirage hotel where Devialet, a new French audio company, and its new North American distributor, Audio Plus Services, hosted a breakfast gathering to unveil their new D-Premier ($15,995). Encased in a mirror-finished solid aluminum chassis, the D-Premier is an all-in-one DAC, streamer, preamp, power amp, and phono stage. Not only does the D-Premier combine all these features in one product, but it also has a new and novel amplifier section; a patented Analog Digital Hybrid.
The input signal goes directly to a class-A amplifier. Though the output of this connected to the speaker terminals, it can’t deliver enough current to do so without help. The necessary high current is sourced from a class-D amp. The analogy of this amplifier is like power steering on a car where the driver is assisted by a powerful engine to turn the wheels; the driver turns the wheel but the power steering does the heavy lifting. In the same way, the class-A section of the amplifier controls the class-D section. The idea is that the amp retains the sonics of class-A yet maintains 85% efficiency in a 240Wpc amp.
The Devialet design team Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel and Matthias Moronvalle (the latter shown in JA’s photo holding a demonstration version of the amp housed in acrylic)was insistent during the presentation the D-Premier is not a class-D amp.
The sound with Focal speakers was clear, balanced, open, and grain-free, with no hint of the hash sometimes associated with class-D amplification. (The eggs at the breakfast were also excellent.)
The Devialet D-Premier directly converts the wall current to DC, then uses a high-efficiency switch-mode power supply running at a very high frequency to power the audio circuitry. I asked Matthias Moronvalle if this meant that the power transformer could be much smaller than usual? His response was to show me the two small wafers sitting on his laptop. "That's the transformer," he told me, "with a continuous rating of 600VA." Ulp!
I have been following with interest the goings-on at Nevada-based Wisdom Audio, since the company was revitalized with members of the team that had led Madrigal to success in the 1990s. But their concentration on in-wall speakers, using planar technology developed by David Graebener, means that they fall within the bailiwick of our sister publication Home Theater. Going in their room at CES, however, I was confronted by the LS4 floor-to-ceiling on-wall ($80,000/pair), which sounded magnificent driven by Classé's superb new CT-M600 monoblocks and reinforced below 80Hz by a pair of Wisdom enormous STS 2x15" subwoofers ($10,000 each; STS stands for "Steamer Trunk-sized Subwoofer"). The system controller, which includes an active crossover and room correction, costs $6500.
The LS4 uses four identical push-pull modules, each comprising a central HF section operating above 750Hz flanked by midrange sections covering the 80Hz range. The backwave is absorbed within the enclosure, but the enormous radiating area still gives a sensitvity of 100dB/2.83V/m. (Impedance is 4 ohms.) Though the LS4 is fastened to the wall behind it, the weight is supported by a single spiked foot.
The LS4 is where architectural audio becomes aspirational audio.
Richard Vandersteen doesn't rush to release new loudspeakers, so given that the top-of-the-line Vandersteen 7 was a hot product at the 2010 CES, I wasn't expecting anything new at the 2011 Show. Talking to Richard in the company's Venetian suite, where they were featuring the Model 7, he casually mentioned that the new Tréo ($5990/pair) was at the Show, just not in his room. So I hustled me along to the Musical Surroundings room, where the Tréos were being demmed with a Clearaudio turntable and Aesthetix electronics.
Basically, the Tréo is similar to the $10k/pair Quatro Wood that Wes Phillips reviewed in December 2007, but replaces that speaker's active, equalized bass unit, with a conventional passive 6.5" woofer and an 8" flat-cone "acoustic coupler." Good sound at an equally good price.