Although several of the biggest high-end PR firms didn't make it to CES 2014, Lucette and John Nicoll of Nicoll Public Relations were very much in evidence. Virtually every member of the press knows Lucette, because she's the person in the press office at T.H.E. Show Newport Beach. Given that her company also represents 14 brands, including Bowers & Wilkins, Classé, Clarus, Meridian, and Rotel, it's no wonder the couple was smiling.
In all my years of evaluating audio systems, I have never heard a more mesmerizing, realistically air-filled soundstage than that created by pairing VTL electronics with the recently reviewed Wilson Audio Alexia loudspeaker ($48,500/pair). Wishing to start my CES adventures on a positive note, I thus headed to the VTL room on the Venetian's 30th floor, where VTL's TP-6.5 Signature phono preamplifier MC Step Up ($10,500), new TL-6.5 Series II Signature line preamplifier ($13,500), and S-400 Series II Reference stereo amplifier ($33,500) sang with the Alexias, Transparent Opus MM interconnects and speaker cables, and Nordost Odin power cables. With the sources the superb Spiral Groove SG1.1 turntable with Centroid tonearm ($31,000) outfitted with Lyra Etna cartridge ($6995), a MacBook Pro running Audirvana, and dCS Puccini and U-Clock ($24,498), I was greeted by beautiful, extremely liquid, transparent, and, yes, remarkably airy sound that drew me deep into the music.
It's "T plus A," not "T and A," I was told of the 35-year old German company whose products Dynaudio first began importing into the US three years ago. Supplying bright, incise sound, great bass, and really impressive dynamics was a full HV (High Voltage) Series Reference System that paired T+A's new A 3000 HV Reference power amplifiers ($37,000/pair), complete with new PS 3000 HV power supply upgrades for the A 3000 HV ($25,000/pair), with the new P 3000 HV Reference preamplifier ($15,000), MP 3000 HV CD transport/DAC/streaming client ($13,500), and new Solitaire CWT 1000 SE loudspeakers ($50,000/pair). Transparent Audio cabling enabled the system to deliver all it can.
Primare may be known for "affordable products," but the wonderful inner warmth and superb, large images the new Primare PRE60 fully differential network preamplifier/streaming DAC ($10,000) and Primare A60, 300Wpc, fully balanced, class-D stereo amplifier ($10,000) produced on a 24/96 HDTracks download of the third movement of Mahler's Symphony 2 convinced the company to issue its first products at this price point. Of the brief time I had for auditioning, I loved every second of what I heard.
Beautiful, airy, and colorful sound distinguished the forthcoming Peachtree Nova 220 SE ($1999), an all-in-one class-D baby that produces 220Wpc into 8 ohms and 440Wpc into 4 ohms. Cribbing from our sister site, Audiostream.comthe pre-show press release cannot be found in my mailboxI see that it accepts up to 24/192 data through its USB and coaxial S/PDIF inputs. Its new discrete class-A preamplifier stage offers improved micro-detail over old Peachtree models, and its S/N ratio has improved 12 dB over the Nova 125 (Stereophile's 2009 Budget Product of the Year). Paired with Martin Logan Summit X loudspeakers ($14,000/pair), this baby acquitted itself with honors on Reference Recordings' version of Tchaikovsky's Hopak from Mazeppa.
Excellent bass, speed, and a distinctly solid-state signature of high-end three-dimensionality were the hallmarks of a Sony system that paired the TA-A1ES 80Wpc integrated amplifier ($2000) with the new HAP-Z1ES hi-res music player with 1TB HDD ($2000), SS-NA2ES loudspeakers ($10,000/pair), and Kimber Select copper speaker cables and copper power cables. This was my first opportunity to experience the much heralded "audiophile grade" HAP-Z1ES, which plays back a full range of file formats, including DSD; includes a 1TB hard drive for playback and storage; has built-in Wi-Fi for app control and music transfer; and, shades of far more expensive dCS, includes a DSD re-mastering engine that converts all signals to DSD.
Despite the upside down dissection, Viola's The Concerto stereo amplifier ($22,000), first introduced in October in Tokyo, produced very smooth fast and solid sounds with nice depth and fine warmth on Fourplay's plastic version of jazz. My scribble says that the amp has a choke input power supply and Motorola thermal track transistors, and outputs 100W into 8 ohms and 200W into 4. Not pictured are Viola's Crescendo preamplifier and Oceanway's Audio Montecito loudspeakers ($48,000/pair).
Moon by Simaudio of Quebec showed its two newest slim-box Evolution Series components. The first, the Moon Evolution Series 760A dual-mono, class-A/B balanced power amplifier ($8000), is "conservatively rated" at 130Wpc into 8 ohms, and boasts a zero global feedback circuit, proprietary output transistors, and class-A output to 5 watts. The company's Costa Koulisakis claims of its unrelated Evolution Series 820S power supply ($8000)intended for use with the Evolution Series' 740P preamplifier, 610LP and 810LP phono preamplifiers, and 650D and 750D CD/DAC transports"We've never done a better power supply in our lives." Together with other Evolution series components, the system produced notably spacious sound.
"What planet am I on?" an alien visitor might have remarked when peering beyond Gato's eye-catching electronics to the brazen new world of Las Vegas 2014. There, somewhat beyond the point where Roman architecture and Ferris wheel meet futuristic tower, jet plane, Hilton Grand Vacations, and a very troubled sky, and far above the relentless hawkers who line Las Vegas Blvd., a huge number of high-end companies spent four days trying to lure distributors and press alike with sonics, glamor, and hype.
The good news about Gato is that it sounds as good as it looks (IMHO, of course). Sounding great on Reference Recordings' much-heralded disc of Copland's Symphony 3, with fabulous bass, the Danish company's new DIA-250 ($4500250Wpc into 8 ohms) and DIA-400 ($600045Wpc into 8 ohms) class-D integrated amplifiers produced fabulous bass, with 0.33 dB adjustments. Included are Burr-Brown PCM1794 dual chipsets that automatically upsample to 24/192, an asynchronous USB input, and a home-theater pass through.
Absolare of Turkey and New Hampshire unveiled its ne plus ultra Passion Signature line, which includes the Absolare Passion Signature 845 parallel 52W monoblock amplifier ($48,500/pair) and Passion Signature preamplifier ($22,500). While I heard these products in single-ended configuration, they are also available in balanced versions. Not only have their power sections undergone significant revision, but they have also been customized with costly Duelund cast capacitors from Denmark, NOS resistors, NOS tubes in the preamplifier, and NOS driver tubes in the amplifier.
Clearaudio's Robert Suchy points to Clearaudio's Absolute Phono ($15,000), a unique moving-coil phono stage system, here installed in the headshell of the TT1i Tangential tonearm ($30,000), which includes its own amplification stage. I am told there are no loading issues, and that the arm can accommodate any cartridge and produce sound without the use of coupling capacitors in the signal path. A second version of Absolute Phono is on the way. Also distributed by Musical Surroundings, its active headshell stage will be outboard, allowing it to be used with other tonearms.
Not yet distributed in the US, Rumee's two single-ended tube amplifiers, the HS-1 ($950) and, with different power tubes, the HS-2 ($950) are made from sweet-smelling solid cypress. I wish I could say more, but the language barrier was hard to surmount.
LA Audio Electric Company's tube electronics produced warm, euphonic, and very smooth sound from ridiculously soppy pop music via Acoustic Zen loudspeakers. All products are hand-wired, and include proprietary output transformers. As best as I could make out, new at the show, although not in the photo, were the M-5W push-pull integrated amplifier ($1450) and A-50W integrated amplifier ($1700).
The CES is traditionally where we give awardees their well-deserved Products of the Year awards. Here is the complete line-up for 2013, waiting in the Stereophile room at the Venetian, just before the show started on Tuesday January 7.