The case and front panel nomenclature are not in final form, but if VAC's forthcoming two-piece Master Signature preamplifier ($26,500 as linestage, $40,000 with additional phono stage)ignore what the prototype unit's front panels saydue in early March, sounds anywhere near as good as the VAC equipment I heard at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, it will be worth waiting for.
I can never tell what's new in the McIntosh line, because everything retains the company's same classic look. In this case, attention turned to the new MA8000 integrated amplifier ($10,000), introduced at the 2013 CEDIA, that merges the MC302 power amp and C50 preamp ($14,000 total) into a single chassis and, I'm told, sounds "pretty much the same" as the separates.
If that title got your attention, so may loudspeaker manufacturer Westlake Audio's novel use of the bed that every other exhibit in the Venetian's sleeping rooms had dispensed with in one fashion or another. Instead, Westlake Audio used it as a fashion statement, of sorts.
Nagra is not a company known to throw a few products together each year, and instead create their precision-machined wonders at a glacial pace befitting their Swiss heritage. As their press release states: "Introduction of new models follows a strict procedure at Nagra. A new product is considered worthy of appearing in the catalog once it brings a true improvement in sonic reproduction." More than one person asked if I had been up to the Nagra suite near the top of the Mirage hotel to see the new DAC.
Why have both a music server at a home and a portable one in your pocket when one machine can do both? At least that is the pitch I was given in the Astell&Kern room in the Venetian. The story is that the AK240 is good enough to compete with many larger systems and function as a high performance USB DAC as well (via the Micro-B USB input). Pricing hasn't been set yet, but I was told would be under $3k when it is available in March.
Highlights for the new AK240 include 384GB total memory for music storage (internal and additional microSD card slot), which would translate to around 800 albums (CD quality FLAC) and ability to connect directly to HD download sites via WiFi for music purchase (vendors TBD). On the front is a 800x480 resolution color touch screen set into a body made of "Duralumin", described as an aircraft grade aluminum alloy. The unit indeed feels quite solid in the hand.
Another portable announced at CES is HiFiMAN's new player featuring a clever modular design demonstrated by company founder, Fang Bian. He opened the player and popped out several pieces including the amplifier section, which can be customized by the owner to better match their listening needs. A half dozen modules will be available, ranging from $100-600, offering different output options tuned for different kinds of headphones.
Inside is a 16V Li-ion battery. Bian says that the higher voltage allows better grade op-amps in addition to 2 Wolfson DACs per channel. The HM-802 can handle both HD PCM and DSD files, has up to 128GB storage capability, and should hit stores this month starting at $699.
So new it's not yet priced, MBL's revamped Noble Line will be available mid-year. Heard in prototype form, and demmed by their designer, Jürgen Reis (above), the E31 CD/DAC, E51 integrated amplifier, and E21 stereo amplifier are intended to deliver "fuller, richer, and more refined sound" than the entry-level Corona line. "It is still the Noble family sound, but it is improved, with higher resolution and greater transparency that make it more modern," says Reis.
When I entered the room with equipment from PBN Audio, EM from Japan, and Mark Johansen's ZenSati cabling, I encountered PBN President Peter Noerbaek playing an LP of one of the Bach solo cello suites. This he followed with cellist Aage Kvalbein's audiophile-quality CD of the Theme from Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, available on the KKV.no label's Mirakler far den nye Verdem (Miracles from the New World). (Click here and here for more information.] The sound was very detailed, clear, and warm, with great dynamics. New was PBN Audio's fully balanced, all-FET EB-SA2 power amplifier ($34,995), which outputs 650Wpc into 8 ohms and 1200Wpc into 4. "It's way overbuilt, as is everything we do," said Noerbaek of his 165 lb baby.
In one of the last rooms I visited on the 30th floor of the Venetian hotel, Mark O'Brien, Rogue Audio founder, president and electrical engineer/designer, debuted the big brother of the Rogue Audio Sphinx, the Pharoah hybrid integrated amplifier ($3495). A tube/solid-state hybridtheir literature variously claims the power at 185Wpc and 175Wpc into 8 ohms, 350Wpc into 4 ohmsthe Pharoah includes an adjustable MM/MC phono preamp section, tube headphone amplifier, processor loop, and home-theater bypass. Paired with a Dr. Feickert Analogue Woodpecker turntable with Jelco tonearm and Arché headshell, Ortofon Cadenza Black cartridge, Synergistic Research "Core" cabling and Quantum power strip, and Dynaudio Confidence C1 II loudspeakers, the system exhibited quite lovely, fairly neutral, and extremely listenable sound. "A good cozy-up system," I wrote in my notes.
Before I learned a thing about Pass Labs' new .8 Series of amplifiers, which is designed as the new bridge between the company's current .5 and XS Series, Pass's Kent English welcomed me to listen to the Impex Records LP transfer of an RCA Red Seal 1958 mono recording of Beethoven's Violin Sonata No.8 with Jascha Heifetz and Emanuel Bey. (Only 2000 LPs were pressed, and this was number 1244.) Wow! The clarity and believability of the presentation were phenomenal. Bey's piano was recorded far too distant, but the layered complexity of the sound of Heifetz's violin was mesmerizing. All that audiophile talk about hearing the sound of the rosin on the bow had never before seemed as real as when I auditioned this recording. And the presentation was musical to boot!