2005 CES: Day Four

The Primedia team has been staying at the San Tropez, home of T.H.E. (The High End) Show, which means some of us have been walking down halls filled with exhibitors frantically getting rooms put together before the throngs arrived. The night I arrived, one room in my building was making music that beckoned to me as I passed by—today, I finally entered and took over the sweet spot.

What took me so long? DeHavilland Electric Amplifier Company brought its Ampex 351-2 open-reel tape deck along to use as a source and, driving it with a pair of Nola's $9000 Viper 2s with a pair of GM70 50W SET monoblocks ($8995/each) and a Mercury Preamplifier ($3495 with Goldpoint stepped attenuator; $3995 with remote-control Alps potentiometer). The Mercury is constructed around a type 85 triode , while the GM70s use an 845, a 300B, and a KT88.

The power of three certainly works for de Havilland, because the sound was relaxed, focused, and utterly natural. "Listen to this," Kara Chaffee, de Havilland's chief engineer said, pulling out a vintage pre-recorded tape of Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra performing Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.

A moment of stunned silence is in order. It was magical. Yes, there was pre-Dolby tape hiss, but the music existed on a completely separate plane from the noise and it was . . . it was . . . it was just so right. It didn't sound like vinyl at all and I suddenly understood why some collectors prize the old half-track and quarter-track open-reel tapes so highly. There's a top-to-bottom seamlessness to the orchestral sound that nothing else quite duplicates.

"You know," a showgoer said as we left the room, "they got it right in 1958 and they've been screwing us ever since." I saw his point.

Another demo that had many of the same attributes was the one in E.A.R.'s suite. E.A.R. was showing a new $9000 turntable designed by Tim de Paravicini, which means, of course, that there was nothing conventional about it.

The motor drives the sub-platter with a cogged belt, so there is absolutely no slippage. But wait, you ask, doesn't that transmit noise to the platter and tonearm assembly? Nope— because the Corian platter is suspended above the sub-platter magnetically and driven magnetically. "No, I'm not going to reveal details about the bearing, " de Paravicini said, "but the rumble factor is almost non-existent." The armboard accepts two tonearms "with conventional mounting geometry."

The sound was deep and dead quiet. I did hear some rumble, however—acoustic ambient noise from the recording venue, I think. That's how deep into the recording I was hearing.

The fit'n'finish of the table were exceptional for the asking price. If E.A.R. can really bring it to market for $9000, it will instantly become a major turntable player. (Should that be record player?)

Speaking of bargains, I dropped into DeVore Fidelity's room and was startled to see a new loudspeaker, the cute little Gibbon Super 8 floorstanding two-way ($4000/pair in standard finishes; $4900/pair in the birdseye maple/Italian ebony I auditioned). The Gibbon Super 8 uses the small-diameter silk-dome tweeter John DeVore favors, along with a phase-plugged 6.5" woofer adapted from the midrange driver in DeVore's Silverback Reference.

When I walked in, Devore was playing the ECM John Abercrombie, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland trio session from a few years back and I completely fell into the music. Holland's drive and slam were prominent, which is amazing, considering the size of the bass driver.

DeVore moved on to some Cat Power and then some Polly Jean Harvey, which did a better job than coffee at getting me up and moving. The sound was full-bodied and dynamic—intensely present and physical. These speakers are special.

But so, I expect, was the rest of the system, which consisted of Shindo Labs gear: Monbrison preamplifier ($7500) and Cortese f2a single-ended 10Wpc amplifier ($9500). The Monbrison has a built-in MC phono section, which can accept cartridges with as little as 0.2mV output. The f2a uses a Seimens F2a pentode tube, which was designed to deliver over 10,000 hours of continuous use.

Seriously cool, although not heard, was the Shindo 301 Player System ($19,500), which is a completely refurbished Garrard 301, complete with a beautifully finished rosewood cabinet. For any audiophile boasting my years, this turntable is a ticket to the fantasyland of my youth: it's the turntable I always wanted, only better.

"Better" is the only word for the sound in the Viola room, as well (also mentioned by JA in his Day Three report). This is cost-no-object hi-fi with sound that makes strong justification for the price tags. Fronted by Bel Canto's universal player, the system consisted of $16,000 Cadenza preampifier, a pair of the $16,000/each 200W Symphony power amplifiers, and brand new (prototype, even) loudspeakers: the $20,000/pair Allegro Reference Monitors and $18,000/pair Basso Passive Subwoofers.

The Allegros sport a 2" Eton ribbon tweeter, 2" Dynaudio dome midrange, and a pair of 6" Skanning midbass drivers in Isobaric configuration. The ported cabinet is constructed of 0.75" MDF. The Bassos use two 12" Skanning drivers in Isobaric configuration in a rigid ported cabinet.

It wasn't the prices that made me gasp (I didn't learn them until later), it was the sound. Allison Krauss's New Favorite lived up to its title and I've been hearing it for ages. It just never sounded like this. Krauss's voice had purity and sparkle and Union Station was presented with slam and lots of forward momentum. The Bassos integrated with the Allegros seamlessly and I was reminded of just how good a good full-range system can be.

Wowsa.

Which is also all I have to say about Ray Kimber's IsoMike demonstration, which combined his four-channel DSD recordings with a four Pass X100s and TAD Model One speakers. You don't do multichannel? Your loss, when it's done Ray's way. The rear channels were purely ambient and they recreated a concert hall—no, they recreated a specific concert hall, namely the concert hall at Weber State University in Utah. And that's the point, to recreate the sound of notes in a specific space as accurately as possible—if that isn't high end, I don't know what is.

The musical highlight of the show for me was listening to an excerpt of Robert Silverman's upcoming Diabelli Variations disc recorded by Stereophile editor John Atkinson using Ray's IsoMike array. I live just three blocks from the great man himself, but I had to fly 2000 miles to hear these scant few seconds of music.

And you know what? They made the whole trip worthwhile.

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