Conrad-Johnson Design, well-known purveyors of vacuum-tube electronics, introduced the ET2 Enhanced Triode preamplifier, featuring a single-ended triode voltage gain stage direct-coupled to a high-current output buffer. For once, this is not another $18k preamp; the price is a relatively modest $3500.
In a room dominated by imposing Antique Sound Labs tube electronics and Reference 3A Grand Veena loudspeakers, the Chang folks were demonstrating their new Hyper Drive "hyper noise shunting mechanism." Designed to bring AC noise down further than conventional Chang Lightspeed power conditioners, the Hyper Drive will be incorporated into 2008 Reference models such as the Chang Mk III ($3500).
As usual, Totem did a wonderful job of transforming their booth to provide a fun and distinct listening environment. The company was also playing their Tribe wall-mount, which provided a surprisingly robust sound.
The highlight of the VRS Audio Solutions room was witnessing VRS' Vincent R. Sanders and Neil Sinclair (high-end pioneer and former owner of Theta Digital) engage in a heated discussion over optimal methods for achieving hard disk-stored music playback. These two went at it as if dealing with life and death itself. Which, in the case of high-end audio, isn't far from the truth.
After hearing the Stello stack, I thought I had heard it all. But in the next room, April Music President Simon K. Lee blew my mind even more with the one-piece Aura note Music Center ($1850). This little baby, available through a dealer network, even includes a USB port on back, a second USB memory stick port on the side, a built-in tuner, and two RCA inputs. Paired with the Aura speaker ($650/pr), the parallel single-ended MOSFET design (thank you, Nelson Pass) sounded a bit more mellow and soulful than the Stello stack. (It would have probably extended as low as that stack if it had been paired with the B&Ws).
Paul Barton, founder and chief designer of PSB Speakers International, plans to manufacture a new series of loudspeakers he is calling "Imagine." This line will feature new finishes and styling. The enclosures will be curved, both front to back and top to bottom. To create this shape, PSB is laminating multiple layers of MDF, w2hich is then braced to a mold. Radio frequency waves are directed at the enclosure shell for 15 seconds that quickly sets the glue. Once the enclosure is stable, holes are machined as the exact places required, which eliminates the tedious job of making ultra-precise adjustments when an enclosure is built around the drivers. PSB also uses a method of adding color after the first coat of clear sealant is applied to the veneer, so the resulting finish shows the wood grain but also has a rich, red color.
The totally new-to-me Indiana Line, imported by VMAX Services, was a great surprise. VMAX Service's Richard Kohlruss tells me the company's been around for 30 years. Their Arbour Series of loudspeakers are finished in an attractive real-wood cherry veneer with nicely rounded front panel edges. At just about 37" high and only 25lbs, the 5.02 is not only easy on the eyes, it's also practical for small listening rooms like mine.
Franc Kuzma was showing a fascinating tonearm, the $7300–7500 4Point, named because it has unique vertical and horizontal bearings. Kuzma said, "It's like a unipivot tonearm that can't 'chatter' in the horizontal plane."
"The technology to create a full, wireless, 5.1 channel audio system simply wasn't available before, "said Mike Gough, B&W's Senior Project Manager on the Liberty System, "so we waited until it was possible to do it right." The Liberty employs a proprietary, robust wireless protocol with channel switching capabilities—called dynamic channel selection—to avoid interference from existing WiFi networks. Its wireless transmitter broadcasts 8 separate channels, allowing for full 5.1 in one room, and a stereo setup in a second room. Alternatively, the Liberty can support 4 separate stereo zones throughout the house.
PBN's Peter Noerback had emailed me back in December about his new Montana KAS2 tower. The 300lb, 6'-tall speaker has twin 12" woofers top and bottom powered by a 1kW amplifier, with what appear to be top-of-the line 9" lower and 5" upper midrange units from SEAS flanking a 1.125" tweeter. An active, line-level bass extender, the Olympia EX, pushes the low-frequency extension below the resonance point of the woofers. Sensitivity is specified as a very high 93dB/W/m. The sealed cabinet features a solid-maple front baffle and is an asymmetrical hexagon in shape to minimize internal resonances. Price, considering the enormous size of the speaker, is a relatively realistic $38,000/pair, which includes the bass extender.
"Basically, what we're offering is some fun for a rainy Sunday afternoon," said Upscale Audio's Kevin Deal, who had two replacement I/V op-amp upgrades for the $2499 Prima Luna ProLogue Eight CD player. Both are ready to just pop in as replacements for the Eight's existing board. The Basic ("around" $150) has open slots for bypass capacitors and a heavy-duty PS. The Super ("around" $225) already has surface-mount caps and the HD PS installed.
D&M Holding is the name of the company that owns Marantz, McIntosh, Boston Acoustics, and several other audio/video brands; they had a mini-exhibit of their own at the Mandalay Bay. There were some formal home-theater demos, but I didn't have time to sit through those. However, I did get a good look at the new SM-11S1 Reference Power Amplifier (110Wpc, $3999), SC-11S preamplifier ($2999), and SA-11S1 two-channel SACD/CD player ($3499) from Marantz. Gorgeous stuff. Michael Fremer has these for review.