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.
Stage III Concepts, a Pasadena-based company whose products are distributed by Brian Ackerman of AAudio Imports, has released four newly re-engineered, top-of-the-line cables. All are part of the A.S.P. Reference series (Absolute Signal Purity), and are entirely handmade (including connectors) by Luis de la Fuente. Connectors are made of ceramic with a mixture of special resins to minimize crosstalk between pins, and the entire housing composed of carbon-fiber and epoxy resin. The wire itself is silver-palladium alloy. The A.S.P. Reference interconnect and speaker cable also sport a vacuum dielectric.
On display were the Zyklop power cord ($6000/1.5m), Gryphon interconnect ($5800/1m pair RCA, $6300/1m pair XLR), and Mantikor speaker cable ($13,200/2m pair). Besides digital and phono cables and speaker jumpers, the company sells hook-up wire for components in a variety of gauges. The least expensive, 22 AWG ($66/1.5m) is followed by 17 and 15 AWG ($280/1.5m).
Asked about the cable’s sonic properties, Ackerman replied, “It has no sound at all. It’s probably the closest thing I’ve heard to having no wire. It’s virtually invisible, like a direct connection.”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Steve Holt, global sales manager for MIT, proudly introduced me to the company’s brand new Matrix line of cables. Designed by Bruce Brisson, the cables retail between $9999 and $21,999, and are part of the company’s reference line.
The new speaker cable comes in three flavors: Oracle Matrix HD 90 ($9999/8ft pair), Oracle Matrix HD 100 ($14,999/8ft pair), and Oracle Matrix HD 120 ($21,999/8 ft pair). There is one interconnect, Matrix 50 ($4999/1m pair, $5999/1m balanced pair). For digital cabling, one needs to go up one step in the reference line to Oracle MA-X digital ($3495/1m RCA or BNC, $3995/1m AES/EBU)
These new cables use MIT’s multi-pole technology. “We talk about poles of articulation,” said Holt. “There are electronics inside our boxes on the cables to provide wider bandwith coverage to power, so that sounds at either end of the spectrum won’t be rolled off as quickly.” The Matrix cables also employ a new technology called F.A.T. (Fractional Articulation Technology) that helps maintain the harmonic structure of audio signals.
In the Magico room where they were displayed, the new Magico Q3, Soulution amplifiers, and files from Paul Stubblebine’s Tape Project made wonderful music through Oracle Matrix HD 120 speaker cable and the Oracle MA-X interconnects (start at $8495/1m pair). You can see the Oracle Matrix HD 120 boxes in the above photo, which was taken behind one of the Magico speakers. If other rooms hadn’t called, I would have dropped everything then and there and stayed for hours.
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.
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.
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 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.
A sister company of Argento Audio of Denmark, Organic Audio now launched a complete line of copper cables. These include Organic Audio interconnects ($995/1m pair RCA, $1075/1m pair XLR), speaker cable ($1950/2m pair), and power cords ($995/2m). By contrast, interconnects in the all-silver Argento range from $2000$9500/1m pair. All products are distributed by Ricardo Reyes (left) of Musical Artisans in Skokie, IL.
Ulrik Madsen (right), who designs the cables and owns the company, was on hand to discuss his products. All Organic Audio cables are derived from Argento Audio’s entry-level Argento Serenity. “I wanted to take advantage of the connectors I developed for Argento,” Madsen explain. “We make all our Organic Audio connectors ourselves from the same metal as the conductors in the cables, which is OFC 99.997% copper. (The more expensive Argento cabling uses silver). There are no solder points; all attachments are made by applying set-screws to accomplish compression.
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.