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.
More than once in my years of CES-going, it has come down to the last day of the show for me to discover an important product. That was the case this time. The product was the Triton Two, the flagship loudspeaker from GoldenEar, the new company founded by Sandy Gross and Don Givogue, who had been partners at Definitive Technology, Gross having also co-founded Polk Audio. The company is new, but it draws on a wealth of experience in the speaker business, and it shows.
There were quite a few speakers that impressed me at this show, but, taking price and sound quality into account, I have say that the Triton Two, shown here with Sandy, was my favorite. It’s a floor-standing three-way, narrow in the front (5¼”), widening in the rear (7½”), and just 48” high, making it visually unassuming. It uses an unusual driver complement, starting with what they call a High-Velocity Folded Ribbon Tweeter (a variant of the Heil AMT tweeter), two 4½” mid/bass drivers, and two 5”x9” subwoofers, each coupled with a 7”x10” passive radiator facing the side. Each subwoofers is driven by a 1200W DSP-controlled class-D amp. With all this technologyand truly full-range soundthe Triton Two costs just $2500/pair.
A closer view of the Dan D’Agostino Momentum amplifier, with its watchface-styled meter. Photographs just don't do this gorgeous amplifier justiceI just wanted to stroke that meter, caress those copper flanks!
Utah-based Zu Audio does indeed goes its own way, with retro, almost-full-range pulp-cone drive-units used in high-sensitivity designs. (See Art Dudley's review of the $4000/pair Essence in the October 2009 Stereophile. All of Zu's speakers have been moderately priced, so I was not expecting to see and hear a design costing $40,000/pair when I went into the Zu room at T.H.E. Show.
The Dominance uses three 10" paper-cone drivers, each with a whizzer cone, to cover the range from 27Hz to 12kHz. Each is in its own sub-enclosure featuring Zu's proprietary ZuRG loading (See AD's review) with the outer two tuned identically and the central drive-unit adjusted to give a bit more upper-midrange energy. There is also a downward-firing 15" subwoofer, covering the octave below 27Hz, and completing the line-up are two horn-loaded ring-radiator tweeters operating above 12kHz. Unusually, these are placed at the top and bottom of the Dominance.
For the dem, the subwoofer was powered by a Pass Labs XA30.5 but the main drive-units were driven by a 1.5Wpc Yamamoto SET amp. Yup, just 1.5W, but the Dominances still managed to fill the room with sound. Lows were tight and extended; imaging was tangible; jump factor was startling; but I couldn't get away from a touch of character in the mid-treble imparted by those whizzer cones.
"$175,000/pair?" I gulped. I know my beat at the 2011 CES was expensive loudspeakers, but the price of the Trenner & Friedl Duke took my breath away. Yes, the sound in the large room the new Austrian company shared with Cardas, Profundo, and the Jeff Rowland Design Group was superb, but that's a lot of change, even if the manufacturer will fly anywhere in the world to set the speakers up in the customer's home. (The rest of the system comprised a dCS Puccini used as a transport to feed JRDG's new Aeris DAC (the Colorado company's first digital product), $9800; a JRDG Criterion line stage, $18,500; and two JRDG 625 stereo power amplifiers, $13,500; with Cardas Clear cabling.
Each 12" woofer uses a fiber-glassreinforced paper cone and is loaded by what is referred to as "a hybrid form of horn-resonator and bass reflex design." The mid/HF module is coupled to the woofer modules with spheres of varying hardness, to drain vibrations optimally, and can be adjusted to bring the drivers into proper time alignment at the listening position. The midrange unit features a papyrus cone with an elmwood phase plug and an alnico magnet, while the enclosure is filled with wool from "locally raised sheep" to reduce internal reflections being retransmitted through the drive-unit cone. The tweeter uses a titanium nitride dome loaded with a Tractrix-flare horn, while the supertweeter is a diamond-diaphragm type. The upper-range crossover is passive; the woofers are fed via a line-level crossover, and internal wiring is all Cardas Clear.
Joining WireWorld, Thiel, and Bryston in their impressive exhibit in the Sands/Venetian Convention Center was power specialist Plitron. Based in Canada, the company has spent 28 years in R&D and manufacture of toroidal transformers that are utilized by many of the leading companies in the audio industry. Five years ago, Plitron decided to introduce their own Torus Power line to demonstrate their full implementation of their work with toroidal isolation transformers and power conditioning.
Arthur Kelm, formerly chief engineer in a number of recording studios including Record One, the Record Plant, and Skywalker, designed the Torus Power Ground One power conditioner panel that uses Plitron transformers. “I have known that power is the foundation of every audio/video system,” he explained. “It’s also the most misunderstood application you have. People just don’t understand power and its importance.
“The major advantage of using an isolation transformer is that you now have a very low impedance to plug into, and you can rebond neutral and ground which is where 90% of your noise comes from in electrical systems.”
The complete Torus Power line includes units from 2.5 amps up to 300400 amps. The lowest priced unit, the RM 2.5 ($999), handles 2.5A. The company’s most popular units, ideal for dedicated audio systems, are the RM 15 ($2000) and RM 20 ($3000). There is also a custom installation series with 60A and 100A units, plus Ground One panels for use in all-home AV and theatres. Some models include automatic voltage regulation.
As a former owner of KLH Nines and original Quads, I have a fondness for electrostatics. MartinLogan has taken the hybrid approach, using electrostatic mid/tweeters and powered dynamic woofers, and this has worked well for them. The latest feature of their approach is the use of DSP equalization, used in the Ethos. This is now being applied upmarket, and the speaker incorporating this approach, now in advanced prototype form (“two or three months from being ready for production”), on demo at CES was a speaker that is expected to sell for $9000$10,000/pair. The sign said Summit X Jr., but I was told that was just an interim name. The speakers certainly sounded most promising.
Peachtree was showing off its new iNova integrated DAC/preamp/amplifier, the replacement for their best-selling Nova. The iNova upgrades some parts from its predecessor including better capacitors, a 24-bit/96kHz USB input and an upgraded iPod dock. The amp is rated at 80Wpc and will sell for $1799.
The iNova was hooked up to the brand new Aerial 7T speakers, which employ some major cosmetic, and structural changes from previous Aerial speakers. The 7T ($9850/pair) is a three-way loudspeaker, nominally rated at 4 ohms and 89dB sensitivity. The finish on the cabinet, made from MDF bent to shape, was excellent. (Though the enclosures are made in China, the speakers are manufactured in Aerial’s Massachussetts facility.) Playing files from a server to the iNova, Aerial 7T sounded huge and clear with fantastic bass extension and articulation.
I was impressed by the fact that the Peachtree was able to drive these speakers with such scale and authority.
mbl products always make you wonder, is it technology I'm looking at or art? Their new Corona Line continues this tradition with, depending on your taste preferences, some of the most drop-dead gorgeous casework you'll see in the audio world, or some of the most over-the-top gratuitous metal (choose between gold or palladium alloy palinux), paint (white or black) and gloss this side of a Kustom Kar show.
Nonetheless, you can't argue with how carefully these products are made. The C31 wil be available sometime this summer for around $8,000 (depending on exchange rate at the time) and has coax, toslink and USB inputs in addition to its disc playing function. The C31 can also communicate with the other products in the Corona line via the SmartLink ethernet connector on the back
The Estelon speakers from Alfred & Partners ($43,900/pair) were one of the hits of last year's RMAF, so I made a point of taking a listen to them at CES. The ceramic-diaphragm floor-standers were being used in more than one roomConrad-Johnson was also using them, in their first "live" Show dem in two decadesbut I was drawn into the Kubala-Sosna room by the sound of Jimi Hendrix playing "Born Under a Bad Sign." Source was a Korg DSDx2 recorder, which Joe Kubala had used to record the track from LP, and the sound, with Audio Research Reference 5 preamp, Tenor 350M monoblocks, and Kubala-Sosna Excitation cables, was rich, full-range, and clean. The speakers are internally wired with K-S cable.
“Trickle-down effect” is an expression manufacturers often use to describe the application of lessons learned in developing a flagship model to the development of lower-priced products. However, according to Wendell Diller of Magnepan, in developing the new Magneplanar MG 3.7, what has taken place is a trickle-up effect. (Wendell celebrates 36 years marketing Magnepan this year!) The lessons learned in going from the MG 1.6 to the MG 1.7 were applied to the more expensive flagship MG 3.6, with what he says are results that represent at least as much of an improvement as the change from the MG 1.6 to the MG 1.7. I’ve been quite impressed with the MG 1.7 on previous occasions, and listening to the MG 3.7, driven by Bryston electronics at T.H.E. Show, made me think of the MG 1.7, except for greater bass extension and dynamics. Magnepan has kept the price at $5495$5895/pair, which must represent a bargain for a planar speaker of this performance and pedigree. Standing proudly next to the MG3.7 in JA's photo is Mark Winey, son of founder Jim, who now runs the Minnesotan company.
The Paragon VL-2 Signature ($8600/pair) from Hong Kong-based Volent Corp. combines a unique dual-ribbon tweeter with a titanium/graphite-sandwichconed woofer in an attractively curved enclosure filled with wool. Frequency range is specified as 30Hz60kHz, impedance as 4 ohms, and sensitivity as 88dB/2.83V/m. Driven by MSB's M202 tower amplifiers and MSB digital source, the sound was much larger than I was expecting from these stand-mounts.
If you look closely at the easel to the right of the photo of the YG room at the Sands/Venetian Convention Center, you can see the text "with drivers machined in-house." Usually, this means that the manufacturer has machined the baskets and polepieces, but in the case of YG, they are also talking about the cones!
Called "BilletCore" by the Colorado company, the aluminum cone for the midrange and low-frequency drive-units used in the top-of-the-line Anat III Reference ($111,000/system) and the smaller three-way Kipod is milled from a solid block of aluminum. In the case of the Anat subwoofer, the starting point is a billet of aluminum 2.5" thick weighing 16 lbs, compared with the finished cone after a day of work, which is 0.008" thick and weighs less than 1 ounce. Stiffening ribs are left on the rear of the cone and the final step is to black-anodize the aluminum. The benefit of machining the cone is said to be improved unit-unit consistency and rigidity compared with a conventional spun, cast, or pressed metal diaphragm, which pushes break-up modes even farther out-of-band.
Though YG was in the same room as in previous CESes, they had taken heroic measures this year to tame its acoustics, as can be seen from the photo. The result was worth the effort. In a system that included dCS Scarlatti digital front-end, a Veloce battery-powered preamp, Tenor 350M monoblocks, and Kubala-Sosna Master Reference cables, the Anat II Reference produced a warm, detailed, full-range sound. Particularly impressive was a version of Sting's "Roxanne" from Italian singer Petra Magoni of Musica Nuda. Both the voice and the solo double bass accompaniment had a palpable presence but without sounding forced or exaggerated.