NAD has refreshed its top-of-the-line Master Series. Due out the end of the second quarter is the NAD Master Series M12 ($3499), a 2-channel audio hub that contains both preamp and DAC. Below it in the photo sits the M22 ($2499), a 2-channel class-D, dual-mono hybrid digital amplifier with an analog input stage and Encore Hypex digital module output stage. In a system that included Dynaudio's excellent C4 Signature and AudioQuest Rock series cabling, Esperanza Spalding's voice on her recording of "Little Fly" was flattered by the system's warm sweet sound. I wouldn't be surprised if Stephen Mejias, who speaks often of NAD's reliability and good sound, has his eyes on these babies.
After three years off the market, Meridian has re-introduced its G57 two-channel amplifier ($6000), pictured on the left in the photo. Originally introduced seven years ago, then withdrawn, it was re-introduced due to dealer demand. The G57 outputs 200Wpc, and converts all signals to balanced. The amp boasts dual-mono construction, and, when bridged to mono, outputs 600Wpc into 8 ohms.
Trickle-down theory may not work on the economic front, but it sure seems to apply to Constellation Audio's prestigious products. After a very high priced launch, the company has slowly introduced lower-priced products. Most exciting is the arrival of the Argo 125Wpc integrated amplifier ($20,000, above), whose price is one-third that of the Virgo preamp and Centaur amp. With four inputs (two balanced), a preamp output that can run headphones, and two slots in back for optional, not-yet-available phono and DAC cards, the Argo will ship by February.
"This is a pretty major change for us," says Balanced Audio Technology's Steve Bednarski of the change from capacitor-coupled outputs to custom output transformers in their three new VK-P12 phono stagesthe VK-P12 ($7995), VK-P12SE ($9995), and new flagship VK-P12SE SuperPak ($12,495). Unfortunately, none had arrived at the time I visited the room. Instead I encountered a display of the new VK-3000SE ($7995) 150Wpc into 8 ohms hybrid integrated amplifier, whose preamp stage is outfitted with the same 6H30 SuperTube used in the Rex II preamplifier. Also new are the VK-P6SE phono stage ($5995) and VK-P6 ($3495) phono stage.
So accustomed am I of associating Ed Meitner's EMM Labs with digital reproduction that I almost missed his first amps for the company. The MTRX class-A/B monoblocks ($130,000/pair), which output 1500W into 4 ohms and 3000W into 2, were designed as an homage to Meitner's previous Museatex MTR-101 monoblocks. Ten years in the making and first shown at last October's RMAF, they are claimed to "drive anything with ultra-low distortion."
Lovely full-range sound, superb clarity on the bottom end, realistic bite on the trumpets, and blessed neutrality (as in natural timbres) distinguished the presentation of a bit of a 24/96 file of Ricardo Chailly?s performance of Mahler's Symphony 3 in Boulder?s room. Shoeboxed into far too small a space, Boulder's new 2150 mono amps ($98,000/pair), which weigh 240 lbs each, output a mere 1000W into 8 ohms, and replace the 2050 model that was in production for 17 years; the new 2110 preamp ($54,000), which includes a fully differentially balanced volume attenuator and new gain stages, and replaces the 2080 model that remained in service for 16 years; and the 1021 network disc player ($25,000) joined forces with Chario Serendipity loudspeakers (approx. $40,000/pair) and Analysis Plus Big Silver Oval cabling to wow me silly.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Not yet distributed in the US, Rumee's two single-ended tube amplifiers, the HS-1 ($950) and, with different power tubes, the HS-2 ($950) are made from sweet-smelling solid cypress. I wish I could say more, but the language barrier was hard to surmount.
Clearaudio's Robert Suchy points to Clearaudio's Absolute Phono ($15,000), a unique moving-coil phono stage system, here installed in the headshell of the TT1i Tangential tonearm ($30,000), which includes its own amplification stage. I am told there are no loading issues, and that the arm can accommodate any cartridge and produce sound without the use of coupling capacitors in the signal path. A second version of Absolute Phono is on the way. Also distributed by Musical Surroundings, its active headshell stage will be outboard, allowing it to be used with other tonearms.