Las Vegas? Why bother to fly across the country or around the world when you can visit New York City, Venice’s Grand Canal, and Egypt’s Great Pyramid in one easy, smoke-filled, retail therapy-rich, constantly stimulating stop? Why search out music on the net when, in Las Vegas, it constantly bombards you in elevators, from outdoor loudspeakers, and at your free lunch at T.H.E. Show?
Ah, Las Vegas. In his wrap to CES 2012, Stephen Mejias did a beautiful job of asking the simple but profound question, “Why?” Why, of all the god-forsaken places on Planet Earth, has the Consumer Electronics Association chosen this compulsion-driven, ecologically devastating, one-stop tourist and gambling destination as the site for the largest industry trade show in the US?
And then there were five. At the end of the show on Friday evening, the remaining members of the Stereophile crew met for dinner at the same BLT Burger restaurant at the Mirage where they had eaten the night before the Show opened. Larry Greenhill, Michael Fremer, Kal Rubinson, Jon Iverson, Tyll Hertsens, and Jason Victor Serinus had already departed, so remaining were (left to right) myself, John Atkinson, Michael Lavorgna (AudioStream.com), Stephen Mejias, and Tom Norton (Home Theater, erstwhile Technical Editor for Stereophile). We don’t even look too tired!
Over dinner one evening at the 2013 CES, I was being grilled by other magazine editors about my measurements of the Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandria XLF speaker that Michael Fremer reviewed in the January issue. In vain did I point to the XLF's superb in-room response; in vain did I emphasize that no one measurement fully describes a speaker's sound; in vain did I point out that the best way to integrate all the measurements was to listen to the thing. What I should have done was bid my peers to visit the dCS suite on one of the Mirage's penthouse floors where Wilson's Alexia loudspeaker ($48,500/pair), which incorporates much of the XLF's technology, was being demmed with Dan D'Agostino Momentum monoblocks and dCS's new Vivaldi digital system, wired up with Transparent Audio cables.
Earlier in this show report, I mentioned that the excellent music played in Jeffrey Catalano’s High Water Sound room served as a reminder of my passion for the high-end audio hobby. And it’s true: From time to time, I do need those gentle reminders. So much of high-end audio remains so completely foreign and unobtainable that I sometimes feel entirely out of place.
But in the Music Hall room, I always feel right at home. . .
When I walked into the MBL suite in the Venetian, the recording of German pianist Martin Vatter, engineered by MBL's Juergen Reiss, was playing on the MBL 101 X-Treme speaker system ($263,000, 3600 lbs, two 6' subwoofer towers operating below 80Hz, two double-101 omnidirectional upper-frequency towers). I was familiar with this superbly clean hi-rez recording, having auditioned it on MBL systems at other shows and also at home. But I had never heard it sound as though there was an actual grand piano in the room, which is what I experienced at this CES. Driven by two pairs of the massive MBL 9011 monoblock amplifiers that Michael Fremer reviewed in March 2012, this extreme system sounded better at this Show than I had heard it at earlier CESes.
For the first time in many years, I walked into a room at CES and was immediately blown away. Pass Labs personnel had suggested I listen to the amplifiers driving Sony loudspeakers, so I went to the 30th floor of the Venetian to listen. I had no expectations, other than knowing that five Sony SS-AR1 loudspeakers ($27,000/pair) were powered by five Pass Labs Xs300 amplifiers ($85,000/pair), all connected by Kimber Kable. What I didn’t know was that Sony had given the two people running that demonstration, Blue Coast Records’ Cookie Marenco and Super Audio Center’s Gus Skinas, carte blanche permission to play any one of the 150 Direct Streaming Digital (DSD) master titles from Sony’s library for the duration of the Show.
With so much new equipment to cover, and so little time, I only listened to a handful of systems at CES. One of the few that really wowed me to the core was in the “Made in the USA” Absolare room at T.H.E. Show. The system mated the parallel single-ended 52W Absolare Passion 845 monoblock amplifiers ($37,500) and single-ended Absolare Passion preamplifier ($25,000)both manufactured in New Hampshirewith a full MSB digital systemMSB Signature DATA CD IV transport ($7995), MSB Diamond DAC Plus with Femto Second Galaxy Clock ($38,950), MSB Signature Transport Powerbase ($3495), and MSB Diamond Power Base ($5995)Rockport Technologies Altair II loudspeakers ($100,000/pair), Absolare Bybee Purifier ($7250), Absolare Speaker Bullets ($3750/set of four), and Echole cables.
Two of the products I most wanted to see in the flesh at the show didn't actually arrive due to the exhibitor's respective shipping services. The first was Antelope's Rubicon DAC, lost by DHL; this time it was the Mimer music server from Bladelius, lost courtesy of UPS.
Too bad, because the photo in the brochure is quite enticing. The Mimer is essentially a wall-hung touchscreen device about 7.5 inches wide by 13.5 inches tall. You can see by the photo of a photo how the touchscreen display is arranged for album cover art and control/navigation. The chassis looks about an inch thick and inside is an upgradable hard drive for storing music as well as support for NAS and USB drives, 32/348 files, 4 SPDIF inputs, Wi-Fi and ethernet, internet radio and Spotify, headphone amp, multi-room support and analog input (for the built-in analog preamp).
Though I'm sure many will differ, I've always been partial to music servers that have always-ready built-in navigation screens like Meridian's Sooloos as apposed to relying on iPad apps. I'm hoping to get my hands on the Mimer in the future and see if it lives up to the photo and spec sheet.
MSB gets the award for most interesting new chassis design for their new The Analog DAC, which is essentially a single low-slung curvy slab of aluminum with pockets sliced out of the bottom for the electronics.
Pricey though it was, their Diamond DAC IV is the best I've heard in my system so far, so you have to wonder what the new DAC brings to the table. The intial price is $7,000 with one input module installed. You can install up to three and pick from ethernet, USB or SPDIF at $995 each. Add $1,000 for volume control and $3,000 for the powerbase option for a total of $12,990 fully loaded.
This is the first time I've taken a close look at the Gato products from Denmark. Though the company has a rich history at home, tracing their roots back through GamuT to other brands, the Gato moniker is now making inroads around the US. They manufacture speakers, amps and the $8,000 CDD-1 that I spotted in their room at the Venetian.
Promoted as "the first pocket-sized portable speaker good enough for the audio purist,” the Soundmatters FoxLv2 has had endorsements from renowned speaker designersincluding Michael Kelly (Aerial Acoustics), Gayle Sanders (MartinLogan), and Peter Tribeman (Atlantic Technology)and a rave review by Michael Fremer on AudioStream. There are three models, the price ranging from $149 to $229, the basic model accepting analog input only, the other two connected with Bluetooth (including aptX technology) as well. The top Platinum model has a longer battery life (20 hours vs 12 for the other two) and includes an AudioQuest interconnect. I have some interest in portable speakers, and have listened to a fair number of them, including the audiophile-oriented offerings from B&W, Arcam, and B&O, but somehow the FoxLv2 was not among them. CES 2013 gave me an opportunity to remedy this omission. The Soundmatters booth was in the iLounge section of the Convention Center, and when I got there it was surrounded by a full TV crew. There is apparently a lot of interest in this product.
Over at T.H.E. Show, Acoustic Sounds' Chad Kassem proudly showed me the box and inserts for his new Bill Evans Waltz for Debby reissue, which will be released as a UHQR LP. Kassem's QRP pressing pant has acquired the rights to JVC's 30 year-old LP technology and each 200-gram UHQR pressing, with its flat profile, will be hand-pressed on a Finebilt press and hand-inspected. Back in the 1970s I was told by an EMI executive that that they could have pressed perfect LPs but people would never pay for it. Chad didn't seem to get the memo as he has invested a lot of money in producing LPs the way they should have been all along!
Wednesday evening after the CES closed, Luke Manley (left) and Bea Lam (second left) of VTL held a reception to honor the memory of Luke's father and VTL founder David Manley, who passed away in December. Everyone present offered their memories of David, including Stereophile's Larry Greenhill (right) and Jason Serinus (second right).
Speakers in the VTL room were Rockport's new Atria ($21,500/pair). This is a three-way dsign using a 9" carbon fiber sandwich-cone woofer, a 6" carbon fiber sandwich-cone midrange unit, and a 1" beryllium-dome tweeter, with Transparent Audio internal cabling. The 43.5"-tall speaker has a specified frequency response of 28Hz30kHz, 3dB, a 4 ohm impedance, and a sensitivity of 87dB/W/m. Driven by VTL MB450s in triode mode, Peter Gabriel singing David Bowie's "Heroes: from LP had a delicious tangibility to the voice and a powerful but clean bass line. "Sweet" I commented in my notebook.
The Arabesque speakers ($90,000/pair) in the Crystal room, with their glass enclosures, were familiar, as were the Crystal cables that Jason Serinus blogged about a few days ago. But the Siltech SAGA amplifierfor Structural Amplifier Gain Architecture were new. Designed by Siltech's Edwin Rijnveld and costing $100,000, the three-piece, 300Wpc amplifier comprises a preamplifier chassis with ultralow-noise tubes, a battery-powered voltage-amplifier chassis, and a current-amplifier chassis. No negative feedback is used, either global or local, and the current amplifier uses optical drive of the output transistors, called "Apollo Light Drive." Output device biasing is said to be class-A at all powers into all loads.