"Lightning strikes twice," says the blurb on Ayre Acoustics' new KX-R preamp, referring to the 1996 introduction of the Colorado company's original K-1 preamp, considered to be among the best preamps. The KX-R ($18,500 in aluminum finish) retains the zero-feedback, fully-balanced configuration of the K-1, but has a Variable Gain Transimpedance (VGT) circuit, with something called "equilock circuitry" for the gain devices. This was explained to me as a circuit design that does not attenuate the inputs at the front end, and thus improves the S/N ratio. The KX-R is a slim but heavy unit (41 lbs), and as you can see, it looks stunning.
Bang & Olufsen, a company that usually gives audio/home entertainment shows a wide berth, had an extensive display, featuring their futuristic-looking omnidirectional speakers. I enjoyed the sound—maybe because they were playing Frank Sinatra.
As I said in an earlier blog posting, I was sufficiently intrigued by B&O's single-cabinet stereo speaker at the CES Unveiled event that I made a note to myself to check it out later. The opportunity presented itself in the form of a B&O press conference. The press conference did not involve any demonstrations of sound, but when the press conference was concluded I managed to prevail on Henrik Taudorf Lorensen, CEO of B&O's PLAY division, to give me a demonstration of the A9. The setting was not ideal, with no attempt at optimal positioning of the speaker, but the speaker certainly had a smooth, room-filling sound. I continue to be intrigued by this product. The A9 looks more like a satellite dish than a speaker, and is sure to be a conversation piece. B&O also has some new wireless speakers that are more conventional-looking, such as the BeoLab 12-1 ($2950/pair), pictured here.
Bang & Olufsen's publicist sent me a "By Invitation Only & You Are Invited" email, promising to "unveil the newest innovations" and "the unveiling of a new, iconic product concept." (I pity the poor housekeeping staff at CES, having to clean up all the veils discarded by manufacturers.)
Reduced to its essentials, the "new, iconic product concept" is a division within B&O under a new brand, called "B&O Play." As I understand it, the products with the B&O Play brand will have all the traditional quality that B&O is known for, but they'll be less luxury-oriented, more "fun"and perhaps less expensive. The first product under this brand is the Beolit 12, a portable (battery-powered), AirPlay-equipped sound system.
The Best of Innovations 2013 award for High Performance Audio went to the B&O Beoplay A9 digital loudspeaker ($2699), which offers wireless streaming via AirPlay and DLNA. The Beoplay A9 was on static display. It's an interesting-looking product, and I'd like to have a chance to listen to it. Maybe at the B&O press conference that's coming up on Tuesday. . .
The lovely (as you can see) and talented (as anyone who heard her sing and play the flute at the SSI 2010 Give Band concerts can attest) Caroline St-Louis helped out at the show ticket desk. Here she is with her favorite audio magazine.
Balanced Audio Technology's Steve Bednarski is a big guy, but he's not a giant, and BAT's Geoff Poor is not nearly as diminutive as he looks in this picture. It's just a matter of perspective with a wide-angle lens. The rack between Steve and Geoff houses the new top-of-the-line Rex preamp, described by Wes Phillips in another posting.
It's been 10 years since Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) introduced their first products: the VK-5 line-stage preamplifier and the VK-60 power amplifier. (I reviewed both in the December 1995 Stereophile, Vol.18 No.12.) The success of these and other BAT products has allowed designer Victor Khomenko (the "VK" of the model designations) and partner Steve Bednarski to quit their day jobs at Hewlett-Packard; they were joined by Geoff Poor as a partner to handle the sales end of the enterprise. BAT's current lineup includes several preamps, phono stages, a CD player, and tube as well as solid-state amplifiers. The top of BAT's preamp range is the VK-51SE, which costs $9000; their top tube power amp is the VK-150SE monoblock ($17,000/pair); if you want their best phono stage, the VK-P10 will set you back $8000.
Few topics will get audiophiles into an argument more readily than a discussion of the relative merits of tubed and solid-state equipment. A poll on the Stereophile website showed 53% of respondents choosing solid-state as their preferred amplifier design, while 38% indicated a preference for tubes—the remainder choosing "other," which presumably means digital amplifiers. (There has been no corresponding survey regarding preamplifier designs.) Opinions tend toward the dogmatic, with one respondent declaring "solid-state is more accurate," another stating unequivocally that "tubes sound closer to the real thing."
How important is the use of balanced circuit typology in the design of preamplifiers and power amplifiers? Ask the top audio designers (I didn't, but just play along, okay?) and you'll get a wide variety of opinions. Some reject the balanced approach outright, arguing that it represents a needless duplication of circuit components, and that better results can be achieved if the same attention and resources are devoted to perfecting a single-ended circuit. In his provocatively titled article "Balance: Benefit or Bluff?" (Stereophile, November 1994, p.77), Martin Colloms questioned the advantages of balanced designs, suggesting that while the results may be better in certain respects (eg, noise level), the reproduced sound may suffer in other, perhaps more important ways (eg, rhythm and dynamics).