I recently spent the past few months listening to and reviewing the new Manley Stingray iTube integrated amplifier (the review will appear the March issue of Stereophile). So when I stepped into the Manley room at CES, it felt a bit like I was back at my own listening room at home. The Stingray iTube is based on four EL84 tubes per channel and puts out 32Wpc in Ultralinear mode and 18Wpc in Triode mode. It features an Apple certified iPod dock in addition to its regular single-ended inputs.
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.
At last year’s CES, many of my favorite rooms featured Sweden’s Marten speakers. The same held true this year. I expected good things when I stopped by Marten’s own room at the Venetian. Not only where they showing off the new version of their Coltrane 2 speaker ($95,000/pair) but also their first amplifier design, the M Amp ($45,000/pair). These monoblock amps have scary low distortion0.05% at 400W into 8 ohms and use a class-D stage that switches at 600kHz. The amp can output 550Wpc into 8 ohms, 1000Wpc into 4 ohms, and 1700Wpc into 2 ohms.
The folks in the Marten room seemed in dire need of some good music when I came in, having suffered through too much audiophile approved crap during the show. I handed them a CD of the XX, a band I love, and we all bobbed our heads to this sparse but funky Pop. I find this album doesn’t work at all if a system cannot get the interplay between the bass guitar and kick drum right. The Marten system did this very well, sounding rich and articulate. The M Amps never let on that they were class-D amps, sounding more like super powerful tubes or a richly voiced class-A amp. I was thanked for playing some sweet cuts off the XX’s album, and I thanked them for making it sound great.
If it's rare to go to an audio show and hear most of a company's products set up properly in multiple rooms, it's rarer still to hear those products also sounding terrific in each and every room. Such was my introduction to Marten's loudspeakers at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show. In each of the systems in which the Swedish company's speakers were set up, and no matter what gear was upstream of them, I heard distinctly neutral, open, musical sound. After having the very same experience with Marten's speakers at the 2011 CES, I concluded that they must know what they're doing, and that their speakers are the real deal. I wanted to review some.
My first trip to a Consumer Electronics Show, in January 2010, was an eye-opener. Not only had I never before seen the phony glories of Las Vegas, it was the first time I'd been to a high-end audio show. Between the offerings on the top floors of the Venetian and T.H.E. Show at the Flamingo, I met some great people and heard some wonderful new products. One of those people was distributor Kevin Deal, and one of those new products was from Mystère. Though I was familiar with the PrimaLuna line that Deal also distributes, Mystère was, well, a mystery. However, after a listen to the Mystère pa21 power amplifier making a pair of MartinLogan speakers sing, and after noting the reasonable prices for some of Mystère's beautifully designed and built amps, I put Mystère in my review queue.
One of my favorite things I experienced at CES this year was encountering new audio companies I'd never heard of, especially the ones that seem to be making high-quality components at real-world prices. One of these new surprises was Mystère Audio, distributed in the US by Kevin Deal. Made, like PrimaLuna, in China for Durob Audio, a Dutch company who has been making gear for over 30 years, Mystère showed a full line of amplification components but were playing their pa21 stereo power amplifier ($2995) and ca21 preamplifier ($2195).
Because of the Stereophile writers' need to share a cab (and keep costs down) I visited the Nagra suite at the Mirage hotel with JA, JI, KR, and LG. As we walked through the Mirage I felt like we weren't a group of audio writers, we were a posse. I kept humming the music Quintin Tarantino used in Kill Bill for the Crazy 88's whenever we walked around. All right, we weren't that bad ass.
The Metrodome may have collapsed but Minneapolis-based Bel Canto sure hasn’t. Brand new at CES is the C5i, a DAC/integrated amp/headphone amp that sells for the feel-good price of $1895. The amplifier, said to be stable into 3 ohm loads, puts out 60Wpc into a 8 ohms. The amp also includes two S/PDIF digital inputs, a USB input capable of handling 24bits/96kHz data, a moving-magnet phono input, an RCA line input and a headphone amplifier. I marveled at this little gem’s price but also its sound as it played files from a nearby laptop driving a pair of Joseph Audio speakers. This was my first room of CES 2011 and it was a great start!
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.
I reviewed the Pass Labs XA 30.5 a few months back for Stereophile . I loved it. Now Nelson Pass, known for his impulsive but inspired ideas, has taken the same class-A solid-state power amplifier and transformed it into an integrated amp. Though the new INT-30A ($7150) was only on silent display (the unit seen here didn't even have any guts inside!) I hope to hear it in my own system soon.