Headphone listening is hot these days, due not only to the ubiquity of the iPod as a music source but also because it is possible to get state-of-the-art headphone playback without having to have stupidly bottomless pockets. A plethora of affordable high-quality headphone amplifiers are available, and high-performance 'phones can be had for a few hundred dollars. Used with a computer or iPod to play uncompressed WAV or AIF files or losslessly compressed FLAC or Apple Lossless (ALAC) files, a headphone-based system can offer the audiophile on a budget seriously good sound.
I have been following with interest the goings-on at Nevada-based Wisdom Audio, since the company was revitalized with members of the team that had led Madrigal to success in the 1990s. But their concentration on in-wall speakers, using planar technology developed by David Graebener, means that they fall within the bailiwick of our sister publication Home Theater. Going in their room at CES, however, I was confronted by the LS4 floor-to-ceiling on-wall ($80,000/pair), which sounded magnificent driven by Classé's superb new CT-M600 monoblocks and reinforced below 80Hz by a pair of Wisdom enormous STS 2x15" subwoofers ($10,000 each; STS stands for "Steamer Trunk-sized Subwoofer"). The system controller, which includes an active crossover and room correction, costs $6500.
The LS4 uses four identical push-pull modules, each comprising a central HF section operating above 750Hz flanked by midrange sections covering the 80Hz range. The backwave is absorbed within the enclosure, but the enormous radiating area still gives a sensitvity of 100dB/2.83V/m. (Impedance is 4 ohms.) Though the LS4 is fastened to the wall behind it, the weight is supported by a single spiked foot.
The LS4 is where architectural audio becomes aspirational audio.
Some products at CESall-black products, with black highlights, and with the lettering tastefully done in black, in a darkened roomdefeat all but the most-determined photographers. So my thanks to Larry Greenhill for managing to photograph the new Classé CTM600 600W monoblock amplifier ($6500 each).
"The large peak at 16kHz reported by Stereophile...was nowhere in evidence...The most probable explanation of this discrepancy is that the [Waveform supertweeter's] very light ribbon depends on the air load for damping, and that load is much smaller in the thin air up there at 7000' in Santa Fe than at altitudes where less lightheaded and scientifically more accountable reviewers dwell." Thus spake Peter Aczel (footnote 1), erstwhile loudspeaker designer and Editor/Publisher of the reincarnated The Audio Critic, a publication that advertises itself as having "unusual credibility among the top professionals in audio."
My loudspeaker seminar on Saturday featured Dick Diamond of YG Acoustics (to the left in Jason's photo), John MacDonald of Audience (far right) and Bill Dudleston of Legacy (immediate right with hand raised). The first half of the session featured each panelist discussing what his goals were as a loudspeaker manufacturer, what technical parameters he felt most correlates with good sound, how he balanced all the various aspects of performance to get a good balance at a specific price, and where he felt there was the greatest room for continued improvement in speaker performance. The second half of the seminar consisted of a Q&A session and there was a lively discussion, including mention of the fact that all three companies featured on the panel continue to manufacture their speakers in the US.
As well as listening to hi-rez digital files on the MBL system, I auditioned 15ips open-reel tapes from the Tape Project on a much modified Tascam recorder from United Home Audio. UHA's Greg Beron (that's Greg's hand in the photo) replaces the heads with low-impedance ones sourced from the company that supplies Abbey Road Studios in London, wired with single-crystal cable and silk-dielectric caps. A UHA machine costs $8000$17,000 depending on the level of work the customer needs, and the machine is lined-up to be compatible with Tape Project tapes. Listening to a Decca orchestral recording of Suite Espanole, I was reminded how good analog tape playback could be. Even a mono Thelonious Monk cut from 50 years ago sounded fresh.
We reported a couple of weeks back about the management buyout at English digital specialist dCS. CES saw the first public showing of the new products we wrote about, including the Verdi Encore SACD transport, which upsamples CDs to a DSD stream to feed a dCS DAC, such as the Elgar Plus seen here beneath the transport with both clocked by the dCS Verona that I reviewed a year ago. The rest of the dem system was a pair of Verity Parsifal speakers driven by a VTL S-400 amplifier and VTL's new TL-6.5 line preamp: the sound on a cut from the new Jackson Browne CD that Robert Baird writes about in the January 2006 Stereophile was effortlessly smooth, analog-like in the ease of musical communication. And on the top of the Encore is the award we presented to dCS at CES for the original LaScala transport being one of our two Joint Digital Products of 2005.
Charles Hansen said it best, in a recent e-mail: "People have been holding back from criticizing this technology because they weren't certain that some new discovery hadn't been made." Ayre Acoustics' main man was talking about "upsampling," whereby conventional "Red Book" CD data, sampled at 44.1kHz, are converted to a datastream with a higher sample rate. (Because of its association with DVD-Audio, 96kHz is often chosen as the new rate.)