A familiar dem track was playing when I entered the large room from Colorado Springs retailer Audio Limits: "There'll Be Some Changes Made," from Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins. However, rather than LP or CD, it was being played back from a PC running the J-River player and feeding the well-regarded Weiss DAC202 Firewire D/A converter ($6670). Speakers were the beautifully finished Venture Reference II Signature ($135,000/pair), which combines an AMT (Air-Motion Transformer) tweeter with a 7" graphite-coned midrange unit and four 8" graphite-coned woofer. Amplification was the Swiss FM Acoustics 811 Mk.II amplifier (455Wpc into 8 ohms, $128,800) and the FM Acoustics 245 preamp ($23,200). Power conditioning was by Isotek and Audience; racks were from Harmonic Resolution Systems. The full-range sound was superbly clean and effortless, but I couldn't help thinking that the room was not doing justice to this very expensive system's potential.
One of my favorite sounding rooms at SSI was the large suite featuring Verity Sarastro II speakers, the new Nagra 300B stereo amplifier that made its debut at the 2011 CES and a Nagra PLL preamp, with a Nagra CDP CD player and Nagra VI solid-state digital recorder being used for the front-end, all hooked up with Nordost Valhalla cables. The sound of a Jordi Savall ensemble performance of Vivaldi Oboe Concerto, played back on the Nagra VI with 24/48 resolution, was lifelike and easy on the ear, but without sounding either mellow or laidback. perhaps the sound was a little congested on the climaxes with larger-scale music, but this was one of the bigger rooms at the Hilton Bonaventure and the amplifier is limited to 20Wpc.
Montreal-based company Verity has been slowly building a reputation for sound quality with its unique speakers, which combine a conventional head-unit on-top a woofer module that, unusually, mounts the drivers on its rear. CES saw the launch of two new models, the Leonore ($15,995/pair) and Finn ($5995/pair). Both speakers offer high sensitivities in the low 90s, and while the Leonore produced an impressive sound from Keith Jarrett's Live at Carnegie Hall CD powered by Nagra's forthcoming MSA stereo amp that Wes Phillips blogged about earlier, I was also impressed by the more affordable, one-box Finn, which was demmed with Nagra's PMA "pyramid" amps. The rest of the system included a Basis Debut turntable and Vector 4 tonearm, Nagra PLL preamp and Nagra's new battery-powered BPS phono stage, which I am sure Mikey Fremer will be reviewing in the near future.
At the 2008 FSI, the hornloaded Avantgarde speakers from Germany were being demmed in one of the large rooms in the Centre Sheraton's downstairs convention area. At the 2009 SSI, Avantgarde were exhibiting in a conventional hotel room, but the three-way Duo Grossos ($37,500/pair), driven by Avantgarde Model One monoblocks and an Avantgarde Model One preamplifier, with an Audio Aero Prestige SACD player as source and all Nirvana SX cabling, sounded more coherent than I remember from last year's Show. Playing "The Mooche" from the Stereophile Editor's Choice CD, I was struck by how un-hornlike the system sounded: uncolored, sweet, full-range, but with the excellent dynamics I have come to expect from horns. The upper bass was a bit over-generous at first, but adjusting the crossover of the active B231 woofer, which uses two 12" drivers, took care of that.
Vienna Acoustics were demming the latest version of Die Musik speaker, which we first saw and heard at the 2008 CES. VA's Patrick Butler played the role of DJ for me, operating the Jeff Rowland Design Group gear.
Scheduled for a summer 2012 launch with a projected priced of $9000$10,000/pair, the Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Imperial Grand speaker uses a smaller flat, concentric tweeter/midrange drive-unit developed from that used in the Austrian company's top models, The Kiss and The Music. But like them, it uses a supertweeter to cover the range above 17kHz. The cabinet is sourced from Italy and the speakers are assembled in Vienna. And the name? Well, the Bösendorfer company is also based in Vienna and their flagship piano is also called the Imperial Grand.
Austrian Vienna Acoustics set up its own distribution company in the US in 2010 and when I popped my head in the door of their suite at the Venetian, I saw they were demming the Kiss speaker ($16,000/pair) reviewed a year back by Wes Phillips. (The rest of the system comprised Ayre KX-R preamp, MX-R monoblocks, and DX-5 "universal audio engine, with Transparent cabling.)
The Kiss looks like a stand-mount but it is really a floorstander with an integral stand. The sound in this room really flattered piano, whether it was a 24/96 file of a jazz trio featuring a Fazioli instrument, or Glenn Gould's 1981 reading of the Bach Goldberg Variations, remastered from the analog backup tapes.
This relatively modest-looking system in yet another Son-or-Filtronique room at SSI produced some superb sound. The Vienna Acoustics Mozart Grand Symphony Edition speakers ($3500/pair) were being driven by an Ayre AX-7e integrated amplifier ($3500), with the source an Ayre DX-5 universal player being used as a DAC for USB data fed from Amarra running on a MacBook Pro. The USB data connection was AudioQuest's inexpensive Carbon and one AC cable and the speaker cable was by Shunyata. There was also a single Nordost Odin AC cable. If you consider that the Ayre player was being used to provide the same functionality as a $2500 Ayre QB-9, it could be argued that this single AC cable cost as much as the rest of the system together. "It gives an improvement in sound quality and that's justification enough," answered Vienna's Kevin Wolff when I queried him about the system's price balance with the Nordost.
The arrangement of Totem's new Tribe 5 wall-mounted speaker in on of their rooms at SSI raised my eyebrows. I asked Totem's main man Vince Bruzzese what gives? "We must reach out to non-audiophiles!" he said, adding that this was one of the impetuses behind the launch of the "skins" that Art Dudley wrote about above. "By arranging these speakers in an unconventional manner but showing that they can still play music, we reduce the fear non-audiophiles have." (My apologies if my paraphrase didn't capture the passion with which Vince spoke.) But the Trentemoller track I listened to, played on Chord CD transport, DAC, and amplifier, didn't sound any the worse for the unusual speaker setup.