If one were to judge by the new product introductions from Ayre and Jeff Rowland Design, $18k seems to be the price point for high-end solid-state preamplifiers. Rowland's new Criterion preamp uses NiMH batteries in the power supply; these are more easily available than the lead-zinc ones that were used in Rowland's previous top preamp—and, of course, the design of the Criterion features a number of improvements from its predecessor. Rowland also introduced the new Continuum integrated amp, available in two version: 350Wpc ($7200) or 500Wpc
($8800), the latter featuring power-factor correction.
"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.
After seeing audio components that cost thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars, I always find it refreshing to encounter ones that cost a fraction of those prices. Case in point: the Nu Force S-1 integrated amp (10Wpc), which costs just $199, shown here by Jason Lim, CEO of Nu Force. The company also offers a matching speaker, the Icon-1, a small unit using a single driver, the combination, including cables, selling for $399. The system sounded pretty good, too!
The day before CES opens is designated Press Day, with press conferences scheduled every hour, including presentations by major consumer electronics manufacturers such as Pioneer, Toshiba, Philips, Samsung, Panasonic, and Sony. These are extremely well-attended, to the point that last year some of the press conferences were so full that members of the audio/video specialty press ended up being turned away. As Wes Phillips noted in a recent news story, for the 2008 Show CES announced that, to deal with this problem, it would be more stringent in determining who gets a Press badge. While they may indeed have done so, there were still huge crowds at all the press conferences I attended, although I think this time at least all my fellow audio/video writer colleagues managed to
get in. (That's www.ultimateavmag.com's Tom Norton in the foreground.)
I've never heard of Navision Audio, and when I looked at their amps and preamps, all featuring wooden chassis, I automatically thought "Italian." Well, it turns out that they're actually designed and manufactured in Viet Nam. Whatever their country of origin, they're beautiful pieces (the wood is "Barian kingwood," whatever that is), the NVS-211PSE power amp ($21800/pair) offering 80W of parallel single-ended triode using two 211s, and the NVS-003G ($8900/pair) an OTL design using the 6C33C.
Britain's Cambridge Audio is known for its modestly-priced integrated amps and such, but now they've decided to move upmarket by introducing separate preamps and power amps. The Azur 840E ($1499) preamp and Azur 840 power amp (200Wpc,
$2199) are based on top-of-the-line Cambridge Azur 840A integrated amp, with upgraded power supplies and other improvements. Here they are, pictured with Ian McArthur of Audio Plus, the North American importer.
Carat Audio's products are sufficiently new to North America that the only prices available are still in Euros. (They do have distribution.) Designed in France and made in China, the A57 integrated amp (80Wpc, 899 Euros), C57 CD player (649 Euros), and T57 tuner (349 Euros) look like anything but budget products, resembling products from Primare or YBA. An indication of the quality of the design is that the power output of the A57 nearly doubles into 4 ohms (80 into 8 ohms, 150 into 4 ohms)—very unusual at this price level.
VTL's room is always an oasis at shows, playing music at levels that actually match rather than trying to impress the listener with mere volume, the system
meticulously set up. The same was true at CES 2008, a pair of Wilson WATT/Puppy 8s being driven by the new MB450 Series II tubed monoblocks ($9500/pair), the
"budget-priced" (a mere $50k) Continuum Criterion turntable, and VTL's new TP6.5 phono section ($8500) as the source. The MB450 and other VTL components are
pictured here with the company's co-owner, the ever-gracious Bea Lam.
The Sony booth had a lot of interesting products on display, but hardly anything specifically dealing with audio. Last year, the only product I found I could find in the Sony booth that I could mention in my CES blog was a pair of headphones. This year, the product that I spotted that I thought would be interesting to Stereophile readers was "a pair of headphones!"