Hovland introduced a new preamp; in fact it was so new that it hasn't been named yet, and the price hasn't been determined ($16k–$18k range). The only thing known for sure is that it's a solid-state design, with balanced inputs and outputs, and has the blue back-lighting that Hovland is known for. It's another contender for the “Most Beautiful $18k Preamp” title.
More than once, I've teased Convergent Audio Technology's Ken Stevens about calling his preamp SL-1 Ultimate. I mean, once you've got something that's the Ultimate, where can you go if it's improved—and there is no audio product that can't be improved, even if only to a minor degree. He subsequently introduced a preamp called the SL-1 Legend, but it was about double the price of the SL-1 Ultimate, and Ken said that it was sufficiently different from the SL-1 Ultimate that it could be considered a new preamp, deserving of a new name.
Continuing my game of guess-the-nationality-of-the-manufacturer, I walked into a demo room that had a very-nice-sounding system with the brandname Nightingale. My thought was British (I recall vaguely a British speaker designed by John Jeffries many years ago bearing that name) or Japanese (as in the Emperor’s Nightingale). However, the answer was Italian. They make electronics as well as speakers: they were demming the prototype PTS-03 battery-operated preamp ($8000), the Gala power amp ($6000), and the new CTR-2 speakers ($9000/pair). I also saw what I thought was another power amp (the one on the right in the picture), so I asked about it, and was told that it was actually the power supply for the amp. I wasn’t doing too well in my guessing here!
Anglo-Chinese brand Quad is not one of your consumer electronics companies that revamps their entire line every year (whether it needs to or not). Some might even consider their approach a bit stodgy, resisting change. So when they come out with not just one new product but a completely new series, that has to be considered news.
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.