For Stereophile writers, the focus of interest at CES are the exhibits featuring high-performance audio (mostly in the Venetian). That's certainly true for me, but I have to admit to being intrigued by the many sorts of electronic gadgets and gizmos that are shown in the main exhibit halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Sands Expo, so my visit to CES always excludes a brief tour of these venues. And, sometimes, in my wanderings through these halls I even find a product that is interest to audiophiles as well as gadget freaks. I found one such product at the Sands Expo: the Zoom H2 portable audio recorder.
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.
D&M Holding is the name of the company that owns Marantz, McIntosh, Boston Acoustics, and several other audio/video brands; they had a mini-exhibit of their own at the Mandalay Bay. There were some formal home-theater demos, but I didn't have time to sit through those. However, I did get a good look at the new SM-11S1 Reference Power Amplifier (110Wpc, $3999), SC-11S preamplifier ($2999), and SA-11S1 two-channel SACD/CD player ($3499) from Marantz. Gorgeous stuff. Michael Fremer has these for review.
McIntosh had what was, for a high-end specialty audio company, a huge assortment of products on display at the Mandalay Bay, including several new models. The most interesting of these for me was the MC 2301 power amplifier. With price listed only as TBD ($24k–$30k being an educated guess), the MC 2301 is a 300Wpc monoblock, and, a first for McIntosh, fully balanced. Oh, and did I mention that this is a tube amplifier, using KT88s? Talk about returning to your roots.
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.
Conrad-Johnson Design, well-known purveyors of vacuum-tube electronics, introduced the ET2 Enhanced Triode preamplifier, featuring a single-ended triode voltage gain stage direct-coupled to a high-current output buffer. For once, this is not another $18k preamp; the price is a relatively modest $3500.
"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.
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.
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!
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.