My most emotional moment at the 2011 CES came in the Harman suite on the Venetian’s 35th floor. I finally got to meet Kevin Voecks, Revel Loudspeakers’ head honcho, and he is every bit the gentleman people told me he would be. Playing in one room of the Harman suite was a system comprised of Mark Levinson digital and amplification gear including the new No. 53 monoblock amplifiers ($25,000 each) and the Revel Ultima Salon2 loudspeakers. The No.53 is Levinson’s first digital switching amplifier. One of the inherent problems of a switching amp is that it creates dead bands in the audio signal when the output devices cross over from a positive voltage to a negative one. Levinson says they have eliminated this problem through a patented technology that allows both sets of output devices to be on simultaneously for short periods of time. This is designed to be done without damaging the output devices or reducing their life expectancy.
After listening to a bit of the sample CD they had playing in the room, I thought I would play the opening cut, Eric Whitacre’s “Lux Aurumque,” from the CD While You Are Alive, which I had produced with John Atkinson engineering. It was the best I had ever heard it. I sat there listening to this recording, into which I poured my soul, next to Kevin, who headed the speaker’s design team, that delivered my vision back to me in a way I’d not realized was possible. I felt so lucky and thankful that I live in a world where designers like Kevin, and so many others who show their heart’s labors at CES, can help artists connect to listeners and listeners connect to artists. All I could do was thank Kevin and give him a copy of the CD, as he clearly enjoyed listening to it almost as much as I did. I only wish I could have played him the high-resolution master files.
I told Kevin that JA and I mixed While You Are Alive on a pair of Revel Salon2s while John had the speakers in-house for review. Kevin looked at me with a smile and told me that I was listening to the very speakers John had in his house. Life is magic sometimes.
The No. 53’s were clearly doing a great job, outperforming JA’s Mark Levinson No.33Hes we had used during the mixing. I gotta stop dissing the digital amps.
Peachtree was showing off its new iNova integrated DAC/preamp/amplifier, the replacement for their best-selling Nova. The iNova upgrades some parts from its predecessor including better capacitors, a 24-bit/96kHz USB input and an upgraded iPod dock. The amp is rated at 80Wpc and will sell for $1799.
The iNova was hooked up to the brand new Aerial 7T speakers, which employ some major cosmetic, and structural changes from previous Aerial speakers. The 7T ($9850/pair) is a three-way loudspeaker, nominally rated at 4 ohms and 89dB sensitivity. The finish on the cabinet, made from MDF bent to shape, was excellent. (Though the enclosures are made in China, the speakers are manufactured in Aerial’s Massachussetts facility.) Playing files from a server to the iNova, Aerial 7T sounded huge and clear with fantastic bass extension and articulation.
I was impressed by the fact that the Peachtree was able to drive these speakers with such scale and authority.
When I walked into the Boulder room, I actually started to giggle. I was told Boulder was showing off some large new amps, but I was not ready for what I saw. Sitting atop plinths of solid granite were the new 3050 monoblock amplifiers. Unlike most monoblocks, the left and right amps, seen here with Boulder's genial Rich Maez, are designed as mirror images of one another for greater visual appeal. These class-A amps put out 1500W into 8 ohms, use 120 output devices, require a dedicated 240AV AC outlet, and weigh 400 lbs each. Oh yes, they cost $180,000/pair. They will begin shipping soon and I am told that orders are already in for these beasts.
At last year’s CES, many of my favorite rooms featured Sweden’s Marten speakers. The same held true this year. I expected good things when I stopped by Marten’s own room at the Venetian. Not only where they showing off the new version of their Coltrane 2 speaker ($95,000/pair) but also their first amplifier design, the M Amp ($45,000/pair). These monoblock amps have scary low distortion0.05% at 400W into 8 ohms and use a class-D stage that switches at 600kHz. The amp can output 550Wpc into 8 ohms, 1000Wpc into 4 ohms, and 1700Wpc into 2 ohms.
The folks in the Marten room seemed in dire need of some good music when I came in, having suffered through too much audiophile approved crap during the show. I handed them a CD of the XX, a band I love, and we all bobbed our heads to this sparse but funky Pop. I find this album doesn’t work at all if a system cannot get the interplay between the bass guitar and kick drum right. The Marten system did this very well, sounding rich and articulate. The M Amps never let on that they were class-D amps, sounding more like super powerful tubes or a richly voiced class-A amp. I was thanked for playing some sweet cuts off the XX’s album, and I thanked them for making it sound great.
Conrad-Johnson introduced their new ET5 line stage preamplifier. According Bill Conrad and Lew Johnson, the ET5 is a scaled-down version of the GAT preamp (the silk-screening you see here labeling the ET5 as a GAT is an error). The ET5 shares all of the same parts as the GAT but is a stereo design instead of the GAT’s dual-mono layout. The ET5 uses Vishay resistors, CJD Teflon capacitors, gold plated OFC I/O connectors and vibration-isolated printed circuit boards for the gain circuit. The ET5 ships this month and will cost $9500.
Audio Power Labs was a new name to me, and not without reason. The company was recently started up by a number of audio enthusiasts, including a number of ham radio operators and this was their first showing at a CES. The 833TNT monoblock amplifiers (price not set) use an interesting compliment of tubes, including two 833C tubes that are often used in small AM transmitters and a switching power supply.
Pass Labs showed off two nice beer fridges, er, amplifiers at this year’s CES. Lacking any model numbers or nomenclature, the top monoblock amp (the top two units) is a single-ended 200W amp ($45,000/pair) and the bottom monoblock is a single-ended 300W amp ($75,000/pair). Nelson Pass is shooting to use no feedback on these circuits and maintain the Super Symmetry design made popular in far less extreme applications. The new part for these amps is a brand new silicon-carbide FET. These FETs were initially designed for the militaryway to turn swords into plow shares and space heaters, Nelson!and Pass Labs intends on exploring their use in future products.
I met designer Hans-Ole Vitus in his room at the Venetian, where he was showing his new stereo amplifier, the Vitus SS 101 (pictured in the middle, $40,000). The SS101 puts out 50Wpc in class-A and 100Wpc in class-A/B. It also has a volume control, making it a single-source integrated amplifier that can be operated by remote control. The system really sounded great and Hans-Ole was a delightful chap.
“Biggest. Tube. Ever.” I said, in my best Comicbook Guy voice. The Kronzilla DX Mk.II ($32,000/pair) from KR audio of the Czech Republic uses two T1610 output tubes in parallel to achieve 100Wpc of triode power. The amp also uses zero negative feedback.
The Stello Ai500 integrated amplifier was shown in the April Music room. A 150Wpc integrated with a built-in high resolution DAC, the Ai500 sells for $3500 and ably drove power-hungry Magnepan speakers.