Audio Research of Minnesota is located only a mile from my home, yet my visit to their room at this year’s CES was the first time I’d really met any of their staff. Getting pride-of-place in their CES system this year was the Reference Anniversary Preamplifier ($24,995), a two-chassis preamp celebrating the company’s 40th anniversary. According to the folks at Audio Research, this preamplifier has been a huge hit and has, to their own surprise, exceeded their sales expectations. Orders for the preamplifier will be taken through April 2011 and, unlike Brett Favre, will not come out of retirement.
“Go check out the Constellation Audio room,” said Jon Iverson. So I did. As I entered the room filled with unworldly looking gear I spied Michael Fremer, engrossed in one of his famous mix CDs, burned from his vast vinyl collection. Michael, ever the gentleman, relinquished the sweet spot to me and both of us took in some big, clean, transparent sound. Driving a pair of $150,000 Tidal speakers was Constellation’s Hercules amplifiers ($70,000 each), which are each able to put out a kilowatt of juice into 8 ohms and runs its first 250W in class-A.
The visual design of the amps is both striking and understated, clad in an all aluminum chassis. Each side of the amp has a diffuser grid which hides the amp’s heatsinks and allows for a chimney action to help cool the amplifier. All that aluminum also serves the purpose of mass-loading the amps to control vibration. Internally the amps mechanically float the sensitive signal carrying parts. That attention to vibration damping could be heard as stillness and ease, particularly when I played a high-resolution file of Robert Silverman playing the final fugue from Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Handel. My time in the Constellation room was stellar.
Also on display was Bel Canto’s new headphone amplifier (shown right), a product so new it doesn’t yet have a proper model number or name. Bel Canto’s John Stronczer let me take a listen to the amp through a pair of in-ear headphones. The sound was lovely, but I couldn’t really get the cans to stay in my ears (I must have very large ear canals).
When I checked out the back of the headphone amp I noticed that it was in the signal path of the room’s big rig. The DAC3.5VBS’s outputs went into the headphone amp and the outputs of the headphone amp went to the rig’s amplifiers. I asked John, “What gives?” He told me that he has been experimenting with using the new headphone amplifier as a unity gain buffer, taking advantage of the headphone amp’s ultra-low output impedance. John said that he hears improvements in the system using this configuration and that Bel Canto is exploring new applications for this technique. No price has yet been set for this headphone amplifier.
Aotearoa. The Land of the Long White Cloud. New Zealand. The home of the Maori, Kiwi birds, an upcoming shoot for Peter Jackson’s film The Hobbit, and Plinius Audio. On display in the Plinius room was the Hiato integrated amplifier ($9100). The Hiato is a 300Wpc integrated, able to kick out peaks of 50A of current. The amp is a high-biased class-A/B design that allows the first few important watts to benefit from class-A purity and then switch over A/B for greater efficiency and maximum power. The Hiato had me grooving to Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on, Reggae Woman” and stopped me in my tracks playing a live duet version of Johnny Cash singing “Don’t Take You Guns to Town” with none other than Willy Nelson. The Hiato can also be installed with an optional phono preamp which brings the price up to $11,000.
I was simply delighted by this clock’s slight cheekiness and subtle beauty. Seeing it also served as a reminder of how iconic the McIntosh faceplate has become in American audio. No price determined for this timepiece.
Prima Luna’s Kevin Deal was showing off the new Prologue Premier monoblocks ($4399/pair). These 70Wpc tube amps contain two output transformers per amp and have two, four and eight ohm taps. The amps also feature a bad tube indicator and relay-based protection which, according to Deal, will offer bullet-proof protection for just about anything that could happen to the amplifier. As in all Prima Luna designs, the Prologue Premier auto biases the tubes and is capable of running any number of different output tubes.
Cary Audio Design is known for producing both solid state and tube gear. This year Cary unveils a new set of solid-state amplifiers, the SA-500.1 ($4995 each)and SA200.1 ($3995 each). Shown here is the SA-500.1, a 500W monoblock amplifier that can also push 1 kilowatt of juice into a 4 ohm load. Both amps are built around a modular design that allows a dealer to convert an SA-200.1 to an SA-500.1 and vice versa. The amps each use 1500kVA low-noise transformers and employ 16 bipolar output devices. The amps have been voiced to maintain a similar house sound to Cary’s tube amplifiers. The SA-500.1 sounded warm, open, coherent and dynamic playing high-resolution files courtesy of David Chesky and HDTracks.
Onkyo showed a nice new set of high-quality, two-channel separates, including the M-5000R Power Amplifier ($2499). This amp puts out 80Wpc into an 8 ohm load but can also deliver dynamic power of 450W into 1 ohm. The products begin shipping this January. It was great to see a mainstream company like Onkyo keeping up a commitment to two-channel music!
The Metrodome may have collapsed but Minneapolis-based Bel Canto sure hasn’t. Brand new at CES is the C5i, a DAC/integrated amp/headphone amp that sells for the feel-good price of $1895. The amplifier, said to be stable into 3 ohm loads, puts out 60Wpc into a 8 ohms. The amp also includes two S/PDIF digital inputs, a USB input capable of handling 24bits/96kHz data, a moving-magnet phono input, an RCA line input and a headphone amplifier. I marveled at this little gem’s price but also its sound as it played files from a nearby laptop driving a pair of Joseph Audio speakers. This was my first room of CES 2011 and it was a great start!
Last year I marveled at the visual design of Resolution Audio’s Cantata Music Server. This year, Resolution debuts a new matching integrated amp, the C50 ($4000). The C50 puts out 50Wpc. According to Resolution’s Jeffery Kalt, on paper the C50 doesn’t look much different than most integrated amplifiers. However C50 benefits from custom capacitors, a unique application of feedback above the audio band, and a circuit layout that minimizes eddy currents. The C50 must be doing something right as it made a modest pair of Epos speakers sing with clarity, focus and body, sounding great song after song.