Hi-Fi shows can be notorious for playing the same audiophile approved dreck over and over again. Not so in the VTL room. Luke and Bea Manley played one great tune after the next and introduced me to a bunch of albums I need to go get. Helping me enjoy this great music was VTL’s MB185 monoblock amplifiers ($14,500/pair). Using EL34 output tubes giving 185W in tetrode and 90W in triode, the MB185 offers a unique three-way setting that allows the user to dial in the amount of global negative feedback used in the amplifier. According to Luke Manley, this will allow users to fine-tune the sound of the MB185’s to best match the accompanying speakers and listeners’ tastes.
This system, the smaller of the two in the VTL room, was certainly to my taste. I preferred the MB185 in tetrode mode, finding that it offered the best balance between dynamic bass punch and smooth midrange and extended treble with the Avalon Indra speakers being used. VTL has always struck me as a serious company making serious products, but I had serious fun in their room at this year’s CES.
In sixth grade, I was given a Victorinox Swiss Army knife. I loved it. An avid camper and erstwhile Boy Scout, I was amazed at how many things I could do with this well-made, pocket-size wonder. I used its tweezers to remove splinters and ticks, its scissors to cut thread, its can opener to prize open tins of baked beans, and its knife blade to whittle, occasionally cut myself, and generally wreak teenage mayhem.
As I grew older, I discovered that using specialized tools for a given job was generally easier, faster, and more pleasurable than using my Swiss Army knife's utilities. Though I could cut a tent's ground cloth with my knife's scissors, a plain-Jane pair of Fiskars worked much better, an OXO can opener got me into those baked beans much faster than my Victorinox could, and even my Swiss Army knife blade didn't stay as sharp or fit in my hand as well as a simple Buck knife. Still, there was no doubt that my Swiss Army knife was a great tool and a good value, even if it was never the best tool for a specific task. To put it another way: The value of my Swiss Army knife was broad but shallow, while the value of something like my OXO can opener was narrow but deep.
Every audiophile is born sometime, somewhere. My audio birth happened on a family visit to my Uncle John's house, when he played Information Society's "What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)" through his brand-new Klipsch Heresy IIs. Uncle John did three things at this listening session that turned 12-year-old me into the audiophile I am today: he played music I liked, he played it really loud, and afterward, he took the time to explain how his system worked and why it sounded so good. His Klipsches were powered by Nelson Passinfluenced Nakamichi gearI'd never before heard speakers play music with such ease or such startling dynamics. I was immediately hooked. In many ways, nothing I've heard since that day has impressed me as much, or been as revelatory of what home audio can do. That single experience set me on a path of caring about re-creating musical performances in my own home.
Years ago, when I taught high school choirs, I had many types of kids in my ensembles. Though none exclusively fit the overly stereotypical lineup of kids on Fox TV's Glee, I always managed to have a nice assortment of jocks, preps, goths, motorheads, geeks, wastoids, and dweebs. One of the things that always fascinated me was how the big, tough jocks would turn out to be the most sensitive, emotional singers. It was always a touching moment when an otherwise stoic football star or wrestler would get all misty while singing the final song of the year-end concert. It showed me that the toughest exteriors often hide the creamiest creampuffs.
Two audiophile buddies of mine both own Rogue Audio M-150 monoblocks. I'd always been impressed with not only the sound quality of the M-150, but also its price. For $4495/pair, I thought my friends got a whole lotta amp for notta lotta dough. In this day and age, it's a rare and wonderful thing to get a pair of monoblocks, made in the US by a real audio company, that give you 150Wpc of tube power for under $5000. When Rogue came out with an update of the M-150, the M-180 ($5495), I thought it might be a good subject for my first full review in Stereophile. John Atkinson thought so too. I also thought it would be interesting to compare the M-180 with the very tube-like and almost identically priced Pass Labs XA30.5 two-channel amplifier ($5500), a sample of which I had on hand. (see my Follow-Up in August 2009).
There were a few companies showing products on the 2nd floor of the Venetian, adjacent to the Sands Convention Center, where the Adult Show was being held. After John Atkinson and I grabbed a well-needed afternoon cup of coffee we checked out a few of the spaces on these lower floors. JA and I quickly found the Parasound/Atlantic Technology rooma pairing of companies I would not have come up with myself. On silent display was the brand new JC3 phono preamplifier ($2000). Those who know about Parasound equipment will already know that the JC moniker for this phono stage indicates that it was designed by John Curl, an engineer that many audiophiles (and reviewers) speak of only in hushed tones. As you can see from JA's photo, the preamp is divided up into shielded sections within the chassis to keep the dirty signals dirty and the clean signals clean. Each channel's circuitry is encased in a metal sub-enclosure, that also shields the input and output jacks, and is supplied super-regulated DC from the power supply.
I spent much of my time at CES roaming around with Stereophile's self-proclaimed Web Monkey, Jon Iverson. I'd never met Jon before I came to the 2010 CES but he was a wonderful guide both to Las Vegas and to CES, as well as a smart and kind person to get to know. On Saturday morning he suggested we head on over the THE Show located at the Flamingo Hotel, right on the strip. One of the first rooms we happened upon was the Edge Electronics room. Jon said, "We've got to go in here."
Walking into the Jeff Rowland Design Group room is like walking into a dreamscape of audio bling. To look at a Rowland faceplate is like gazing into the face of God...well, maybe that's overstating it a bit. Whoever set up the Rowland room knows how great their gear looks and even set up floor to ceiling poles full of lights, strategically aimed to heighten their hypnotic, 3-D look.
Rogue Audio was also showing off the yet-to-be-released Ares phono preamplifier. The preamp can be run in all-tube or hybrid tube/solid-state to allow it to work with any cartridge you might want to throw at it. Mark O'Brien told me he was completing the design as recently as two weeks ago. The Ares will retail for $1995 and will start shipping at the end of June 2010.
Mark O'Brien of Rogue Audio was showing off the new Tempest III integrated amplifier ($2999). The III (an update to the Tempest II) offers 90Wpc and comes with a remote control. It also features an optional 10dB boost of solid-state gain before the signal hits the tube section, which is selectable on the front panel. Also on the front panel is a high quality headphone output. Mark was playing the Apollo monoblock amps in the room's live system, so I did not get a chance to hear it. Hey Stephen Mejias, might this be the new amp you are looking for?