Spiral Groove's new Centroid tonearm ($6000) arrived just a few days before press time, so it would be risky to say anything definitive about it. But I will take that risk: using the system described in my review of the SG2 turntable, this may be the best tonearm I've heard. Its sound is different in ways that will open people's ears, and I predict that it will affect the design of every tonearm from now on. The Centroid's design deserves and will await full coverage in its own review, but here are the basics: It's a fluid-damped unipivot design unlike any other that gives the user fine adjustment of all relevant parameters.
High-end audio exists at the intersection of art and science. Either discipline can produce a good product, but it takes both to create the very best. The Sonic Frontiers gear I auditioned many years ago, for example, was technically sound, nicely built, and sounded goodjust never as sublime as products from, say, Audio Research or VTL. On the other hand, an experienced, insightful designer such as Quicksilver's Michael Sanders can create wonderful products from humble circuits and parts, but be ultimately limited by the underlying technology. But when brilliant design, uncompromised execution, long experience, and artistry all come together, the results can be staggering.
I finished my first day at THE Show, at the Flamingo hotel. (It's wonderful that CES and THE Show are now within easy walking distance.) Over the years, Magnepan has built some of the best-sounding speakers I've heard, and most often ones that perform at the level of speakers several times their price. The MG 1.6 is one of the High End's true classics and has always been one of its most spectacular bargains. One of Magnepan's demo systems was the brand-new MG 1.7. It's physically identical to the 1.6 but rather than planar-magnetic drivers for the bass and tweeter, the 1.7 use Magnepan's "Quasi-Ribbon." Both planar-magnetic and quasi-ribbon drivers are lightweight diaphragms onto which a conducting element is attached, but in the case of the planar-magnetic, the element is wire. In the quasi-ribbon, it's a very fine ribbon, or foil. The latter is lighter and covers more area, so the performance approaches that of a ribbon, where the conducting elementis the diaphragm. The 1.7s sounded truly spectacular and at just $2000/pair, destined to be another winner for Magnepan.
My penultimate stop at THE Show, held for the first time this year at the Flamingo, was the Audience room, where they were playing a system full of new gear. Their line stage combines a relay-controlled autotransformer volume control and zero-gain active buffer. The unit has four inputs, all single-ended, and very clever switching to keep noise to an absolute minimum. Ohit also includes a headphone amp and all of Audience's power and signal-transfer technology, in a sleek, compact package.
My last stop of the day, and of the show, was the Audio Research room. Dave Gordon showed me their new DS-650 (I'm not sure that the designator was DS) stereo amp and laughed that it was their "Magnepan amp." Yup, I agree. As I discovered when I paired a pair of MG-3.6s with Classé CAM-350s, while any competent 20Wpc amp will drive a pair of MG-3.6s adequately...any top-notch 300400W amp will actually drive them well. Then Dave casually noted that the 650 was a class-D amp and told me to put my hand on its top. Sure enough, it was cool as a cucumber in spite of having been on and making music for several days. "The entire amp is ours, from the bottom up," Dave noted, "there's nothing standard or off the shelf in there."
The new Sonics Allegra speaker, shown here with Immedia's Allen Perkins (left) and designer Joachim Gerhardt (right in JA's pic), differs from the one I reviewed in January 2009, primarily in how the cabinets are attached. In the first series, the top, midrange and tweeter cabinet was solidly affixed to the top of the woofer box. Joachim Gerhardt decided to mechanically isolate the two cabinets to give the midrange and tweeter a cleaner environment in which to work, so they're now attached with an absorbent elastomer layer. To maintain the mass loading and resulting stability, however, there is now an approximately ½"-thick, stainless-steel plate attached to the bottom of the mid/tweeter cabinet. Simple, clever, and effective.
I started my first day at CES at the Immedia room, where Allen Perkins had a typically (for Immedia) great-sounding system, chock full of new gearsome so new that it doesn't even exist yet, as a product anyway. Starting from the top, there was the second-generation Spiral Groove SG-1.1 turntable fitted with a "production" version of his new tonearm. In this case, "production" means either "honestly, truly the very last prototype before production" or "the genuine first production version...that only differs from what we'll be shipping in a couple of non-functional details" take your pick. Either way, Immedia will begin shipping the arm immediately after the show.
Over the course of his 30-plus years in high-end audio, Nelson Pass's designs have never been far from the leading edge. In his first Threshold amplifiers he pioneered the use of dynamically adjusting bias and cascode circuitry; then, in the later Stasis models, he switched gears to the simpler approach of pure class-A. All were innovative designs, and among the very best-sounding amps of their time, but were just warmups for what was to come. In 1991, Pass Labs introduced the Aleph 0, a class-A amplifier that was a startling departure from conventional solid-state designs and combined design elements generally thought mutually exclusive: transistors, single-ended operation, and the ability to output 75Wpc into an 8-ohm load. Not surprisingly, the Aleph 0 sounded like nothing else, and became the basis for the widely acclaimed series of Pass Labs amplifiers that evolved over the next decade.
If high-end audio were to carve its own Mt. Rushmore, whose faces would appear therebesides that of Stereophile founder J. Gordon Holt, of course? It's likely that no two audiophiles would ever come up with identical lists of subjects, but I wouldn't be surprised if they could agree on at least one name: Nelson Pass.
Time thins the ranks of specialist industries. Trends, products, and companies come and go. High-end audio is a poster child for this reality, and most veteran audiophiles have evidence of the casualtiesliterature or orphaned products, stashed away somewhere. But a small number of true believers remain true to their visions, and persevere to help advance the state of the art.