Back in the summer of 2009, USB-connected D/A processors that could operate at sample rates greater than 48kHz were rare. Ayre Acoustics had just released its groundbreaking QB-9, one of the first DACs to use Gordon Rankin's Streamlength code for Texas Instruments' TAS1020 USB 1.1 receiver chip. Streamlength allowed the chip to operate in the sonically beneficial asynchronous mode, where the PC sourcing the audio data is slaved to the DAC. But high-performance, USB-connected DACs like the Ayre were also relatively expensive back then, so in the January 2010 issue of Stereophile I reviewed a pair of soundcards from major computer manufacturer ASUS , the Xonar Essence ST and STX, which, at $200, offered a much more cost-effective means of playing hi-rez files on a PC.
I well remember my first "real" headphones: a pair of Koss Pro4AAs that I bought back in 1970. The Kosses were relatively expensive, but, like headphones today, they allowed an audiophile with limited cash to get a taste of high-end sound that was not possible with a speaker-based system. I bought the Pro4AAs because I had become fascinated with how the images of the instruments and singers were strung along a line between my ears inside my head. It seemed so much more intimatea more direct connection with the musicthan playback through loudspeakers.
All photographs by Lily Szabo Photography and used with permission
Thursday February 13 was a day most of us in New York would have preferred to stay indoors. With 10” of snow falling since the night before, the Stereophile office closed, the roads in my neighborhood impassable, and public transport iffy at best, I really didn’t want to make the trek into Manhattan. But I did and was glad to have done so. English loudspeaker manufacturer KEF, represented by a team led by the company's brand ambassador Johan Coorg (above right), was promoting a unique event for the press at MSR Studios on 48th Street featuring legendary engineer and producer Ken Scott (above left).
Erick Lichte's review of Benchmark's DAC2 HGC D/A converter in this issue gave me an ideal opportunity to spill some ink on the company's ADC1 USB A/D converter. The ADC1 is housed in the same small case as the DAC (one rack unit high, half the rack unit width), and is offered with a black front panel with rack ears, or a silver aluminum panel without ears, either for $1795.
I was alerted to the new VEGA D/A processor from Chinese manufacturer AURALiC by Michael Lavorgna's rave review for our sister site AudioStream.com in April 2013: "Everything I played through the Auralic Vega was equally wow-inducing. Everything. . . . Music I've heard hundreds of times was presented with a crisp, clean, and delicate clarity that was simply uncanny and made things old, new again. . . . Its ability to turn music reproduction into an engaging and thrilling musical experience is simply stunning."
On passive display in the room adjoining their demonstration room was a single Magico Ultimate v.3 horn speaker, shown here with Magico's Alon Wolf for scale. A five-way design costing a mind-boggling $600,000/system, the speaker’s higher-frequency horns feature a Tractrix flare, the lower-midrange horn a trapezoidal flare, all of which blend smoothly into the baffle. A 15" sealed-box woofer handles frequencies below 125Hz.
Daft Punk's "Within" was playing when I entered Magico's suite at the Venetian. The sound produced by the pair of the new S3s ($22,600/pair) was large and dynamic, with rich low frequencies. A solo version of "God Bless the Child" followed, and Gregory Porter's baritone was uncolored, with a well-defined, palpable image hanging between the loudspeakers. Finally, the bass drum on Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man pressurized the large room with low frequencies, all this from a a pair of speakers, each with two 8" woofers in a sealed enclosure powered by 100Wpc of amplification, with source an Aurender server feeding data to a dCS Vivaldi DAC and a Vitus preamp.
“A kiss back to Sony,” was how Nelson Pass described the debut of a unique pair of Pass Labs monoblocks driving Sony’s SS-AR1 speakers in the Sony room at Venetian. And it was an affectionate kiss indeedthe sound in this room, with a Pass Labs XP-20 preamplifier and Sony’s HA-P1ZES media player, I thought one of the best of the 2014 CES. Yes, it had superb clarity and dynamics, with an impossibly low noisefloor on the 24/176.4k Reference Recordings file of Stravinsky’s Firebird, but these qualities were even apparent on a Red Book file of a Rossini opera excerpt. There was something just right about the sound.
Laurence “Dic” Dickie (above) showed me his new G4 speaker design in the On A Higher Note suite at the Mirage, which will enter production in April. To be priced at $33,000/pair, the G4 features the same absorptive lines behind the tweeters and midrange drivers and the hybrid vented transmission line loading for the twin woofers first seen in the Giya G1. The upper and lower aluminum-dome HF units are the same as in all the Giya models, but because of the G4’s narrower width compared with the others, Dic had to design a new midrange unit. This again uses an aluminum cone and the same-sized radial magnet, but now there is an oversized dustcap to provide stiffening of the diaphragm midway between voice-coil and surround.
Though English manufacturer Naim Audio has had some very affordable products in their line, like the original Nait integrated amplifier from the mid-1980s, their reputation for sound quality was established with relatively expensive models. But nothing in the company’s history prepared me for the Naim Statement six-piece preamplifier/twin monoblock system (center in photo) that made its debut at CES. To be available in July, the Statement, which comprises the NAC S1 line preamplifier and two NAP S1 power amplifiers, will be priced at $200,000 and is specified as delivering one horsepower (740W) into 8 ohms! Its weight matches its power: the preamp weighs 135 lbs and the power amplifiers each weigh 222 lbs.