Skullcandy, a manufacturer of trendy headphones, put up a huge multi-level exhibit in CES's Las Vegas Convention Center South Hall. In general, I was surprised at the large amount of exhibit area purchased at the Las Vegas Convention Center South Hall by headphone manufacturers this year at the CES. It dwarfed the spaced occupied by audio manufacturers of home quality equipment, taking many times the space occupied by home audio amplifiers and loudspeakers.
The Audio Power Labs exhibit took my breath away, Imagine, a huge, beautiful $175,000 per pair, 200Wpc monoblock tube amplifier using 833C, graphite-plate, radio-frequency transmitter tubes that have a bandwidth of 30MHz and run with 1500V on the plates! These tubes were used in the output stage of BCF-1 radio transmitters. Now imagine that the amplifier's designers are named Squeek Rieker (right) and Peeya Iwagoshi (left), and you know why I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming.
Soulution Audio's Cyrill Hammer was on hand to discuss the company's "small" Soulution 501 mono Amplifier ($55,000/pair). Similar in design to the Soulution 710 stereo amplifier that had so impressed Michael Fremer in the August 2012 issue of Stereophile, the more diminutive 501 monoblock amplifier is rated at 125W into 8 ohms, utilizes six switching-mode power supplies, and features a high-bandwidth, zero-feedback voltage-amplification input stage. Unlike the 176 lb Soulution 710 stereo amplifier that required three good men to move into Mikey's listening room, the 501 weighs in at a "mere" 80 lbs per chassis.
Luke Manley and Bea Lam of VTL were on hand as host and hostess at the VTL exhibit suite at the Venetian Hotel to present their two new stereo tube amplifiers, the $33,500, 400Wpc S400 Series II amplifier, and the $10,000, 200Wpc S200 Stereo Signature amplifier shown in the photo. Although the S400 was configured into a floorstanding tower and the S200 in the rack-mounted chassis used for their MB-450 monoblock amplifier, both new products feature VTL's latest tube technology, including fully balanced, differential input stage, VTL's SmartTube technology with automatic bias and screen supply adjustments and fault sensing, and a new user-adjustable damping factor feedback control. The feedback loop amount can be precisely set to suite the listener's taste via three-position switches located between the input tubes on the top of the chassis.
I visited Burmester's President, Dieter Burmester, in the German company's Venetian Hotel Suite. As well as high-end audio products Burmester also manufactures high-perfomance music systems for the Bugatti Veyron and Porsche sports cars. I mentioned that I saw Dieter's likeness in a sketch for an interview with him and Richard Chailly that appears in the latest Christophorus, the Porsche's owner's magazine. That led to chat about our favorite automobiles, and from there to high-end audio. Dieter hopes putting high-end audio in the Porsche Panamera and 911 automobiles will introduce high-end audio to a younger but affluent generation now focused on limited-fidelity MP3 on their iPods.
Paul Stookey, now 74 years young, sounded optimistic, vibrant, and sweet, delivering a solo performance to the audiophile crowd at the Flamingo, as hosted by T.H.E. Show, Cary Audio, and PBN Audio. Somehow Paul has retained all the youthful energy and optimism that characterized his role when was a member of the Peter, Paul and Mary trio. Although I associate him more with the flower child, utopian, flower-child world of the 1960s, celebrating love, sex, freedom and occasionally drugs ("Puff the Magic Dragon"), he easily slipped into the role of audiophile troubador. Although his vocal range had narrowed with the years, his guitar accompaniment was superb.
Ron Sutherland of Sutherland Engineering taught me all I need to know about Nixie tubes at CES. Used as the main visual display device used in his Reference N-1 preamplifier and in his Destination Line-Stage preamplifier's control unit shown in the photo, the Nixie tube was invented in 1955 as the first electronic display tool for reading out the numbers 09. The Nixie's designers fashioned a wire mesh into 9 layers, each layer in the shape of a number, resulting in a tidy small stack. This tiny wire stack was inserted into a small glass envelope, filled with neon gas, and then sealed. When any of the separate metal layers was charged with 175 volts, the neon gas around the wire ionized, and lit up. When plugged into a circuit board, the tube would read out the numbers, with each number appearing at a different depth. Paul was fascinated with the retro look of this type of readout, so he has installed it in his $15,000, three-chassis Destination line stage, and into his new $10,000 reference N-1 preamplifier.
In response to Mark Levinson Audio Systems' 40th Anniversary, the company has announced a new line of products for the two-channel audiophile, the 40th Anniversary Collection at CES 2012, which includes the $25,000 No.52 Reference dual-mono preamplifier, the $10,000 No.585 integrated amplifier, the $6000 No.519 SACD player and the $6000 No.560 digital processor. I was most intrigued by the $10,000 No.585 integrated amplifier shown in the photo, which is rated at 225Wpc into 8 ohms, and provides a dedicated subwoofer output.
Harman Specialty Audio's Kevin Voecks demonstrated his latest portable room-response testing system, an iPad 2 running Studio Six Digital's "Audio Tools" iTunes app. (A favorite of JA’s.) The iPad 2 plus a $50 external mike and an accessory box from Studio Six becomes a portable audio test system with up to 1/48-octave resolution. Kevin used this tool to set up Revel's new M106 and F208 loudspeakers on the 35th Floor of the Venetian Hotel. He demonstrated frequency response graphs and a virtual SPL meterseen in detail as a graphic representation of a huge analog SPL meter on the iPad screen.
It was good to visit McIntosh Laboratory's 35th floor suite at the Venetian Hotel and spend a few minutes with Ron Cornelius, the product manager, discussing our shared experiences with the legendary McIntosh MR-78 FM tuner. Ron showed me the latest iteration of the company's MC-275 tube amplifier. Now released as version 6, 50th-Anniversary 275, priced at $6500, it reminded me that the amplifier was first shipped in 1961.