In February 2009, I reviewed Bryston Ltd.'s first CD player, the $2695 BCD-1, and was very impressed by what I heard. The BDA-1 ($1995) is the Canadian company's first standalone DAC. It's slim, only 2.75" high, with the engraved company name, model number, and infrared sensor grouped at the extreme left of a front panel of polished aluminum. Farther to the right are two columns of four LEDs each that comprise the sample-rate indicator, which identifies the selected input's signal frequency and whether the BDA-1 has locked to it. Closer to the center is the Upsample control, which governs the conversion of the incoming digital signal synchronously to 192kHz or 176.4kHz. The Upsample LED turns green for 192kHz, red for 176.4kHz. Digital sources are selected by pressing one of eight pushbuttons just right of center: two TosLink, four S/PDIF (coaxial), one AES/EBU XLR, and one USB 1.1, the last accepting only signals with sample rates at or below 48kHz. An LED above each pushbutton lights green for an incoming PCM datastreams and red for other types, including multichannel Dolby Digital streams.
Friday was the busiest day I and other Stereophile writers found at the CES venues. Pictured here is a lull in the traffic taken from a window at the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) near the press room, where the line for the free press lunch stretched hundreds of feet. Later that day, the bus and cab lines at the LVCC stretched half a mile as evening approached and the temperature outside dropped from mid 60s to temperatures in the 40s (Fahrenheit). Little evidence of a recession was visible in pure crowd count, but I ran into many more Asian and European attendees, while missing some friends in the audio high end community who skipped CES this year.
"Go and hear the KEF Concept Blade Loudspeaker," encouraged John Atkinson, "it’s their current statement on the state of loudspeaker art." For reasons unclear, KEF selected a hard-to-find Hilton Hotel suite for their exhibit, far away from the high-end exhibits in the Venetian Hotel. But when I whispered the word "Blade," I was ushered into a dark room where the set of twin loudspeakers, looking like aircraft wings, were standing. The cabinet curvature eliminates cabinet resonances, I was told. The KEF engineer explained that the company had not set a price on the Blade because they regarded it like a concept car, a one-off, handbuilt test model.
John Devore was using this diminutive integrated amplifier, the German-manufactured Acoustic Plan Mag Amp, to drive his new high-sensitivity loudspeakers. According to Jonathan Halpern, the US importer, the Mag Amp uses a tubed voltage-gain stage and an output stage comprised of two small transformers with dual primaries. He described it as the "world's first switching integrated amplifier, and added that it was designed by Lars Lundahl in the 1960s. The 19 kg stereo chassis offers 15Wpc into 8 ohms and will cost $18,500. It played both a 1980s recording of Ella Fitzgerald and one of Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite with great dynamics, speed, and detail. This is the kind of odd and fascinating gem one can uncover at the end of a day when one is too tired to rush out of an exhibit room, and instead collapses on the couch to listen.
I was highly impressed with the dynamics, speed, and pace of a new $8000/pair loudspeaker from John DeVore, a speaker maker from my area of the country, Brooklyn, New York. I had first read about John in the New York Times when it featured new and brave entrepreneurs making their way in Brooklyn during the recent recession. I was interested, because of my medical research background, that the very tall Mr. DeVore had been positively influenced in his younger years by an uncle who was a leading primatologist, and had take him to Africa to view various monkeys living in their natural habitat. As a result, John names his loudspeaker lines for various species, including the Gibbon, Silverback, and now Orangutan. This floorstanding, two-way, high-sensitivity (dB/2.83V/m) loudspeaker features a 1" silk-dome tweeter and a reflex-loaded, 10" treated-paper woofer (rear port) in a cabinet with a lace walnut finish. I was struck by the similarity between John's energy and enthusiasm and the dynamics and pace of the music the Orangutan generated driven by the 15Wpc Mag Amp.
Vandersteen's $45,000/pair, time- and phase-correct, four-way, floorstanding, Model Seven loudspeaker made its debut at the 2009 CES but is now in production. I sat with Richard Vandersteen in his suite at the Venetian, and listened intently to his description of how he designed the Model Seven. He started by saying, "I didn't really understand the advantages of carbon-fiber as a material that could help speaker design until I built my own airplane." From there, he described how he developed a patent-pending sandwich of high-Young’s Modulus carbon-fiber skins bonded to a balsa-wood core for the mid-bass, midrange, and tweeter diaphragms, which combines very high stiffness for proper pistonic operation, with high self-damping. Carbon-fiber construction for the enclosure also allowed him to restrict the cabinet resonance to very high frequencies, where they will have no effect on sound quality. The drive-units use Vandersteen’s patented method of avoiding rear reflections from the magnet structure. The powered 12" subwoofer fires down at the floor. All this was evident when he played a vinyl recording of Holst's The Planets. The Model Seven, driven by Aesthetix amplification, played with unusual clarity and definition, and I could easily follow different motifs in this orchestral selection that I had not been aware of at home. From what I heard at the Show, I anticipate the Model Seven doing very well in the review scheduled to run in the March, 2010 issue of Stereophile.
John Atkinson introduced me to English engineer Laurence Dickie, who was sharing our ride up the elevators to the 34th floor of the Venetian Hotel. Mr. Dickie is a well-known loudspeaker designer, responsible for the original B&W 800 and B&W Nautilus loudspeaker designs, and as well as the cute little Blue Room Minipods, and is now creating new products for South African company Vivid from his design studio in Brighton, England. "Dick," as he is known to his friends, designed the G1 flagship for Vivid, which retails now for $65,000/pair and was being demonstrated in the Convergence Audio suite with, among other things, the piano recordings John Atkinson made and wrote about in the February issue’s “As We See It.” Laurence is shown here with the smaller G2, which was being demmed in the Halcro room and so impressed Erick Lichte.
On the first day of the Show, B&W announced the sixth generation of their flagship, full-range, three-way floorstanding 800 loudspeaker. The new 800 costs $24,000/pair and includes a transmission line-loaded, diamond-dome tweeter with a quad-magnet motor to increase sensitivity and dynamic range. Other features include a dual-magnet motor for the woofers, B&W's proprietary Kevlar FST midrange driver, a matrix enclosure and a crossover that includes silver, gold and oil construction Mundorf capacitors.
B&W's openng day press conference at the LVCC revealed an entirely new line of Diamond Series loudspeakers in a new piano-black finish. This new vintage comes from the line of monitors that included the Diamond Silver Signature ,an $18,000/pair high-end two-way that had been produced in a limited run of 1000 pairs. The smallest member of this speaker line is a two-way, stand-mounted monitor called the B&W 805 Series Diamond, a strong value at $5000/pair. The stands are extra, but are now available in black.
Bryston's first CD player, the $2695 BCD-1, is a drawer-loading player with a front panel of polished aluminum. The slim disc drawer, engraved with the Bryston logo, sits in the panel's center. To the drawer's left are an infrared sensor and Open/Close button, then a two-line, 16-character alphanumeric display. To the drawer's right are the usual transport controls and a power On/Off button. All of these functions are also accessible via the BCD-1's remote control, as well as two more: Back and Forward. Hold down either and the player moves through the selected track at several times normal speed until the button is released.