There’s a kind of hierarchy of prestige among speaker manufacturers (which may or may not have anything to do with the sound quality of their offerings). At the bottom you have manufacturers that use off-the-shelf drivers which are available to any hobbyist, and don’t do anything other than mount these speakers in an enclosure and connect the drivers to a crossover (which may also be an off-the-shelf unit). Then you have manufacturers that start off with an off-the-shelf unit but modify this unit to their purposes. (The modification can be as simple as adding a bit of mass to the cone or adding a foam ring around the tweeter cone.) The next higher level in the hierarchy are speaker manufacturers that have the drivers made to their specifications by a specialist manufacturer of speaker drivers. And at the very top of the hierarchy are the speaker manufacturers that make their own drivers. This allows them to not only control of every step of the manufacturing process but also the ability produce drivers that are proprietary.
It is this top level of speaker manufacturer hierarchy that Totem has reached with the new Element series, shown in JA's photo with designer Vince Bruzzese. The 7” woofers used in the Element Series are of the Canadian’s company’s own design, manufactured in-house, which requires three hours of machining and more than four hours of assembly. I don’t know enough about loudspeaker driver design to talk with any authority about how the new Totem woofer differs from other woofer designs (the magnetic design was inspired by something called the Halbach array); suffice it to say that it has a free-air resonance of 1617Hz, and its mechanical top end frequency rolloff is such that it’s matched with the tweeter without any crossover components in the woofer path. The top-of-the-line Metal ($12,995/pair) sounded good in a brief listen. I look forward to having more of an opportunity to listen to these new Totems at the 2011 Montreal show.
I took this picture of a room at T.H.E. Show just because I thought it looked cool. The system featured old Apogees, long out of production. The music playing was pleasant. But what were these people selling? Maybe cables. Everyone sells cables. And then I looked at the sign on the door: N.F.S. Audio. N.F.S. Not For Sale. Here’s what a Google search turned up:
“We are a couple of Las Vegas audiophiles who love good music and wine. This will be our sixth year at T.H.E. Show. We hope to provide a fun and relaxing listening experience for show exhibitors and patrons alike. We'll have plenty of music and libations. Every year we bring an excitingly different stereo system with interesting visual effects. Come visit! . . . we'll pour you a glass. . ."
One of my more pleasant duties at this year’s CES was substituting for John Atkinson at a dinner for the press held by DTS. (JA had not arrived yet from New York.) What I was particularly looking forward toin addition to dinner at Nobu, one of Las Vegas’ best Japanese restaurantswas the opportunity to meet the legendary “JJ”: James Johnston (left), audio researcher, who has been called “the father of perceptual coding” for his work while at Bell Labs on MP3 and MP4. JJ is Chief Scientist at DTS, and also a Forum contributor at stereophile.com, occasionally jousting with those who make claims about sound reproduction that he feels have no scientific basis.
The pre-dinner presentation dealt with the latest surround sound format from DTS: Neo X 11.1, which uses 11 channels. Yes, folks, that’s 11 speakers, 11 channels of amplification, plus a powered subwoofer. There is not definite word on exactly when software and consumer hardware for this format will be available, and DTS admits that an 11.1 channel system is not something the average consumer will likely aspire to. However, a point made by JJ was that even if DTS 11.1 does not reach broad consumer acceptance, the research on 11.1 will lead to a better implementation of surround sound with 5.1 or 7.1 systems. He made an allusion to some work that he’s doing nowwhich he could not discussthat promises sonic virtual reality with a lot fewer than 11 channels.
I did get to meet and chat with JJ, and found him to be very genialnot at all like the doesn’t-suffer-fools-gladly persona that’s sometimes in his Forum postings.
The audiophile community was greatly shocked by the death, in September, 2009, of speaker designer Jim Thiel. My acquaintance with him was restricted to brief chats at shows, but he has always impressed me as a modest, gentle man, with a singular devotion to the pursuit of making the most accurate and musically pleasing speakers. Somehow, I thought he would always be around.
The Thiel/Bryston room had a system featuring the Thiel SCS4T ($3690/pair) speakers and a pair of new prototype Thiel USS subwoofers (price and delivery date TBD), partnered with Bryston electronics and digital source. The sound had that famed Thiel clarity, and an astonishing sense of depth on the well-known Misa Criolla recording. The SCS4T is the last speaker that Jim Thiel had a hand in designing: a fitting tribute to one of the greats of the world of audio.
Veteran CES-goers often refer to the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) as “the Zoo”a term that I don’t think applies very well. In the zoos that I’m familiar with, the animals are not crowded closely together (as people are during CES), and they’re not there because of choicewhich people are, even though they may grumble about it. I normally spend about half-a-day at the LVCCI refuse to call it “the Zoo”which gives me a chance to catch up on what’s happening in mass-market consumer electronics. And it sometimes allows me to discover the occasional product that could easily have been exhibited in the hallowed halls of high-performance audio in the Venetian.
Case in point: the Titan Series Telesto ($7999/pair) and Tigro ($9500/pair) floor-standing loudspeakers from Earthquake, a company that until now has specialized in subwoofers. According to Earthquake President and designer of these speakers, Joseph Sahyoun, these are speakers that he actually designed several years ago, but could not build them because he was not able to get overseas the kind of molded cabinet construction that he felt was essential to get the results he wanted. The cabinets of these speakers are now made in the USA, and the drivers are also made in-house. The speakers were on passive display, so I can’t comment on the sound, but the design certainly looks like a serious effort, with a lot of attention to detail.
In defining what is the maximum cost of “mid-priced” speaker, which was my assignment at the Show, I had tentatively settled on $10,000/pair. Jeff Joseph Audio’s Perspective, still undergoing tweaking, at a projected price of $11, 800/pair, exceeds that self-imposed maximum, but the speaker sounded so good, and Jeff Joseph was so obliging in hamming it up, that I just had to include it in my blog and take Jeff’s picture. JA, you can write up a sub-$10k speaker in return.
I think it was at least a couple of years ago that I first heard that Atlantic Technologya speaker manufacturer that I associate more with value-for-money than cutting-edge productswas working on a patent-pending technology that combines reflex, acoustic suspension, inverse horn, and transmission line approaches to bass loading. Dubbed Hybrid Pressure Acceleration System (H-PAS), this is said to combine the best aspects of each approach, with deep bass extension, good system sensitivity, and reasonable enclosure size.
Well, the patent has been granted, and the floor-standing AT-1 ($2500/pair) is the first speaker to utilize the H-PAS approach. (According to Atlantic’s Peter Tribeman, they have licenzed H-PAS to five other companieswhich he understandably declined to name.)
Having listened at CES to a pair of AT-1s, in a system that included top-of-the line Halo by Parasound electronics, I’m convinced that they’re on to something with this technology. The AT-1 is a modestly-sized floorstander, with two 5¼” woofer/midrange drivers, and yet it generated bass of such extension, power, and control that left me and others who attended the demo shaking their heads in disbelief. The sound was otherwise fine, too: tonally well-balanced (the bass was there only when it was on the recording), and a precisely-defined soundstage. Most impressive.
Monster Cable press conferences are always fun to attend, Noel Lee (left) demonstrating the enthusiasm that I’m sure has been a major contributor to his company’s success in the business. His son, Elbert, who did some of the presentations, looks like a chip of the old block. Sure, Monster's press conferences have a strong blow-your-own-horn element, but that’s true for all press conferences.
And they had a lot of new products to introduce. I’ll leave the description of these products to my colleague, Jason Victor Serinus, whose show report assignment is accessories, but I’ll note that Monster is introducing a line of car-care products.
For the record: the swag from Monster was a Micro HDMI-to-HDMI cable. I don’t have anything that can use this, so I passed on it.
“CES Unveiled” is the name of an event that’s presents a sort of preview of CES itself, featuring products that had been given awards for innovation. It takes place on the day before the CES Press Day, two days before CES is open. I normally don’t get to Las Vegas early enough to attend, but I did this time, so I thought I would check it out.
I got there nearly an hour before the four o’clock opening of CES Unveiled, and there were already hundreds of peopleall accredited members of print or internet media or bloggerswaiting to get in. Were they expecting to get some valuable swag (promotional item), like an iPad? I checked at the entrance, and, indeed, there was some swag that was to be given to each person attending: not quite an iPad, but an external battery for an iPhone/iPod. Hmm. . .I recently bought an iPhone 4. I could use a battery for it. But there was no way I would wait that long. I wandered away, and came back at about a quarter to four. The line was then much longer, and I still ended up waiting about three-quarters of an hour before I got in. Andguess whatall the iPhone batteries were gone. I’m told they had 800 of them. Total attendance of the "CES Unveiled" event must have been over a thousand. It’s going to be a busy CES. . .
But I did get a little gift: an iPhone 4 case in shocking pink. Now I just have to find someone I can give it to.
CES Unveiled turned out to have little of interest to Stereophile readersexcept those who are general technical geeks. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Most of the products on display involved mobile computing, computer peripherals, etc., and the exhibits were simple table-top setups. Major CES exhibitors like Sony and Panasonic were conspicuous by their absence. Samsung just had some of their small digicams. I guess the high performance audio community decided to pass on this event, and it makes sense: what makes these products special can’t be evaluated by just looking at them.