I’m not fond of using earplugs, so I haven’t really investigated listening to music with in-the-ear-canal type earphones. However, I've read reports from the likes of Wes Phillips and John Atkinson, extolling the virtues of these type of earphones, so when I saw the sign at the Shure booth that they had some new models in this series, I thought I'd give them a listen. The ones I tried were the top-of-the-line SE530 ($449.99), which are described as "triple TruAcoustic microspeakers," with a separate tweeter and two woofers. I listened to "Nessun Dorma" sung by Pavarotti—the source was an iPod—and was quite blown away with the effortless ease and natural quality of the sound. Maybe there is something to earphone listening after all...
When it comes to directivity in loudspeaker frequency response, the trend has been to make them less directional, both vertically and horizontally, so that the speakers would be less sensitive to seating position and allow more then one person to enjoy the same tonal balance. The new Copernicus II ($21,000/pair with powered subwoofers and digital equalization/phase correction) from Alltronics Technical Systems takes the opposite approach, going for maximum directionality/focus. The drivers form a vertical line source with a concave curve, the speakers being "aimed" at a seated listener. Not only that, but there's a motorized control moving the speaker up and down to match the exact height of the listener's ears when seated. These are what I'd call "bachelor’s speakers!" They are certainly not designed for listening by couples, but the upside is the the soundstage can be extremely precise and three-dimensional, and the sound itself was well-balanced and dynamic. Here’s designer Dennis Althar with his baby.
Divergent Technologies’ Tash Goka introduced a new top speaker in the Reference 3A line: the Grand Veena ($7500/pair), which, in addition to two woofers, a midrange and a tweeter, also has a Murata supertweeter that covers the range from 20kHz to 100kHz. The sonic contribution of the supertweeter is acknowledged to be "not easily detectable by conventional means," but is said to improve the speaker’s spatial quality and have positive effects outside of its nominal operating range. The Grand Veenas sounded mighty nice driven by Antique Sound Labs' new Cadenza amps ($6500/pair).
The Australian Ambience Reference 1800 ribbon hybrid loudspeakers ($13,995) use ribbons of their own design, combined with a vented bass section. The cabinet is sleek, with a narrowing toward the top. I quite enjoyed listening to these speakers, and, ever on the lookout for a cost-effective components, I was impressed by the fact that they were being driven by relatively inexpensive Vincent electronics (SAT-1 preamp, $1495, SAT-100 monoblock power amps, $2495/pair). Designer Tony Moore was on hand to demo the speakers.
Canadian manufacturer Simaudio is on a roll, with product introductions at just about every CES and Home Entertainment Show. This time, it was the Moon P5.3 preamplifier ($3500), with numerous "trickle-down" design features from the flagship Moon P7 and P8, and the Moon W5.3 amplifier (150Wpc, $4800). I managed to catch VP Marketing Lionel Goodfield with a less-serious-than-usual expression by telling him to imagine that they got a letter from Best Buy, saying that they want to carry the high-end Simaudio brand in all their stores and will pay full retail price just to have this privilege. :-)
In my opinion, the relation between speaker size and performance tends to be a curvilinear one: performance improves with size up to a point (assuming good design), but when speakers are really big they’re often disappointing, sounding merely "impressive" but not natural. I’m always delighted, therefore, to find an exception to this rule, and that was the case with the PBN Audio Montana Master Reference speakers at the outboarding THE Show at the San Tropez Resort. These speakers are 84" tall, weigh 500 lbs, and feature two 18” subwoofers, two 10" woofers, two 5.25" midrange units, and one 1.125" tweeter. Demoed by PBN President/Designer Peter Noerbaek and Vice-President Patty Noerbaek, these speakers, driven by PBN's own amplifiers, sounded impressive and natural. The price is $65,000/pair, but you do get a lot of speaker for the money. Peter Noerbaek says they sold four pairs last year—to people with baronial homes, I’m sure.
Sennheiser’s PXC 450 ($499.95) headphones are both the new top model in their noise-canceling series and the first using the Talk Through technology, which distinguishes between general ambient noise and the voice of a person talking to you. I tried them briefly, and was impressed both by the sound quality and by the acoustical isolation. They’re modeled here by Nicoll Public Relations’ Erika Pearson.
Convergent Audio Technologies' SL-1, in its various iterations, has been my reference preamp for some time. When the SL-1 Ultimate came out, I kidded designer Ken Stevens about the fact this designation implied that there was simply no way to improve it, so what was he going to do when—inevitably, in my view—he found ways to tweak the design? Well, sure enough, the SL-1 Ultimate is now the SL-1 Ultimate Mk.II, and Ken has a new preamp called the Legend, which is said to be even better. Improvements over the Ultimate Mk.II include a Teflon circuit board, Black Gate electrolytic capacitors, separate left and right volume controls, and a constrained-layer aluminum/steel bottom plate. An interesting feature is that the AV bypass works even without the preamp being turned on, saving tube life. The price is $15,995, which makes the $7995 for the Ultimate Mk.II seem like a positive bargain.
The rooms at the Venetian Hotel that are named after famous Venetians (Marco Polo, Galileo, Bellini, et al), with their ultra-high ceiling, are proving to be a definite challenge for exhibitors. (The rooms in the Venetian Tower, which I haven’t visited yet, are said to be better.) One of the more successful in taming these rooms’ acoustical challenges was Lyngdorf. Of course, this is the all-singing, all-dancing, DSP-corrected RoomPerfectTM system, which is designed to deal with room anomalies. And that it did, the sound from the "2+2" system (two main speakers out from the wall and two subwoofers against the wall) sounding uncommonly well-balanced. Designer Jan A. Pedersen is looking pleased, as well he should be.
People whose memories go back a long way may remember Dick Sequerra’s highly-regarded Metronome Seven loudspeakers. They haven't been made for some years, but the importers of Thorens products have prevailed on Dick Sequerra to start making them, and a pair of these (serial No.3) was being used in a system that included a Thorens turntable (natch), Ron Sutherland’s PhD phono stage and Direct Line Stage, and new $15,000/pair Thorens monoblocks. The speakers are designated Metronome 7.7 Mk.6, and are priced at $1995/pair. Very nice sound, especially considering the fact that the system was in one of the Venetian rooms with ceilings that are much higher than any normal home. Here are Ron Sutherland and Thorens importer Chuck Kennedy, kneeling at the altar of High Fidelity.