I finally got to meet Roy Hall of Music Hall. I, along with many of you, have been recently delighting in his colorful and off-color manufacturer’s comments in the pages of Stereophile. New to the stable of products Roy distributes is Creek’s Wyndsor phono preamplifier ($2495). This is a fully adjustable phono preamp with all of the settings available as you scroll through the on-screen menus. The preamp is powered by an external power supply and has just started shipping.
Cary Audio Design is known for producing both solid state and tube gear. This year Cary unveils a new set of solid-state amplifiers, the SA-500.1 ($4995 each)and SA200.1 ($3995 each). Shown here is the SA-500.1, a 500W monoblock amplifier that can also push 1 kilowatt of juice into a 4 ohm load. Both amps are built around a modular design that allows a dealer to convert an SA-200.1 to an SA-500.1 and vice versa. The amps each use 1500kVA low-noise transformers and employ 16 bipolar output devices. The amps have been voiced to maintain a similar house sound to Cary’s tube amplifiers. The SA-500.1 sounded warm, open, coherent and dynamic playing high-resolution files courtesy of David Chesky and HDTracks.
Audio Research of Minnesota is located only a mile from my home, yet my visit to their room at this year’s CES was the first time I’d really met any of their staff. Getting pride-of-place in their CES system this year was the Reference Anniversary Preamplifier ($24,995), a two-chassis preamp celebrating the company’s 40th anniversary. According to the folks at Audio Research, this preamplifier has been a huge hit and has, to their own surprise, exceeded their sales expectations. Orders for the preamplifier will be taken through April 2011 and, unlike Brett Favre, will not come out of retirement.
British Naim Audio showed an adorable new product in their room at this year’s CES. The appropriately named Unitiqute (pronounced Unitycute, $2500) is an all-in-one streamer, DAC, preamp, amp, FM tuner and headphone amp. The Unitiqute also has the ability to pull the datastream off an iPod and be controlled by an iPad or iPod. The amplifier section puts out 30Wpc into 8 ohms and has just one button on its front plate. I thought the Unitiqute struck the perfect balance of functionality, cuteness and elegance.
Onkyo showed a nice new set of high-quality, two-channel separates, including the M-5000R Power Amplifier ($2499). This amp puts out 80Wpc into an 8 ohm load but can also deliver dynamic power of 450W into 1 ohm. The products begin shipping this January. It was great to see a mainstream company like Onkyo keeping up a commitment to two-channel music!
“Go check out the Constellation Audio room,” said Jon Iverson. So I did. As I entered the room filled with unworldly looking gear I spied Michael Fremer, engrossed in one of his famous mix CDs, burned from his vast vinyl collection. Michael, ever the gentleman, relinquished the sweet spot to me and both of us took in some big, clean, transparent sound. Driving a pair of $150,000 Tidal speakers was Constellation’s Hercules amplifiers ($70,000 each), which are each able to put out a kilowatt of juice into 8 ohms and runs its first 250W in class-A.
The visual design of the amps is both striking and understated, clad in an all aluminum chassis. Each side of the amp has a diffuser grid which hides the amp’s heatsinks and allows for a chimney action to help cool the amplifier. All that aluminum also serves the purpose of mass-loading the amps to control vibration. Internally the amps mechanically float the sensitive signal carrying parts. That attention to vibration damping could be heard as stillness and ease, particularly when I played a high-resolution file of Robert Silverman playing the final fugue from Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Handel. My time in the Constellation room was stellar.
Constellation also showed a brand new line of products at a more “real-world” price point. The components of the new Performance line will each go for between $15,000 and $20,000 and feature (from left to right) a preamp, digital source, phono preamp, and power amp. I was told that the circuit designs of the Performance line are exactly the same as Constellation’s Reference line but use less expensive parts.
The Metrodome may have collapsed but Minneapolis-based Bel Canto sure hasn’t. Brand new at CES is the C5i, a DAC/integrated amp/headphone amp that sells for the feel-good price of $1895. The amplifier, said to be stable into 3 ohm loads, puts out 60Wpc into a 8 ohms. The amp also includes two S/PDIF digital inputs, a USB input capable of handling 24bits/96kHz data, a moving-magnet phono input, an RCA line input and a headphone amplifier. I marveled at this little gem’s price but also its sound as it played files from a nearby laptop driving a pair of Joseph Audio speakers. This was my first room of CES 2011 and it was a great start!
Also on display was Bel Canto’s new headphone amplifier (shown right), a product so new it doesn’t yet have a proper model number or name. Bel Canto’s John Stronczer let me take a listen to the amp through a pair of in-ear headphones. The sound was lovely, but I couldn’t really get the cans to stay in my ears (I must have very large ear canals).
When I checked out the back of the headphone amp I noticed that it was in the signal path of the room’s big rig. The DAC3.5VBS’s outputs went into the headphone amp and the outputs of the headphone amp went to the rig’s amplifiers. I asked John, “What gives?” He told me that he has been experimenting with using the new headphone amplifier as a unity gain buffer, taking advantage of the headphone amp’s ultra-low output impedance. John said that he hears improvements in the system using this configuration and that Bel Canto is exploring new applications for this technique. No price has yet been set for this headphone amplifier.
All of Bel Canto’s equipment was powered by their VBS-1 Virtual Battery Supply ($1495), which effectively takes their equipment off the electrical grid. The VBS technology was debuted at last year’s CES, but new this year are the VB-Ref power cables which connect the 12V output of the VBS-1 power supply to the component. Having tried these cables out in my own system at home during my audition of the Bel Canto DAC3.5 VBS, I can testify to their ability to bring out the best in this new Bel Canto gear.