For the first time in many years, I walked into a room at CES and was immediately blown away. Pass Labs personnel had suggested I listen to the amplifiers driving Sony loudspeakers, so I went to the 30th floor of the Venetian to listen. I had no expectations, other than knowing that five Sony SS-AR1 loudspeakers ($27,000/pair) were powered by five Pass Labs Xs300 amplifiers ($85,000/pair), all connected by Kimber Kable. What I didn’t know was that Sony had given the two people running that demonstration, Blue Coast Records’ Cookie Marenco and Super Audio Center’s Gus Skinas, carte blanche permission to play any one of the 150 Direct Streaming Digital (DSD) master titles from Sony’s library for the duration of the Show.
I sought out Manley Labs, manufacturer of tube amplifiers and preamplifiers, at CES. The system in their room included a Music Hall mmf-2.2le turntable, the Chinook phono stage that impressed Michael Fremer last August ($2250), a Steelhead phono preamplifier ($8000), a pair of Snapper monoblock 100Wpc tube amplifiers ($7650/pair), which use four EL34 output tubes, driving Neat Acoustic Ultimatum XLS speakers. EveAnna Manley mentioned after the show that she was working on a secret, prototype1 DAC that promises "to beat all comers." I greatly enjoyed the audio I heard in the Manley Labs room at CES. I had to agree with the saying on the rug that appears at every Manley abs exhibit: "Tubes Rule!"
EgglestonWorks, who manufacture loudspeakers in Memphis, Tennesee, introduced a all-new version of their 150 lb, Nine Signature loudspeaker ($18,900/pair). This is a three-way speaker that uses a 1” dome tweeter, a sealed midrange section that incorporates two all-new carbon-fiber 6" midrange drivers, and a new dual-ported 8" bass driver, and is spec'd from 25Hz20kHz, 3dB. This floorstander was powered by a new Rogue Audio Sphinx hybrid class-D integrated stereo amplifier ($1295), which played digital music files sourced through a dCS Puccini DAC and CD player.
Enigmacoustics' Sopranino add-on electrostatic super-tweeter ($3900/pair) was innovative enough to garner a 2013 CES Design and Engineering Showcase Honors award. Mounted on a gray and white glass stand, the anodized aluminum cabinet and almost square speaker panel is small, measuring 7.2" x 7.7" x 8.3", and weighs 10.4 lbs each.
At this year's CES, Sumiko's John-Paul Lizars introduced me to REL Acoustics’ new R528 SE sub-bass system. He described it as an "ultra-high output version of the R528" but also as a more compact version of the company's flagship Gibraltar 1 subwoofer. The R528 SE is half the weight (58 lbs instead of 108 lbs), 43% of the volume, and 61% of the cost of the G1 ($2750 instead of $4499). While the larger G1 has a 600W class-AB amplifier, the R528 SE has a 500W class-D amplifier. Both subwoofers utilize REL's aluminum-chassis, 12", carbon-fibercone woofer, but the R528 SE adds a downward-firing 12" passive radiator. Low-frequency response are not that different, with the R528 SE's 6dB point at 21Hz, and the Gibraltar 1's 15Hz. Many audiophiles and home-theater fans may end up favoring the more compact new subwoofer.
McIntosh's exhibit area in the Venetian Towers was busier than usual when I entered, and I soon found out why. Whereas most manufacturers in high performance audio were content to introduce one or two products, McIntosh seemed determined to introduce many, many new products. I could not mention them all, but Ron Cornelius, McIntosh's Product Manager, helped me focus on four products he felt of greatest interest to audiophiles. First, he showed me McIntosh's new Digital Preamplifier ($2500, above). This featured a new ESS DAC chip that operates its 8 channels in differential balanced mode for improved resolution. It includes a headphone amplifier, and four digital inputs: two optical, one coax, and one high-speed, asynchronous USB port.
Audio Research had live demonstrations of a number of new products, including its new CD transport, the vacuum tube Reference CD-9 player ($13,000) and the vacuum-tube Reference 10 line stage preamplifier ($30,000). These were included in a system with their vacuum tube Reference Phono2 SE phono preamplifier ($13,000), their Reference D/A converter ($16,000), Reference 250 monoblocks ($26,000/pair), and a pair of DSM450M solid-state power amplifiers ($11,000/pair). The Ref250s and DSM450s were used to bi-amp a pair of Sonus Faber Aida speakers.
According to T+A (Theory plus Application) ElektroAkustik's Lothar Wiemann, the manufacturer is one of Germany's largest electronics companies. (It is distributed in the US and Canada by Dynaudio North America.) This company makes the 1000 W M10 monoblock hybrid amplifiers ($33,0000/pair), where the output stage uses tubes to handle the voltage and transistors handle the current.
Octave's new MRE 220 tube monoblock amplifiers ($67,500/pair), which use KT 120 tubes, and Jubilee tube preamplifier ($36,000), both imported by Dynaudio USA, were used to power the new Dynaudio Evidence Platinum floorstanding loudspeakers ($85,000/pair). Source equipment included a Octave's new MRE 220 tube monoblock amplifiers ($23,700/pair), which use KT 120 tubes, and Jubilee tube preamplifier ($36,000), both imported by Dynaudio USA, were used to power the new Dynaudio Evidence Platinum floorstanding loudspeakers ($85,000/pair). Source equipment included a dCS Scarlatti digital front-end, Clearaudio Ovation turntable with Universal 9" tonearm ($32,000) and Clearaudio Da Vinci cartridge ($5000). Dynaudio's Mike Manousselis played me Sibelius's Finlandia, which showed off the Evidence Platinum's ability to create a large deep soundstage and amazing ability to reproduce a smooth string sound.
Valve Amplification Company's Brent F. Meyer (head of technical services) was bullish in his praise of the company's Statement 450 iQ monoblock amp[lifiers ($116,000/pair), shown here on the floor flanking each side of the Critical Mass equipment. The company claims that each tube in this amplifier's output stage is "held precisely at the optimal bias point, regardless of how loudly or softly the music is playing." The VAC iQ circuit also alerts the owner when the tube is growing weak or has failed, making "tube drama a thing of the past." VAC also showed their Statement line preamplifier ($46,000) and Statement phono preamplifier ($50,000), in a system that included Magico S5 loudspeakers ($29,500/pair).