The 1986 Winter CES Page 2

Best of Show

Before the show, Larry Archibald asked me to look for "about twelve significant new items, for in-depth writeups." I could not find twelve such items. But then, after attending shows like this for more than 30 years, it is perhaps understandable that I can longer consider a new preamplifier from Company X or a new cartridge from Company Y to be "significant." While I don't wish to minimize the importance of evolutionary improvements in the state of the art, I find it increasingly difficult to take seriously the products embodying those evolutionary advances—which will be instantly forgotten by the audio community the moment they are superseded by further evolutionary designs six to twelve nionths from now.

But such were the vast majority of "new" products shown at Las Vegas in January of 1986.

A few things did, however, catch my eve and ears. For example: Wilson Audio Specialties, which has led the entire high-end industry in both the cost and quality of its loudspeaker systems, has now carried its reputation a step further with the most expensive bookshelf system ever produced. At an incredible $4200/pair, the Wilson Audio Tiny Tot (WATT) combines a level of midrange and high-end performance rivalled only by their huge WAMM, with an almost laughable lack of bass. With a low-end design limit of 65Hz, the WATT must be used with add-on woofers, preferably of extraordinarily high quality (to match the quickness of the WATT), which means a selling price of substantially more than the already-absurd $4200. Had anyone else introduced such a system, I wouldn't have bet a Confederate bus token that they'd sell a single set. I have a feeling, though, that somehow Wilson Audio will sell a lot of them, if only as rear speakers for super surround-sound installations.

Dennesen Electrostatic's new hybrid speaker system also sounded very impressive. Its 6" woofer was certainly no competition for the ceiling-high subwoofer in Wilson Audio's room, but, in the range above the midbass, the little Dennesens sounded refreshingly clean, effortless, and natural, with superb depth and soundstaging.

Dennesen also demonstrated their beautiful-looking, gold-plated, air-bearing SL tonearm, which was probably a mistake, as the arm kept getting hung-up every few minutes. (Frank D's flippant comment—that someone must have sneezed on it—would have been more reassuring if he hadn't been obliged to make it twice during the 15 minutes I was in his room.)

Xstatic Systems, which had shown a huge full-range curved-panel electrostatic speaker (prototype) at the last show, this time displayed a smaller hybrid system which looked like a blatant ripoff of the MartinLogan Monolith, it seemed to have none of the Monolith's lower-midrange suckout, but in other respects the sound was uninspiring. (Since the problems sounded very much like bad electronics, I wondered how long the amp and preamp had been warmed up before I listened to the system.)

Probably the most impressive-looking technology I saw at the high-end audio show was Eminent Technology's Model II straight-line tonearm (reviewed by Anthony H. Cordersman in Vol.8 No.7), which looked more like a precision medical instrument than a record-playing device.

After having cavalierly dismissed Rogers speakers in my last show report for their "polite" sound, I decided to take a longer listen this time around. I must amend my previous judgments: only their BBC LS3/5a sounds "polite" these days. The other models are much more up-front and alive, although the sound in that room was otherwise only very good.

In fact, the most "significant" things I saw at CES this past January were video items. Among them: A prototype video printout system from Polaroid Corp., that produces full-color prints or 35mm slides from any video screen display, with better detail than the screen image and no scanning lines; a modular 8mm camcorder system from Kodak featuring simultaneous 8-bit stereo PCM sound; and a LaserVision disc player from Yamaha that looks as if it may provide the best, most glitch-free LV reproduction of any consumer player to date.

I don't wish for a moment to minimize the contributions of all our designerfolk whose efforts have brought us continuing improvements n components which, only five years ago, might have been considered virtually unimprovable. But the paucity of convincingly realistic sound at this show was, to me, proof enough that "fidelity"—which after all is what this whole game is supposed to be about—has somehow been overlooked in our continuing pursuit of what merely "sounds better." They are not necessarily the same. It's too long since I've experienced a sound reproduction event so close to real that I was shocked.—J. Gordon Holt