CES Discoveries Continue

Of all the systems I auditioned at this year's CES, Nagra's was the unquestionable standout. Its sound was full-range and transparent, with brilliant and glistening highs, a totally realistic midrange, astounding low bass reach, and an ability to flesh out complex overtones and undertones without distortion. Had this thoroughly musical system been placed in a much larger room at AXPONA or the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, perhaps even with one of Wilson's larger speakers in place of the excellent new Wilson Audio Sasha DAW seen here ($37,900/pair), it could easily have topped many of the other big rigs that I've raved about in the past.

One of Nagra's great advantages, besides design acumen, is that its team includes Montréal-based sound engineer/remasterer René LaFlamme. Even on his "old" 2001 CD of The Seven Last Words of Christ by Theodore Dubois (Fidelio)—which was recorded on analog tape using a Nagra IV-S recorder with a custom battery power supply, using Nagra's Master equalization—soprano Monique Page's solo stood out. I attributed that to the manner in which the system realistically conveyed the emotionally resonant breadth of her instrument and its leading edge without adding artificial sharpness. Equally outstanding were the correctly pitched lowest notes of the organ accompaniment.

On a forthcoming Fidelio 2xHD hi-rez release of Shirley Horn's Softly, recorded in a living room when she was in her prime, the sheer beauty of her sound swept this mere mortal away. Finally, auditioning the 24/96 file one of the arias on Cecilia Bartoli's marvelous new Vivaldi recording-see my rave review in the March issue-showcased the orchestra at its transparent best and revealed subtle slight dynamic vocal shifts that lesser systems miss.

Heard: Nagra's HD preamp ($65,900), HD DAC X ($64,500), Classic Amp ($32,000), Amplifier CDP ($18,900), CD VII stereo digital recorder ($5500), ClassicPSU power supply for the VII and CDC ($13,000), and refurbished IV-S analog recorder ($19,800), all displayed on a Modulum rack ($2400/shelf in high gloss finish) and connected with Kubala-Sosna Elation and Realization cabling. Experienced, albeit far too briefly due to time constraints: ecstasy.

There was no opportunity to listen to ATI's new Morris Kessler-designed AT541N class-D monoblock ($3990/pair), which is shown on top in the photo. What I can report, however, is that this brand new baby, which completes ATI's class-D line, puts out 500W into 8 ohms.

Talk about a 180° turnaround. The last time I heard California Audio Technology's setup, I was impressed by its power, but put off by what I perceived as undue aggressiveness. This time, however, in a space of similar size, CAT's $324,877 system impressed on every level.

A track from Dire Straits' Brother in Arms LP, played on a VPI Avenger turntable ($10,000) with arm and cartridge not identified, sounded really, really good, with a strong solid midrange, huge soundstage, and appropriate-for-rock but not excessive brightness on top. Digital fared less well—my CD of Murray Perahia playing Handel wanted for warmth and speed—but I'd chalk that up to the still-in-demand but, in the opinion of this former owner, outdated Theta Digital Gen VII DAC/preamp ($15,000) and Compli-Blu CD/DVD transport ($4000), and the lack of essential speaker burn-in.

Doing the rest of the honors were the very first, already-sold pair of CAT MBX Sonoma loudspeakers ($125,000/pair), whose mere eight hours of break-in may well have accounted for the lackluster performance on digital. Changes to this speaker, all of whose drivers are proprietary, include a "trimmed out" and raised subwoofer, and minimization of the phase-reflection angle of the tweeter. Also heard: a pair of CAT MBX 1250.2 FD XPR amplifiers ($29,950/each), which deliver 1250Wpc into 4 ohms; CAT MBX 8x8 XLR DSP ($15,200), four XTC rack shelves ($2,000/each), eight SoundChord power cables ($7,995/each), twelve CAT MBX XLR cables ($1,495/each), four custom Straight Wire loudspeaker cables ($795/each), three Stillpoints Ultra 6 vibration damping feet ($899/each), and a partridge in a pear tree (NFS).

es347's picture

..sans speaker and cabling costs. There must be scores of audiophiles in a queue anxiously waiting to purchase...har har

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The majority of products covered in my blogs are in the "affordable for high end" category.

jimtavegia's picture

Remember this is the pursuit of perfection, which will never be reached, but they are trying at any cost. I do not let it get to me that I can't afford it.

What I am more concerned about is that the pace of a better format has not come about, or is the industry saying that they are still trying to catch up to the quality of SACD and DSD? Or have we not reached that matching point of 24/192?

I found JA's comments about the Tight Lines recordings (which I love) in which he (they) found that the 2496 files sounded better than the 24/192. I have been wondering why that was? Jitter? Or, something else?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

All that jitters (glitters) is not gold :-) .........

Emphasizing 24/96 and de-emphasizing 24/192 :-) ...........

"Oh, Well (feat. Elton John)" ........... 2Cellos :-) ..........

rallais1's picture

8 hours is 8 hours, doesn't make any difference if the source is digital or vinyl.