More High End Audio From CES

Several rooms at the Alexis Park featured SACD front ends, but as we moved around the floor of the main LV Convention Center, we heard and saw a lot more about DVD-Audio than SACD. Denon showed their DVD-3300 DVD-A/V player, which began shipping a few months back for $1199. No new models were on the floor, but the Denon rep suggested that something new will be appearing later this year. Pioneer was promising a universal DVD-A/V/SACD/CD machine in the future, and Yamaha was also showing a new DVD-Audio machine, the DVDS1200, in their booth.

Panasonic had the most aggressive DVD-Audio display, however, with a large room within their gargantuan booth dedicated to demonstrating the format. The room featured five large floor-standing Panasonic speakers with special extended-frequency tweeters—three in front and two in the rear. This presented a problem for the large rear-projection video display, which was placed off-center between the left and center speakers. Not an elegant home-theater solution, but it certainly sent the message that this was a serious audio demonstration. After a brief technical introduction, we were treated to a 24/96 five-channel surround mix of the Doors classic, "Riders On the Storm." This was subtly remixed, with the rain and thunder spread around the room to good effect, and with the instruments and vocals placed solidly up front. Next, we heard a wilder surround mix of Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "Lucky Man," with two acoustic guitars in the rear; drums, bass, and keyboard up front; and a vocal that sounded like it was coming from everywhere. At the end of the song, the synthesizer solo circled the room, which is an effect you will either love or loathe.

After several more conventional selections, we noticed that the Panasonic rep running the demo had to navigate several menus each time he put a new disc in the player before he could get the music started. We asked him if this was going to be a standard feature with DVD-Audio, and were surprised to learn that each label will probably set their DVD-A discs up differently—some with menus and copyright warnings before you can hear a note and others with CD-style starts. Let's hope that they all settle for a "pop-it-in-and-push-play" default soon. The menus look like a frustrating way to start a music disc, and demonstrations of the format awkward. Who wants to turn on their TV just to hear some music? We also found the graphics distracting while the disc played.

SACD now has almost 300 titles, issuing from Sony's music division, as well as Virgin, BMG and several audiophile labels, which have signed up for future releases. DVD-A has about 30 titles on the street, with A&M, Warner Bros., Atlantic, Elektra/Asylum, Island, MCA, Verve, Motown, Geffen, and Universal pledging support. Upstart label AIX Records (distributed by SACD supporter BMG!) has a suite at the Riviera hotel featuring their 10 new 5.1 24/96 surround DVD-A discs sporting both "on stage" and "audience" mixes. Let the format wars begin!

Back at the Alexis Park, Enlightened Audio Design was providing 5.1 DVD-A surround demos from their soon to be delivered (March 2001) Ultra DVD-A player, which will price out at about $5000. Also in the room were the latest Von Schweikert Audio speaker designs. ProAc had their new Future Point Five on hand, which is a smaller sibling to the Future One and Future Two released last year. The Point Five, which sounded quite nice, is a pyramid-shaped three-way design. It will ship in March at $6,000/pair. Other new speakers included the impressive yet diminutive Red Rose Model R3 Baby Reference ribbon speaker at $3500/pair and the new Silverline Audio La Folia which will retail for $7999.

Australian amplifier company Halcro had several of its beautifully built "H" shaped amplifiers on display, including the $22,000/pair dm 58 220W monoblocks and $30,000/pair dm 68 225W monoblocks. New products for 2001 will be the dm 38 stereo amp, available this July for around $10,000, as well as the dm 33 three-channel amplifier, also around $10,000, and a six-channel amp in a conventional case that is expected to cost around $6000 when released next December.

Another Australian company, ClarityEQ, unveiled their $3500 Model PDC-6.6 active DSP correction system for loudspeakers, which has been in development for three years. Using a pair of $350 NHT Zero One speakers driven by mass-market consumer gear, the PDC-6.6 noticeably improved the midrange tonality and imaging each time it was switched into the circuit. The 6.6 should be available around May of this year, with a more "consumer friendly" version, priced at under $1000, promised for 2002.

Germany's MBL, always among the best-sounding exhibitors at these shows, has several new offerings for 2001. The mbl 6010D preamp has twin power supplies and recently-designed input and output circuits, with plug-in circuit boards for MM or MC phono available as options. With a full-featured remote control, the 6010D retails for $13,800. A new power amplifier, the "dual mode" mbl 8011, is priced at $8250. MBL's digital/analog converters, the $15K 1611HR and its less expensive sibling, the 1511HR, have been upgraded to 24-bit/96kHz capability, with the added benefit of "10dB more dynamic range." One interesting twist to speaker design is the mbl 111B modular system, which has both active and passive woofer cabinets that can be mixed or matched as owners wish. Curiously, the passive version, which lacks amplification, is $1200 more expensive than the active one, presumably because it costs more to manufacture. Price for the mbl 111B System I Passive is $17,900 in satin black, arctic silver, white, or beech veneer; piano black lacquer is available at extra cost.

The UK's E.A.R. announced their first solid-state components developed by Tim de Paravicini, which included the 312 Control Centre full-featured preamplifier and the M100A single-ended monoblock power amplifier. To illustrate the "tube-like" design approach employed for the amplifiers, E.A.R. points out that the output transformer, designed by de Paravicini, weighs nearly 36 pounds, and enables the M100A to achieve a true single-ended output "of a beauty and lucidity scarcely associated with solid state amplifiers." The expected retail for the Control Centre will be $18,000 and the monoblocks will price out at $35,000 for the pair.

Over at the St. Tropez hotel exhibits, PS Audio officially launched the company's new PowerFrame modular amplifier system. Customers can purchase either a large or small PowerFrame chassis, and then add 200W stereo or 300W mono amp modules. The small chassis accepts one stereo module and will retail for $2000, loaded. The larger chassis can accept up to three stereo modules or two mono modules and will retail for $1200 for the frame and $1200 for each added module.