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International CES 2009 & THE Show Report
Consumer Electronics Show 2009 Report & Coverage   The Home Enteetainment Show
CES & THE Show 2009 Report
Part 1 By Rick Becker

  My 2006 Montreal report opened with a photo of a Smart Car that I spotted while walking to the show. The first passenger vehicle to catch my eye at the airport at Las Vegas made me feel like I was in a time warp, or suffering from an acute case of jet lag. The stretched white Hummer personifies Las Vegas as the global epicenter of Bling. I took the more humble shuttle bus to Alexis Park, checked into my room and began working T.H.E. Show on the left side of the long hacienda style hotel with three outdoor swimming pools down the median. It was about twelve hours after my alarm clock had awakened me back home in Rochester, New York.

 

  

My first room found me face to face with a very tall S-shaped single driver Ingenium speaker from Teresonic ($14,000). At very high 101dB/W/m efficiency, it was easily driven by Teresonic’s own amp featuring 2A3 tubes. This $15,000 amplifier is built to special order and uses NOS (new old stock) tubes and components (presumably, they’re referring to transformers). The front end was a Clearaudio turntable with a Helius Silver Ruby tonearm ($5000) and a Benz LP cartridge ($5000). This was my first exposure to a Helius tonearm and I must have seen a half dozen of them throughout the show — very cool looking. The sound here was very inviting and dynamic as you would expect. But their Green line on the energy savings and ecological benefit of this highly efficient system gets wiped out by the cost of the components. They are better served to focus on the beauty and sound of their components, which is first class — and that coming from a member of the Sierra Club. If you really want to save energy while listening to music, turn your thermostat down, your lights off, and drape a cotton throw across your body. It works for me. The small speaker next to the Ingenium, btw, is not a subwoofer, but their compact Magus speaker with 98dB/W/m efficiency.

 

   

Flying in the face of conventional wisdom was the Kiso Acoustic HB-1 monitor that is built more like a guitar using the Takamine Acoustic Voicing Technology. Takamine is a world renowned guitar manufacturer. A cutaway illustrated the interior thin-wall construction designed to resonate with the music. It was shown in a light makore veneer and cost $10,900, but man, could these babies from Japan sing! You get to chose between makore and mahogany veneers. Very musical, especially since they were powered by Gill Audio and Art Audio tube electronics, including the Standard 211 stereo amplifier ($10,000) with Lundhal transformers and the VPS dual mono line stage ($4500, with separate transformers and PCB’s). I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Lundhal later on at the Venetian and David Gill, once again, in this room. AudioPath cabling from Hudson Audio Technologies/Imports tied the system together as well as provided the Bluenote Audio tonearm, CD transport and a special wood version Scheu-Analog turntable ($3000).

 

Studio Electric is a manufacturer who designs for a different drummer with a “Look at Me” aesthetic integrating design themes of wood, black and chrome. Heard here was their new hybrid amplifier (tube input with 275 wpc solid state output stage) going for $8000. It was shown at RMAF (Rocky Mountain AudioFest) as a prototype. The beautiful chrome face is very high design leaning full tilt toward Bling. Benchmark Media was employed at the digital front end, but what intrigued me was their ADC with USB output for downloading your LP collection into your computer. This $1800 unit crosses over from the professional studio side of their business.

  

Evolution Acoustics had the World Premier of their very attractive high gloss MM Mini Two loudspeaker ($40,000) with an aluminum ribbon tweeter and 7-inch ceramic mid-bass in one enclosure sitting atop a matching active subwoofer unit with downward firing oval driver with double surround. It was powered by the new darTZeel integrated amplifier ($20,300 with MC phono, North American Premier). The digital front end was a complete CD player (MPS-5, $15,000)from Playback Designs, who also had a separate DAC (MPD-5 is priced at $11,000) on silent display. The DAC is essentially the same as in the complete CD player, and can be retrofitted with the transport at a later time if you wish. The player uses an expensive esoteric transport, and has external digital inputs, including USB.  DarTZeel also teased me with a poster showing their new monoblock amplifier with a very attractive two-tone chassis seen behind the loudspeaker in the photo. The monoblocks should be available later this year.

 

Classic Audio Reproductions out of Michigan showed their Project T-3.3, a horn-loaded floorstander powered by an Atmosphere amplifier sitting on the floor with various magazine awards on either side. While it looks like a two-way plus super-tweeter, there is a downward facing 15-inch woofer used for 20Hz bass extension. This is JBL Hartsfield speaker design taken to the limit, costing either $24,600 or $53,450 depending on your choice of drivers. Choose carefully and invite friends to help you set them up. At 350 lbs each, these are far heavier than your old Altec Voice of the Theaters.

 

In the adjacent room of the suite I met Tri Mai, who is Mr. Tri-Planar, the driving force behind one of the most highly regarded tonearms in the civilized world. I gratefully accepted a mini-tutorial on his exquisitely designed work of machined art, since it is one of the few tonearms that allows you to easily adjust vertical tracking alignment on the fly while listening. I’m not well versed in analog playback and I soaked up as much knowledge as I could. The bottom line here is that although it is a costly arm, up front (about $5000) it is built to last a lifetime, and is worthy of cartridges costing even more…that last a lot less time. I was particularly interested to learn that the arm itself is comprised of concentric layers of damping material, not simply an extruded tube. Tri encourages owners to experiment and learn the full capability of the tonearm during the first two years while it is still under warranty and he will be there to support them if they should get into trouble. Meeting Tri, who hails from Minneapolis, a city even colder than Rochester, was one of the most delightful experiences I had at CES 2009.

 

  

The Consentus CTR-2 floorstanding loudspeaker is an open baffle design from Italy built with a solid walnut stand and base. It uses conventional dynamic drivers including a tweeter, midrange and two woofers, seen here from behind with the backside grill cloth removed. Sensitivity is 90dB/W/m and it is an 8 Ohm drive, allowing it to be driven here by a stunning 20 wpc Nightingale all-tube amplifier. The $16,700 Nightingale is a two-unit design with the power supply in one and the power stage with 300B tubes in push-pull, Class A, in another. I couldn’t tell the chassis were polished stainless steel or chrome plate, but these were definitely in the bling category — with a very tastefully executed design incorporating black powdercoat on the corners and transformer covers. I’ve been dismayed by open baffle loudspeakers in the past, but this, and others I heard at CES 2009 have made me re-think my opinion of them. Set-up for optimizing the back-wave is certainly important, here.

 

This was the first time in many years that I’ve had a chance to hear a Von Gaylord rig. In the early days of this company, under a different name that escapes me, they had an overly tubby sound, but from what I heard here, they have refined it considerably. It still presents a warm sound with prominent bloom but now there is a much more focused direct wave. The Uni Triode Mono pair ($7495) of amplifiers were driving their vG One monitor seen here atop the vG One Plus low extension module ($7500 for both).

 

I love the look of the Mark & Daniel loudspeakers (except for the tacky label on the ribbon tweeters), especially in the colors that come at a 10 percent up-charge from the stated prices. I heard the Maximus Diamond+ at $2650 (in red) and the Maximus Mini at $1260 (in yellow). The “+” models are new with upgraded parts. Since they are relatively inefficient designs, they were driven by Bel Canto electronics, including the Zamp D-2 monoblocks. I didn’t care for this combination, it being highly focused and tiresome. I’d sooner pair the speaker with a reasonably powerful tube amplifier, and the amplifiers with a warmer loudspeaker. I suspect women with more sensitive high frequency hearing would have a problem with this particular combination.

 

In the Soundsmith room I once again had a chance to talk with Peter Ledermann and listen to his Strain Gauge analog rig with their beautiful wood façade on the pre and power amplifiers. The sound begins with the cartridge, and so does Soundsmith with their revived and improved strain gauge technology. The music was served through their Monarch and Dragonfly bookshelf speakers. Sadly, they did not seem to sound as good as I remembered from the New York show where they were in a smaller room. To satisfy demand, Peter partnered with Green Mountain Audio and brought in a larger floorstanding loudspeaker. I doubled back a couple of times, but just missed hearing that combination. My friend Art Shapiro and his wife Joan in particular liked the sound with the Green Mountain loudspeaker. Obviously, it would have been a much fuller sound. I’d sooner bank on my New York impression as the room here had a lot of miscellaneous conversation in the background.

 

Alan Shaw of Harbeth was gracious enough to indulge me in a long, private conversation. He played a prototype of a new small monitor designed to replace the classic P3 that has been around for ages. It will be priced in the $2000 range, up a little from the P3. I heard it with modest LFD integrated amplifier on a Stillpoints Component Stand and a CD player of undetermined origin. It goes as low in the bass at the P3, but cleans up the upper midrange and treble, I’m told. This, like all Harbeth, is an eminently listenable loudspeaker—the kind of speaker you want to listen to all day long, day in and day out. While Harbeth likes to keep it simple with standard parts and construction, they have kept on target for people who value listening to music more than the equipment on which it is played. I didn’t notice it at the time in the dark room, but my photograph reveals the beautiful crotch mahogany (or is it walnut?) veneer. My roots with Harbeth go back to the days when CES was in Chicago in the 1990’s. I easily selected their new (at the time) Compact 7 as one of the best I heard.

 

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