International CES 2009
& THE Show Report
Sunday, January 11th 2009
early, I packed my bags, collected the tools of my trade and checked out at
the front desk, stowing my bags with the concierge. I was the only person on
the shuttle back to the
I had another look at the Gradient Helsinki 1.5 loudspeaker ($8000) which I had seen but not heard in Montreal and the same fate applied here. Copies of the review in the January, 2009 issue of The Absolute Sound indicate that it is a formidable loudspeaker. Certainly it is one of a handful of loudspeakers that qualify as outstanding sculpture. It has that "look at me" quality without a hint of bling, which places it firmly in the realm of sophisticated design. Someday I'll get lucky and have a listen. In the mean time, you can trust Robert E. Greene's review.
In the room directly below the Magico M5 I heard late yesterday was the much more affordable Magico V2 ($18,000), a 2.5-way floorstander that combines their 1" MR-1 ring radiator tweeter with a pair of 7-inch mid-woofers operating over different ranges. With a sensitivity of 89 dB and presenting a 4 Ohm load you might expect it to be driven with solid state gear, but here it was driven with a Convergent Audio Technology (CAT) preamp and stereo power amplifier which were more than up to the task. With a frequency range of 32 Hz to 40 kHz, it gives up only 4 Hz at the bottom at a savings of $9000 over the larger V3 model. Having heard the Magico (not so) Mini in New York, and the two models here, the V2 bears the family signature and this rig certainly delivered articulate and musical world class sound with obvious transparency. I missed the photo-op again, but like I said, I was on a tear.
It is always a pleasure and often an education to meet Albert Von Schweikert, seen here sporting his tie with flags of all the great nations in High End audio. The "stuff" in his hands is a cutaway of his speaker cabinets showing the four layers including the outer wall of resin impregnated wood fiber with very low Q (a fancy MDF?), a synthetic marble layer with very high Q, a felt pad with even lower Q than the outer layer, and finally, a layer of spun and crimped Dacron fiber. These layers filter vibrations in both directions and keep the music pouring out through the drivers and port. But say…what are those things in the background over Albert's right shoulder? The loudspeaker presented here was the Unifield 3 ($15,000), a small floorstander that was initially targeted to the Far East and is also gaining popularity in Europe where rooms are often more modest size. From what I heard, at least some of them should stay state-side for people with smaller rooms…and even medium rooms. I noted short risers beneath the loudspeakers to elevate the drivers. I also noticed that the interface between the mid-tweeter module and bass module (an oft-used configuration for Von Schweikert) had received more attention in the Unifield. Although it uses the Global Axis Integration Network for which Von Schweikert is known, the Unifield 3 has no rear-facing tweeter and uses a full range Japanese driver supplemented by a ribbon super-tweeter and a very high quality bass driver. A new Moscode 402Au power amplifier ($6495) with gold plated circuit and improved cosmetics drove the Unifield 3 very nicely. It will be interesting to see if this "supplemented single driver" approach carries over to future Von Schweikert loudspeakers.
This one should garner rave reviews.
The next room had a very familiar sound. In fact, it was the very Coincident Speaker Technology Total Victory IV speakers ($15,000) and Frankenstein MkII Monoblock Amplifiers ($5699) that I had raved about in recent reviews. Actually, the amplifier in use at the time was the Dragon monoblocks ($9000) that employ 211 tubes in push-pull configuration for 80 watts per side. The front end was MSB Platinum transport and DAC. Although the room was in the league of the best I heard at CES, it was not at the high level I experienced in my dedicated music room. Israel Bloom had warned me that there would be a lot of really good sounding rooms at CES, and he was certainly right about that. What I learned from hearing his gear in the hotel room was that the good gets even better at home where everything is gets tricked out and the music has room to breathe. This was a rare opportunity to hear components at a show that I had just reviewed and were fresh in my memory. More commonly we hear the gear at a show and then get to review it. What stood out for me at CES was the honest value and comfortable styling that Coincident delivers in the light of what else is out there.
Next up was like a Homecoming for me as the humble, but tweaked out Manley Mahi monoblocks have graced my system since its introduction in 2003. In the Manley Labs rig a Roksan CD player fed a Manley Neo-Classic 300B preamp ($5250) — an extremely rare use of this classic tube — which also functions as a headphone amplifier. The power amps were the Neo-Classic 500 monoblocks ($12,000/pr) which drove Gershman Acoustics GAP loudspeakers, a now classic contemporary design that goes for $16k. The monoblocks put out 275 watts in triode mode and switch to 500 watts in tetrode — serious muscle. In response to popular demand Manley now has volume remote control on the Shrimp and 300B preamps as well as the Steelhead at a very modest increase in price. Manley is revered on both the Pro Audio side of the industry as well as the High End. In the spirit of complete disclosure I have to tell you my Tracker sports a Manley Labs "Tubes Rule" bumper sticker and I was blessed with an infrequent hug from EveAnna. Say no more.
Capitalizing on the blue lights of their stunning black monoblock amplifiers with chrome feet, Hovland kept their room dark, playing Avalon loudspeakers. The amps put out 400 watts into 8 Ohms, 700 into 4 Ohms for $38,000. Their HP 300 preamplifier has been modified over the past few years and now sports an "I" designation. The CD player rips data to a flash ram buffer and plays back off that with no moving parts. It also provided connectivity to computers and hard drives for an integrated digital front end. I guess I did more listening to the host in this room than the music, so I can't comment on that.
Hall was showing their new DAC 25.2 that looked like
a deal at $595. This DAC also functions as a preamp with an electro-harmonix
6922 tube output, accepting digital inputs from computers, hard drives, iPods
and conventional CD players…complete with headphone jack for personal
listening. It reminded me of a megabuck item further upstream in this show
report. Music for the common man…way to go,
I guess it was just a matter of time before Richard Vandersteen accepted the challenge of ultra-high end loudspeakers and moved upstream. The new Model Seven in gloss red for $45,000 was visually stunning and a departure from his veneer and black sock aesthetic. The cabinet features five layer carbon fiber constrained layer damping bonded to a skeletal carbon fiber structure. Many of the drivers utilize Vandersteen's patent pending carbon fiber/balsa wood cones. It sounded stunning, which might have been the fault of the rest of the system. It started out with the (approximately $150,000) Clearaudio Statement turntable feeding a rack full of Aesthetix electronics. And the rack itself was also very high end, coming from Harmonic Resolution Systems. The Model Seven kept the system in perfect balance, both audibly and visually. Shooting from the hip on the basis of a very quick visit, I'd say this was one of the very best rooms at CES.
Right next door I ran into Mike Latvis of Harmonic Resolution Systems who proceeded to educate me about his new SXR Audio Stand which is a down-costing version of his MXR series. The parts of the two systems are largely interchangeable. The less expensive SXR system has a more tubular, industrial architecture coming is silver or black, rather than the gorgeous wood veneers of the more furniture-like MXR series. The rack shown here costs about $8000, reflecting the billet-machined aircraft aluminum parts and highly engineered polymer damping components. The shelves are designed like the more expensive M3 model, but are constructed with aluminum, still achieving a very high degree of broadband noise reduction. The racks are configurable for components of different heights, and can be changed in the future as your rig evolves.
At the Muse space I saw their Erato II disc player that plays CD, DVD-V, DVD-A as well as Blu-ray disc with multichannel options. The Model Two Hundred stereo power amplifier was equally impressive. Both pieces are products of the Muse MAP (Modular Audio/video Platform strategy that allows for future upgrades as well as configuring the amplifier for analog or digital inputs. Both pieces can be controlled via the Muse remote. Their systems approach is more complex than I can write about here, but with only three products in their line-up this is a company focused on being at the cutting edge of digital playback. As the owner of an original muse Model Two DAC, I particularly admired the thick aluminum faceplates with their name engraved in logo type. Classy.
Falling squarely into the Magic Box category was this little device from High Resolution Technologies. Two devices, actually. The Music Streamer ($89) for more mid-fi applications and the 1-inch longer Music Streamer+, which has a lower noise floor and better S/N ratio of 107 dB (A-weighted). It plugs into a USB port and draws its power from your computer. Yet it provides a completely isolated path between your computer and your audio system. It is said to regenerate power for its internal circuitry with its own proprietary circuits. Bit depth is limited to 16 bits.
One of my most interesting personal
encounters at CES was with Franc Kuzma of
The Joseph Audio room was displaying their new Pulsar stand mounted monitor featuring a new Seas 5-inch mid-woofer for $7000. Actually, it was featuring some pretty spectacular organ music that had me looking around the room for a concealed subwoofer. Electronics were by Bel Canto. Great sounding music, here. I learned that the cables were the new Cardas Clear Beyond speaker cables and interconnects. Some of the credit certainly goes to the cables, as I learned later on in another room that used them.
One more installment for the remainder of the 29th floor and part of Alexis Park should wrap it up.