International CES 2009
& THE Show Report
is a German turntable manufacturer whose history goes back to 1971. They offer
a wide array of styles and technologies, but this being CES in
Sutherland seemed to have nothing to hide with their new battery powered Hubble phono stage ($3800) that replaces the PhD model, leaving it wide open for all to examine. The sleek, minimal design incorporates only the most essential elements. However both their literature and website are devoid of details. Four tiny LEDs and a tiny switch on the front are the only suggestion of control. The circuit board seen on the left is for one complete channel. An identical board is directly below it. Micro switches seem to be in the upper left corner. Shown with Duracell batteries, it is said to be quieter than a bunny with a drum. Also shown in the Sutherland room was a Graham Phantom II tonearm done up in gold to judge customer reaction. Of great intrigue was Sutherland's ingenious Timeline record weight ($900) seen on this turntable. Not only does it dampen the record, but an internal laser fires out a dot of red light that becomes a short line on the wall as your turntable spins. If the red line drifts one way or the other it indicates your turntable is running fast of slow. Since you do this with the record playing, it takes into account the drag force of the stylus in the groove. You simply adjust the speed of your table until the red line stabilizes, indicating perfect speed switchable from 33.3 to 45 rpm. Very cool, indeed.
While on an analog binge, I also noted Basis Audio has the ability to grind turntable belts to within 1/100,000 of an inch of specification. I was so impressed that I forgot to ask if they make belts for other brands.
It was a pleasure to see Paul McGowan again, and meet his wife, Terry, at the PS Audio room. My visit here was further proof that PS Audio is one of the most happening companies in the high end. Busy was the word. Dealers and conversations everywhere. Components being boxed up for shipping. The big news here was their new PerfectWave Transport ($3k) and DAC, now a reality. They sport touch screen operation and also work by remote. The Transport is connected to the Web and magically comes up with cover art and album titles. Playback is from the bit-perfect RAM memory with no moving parts and extremely low jitter when passed along via I2S through HDMI. Formats are just about everything, except perhaps Blu-ray. The big draw here was supposed to be playback from 24-bit/176kHz HRx masters, one of the highest reasonably available formats out there, but I didn't get a chance to hear it I don't think.
My colleague Phil Gold named these pieces as one of Ten Best Looking Components at CES this year. I'd have to concur, but also note that it forces die-hard Knob & Switch guys like me to get with the program and learn how to use touch screens and remote controls. If the quality is as good as they claim and I what I heard through Focus loudspeakers was certainly transparent, dynamic and focused from top to bottom I will probably evolve. The transport and DAC will be available later this spring. On another front, I learned that PS has introduced a new series of PerfectWave power cables that does away with ferrite impregnated jackets and improved the geometry for a faster, more transparent sound. They have also improved the cosmetics of the cables which are fairly uniform across the line. The $100 AC-3 model looks like a $600 cable from Brand X, and may be the biggest value of the bunch. The two top of the line models, AC-12 and AC-10 have gold plated prongs to interface with the new gold Power Port Premier outlets. The cables were reasonably flexible. And finally, to answer one of my pet peeves about power conditioners, I discovered they have a wall-mount plate for the JuiceBar, HumBuster, Quintet and Duet so you can mount them high off the floor for easier access and a more tidy appearance for your rig. It's not on the website though, so you have to call and ask for it. Keep your eye out for reviews of the Transport and DAC. These could be huge for the company.
Tim De Paravicini' EAR has morphed into EAR/Yoshino, so maybe that has something to do with it.
The front ends in this room were a very interesting turntable (that I should have photographed) and a professional reel to reel tape deck, probably maxed out with mods by Mr. De Paravincini. The preamplifier was his 912 model and the power amplifier was his EAR 890 stereo unit that puts out 70 wpc with a 92 dB signal to noise ratio that seemed even cleaner with a PS Audio Power Plant Premier regenerating the electricity. It operates in Class A with low negative feedback and push-pull operation with EL34 tubes. The loudspeakers were the Marten Design Coltrane Soprano, a two-way version of their three-way Coltrane model. With a new Jantzen Audio diamond tweeter and dual Accuton ceramic mid-woofers, it has a gorgeous and effective cabinet with carbon fiber laminate bonded with damping glue, offset with a beautiful oak front finished in a clear stain. It is available in other finishes to suit your décor. Surprisingly, each loudspeaker weighs only 80 pounds should you wish to suddenly enlarge your dance floor. I've heard Marten Design speakers from their Reference line before and was a lot less impressed than I was in this room, which was very high on my list of favorites. What I didn't know was that this Swedish company also makes a mid-range and entry level series (relatively speaking, of course), all of which have interesting contemporary designs.
A Tenor preamplifier and monoblocks were driving a pair of Magico V3 loudspeakers very effectively. The front end was the unique and very competent Continuum Caliburn turntable with the Cobra tonearm, two of them, in fact all excellent choices for the high rollers here. At quick listen, there didn't seem to be anything wrong with the sound here, so with time running short, I moved on.
Not being particularly fond of solid state gear, I have never been drawn to Passelectronics, except out of curiosity. It came as a surprise, then, to find the Pass system really drawing me into the music. Perhaps it was the new Pass SR-1 loudspeaker ($25,000), a two-module design with Nextel series drivers from Seas of Norway that made the difference, being just a touch warm. With a 4 Ohm impedance and 86dB/W/m sensitivity, it would seem to demand a powerful amplifier like the XA100.5, a 100 watt Class A monoblock ($16,500/pr) that was driving them. The new XP20 remote controlled preamp with separate power supply ($8600) designed by Wayne Colburn brought a new look to the Pass line-up and may also have been responsible for grabbing my attention. (A single chassis version, the XP10 is available for $5250).Or perhaps the warmth and inviting music was the result of a Basis turntable at the front end. Who knows? But it sure worked for me, even with the grilles on, as shown in the photo. It made me forget I was listening to solid state.
I had been working quickly, and politely declined an invitation to step into the Acoustic Technologies room on my way down the hall the first time. Members of the Press are easily spotted with their special badges, and this guy was in the hall fishing for coverage. I had never heard of them and I felt compelled to cover the "Big Boys" as best I could. On the return trip back to the central hub, the guy was still there and took advantage of my slight hesitation to nail me. "You must come in and hear our speaker. We are a new company, only four days old," he pleaded. Knowing that the rooms at CES had to be booked far more than four days in advance, my gut instinct said "Go in". The room was empty except for the music. As sometimes happens, this off-the-beaten-path adventure turned up a real gem. The music emanated from a pair of single driver floorstanders about 6-inches wide and 43-inches tall. The driver itself was only 3 inch in diameter, but it was obvious it was very special. The speaker cable was a boondoggle weave of 24 guage wires, the same as used inside the speaker. Edison Post binding posts were used, but production versions will use Cardas. A special cabinet design amplifies the bass and recreates sound like a musical instrument. The breakthrough here was the ability of these loudspeakers to create 3-dimensional sound throughout the room without having to sit in a "sweet spot". The rig was comprised of an Ayon CD player, Pass Labs X1 preamp and First Watt power amplifier. It is a very efficient loudspeaker with a maximum power input of 30 watts. List price is $2450. If the first four days of this company's history turns into eight, hopefully I will have a review sample from the first production run. This Real World loudspeaker really excites me; I get goose bumps just listening to my video notes.
At the suggestion of my friend John Marks I visited the MSB
room and was treated to a tour of their Platinum DAC III priced at $7000,
$8500 with ladder volume control, on up to $22k with maximum add-ons. MSB
makes their own DAC chips and this one is capable of 32-bit/384 kHz resolution
if and when such a format becomes available. Of course, you could make your
own digital files in that resolution by transferring your LPs using their
Platinum Studio ADC ($7000), I suppose. Also in the MSB arsenal is their MSB
iLink System ($2375 w/iPod) that pulls the digital signal out of their
modified iPod and eliminates the jitter allowing you to feed bit perfect CD
quality music to the DAC of your choice. There is also an add-on transmitter
that allows you to use the iPod (or a second iPod) from a remote location such
as the listening chair a very cool idea. The music in this room was coming
from all-MSB electronics into a pair of Harbeth loudspeakers. Their M200
Amplifier ($17,500/pr) runs in Class A in the input stage where the gain is
and AB in the output stage. It looks like of like a massive air filter
standing on end with aluminum fins and a gold plated cap. It was much more
attractive standing on its own rather than the visually distracting stands
used when I saw them in
My visit to the KR Audio
room was a most welcome first personal encounter with Eunice
Kron. We have become friends over the years as a result of my
reviews of several KR amplifiers and a variety of KR tubes, some of which I
consider to be the finest in the world. (Some might argue they all
are). I stood quietly by as she finished her conversation with a
dealer and enjoyed the burst of surprise when she read my name tag. A big hug
ensued. The audio story in this room began with the Purist
pre, The Preamp, from AMI HiFi
in Germany. A single cylinder protrudes from the silver chassis making this the most
minimal preamplifier I've seen. Twist the cylinder to control the volume,
and touch the sensitive black screen on the end to change the inputs. That's
it, except if you prefer to use the remote control. Christoph Gummersbach explained that at normal volume, only two
or three very high quality resistors are in the signal path in this Resistor
Optimized Network, and only as many as seven resistors with greater
attenuation. It can be configured as an active or passive design, and a very
configurable phono stage can be installed. Price is $11k, but I'm not sure
of the configuration at that price. It was simply extraordinary, containing
much more technology than I can talk about here. The active stage of the
Purist pre is a very similar topology to the input stage of many KR
amplifiers, even using some of the same parts, making it even more
transparent. The KR power amps were the Kronzilla DX monoblocks ($25,000 to
$30,000) using a parallel pair of their huge T1610 tubes in each amplifier.
The monoblocks each put out 100 watts into 4 or 8 Ohms. Visually, these are
the most stunning tube amplifiers I've seen and they looked and sounded
terrific in my home during the review. The loudspeakers were the Audio
Epilog Cocoa 2, a 4 Ohm, 90dB/W/m sensitivity design shown here with
satin black cabinet and black leather front with three chrome rods protecting
the drivers an interesting design. They go for 4800 Euro in Europe and are
Bobby Palkovic is another familiar face, but the sound from his Merlin VSM MXe was obviously improved from my previous listening. Bobby was quick to pass along credit to Judd Barber's new Joule Electra LA-300 Marianne Electra Memorial Preamp ($14,800) with its very high end V-Caps and Mundorf Silver, Gold & Oil capacitors, and special silver & copper wiring from David Elrod of Elrod Power. A Signature Edition of the LA-150 Mk II that incorporates many of the upgrades in the LA-300 is also available at a more reasonable price. Both units include remote control. Bobby also gave praise for the new Cardas Clear cables. The Clear Beyond speaker cable is about $10,000 (3m) and will have limited availability. The Clear interconnect is about $1900 1m. The connectors use no solder, but are "welded" by a machine that applies 100,000 psi in the crimping process even more than when Bambi met Godzilla! Bobby didn't say so, but I have to wonder if Cardas Clear is not also used internally in the MXe. Whether there were minor improvements to the loudspeakers or merely the improvements brought to the system by superior components and wire, this room was in the highest echelon at CES this year. The front end of this rig, btw, was an audioaero CD player. Year after year, this is a class act.
Winner of the Blow-Me-Away category was the diminutive Silverline Minuet loudspeaker ($600/pr) driven by a Pass Labs amplifier. Whew! What value! And another feather in the headdress for Nelson Pass.
At Synergistic Research I saw an unusual tube module that acts on their active cable system. Does that make sense? Wilson Audio Sophia loudspeakers driven by Burmester solid state gear sounded warm and three dimensional not what I would have expected from Burmester. Then I discovered the room had been rigged with the Acoustic Arts System of miniature singing bowls and associated voodoo. The host offered to demonstrate the room without them for comparison. Another gut feeling hit me and I let him quickly take the miniature devices off the walls. My jaw did not hit the floor, but it became immediately recognizable that the Acoustic Arts System puts the "al" in "musical". These things really work. If your system sounds too dry or clinical, try these, but be warned that they are not inexpensive.
Genesis Advanced Technologies were playing their 7.1F floorstanding loudspeakers ($8000) driven by their Statement monoblocks ($22,000) to supplement the 200 watt built-in amplifier for the bass driver. It appears to have a D'Appolito configuration of their 1-inch circular ribbon tweeter (possibly supplemented by a 2nd rear firing one) and a pair of their 5.5-inch titanium cone mid-woofers. The active bass driver is side firing down at floor level. The preamplifier was the SMc Audio VRE-1 (Virtual Reality Engine) model that has apparently been driven up to $10,000 by a couple of rave reviews that suggested it was under-priced. Steve McCormack is the man behind the machine and earlier in the show I had a chance to meet him. His preamp seems to be every bit as good as the writers say, as the music was very inviting here, too. Of interest to some will be the polarity inversion switch on the front of the preamp. I've heard Genesis speakers large and small over the years and this one seems like a really good value.
At Bel Canto I talked with designer John Stronczer who showed me their USB Link ($495) that takes up to 24-bit/96kHz data from your computer and outputs it in SPDIF to feed your DAC of choice and an ultra low noise Virtual Battery Supply for the CD-2 which should be out sometime in March. He also mentioned something about adapting Virtual Battery Supply to the DAC3, which brings up the question: Why is the USB Link only good for 24-bit/96kHz while the Dac3 is good for 24/192? Speakers here were Joseph Audio Pearls, their top of the line, which reminded me of the very fine sounding new monitor driven by Bel Canto electronics in the Joseph Audio room. I guess one hand washes the other here. The new Bel Canto Ref. 500 amplifier was driving the Pearls. WireWorld supplied the cabling and the stand was the now familiar HRS SXR aluminum component rack covered earlier in this report. I was closing in on 12:30 departure time, and I neglected to take a photo here.
Canadian manufacturer Focus Audio displayed a modest $1800 FC 9 loudspeaker from their Classic Series. It sounded like a very good value driven by a basic Naim CD player and integrated amplifier. Of course "basic" should probably not be used in conjunction with Naim.