Report by Gigi Krop
Last year I focused on hi-end equipment on display at the Alexis Park Hotel. And once again, I returned to the Alexis Park for a look behind the hi-end scene. But there's a digital explosion going on in audio that can not be ignored. Therefore I must venture forth out of the civilized quiet of hi-end. Off I go into the crowds, the mile long cab lines and the circus-like atmosphere of the Las Vegas Convention Center and Hilton Hotel. I feel compelled to take a closer look at some new technologies. Ladies and Gentlemen it's show time!
Thursday, January 8, 2004
I depart the comfort of the San Remo Hotel and hop a shuttle for the Alexis Park where I pick up my press pass and credentials.
The first room I visit showcases Balanced Audio Technology electronics, the VK D5 CD player (approx $6,000), VK31 Preamp (approx $7,000), Audes NS2 Integrated Stereo Amp ($3,499), VK 250 Power Amp (150 watts per channel) with BAT pack upgrade and Audes Orpheus speakers ($6,999). The President of Audes is Naum Dorkham and the speaker designer is Alfred Vassilov. They tell me that the Orpheus speakers incorporate the Seas tweeter but the midrange and bass drivers are a proprietary design of Audes. The CD on the transport is a Rimski Korsakov piece by Reference Recordings. The sound is very dynamic with smooth and warm midrange and sweet deep bass. The highs are a bit smoothed out. I personally prefer detailed, airy highs. It appears to me that the designers of these speakers focused on achieving accuracy in the midrange and the bass.
The next room that catches my eye is the Rockport Technologies, Parasound, TG Digital front end System with the following equipment on demo: Rockport Technologies Merak II Sheritan Speakers ($29,500), Rockport Technologies Mira Speakers ($13,500), Parasound JC-1 Amplifiers ($6,000), CTC Blowtorch Preamplifier ($13,750), TG Digital System front end - prototypes ($12,500), TG BybeeSucker AC line filter with Acme connectors ($2500), TG wiring throughout $6,500. John Curl (C), Carl Thompson (T) and Bob Crumps (C) drive the TG Audio Labs and CTC Builders companies. First I had the pleasure of speaking with Bob Crumps. He explained to me that the TG Transport is a modified Pioneer 16-bit/44kHz Redbook CD player along with the D to A converter represents his latest foray into front-end design. The JC-1 amplifiers are new 2-channel monoblock model with 400 watts per channel designed by John Curl.
The Rockport loudspeakers, designed by Andy Payor, joined electronics contracted by Richard Schram and designed as a unit to drive the Rockports. These beautiful speakers are finished with automotive paint. You want a pair of speakers to match your Mercedes or Ferrari... No problem. You want them to match your living room décor that's also ok. The software is Joaquin Rodrigo's Concieto De Arunjuez with Pepe Romano on a Phillips recording. I was delighted by this choice of music because I'm familiar with this CD and had the pleasure of hearing this piece performed live in Miami Beach, Florida.
The sound of the Merak II/Sheritan Speakers is very impressive - very clean and smooth. The strings are incredibly natural; you can hear the vibrations of the strings on the instruments. The soundstage is well defined. The engineer appears to have concentrated his effort on midrange accuracy. The flute sounds great…you can hear the breath of the musician as he plays. I believe that this system compares favorably with the live experience. It was obvious to me that the electronics were designed to match the speakers. Andy Payor is known for his design of Rockport Technology turntables. He consulted and manufactured the Well-Tempered turntables. Now Payor is phasing out Rockport turntables and returning to his first love… Loudspeaker design. The people running this room are so charming and the equipment sounds so good, that I returned several times to listen to both the Merak and Mira loudspeakers.
It's time for the free barbeque. After grabbing some food, a small car with a big sound catches my attention. Juggling laptop, camera, pocketbook and a plate full of hamburger and salad I approach the car. A pleasant longhaired gentleman greets me, "Hello."
"You've come to the right place! McIntosh has a new line of audio equipment for autos. This car is equipped with the MCC204 4-channel 50 watt per channel amplifier, the MCC404M 4-channel 100 watt per amplifier, the MX 406 single disc head unit (AM/FM/CD Player, bass and treble controls, aux input) plus XM radio module. The speakers consist of: 2 pair of MSS530s (a pair of
5.4" woofer/midranges, two 1" tweeters and two MN530 crossover networks) for the front, and a two pair of MSS630
(6.3" woofer/midrange, two 1" tweeters and two MN630 crossover networks) for the rear. "
Now it's on to the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel and my much-anticipated appointment with Texas Instrument. I arrive an hour late in a tornado of airborne equipment: laptop computer, digital camera, tape recorder plus coat and purse. In contrast the room is cool and quiet. Several gentlemen in three-piece suits greet me at the door and attempt to calm the winds. On display in this room are: the Paradigm Speakers Studio Reference 100's, Studio 20's and Paradigm Woofers. The front end is a multi-format Sony SACD/DVD player; the Texas Instrument TAS5508 integrated digital audio PWM surround sound processor with 8 output channels and 48 bit processing, the new TAS5121 digital audio amplifier which showcases the industries first monolithic 100watt digital amplification power stage. Video is provided by a Samsung DLP TV. The audio and video is 100% digital.
The SPDIF Receiver consists of an: Aureus DSP Audio decoding which simultaneously decompresses 2 DVD streams and a purepath digital amplifier. So, the Aureus decodes the signal and the amplifier raises the signal power and distributes it to the speakers. The new TAS 5508 chip takes the signal outputs to the speaker. Essentially the chip turns the speakers on and off at hi rate of 196 megahertz. The TI people tell me that this fast chip passes lots of info, which results in clarity of sound. The DA607 decodes one line to 8 channels and converts PCM (pulse code modulation) to PWM (pulse width modulation).
Now that the tech talk is out of the way, it's time for a demo. We are listening and watching a DVD. On the screen is gorgeous red-haired, green-eyed singer-- Jane Monheit. She's very talented but the music has an inflated sound. There is no soundstage, no imaging and no clarity of instruments. So the TI people reset the sound levels and the music sounds a little less inflated but still no soundstage, clarity or warmth. I can't distinguish the instruments. We try a little experiment, disable the DSP and switch to stereo. The result is a huge loss of info. Next, we try another format, a Diana Krall DTS 5.5 DVD Audio disc. Now I hear more detail but still no soundstage.
I tell the group of suits assembled before me that I am disappointed in the sound quality. One gentleman asks, "Are you comparing this equipment to tube equipment?" I respond, "Of course not, that would not be fair".
We lapsed into a conversation about high-end audio equipment. I am struck by one very important thing. Although the chips produced by Texas Instrument are used mostly in mass-market equipment, these people really care about improving the sound quality of their chips and equipment. They recognize that technology is a means to an end and the end is accurate sound that duplicates the live experience. We talk about new technologies and I explain my problem with the MP3 format. It passes so little information that the sound bares little resemblance to music. Music is such an important part of our lives, it saddens me that today's youth is listening to MP3.
I believe that the lack of real music in the lives of our younger generation contributes to the violence and unrest in high school students. If I spent most of my waking hours listening to music on the MP3 format this former peace-loving hippie would also become violent. On the other hand, if a company like Texas Instrument makes an effort to improve the audio quality of their chips they would be doing a much-needed service to music, and music lovers. I entered this meeting in a tornado of equipment and departed in a breeze of jubilation because there are people in the corporate world those still care about the music. I look forward to my visit to Texas.
I hang up the phone and walk over to Ray Dennison the engineer for B & K Components. This hi-end company has moved into multi-room audio. Ray shows me the new CT610 multi-channel 6-stereo zone receiver ($4,098). It's designed to compete with the Niles XR4630 ($3,000), the Russound CA6.4Li ($2700) and the Elan System 6 ($3,000). Ray tells me that the CT610 is more expensive because it has more power (55 watts per channel), it's more programmable and has better keys. He further explains that the CT610 has innovative software for improved installer flexibility. More importantly it incorporates the same circuitry and toroidal transporters as B&K's hi-quality stereo amplifiers. I can only assume that the sound quality is better as this is a stagnant display. It's 5pm so I declare my workday over and grab a glass of wine with some cheese and crackers.
The CEA party is lovely with an open bar and great food and a special performance by Al Stewart. He takes the stage late and it takes 3 songs to get the sound system adjusted for the room. Al has a distinctive voice and the guitarist that accompanies him plays in a complimentary style. Most of Al Stewarts songs are politically drive with an accent on revolution: French, German and Pays Basques. But in the end he lets down his hair with some boogie woogie. Stewart finishes with a 60's favorite, "Not Fade Away" and everyone, including me, is happy.
Friday, November 8, 2004
Yesterday I noticed several very hi-end exhibits at my temporary Las Vegas home, the San Remo Hotel. Since it's only an elevator ride from my room to these exhibits, "Hello, can u say convenient?"
The first display I visit is occupied by Wisdom Audio Corp. Wow! The outer room has a wall of tall, formidable looking speakers; The inner sanctum is a home theater. The charming Robert Smith, Lead Manufacturing Engineer (whatever that means) gives me a tour. Front and center in the home theater is the Wisdom M50 center speaker, flanked by the M75 front speakers. The side and rears are the NS27 speakers ($7,995/pr.). The M-75 Adrenaline Series Monopole utilizes the planar magnetic line source technology, Underhug Low Frequency Regenerator (LFR) and Wisdom's active brain crossover design. The M-75 is a Six Foot Line Source with Dual 12" LFR's per channel. These speakers have an active brain with 6,000 settings per channel to adjust for room acoustics. They are planar ribbon speakers with a 12" proprietary dual voice coil. The more petite M-50 is a Four Foot Line Source positioned atop a Single 12" LFR per channel.
The NS-27 uses "Neodymium" rare earth magnets combined with a 24" planar and a 3" planar tweeter. The planers are passively mated with a 12" underhug woofer. While the M-60 & 75's require bi-wire amplification, the NS-27 requires only one channel of amplification. The Rush System ($95,000) combines two 6 ft towers with two 5'6 towers. The 6 ft towers range from 160 cycles to 20 k. I enter the home theater and Pirates of the Caribbean is playing. The sound is so natural, so real. The bass is formidable but easy on the ear. Even the explosive scenes are easy to listen to… Bing bang boom is replaced with clean accurate sound. Sitting in the darkened room, I lost touch with the here and now and was completely transported into Johnnie Depp's pirate world.
The next system is a hi-end two-channel arrangement with the very impressive belt-driven, air bearing Vyger Indian Signature turntable ($28,000), Vyger linear air arm, and Dynavector Cartridge. The Lumen White, Whitelight Speakers (91.5 efficiency - $40,000/pr.) are from Austria as are the Ayon Audio tube monoblock amps ($25,000/pr). The amplifiers are 50 watt per channel, single ended triode. Also on display is the DCS Verdi SACD player with DCS Upsampler and DCS D to A converter. The speakers incorporate ceramic drivers from German with a midrange tweeter and three 7" woofers. The Balanced Power Technology ASR Phonostage and Millennium preamp are borrowed for the display. The cables are Acoustic Dreams. I flip through an unusual selection of non-audiophile LP's and select Pink Floyd's "On the Turning Away". We slip my Reference Recording, Respighi into the transport and listen to the "Pines of Rome" track. The sound is clean and detailed with lots of air, but the brass and woodwinds are restrained, the low volume areas difficult to hear.
The violins and French horn are sweet but lacking their usual impact and dynamic range. There are lots of people in the room and many distractions but I believe that something is not right with the sound. Other visitors to the room are impressed with the sound, am I expecting too much? This is a very expensive system. We check the connections but everything appears to be in order. We are playing an HDCD on an SACD player-perhaps that's the problem. The turntable repairman walks into the room with his silver box of tricks. While we wait, talk turns to Nora Jones. I learn that she's Ravi Shankar's daughter. Once repaired the turntable sounds much better, of course. There is more detail; the sound is fuller and thicker. Now I hear the bass and singing lyrical guitar solo and I'm transported by the sound.
The last display at the San Remo, Von Schweikert loudspeakers being driven by Valve Amplification Company (VAC) electronics, and Oracle room is the most impressive. The VR-11SEs are enormous speakers with an impressive array of drivers. There are two 15" active subwoofers with on board high power amplification, four midbass drivers (2 on top, 2 on bottom), two midrange drivers (top and bottom) two 1.5 dual concentric ring radiator tweeters, two rear firing 5" aluminum ribbon supertweeters with an ambient recovery system. The frequency response is 15Hz to 35kHz and weigh in at 693 lbs each. The wood finish is Africa Hazelwood. Dark Red cherry, Light Maple and Black lacquer are also available.
The system is part active and part passive with control impulse response and time alliance adjustable for any acoustical environment. The amplifiers are the VAC Phi-220 monoblocks with KT-88 tubes. The pre-amplifier is the Phi 2.0, the Oracle Delphi MK-5 turntable and Oracle 2000 Transport and 1000 DAC with the PS Audio 1000 Line Conditioner and Acoustic Zen cables complete the system. Yes, I used to sell Oracle equipment and Von Schweikert speakers and I look forward to hearing them together again. Now for the fun part, the CD is Reference Recordings Pines of Rome. The sound is incredible. I can clearly hear each and every instrument and pinpoint its exact location in the sound stage. The detail of the triangles and French horns is unsurpassed, the amazing dynamic range is a showstopper plus the sound is sweet and warm.
You can actually feel the vibrations, the deep rumblings of the acoustic double bass. I'm transported to Rome, wandering amongst the ancient ruin. The bass and viola sections crescendo into horns and climax with a drum roll. Each instrument sings out with clarity and sweetness. I can hear the bows drawn across the string instruments. Each note of the piano flows by as the horns sing to us and the violins join in. The grand finale: I get chills as the music rushes by me. These speakers move so much air - the music washes by me and emerges me in sound. Listening to this system is more then a musical audition, more than CD and stereo system...
what can I say, it's a religious experience.