Well, here we go again, the annual trek to Las Vegas came a bit too soon after the New Year's holiday. This time I would like to mention that successful events are the result of careful planning and good on-the-scene management. For audiophiles and music lovers the schedule of events and locations can easily be divided in three main categories.
The Las Vegas convention center referred to as LVCC or sometimes a bit despairingly as "The Zoo". The really "big boys" or the truly major players such as Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, Hitachi and so on are all found there every year. So are some well-known audio names as Denon, Marantz, Klipsch and Meridian. Many specialty cable companies are usually found on the crowded immense floors of the world's second largest convention center. Many seemingly small companies show up every year with their newest and greatest specialty products from countries around the world hoping against odds to be discovered. It can be a tough sell. Three companies, that I decided to check out their new products, were not to be found after a great deal of searching.
However Meridian and their DVD-A promotions, Denon promoting their latest version of their popular 3800 series (the 3805) receiver to be released in the spring with more features, power and an attractive optional aluminum front panel at the same price looks very promising. A review sample was eagerly requested. Universal Remote Control showing a gorgeous prototype of their latest great remote control the SRX 3000 so esthetically attractive it might sell itself and Samsung with their forthcoming updated thin and flat screen DLP rear projection set (plasma competitor) were all easily found. As with many other audiophile reviewers I again vowed not to return to "the zoo" next year - same as last year.
I did run across an old friend that popped up again. It was the old Altec Lansing A7-500, now in a black utilitarian professional order only cabinet. My old one was in beautiful walnut cabinetry. It was known as and named "The Voice of the Theater" because of common use in movie theaters forty years or so ago. The convention center, as usual, was not a place for even casual listening. For that, the high performance audio division of CEA uses the Alexis Park Hotel a few miles away and provides a free shuttle bus system for transportation between the locations.
At the Alexis Park Hotel everything appeared to be running smoothly as usual. Nothing much seems to change there and a number of manufacturers are found in the same rooms year after year. It appears as though CEA's Kerry Moyer is on top of everything and has a fine staff running the smaller press facilities there. CEA (Consumer's Electronic Association) is "the organization" and changing the "A" to "S" changes it to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to clear up any potential confusion.
Near the hotel's main entrance is a very large room and as usual had essentially the same group of approximately ten manufacturers and dealers there. Most of them are recording companies such as Chesky and Acoustic Sounds and dealers such as the well-known Music Direct plus some specialty products/accessories manufacturers including tubes.
Now for my usual disclaimers: After spending the greater part of a day at the convention center it definitely would be impossible to cover even most of the rooms at Alexis Park, and the ones at St. Tropez and San Remo. If a room was packed with people it was skipped and usually would get a return visit; if still packed the outcome was a toss up. If the sounds from a room were blaring very bright heavy metal sounds out into the hallway, entry was questionable at best. If a room was mentioned as very promising to me by other reviewers, I definitely made attempts to get in and listen. The first morning found four rooms with right and left channels reversed. Comments to the exhibitor were appreciated and change made within a couple of minutes. Apparent lack of proper phasing in multi-speaker setups was often tough to spot with unfamiliar products though.
The newly upgraded Merlin "Millennium X" loudspeaker ($10,000 pair) with Dynaudio's finest tweeter was beautifully finished in the darkest green I've ever seen on loudspeaker cabinets and at a casual glance appeared black. The C.A.T.'s "Ultimate Mk II" preamp ($6,950) appeared to be fronting an extremely clean signal toward the speakers. Room setup was the first I saw at CES this year with speakers positioned "across a corner" which worked fine in this case. Vinyl, as usual, was the sound source for Merlin and the deep bass was extended & detailed but not at full strength.
The very expensive "Pipedreams" loudspeaker system featuring newly designed circular, as usual, woofer enclosures were extremely impressive. Very big, room filling sound, as usual. All was a bit bold, brassy and extremely dynamic and a touch on the bright side - potentially tiring with a poor recording. Tons of soundscape depth was readily apparent as all was fed by a Burmester CD player. Trumpets on the famous RR 93 HDCD recording of Copland were between great and stunning in sound quality.
Alón by Acarian's loudspeakers were to be heard in at least eight different rooms. I have no idea if that made it the most popular line at the show. Logically one of those rooms was the Alón room at the Alexis Park. Featured there was the only pair in existence of the new Proteus model designed to fill in the large price gap between their very expensive multi enclosure "Grand Reference" model at more than $100,000 and their continuing model "Circe" at $12,000 (pair). Admittedly, I was hoping for a model closer in price to the "Circe" at around $18,000 to $20,000 range. Maybe it will be coming in a year or two.
The Proteus cabinets were setup across a corner (second such setup I heard at the show). To make that clear, the listening position is facing directly into a corner and each of a pair of loudspeakers is in front of a different wall at an angle and facing approximately toward the listening position. Often the resultant soundscape will appear to have an extreme sense of depth, which could be called a 3-D effect. The overall effect with these new Proteus models was impressive with the sensation and feeling of great power. Dynamic range seemed unlimited. Overall there seemed to be more of a "forward emphasis" than with Alón's lesser models.
On some tracks the sound could be described as either "more in your face" or "more clearly revealing". The great bass response definitely sounded different than I am used to hearing from Alón's almost famous Thunderbolt subwoofers. As we all know, rooms have a great effect on the entire bass range, so who knows. Carl Marchisoto claims the bass response of the Proteus is better because the eight-inch drivers (seven in each right and left cabinet) are even faster than the Thunderbolt's twelve-inch drivers. The seventh woofer in each loudspeaker is on the rear of the cabinet and surprisingly mounted at an upward angle. Definitely it is one of the candidates for best sound at the show.
At Keith Herron's, as usual it was a musical refuge. No sound effects or show-off demonstration discs or disks being played there - yes LPs and CDs were both being used. Before leaving, Keith asked if I realized that I had been listening to solid state and not tubes? No, just sounded natural or musical as every year for you, was my considered reply. Now well-known for natural sounding components, such as tubed gear that doesn't sound "tubey" he has pretty much finalized a new solid state preamplifier that is close to sounding exactly like his tubed unit. Don't beat down his door trying to get one just yet. Wait till this summer to contact him. I had talked to him a couple of years ago about a list of features that either audiophiles or music lovers might like to have in a top-drawer preamplifier.
He had valid reasons why each suggestion might be able to adversely affect sound quality. He has worked out answers to all over the past few years. This new, soon-to-be pinnacle of solid state design has all the wish list features I mentioned years ago included, plus a couple of others. All is topped off by truly attractive esthetics and a smoothly polished aluminum faceplate clearly marked and with a remote control for couch potatoes as well as blue LED indicators. I am really looking forward to reviewing it as soon as production starts. So often claims of, "sounds as good or as musical as my tubed units" have fallen flat over the years.
As I listened even more intently trying to pick out solid-state hints, the excellent, "almost as good as it gets", sound quality in his room really hit me. Perfectly setup Alón Lotus Elite Signature loudspeakers plus a pair of Alón's Thunderbolt subwoofers, one in each corner were responsible. Here is a bold statement to music lovers; you should be perfectly happy with that sound quality as long as you listen. Here were no negatives to be heard and only a hard-core audiophile might find some aspect that could be marginally improved. Total price for that pair of Alón loudspeakers plus subwoofers is close to $13,000 and well worth it in my not so humble opinion.
Nearby was the Acoustic Partners display rooms headed up by the well-known Sedrick Harris. It is my understanding that he wears three suits. One as a factory representative, one as a distributor, and possibly one as an importer. Very musical rooms he had carefully setup featured the less expensive variations of Alon's Lotus loudspeakers and not even using the Thunderbolt subwoofer in one of his rooms. Prominently featured was a new to the U.S.A. product line from Moers, Germany, Berendsen. These seemingly over performing products included CD players, integrated, pre and power amplifiers. We have been promised some items for possible premiere reviews in the next few months. You will be hearing more and more about this new line (old company, now making some products under their own name) in the near future.
Later that evening we were treated to a live performance by the well- known singer/songwriter Al Stewart. His many fans demanded and received a long encore. We were allowed an exclusive interview with Al Stewart, which can be found in the Music Review Section of this month's Enjoy the Music.com™.
Kimber Kable seemed very proud of their new bargain priced Timbre model. Privately Dick Diamond discussed it as a super version of their old reliable PBJ cable. Basically it is the PBJ with added high purity copper strands in the positive run side of the cable, plus obviously improved esthetics to boot. Claimed to sound much like the well-known PBJ but with added fullness and richness in the bass end. The PBJ continues to be offered for those needing its unique tonal balance qualities.
The Diaural company branch of Ray Kimber's organization is now selling their now rather well-known and highly developed monitor speaker system. Small in size and powerful in performance, it is obviously designed for professional use with extremely solid build qualities. At least part of its impressive sound at the show was the use of Ray's superb recordings. They are the result of his studies into the placement and use of microphones and products to improve the fundamental quality of recordings right at the origin.
I was disappointed that Cary did not have the SACD updated version of their fine upsampling 306/200 CD player. Seems as if that model is almost a secret in the audio world and known only to a few. Todd Warnke was going to review it for us but decided to wait for the newest version with SACD addition and now that has been delayed. The Cary 306/200 is a very solid and solid sounding player and seemingly a no compromise design. It offers a choice of upsampling or not and has the option of correct HDCD filtering if desired such as for those famous Reference Recordings. It is offered in brushed aluminum or black finishes and includes a remote control. It remains to be seen if an outstandingly good CD only player will retain its quality niche with the introduction of so called universal players. All or almost all of the universal players fall down significantly in one format; unfortunately that format is usually regular CD reproduction, which is where most of us have the need for the highest quality for the majority of our recordings. Oh well, time will tell.
Sound Lab, Dr. Roger West's famous loudspeaker company and celebrating their twenty-fifth year was offering unsurpassed musical sound quality. Though not yet an enigma, Dr. West was as difficult to find as ever this year even though I attempted to make meeting arrangements well in advance. The large thin screens of his loudspeakers are visibly intimidating to some people. They can even be used in surprisingly small rooms with great success though as always they demand high quality (not necessarily high priced) amplifiers to really show their stuff and the company can guide that selection though it is probable that there is no better (some equals though) choice than Woolcott's fine monoblock amplifiers. I have never heard their equal in my home yet.
About two years ago, Hank Woolcott introduced a stereo version of his famous amplifiers but supposedly he had been kept so busy building his famous monoblock that they don't have time to bring it to market even though they do no advertising. Word of mouth among knowledgeable people can be an unbelievably strong force. Any way, used with excellent and appropriate amplification, the larger Sound Lab models put true music lovers, particularly classical music lovers, at the gates of audio heaven. Any experienced audiophile can pick a nit or two in some area, but not in the area of pure musical enjoyment. Highly detailed and room filling, the Sound Labs somehow manage to make questionable quality CDs sound just fine and excellent ones startlingly outstanding. They have been doing that for some years.
At the St. Tropez Hotel, adjacent to the CES venue at the Alexis Park Hotel, T.H.E. (The Home Entertainment) show is to be found. They also had a few large exhibits or exhibit/demonstrations requiring large rooms at the San Remo hotel. This is a separate organization very ably run by Mike Maloney who seems to have some sort of challenging problem every year - usually having to do with location. Mike believes that problem is now solved and has a continuing contract with the improving site at the St. Tropez Hotel. He has been offering free shuttle service all day long every day between their two sites and a fine free luncheon for participants every day at St. Tropez. Every day live musical entertainment was provided by a quartet, Misty River, consisting of four young ladies performing what would be called a soft folk/pop style with some of their own compositions.
Evenings at the Von Schweikert loudspeaker conference room setup they performed again and again. Some evenings they performed and recorded at the same time with a quiet audience in a slightly modified room (sound damping materials, etcetera). Then they played back the recording on Albert Von Schweikert's VF-11 SE (statement) loudspeaker ($100,000) for an "immediately after" listening comparison. This would be repeated and to top it off, a commercial studio recording of the group playing the same song, would also be used for comparison. This was seemingly enjoyed thoroughly night after night by all who attended. It was often difficult to tell which was which with eyes closed though the commercially released recording of Misty River group was not the equal of their live performance or of the on the spot recording. Everyone appreciated Von Schweikert's efforts and hope that Albert, his group and family will repeat with a similar effort next year.
As usual, Tom Maker's Edge Electronics room had excellent sound. He was also featuring a new line of amplifiers featuring most of his very expensive models' sound quality at a significantly lower price. Hopefully home listening review will prove that and that I will receive the new model G8+ for review later this year. The loudspeakers being played were very good sounding on T.H.E. show's first day though setup had not been finalized; I heard a subtle edgy quality to the sound. A couple days later, listening to a slightly shorter model, all sounded impressive, really impressive. They were reminiscent of the Pipedream models both visually and audibly. These fine products were by Epiphany Audio and the early listening session model was the 20, I believe, and the later session the model 12. Edge plus Epiphany made a particularly good listening experience being fronted by the equally fine Gamut CD player.
Once again this year the Lumen White's White Light ($40,000) system sounded outstandingly good. I guess I stick around the rooms offering fine sound longer than the others and simply take more notes. This impressively natural, rich and full sounding system simply "grew on me" the more I listened. It was being fed by a superb turntable system as always, but the Verdi CD system came close. Their new model 200H at half the above model's price is a very different design.
Audio Research continues to select excellent loudspeaker systems to showcase their famous electronics. I guess Audio Research has become one of the older electronics companies as time marches on. Here the partnered loudspeaker system was Vandersteen's top of the line updated model V. Room setup was excellent and the resulting sound quality was superbly clean and clear with great unforced detail. The bass response was about as clean and solid as bass gets and was reminiscent of Alon's Thunderbolt subwoofer. The model V has its own built in subwoofer system and needs no help anywhere in the bass range.
Barry Kohan of Bright Star Audio was showing his newly developed IsoRock 3 a very upgraded isolation platform. He claims it offers improved isolation as compared to his combination of bargain priced devices so highly rated in my recent shootout article in the last issue of Enjoy the Music.com™. I should receive a sample of the new IsoRock 3 in the near future. Talking to Frank Stuppel, well known for introducing little known products to the U.S. market at bargain prices (such as the Heart CD player and Ecosse cables) found him searching as usual for new value priced products again this year.
The fine Talon loudspeakers were setup in a very large room. My first visual impression may have negatively influenced me a bit though I bend over backwards to not let that happen. The setup with their larger models used multiple amplifiers and a center channel. The resultant sound was very impressive but ultimately overly rich and full sounding. Even female vocalists were a bit too big and full sounding while instruments were spread too wide even with a center channel. It would have been interesting if I had been able to increase the volume of the center channel as that might have at least lessened the apparent spread.
Buggtussel's Leminiscus model, a large floor standing design at $7,200 per pair was a particularly attractive design visually. As usual with Buggtussel models the tweeter is in a recessed area of the front panel. Overall it offered a very clean sound (evidently nearly always an ear catcher for me) and was a bit forward sounding mid-range with some extra fullness in the mid-bass range. A guess would be that could be cured with some extra stuffing in the transmission line loading its woofer. The front end in this room was the Consonance Reference SACD/CD model 2.0 at $2,500.
Almarro Products, new to me, Japanese product line was featuring an extremely attractive non-rectangular loudspeaker cabinet design, the model M-5a. The enclosures were about five feet tall with ten-inch woofers. Feeding the system was the well-regarded Arcam CD player, FMJ series if my memory serves me correctly. Next was the model A-318B a stereo SET design with eighteen watts per side on an attractive wood base for $1,500. Overall, with $3,900 for the loudspeaker pair, this system's performance was at a bargain price, though a touch of brightness and sibilance kept it from an even higher performance category.
Running out of time and space. I'll conclude by saying what you may have concluded from reading my comments. Once a truly good (not great) level of amplification quality is reached, the sound source whether turntable/cartridge or CD player is very important. Remember GIGO, garbage in -- garbage out. Of utmost importance is the loudspeakers or the loudspeaker-room interface or combination. A logical path for music lovers to follow would be to get good amplification and then forget about it for a long time. Then slowly and carefully shop for good loudspeakers. That is what the amplifier companies did at the show. They try to partner with good loudspeakers to show off their equipment. You can do the same.