I. The Scene
already?? It seems like only yesterday that I was navigating my way
around the pool at the Alexis Park, greeting old friends, getting the hot
scoop on the cool rooms, and sniffing out the vinyl.
What happened to the rest of 1999??
I have a theory about this. Although
the Hubble Space Telescope can see partway out to the edge of the universe,
and it can detect evidence of a black hole in the center of our galaxy,
it’s entirely missed a heretofore undetected temporal rift that engulfs
our very Earth. They’ve got
the telescope focused too far away. That’s
the only possible explanation. Time
to rev up the chariot, pick up Stan Ricker, and head off for four days of
tubes, tonearms, and trollops, er, transistors.
As some of you who also read Positive
Feedback may know, this is my eighth year of covering high-end audio at
CES, feeding the gaping maw of the press, covering what inquiring minds want
to know. During the beginning
of my servitude, most of the action was in the Bi-Level of the Sahara Hotel,
which still invokes images of rats trapped in a maze.
Seedy, but oh so scummy. The
maverick/renegade/outboarder shows back then consisted mainly of an ad
hoc group of exhibitors at the Golden Nugget, plus a rag-tag collection
of others about town, usually learned of only by word-of-mouth.
Then, in 1996, someone who has no idea what a friend he/she is to the
high-end audio community, decided to put the Bi-Level out of its misery by
tearing it down to make way for yet another Las Vegas temple of glitz. The high-end audio portion of the CES, temporarily out on the
street, landed with a resounding thud at the Alexis Park Hotel in 1997,
where it reposes to this day. The
mind-numbing buzz of the Sahara was replaced with fresh air, green grass,
(sometimes) blue skies, and a free-form pool area, providing a much more
relaxed environment. Now my
ears and brain are still functional on the last day of the show, thanks to
being refreshed between rooms by the great outdoors.
An attempt at a more organized maverick show also sprung up in 1997
at the Debbie Reynolds Hotel, followed in 1998 by a show that was split
between the Debbie Reynolds and the Howard Johnson Plaza, far across town.
After the exhibitors at the Howard Johnson’s practically lynched
the maverick organizer of this debacle when he had the temerity to show up,
come 1999 the renegade show was under new management.
Mike Maloney (from Scientific Fidelity) and Todd Brown were the
organizers with a vision, and they have done one hell of a job with "The
Home Entertainment SHOW,"
or "T. H. E. SHOW.". It
was held smack dab beside the Alexis Park at the St. Tropez Hotel.
No more shuttle buses, no more hunting for hotels out in the boonies,
and no more empty hallways more suitable for watching bowling balls roll
than for conducting useful business. Kudos,
This year, there was s substantial migration of exhibitors from the CES
to T.H.E. SHOW. A room at
T.H.E. SHOW costs about half of a room at CES.
And nice as the Alexis Park is, the hotel is very spread out,
consisting of separate two story structures, and those structures have
somewhat springy second-floor floors. The
St. Tropez is a more solid and self-contained structure, and because of the
way in which it is organized, it is much easier for attendees to see all of
the rooms by making one big semi-circle on the first floor, and another on
the second floor. This reporter
was struck by the number of empty rooms at the Alexis Park, especially
toward the rear of the hotel, where there were sometimes only a couple of
exhibitors per floor per structure. IMHO,
the migration will intensify next year.
Off the coast of California, watching whales migrating is big in
January. In Las Vegas next
January, the migration of the audio loonies could draw quite a crowd.
Missing in action this year were David Robinson, the fearless leader of the Positive Feedback tribe, and Clark Johnsen, the indefatigable maven of 78’s, absolute polarity, and audio tweaks, and brand spanking new writer for EnjoyTheMusic. (For those of you who haven’t heard, The Listening Studio, Clark’s shop in Boston, is being razed to make way for creeping gentrification, and he has been busy looking for a new location. Best of luck to you, my friend.) Also missing this year was the Stereophile party, for the first time in this scribe's memory, along with many of their usual phalanx of writers. Does this signal yet another insidious twist in the devolution of this once venerable publication? (They sure won’t be creating any more ice sculptures of J. Gordon Holt for any of their parties, now that he has freed himself from the cold embrace of Petersen Publishing and is writing for The Absolute Sound.) It’s really too bad that Stereophile has chosen to stray so far from the vision of their illustrious founder. I am fortunate enough to be able to have dinner with Gordon whenever I get to Boulder on business, and can report that he is one fascinating fellow and an outstanding individual, who is still full of ideas about the future of audio. May you live long and prosper, Gordon.
Definitely not missing in action, but rather firing jubilantly on all
cylinders, was the irrepressible Stan Ricker.
The trip to Las Vegas and back (at [deleted] mph), as well as the
time there, were infused with Stan’s humanity, humor, enthusiasm, and
friendship, not to mention his incredible ear and his tremendous storehouse
of knowledge, anecdotes, and general irascibility.
And, hey, anyone who loves Negra Modelo can’t be all bad!
Once again, the powers that be at CES chose to use the color yellow for
the press badges. Are they
trying to imply something here, or what?
II. The Hardware
As is my wont, the good, the unusual, the fun, and the noteworthy will be discussed below. The bad, the ugly, and the downright silly will stay forever after buried in my notes. The few rooms that really sounded like music, and made me want to sit down and relax, were few and far between, and really stood out this year. As usual, it was impossible to meaningfully cover the whole high-end show in four days, so I missed some of the reportedly good stuff, like Wilson Audio. But I made optimal use of my far-flung intelligence network to try not to miss too much of it. And the proximity of the St. Tropez to the Alexis Park made that easier than it’s ever been. And as usual, this report is based on what was heard under show conditions. Listening to equipment later under the controlled and familiar conditions of my own listening room, during post-show double checks of equipment, has proven that show impressions are not always reliable. So take all of this with a few truckloads of salt. So much for disclaimers, now on with the show.
As every year, my primary reference was track 9 from the Cantate
Domino CD on the Proprius label, which is about the only thing that I
can stand to listen to for four straight days.
Using the same music from show to show provides a good baseline, one
that’s now forever burned into whatever neurons are still firing in my
brain. And, as always, many
people just had to know what this disc was, and many of them went scurrying
off to May Audio Marketing to buy one.
My secondary reference was track 4 from the Harry Allen Quartet Blue
Skies CD, on John Marks Records. This
remains one of my all-time favorite jazz recordings, and if you don’t have
it, I very highly recommend it (you can find it on Amazon.com).
The Best Sound in the show this year goes to the Bel Canto/Von Schweikert/Analysis Plus room. In past years, I’ve loved Bel Canto for their outstanding line of elegant tubed electronics. This system was quite a departure for them. It featured the Bel Canto DAC1, the PrEVo solid state preamp, and the Evo 200.2 digital switching amp, still a rare bird in high-end audio. The DAC1 effectively upsamples from 16 bits/44.1 kHz to 24 bits/96 kHz. Cables were from Analysis Plus, Inc., who make a variety of unique hollow oval silver and copper speaker cables and interconnects, which bear further investigation. The speakers were the new Von Schweikert VR-7. This system was the first in the show, and one of only a handful, to send chills down my spine. The sound was gorgeous, stunning, and natural, with outstanding timbre and reproduction of female vocals. The choir was wide and deep, and bass reproduction was tight and solid. On the Harry Allen, I felt like I was hearing the real body and key structure of the sax to an extent I’ve never heard before. Piano and percussion were solid, and well defined in space. All in all, an outstanding room, aided, no doubt, by its large (18’ x 31’) dimensions, and by the set-up services of Michael Broughton of The Audiophile’s Source. Congratulations to all. and .
The Best Musical Oasis in the
show was the Herron Audio room.
Keith Herron just sat back and played music, mostly from certain
now-unobtainable (slobber, drool) LPs, and let the music speak for itself.
No interruptions, no hard sell, no technobabble, just well-selected
music played in a relaxed, low-key manner.
The system included the highly regarded Herron Audio VTPH-1MC tubed
phono preamp, the VTSP-1 tubed line-level preamp, the Herron Audio M150
mono-block amps, the Audio Physic Virgo loudspeakers, and the Audio Physic
Luna subwoofer. The system had
outstanding delicacy and transparency, with great timbre, articulation, and
integration. Good show, Keith!
The Best Quip of the show came
from Keith Herron, who noted that
“We were almost out of phase here recently, but I ordered some more.”
(You got that, Clark?) When asked why his room sounded so good, Keith
explained that “We put twice as much vacuum in our tubes as anyone else.
It’s mined deep under the Himalayas...”
(My deepest apologies to Ric Cummins, who lost this coveted award for
the first time in a number of years. Better
get cracking, Ric...)
The Best Taming of the Second
Floor at the Alexis was accomplished by Jeff Joseph of Joseph Audio.
He had set up a La Luce turntable, with a Theta Casablanca preamp, a
Theta Dreadnought power amp, and his new Pearl loudspeakers.
Power conditioning was done by Les
Edelberg of Audio Power
Industries (he of my coveted “Best Tie” award, which is now
permanently retired, alas). This
system had astounding clarity and transient response, great peak handling
and outstanding bass articulation, smooth female vocals, and great
near-field imaging. This was one of the
top-three rooms at the show. Great
The Best Vision of the Future
came during the Sony SACD (Super
Audio Compact Disc) demo. Joe
Knight (of Linear Acoustics and Brooks Berdan, Ltd.) arranged a private demo
for myself, Stan Ricker, Toy Shigakawa (of Torumat), and himself.
Gus Skinas of Sony, in a very matter-of-fact, gentlemanly manner,
ran us through the paces with a system consisting of five identical Sony
5-way loudspeakers powered by Pass Labs X600 amplifiers. We heard both stereo and five-channel recordings.
To put it in a nutshell, this system was so good, it drove Stan
Ricker to tears. It was
delicate and ethereal when called for, with amazing inner detail,
articulation and timbre, with very low distortion and great imaging and
soundstaging. Full orchestral
reproduction was amazing, with a combination of power and delicacy, and
“string sections that sounded like strings,” said Stan. Joe noted that he still had a sense of the recording venue at
very low levels. Is SACD better
than vinyl? Is SACD better than
analog master tape? Does SACD
sound virtually as good as a live mike feed?
All of these things have been said, by people whose ears I trust.
I obviously can’t say without doing the necessary comparisons under
more controlled conditions. But
I can say that this demo socked my knocks off (to quote the Capitol Steps),
and I left with the very definite impression that a door to the future had
just been opened. Time will
tell if this format beats out 24/96 DVD-Audio, and if the above queries are
true. Many thanks to Joe
Knight for arranging this demo!
The Most Musical Second System
is a new award given to the real-world system I’d most like to own as a
second system. Such a system
would ideally be comprised of a minimum amount of hardware that delivers a
maximum sound quality. The
folks at VTL Amplifiers were
showing such a system, centered around the new IT-85 integrated amplifier.
This rather retro-looking tubed unit features a remote control and an
amp-driven headphone jack. Its
rated output (tetrode) is 75 W into 8 ohms.
It was being fed by a Wadia CD deck, and it was feeding a pair of Joseph
Audio OM22 loudspeakers. VTL
was also showing a power optimizing device, basically a power unit that
turns on the power to your system in two stages, has a MOSFET active delay,
and is reportedly out of the circuit when fully turned on. This unit is definitely worth a review.
The Best Sound from a Fleaweight
Amp was to be found the Manley
Laboratories room. EveAnna Manley put together a knockout system, centered around the
Manley 300B Retro amps, and a pair of Coincident
Technology Eclipse loudspeakers from Israel
Blume. Coincident is a
Canadian company that is new to me, although they have been in business
since 1988. This system
simultaneously produced slam and delicacy, with nearly perfect tonal
balance, outstanding transient response, and excellent harmonic structure.
This was one of the systems that I most wanted to take home and play
with. The beautiful Stingray
integrated amp was in the room, but not playing when I was there.
(It’s certainly a major contender for an incredibly musical second
system.) But where, oh where,
EveAnna, was the lava lamp?? Are
you so busy with the day-to-day operations of the company that you’re
starting to forget what’s really important?
Snap out of it!!
The Most Technologically
Innovative Tubed Amp was to be found at Tenor
Audio. The Tenor 75 is an OTL triode monoblock integrated amplifier.
It produces 75 W from four 6C33C vacuum tubes.
It has a multi-function remote, which includes switching of absolute
polarity by the two monoblocks simultaneously (Clark, are you listening?).
The top plate of the polished aluminum chassis is quite complex, with
sections of the chassis engulfing the tubes up most of the height of their
envelopes. This provides
convective cooling for the tubes. The
chassis geometry was 3D-computer-modeled, then a computer-controlled machine
that shoots a laser beam into a vat of liquid resin was employed for a day
and a half to make a prototype chassis mold (the resin hardens wherever the
laser beam is focused). The
amps use a switching power supply, and have 6 dB of headroom, which is
unusual for an OTL. They are
also remarkably light weight. A
200 Wpc version, employing eight 6C33Cs, is on its way.
The Tenor 75 itself is also available as a monoblock amplifier.
I was only able to hear the 15 Wpc prototype, powering the Reference
3A Swiss-made loudspeaker. Very,
very, very nice. This is yet
another Canadian company which I expect to make a big splash in high-end
audio. Many thanks to Francois Lemay and Robert
Lamarre of Tenor Audio, and best of luck to you both.
The Biggest Tube Amp Bolt Out of the Blue was unleashed by Alum Rock Technology of San Jose, California. This company is in the computer disk and instrumentation industries. The amplifier that they showed is a one-of-a-kind prototype, not designed for sale as yet. The 304TL single-ended amplifier uses two 304TL tubes in Class A operation with no feedback. You could feel the heat from these monsters from ten feet away. Two 866A rectifier tubes are used in the power supply, and their blue coronal discharge was quite a crowd-pleaser. Alum Rock designs their own transformers, including the interstage transformers, to military and aerospace industry standards. The transformers are wound and impregnated for Alum Rock by the Robert M. Hadley Company. They are filled with thermally conductive epoxy, and go through three separate vacuum potting steps, according to Alum Rock’s literature. Oil-filled caps are used throughout. This company likes to be self-sufficient. The 3/8-inch thick Pyrex cover is custom made by Alum Rock; they built the jig and the furnace in which to melt and bend it. They even make their own tube sockets. The amp was being shown in a static, but powered-on, display. Its output is 30W into 8 ohms. This behemoth is way too heavy to ship, but for review purposes Robert Potter, the owner of the company, is willing to drive it within a reasonable distance from San Jose. If the reviewing room is on the second floor, you’d better have an elevator (I'm not kidding). This was an eye-popping new product, if I ever saw one. Check out www.alumrocktech.com.
And speaking of stuff that’s hard to move around, the award for Best
Grit and Determination (Redux) goes hands-down to Barry
Kohan of Bright Star Audio.
Besides being one of the nicest guys in high-end audio, Barry makes a
wide range of very highly regarded isolation products and equipment racks,
based in part on the superb damping properties of sand, although he now uses
many other materials. His newest product is the Gemini Isolation Twin (which
combines an Air Mass pneumatic mount with a Big Rock platform), and the Air
Mass DVD, designed for application to DVD players.
I want a custom Big Rock installed under my house, before the next
big earthquake. A Big Rock TNT
has resided under my VPI TNT turntable for many years now.
The Most Highly Evolved
Loudspeaker System was being shown by Bobby Palkovic of Merlin
Music Systems. Bobby was
using a VPI TNT turntable with a JMW Memorial 10" tonearm and a Cardas
Heart cartridge, a Joule Electra
LA/P-200 preamp, and the Joule Electra Marquis tubed amps, to power his
Merlin VSM/SE loudspeakers, with the BAM (Bass Augmentation Module).
The latest improvement made during the (so far) seven years of
development of this speaker is the battery power for the BAM.
It takes four 9.4V metal-nickel-hydride batteries, on which it can
run for 12 hours. It can also
be used in a mixed 50/50 battery/AC mode, in which the batteries last 18
hours. The sound, as always,
blew me away with its combination of aliveness, dynamics, pace, rhythm, and
incredible cleanliness, coupled with delicacy, inner detail, transparency,
and timbre. All this, and a
deep and wide soundstage to boot. This
was one of the top three rooms in the
show. Bobby continues to
make a good thing even better. Kudos
to you my friend, and I can't wait to see the subwoofers next year.
The Most Interesting Evolving
Company is the Hovland Company,
ably honchoed by Robert Hovland.
They have been in business for over twenty years, and make highly
regarded capacitors and cables, including an outstanding tonearm cable which
is firmly ensconced in my system, and an outstanding power cord which I use
with my DAC. Last year, they
introduced the beautiful HP-100 tubed preamp, designed by Jeff
Tonkin, who recently decided to make the Hovland Company his day job.
Now Bob and Jeff, with Mike Garges, and Alex Crespi,
are moving into new quarters on the west side of LA. Their most recent product is the MC-100 moving coil step-up
transformer, with integral tonearm cable.
I have been enamored of the Aurora tubed amp for years, and they have
now decided to bring this out as a consumer product. This is a 100 Wpc amp of beautiful design and sound.
Gentlemen, I wish you all well in your new endeavors.
The Best Bass in the show was
in the Northstar Leading the Way
room of Frank Garbie and friends.
An MBL CD source was feeding a Jadis
JP 800 preamp and Jadis amps, which were driving the Cabasse Adriatis 600 loudspeakers.
These are all lines that are imported by Frank.
This system was exceedingly well integrated, the loudspeakers were
beautifully designed, and the bass, in a modest-sized room, was absolutely
outstanding. It was tuneful,
tight, and well articulated. This
was one of the standout systems, and was one of Stan’s favorites.
The Best Sounding
Concentric-Driver Speakers were being exhibited in the J. C. Verdier/PHY-HP/Ocellia room, by Dennis Pawlik. They
showed a very unusual turntable employing magnetic levitation of a 65 pound
platter, with a plinth isolated via air suspension, and with an illuminated
metal puck. The Control “B”
preamp has internal capability for moving magnet or moving coil cartridges.
The 845-based single-ended monoblock amps (one of my favorite tube
types) are rated at 22 Wpc. The Ocellia loudspeakers used beautiful concentric drivers
made by PHY-HP in France, who also make the natural-cotton-dielectric cables
used throughout the system. This
was one of the best sounds in the
show. I was even caught
off-guard, and fooled into thinking that CD reproduction was LP reproduction
(those sneaky exhibitors had left the cartridge playing a record, the
cads...). It used to be that I could tell without looking, but digital
is getting better... and
The Best Horn-Loaded Loudspeaker
was being exhibited by Bruce Edgar
Bruce was showing his flagship Titan model, now painted black and
looking great, with a new implementation of the midrange horn, and
significantly improved imaging. A
Bow ZZ-8 CD player was feeding the Euphonos preamp from Cy
Brenneman of Cyrus Brenneman Audio. This
is a mu-stage preamp using WE 417A tubes in the phono stage, with
transformers by Jack Elliano of ElectraPrint
Audio. Cy’s Silver
Reference 20 twenty-watt monoblocks, silver from input to output, were
driving the Titans. Bruce was
also showing his Slimline horn loudspeaker, driven by Cy’s Cavalier amp.
The Brenneman amps are extremely high quality, serious amps, with a
very high build quality. They
deserve serious consideration by anyone who is looking for a good tubed
preamp or amp. Both companies
remain under the umbrella of the Euphonos
Audio Group of Dr. Wei-Tzuoh
(“Charlie”) Chen. Charlie
manufactures a line of Raptor interconnect and speaker cables, and was
exhibiting with his prototype 14-gauge silver speaker cable, using 99.99999%
pure silver, and a lot of it. BTW,
Bruce has abandoned his enormous horn-loaded subwoofer, and was using Hsu
The Things Are Not Always as They
Appear award goes hand-down to Audio Fusion of New Zealand. I
glanced into this room and espied what can only be described as the “59
Cadillac Tailfin” of loudspeakers. The
vertical “tailfin” section is composed partly of carbon fiber, while the
three “taillight” sections that house the drivers are chromed.
Yikes! Pretty weird.
Better keep moving and see more show...
But from out in the hall, these unlikely looking beasts sounded
surprisingly good. So against
my better judgment, I slinked into the room, trying to hide my press badge,
and sat down for a listen. I
was startled when I realized that they actually sounded very good.
They combined outstanding articulation, transparency, and imaging
with outstanding dynamics, and a quality of aliveness that was captivating.
The company manufactures its own woofers and midranges, and will soon
do the same for the tweeters. Despite
their unlikely looks, these babies really delivered.
Another Stan fave.
The Most Understated Physical
Chemist at the show was Toy
Shigakawa of Torumat.
I have used Toy’s CDX-15 fluid religiously for many years to treat
my CDs, until last year when I replaced it with Toy’s improved CDX-16.
Readers of Positive Feedback will
also know that I can tell the
difference between CD fluids, as demonstrated in the single-blind
(effectively double-blind) test that longtime audio colleague and good
friend Raymond Chowkwanyun administered to me some time ago.
For me, the Torumat fluid has stood the test of time against the
competition. I also use and
recommend Toy’s TC-2 contact enhancer, following cleaning of my system’s
contacts. This year, Toy has an improved version of the CDX-16, and the
results are given in the post-show report below. Fax 916-652-7276.
The Most Laid Back Practitioner of
the Audio Arts is inarguably George Cardas of Cardas Audio.
George's new products this year include the Myrtle cartridge, a
cartridge built on a unique Benz chassis, using a body made of hardwood from
the rare Myrtle tree. George
also has a new power cable, the Golden Reference power cord, presumably
based on the principles behind his Golden Reference speaker cables.
BTW, the interconnect and power cables throughout my system are
Cardas Cross, Golden Cross, and Microtwin, and these products have stood up
very well against some tough contenders that I have auditioned.
The Best Action-at-a-Distance
was described by Jon Lane of Perpetual Technologies. This
new company introduced a DSP-based loudspeaker correction system.
As a first step, loudspeaker performance data are collected (by any
one of a number of common systems) for the type of loudspeaker that you own.
Based on this, files can be generated to correct problems such as
amplitude response, step response, phase error, and problems that show up in
the FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) spectral decay plots.
Perpetual Technologies can downlink these corrections to your PC at
home, which can be connected to their P-1A DAC in your system, which can
accept those files and put them to immediate use in correcting your speaker
problems (assuming, of course, that you’re not playing analog!).
The Best Concentration of Matter
Without Subsequent Creation of a Rogue Black Hole was found in the Rosinante
room of Ric Cummins. Ric’s application of his proprietary DarkMatter continues
to expand outward. The
Rosinante speaker cabinets are cast from DarkMatter, the Argent
RoomLens from Todd Laudeman
of Argent Cable, Inc., is cast
from DarkMatter, and Ric's DarkMatter equipment shelves are finding homes
under the equipment of many audiophiles, including my CD transport.
In its latest application, Ric is using DarkMatter in the Art
Audio Milagro tubed amp, where each transformer and each board is
separately isolated with the stuff. No
wonder astronomers can’t find dark matter in the universe.
Stop hoarding it, Ric! You’re
screwing things up!! BTW, I got
an excellent demonstration of the effectiveness of the RoomLens. On the first day I was in the room, things weren’t sounding
right. Ric and Todd noticed
this too, and were inspired to move the RoomLenses.
On my revisit, things were sounding excellent, with a nice sense of a
real choir in a real space, with outstanding articulation, delicacy, and
bass. Based on what I heard, I
would recommend to any reader that you give the RoomLens a try.
Ric quipped “What’s the difference between a drummer and a pizza?
A pizza can feed a family of four.”
Good, but not good enough for Best Quip this year, Ric.
Get on it. Rosinante fax
The Best Planar Magnetic Speaker
in the show was from Meadow Song Labs
in Canada. It uses two planar
magnetic tweeters, one front-firing and one upward-firing.
Coupled with the new Magnum Dynalab receiver, these sounded very neutral, transparent,
and well-integrated, and they had outstanding dispersion characteristics.
The Most Beautiful Loudspeakers
at the show were from SkaaningSound
(pronounced “s-coning”). The
SkaaningOne loudspeaker is built in Denmark, although the company is based
in the U.S. The speakers and
their stands are mostly made of a beautiful wood, and are absolutely
gorgeous (now I really wish that I carried a digital camera around the
show). The system, with a
Gryphon Tabu CDP1 CD deck, and a Gryphon Tabu Century integrated amp,
sounded smooth, neutral, musical, and thoroughly enjoyable.
Expect to hear much more from this company. Although a new name, their roots grow very deep in the audio
past. Fax 310-230-9963.
The Most Fun Room at the show
had to be that of Orca Design &
Manufacturing, who import and manufacture speaker drivers.
I never was able to sort out all the players in this room, but they
had constructed a loudspeaker to showcase the merits of the much-vaunted Raven
tweeter. The tweeter was
matched to a 21” woofer in this design.
I’ll withhold judgment on the sound until able to hear this unit
under more, ahem, controlled conditions, but thanks much for the great time,
one and all. As for the offer
of the beer, one beer can depress your high-frequency hearing to the tune of
3 dB at 10 kHz, according to Stan. The
things we do for high-end audio.
The Strangest Company Name
hands down (of any CES) was Buggtussel (Stan was wandering around the hotel room that night,
reveling in the sound of “Buggtussel”).
Kevin Blair is the
proprietor, and I wish I had had a portable voice recorder to get down his
entire line of patter (“I’m a downsized UpJohn pharmacologist ...”).
He manufactures high-efficiency loudspeakers with unlikely names like
“Amygdala.” The guy looks
perfectly normal, and hails from Michigan.
(I guess you just never know...)
The good, albeit crazed, Dr. Blair was partnered, sound previously
unheard, with the deHavilland Electric Amplifier Company of Santa Rosa, California,
represented by George Kielczynski
and Kara Chaffee.
These folks make a beautiful single-ended 40 W monoblock amp called
the Aries, which uses a Svetlana
SV572 output tube and a KT88 for a driver.
The pairing of deHavilland and Buggtussel, while perhaps an unusual
mix of personalities, certainly resulted in a beautiful sounding system.
Hope to see you all next year!
Convergent Audio Technology was using a CEC CD transport, an Audio
Note DAC3, the CAT SL1 tubed preamp, the CAT JL-1 Signature tubed amps,
Hales T8 loudspeakers, and the Argent RoomLenses to achieve one
of the best sounds in the show. The
JL-1 is triode push-pull, using the Svetlana 6550C tube.
Wolcott Audio was demonstrating The Presence P220M monoblock tubed
amplifier. It uses eight EL-34
tubes, in a computer-controlled circuit that supposedly obviates the need
for tube matching. The circuit
changes the tube bias as the amp warms up, by monitoring changes in the
current. The amp is rated at
170 W into 8 ohms, but reportedly clips at a much higher output.
This amp provided the best performance from Sound Lab A1s that I have ever heard.
This system had stunningly natural timbre, with good peak handling,
and clear, deep bass. This was
definitely chills-down-the-spine time.
Henry Wolcott told me that he used to make amplifiers in the 1960’s
for use by the National Bureau of Standards, as well as by calibration labs
in many other countries, and that the Presence is based on those designs.
Besides beating Sound Lab speakers into submission, the amps are
quite beautiful, to boot. Definitely
something that I'd like to get into my listening room.
The Best In-Wall Speakers
(definitely a new award category for these reports) were being shown by Vince
Bruzzese of Totem Acoustic.
I consider Totem's line of loudspeakers to be consistently among the
very best anywhere. I use a
pair of Totem Model 1 Signatures in my second system.
The line of in-wall speakers is quite a departure for Vince, but he
seems to have done a very nice job with a concept that is anathema to most
true-blue audiophiles. Vince has also expanded into electronics, with his
"Amber" 120 Wpc solid state dual-mono integrated amp, which was
sounding very nice driving a pair of the Shaman loudspeakers.
Best of luck to you with the expanded directions of your company,
Roger B. Hassing of RBH Sound, Inc. was demonstrating his line of Status Acoustics loudspeakers, with the able assistance of technical
director Shane Rich.
They were powered with the Komuro
Audio Lab 845-based prototype push-pull 100 Wpc power amps.
This is very similar to the system that I gave best sound in show to
a couple of years ago. This
system was alive, dynamic, and effortless, but it suffered from some
problems in the small CES room with which it had to contend this year.
I've been mightily impressed with these companies in the past, and
would like to get a pair of these speakers into my listening room for a real
Victor Tiscareno of Audio Prism announced that his line of electronics is now a part of Red
Rose Music, a new venture by Mark Levinson.
The accessories will remain under the Audio Prism label.
Victor demonstrated a beautiful small system, playing SACDs from the
Sony SCD-777ES SACD player. See
the post-show report below for a review of the Audio Prism Cable Enhancers.
David Berning of The David Berning Company, he of output-transformerless (OTL)
single-ended amplifier fame (a very good trick!), was showing something new.
This was the one-watt OTL "micro-ZOTL" personal amp.
It uses a 6SN7 as a push-pull Class A output stage, runs off of a 12V
battery (or AC), and has a headphone jack.
It is meant for a small and/or high-efficiency system, or for
powering headphones. David was
exhibiting with Bob Gross of Speaker Art, and their products were producing very nice sound from
David's micro-ZOTL, as well as his Siegfried, sporting a whopping 6 W of
SE-OTL (his patented "ZOTL") RF-based impedance-matching
Hart Huschens of Audio Advancements was doing a brisk business in his booth at T.H.E.
SHOW, selling his outstanding lines of imported LPs and CDs.
I have always found Hart's products to be outstanding, both in terms
of music and sound quality. Hart
continues to sell the EarMax, the triode headphone amplifier whose praises I
sang in the pages of Positive Feedback
several years ago. The other
lines of equipment and accessories that Hart imports are well worth checking
Dick Keats of Artemis was showing the new Artemis DMM-1 (Digital Mastering
Monitor) loudspeaker, employing a digital crossover and Cerratech ceramic
drivers. What little I was able
to glean of the technology, before the relentless march of time caught up to
me, made this approach sound new and different, and well worth a follow-up.
Dick was also showing the Margules
(of Mexico) SF220 tubed preamp, and the U280 sc tubed amp.
The latter can be run in triode or Ultralinear mode, and the active
bias circuit reportedly allows use of 6550s, KT88s, KT99s, or KT100s.
Alan Kafton, the U.S. importer of Diapason,
a loudspeaker that has impressed me mightily in the past, demonstrated the
Diapason Adamantes III loudspeaker, powered by an EAR 834 amplifier.
This proved to be a great small speaker, with excellent transparency,
tonal balance and timbre, an excellent choice for a system in a small room.
We listened both to CDs, and to a Water Lily SACD on the Sony 777ES
Balanced Audio Technology was demonstrating a system powering a pair
of Meadowlark loudspeakers.
The BAT VK-60 tubed amp was used on the upper end, while the BAT
VK-500 solid state amp was powering the woofer modules.
This system sounded very clean, with outstanding vocal purity, good
imaging and inner detail, and excellent bass definition.
Meanwhile, in the Meadowlark
room, the new Meadowlark Kite was being demonstrated with the BAT VK-D5 CD
deck, the BAT VK-5i preamp, and the Aria Interval amp.
The speakers include an 8" driver with 1.25" excursion, and
a 1000 W onboard amp that is equalized to be flat at 20 Hz.
The efficiency on the top end (midrange and tweeter) is 98 dB.
This system had good vocal timbre and articulation, with excellent
dynamic range and great bass. Definitely
worth further exploration.
Cary Audio Design was displaying their new CAD-1610-SE amplifier.
These are 100 W (peak) single-ended Class A monoblocks, using the new
KR Enterprise T-1610 tube, which is one honking big tube.
This an another double-decker Cary amp, with the top of the T-1610
poking up through a hole in the upper deck.
These amps powered a pair of JM Lab Utopia speakers, and the
reproduction was smooth and spacious, with excellent timbre.
Riccardo Kron of KR Enterprise was showing his new Kronzilla amp.
An attendee got him railing against the 300B, to the effect that
"the 300B is a dinosaur, made in the 1930's."
I would love to tour Riccardo's Prague factory one of these days, to
see in detail what his approach is to making tubes.
Powering Silverline speakers, this system demonstrated outstanding
female vocals, with good articulation and depth of image.
Gilbert Yeung of Blue Circle was showing a new line of more affordable products, that
help to support his more all-out assaults on the state of the high end art.
His system consisted of the PC-23 solid state phono stage, the PC-21
preamp, and the PC-22 solid state power amp (125 Wpc).
Gilbert also makes a line of power conditioning units and power
cords. In past years, I have
been very favorably impressed by Gilbert's hybrid tubed/solid state big
amps, which were used in the past in some of the very best sounding rooms in
The mad monks from Shun Mook
were happily showing an all-analog system, the only one in the show, so they
claimed. They were using an
Oracle Mk IV turntable, an Audio Research phono stage and preamp, and LAMM
ML2 18 W Class A SE power amps (with 6C33C output tubes) and the Shun Mook
Bella Voce speakers. The usual
assortment of Cable Jackets and cables dangling in mid-air, not to mention
various configurations of the Shun Mook discs, adorned the room, plus a
violin mysteriously reposing on a stand behind everything else.
They were playing RCA Shaded Dogs (!), and the sound was musical,
natural and unstrained. Fax
Ricky Lau of Canary Audio showed a static display of his new line of tubed
preamps, power amps, and integrated amps.
The Canary electronics appear to have very high build quality and
well-executed internal layout. The
company winds its own transformers, and uses teflon-coated silver wire in
some applications. One example
that Ricky showed me was the CA-303 push-pull monoblock amplifier, based on
the 300B. The chassis design
and build quality were also impressive.
They also showed the CA-301 push-pull stereo amp, with similar
internal and external build quality.
The folks at Electro-acoustic
Design Groupe (EDGE) showed me a preamp using a patent-pending laser
biasing technology, in which a 630 nm laser shines on the substrate of the
bias transistors. They were out
of literature at the show, and their promised literature had not shown up by
the time of the press deadline for this report.
Further explanation of the significance of this will have to wait...
Manho Kim of Mons Audio (of Seoul,
Korea and Torrance, California) was demonstrating an amp advertised as the
"21 W 2A3 Mons single-ended amplifier," available as a DIY kit.
This was a bit confusing to your humble scribe, as the amp uses two
2A3 tubes ("as a loading output transformer", according to the
literature). Manho Kim himself told me that this is "a push-pull
amplifier with the sound of an SE amp,"
and stated that it can drive speakers with 85 dB efficiency.
You can check out the following and sort this all out for yourself.
mbl was demonstrating their line of exotic, expensive, massive
components, including their coffin-like 9010C power amp, and the latest
incarnation of the "watermelons from Mars" omnidirectional 101D
Radialstrahler loudspeakers. The sound was super-refined and clean, with outstanding
dynamic range and a big image. But
a lack of image specificity with these omnidirectional loudspeakers bothered
me, with Harry Allen's sax sounding too big and indistinct.
III. The Post-Show Report
Toy Shigakawa of Torumat has released a new version of his CDX-16 CD fluid, dubbed
CDX-16-3. Last year, I was very
favorably impressed by the ways in which CDX-16 is superior to CDX-15.
The CDX-16-3 is a similar step up, and in similar ways.
The most significant improvement lies in its distinctly better image
focus across the frequency range, coupled with a deeper soundstage.
The latest fluid also has a distinctly more neutral, less
“digital” sound, and probably better transparency.
I continue to use Torumat as my CD treatment of choice.
The scientist in me really wants to understand why
this stuff does what it does.
Byron Collett of Audio Prism gave me a pair of his Audio Prism Cable Enhancers to try
out. A family emergency near
press time has forced me to save this for part 2 of this article.
Finally, Todd Laudeman of Argent
Cable, Inc. gave me a sample of Carbon-Diatonic “Setton” Pro fluid.
This is a contact enhancer from Nekken in Japan.
According to the label, it “is made up of numerous particles, each
with a diameter of 150 Angstroms...composed of three layers of pure carbon,
carbon graphite and diamond. [It]
enhances electrical conductivity, activates and revives various deteriorated
electrical contacts.” Looks
like it contains every form of carbon except Buckyballs.
As you might expect, it looks blackish.
I was not able to give this a try before press time, but hope to
report on it soon.
V. The Reference System
For all you readers who are new to my articles, so you know where I’m
coming from, the following is a description of the system on which the
tweaks (so far) were tested, and on which the music will be reviewed.
LPs are played on a VPI TNT with a 10” JMW Memorial arm, a Benz
Micro MC3-I cartridge, and a highly recommended Black Diamond Racing (BDR)
record clamp. The turntable
rests on a BDR "The Shelf for the Source" and BDR cones, resting
on a Bright Star Big Foot TNT filled with 100 lbs of sand, resting on a VPI
TNT stand filled with 200 lbs of lead shot, spiked to my floor (which is
really crying uncle). A highly
recommended Hovland tonearm cable takes the signal to a Klyne SK-2A headamp,
then Cardas Cross takes it to a Music Reference RM-5 tubed preamp (using Top
Hat tube dampers), then more Cardas Cross takes it to a (yes, I know) Sumo
Half-Power power amp (mil-spec components, high current, "the Krell of
its day", and target of my next upgrade).
Biwired Cardas Golden Cross speaker cables connect this to Eminent
Technology Model 8 loudspeakers, which themselves are Cardas-wired and
mounted on Sound Anchor stands whose spikes are nestled in BDR cones.
Cardas Microtwin connects the second preamp output to a Sunfire
subwoofer. The equipment before
the power amp is isolated in a walk-in closet, while the amp and speakers
are in a dedicated listening room treated with RPG Diffusers, Room Tunes,
ASC Tube Traps, and a big Navajo rug. Everything
except the power amp is plugged into two Power Wedges, which are themselves
plugged into dedicated outlets, as is the amp.
Plug polarity is done correctly with an Elfix polarity tester.
A Philips CD680 CD player is used as a transport, connected to a
Theta Cobalt DAC via Cardas Microtwin, while Cardas Cross is used from there
to the RM-5. The DAC uses a
Hovland power cord (quite effective). The
electronics in the closet (except the headamp) are on a Target B5 stand. The headamp, preamp, amp, and DAC are isolated with various
combinations of BDR Pyramid Cones and shelves, while a Rosinante DarkMatter
shelf is used to isolate the CD transport.
Open reel tapes can be played via a Technics RS 1500 semi-pro 2-track
15 ips tape deck, the one with the big U-shaped transport (a really good
machine which is used as a transport by Chesky in their analog mastering).
Headphone listening can be done with an Ear Max tubed triode
headphone amp and a pair of Sennheiser HD-580s.
And there's some decent FM, mainly used for listening to Car
Talk and What Do You Know (or
is that Whaddaya Know?) on NPR.
Be seeing you.