CES / THE Show Coverage
People, Equipment, And The Music
By Gigi Krop
"Good morning ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking. We will be landing in Las Vegas in approximately 30 minutes; the weather is 30 degrees and snowing."
Last year the people at Texas Instrument invited me to their Dallas facility to audition an amplifier designed with an innovative new chip. Did I go? "Yes."
Did I have time to write about it? "No."
I also had the pleasure of interviewing one of the legends of hi-end audio, the charming, talented and kind-hearted Lew Johnson of Conrad Johnson fame.
Did I enjoy speaking with Lew? "Of course."
Did I write about the interview? "No."
Will I still write these articles? "Maybe".
So this year when it came time to reserve a room and flight to Vegas, I thought "Forget it, I can't leave town with real estate deals pending and my house in the middle of major construction." Then the holiday season frenzy engulfed me and the Miami traffic frazzled me and I said, "That's it! Screw everything. I'm going to Vegas."
It's cold. It's sleeting. The cab lines are never ending. But it's Friday afternoon, I'm here surrounded by beautiful music and gorgeous sound
equipment. This year I have a plan. I'll spend the afternoon at the Alexis Park listening to equipment and return to my room to write about it in the evening. On Saturday it's back to the Alexis Park for more listening, back to the room for writing. Sunday is the quietest and best day to visit the convention center and Monday I'll spend at THE Show.
Friday, January 7, 2005 - Alexis Park Hotel
The first room I visit is the Parasound room. The same equipment is on display as last year: A pair of Parasound JC-1 Amplifiers with a G & D UTP1 Transport, a C2C Blowtorch preamp and an Inteq Number Cruncher DAC. Bob Crump advised me, he has modified the Inteq so many times that he now calls this particular unit the Crump Cruncher (or something to that effect).
However the Sound Lab M1's has replaced the Rockport speakers. These are full range electrostatic speakers that retail for approximately $18,000 a pair. We listen to Midwinter by Misty River. The amps are smooth and effortless. The speakers are transparent, airy, detailed and natural, whereas the Rockports are warm and fuller bodied.
The beautiful sleek amplifiers in the next room catch my eye. The design is unfamiliar to me but the brushed aluminum finish would look great in my new house. The Burled Wood speakers have a lovely warm full sound with a deep wonderful soundstage and we are listening to "Over the Rainbow" by the sexy songstress, Jane Monheit. The electronics are the Audio Analogue Maestro 24-bit/192kHz CD player (Retail
$2999), the Maestro Reference 2-Line Preamp ($8900) and the Maestro Monoblock Amplifiers ($8,900). The press package says that the Primo series is designed to provide the right proportion between the front faceplate's size and the chassis' depth with allows for different placement without affecting the quality of the sound. The aluminum finish, simplicity of the controls and the cabinet's rounded corners are designed for functionality and safety. The electronics and speakers are made in Italy. The Triangle Magellan Concerto speakers incorporate phase regulation, impedance linearization, steep slope crossover and magnetic field optimization along with beautiful cabinet designs. The result is a speaker that looks as good as it sounds.
I walk out of the cold and rain and into the Angstrom Speaker (from Canada) and Thule Audio (from Denmark) room. There are speakers and electronics everywhere. This room displays box speakers, in-walls and on-walls for custom and surround with the prices ranging from $160/pr to $8,000/pr. I jump on the opportunity to speak with Chris Catton the designer of the speakers. I ask him how he designs for the different price points. Chris says that the higher price 2-channel speakers are designed for accuracy so that the cabinet does not interfere with the sound of the speaker and the crossover. It's the quality of the components that go into the speaker that make the difference. For example silver vs. copper wire. If the tweeter is bright then you don't need the silver wire. Catton says that the design problem is with the middle lineup where the issues are quality
vs. affordability, the goal being achievement of 90% of the high-end quality. With the low-end surround systems, it's a matter of aesthetics. People just want something to look good next to their plasma TV's.
We talked about digital vs. analogue. Although the digital sound is not as good as analog, it is getting better and you do have more control with digital, i.e. can clean up scratches on old recordings, etc. He recently purchased a Shangling CD player, which also comes in an SACD/CD model. This player has analogue or transistor output. Catton says that the sound is excellent. Chris Catton compared the live jazz experience to the speaker design. If you go to a jazz concert at a small venue you sit close for more detail. If you like a big soundstage, you sit in the back of the room. Similarly, some speakers are designed for detail and some are designed for soundstage. What do you prefer?
The last room I visit is the Merlin Music Systems Inc, CAT Convergent Audio Technologies, Cardas room. Bobby Palkovic, the designer and owner of Merlin Music, tells me that we are listening to the VSM speakers. Leland Smith adds that we are listening to the CAT JL2 Tube Amplifier and the CAR SL1 Ultimate Mark II preamp and the song playing is
Breaking Silence by Janis Ian. The handsome young gentleman sitting next to me exclaims, "I worked on that CD!" Nick Gentry is a recording engineer associated with Peter Asher Management. Peter Asher was the producer for James Taylor and Carly Simon. Bobby Palkovic then puts on another CD,
The Nada a Sony recording by Kevin Johanson. This system has such incredible bass and such an unusual design that you can actually feel the air of the subwoofer blowing on your hair. Nick tells me that the speakers are designed with cryogenically treated parts that are frozen at absolute zero to realign the molecular structure of the conductors, capacitors and resistors. Yes, ladies and gentlemen these speakers are actually designed for sound that will blow you away. After about a half hour of listening to the unusual music of Kevin Johanson, I have a question for Nick. "What do you think of the new computer systems being used by musicians to create CD recordings?
He responds, "Unless you invest in expensive ($10,000) aftermarket improvements in the software and the hardware, they sound like shit. The three major computer software recording companies are: Digidesign, Steinberg and Logic Audio with 24 computer tracks. Will Smith has a 24-bit/96kHz system that cost $50,000 in his home studio and it sounds good. By the way, his L.A. house and studio are for sale. But I prefer a recording studio like Ocean Way, Sunset Sound (home of the original board used to record The Doors) or Cherokee Studios."
So it's back out into the cold, the rain and back on the long cab line. Why is this Miami girl doing in the freezing weather? Oh, I almost
forgot... I'm here for the beautiful equipment and for the music.
Forget the cab, I'll take the hotrod Ford GT40 with the fancy McIntosh sound system instead.
Saturday, January 8, 2005
I stopped by Conrad Johnson to say hello to my friend Lew Johnson. "Lew, one of my former customers has an ART preamp. My customer asked me "I have this amp about 5 years now, when do I need to change the tubes?" Lew replied that after about
1500 to 2000 hours of listening the sound of the tubes starts to soften and become less dynamic and defined. But there are people with 20 year old CJ preamps that still have the original tubes."
Before I can say another word, in strolls Ed Woodard of Threshold Audio and he's all excited about his new IPOD. "Lew, you have to check this thing out, it's an important trend and women love them." Ed sticks the IPOD is Lew's face and says, "Here listen".
Lew says, "No, that's OK".
Ed says, "Lew this is an important technical break-through, listen."
Lew says, "No, thanks,"
I interject, "Ed, you have to understand Lew is a tube guy."
Ed replies, I'm a tube guy too. From the recording industry point of view this thing is amazing. "Lew, listen just a minute."
Finally Lew says, "OK" and sticks the headphone in his ear. After one minute, he says, "OK, it sounds like headphones" and hands the IPOD back to Ed. Finally happy, Ed Woodard leaves the CJ room, "I gotta get back to work."
Lew Johnson and I chat a few minutes about the IPOD and then I say,
"Gotta get back to work, too."
I follow the sound of a sweet violin into the Jeff Rowland room where a Jeff Rowland Model 501 Amp is on display ($6700/pr.), the Muse Model 10 CD player is in the front end, the Jeff Rowland Concerto preamp ($3900) and the Magico mini speakers with stands ($20,000/pr) are making beautiful music. There are 4 amps and the Magico's are bi-wired. Patricia Barber is singing "What A Shame". I'm familiar with this CD and this is the best I've heard Patricia Barber sound in a long time. The guitar is lovely. The sound has accurate natural detail for easy listening, not overblown.
The next room
I entered featured WAVAC Audio Lab single-triode mono amps HE 833 MK II
($150,000/pr, 150 watts each unit) on display with the PR-T1 Transformer ($30,000). The
LCR-X2 is a three-chassis design line-stage preamp ($25,000), and also in the
room was the AC-1 (transformer AC conditioner ($29,000). The speakers are made in Belgium by Ventura Audio and have ceramic drivers ($50,000). This pricey equipment is being driven by the Sony SCD-1 CD (modified) player. The preamp is a solid block of aluminum, which has been carved out, and the power supply has
two separate chassis. The monoblock amplifiers are each sitting on top of a huge power supply that is in a separate chassis and
helps to account for the cost.
The CD we are listening to, explains Jim Ricketts (of tmh audio-distributor in Ohio), is
Fever by Peggy Lee. It's a special recording from the original master and not commercially available. Well, I love Peggy Lee and this recording is just fabulous with a very up-front and in-your-face sound. The sound stage is deep with tight bass and lots of separation in the instruments and Peggy Lee is smooth and sexy, as always.
Next we try Respighi's Pine's of Rome on Reference Recordings. On this CD the low levels are barely audible and the individual instruments are
lost and the mid range is a bit muddy. The next CD, Rodgrico Concerto De Aranjuenz with Pepe Romero conducted by Sir Neville Mariner on Philips label sounds cleaner. There is more detail, more accurate brass/woodwinds and more accurate strings then the Reference Recording. The speakers totally disappear and the sound is lush and liquid.
I attribute the difference between these two CD's to the recording and the Sony CD player. The Phillips recording is older and more forgiving then the Reference Recording. The Reference Recording also demands more information then,
perhaps, the Sony CD player can provide.
After lunch I stop by the lobby where various software companies are selling CD's, DVD's and other accessories. I purchase a Nora Jones, Eminem, and remastered Cat Stevens CD for my collection.
I stop by the Chesky Recordings booth for a little chat with David Chesky. He tells me that the CD business is taking a big hit from internet downloads. He also says that the DVD-Audio vs. SACD war, the MP3 and computer download thing is really affecting the recording industry. David also says that one of the reasons he loves
high-end audio is the industry's rare pursuit of excellence in equipment and recordings. In the booth next to David's is a company displaying very beautiful and affordable audio/video cabinets.
The company is called Gecko Products and the cabinets are made in Australia but shipped out of California. I inquire, "They look beautiful, but how do they effect the sound?" Eric Van, the sales manager of AV Supply PTY Ltd, the U.S. Sales Manager assures me that they are as easy on the equipment as they are on the eyes. "We'll send you a stand to demo". I reply "OK, I'll give it a try."
The Genesis/Theta room beckons and I enter for a listen. Arnie Nudell walks me through the system. The very impressive Genesis 201 Speaker system ($48,000) is being driven by a pair of Custom Bruce Moore amplifiers ($11,000/pr), the Aesthetics Preamp ($4400) and the CDPTTL Lector Tube CD player are also on display. We slip my favorite RR CD, "Pines of Rome" track into the very cool Lector tube CD player (I want one) and the sound is fabulous. Even at low levels the rumbling bass and strings behind the French Horn is clearly audible. The woodwinds and brass are easily distinguishable from each other and you can hear each instrument on this very unforgiving and demanding recording. The violin is sweet and true. The bass drum is deep yet tight and you can feel the strength of the music. These are very large speakers and they move a lot of air. This system has no trouble with this CD; in fact it puts a smile on my face. In my opinion compared to other large array speaker systems, the Genesis speakers with separate subwoofer towers total cost of $48,000 is an excellent value for the money.
Genesis also had a 7.1 surround sound system on display with Theta electronics and a Revox Plasma 50" TV. We watched a wild scene from Spiderman II, but I got so caught up in the scene that I didn't focus on the sound. We also auditioned a fabulous percussion DVD called the Japanese Drummers which had incredible highs, lows and dynamics. All I can say is "look out Mickey Hart".
On my way back from the Alexis Park Hotel, the shuttle bus stopped at the St. Tropez, home to THE
Show so I stopped off for a quick listen to some Von Schweikert speakers. The room I visited had the VR4-SR speakers on display with the Oracle 2000 transport, the Electrocompaniet DAC and an impressive looking FAV amplifier. I am very familiar with the Von Schweikert Speakers and the Oracle CD transport as I sold many pair of VS speakers and Oracle CD players. The sound is excellent. We listened to a remastered CD by Cat
Stevens Tea For The Tillerman song titled "Hard Headed Woman". The sound was wonderful, warm and smooth with excellent detail and it was a real treat to hear this track on a high-end system.
Now it's back to my hotel for a quick change of clothes. I received an invitation to a special event hosted by Gibson Guitars that I'm very excited about. Located in a tent outside the convention center it's a difficult venue to find. But with the assistance of my tenacious cab driver we located the structure. Entering the Gibson tent is like walking into another world. Set up like a mini nightclub with tables around a small dance floor and stage, there's a bar on the right. On the left are several small rooms displaying vintage Gibson guitars and Baldwin pianos some owned by famous guitar legends.
On stage for the second set is Nick Silver a skinny 14 yr old with long blond hair. This young rock star is playing some serious rock-n-roll. The thing I noticed most about him are his hands. Large and strong from years of playing they appear out of place on such a young rocker.
Next on stage are Ike Turner and his band. At 72 yrs old, he impresses the audience with some serious blues and a great band.
Also on stage is a Tina Turner type singer to accompany him on some of his old Ike and Tina tunes.
The singer is sexy and fabulous and the music is killer. The last group to play is the legendary Les Paul trio.
Les is the inventor of the electric guitar and this event is his 90th birthday celebration.
Neil Shaun of Journey helps Les out on lead guitar. Neil asks, what key should I play in?" Les replied, "Any key you want." Well the music is great!
A big cake is wheeled onto the dance floor and a Las Vegas show girl jumps out to join Les Paul on stage. "Better get some Viagra", says the trio's gorgeous blond female double bass player. "And a great time is had by all.
Sunday, January 9, 2005
Well it's finally time to visit the Las Vegas Convention Center. I enter at the South Hall where all the home theater equipment and accessories is on display. The first product that catches my attention is an unusual speaker cable system by Goertz. This Connecticut company has recently expanded its cable line to include high-quality video interconnect cables. Their Alpha- core Serpents (cables with a twist), Micro Purl foil interconnect cables, flat speaker cable system with the positive and negative impute located on top of each other come in 3 sizes. Their sales manager tells me that these cables are designed to offer low inductance and low impedance in affordable cables for home theater.
I see another accessory that strikes my fancy. Wood Technology, Inc. makes it and I don't know about you, but my CDs and DVDs are all over my apartment in bookcases, wall units, and end tables. Wood Technology offers something called a Swivel Tower. Beautiful wood cabinets that take up only 18 inches of space and hold up to 576
CDs... pretty cool!
Mordaunt-Short and Marantz got together for a fabulous home theater display that showcases the Mordaunt-Short new Performance surround sound speakers with a three way floor-standing Performance 6, the Performance 9 subwoofer and Performance 5C center channel. These beautiful speakers are available in a granite or silver finish. Marantz is showing off its new Model SR9600 THX Ultra A/V receiver ($3499), the state of the art VP-12S4 DLP projector ($14,000) and DV7600 Universal DVD player ($1099). My favorite part of the demo was the Boz Scaggs/Don Henley concert. The sound from this home theater was so beautiful and the detail, color saturation and blacker blacks of the projector were so lifelike that the demo guy had to turn on the lights and insist that I leave the room for the next group of viewers.
A giant pair of beautiful speakers calls out to me and I approach the HiVi/Swan booth. The Ultra Sound system with a Mark Levinson Amp, Swan 2.2 HT speaker system and Diana Krall
Live in Paris playing on the LG 32" screen is an unusual display for the mass market style of the convention center. Frank Halle, one of the speaker designers tells me that HiVi bought the Swan speaker company. The speaker system consists of a main tower with a ribbon midrange and tweeter design plus 4 subwoofers that are ported in the rear and go down to
38dB passive. The system retails for $68,000. Unfortunately, one of the owners rushes over to Frank and pulls him away for an urgent situation, which puts an end to our discussions and my listening session. The big system is taken apart and a smaller pair of Swan speakers are hooked up for another demo. Sadly, I take my leave.
Disheartened by the disruption in my listening experience, I decide to take my leave of the convention center and hitch a ride back to my hotel in a BMW. Now it's time for a little R & R.
Monday, January 10, 2005
At THE Show here in
Vegas is quiet today as most of the people have left the show. Ah yes, the perfect time for some high-end listening.
The first room that beckons me is displaying a beautiful pair of 2-way speakers with a 10" paper woofer and Pact tweeter with phase alignment correction. There is also a Dual 18" subwoofer ($6940) The WLM speakers & sub are made in Austria in a Yew wood finish ($14,000/pr.) The Audio Aero Prestige SACD/CD Player/preamp supplies the front end while the amplifiers are Audio Aero's Prestige vacuum tube monoblocks with 40 watts per channel (made in France).
The CD being played is by Greg Brown who not only performs his
own material, he also writes for Bonnie Rait and Maria Muldar. The CD is called
If I Had Known on Essential Recordings Red House 1980-1996. Although the voice sounds great, I request a more familiar CD, RR- Pines of Rome.
The low-level base sounds good with the subwoofer turned on... it's a little hard to listen because the room is full of noisy people. Did I say that Vegas is Quiet? I am able to hear the excellent sound stage, accurate location of instruments. The woodwinds are warm and lush; the brass is softened at the top. The highs are clean and the tweeter is excellent. Some systems have an aura of sound around the voice or instruments as opposed to pinpoint accuracy and sometimes there's an extra echo in the recording. We also listen to the soundtrack from Fifth Element "The
Diva." There's no extra echo on this recording: the high's are unbelievable and the CD player is
a real find.
I walk down the hall to the Tyler Accoustics/Coda room. The people at Coda had already dismantled their big system, so I had to settle for the still on display Linbrook Signature Monitors ($5200-Factory Direct), the Coda S12 125Watt per channel Class A amplifier and Coda 05R preamp ($3150) with separate phono section ($2150). We are listening to the
Burmester recording of Hugh Myekela. The voice is great, very clean. The sexy sax and brass instruments are a little smooth at the top as is the trumpet, which makes for less fatigue in the listening experience. The R&D staff of Coda with designer Eric Lauchli, are originally from Nelson Pass' Threshold. Pass' influence is reflected in the smooth tube-like quality of these amplifiers.
Crowson Technology has a very interesting display: an LG LCD 30" TV with Von Schweikert VR1 speakers. Crowson Technology is about the tactile sensual "Feel the Sound" experience. Sensors are placed under the couch so that you feel the beat of the drum and the vibration of the special effects. This home theater experience is accurate to the sound…it transmits energy to the furniture that you feel while listening and watching. What will they think of next? Two couch transducers are $650 and the chair transducer is $350.
The final room that calls to me is the room with products from Dantzeel, EMM, and Von Schweikert. The VR9's and VR11's in silver with SRA Electronics, the EMM Labs CD/SACD transport, EMM DAC and 6E Preamp: Switchman 3 and Dantzeel NHB - 108 Model J amplifiers, and Jena Lab cables. We are listening to Roger Waters CD in incredible surround sound with 4 VR9's. The detail is amazing: the sound is all around you. The VR9's are exactly half the VR11's with half the drivers and half the price at $60,000. But the surround sound experience is almost too much: a sensory overload. I couldn't listen on a regular basis. For me I'll take a pair of VR11's. Only problem as Roger Waters says, "Money."
It's been another great CES experience and the word is that business is good; this has been an excellent show which speaks well for our economy.
So it's back to the room for the writing experience and then...
I'm outta here. See you next year!