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Last Updated: Sunday, 17-Jan-1999 01:31:30 EST

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Anthony Gallo Acoustics
John Marks Records

January 10, 1999 - Day 4

The Audio Artistry Beethoven Elite Loudspeakers and Jeff Rowland Deisgn Group ElectronicsDay Four began with a listen to Muse's entries on the 24bit /96kHz stage, the Model Eight transport and Two Ninety Six DAC. Partnered with electronics from the Jeff Rowland Design Group (Cadence preamplifier and 10T stereo power amplifiers), and the larger-than-life Audio Artistry Beethoven Elite loudspeaker system (approx. US$63,000), the Muse digital components shone a ray of hope on the land of ones and zeros, proving that "digital" need not be synonymous with "dry, edgy, and lifeless".

Having heard many superlatives about Kevin Hayes' designs for the Valve Amplification Company, we were anxious to hear his efforts first hand. We were not disappointed. VAC's new Avatar integrated amplifier (US$3490.00) was making some wonderful sounds in concert with the VAC The Standard DAC (US$1990.00), Esoteric P-10 transport (long discontinued), a Townshend Rock Mk.III/Rega RB300/Grado XTZ analogue front end, and a pair of Thiel CS6 loudspeakers (cables were Cardas Golden Cross). The Sound? Sweet, natural, and eminently musical, with a level of refinement rarely heard from electronic reproduction. It proved difficult to drag ourselves away.

Rockport Technology's Andy Payor and the Sirius III Turntable A short jaunt back to T.H.E. show (at which the so-called "outboarders" were defiantly showing their wares) gave us the opportunity to hear the serious Rockport Sirius III turntable/tonearm (priced at a heart-stopping US$53,500). The direct-drive Sirius was partnered with a Koetsu Rosewood Platinum phono cartridge, electronics from Gryphon , and a pair of Rockport's newly-introduced loudspeakers (US$14,500-US$22,500, depending on configuration). The Sirius carved out a realistic soundstage and presented a CD-quiet background. Unfortunately, the Classic Records reissue of Charles Mingus' Ah Um (a record spun frequently at Audiophilia central) sounded uncharacteristically thin and bright. Being unfamiliar with virtually all the gear comprising this system made it impossible to identify the component (or component interactions) at fault.

The Bel Canto Design SEP1 PreamplifierAlso at T.H.E. show was Minnesota's up-and-coming Bel Canto Design, showing their SET40 40 Watt/Channel single-ended, 845-based, class A power amplifier (US$4100.00), SEP1 remote-controlled preamplifier with built-in 24bit/96kHz DAC (US$3500.00) and a pre-production sample of their upcoming 24bit/96kHz transport based on the Muse Two Ninety Six (an onboard phono module for the SEP1 is nearing completion). The system was rounded out by the sultry Magnepan MG1.6 loudspeakers and a gaggle of NBS cables and power cords. Listening to a selection of 24/96 discs from Classic Records highlighted the delectable midrange qualities of the Bel Canto/Magnepan parternship. Watch for a full review of the SEP1 in an upcoming issue of Audiophilia.

The Virtual Image StereoBlock Twenty Forty Power AmplifiersLittle known Virtual Image out of New Jersey was at T.H.E. Show flaunting their StereoBloc Twenty Forty EL34-based monoblock power amplifiers (US$3650.00 each). Mustering 36 Watts/Channel, the Twenty Fortys took complete control of the new Audio Physic Avante loudspeakers (US$10,000) and subwoofer, reproducing the crushing crescendos of Reference Recordings's latest digital efforts with panache.

Day Four proved, for the most part, that good sound can be attained under show conditions. The sound in many rooms at both the official CES and T.H.E. Show venues could be characterized as good and oft-times excellent.

While several exhibitors were pleased with the attention their rooms received, many spoke of light walk-through traffic througout the course of the show. Although T.H.E. Show boasted a high-profile list of exhibitors, many of its rooms were distressingly empty during our visits (perhaps having cut our teeth on Canada's annual, consumer-attended Festival du Son, with its frenzied exhibits and hectic hallways, our expectations with respect to attendance and enthusiasm were set too high). It is clear that the Asian Flu and other worldwide economic problems have taken their toll on the high-end. But, if judging from the latest offerings on display in Las Vegas, the high-end spirit is alive and well in the minds of many of the industry's brightest designers. Until next year...

January 9, 1999 - Day 3

There may be life in the old dear yet. Compared to Days One and Two, the walkways between the buildings and the rooms of the Alexis Park were chock-a-block with industry members and interested audiophiles. T.H.E. Show in comparison (in its first incarnation, though), seemed sparsely attended for the third day. This was a shame, as the show had many highly placed manufacturers and some fine sounding rooms. Audiophilia’s Day Three, however, was centered exclusively at the Alexis Park.

LAMM Industries ML1 Power Amplifier

Strolling in the gorgeous weather inspired the artist in all of us, and many fine rooms gave voice to those feelings. We came across LAMM Industries, a manufacturer whose equipment seemingly attracts uniformly fine reviews. Just so, when listening to the wonderful ML1 monaural power amplifiers (US$19800.00). They sounded sweet and delicate playing the Reference Recordings’ CD of Mephisto via LAMM’s L1 preamplifier (US$6990.00) and Kharma’s Ceramique 1.0 loudspeaker (US$14,999.00). Cabling was also provided by Kharma.

The Graff GM20 Power Amplifier

Further down the walkway was the room of Italian OTL amplifier manufacturer, Graaf. These beautifully designed tube platforms (the GM 20 OTL at US$4895.00) were partnered well with Sonus Faber Electa Amators and Graaf’s 13.5 line stage preamplifier (US$5500.00). The soundtrack from Glory allowed the GM 20s (two running parallel) and their associated equipment to throw a huge soundstage that was as deep as it was wide. This was a very pleasant visit.

The real fun began when entering the small, but excellent, high-end exhibit booths, where we shopped for CDs, LPs, and accessories. Excellent buys were found in both the analog and the digital domain. Both Classic Records and Reference Recordings had stations that had a goodly number of their respective catalogues, these being sold for less than retail. A chat with Michael Hobson of Classic Records was most pleasant. We suggested that he never stop releasing vinyl. He promised! It was nice to see Chad Kassem’s Acoustic Sounds offering good prices on their EMI and Decca reissues (released by Testament).

Exploded Model of Sutherland 800 Preamplifier

Ron Sutherland, of Sutherland Engineering, had several pieces on display, including a neat, exploded example of his 800 preamplifier (US$5485.00), exhibiting his superb craftsmanship and unique design. The sound through the A-2000 monoblock amplifiers (US$12,000.00), the inexpensive AcousTec PH1 phono stage (US$1200,00), Avalon Acoustics Eclipse loudspeakers and a Basis/Graham analog rig, made the new vinyl release of Ry Cooder’s fantastic Buena Vista Social Club sound resonant and detailed. Mr. Sutherland was a charming host, demonstrating quiet grace and deep knowledge of his vocation.

Day Three was musical and, at times, delightful. It was also very exhausting for the four members of the Audiophilia team providing live, daily coverage. After a fine evening at the MGM Grand, which netted one Audiophilia high-roller a cool US$20.00, and a nightcap at the Hard Rock Casino, we look forward to continued coverage on Day Four. Watch this space…

January 8, 1999 - Day 2

Day Two turned out to be spectacular. The surprisingly low-key flavor of the show was still in the air, but the sound was great. The Alexis Park Hotel and Spa is a wonderful location for an audio show. Rooms are solid and the acoustics have been quite good. If you are familiar with Audiophilia’s show reports, this has not always been our experience. Things were even better at the Golden Nugget ( downtown, several miles from the Alexis Park), with very large rooms and spacious listening settings. However, crowds were sparse at this location, too. The same must be said for T.H.E. Show, located at the St. Tropez. Exhibitors continued to espouse the interest and excitement of visitors but were puzzled as to why the world’s most important electronics show did not bring in the crowds.

Clearaudio Master Reference Turntable/TQ1 TonearmTo our delight, Our Day Two excursion uncovered turntables used as primary source in several rooms. The Clearaudio/Discovery room exhibited the Clearaudio Master Reference turntable (approx. US$20,000.00 – 25,000.00) accompanied by the TQ1 tonearm (US$10,000.00) with the Insider Reference cartridge (US$10,000.00). Pre and power amplification was provided by conrad-johnson (ART line stage/Premier Fifteen phono stages and Premier Eights respectively), and used Discovery wire throughout. Massenet’s El Cid (mid-price EMI Greensleeve pressing) sounded smooth, detailed, and quite dynamic with air, air and more air felt through the wonderful Verity Audio Parsifal Encore loudspeakers.

Rega Planar 25 Turntable and RB600 TonearmAn exciting discovery lay in the Neat/Exposure room. A Rega Planar 25 (US$1270.00) was on loan from the U.S. distributor and produced an energetic and rich sound in concert with its attached RB600 tonearm and Dynavector Tekaitora cartridge (US$2750.00). The Neat Petite/Gravitas speaker system sounded very musical, especially when van Cliburn pounded Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto or Bill Evans spun dreams with My Foolish Heart. Exposure electronics were, as always, delectable, making one wonder why they do not enjoy a higher profile.

Dieter Burmester and his B97 LoudspeakerBerlin’s Dieter Burmester, celebrating his company’s twentieth anniversary, spoke lovingly about his electronics and speakers. These products offer amazing industrial design, influenced in no uncertain terms by the Bauhaus movement. Chrome was everywhere! On show was the CD Drive 969 (US$30,000.00) coupled with the new 970 24bit/96kHz DAC (US$33,600.00), and the 808 preamplifier, a nineteen year old model that has been updated regularly since its inception. The display also included the massive and magnificent 909 power amps, able, as Dieter says, to drive any speaker, including his silver and wood B97 loudspeakers. All sounded expensive and beautiful.

It was a pleasure to finally meet John Dunlavy of Dunlavy Audio Labs. John provided a pleasant tour around his room of impressive loudspeakers, which included the small SC1 monitor (US$1700.00), the Athena (US$5995.00), with its down-firing woofer, and the double-walled SM1 (the big brother to the popular SC IV-A). Also on display was Dunlavy’s statement product, the Millenium (US$18,000.00). Listening to the Athena was an invigorating experience, with its punchy and very musical tonality (helped in no small part by the Pass Labs X 600 monoblocks). We are looking forward to an extended session with Dunlavy’s complete line of loudspeakers.

Keith Johnson of Spectral and Reference RecordingsIt was an honor for the Audiophilia writers to meet Spectral’s Professor Keith Johnson, one of the brightest lights in high-end audio. Prof. Johnson is renowned not only for his groundbreaking Spectral products, but also for the co-invention of the HDCD™ process, and his engineering of many of the finest recordings in the Reference Recordings catalogue. Wow! What a resume. This very unassuming and shy man graciously discussed his philosophy, and introduced us to several of his products, including the DMA-360 Monaural Reference Monoblock Amplifiers (high speed and power in a small footprint) and Spectral’s first remote controlled preamp, the DMC-30. Sound was very detailed through Johnson’s electronics and the Avalon Acoustics Studio Reference Monitors.

Please refer to the Photo Gallery, Room of the Day and responses to our reader’s requests in Go !nteractive for more thoughts and images of Day Two. Watch this space for tomorrow’s summary of Day Three.

January 7, 1999 - Day 1

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". The "best" was the magnificence and variety of high-end equipment on show. Truly, an amazing amalgam of everything an audiophile could ask for. The worst? Getting here! Because of the vagaries of airline deregulation, the dreaded hub is the only way of getting here from there. From sunny Toronto, Air Canada whisked two writers via foggy Denver with only a four hour delay. Snow, St. Louis blues and some very recently disgruntled TWA employees hampered two others’ efforts, this time resulting in a six hour delay! No matter. We’re here, and much happier for it.

Anthony Gallo and MicrosThe day began with a visit to Anthony Gallo Acoustics’ suite at the Alexis Park. On display, were the long-awaited Micros in both home theatre and music-only capacities. According to designer Anthony Gallo, the Micros have just begun shipping to dealers. At US$699.00 for a stereo pair of Micros with matching subwoofer, and US$1149.00 for a five-channel/subwoofer home theatre setup, the Micros are aimed squarely at the Bose Lifestyle crowd, but with high-end sound in mind. Sound of the home theatre setup (playing a DVD of T2) was gripping and larger than life. We had the opportunity to spend some pleasant time with Anthony Gallo who, in answer to our questions, explained, most eloquently, the genesis of his amazing CDT tweeter used in the equally amazing Nucleus Solo and Reference loudspeakers.

SimAudio's Moon Eclipse CD PlayerFollowing a lengthy and costly development, Canada’s SimAudio unveiled their new 24bit/96kHz compatible CD player, the Moon Eclipse (US$4995.00). The Eclipse utilizes a pair of the newly-introduced Burr Brown 1704 DACs, and a Philips CDM 12 Pro transport, and features a large, external power supply. A digital input allows the Eclipse’s 24/96 DACs to be fully exploited by future 24/96 capable transports. Sound? Through the Joseph Audio RM-7si loudspeakers, and coupled to the superb Moon W-5 power amplifier, the Eclipse sounded sweet, smooth and non-fatiguing.

The positive scuttlebut about the Alon Circe loudspeaker was well justified when considering the sound heard via the new Cary Audio Design KR series SET power amplifiers. The ubiquitous Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances (Dallas SO/Johanos) were nearly all they could be transmitted at 24bit/96kHz. Timpani thwacks at the outset were clearly defined, rich in tone, and placed squarely in the back left of the shallow Dallas high school auditorium. This was much ado about something. We thought this room one of the finest heard today.

Meadowlark Audio's Nightingale LoudspeakerTwo loudspeaker companies who apparently can do no wrong are California’s Meadowlark Audio and Quebec’s Verity Audio, the latter having been founded by a group of designers from the now-defunct loudspeaker division of turntable manufacturer Oracle. Meadowlark’s impressive trio of floorstanding products (the Kestrel, Shearwater, and Heron) have been joined recently by the top-of-the-line Nightingale (from US$15,000, depending on finish) and the Vireo monitor (US$995.00). The Nightingale is Meadowlark’s most ambitious effort to date, featuring a gas piezo tweeter, a pair of 35 pound, long-throw (1 ½") woofers, and the same carbon-fibre midrange driver found in the Shearwater. The Vireo is claimed to posses many of the strengths of the overachieving Kestrel (but lacks the Kestrel’s low-end extension and ability to play at high levels), but can accommodate bookshelf placement. Verity Audio’s Julien Pelchat was on hand to demonstrate the Fidelio and Parsifal Encore loudspeakers, the latter having garnered Audiophilia’s "Best Sound of Show" at the Montreal Audio Show for the past two years. The Parsifal Encores were being shown with Cary Audio’s new 300C power amplifier, the Theta DaViD transport, and the dCS Elgar DAC. Cabling was by Discovery.

As always, catching up with colleagues and old friends remains the highlight of any show, the first day of the 1999 CES being no exception. Despite the seemingly light attendance, optimism for the future of high-end audio appears high. Watch this space for Audiophilia’s continuing coverage on Day Two