by Martin Appel, Henry Wilkenson and Michael Levy
It’s been two years since I attended the CES and I have to admit I was quite excited about going again. It’s always crazy, hectic, enlightening, disappointing and when all is said and done, rewarding. One gets to see and hear new products, meet old friends as well as the opportunity to form new relationships.
Henry Wilkenson, Michael Levy (accompanied by his lovely wife Maryann) and yours truly, basically hung out together for the duration and experienced many of the same rooms. Occasionally, one of us split off to hear something on our own. There was so much to hear and see that we felt that our time would be more valuably spent listening as a team and coming to a consensus, or not, as to what we just heard.
As in the past several shows, The Venetian Hotel was the main venue for hi-end audio. There were also specific presentations in by certain manufacturers in suites in other hotels on the ‘Strip’.
After our morning breakfast at “The Peppermill”, which became our ritual, we registered at the Venetian and started our listening adventures. Our first room was the DEQX room where Kim Ryrie introduced his latest version of his processor, the HDP-4. Visually it looked like the 3 but now handles 24/192 processing and has a wholly re-designed mother board with greater connectivity. He demonstrated, with the push of a button on the remote, the corrected vs the uncorrected sound through a pair of Gallo floorstanding speakers and the result was immediately apparent. All acknowledged the superiority of the corrected position. A review will be forthcoming sometime this year.
We next poked our heads into the VAC/TANNOY Room where the ever cordial Kevin Hayes of VAC warmly greeted us. His room had two systems. System 1, a smaller, but wonderful sounding system, with intimacy and musicality and his Uber system with his top of the line electronics matched up with ESOTERIC 3-piece digital and CLEARAUDIO analogue. We first heard it with the TANNOY PRESTIGE speakers in place and the sound was impressive. The next day we heard the system with the KINGDOM ROYALE model and we were blown away. These speakers only had about three hours of use and we could only imagine how they might sound after a proper burn-in period.
Off again and we looked into a room with glass speakers by a company called PERFECT 8 using BALABO electronics. Speakers were $115K and the sound was detailed, clean and dynamic and made for quite a conversation piece. Goran Rydqvist, VP of Research and Development presented the product and as he pointed out and you can clearly see its open baffle design allows equal listening from front or rear.
Next we encountered an old friend, Robert Lee of Acoustic Zen and followed him back to his room where his CRESCENDO speakers and cables were making beautiful music with those great looking TRIODE SE TRX 845 Monoblocks. The sound was detailed, rich, dynamic and lifelike. Santos Oropel, of Twin Audio Video, the importer of these amps also had another very interesting device he was demonstrating called the SAKURA. It was a hand held device that removes static electricity from CDs, records, and cables and equipment as well. He’s sending me one for review. Another room we visited more than once. It kept drawing us back. Onward.
MSB TECHNOLOGY electronics and YG ACOUSTICS KIPOD speakers provided us with another excellent listening experience. MSB showed that digital done right was very musical and enjoyable and those folks from YG definitely have somethin’ goin’ on. Or maybe MSB’s new 200 watt class A amplifier had something to do with it. Very musical. Wish we could have spent more time. Vince Galbo, National Sales Manager for MSB was very helpful and we discussed future product reviews. Stay tuned.
AUDIO NOTE of JAPAN was next on the agenda and we were not disappointed. The simplicity, solidity and elegance of their equipment was on full display. Their turntable was a juggernaut. I wish I had brought my own vinyl for a test ride. This was another room where more attention was required but we had to move on.
The BURMESTER room had plenty going for it. The new Music Server for a mere $50K was done in true BURMESTER style. Having heard Burmester systems in other venues and being familiar with their performance, I felt the room was limiting the system’s performance.
Amphion speakers and Nuforce electronics shared a room together and Nuforce introduced their latest gear, the reference 20 monoblock amplifier and the P-20 Preamplifier. The new amps have about twice the power rating of the Reference 18. The sound was clean, detailed with a realistic soundstage. I think more investigation will be required
One room where we visited more than once was The Wes Bender Studio NYC room. The new PRINCE E speakers were sounding superb via the VIOLA electronics, REDPOINT turntable, as well as, the LINDEMANN CD player. The power cords and power conditioner by PAUL KAPLAN and cables by JORMA made their substantial contribution as well. The sound was on par with the best that we heard and Wes was as cordial a host as one could want. Paul Kaplan, from KAPLAN CABLE, Peter Clark, from REDPOINT and Paul Jason of VIOLA were available to answer any questions you could throw at them. I spent my last evening closing the room.
Another room with excellent sound was the NOLA/AUDIO RESEARCH room. The BABY GRAND REFERENCE speakers for $59K were making beautiful music with those AUDIO RESEARCH electronics. Carl Marchisotto, an industry legend, has designed an excellent sounding speaker. Also on display were several smaller models, the CONTENDOR and the BOXER that I would have loved to be able to listen to. Marilyn Marchisotto, Carl’s wife, was a very cordial hostess and I enjoyed the short time spent in that room.
Off to the SONUS FABER room where their new statement speaker, the AIDA, only around $120k per pair, was being demonstrated with AUDIO RESEARCH electronics. Having been at their coming out party at STEREO EXCHANGE in NYC a month and a half earlier, I expected excellent sound and for the most part got it. At STEREO EXCHANGE, which had a larger venue, the speakers were bi-amplified and had more impact and solidity. In this room at CES they were not bi-amp’d and they lost some of that dynamic I knew they were capable of. Otherwise the sound was musical, detailed and very enjoyable.
One of my favorite rooms, visually speaking, was the PATHOS room. Unfortunately, things were still being hooked up and I couldn’t listen to anything. The equipment has to be the most beautiful looking equipment at the show, and so typically Italian. Only Italy could produce a Ferrari or Masserati or Lamborghini. Just looking at these cars gives one the feeling of excitement of speed and power but also finesse and style that makes the mouth water. PATHOS equipment gives me that same feeling that nothing is left to chance and every element of a product is designed to be not only functional but aesthetically a knockout. As an architect, I fully relate to this approach to design. It sings to me. Paolo Andriolo, one of the cofounders of the company and responsible for the look of the equipment was a gracious host and when I told him I would be in Italy on vacation in late Spring, he invited me to his hometown, VICENZA where he would be my guide. If my schedule permits…. Ciao, Paolo.
Now we arrive at the OLIVE music server suite at the Bellagio where there were two distinct presentations. The first was a demo using the OLIVE O6HD music server in a real world system with a pair of SONUS/FABER floorastanders about three and a half feet tall, possibly from their TOY collection. A PASS multi channel amp was used and the system sounded well above our expectations. It was musical, spacious and detailed with a soundstage that filled the space.
Next we were taken into another room and were presented with a Marc Levinson designed system, for a Swiss company by the name of DANIEL HERTZ S.A. The OLIVE was the source and the rest of the system was all Swiss. The M-1 speakers and monoblocks, and preamplifier were all from Levinson. The speakers were large floorstanders costing around 120k Swiss Francs. The electronics were commensurate in price and we were now set for the demo. Though there were several excellent parameters produced by the system the overall sound was a little disappointing. Our expectations had been raised to the heights of The Swiss Alps but the overall results were less than stellar. Don’t know if the room had problems or the speakers were too large for the room. C’est la vie. Meanwhile I await the OLIVE O6HD to arrive at my abode for review. Stay tuned.
Trekking on we arrived at the MONITOR AUDIO room where we heard some very nice music making coming from their GOLD and PLATINUM models via SIM AUDIO gear. The GOLD at $6k a pair and the PLATINUM at $8k a pair have to be a considerable bargain in today’s astronomical costs for the hi-end world. The finish on these speakers was as good as any I’ve seen at the show.
My last room I visited had an all AUDIONOTE system showcasing Robert Lighton’s RL10 SPEAKERS. The sound was smooth and mellow. His literature speaks about a dedicated showroom opening in the Spring, in my hometown, New York City. I look forward to checking it out and giving them a complete audition.
Alas, famished and exhausted, it was back to the room and get ready for a last supper. With much to talk about and never having enough time to see everything we lifted our glasses and drank to our colleagues and friends that contributed to making the show so enjoyable. Yes, Las Vegas was a crazy whirlwind of excitement but in the final analysis, with all the chaos and distractions, I can definitely say it was worthwhile. See you next year.
This was the first show for me in more than a couple of years. I was wondering what I would see that is really new. From the outset, I could see that music servers have made great strides in recent years. Many rooms were using Mac Books and other servers for their main sources. I have to wonder what the future holds for CD players.
The two servers mentioned above were the most impressive. The Burmester music server had the most capability (it should at 50K ), but the Olive 06HD really caught my interest. Paired with the Sonus Faber speakers, the sound was dimensional and rich sounding. Overall the sound was quite good considering we are talking about difficult show conditions.
The DEQX demonstration allowed us to hear just what it does. With it switched into the system the sound was very dimensional and clear. In bypass mode, the stage collapsed to a large degree and there was a veiling imposed on the sound. While expensive, the DEQX is definitely effective.
The Perfect 8 speakers are unusual not only for their 115K price tag but also because the enclosures are made of glass. Everyone knows that glass is very resonate so, how does this work? The glass is covered in a proprietary laminated coating that prevents any resonance from the enclosures. It works because the sound was open and clear with very good imaging. What was also unusual was that the sound was the same from behind the speaker as from in front of them. The unusual enclosures will definitely be a conversation piece as well. The perfect 8’s were paired with BALabo electronics and a Zanden CD player.
The best sounding tube room that I heard was the VAC room. There were two systems in use. The small system consisted of the Clearaudio Ovation turntable, their Clarify magnetic suspension arm, Benz Micro cartridge (low output) Esoteric K01
The large system consisted of the Clearaudio Innovation Wood turntable w/their Universal arm and Ortofon Winfield cartridge, the Esoteric digital (P03, D03, G0 rb clock),VAC Signature Mk IIa Preamplifier with phono option, the gorgeous VAC Statement 450 Monoblocs, Tannoy Kingdom Royal speakers. Cardas Clear cables.
The next best sounding tube room was Robert Lee’s room featuring the Crescendo speakers and Acoustic Zen cables paired with the Triode SE TRX 845 mono block power amps. These are large single ended amps that crank out 50 watts each. While 50 watts may not sound like enough to drive speakers the size of the Crescendo’s, they proved to be more than enough. The sound was room filling, detailed and dimensional. After the VAC room, this was the next best sounding tube based room that I heard.
Nice sounds were coming from the Morel room featuring the Octave Signature Bookshelf speakers. For such small speakers, the sound was large, open and very dimensional. While I didn’t get to hear them with their matching subwoofers, I felt that the low end was all that was missing. If the subs sound as good as the satellites, then this is one very good speaker system.
When is a turntable an investment opportunity? When it’s Audio Note’s Flagship table, the GINGA. At$ 80K per table it is anything but cheap. Since only ten more tables are to be produced, they will immediately become collectable. I didn’t get a chance to actually hear this table but the picture will show that it easily qualifies as audio art.
Wes Bender Studio NYC had the best sounding room that showcased with solid state amplification. The system consisted of Hansen Audio’s THE PRINCE E loudspeakers (making their world debut at the show), Viola Audio Laboratories Crescendo preamp / DAC (also debuting at the show), their Forte mono amplifiers, Lindemann 825 High Definition Disc Player (which incorporates an asynchronous USB DAC) and last but not least a Repoint Audio Design Model D turntable (with Tri-Planar Ultimate tone arm & Dynavector XV-1t cartridge) all of which were driving a Wavestream Kinetics Deluxe Phonostage (which incidentally was the only tubed component in the system). All of the aforementioned components were integrated neatly on a Harmonic Resolution Systems (HRS) SXR Audio Stand and M3X Isolation Bases. Cables consisted of a mix of Jorma Design Unity (speaker cables and interconnects) and Kaplan Cables GS power cords (with Kaplan’s Alchemist power conditioner handling the AC in the room).
My reference CDs sounded open, clear and detailed with no hint of edge or glare — essentially a tonally neutral presentation. Being partial to analog, I was particularly impressed with vinyl played back on this system via the Redpoint Design / Tri-Planar / Dynavector & Wavestream Kinetics combo. The Model D turntable sounds like no other turntable I’ve heard to date. The solidity provided by this table was remarkable.
As you may have already gathered, I have two rooms that were my favorite. Kevin Hayes’ tube based VAC room and Wes Bender’s Studio N.Y.C. room.
The first day at the show it is usually hard to find good sounding rooms as it takes a while for most products to warm up and they also often have to break in. This show seemed significantly larger than two years ago, and it was impossible to cover it all. There were several changes. Still, we found some very good sound on the first day, which only got better as the show progressed. Vinyl continued its resurgence, with many more venues showing with vinyl on some superb, but often pricy state of the art turntables. On the digital front, almost everyone was using a server.
We missed going to T.H.E. SHOW, The High End Audio Show which is concurrent with CES, except for a short time on the second day. It was there that Brian Cheney of VMPS was once again performing his live to recorded comparison. As usual, it was a hit and the talk of T.H.E. SHOW. He let us listen to “Autumn Leaves” as it was performed by Napua Davoy last year in the same room. It was superbly recorded and sounded alive on the VMPS speakers. There were many interesting rooms at T.H.E. Show. It is unfortunate that we did not have the time to go back for more listening.
At DEQX, the new HDP-4 ,along with its new main board, also sported a new display and a fully updated rear panel that included BNC connectors and digital in and outs that could be used for digital amplifiers or to piggy back units for four or five way systems. The sound in this room was far better when the DEQX was applied. Low level details appeared and image size and tonality were greatly improved. It took a rather ordinary pair of speakers and made them sound almost as good as some of the top sounds at the show.
TANNOY’s Kingdom Royale speaker system was one of the best sounds at the Venitian. The open dynamics, bandwidth, and musicality gave them that tingling excitement of the real thing. As for the imaging, it was clear and dimensional and only made me wonder what they would sound like in a larger room since the size of the speakers relative to the room crimped the outer dimensions.
PERFECT 8:We took turns sitting at either end of the room in front of or behind the Perfect 8 speakers, and the sound was indeed very similar. This room presented the largest image and was one of the rooms with the best overall imaging at the show. The sound was very clean and detailed on the first day, but it lacked some lower midrange warmth and infrasonic bass. Tonality usually improves as the show progresses for most displays, but we were not able to return for a second listening.
Robert Lee of ACOUSTIC ZEN showed me a phase and frequency response plot for his speakers which was very impressive, but it was the sound that impressed me more. This was one of the best sounding rooms at the Venitian. The dynamic openness, tonality, and overall imaging were superb. On one Roger Waters cut, I had to have him replay a passage as a sound clearly came from the far left and almost behind me. The only limitations were a slight crimping of the image width that I attribute to the room, and, while the bass was very musical, and had good impact, it did not go far into the infrasonic regions.
WES BENDER STUDIOS created a state of the art listening in this room, and it only got better as the days progressed. The Prince E speakers were exceptional performers in every parameter, which of course meant that the rest of the system was well matched. Vinyl and shellac pressings on the Redpoint turntable were audible ecstasy.
MONITOR AUDIO had an impressive display. Although we only got to listen to a couple of passages, the sound was very high quality, and with much larger imaging and wider bandwidth than the size of the speakers would indicate. The finish and the drivers, including the ribbon tweeters, were all indicative of a more expensive product.
OLIVE’s line of servers filled the price spectrum from under $1,000 to $6,000. The convenience and quality of sound they offer make these servers very desirable.
The MARK LEVINSON designed speakers from Switzerland seemed like they were designed for sound reinforcement, rather than reproduction. While they were very dynamic and could play very loud, they lacked imaging, infrasonic bass, and warmth.
We were also happy to find ABLE PLANET which offered a line of fine sounding earphones that really had deep bass at the main hall. With many fine earphones newly available at the show, I will be doing some comparative listening soon.
The days went very fast and we could not even come close to seeing everyone we wanted to see. It was a great show that promised and delivered fine advancements in the state of the art of audio.