ONLINE - ISSUE 11
CES 2004 Show Report
This was one of the most enjoyable CESs that I have been to in a long time. The weather was near perfectclear, and sunny with a temperature cool enough that the rooms with vacuum tube amplifiers did not become saunas. More importantly, most rooms had good sound and very few rooms had bad sound. There were still rooms that could be heard hundreds of feet away, but they seemed to be fewer this year. To my eyes, the crowds at both T.H.E. Show (St. Tropez) and Alexis Park seemed to be down from previous years. However, the exhibitors seemed very happy with the number of potential dealers/customers coming through their rooms. Vinyl appeared to be making a resurgence. There were several rooms that were exclusively using vinyl as their source. Many more rooms than in previous years had a turntable available for playback. In the Alexis Park ballroom, where vendors sell CDs, LPs and tweaks, there was enough new vinyl to make any LP lover salivate.
Now for my annual CES caveat. While I tried to get to all of the rooms at the Alexis Park and the St. Tropez during my 3 ½ days at CES, I did not. Some rooms were so packed with people that I could not get into the room. Some rooms were playing the music soooo loud that I did not dare venture in. Other rooms that I could get into, I did not get a chance to hear any of the CDs/LPs that I had brought with me for demo purposes. I really cant make judgements about an audio system unless I can hear recordings with which I am very familiar. As I made my rounds, I did chat with fellow PFO staffers and other friends and acquaintances asking them for rooms that I should visit. I did visit all of the recommended rooms. With that being said, here is my list, in alphabetical order, of the rooms that I found memorable at CES 2004:
Anthony Gallo - Anthony Gallo had two rooms at CES. One of the rooms demoed his 5.1 $1000 home theater system which featured a powered subwoofer with five of his 3" micro ball speakers. As a home theater system it did sound impressive. More impressive, however, was the other room where the Gallo Nucleus Reference 3 speakers were being demoed. This rather small (35"h X 8"w X 16"d) floor standing speaker utilized two of the Gallo 4" ball midranges, a tweeter and a 10" woofer. The speaker was covered in black grill cloth similar to Vandersteen speakers. For $2600 the sound was impressive. For a two channel stereo/home theater combo, this could be a good starting point.
Aurum Acoustics - Aurum Acoustics is a new company from Newfoundland, Canada. They were demoing prototypes of their two channel stereo system which consisted of their own CD player/digital preamp, two three way floor standing speakers, and amplification. Each of the six speaker drivers are driven by its own amplifier. The two woofers are driven by a Bryston solid state amp attached to the back of each speaker cabinet. Each of the midrange drivers and tweeters are driven by a single 300B vacuum tube amplifier. The four 300B amps were located on two separate amps which look like stereo amps except that each circuit is dedicated to a separate driver. On display as a static exhibit was one large piece of equipment that had all four 300B amps mounted on it. This should be available in the future. Wiring was by modified Cardas. The sound of the system was very impressive. Large soundstage, very detailed, and musical. Pricing is still tentative. The speaker/amps combo will probably be sold for $25,000 to $30,000. The CD player/digital preamp will probably sell for $7000-$8000. An unusual concept but one which makes a lot of sense if you are not a mix and match audiophile.
Buggtussel - I am always impressed when I hear Buggtussel speakers. This year Buggtussel was demoing their speakers in two rooms. I was only able to listen to the room with the Lemniscus speakers and Consonance electronics. In a room with no sound treatment, the sound was detailed, had a broad, deep soundstage, and sounded like music. I would love to hear these speakers in a properly treated room where they would sound their best.
Dehavilland Electric Amplifier Co. - Last year I picked the deHavilland room as "Best Sound of Show". I would do the same again this year, except that deHavilland had an unfair advantage. As their source, they had an Ampex 351-2 open reel tape recorder that had been modified by Kara Chaffee, deHavillands chief designer. The entire playback system consisted of the Ampex feeding a deHavilland Ultraverve preamp, deHavilland GM-70 SET amps, and Alon Lotus Elite Signature speakers all connected with Prana Wire cabling and power cords. Using prerecorded 4 track open reel tapes as the source, the sound was astounding. I was in the room two different times when a Columbia prerecorded tape of Mendelssohns 1st Piano Concerto (Serkin/Ormandy/Philadelphia) was played. Both times at the end of the final movement the people in the room stood up and applauded, just as if they were in a concert hall. This is not normal CES behavior. In addition, the second time there were ten people in the room. All ten people sat through the entire three movements of the 1st piano concerto without talking or getting up and leaving. To have ten CES attendees sit silently through an entire concerto is mind boggling as most attendees normally dash in and out of the rooms. What is even more amazing to me is that as I tried to analyze the sound that I was hearing I was not coming up with a list of superlatives. The soundstage was large, but not humongous. The resolution was detailed, but not incredibly so. The instruments were delineated in space, but not as well as some other systems that I had heard that day. Despite these short comings, what I was hearing was as close to a concert hall experience as I have ever come without being in a concert hall. Truly amazing.
DeVore Gibbon 8/Teres/Glass Amplifier - The Devore speakers were in several rooms, all of which sounded good to excellent. In the Teres/BDR room, the Gibbon 8 was being demoed. The Gibbon 8 is a floor standing, 2 way speaker. With a drop dead gorgeous Teres turntable that featured a BDR (Black Diamond Racing) plinth as a front end and Glass Amplifier electronics (also featuring BDR) the sound was excellentdetailed, musical, fun to listen to.
DeVore Silverback/Gill/Art Audio - In the DeVore room they were demoing their new "Silverback, the new King of the Speaker Jungle". The Silverbacks are a moderately large, 3 way, floor standing speaker. The system used an Accuphase CD player, Gill preamp with an all tube phono stage, Art Audio Diavolo amp using 300B vacuum tubes from KR (12-14 watts per channel). Very nice sound. Even better than the DeVore Gibbon 8/Teres/Glass Amplifier room.
E.A.R. - The E.A.R. room is always one of the best sounding rooms at CES. This year was no exceptionagain excellent soundmusicalinvolving. The front end this year was either an Origin Live Sovereign table with a Conqueror arm and Koetsu Rosewood cartridge or a heavily modified (by Dan Wright of Modwright) Sony SCD-777ES player. Other equipment consisted of the E.A.R. 864 preamp ($3000), E.A.R. 509 anniversary edition monoblock amps ($10,000), Marten Design Coltrane Altos speakers ($22,000), and cabling by Jorma Design. The sound of both vinyl and CDs was killer.
ELP - This is the company that makes the Laser Turntable. I have heard and read about this laser turntable for years. This, however, was my first opportunity to see and hear the Laser Turntable. If you want technical details of the laser turntable go to the companys website www.laserturntable.com. The ELP people played for me one of the LPs that I carried around with me for demo purposes - the Athena reissue of the Vox/Turnabout Prokofiev/Alexander Nevsky/Slatkin/St.Louis Nickrenz/Aubort recording. First off, any LP played on the Laser Turntable has to be extreme clean, otherwise you hear too many ticks and pops. ELP markets their own LP cleaning machine. Once properly cleaned on their LP cleaner, my LP was played. The play back system was provided by Smart Devices and looked more like commercial gear than high end audio. Despite my misgivings about the playback electronics and speakers what I heard from my LP was incredible detail. I heard information from my LP that I have never heard before on any system including mega-buck turntable systems. It was truly amazing. I was stunned. However, in my opinion, the Laser Turntable is too ruthlessly honest. Everything that is on the LP you will hear, whether you want to or not. While I was amazed at what I heard, I did not enjoy it. It was not musical. That could have been due to the electronics used. However, I suspect it is because of the nature of the Laser Turntable. It was an amazing technical demonstration. However, as much as I wish it could be the ultimate replacement for conventional tonearms and cartridges, I dont think it will sell until the laser turntable can reproduce music as opposed to sound. Still, I wish ELP all the luck in the world. They are definitely on to something that needs further development.
Ensemble - Ensemble is a Swiss company that has a reputation for making excellent sounding, though expensive equipment. They sell the entire range of equipment from front ends, to preamps, to amps, to speakers, to interconnects and cabling. While their equipment can be mixed and matched with other equipment, their equipment is designed to sound best connected to other Ensemble products. As I was walking by the open door to their room I heard music enjoyable music. Entering I found a complete Ensemble system. I sat down and played a number of my demo CDs. Everything that I played was wonderfully musical. I did not note the size of the soundstage, the air around the instruments, or the resolution. I forgot about audiophile measurements and just enjoyed the music. A wonderful and relaxing experience.
Herron Audio - I have always enjoyed the sound in the Herron room at CES - so much so that I own a Herron phono stage and a Herron preamp. This year the system consisted of a VPI TNT turntable and a Herron modified Philips CD player (not for sale) as front ends, the new Herron remote controlled solid state preamp, the Herron monoblock solid state amps, and Alon Lotus Elite Signature speakers with Thunderbolt subwoofers. Interconnects were by Herron Audio. The room was essentially the same as last years with the exception of the addition of the subwoofers and the new preamp. This year the sound stage was even wider and deeper than last year. In talking with Keith Herron I asked him if the bigger soundstage was due to the new preamp. He just chuckled and said he had learned a few things during the year that allowed him to expand the soundstage over that provided by his previous preamps. A remote controlled version of his tube preamp with the expanded sound stage will be coming out in the near future. Dang, I guess I will have to buy a new preamp.
HSU Research - Hsu Research was demoing their $500 5.1 home theater system which includes a powered subwoofer. I found the sound to be very impressive in the small demo room. The submarine scene in Finding Nemo was as noisy and as exhilarating as it was in the movie theater. Dr. Hsu has worked his magic again. If you are in the market for an affordable home theater system, give Hsu Research a listen.
Joule/Elrod/Pearl - This room consisted of a VPI Scout Master turntable with DPS Drive ($2400), an Audio Aero Capitale CD player ($7000, a very popular unit seen in many rooms at CES), Joule Electra OPS-2 phono stage ($3700), Joule LA-150 line stage ($5250), Joule Rite of Passage OTL monoblock amps ($28,000), Joseph Audio Pearl speakers ($20,000), with Elrod Power Systems power cords, interconnects, and cables. I thought this room sounded very good last year. This year was no different. The sound was spacious, detailed, effortless, beautiful. I could sit and listen to this system for hours.
Kuzma - Kuzma has a new tone arm and turntable. Unfortunately, it was not playing during the times that I was in the room. The arm is an air bearing arm using 40psi instead of the 5psi that the high pressure ET II uses. The arm is drop dead gorgeous and appears to solve all of the engineering problems such as adjustable, repeatable VTA, etc. that plague many other arms. The arm is currently priced at $7500 but will go up as the US dollar continues to drop. The new reference turntable is currently priced at $6000.
Marchand Electronic - Marchand Electronics is a small company known for their high quality tube and solid state crossovers. The company has now expanded and is producing equalizers, amplifiers, and passive preamps. One of their more interesting products is a amplifier card to fit into your PC. Just slip this card into one slot of your PC. Attach the output from your sound card to the input of the amplifier card and you now have 12 watts x 2 of high end amplification to drive your normal high end loudspeakers. Playing CDs on your PC no longer limits the speakers that you can use. Available as either a kit for $75 or assembled for $100.
Merlin/CAT - The Merlin room is always one of the best sounding rooms at the CES. In previous years Joule electronics had been used. This year they switched to Convergent Audio Technology (CAT). If you are a Joule lover, dont worry, Merlin will be showing with Joule at other shows. The change from Joule to CAT did make a change in the soundeverything makes a difference, of course. The CAT is leaner, more detailed. The Joule lusher and richer. Both sound wonderful. I prefer the Joule/Merlin combination. But if someone gave me the CAT/Merlin combination I could listen contentedly for weeks on end. The Merlins are very detailed throw an enormous sound stage and are really kick-ass on rock and rap. They produce more bass than a speaker their size should. It is always hard to drag myself away from the Merlin room.
Omega/Sun Audio - I had heard the Omega Loudspeakers playing on Sun Audio electronics at VSAC 2003 and was very impressed by both. The Omega speakers come in a range of sizes. All affordably priced$399 to $1399. The speakers are single driver, hence no crossover. The speakers are very efficient 90-96dB sensitivity and a perfect match for single ended triode amps. As one would expect, the little Omega speakers do not extend into the deep bass. I had suggested at VSAC 2003 that they add a subwoofer to the system at CES 2004 they did. With a $599 subwoofer the Omega speakers are now full range with the subwoofer blending seamlessly into the music. The Sun Audio and Eastern Electric tube gear were a perfect and very affordable match for the Omegas. Imagine buying a complete full range audio system using single ended triode amps for less than $5000.
Roan Audio - A new speaker company from Beaveton, Oregon. Their system included an unmodified Philips DVD936SA, Marsh preamp, Monarchy Audio amps, Cardas cabling with their Roan 7 two way vented monitor ($5000). The sound was very good considering the sparsely treated room.
Tetra Speakers - Another new speaker company from Ottawa, Canada. The system used a Lexicon CD player, Conrad Johnson preamp and amp, and Tetras 505 limited 2 way floor standing speakers ($8000). They also had a 5.1 home theater system set up in an adjoining room. Both systems sounded quite good. It would be nice to hear them under non-show conditions.
VMPS - The VMPS room was showing their new RM 30 loudspeakers ($3,500) with their new 215 subwoofer ($695). The RM 30s are the little brothers of the RM 40 speakers that were the best of show at the CES two years ago. Again in a tri-channel configuration using the tri-channel synthesizer that won best of show at CES 2003. Amplification by Ampzilla 2000. The RM 30s only come with one side firing 10" woofer each. Thus, the need for the 215 subwoofer 215 (two 15" woofers). I thought the sound was great, but then I own a pair of VMPS FF-3 speakers. For heavy metal, organ, or large orchestra fans, it is hard to beat VMPS speakers.
Von Schweikert/Spectron - The Von Schweikert VR4jr ($4000) were demoing with Spectron Digital elecronics as they did last year. The sound was clean, clear, and dynamic. I found the sound a bit analytical. But then I like a lush sound. Still a lot of people loved the sound in this room. I would not disagree with them.
Wadia - The system included the new 921 digital preamp/controller (price estimated to be in the $20,000 to $30,000 range), the 270 CD transport with monoblock outboard DACs, Jeff Rowland amp and Avalon Eidolon Diamond speakers. A very clean sound. Very detailed. Very dynamic. More musical than the Von Schwiekert/Spectron room but costing megabucks more.