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You've heard this many times, but it is worth repeating: It is difficult to make meaningful assessments of audio systems at shows. If a system doesn't sound good, it doesn't mean it cannot sound good in different circumstances. Sometimes, rooms conspire against speakers, and given the costs of shows, manufacturers often share their rooms with other manufacturers without knowing whether the equipment will mesh with theirs. On the other hand, if a system sounds good, there's a good chance that it will do so elsewhere.
Before I move on to the good stuff, I should also mention one of the problems involved with attending CES. Many listeners bring test CDs that qualify as torture. Maybe you like hearing closely-miked musical instruments. If so, God bless you, but stay away from me. My wife and I left some rooms after being tortured by sound rather than being entertained or touched by music.
You've also heard this many times, but it's the people who make CES enjoyable. Audiophiles are strange people. We get so passionate about interconnects, disc cleaners, or other things that are inexplicable to non-audiophiles. The common denominator, even if you don't believe in a tweak, is the person sharing it so passionately. Talking to people at the shows often provides most of the entertainment.
Also entertaining are the different theories that people have about why their system works, and why it is the best solution. One person will tell you that turntables should have a low-mass platter, another that it should be high-mass and made of metal, another that it should be acrylic, yet another that acrylic only works if you use a metal clamp. In addition to their passion, these designers also have accomplishments that seem to suggest that they must be right. This was the first CES to which I brought the understanding that there is always more than one way to skin a cat, er, audiophile problem, having witnessed wildly different theories yielding similar results.
My short list of rooms that sounded special are not intended to slight the work of those not mentioned, but simply to acknowledge the ones I found special. I didn't step into every room, so don't take this as anything other than happenstance.
Combak Reimyo. The boys at 6moons.com have identified Combak's all-in-one player as the best they've heard. I can't respond to that, as I haven't heard it in my system. It was playing with the Reimyo 300B amplifier ($21,995), the ALS 777 line conditioner ($3795), the CAT 777 preamplifier ($13,995), and the little Bravo! speaker ($3895) with subwoofer (no price yet), for a not insignificant system price of more than $44,000. Also playing a role were the Enacom AC, interconnect, and speaker filters. The system was magical. Its emotional engagement exceeded that of all others, to my ears. Part of the attraction was the system's capacity to outline the minute details with finesse, allowing the emotional content to be laid bare. One of the Combak designers was there, and touted the Enacom AC filters as the factor that allowed the system to deliver emotional passion. I have requested to listen to a set of these little devils, so look for further comments.
The DeVore Gibbon 8 speakers, coupled with Shindo amplification, provided excellent, very musical sound. The Gibbon 8s are two-ways that retail for around $3000. The Shindo amplifiers have also been identified by the 6moons.com gang as exceptional, and I think they are onto something. I heard excellent sound, with sweet detail, on Bizet's Carmen. I would be interested in hearing more from Shindo, my time and Shindo's interest permitting.
The Reference 3A MM De Capos were making great sound with an Antique Sound Lab amplifier in the $2500 to $3500 range and a CD player I don't recall. As in the Combak room, the speakers were two-ways, and the system had two-way sound. Marvelous.
At Hudson Audio, Louis Chochos' Omega speakers were making great music with a Consonance amplifier and CD player. Also playing was the Eurolab Premier turntable with a Moerch UP-4 arm holding onto the musical but obscure J. Allaerts cartridge. Both fount ends sounded marvelous. Oh, and the Omegas were only $800 a pair! Wow. I may have a pair of these shortly.
E.A.R. Tim de Paravicini introduced a number of exotic new products, including a turntable with a magnetically-suspended platter and a solid state integrated amplifier, which was playing with Marten Design's new Duke mini-monitors. I preferred the sound of the Dukes by themselves to that of the Dukes with the accompanying subwoofer (cleverly named the Ellington). There was not a trace of grain with the Dukes and the solid state E.A.R. amp, which sounded very nice, coming in at around $4500.
The Ensemble room also sounded good, though it was missing the emotionality present in the Reimyo and Reference 3A rooms. Perhaps the passion that Combak's Enacom filters provide will allow more passion to develop.
Not at quite the same level were the Revolver speakers, which, though small and inexpensive, produced very nice sound, especially when mated to the elegant and beautiful Nightingale amplification from Italy. Nightingale also introduced its new Gala line of gear, which abandons wood enclosures for a more industrial look.Larry Cox