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Going to CES is always a lot of fun. Even last year, with the cold, the rain, the wind, and even the snow flurries, it was fun. This year the weather was perfect. Crystal clear skies and the temperature in the high 60s - warm enough you did not need to lug a jacket around, and cool enough that you didnít die of heat prostration in the rooms with the large tube amplifiers. The number of exhibitors appeared to be down from prior years. T.H.E. Show at the St. Tropez had slightly fewer exhibitors than were at the Audio Fest in Denver last Fall. There also did not seem to be as many people in the rooms or wandering in the corridors and walkways. Still, the exhibitors that I talked with said that they were very happy with the foot traffic. Yes, there were ebbs and flows and even slack time occasionally in their rooms. Again, that was something that didnít happen in prior years. However, the exhibitors said the quality of the people dropping by was high; i.e. lots of dealers and distributors, not as many lookie-loos.
With only being able to spend three days at CES this year, there was no way that I could get to every room. However, five of my audiophile friends were also attending, so at least twice a day I would check with them to see if there were any good sounding rooms that I had missed. Also, if a room was so crowded that I could not play my own CDs, I did not stick around. Unless I can hear music that I am familiar with, I can not form an opinion as to the quality of the reproduction. Likewise, if the sound emanating from a room can be heard in the next building, I also skipped the room. If I skipped your room, sorry.
Of the rooms that I did get to spend time in, I found the following, in no particular order, had excellent sound:
Von Gaylord Audio - Von Gaylord provides a complete system―Lad-2 amplifier ($4495), Uni liquid cooled tube amplifiers ($59,000), Legend Mk II loudspeakers ($3995), and their top of the line Chincilla interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords. There are advantages to having all of the components made by one manufacturer. Beautifully detailed sound. Huge sound stage. Very natural. I dropped in three times and each time was captivated by the sound. I wish the Uni (sea urchin in Japanese) amplifier was not so expensive.
Aurum Acoustics - Aurum is a small company from near St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada. This is their third year of exhibiting at CES. The previous two years, Aurum was demoing a prototype of a complete 300B based system, including CD player. This year they were still demoing a prototype, but production is about to commence. The system consists of an integrated CD player and amplifier, a stereo tri-amplifier, and a pair of three-way loud speakers ($44,000 for the system including cabling). The stereo amplifier is actually six amplifiers. There are four 300B single ended amplifiers―one each to drive the midrange and tweeters. There are also two Bryston solid state amplifiers to drive the 10" woofers. Cabling is by Cardas. Three years in a row I have been impressed by the sound. Solid bass. Extended highs. Very musical on all types of music including heavy metal. Not being able to mix and match components seems unnatural to an audiophile. However, for a person who wants a complete turnkey system and has the bucks, this system should be on their short list.
Herron Audio - Herron was again demoing a complete Herron system with the exception of the DiMarzio M-Path speaker cables ($500). The source was a VPI HR-X turntable with OC-9 cartridge. The electronics consisted of a Herron VTPH-2 phono stage (prototype $3650), Herron VTSP-2 vacuum tube preamplifier ($4995), Herron M1 solid state mono block amplifiers ($6850 per pair), Herron ESP-1 loudspeakers (prototype), Herron S118 subwoofers (prototype) and Herron Interconnects ($225 + $25 per meter). Each year the Herron room is, to my ears, one of the top three sounding rooms at CES. Detailed. Musical. Relaxed. Huge soundstage. All this accomplished in one of the small hotel rooms at the Alexis Park (now Alexis Villas) with minimal sound treatment. I do own a Herron VTPH-1 phono stage and a Herron VTSP-1 amplifier. So I am very partial to the neutrality and musicality of Herron equipment.
E.A.R. - The star of the E.A.R. room this year was the Disc Master turntable ($13,500). It had been shown last year as a prototype. It is now a final product. The turntable was equipped with a Helius tonearm ($2600), and an Ortofon Contrapunkt cartridge. The electronics consisted of the E.A.R. Acute CD Player ($5495), E.A.R. 912 preamplifier ($10,000), E.A.R. 890 amplifier, Marten Design Miles III loudspeakers ($12,500), and Jorma No. 1 speaker cables ($3,700 1 meter) and interconnects ($3,100 1 meter). The music played via the turntable was most impressive. Dead quiet. Dynamic. Musical. The turntable definitely needs extended listening to get more familiar with it. Thus, I have arranged to have it, and the Helius tonearm, spend two weeks in my listening room. Wish it could be longer. As always, the E.A.R. room was a pleasure to visit. Music, finely and beautifully reproduced.
Audio Space / Maxxhorn - I had heard the Maxxhorn loudspeakers at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest last Fall. Driven by Vacuum State DPA-300B amplifiers the Maxxhorn ($9000) loudspeakers had sounded incredibly good. This time the Maxxhorns were being driven by Audio Space electronics. Initially, with the Line-2 preamplifier ($2390) and the Audio Space AS-6M 300B based push-pull monoblock amplifier ($3690) and later with the Audio Space AS-6MSE single ended 300B based monoblock amplifiers ($3200). The listening room was full of equipment and loudspeakers and there was a lot of noise coming from the adjoining room. Despite that, I was very impressed by what I heard. The Maxxhorns did not have any of the megaphone sound that I hear from many horn speakers and the sound was excellent. Both the Maxxhorns and Audio Space equipment need to be on our short list if you are looking for efficient, full range horn speakers and relatively affordable tube equipment.
Hsu Research - Hsu Research means subwoofers. In this case powered subwoofers (STF-3 Turbo) capable of sustained 16Hz organ pedal notes that rattled the walls and floor for $899 matched with bookshelf speakers for $200. Watching the submarine scene in Finding Nemo in the Hsu room was even more fun than seeing it in the movie theater. For home theater or a second system, the Hsu speakers are hard to beat. Incredible performance at their price point.
Pioneer - Pioneer may actually have done it right this time. In the past, the BIG Japanese electronics companies would announce their entry into the High End with lots of fanfare and then quietly withdraw from the High End market when they realized their heavily advertised products sounded like glorified Mid Fi and not High End. This time around Pioneer has joint ventured with TAD, a well respected High End company. Together they have produced the EX Speaker Series which consists of the S-1EX Floorstander 3-way speakers ($9000), the S-2EX Compact Monitors 3-way speakers ($6000), the S-7EX Center Channel, and the S-W1EX subwoofer. In the Pioneer room they were demoing just the S-1EX Floorstander with all Bel Canto electronics. The sound was quite good―definitely High End. Assuming these speakers are heavily discounted like most Pioneer electronics, these speakers would definitely be worth a listen.
Atma-Sphere / Classic Audio Reproductions / Tri-Planar - The Atma-Sphere room is always a must visit. Lots of good music, though of a different kind. My Therion Secret of the Runes LP, which usually drives people from the room, was well received as was my Rammstein Mutter LP on my last visit. The equipment in the room was Atma-Sphere MP-3 amplifier and S-30 Mk III OTL amplifier, the Classic Audio Reproductions T-3 loudspeakers, and a Tri-planar tonearm with Grasshopper 3 Gold cartridge on a Kuzma Reference turntable. This room was always full of people having a good time. They must be doing something right.
DeHavilland / PranaWire / Redpoint - The source was a Redpoint Audio Design Series D turntable ($16,000) with an Ikeda IT405 12" arm and an Ortofon SPU Royal GM cartridge ($9000 for arm and cartridge). The electronics consisted of the deHavilland Mercury II amplifier ($3995) and the Aries GM-70 monoblock amplifiers ($9950). The loudspeakers were from Sound Fusion. The speaker cables, interconnects, and power cords were by PranaWire. The sound for the first two days of the show was not spectacular. However, by day three things had been sorted out, equipment had been replaced, and all was right with the world. Analog sound does not get much better than this.
Pacific Creek - The electronics consisted of a Sony CD player, a Pacific Creek P901 integrated tube amplifier ($1399), and von Schweikert VR-4 jr loudspeakers ($3995). This was a very modestly priced system in an untreated room, yet there was something fundamentally correct about the sound. Definitely worth a listen if you are in the market for tube gear.
Merlin / Joule Electra - Merlin was back in the smaller room that they had used for many years until three years ago. Also back were the Joule Electra electronics that had been used in prior years. The sound came from an Audio Aero Capitole Reference CD Player ($9580), Joule Electra LAP-150 amplifier ($7550) and VZN 100 OTL monoblock amplifiers ($18,000), Merlin VSM loudspeakers with Super BAM ($10,500), and cabling by Cardas. The Merlins and the Joule Electras are a marriage made in heaven. Smooth, natural, musical. A moderately expensive system and worth every penny.
VMPS / Bruce Moore - VMPS was demoing their RM-30C loudspeakers with the new constant directivity waveguide. The waveguide replaces the usual grill cloth with a solid covering over the tweeter and the three ribbon midrange drivers. The covering has a slot cut down the middle that is 2/3rds of an inch wide. The slot serves as a diffraction grating that turns the midrange drivers and tweeter from point sources into line sources. Line sources radiate in a 180 degree dispersion pattern―hence the term constant directivity. The advantage of constant directivity is that there no longer is a sweet spot. The sound is essentially the same anywhere in front of the speakers. This is a big claim that I was most anxious to test seeing as I own a pair of RM30M loudspeakers. I tested the claim by moving around the room while playing a number of my CDs. The constant directivity waveguides worked as claimed. Until you went behind the plane formed by the front of the two loudspeakers the sound was essential the same regardless of your position. No more sweet spot. Amazing. The Bruce Moore tube electronics mated very well with the VMPS speakers. In fact, to my ears, this is the best the VMPS room has ever sounded and that includes the two years when they won Best of Show at CES in 2002 and 2003.
Things to Come
Lyngdorf Audio used to be the Danish half of TacT. The company split in two and the American half remained TacT and the Danish half became Lyngdorf. Lyngdorf had two rooms. In the main room they had a demo of a digital room correction system. Take a reading at the sweet spot, then readings at three random spots and the black box (Millennium ADC) will automatically calculate the necessary room corrections for both the sweet spot and for a larger area around the sweet spot. CDs were played with no room correction, with correction applied for the larger area around the sweet spot, and for the sweet spot. There was a noticeable improvement with either room correction mode with the sweet spot correction mode sounding the best if you were sitting in the sweet spot. Though this was not demoed, it was mentioned that in addition to room corrections, tone controls could be programed into the Millennium ADC. Thus, if your CD is too bright, you could roll off the top end. Or if your woofer rolls off too quickly at the bottom end, you can add bass boost. Very versatile without the sonic degradation you would encounter with analog tone controls.
In the smaller Lyngdorf room was a demo of a prototype of an A to D converter. LPs were played on a turntable and then converted to digital and then back to analog. The system was not a finished product, but the sound was not excessively digital sounding. What I found intriguing was the fact that the RIAA equalization curve was being implemented in the digital domain. In fact, in the finished A to D converter you will be able to program in any equalization curve, for those old 78s or for pre RIAA 33 1/3rd LPs. The output from the converter would then go to a room correction box, then to a D to A converter and then to any amplifier. I find this a very interesting concept and hope next year will bring a finished product.
After visiting the Lyngdorf room I stopped by the Spectron/Von Schweikert room. In a conversation with John Ulrich, the brains behind Spectron, I talked to him about digital room correction and digital signal processing (DSP). John said that Spectron is very interested in DSP, particularly as it applies to home theater. Spectron had on display a prototype of a new 7.1 digital amplifier. John also mentioned that the cost of DSP chips has dropped tremendously and the chips come with very useful and powerful software. Thus, the cost to include DSP features in commercial products has been dropping dramatically. The audio hardware of the future will probably be a computer with large hard drives and at least one, if not more, DSP chips.
On another visit to the Spectron/von Schwiekert room I had a chance to talk with Albert von Schweikert. We discussed the possibility of building loudspeakers with the crossovers implemented in software via DSP chips rather than hardware. Albert said the technology is changing fast. Last year external DSP crossovers would not have been possible. This year, they are possible, but expensive. In ten years, they may dominate the field.
So, it would appear that we are facing rapidly changing technology. Even people with a non-video, two channel stereo system may very well end up with a digital command center in their system. The digital command center would serve as phono stage, A to D converter, amplifier (with volume and tone controls), room correction device, and loudspeaker crossovers. In addition, it would store all of your digital and analog music for instant recall. I canít wait for CES 2007.