The 2007 CES has come and gone. Many had predicted disaster because of the change in venue from the Alexis Park Hotel, where it had been for a decade, to the Venetian Hotel. Depending upon who you talked to, the Venetian was either a total success or a total disaster. One manufacturer arrived in town and immediately went to his room. Waiting for him in his room were all of the crates and boxes that he had shipped ahead. Everything was unpacked, set up, and fine tuned by the next day. He thought his room sounded the best it ever had. This he attributed to the concrete floors and walls as opposed the flexible wooden floors of the Alexis Park. I had to agree with him, his room sounded the best that I had ever heard it. With lots of foot traffic over the four show days, this manufacturer had a great show and could not wait to come back next year. On the other side of the coin, another manufacturer who usually has a very good sounding room, had opted for one of the larger rooms created by partitioning off one of the ballrooms. These ballrooms, which were on three floors, were a long, long walk from the tower hotel rooms. There was no signs to direct CES attendees to these rooms. As a consequence foot traffic was very low. You could have shot a cannon double loaded with grape shot down the corridors and hallways and not hit a single person on the day that I visited this section. Even worse, the partitions that separated the ballrooms into smaller rooms had virtually no sound absorbing capabilities. If the stereo was playing loud in one room, it drowned out the sound in the surrounding rooms. Several of the exhibitors that I talked to had given up trying to play any music in their rooms. Not able to play music and very low foot traffic—this was a total disaster. So the Venetian was either the best of worlds or the worst of worlds.
The experience at T.H.E. SHOW, the alternative high end show, located at the St. Tropez Hotel was very different. The rooms are close together so you don't have to walk miles and miles. Most of the exhibits were on the ground floor so not much stair climbing and no 20 minute waits for the elevator like at the Venetian. The only drawback to the St. Tropez is that it is no longer within walking distance of the CES high-end rooms. The Alexis Park and the St. Tropez are next door to each other. Thus, in the past it was very easy to walk back and forth between the two venues. This year it was necessary to take the free shuttle between the two venues. Unfortunately, due to heavy CES traffic and road construction, the shuttle ride the first day could take up to an hour. However, the shuttle drivers learned to use back streets, alleys and to drive through parking lots to keep from being stuck in traffic. By the last day, the shuttle run in both directions was running 7-10 minutes except late in the day during rush hour. Despite the shuttle bus off drop-off point being right next to the Venetian, it was still a very long walk into the Venetian, then a long walk all the way across the casino floor to get to the elevators. The Venetian is cleverly designed. Once you are inside, it takes a lot of effort and time to get to the exits and leave. They want you to spend your money there. Because of the time and effort required to go between the venues, foot traffic at the T.H.E. SHOW was less than last year. In addition, when people did come from the Venetian to the St. Tropez, their time was limited so they tended to visit the rooms of known manufacturers or rooms with hot products. The exhibitors from relatively unknown companies complained about the lack of foot traffic. The established manufacturers, however, said the foot traffic was very good and that they were very pleased with the venue. Overall, my subjective opinion was that there was a higher percentage of good sounding rooms at the St. Tropez than at the Venetian.
So with that background, on to a list of what I found to be the better sounding rooms. However, first the standard caveat. I did not get to all of the rooms at either the Venetian or the St. Tropez. Some rooms were too crowded every time I stopped by. I was not able to play my own music in some rooms. If I can not hear my own music, I cannot form an opinion regarding the sound. And in some rooms they played the music too LOUD, so I did not go in. As I met friends and colleagues in the hallways we did exchange notes on which rooms had excellent sound. I tried to visit all of the recommended rooms.
The music that I used to evaluate the systems included:
Sony 9699-89029 Barber Violin Concerto, third movement, Hilary Hahn
Hepcat HPCD 001, The Duo-Tones, Surf Music (two acoustic guitars)
Bigboy Record BBCD 5901, Iz Kamakawiwo'ole, Facing Future (male voice)
Teldec 9031-74717, Rachmaninoff, Suite No. 1 op.5, Paques, Martha Argerich (two pianos)
4AD 45916, Lisa Garrard, The Mirror Pool, Sanvean (female voice)
BSX Records BSXCD 8822, Henry Mancini, Lifeforce, Theme (large orchestral)
Universal 314 549 639, Rammstein, Mutter, Ich Will (heavy metal)
DGC 24727, Nirvana, Unplugged, About a Girl
Island 12WP 6598, The Secret Policeman's Ball, Pete Townshend solo with acoustic guitar
Warner Bros 25491, Trio (Parton, Ronstadt & Harris), The Pain of Loving You
Columbia OC 40158, Judas Priest, Turbo, Turbo Lover
The rooms that I found to have excellent sound, in no particular order:
Nola (Accent Speaker Technology) and Western Electric
The Nola Speakers being demoed were the Viper Reference ($12,000). Upstream was a Western Electric CD Player ($8500), a Conrad Johnson Art 2 preamp and the Western Electric Type 97-A monoblock amps ($85,000). Everything was connected with Nordost cabling. The sound was very spacious and musical. I suspect that the rows of 300B vacuum tubes in the amps had something to do with the sound.
As usual, everything in the Herron room was made by Herron: VTSP-2 preamp ($4995), M1 monoblock amps ($6850), VTPH-2 phono stage ($3650), interconnects ($225 per 1m pair) and loudspeakers. The only gear that was not Herron were the VPI HRX turntable with 12.7 tonearm, the AT OC9/II cartridge and the speaker cables. Keith Herron is still working on his loudspeaker design. This iteration of his design was much smaller than previous prototypes that he has shown. Also, there were no separate subwoofers this time. The Herron VTPH-2 phono stage that I have heard as prototypes at previous shows is now in production. In addition, Keith had a little box that was a reverse RIAA; i.e. if you input a signal from a CD player, the box rolls off the lows and accentuates the highs just as is done when making vinyl records. This signal is then fed into a phono stage that restores the signal to normal. These types of boxes, which are available from a number of manufacturers, are usually used to burn-in a new phono stage. However, Keith found that the music from his highly modded Philips CD player sounded better if it was run through the Reverse RIAA box and then through the new phono stage and then into the preamp rather than being input directly into the preamp. Keith did an A-B comparison for me and later for some friends of mine. We all heard an improvement when the signal was put through the reverse RIAA box and then through the phono stage. This, of course, is counter-intuitive. Putting more electronics in the signal path should make the sound worse, not better. Keith is going to do additional experimentation to see what is happening and why. The sound in the Herron room was detailed and very musical. A number of people commented to me that they thought the Herron room was the best sounding room that they had visited at either the Venetian or the St. Tropez. It was certainly in my top three.
Aurum sells a complete, captive system. This means for one price you get a combination CD player/preamp, two three-way speakers, six amps and all of the necessary cabling for a price of around $46,000. The six amps are built into one piece of equipment: four single ended triode 300B amps and two 100w solid state amps. The solid state amps drive the two woofers and the four 300B SETs drive the two midrange and two tweeters. I have heard prototypes of this system at previous shows and thought they sounded very good. The design is now finalized and systems have been for sale for almost a year. I love the sound of the 300B tube. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed listening to this system so much. It did so many things right that I didn't have time to listen for weaknesses. Even if you are not in the market for a complete system, I suggest you give this system a listen to if you ever get the chance.
Usher had two rooms. The room that I liked the most used all Usher equipment: CD-1 CD Player ($800), P-307A preamp ($2280), and R-1-5 amp ($2520). Cabling was JPS Illuminata. I heard the system first with the small V-601 two-way stand mounted speakers ($700) and then with the large floor standing BE-10 ($14,400). For $6500, the system with the V-601 sounded very good. It is a system that many can afford and which provides a very listenable sound. Its errors are errors of omission, not commission. Of course the system sounded very different and much better with the BE-10 - for an extra $13,700 it should. I have heard the Usher speakers at a number of shows and have been favorably impressed by their great bang-for-the-buck sound. If you have a Usher dealer near you, I would definitely give all of the Usher gear a listen.
Lansche is a Germany loudspeaker manufacturer and they were demoing their No. 4.1 floorstanding loudspeakers ($4500). Upstream was an EMM CDSD transport, a Grimm Audio CC1 clock cleaner and matrix generator, a Bent Audio TAP-TVC preamp and an Einstein tube amp. All connected with Stealth cabling. Lanasche uses the successor to the Corona Ion tweeter. The highs were very nice. Definitely a company to keep on your short list.
The Emerald Physics Nemesis CS1 loudspeaker is very different. Each speaker contains a 1" tweeter, two 8 inch mid-range drives and three 15 inch woofers—all open baffle. The cross-over is a 6 channel DSP (digital signal processor). The speakers are set up to be tri-amped. In this case three ICE amps were used. Frequency response is 20Hz to 22kHz -3dB. Very good sound—wide and expansive soundstage, musical and very dynamic. The room had two Shakti Holographs in the back corners, Shakti Stones on top of the ICE amps, and Shakti Onlines on the tweeter speaker wires. The A-B demo of the Holographs showed that the Holographs did improve the sound. DSP crossovers are the wave of the future.
Symposium, of Roller-block fame, was demoing a very large ribbon loudspeaker with subwoofer towers ($65,000). The ribbons were of Symposium's own design. The system is essentially a prototype. A much smaller, more affordable speaker ($10,000), is the ultimate goal. Everyone that I talked to that had visited the room were highly impressed. Definitely a loudspeaker to keep tabs on.
Studio is a new company which was demoing their Type 3 loudspeaker ($6500), along with their own amp (with two inputs and stepped attenuator $6500). The front end was a Sony Pro CD player and Benchmark DAC. Very musical, with good detail and sound staging. This is a company to keep an eye on.
In this room I heard both the Sentient F200A two way floor standing speakers and the SP-M2 two way monitors. Both speakers use a Fostex driver, plus tweeter. The source for both speakers was an Exemplar CD player. The floor standing speaker utilized a Belles 28A preamp and a Belles 150A amp. The monitors utilized a Belles Soloist 3 preamp and a Belles Soloist 5 amp. Both systems had a very natural and effortless sound. The floor standers could play a little bit lower, but both speakers sounded very nice.
The Fujitsu Ten room was demoing their Eclipse speakers. The source was an off the shelf Denon CD player driven by a Fujitsu Ten 30 watt per side integrated amp. The speakers are essentially eyeballs mounted on a short pole. The speakers are single driver and have no crossover. I heard both the TD510 ($2000 per pair) and the TD712 ($7000 per pair). Being single drivers in a small oval shell, neither speaker could go low by itself. Both speakers were demoed with and without a subwoofer. With the subwoofer, the sound was full range and seamless. The speakers filled the small room with an immense sound stage. The music was natural. Imaging was quite good. Because of their small size I imagine neither speaker would be able to fill a large room with 110dB of sound. However, in a small room, with the subwoofer, they should be able to play very loud, though not to rock concert levels. The TD712 is the better sounding speaker. However, the TD150 is a bargain at its price. Well worth a listen if you have the chance.
Audio Note USA
Audio Note had two rooms. One room contained their entry level (lower priced) equipment: CD 2.1x MkII CD player ($3500), M3 preamp ($6600), Conquest amps ($10,500), and Type J loudspeakers ($3750). The loudspeakers were placed on top of end tables in the corners of the room. The sound was very good considering the absence of room treatment. Very enjoyable sound on which a number of fellow attendees favorably commented.
The Merlin room has been very impressive the last few years. This year was the best yet with the latest version of the Merlin VSM-MXE loudspeakers ($10,500) with battery powered Super BAM (bass augmentation module), the Joule-Electra VZN-100 Mk 4 mono blocks ($18,000), and the new Joule-Electra LA-150 Mk 2 preamp ($7950) with Cardas cabling. This combination threw a wide, deep sound stage, with imaging to die for, and it allowed the heart and soul of the music to come through. The VSM-MXE speakers are fairly small floor standing speakers (43" x 8.5" x 9.5"). However, with the BAM their frequency response is 33Hz-22Khz +/- 2dB. On the Rachmaninoff Paques, the pounding left hand came through with authority. On the Lifeforce CD the double basses growled impressively in their lowest octave. Every CD I played was a joy to listen to. I could very happily live with these speakers in my listening room.
Since I currently own my third pair of VMPS speakers I must like their sound. This year a new speaker was being demoed, the RM V60 (RM for ribbon monitor, 60 because each speaker has 6 mid-range ribbon drivers (plus a spiral ribbon tweeter), and V because the speaker is an open baffle with a 7" front and 22" sides sweeping back in a V). The V sits on top of a base that includes three 6 ˝" woofers. The outboard crossover fits in a cutout in the base. External subwoofer(s) are need to complete the system. Being demoed with the V60 were two of the new VSS (very substantial subs) with 2" thick sides, one 15" driver driven by a built-in 1000 watt solid state amp with electronic crossover and single-band parametric equalizer, and one 15" passive radiator. The upstream electronics consisted of a Audience modded Denon 3910 CD player, the new Spread Spectrum Technologies Ambrosia preamp, and Atma-sphere MA-2 MkII.3 220 watt OTL monoblocks. All cabling was by Audience.
I think the V60s are unique in that the back wave from the mid-range ribbons fires into a reverse horn which can be completely open, completely closed or anything in between depending on where in the V you place the supplied foam wedge. This provides a lot of flexibility in positioning the speaker as well as tuning the speaker to your room and personal tastes. Also the speaker was done in drop dead gorgeous rosewood. With their Constant Directivity Wave Guides concealing most of the ribbons and tweeter, I think these speakers will have a high acceptance factor with significant-others.
Over the four days I visited the room a number of times and got to play all of my CDs. The sound was detailed and musical with pinpoint imaging. I got to play one last CD before they started to break down the room on Thursday. I played Rammstein, LOUD. Wow! It is the best I have ever heard that CD and I have played it in many rooms with equipment costing substantially more. I talked to over ten attendees about the VMPS room. All were very impressed with not one bad comment. Looks like Brian Cheney has another winner. The V60 starts at $8900 and has a number of options regarding wiring, crossovers, caps, etc. The VSS are $1650 each.