I had a straight view of McCarran airport from the window of my twelfth-floor room at the Excalibur, and as my wife slept quietly behind me, I watched the planes take off and land while I waited for the sunrise. The garish lights of the MGM Grand and the new Hooters sign slapped on an old hotel failed to mar that beautiful event. A sunrise in the desert has always stirred my soul, but a similar passion for music and audio takes me to the desert each year. Waking up at the crack of dawn to catch the day's events at CES is a necessity—there is so much to do and see, and so little time in which to do it. Still, catching the sunrise on the last day of the show was a great way to start the day.
From the beginning, my trip to Las Vegas had been fraught with one setback after another. The hotel booking had been arranged many months before, so (the cost notwithstanding) that went well, but it was the little things that caused grief, as they do in setting up a high-end audio system. I arrived a day late because of work duties, so Tuesday was shot by the time we got into town and registered at the Excalibur. Then I discovered that I had bought the wrong memory card for our new digital camera, although it was the one the girl at Circuit City said would work. (I could have tried it out before leaving for Las Vegas, but no!) There was also the need to explain to my significant other that we would have to get up at 5:30 AM to have enough time to shower, eat, and endure the painfully slow shuttle ride to the Venetian.
With Wednesday set aside for most of my audio visiting, I concentrated on the Tower rooms and meeting rooms at the Venetian. Thursday would have to be spent either at T.H.E. SHOW or the Convention Center, and I chose the Convention Center because my wife enjoys that much more than going from audio room to audio room while I gawk at gear and talk my head off.
Dave and Carol Clark do such a fine job covering CES that it seems almost redundant for me to report my findings, but their thoroughness did give me the chance to be more at my leisure instead of worrying whether I was missing anything new and exciting. I did manage to visit many rooms, and saw and heard a lot of fine gear, but instead of frantically trying to report on everything, I will only mention the standout rooms.
There were many fine-sounding setups, but my picks are based on two criteria. The first is sound quality, and second is price. The systems below represent sane price points for the working-Joe audiophile like me. Systems costing $200,000 to $500,000 had damned well better sound great, and of course, CES is the place where audio designers flaunt their best and most expensive gear, but most of the people I know—the ones that are not into the hobby—think that the prices in high-end audio are completely insane. I strongly feel that escalating prices, not stodgy technology or format wars, will be the end of high-performance two-channel audio.
The Antique Sound Lab/Divergent Technology room was a treat. The look and build quality of ASL gear has noticeably improved during past few years. Each year at CES, Tash Goka (chief designer) and Joseph Lau Tze Wah (owner) of ASL provide such an affordable yet great-sounding array of eye candy that it almost seems pointless to look further. ASL designs, many of them among my favorites, include passive line stages, easy-to-drive speakers, and of course, racks of tube equipment. My trusty MG-SPM 25 DT monoblocks have been going for several years without so much as a tube going out. At the show, Tash Goka was his usual gracious and accommodating self, easily handling the crowded room of visitors, while Joseph Lau Tze Wah, a quiet man, let the equipment speak for itself.
Kevin Deal of Upscale Audio, who imports the Prima Luna tube electronics, has had great-souding rooms in the last few years. This year, the Prima Luna gear, hooked up to Sonus Faber speakers, produced sweet, musical sound.
The folks at Flying Mole partnered their affordable, yet solidly built amps with Green Mountain Audio speakers in another musically winning room. After a short conversation with Green Mountain designer Roy Johnson about first-order crossovers and time-coherence, I was convinced that his way of speaker design was the way to go. The Flying Mole amplifiers produced uncannily realistic vocal reproduction, but I couldn't help wondering how Roy's speakers would sound hooked up to a good tube amp.
After being convinced that time-coherent speakers were the way to go, I walked into the Devore Fidelity room and was absolutely floored by the sound of John Devore's Super 8 speakers. John uses a "holistic design methodology" to create his designs. Crossover, drivers, and cabinet all work together to create a musical whole. With the Super 8s hooked up to Shindo Lab tube gear by Tone Imports, this system produced the sweetest and most musical sound at this year's CES, regardless of price or design philosophy.
Trudging through the Venetian meeting rooms, I came to two of my favorite audio companies, Margules Audio of Mexico and E.A.R. of England. Margules Audio has consistently made rugged, great-sounding, reliable, and affordable gear. I own their fantastic U280SC stereo tube amp, and even with all of the gear that passes through my system, I have no desire to part with it (except to upgrade to the new version, which has many upgrades). Julian Margules, ever the consummate gentleman, invited me to play some of my CDs, but in line with every other mishap that occurred during my trip to Las Vegas, I'd left them back at the hotel. Not to worry. Mr. Margules switched to an alternative music source—the final version of his IEnd, which is an iPod interface. To quote from the Margules website, the IEnd "improves the sound quality of the iPod and converts it into a audio/video server." Margules slipped an iPod loaded with classical music into the front of the IEnd, and my jaw dropped. To say that the IEnd improves the iPod is definitely an understatement. The music instantly became more spacious, dimensional, full, and grainless. I guess my son is right, and there is something to this iPod craze after all. You just have to listen through an IEnd!
Tim De Paravicini of E.A.R. and Dan Meinwald, E.A.R.'s US importer, always amaze me by playing tapes on a de Paravicini-modified reel-to-reel tape machine. This year, Dan told me to sit down in middle of the back row of the seating arrangement and have a listen. Then he played a copy of the master tape of Dave Alvin's Blackjack David, and it was one of those audio moments, so eerily and mind-blowingly realistic was the sound. Never mind vinyl, reel-to-reel tape is the way to go. And of course, the EAR electronics and Marten loudspeakers also contributed in a big way to create this fantastic musical experience.
So there you have it, Francisco's top five of CES 2007. If you were looking for multi-kilobuck systems among my picks this year, I'm sorry to disappoint you. Read some other CES report. Next year's report will probably not be the one you want to read either. In the last decade, high-end audio has been getting better and better for smaller layouts of cash. Companies like the ones I've mentioned, and quite a few I didn't mention, are leading the way for newbies to enjoy high-performance audio.