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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 4
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CES 2003
by Roger S. Gordon

 

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Roger S. Gordon with Lila Ritsma

Attending the CES in Las Vegas is always a fun time. It is great to talk with old friends, to see and touch the latest and greatest audio equipment, to listen to great music played on great systems and to eat at the restaurants and buffets for which Las Vegas is famed. This CES I found particularly memorable because of the many rooms with good sound. At some CESs the number of rooms with good sound could be numbered on the fingers of one hand. Not so this year. Hallelujah!

Trying to get a critical listen in all of the demo rooms at the CES Alexis Park and also T.H.E. Show (which was at the San Remo Hotel) is impossible. I spent all day Thursday, Friday and Saturday visiting rooms and still did not get to all of the rooms. I did get to the rooms that I thought might have good sound and I checked periodically with friends who were also making the rounds and compared notes as to which rooms they felt were worth visiting. So, the following list is not an all inclusive list. No flames, please!

In no particular order are the following rooms where I found the sound memorable:

deHavilland Electric Amplifier Company Located in a small room at T.H.E. Show, deHavilland was using their UltraVerve preamplifier and their Aries 845-G amplifier. The front end was a Sony SACD77ES with a California Labs Alpha D/A. Speakers were Alon Lotus Elite Signatures and all cabling by Cardas. This room was my "Best Sound of Show" room. My CD of two acoustic guitars playing surf music(1) sounded incredibly real. The two tracks of Lisa Gerrard's(2) singing raised the hairs on the back of my neck it sounded so real. Soundstaging, imaging, you name it, everything was perfect. An ideal system—until you start playing large orchestral music.

Playing The Gladiator Waltz track from the More Music From Gladiator CD(3) was educational. This track is similar to The Battle track on the original Gladiator CD(4). The music is very loud with lots of low bass. One of my friends used The Battle track at the 2002 CES to see how many different amps he could drive into clipping—quite a few as it turned out, including a number of well known solid state amps. While listening to The Gladiator Waltz track I heard the low notes. I could feel the briefcase sitting on my lap vibrating from the bass. However, I didn't viscerally feel the bass. It was a very odd experience to hear the bass, but not feel it. The Alon Lotus Elite Signature speakers are rated down to 28Hz. So I did not think that they were the problem. What I suspected was that the single 845 vacuum tube that powers each monoblock (rated at 30 watts per channel) was not adequate to the task.

I tried to answer that question by going over to the Alexis Park and playing the same CDs in the Alon by Acarian Systems room. The Alon room was also using the Lotus Elite Signature speakers. However, they were augmented with two Alon Thunderbolt powered subwoofers. Other equipment included a Conrad-Johnson ART series II line stage, Antique Sound Labs Hurricane 200 watt/channel mono block amplifiers, and Metronome T1A transport and C20 Signature DAC. The Alon system had bass, it had slam, it had dynamics. The Alon system had everything—except the magic of the deHavilland system.

Memo to self: get your hands on a pair of deHavilland 845-G amps and try bi-amping with the deHavillands on top and a high current/high wattage amp on the bottom.

Buggtussel, LLC.  The Buggtussel room was also at T.H.E. Show. It was in a small room that was devoid of any sound treatment. No reflectors. No absorbers. Not even a blanket hung over the window. I asked Buggtussel owner and designer Dr. Kevin Blair about the lack of room treatment. He said that if his speakers sounded this good without treatment, just think how they would sound in the customer's home with treatment. Definitely an interesting viewpoint.

The system he was demoing was a Marantz DV8300 DVD-Audio/SACD player, a Consonance C1 integrated amplifier, and the Buggtussel Lemniscus speakers. The sound was good, but not great. I definitely wonder what the speakers would sound like in a properly treated room. These are speakers that need further listening.

TS Engineering, Inc. dba Precision Sound Labs TS Engineering is a company that specializes in machining metal. Its owner loves music and has designed a loudspeaker that contains no wood, no MDF, no organic material in the structure what-so-ever. The speaker and crossover enclosures are machined out of 5/8" thick aluminum sheets. The standard knock test of the speaker cabinets was like knocking on an anvil. No vibration, just a meaty thud. The speakers sort of look like the Pipedreams; i.e. two vertical columns of speakers—one column of mid/woofers and one column of tweeters mounted on the face of each speaker. There is a separate self-powered subwoofer for the low bass. The speakers come in two foot tall sections which you can bolt together. From a distance you can not tell where the sections are joined. The sections all sound alike. Adding the extra sections just increases the amount of air the speakers can move. The speakers sounded very respectable. For a first time exhibitor with a radical new approach to speaker construction I was very impressed.

Sugden The Sugden electronics from England have always impressed me with their big sound from such small boxes. If space is at a premium, give Sugden a look. The system that I heard at the Alexis Park consisted of the Sugden CDMaster CD Player, the Sugden Headmaster headphone and line preamp, the Sugden MusicMaster 15wpc Class A amp driving a pair of Proac Tablette 8 Reference Signature speakers. Very nice sound.

Merlin Music Systems, Inc. The Merlin room at the CES has always been a place for good music and usually excellent sound. This year was no exception. No system that I heard threw a deeper, more layered soundstage. Playing the Sanvean track from Lisa Gerrard's The Mirror Pool (5) was incredible. The recording was made in a concert hall—I suspect in the home of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra which provided the musicians for the track. With the Merlin VSM Millenium speakers you were surrounded by a cavernous hall. No other system that I listened to came close to reproducing that feeling of being in an immense hall. Stunning. The system also does a very good job of playing rap music. (Some of the more interesting music is played after hours at the end of the day.) The Merlins were driven by Joule-Electra electronics including the 100wpc VZN-100 Mk.III (Marquis) OTL monoblock amplfiers. Wiring by Cardas.

Joule-Electra Besides powering the Merlin room, Joule-Electra also had their own room. In the Joule-Electra room, the preamp was the LAP-150 and the amplifiers were the new Heaven's Gate transformer coupled single-ended class A monoblocks driving Talon Khorus speakers. Cabling was by Elrod Power Systems. The Talon speakers had just come from the factory with no break-in time. On the morning of the first day the system sounded bad. I stopped back that evening and the sound had improved. I stopped back several more times over the next two days. Each time the sound got better and better. By Saturday evening, the system was sounding really good—a large, deep soundstage with excellent detail. It was a very musical sounding system.

It was interesting contrasting how my CDs sounded in the Joule-Electra room versus how they sounded in the Merlin room. The sound in the Merlin room was very detailed, very analytical, very spectacular but still musical and so listenable that I could have spent hours there. The sound in the Joule-Electra room was warm and inviting. It did not have the detail of the Merlins, but you just wanted to curl up in front of them like you do in front of a warm fireplace on a cold winter's night. I would be hard pressed to choose between the two rooms.

Hovland Company Hovland has created big waves in the audio world with their HP100 vaccum tube stereo preamplifier and their hybrid amplifier. For this CES, they were using the HP100 and their Radia all solid state amplifier driving the Acoustic Dreams Lumenwhite speakers. The front-end was a G&D Transformers Reference One Transport with a Dodson Audio CD Processor. The sound was excellent. The room was always crowded every time I visited so it was hard to do critical listening. However, I would definitely put both the electronics and the Lumenwhite speakers on my short list.

Herron Audio I own a Herron phonostage and also a Herron preamp. So I definitely like their sound or more precisely, their lack of sound. This year's system consisted of the Herron tube phonostage, tube preamp, and monoblock solid state amplifiers driving Joseph Audio's Pearl speakers. Keith Herron always gets great sound from his rooms at the CES. This year was no exception, though it took two days of burn-in for the amps to really sound their best. The Joseph room at the CES was sending listeners from their room down to the Herron room to hear how wonderful the Pearl speakers could sound.

A number of my friends rated the Herron room Best Sound of Show. It did sounded real good. If I had not fallen in love with the deHavilland's, I also would have rated the Herron room "Best of Show."

E.A.R. Listening to Tim de Paravicini's equipment is always a pleasure. This year the system consisted of the Paravicini 312 preamp, the E.A.R. 324 Phono Equalizer, the Paravacini M100 monoblock amplifiers driving Marten Design Coltrane speakers. The front end was either a heavily modified (ModWright) Sony SACD player or the Townshend Rock Reference Master Turntable with a Helius Omega arm.

This is a very expensive system—$40,000 speakers, $18,000 preamp, $35,000 amps, and $18,000 turntable. Fortunately, the sound was very good. One of the other visitors to the room brought as demo material a first pressing of the Decca LP of the Solti/Concertgebouw/ Mahler 4th. The performance was superb. The sound was spectacular. A very impressive system. Again this was a system that I could listen to for hours. It's too bad so few people can afford it.

VMPS Ribbon The VMPS loudspeaker room won the EIA/Tech TV Best of CES 2002 for High End Audio with their RM 40 loudspeakers. This year Brian Cheney, owner and designer of VMPS, brought the newly developed big brother to the RM 40, the RM/X Elixir. At 72" tall and 350 lbs. this is not a small speaker. The front of the speaker starts out as a 5.5" thick billet of MDF which is then shaped by a CNC ball mill into a very smoothly shaped curved surface that presents no obstructions that will cause diffraction. The ribbons panels used on the RM 40 are again used with the RM/X. The ribbon panels handle the signal from 166Hz to 7.5 kHZ where the signal is handed off to a ribbon tweeter. The ribbon tweeter can swivel over a 45 degree vertical arc to tune the highs to your sitting position and room. Bass is handled by three woofers—one side firing, one front firing, and one passive, slot-loaded down firing.

The speakers were driven by Ampzilla 2000 solid state amps with cabling by Bolder Cable. The two channel signal was processed into three channels by a special processor, the Trinaural Processor, made by Spread Spectrum Technologies, Inc. Three channel sound, left, center and right, sounds very different from two channel stereo. The sound was interesting and apparently made a big impression on a lot of people. The VMPS RM/X and the Trinaural Processor were two of the three finalists for Tech TV's Best of CES 2003: High End Audio award. The third finalist was the Swan Speaker Systems $68,000 Swan 2.2 loudspeakers. The Trinaural Processor ultimately won first place.

So, what were my impressions of the speakers? I really don't know. I love the RM 40s. I have a friend who owns a pair of the RM 40s and bi-amps them with Ampzilla 2000 amps. I brought my Balanced Audio Technolgy VK-75se amp over and we listened to his system with the VK-75se and then with the Ampzillas. The RM 40s driven by the more expensive VK-75se melted my heart. I intend to buy a pair of RM 40s as soon as I can find a buyer for my VMPS FF-3s. (I fell in love with these at a previous CES. Love is fickle.) I suspect the RM/X speakers will sound even better than the RM 40s. However, until I can hear them in normal two channel stereo driven by different electronics, I really can't come to any conclusion.

Definitely worth a listen. Also check out the tech paper on the Trinaural Processor on Ampzilla 2000’s website.

Von Schweikert Audio/Spectron Digital Audio Amplifiers The Von Schweikert/Spectron room was always crowded when I visited. Because of that I was never able to listen to my own CDs. Hence, it is not possible to come to a solid conclusion. However, the Von Shchweikert VR-4 speakers and the Spectron amps seemed to give a very good sound. I will definitely try to listen to them again under better circumstances.

SOURCE MATERIAL:

  1. The Duo-Tones, Surf Music Unplugged, Hillcrest HPCD01, hillcrestpi@earthlink.net. Two acoustic guitars playing classic surf music. Very well recorded.

  2. Black Hawk Down Soundtrack, Decca 440 017 012-2. Lisa Gerrard sings on track 11. Other tracks of North African Tribal music and heavy metal provide a nice break from the mellow jazz being played in most CES rooms. And Ali soundtrack, Decca 440 016 967-2. Lisa Gerrard sings a blues song on track 8. Nice change of pace.

  3. More Music from the Motion Picture Gladiator, Decca 440 013 192-2. I like the music on the second Gladiator CD better than the first. Lots of different types of music to really give an audio system a workout.

  4. Gladiator soundtrack, Decca 440 467 094-2

  5. Lisa Gerrard, The Mirror Pool, 4AD 9 45916-2. The first solo album of Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance. A bit melancholy, but wonderful listening if you like Lisa's voice.

Manufacturers/Designers/Distributors:

deHavilland Electric Amplifier Company
332 Alamo Square
Alamo, CA 94507
www.dehavillandhifi.com

Acarian Systems Limited
181 Smithtown Blvd., Suite 104
Nesconset, NY 11767
www.alonbyacarian.com

Buggtussel, LLC.
1701 B. Vanderbilt Avenue
Portage, MI 49024
www.buggtussel.com

TS Engineering Inc.
1329 Sherman Drive
Longmont, CO 80501
720-652-9140

Sugden
Stanalog Audio Imports, Inc.
P. O. Box 671
Hagaman, NY 12086
www.stanalogaudio.com

Merlin Music Systems, Inc.
4705 South Main St.
Hemlock, NY 14466
www.merlinmusic.com

Joule-Electra
103 Lark Lane
North Augusta, SC 29860
www.joule-electra.com

Hovland Company
1545A Pntius Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90025
www.hovlandcompany.com

Herron Audio
12685 Dorsett Road, Suite 138
St. Louis, Missouri 63043
www.herronaudio.com

EAR/USA
562-422-4747
www.ear-usa.com

VMPS Ribbon
3429 Morningside Drive
El Sobrante, CA 94803
www.vmpsaudio.com

Ampzilla 2000
Spread Spectrum Technologies, Inc.
www.ampzilla.com

Von Schweikert Audio
204 Greenfield Drive, Unit F
El Cajon, CA 92020
www.vonschweikert.com

Spectron Digital Audio Amplifiers
9334 Osso Avenue, Unit E
Chatsworth, CA 91311
www.spectronav.com

 

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