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Positive Feedback ISSUE 59
T.H.E Show 2012
The Home Entertainment Show Las Vegas runs concurrently with CES each year. It began several years ago kind of as an "outlaw" show, unaffiliated with CES, but designed from the get go to specialize in, and cater to, high end audio. Over the past fourteen years, and since adding the very successful T.H.E. Show Newport in July and announcing the T.H.E Show New York in April, it has expanded and grown to where it might be the more important show as compared to CES for many manufacturers.
In spite of that, there are still actually fewer high end audio exhibitors at T.H.E. Show as compared to CES, and several of the long time major manufacturers still show at CES instead. However, I suppose it boils down to the simple fact that both are valid, important shows, and each manufacturer simply has do decide which fits their plans and needs better.
In the day–and-a-half that I roamed the halls at the Flamingo, I actually had a little more time to listen to systems than I did while rushing through the CES displays at the Venetian. I also found the general feel and attitude among the exhibitors at T.H.E. Show to be more relaxed. Most of the rooms here had no problem playing my files from my USB flash drive, and very often the discussion ended up about music as much as about their product or the industry.
So once again, in somewhat alphabetical order, here's what I saw at T.H.E. Show.
Acapella Audio Arts / Einstein Audio Components
Acapella Audio Arts was showing their very expensive horn speakers with equally expensive Einstein Audio electronics in one of the large meeting rooms downstairs at the Flamingo. Huge, vibrantly dynamic sound, with none of that old fashioned "horn sound" evident. Quite impressive.
Angel City Audio / Melody Electronics
I first heard of Angel City Audio at T.H.E. Show Newport this past summer. Nice moderately sized monitor (starting at $2699 depending on finish) that can be set on its side for use as a center channel, too. Angel City manufactures the speakers, and is also the importer for the Melody line of tube electronics (Melody AN211: $5679, Melody Astro Black 22: $3169, Melody MK88: $1929). They were using an Onix XCD-50 CD player ($3800) to spin little silver disks. I enjoyed their room in Newport, but liked it even more here. We need to do a full review of these in PFO one of these days.
Auraliti was showing some different ways of handling playing back audio files. They have a dedicated file player that you can hook up to your NAS and DAC, using an iPad or other similar device as the controller/remote. They also distribute the SOtM line of digital devices. They just had a static display at T.H.E. Show, and every time I stopped by there was no one to talk to there. Interesting products from what I could gather from their literature and web site.
Benchmark Media / Studio Electric
Benchmark Media and Studio Electric shared a room, playing a variety of files of varying resolution though Benchmark's DAC 1 HDR (one of my PFO Writer's Choice award winners this year, $1895). Still trying to listen to lower cost gear whenever available, I listened through the Studio Electric's $2695 Monitor speakers. The amplifier used was Studio Electric's $7350 EA4 hybrid amplifier. Simply put, the sound was wonderful.
Studio Electric was also showing a new center channel speaker, which they build due to demand from their customers and dealers.
CEntrance had a "downstairs" marketplace display of their line of small, affordable digital devices. This is the kind of gear the industry needs, quality at realistic prices. They were also showing their "Audiophile Desktop System" which consists of a DAC mini PX and a pair of MasterClass(tm) 2504 4" 2-way coaxial speakers, hooked up to notebook. Though the environment was noisy you got the feeling that it would be a pretty comfortable near field desktop type system.
Divertech / Reference 3a / Copland
Canadian company Divertech manufactures Reference 3A speakers, and imports Copland, Antique Sound Labs and JJ Electronics. In past shows they seemed to always manage exceptional sound pairing their Reference 3a speakers with the Antique Sound Labs tube amplifiers. This time they offered up some of the best sounds of the show (to my taste at least) matching their top of the line Grand Veena speakers ($7995) with Copland gear.
Here is the Copland CDA 825 CD player ($6500).
Copland CTA 305 tube preamp with phono stage ($2995).
Copland CTA 506 KT88 Ultralinear power amp ($6500).
Every year at these trade shows we see new companies, or companies that maybe aren't new, but that we've not heard of before. Korean company Electro Design was new to me. Their three products, the very small ALLDAC, the equally small DT monobloc 30-watt digital amp, and the BS-812A 8-inch 2-way speaker sells as a complete set for $4500. They claim they "emulate the sound of tube amps" with their digital amp circuitry. I'll comment on the sound if I get to hear the system under better conditions.
Episode Audio speakers were pretty unique, with midrange drivers mounted horizontally above and below the inset tweeter. The larger Episode-V ($12,500) sounded pretty spacious.
ESS / Channel Islands Audio
At T.H.E. Show Newport, I heard the ESS speakers that were back in production, made by the company and people that had been servicing and rebuilding ESS speakers and ESS/Heil Air motion Transformers since they were originally built. Now, they were showing not just the current production ESS-AMT "Limited Edition" (new version of the classic AMT-1a), but an actual working version of Dr. Heil's Transar driver/speaker system. I remember reading about this driver in Audio magazine way back in the late 70s. Now, ESS claims new materials technology allows the driver to work reliably. Driven by Channel Islands Audio's fine line of electronics, I thought the sound was quite good. Projected price of the Transar will unfortunately be around $18,000. The sound was fine, but the production units will have to look nicer than the prototypes displayed. For those of you old enough to remember when the ESS Heil speakers first came out, and how good they were back then, this is exciting stuff!
The Hi Fi Company
Okay, I kept seeing people walk past this room, and I'll admit I walked past it a few times too. Then walking past one more time, I saw Fritz Heiler of Fritz Speakers sitting in the chair and seemingly enjoying himself.
Then, I had to try it out. I sat in one set up with an $800 pair of PSB Imagine Mini speakers. Each chair had a different speaker system set up. The chair includes three amplifiers, a built in subwoofer (adjustable crossover and output level), line level inputs, iPod dock (line level, not digital) and even a low frequency "shaker" to supplement watching movies.
Before you laugh, if the speakers can handle near field listening (which the PSBs certainly did) you realize that they've basically taken the room out of the picture, and if you can get over having the speakers an arm's reach away, the sound is exceptional. The chair is well made and very comfortable. The soundstage was huge and the bass blended in quite nicely. I stopped back in several times to relax and hear another tune or two. Yes, that is me sitting in the chair!
I enjoyed my time in the chair so much that I mentioned it to everyone that had seen it, but had not stopped in to try it. The next morning, I convinced PFO contributor Myles Astor to give it a try. I'm not sure he was as enthusiastic as I was, but his chair had those $150 Pioneer speakers that were so positively reviewed in Stereophile recently. Though they were very good, they certainly didn't work as well as the much more expensive PSBs.
What can I say, for the audiophile who doesn't have a proper listening room, this chair and your favorite set of small near field monitors just might be the way to go!
I missed these at THE Show Newport because I made the mistake of assuming they were too expensive and out of my target price range. Boy, was I wrong. The little MMMicroOne speaker is only $2500/pair including the stands. They are also further proof that my lifelong hesitation about small stand mounted speakers doesn't really have much merit. Driven here by very expensive DarTZeel electronics and a Playback Designs front end, this system ranked among the finest sounds at THE Show. Except for the very lowest bass, there was nothing to let you know you were listening to a small, affordable two-way system.
Feastrix / Exemplar Audio
Feastrix manufactures a fine line of full range drivers for use in high efficiency speaker systems. They come in both conventional (with Alnico magnets) and field coil versions. Though pricey compared to other high efficiency full range drivers, the times I've heard them at various shows, including this one, they seem to exhibit far more neutral, natural sound than I've heard from Lowther and other similar drivers. The speaker system shown here used the NF5ex field coil drivers that sell for $6079/pair. They were paired with Exemplar Audio electronics: XP-2 Preamp ($15,000), and their highly modified version of the Oppo BDP-93 Universal player ($2500)
Fritz Speakers / WyWires / Zesto Audio
I first ran into Fritz Heiler of Fritz speakers many years ago when he was displaying at a local audio equipment/record show in Southern California. It is great to see him get the recognition for his speakers these days. His Carbon 7 model ($1795/pair) has been positively reviewed in PFO and TAS, and they've sounded great at both THE Show Newport and here in Vegas. Here he displayed again teaming up with Zesto Audio (Andros PS1 phono stage, $3900), Electra Fidelity amplifiers (A3-500 300B amplifier, $5995 and OLT Line Amplifier, $2495) and using both a Resolution Audio Cantata Music Center ($6495) for digital and a Denon DP-3000 turntable refurbished by Concert Fidelity. All cabling was by WyWires Blue Series (speaker cables $449, Interconnects $369, Digital Cables $199 and Power Cords $199).
Playing a variety of LPs, high resolution and CD quality files, the system was unfailingly musical. It was also quite fun playing my files from my USB drive, including the new 40th anniversary edition of Jethro Tull's Aqualung and the recent reissue of the remastered Octopus by Gentle Giant.
Headroom of Bozeman, Montana was displaying their range of excellent headphone amps, DACs, amplifiers, and a variety of headphones. They not only look good and sound nice, they have proven to be very reliable, too. I've had an early model headphone amp in my main home system since 1998, and have a first generation of the Total Bithead for both my iPod and when listening to my music server/notebook. They both get a lot of use and never complain.
Jerry Harvey (the JH of JH Audio) has been in the In Ear Monitor business for many years (formerly of Ultimate Ears), and supplies monitors to many of Rock's most famous personalities. In 2003 he founded JH Audio to specialize in custom fit IEMs for pro and high-end audio use. Here he was showing his new, JH16, 8-driver, 3-way, triple bore IEM. A brief listen using squishy foam earpieces instead of proper custom fitted earpieces was enough to make me think that these just may be state of the art. Too bad they are clearly out of my price range at somewhere around $1200. They were being shown with JH Audio's new headphone amp, that has many controls and adjustments (price TBA).
King's Audio was showing their large Kingsound full range electrostatic speakers. Driven by Jadis amplifiers, in one of the larger rooms in the Flamingo, they possessed the scale, the power, and the intensity that you hope for from large, full range electrostats. One of the unique things about the Kingsound speakers is there use of low voltage, DC power supplies to charge the speakers. Sometimes expensive gear just seems worth it.
Koon / Artesania / Aurorasound / Vlard Audio Design
Sometimes I just don't get it. After seeing the little egg shaped speakers (6½ inch woofer and ¾ inch tweeter) in this room, and seeing their $13,900 price, I didn't stick around long. Even if they include DSP and room correction…
Legacy Audio / Avatar Acoustics / Clarity Cable
Legacy Audio Signature SE speakers Black Pearl ($6950) driven by Abbington Music Research electronics (CD-77.1 CD Player, $19,995, PH-77 Phono Preamp, $11,995 and AM77.1 Integrated amp, $9995) and a Dr. Feickert Blackbird turntable ($7995) with a Feickert DFA 12.0 arm ($1495), all connected by Clarity Cable, were sounding just fine. The more I hear Legacy speakers, the more impressed I am. I had not heard Abbington Music Research or Clarity Cables products before. They certainly drove the Legacy speakers to a high standard.
Lindemann / Zesto / WyWires
I saw WyWires in four rooms during the show, and all four were exceptionally good sounding rooms, with an extremely musical and effortless sound. Coincidence? I think perhaps not. In this system they were using the WyWire Gold Series interconnects ($1349/pair, including Bybee Slipsteam Purifiers), Silver Series speaker cables ($1299/pair), Silver Series S/PDIF Cables ($499 each) and Silver Series power cords ($399 each). The same thought holds true for the two rooms I heard the Zesto Andros phono stage ($3900). Here, using Lindemann electronics (830S preamp, $12,500, 855 amp, $16,000, 885 Integrated amp, $14,500) Avid Volvare turntable ($5500), Origin Live Illustrious Tonearm ($2500), Dynavector XVS-1 cartridge ($5400) and the ever spectacular TAD Compact Reference speakers ($40,600), I found a true oasis, a place to rest my ears and remember what all this was really about. I returned several times and generally just sat there, listening and smiling. Though the products here are generally fairly pricey, Lindemann was also showing a new DAC (the little silver box on the second shelf) that is under $1000 (well, $900 to be precise). They played a couple of songs from decidedly non-audiophile CDs that I happened to have with me (Nico's Chelsea Girl and Blind Melon's No Rain), so I could hear what the DAC was up to. A truly great system will play whatever music you want and let you listen through to the heart of it. This did.
The Lotus Group / WAVAC Audio Lab / Prana Wire / Covenant Audio Consulting
Here we step into the big leagues. At least it will take a major league income to consider these products. The total system price was $591,995. It included $75,000 for the Granada G2 speakers, $195,000 for the WAVAC HE-833mkII amplifiers, $59,000 for the WAVAC MD-805mkII amplifier, $31,000 for the three chassis WAVAC PR-T1 preamp, $25,000 for the WAVAC LCR-X2 phono stage, $22,900 for the WAVAC AC-2 power conditioner, $16,500 for an additional SMc Audio Preamp, $8000 for the Hanss T-60 BL turntable, $8500 for the Durand Talea tonearm, $8000 for the Ortofon MC Anna Cartridge, $6895 for the EAR Acute III CD player, $3000 for the Sistrum (Starsound Technology) rack, $5950 for the Hanss rack, and approximately $125,000 for the large collection of Prana Wire.
It did sound pretty spectacular though. I couldn't fit the whole system in the photo, so here's one channel worth amps and speaker.
Here is he back side of the open baffle Granada G2 speakers.
M Audio is the new company from Tom Maker, who had started Edge Electronics back in 1988. I remember being at the first CES where Edge exhibited. The rather large, complex and expensive M Audio speakers include a powered woofer section and DSP room correction. Options include full active operation with additional amps for the tweeter and midrange drivers. I only listened for a couple minutes, but found the sound overall to be superb.
Magnepan was more interested in talking business than in demonstrating products, which is actually what trade shows are for, though many people forget that. However, they still put on what I thought was one of the most impressive demonstrations of the show. As you can see in the photo below, the speakers were hidden behind a thin acoustically transparent curtain, with lights in front to prevent seeing what was behind. After hearing the demo, with its spectacularly large and deep soundstage and presence, they flipped the lights so you could see the $600 MMGs left and right, and their Tri-Center 3-piece center channel system, which consists of a pair of MMC2 speakers ($1995/pair) and a CCR center channel ($2995). The system was driven as left/right/center from a Bryston multichannel processor and Bryston amps. I'm not saying it was the best sound at the show, it wasn't, though it was very good, but it was the most impressive demo of the show.
Magnepan also discussed a new "dealer direct" program where you can demo speakers at a local dealer, but have them shipped directly from Magnepan. They'll also have more models and systems available for their 30-day home trial, but where the nearest dealer still is involved for servicing and as your "official dealer". This is a sound business model that will help both brick and mortar dealers and customers.
Precision Transducer Engineering
PTE showed the powered, active Phoenix large stand mounted monitor system. These use three 130 watt class A/B amps, not class D, and are extremely detailed and dynamic. They are specified down to 32Hz, and certainly seem to have abundant, tuneful bass response. For $5700 complete, they actually seem like quite a good deal, too.
Sanders Sound was again showing their larger Model 10 hybrid electrostatic speakers ($13,000) driven by their own Magtech amplifiers ($4000 for the preamp, and $5000 for the Magtech amp and $4000 for the ESL amp). I thought they offered one of the best overall sounds, regardless of price in Newport, and felt the same here too. What can I say, I love large electrostatic speakers. The blending of the dynamic woofer is exceptionally smooth and coherent.
Sonist Loudspeakers / Audio Access/ Exacte Cables
Sonist Loudspeakers was showing their Recital 3 floorstanding speakers (standard version, $1795 and $2195/pair for "all-wood") and their much larger Concerto 4 (all wood $5895/pair) speakers. Both are of the high efficiency / easy impedance load variety and are designed to mate up well with low powered tube amps. Here they were using integrated amps from a company I was unfamiliar with, Increcable. Their TIA216 (16 watt 300B $7500) and TIA280 (80 watts KT120 push pull/30 watts triode, $5500) both delivered digital sounds from a Cary306 SACD player, and sounded absolutely wonderful. The larger Sonist Concerto 4 offers the scale, power and weight (into the mid to upper 20Hz range) that real music requires, while still offering delicacy and detail. I was very taken by their lower priced Recital 3, as it offered very similar sound, just with a little less of everything. Still, a beautiful system, and quite a bargain at around $2000.
Sound Lab / Atma Sphere
Sound Lab showed its incredibly large Majestic 845 full range electrostatic speakers (94" tall, $31,770 / pair) with the Atma Sphere MP-1 preamp ($17,490) and MA-1 OTL amps ($18,600/pair). They also used a customized HP computer as a music server playing through an Abbington Music Research DP-777 digital Processor ($4995) and a Dr. Feickert Woodpecker turntable ($4995) with Kuzma 4-point arm ($6500) and Shelter Harmony cartridge ($5295). They also used Acoustic System International power cords (Liveline power cord, 1.8 meter, $1195 each), Heartsong amp stands ($1400 each), Top Line Feet ($750/set of 3). Avatar Acoustics supplied Mach 4 power distributors at $1995 each. I've heard these speakers in the past and have heard how good they can be, but I think they were just too big for the room this time.
VMPS / Ampzilla / Spread Spectrum Technologies / Wyred 4 Sound / WyWires / Audience
There are a few designers / manufacturers that I admire in this business, mostly for their ability to consistently put out great products at prices that make sense for what you actually get. Brian Cheney and his VMPS line of speakers are one of them. Granted, you have to like large, heavy speakers that require some effort and adjustment to get to sound their best, but if that's you, few speakers in their various price ranges will compete for full range sound, detail, clarity, neutrality and overall musical enjoyment. In the very large Lake Mead Ballroom, the VMPS RM-50 Series II speakers ($16,900 with DCX controller) were used in the "live versus recorded" demonstration. Driven by a long list of Wyred 4 Sound and Spread Spectrum Technologies (Ampzilla and Ambrosia) and all hooked up with moderately priced WyWires cables, the sound was just plain awesome. Unfortunately, I managed to miss all the "live versus recorded" demonstrations, but I did get to listen to the system playing back a variety of files. This was one of those rooms that made you wonder what the $50,000 amps and $100,000 speakers were really all about.
Here's Brian Cheney with a table full of W4S and SST electronics!
Von Gaylord Audio
Here is Von Gaylord Audio's nice little Starlet integrated amplifier ($3495).
George Warren Precision Sound / Von Schweikert Audio / Jolida / ZYX
In the Greg Warren/Precision Sound room, Albert Von Schweikert's latest speakers played along with Jolida and a whole lot more. Here the room was billed as "Great Sound Affordable Budget" with a total system price of just under $30K. George Warren Turntable ($3925), Moth 1000 arm with Incognito wire ($1495), Expressimo Audio Heavy Weight ($99.95), ZYX Yatra cartridge ($1500), Jolida JD9 Phono Pre ($650), Jolida Fusion mono blocks and preamp ($6700), Von Schweikert YR-35 speakers ($8000), Von Schweikert Master Built cables ($4600), and Steve Blind Designs stand ($2200). Total system price $29,169.95.Sounded pretty darn nice too!
Zu Audio was showing the new Mk 4 version of their Definition speaker ($12,500/pair). As usual for this company, they were spinning vinyl only using their modified Technics SL-1200 turntables and their Zu modified Denon DL-103 cartridge. Zu speakers have a sound you either like, or you don't, though I don't know how anyone could not like them. They hit every major point I want in a quality speaker, and do it with a great deal of attitude and fun. Plus, a Zu suite at a trade show is one place you'll never be subjected to boring audiophile music.
Well, that's it for part two! Part three in a few days, covering some high priced stuff from the Venetian, odds and ends, and my thoughts on the show.