When reviewing high-end audio equipment, especially a component that you may already have in your system (such as speakers or an amplifier), one of the essential questions that you have to ask yourself is: Is this product better or worse than what I normally listen to, or just different?This was the question that came to my mind at the end of this year’s CES.
To begin with, it was the first show in many years where I didn’t have to divide my time between the CES exhibits at the Venetian and The Home Entertainment Show (T.H.E. Show) which is now focusing its efforts on its growing Newport Beach show. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I missed T.H.E. Show, with its somewhat more communal atmosphere and let’s face it; the lunchtime spread was always off the hook! In fact, because there was only the CES, I waited until day two to arrive in Las Vegas and begin my work.
Actually, I decided to do things a little differently this year and made my first stop the Las Vegas Convention Center (aka the Zoo). I had been invited to meet with a representative from a company called Fraunhofer. Fraunhofer has developed a 3D sound enhancement software for mobile devices called Cingo®. It was being demonstrated with headphones but can also be used for two-channel stereo and multimedia content. The effect that I heard during the demonstration reminded me a lot of the early efforts of room correction where a variety of sound elements can be manipulated and tailored to individual listening biases. With the move towards computer audio that many audiophiles are making, technology like Cingo will no doubt become prominent in home entertainment systems.
My next stop at the LVCC was to the HiVi/Swans loudspeaker company. HiVi has always been a strange company to me. They make a wide selection of nicely built and very good sounding loudspeakers that also happen to borrow heavily from the aesthetics of other well-known loudspeaker designs. I remember when I saw the first generation of Usher Audio loudspeakers and couldn’t help but notice how much they borrowed their looks from some of the Sonus Faber designs with their use gorgeous sculpted wood cabinets and high-tech drivers. Well I was stunned to see the latest offerings from Swans because they looked almost exactly like Usher’s Dancer speaker line (photo below).
There were a few other audiophile loudspeaker brands to be found at the convention center like these from Klipsch and Danish company Jamo.
I made a stop by the Monster Cable area where a vast number of headphones were on display.The first headphones I checked out were some impressive looking gold-colored headphones called the 24Ks. The rep was kind enough to let me listen to them and I was kind enough to act as though I was blown away by them. Actually they weren’t bad sounding and at a price of about $250 will probably be a big seller.
But an awkward thing happened while the rep was showing me these headphones. A couple of other show attendees came up to me and asked me about the headphones that I happened to be wearing around my neck at the time; the French-made $499 Aëdle VK-1s. He commented at how impressive they looked and before I could say a word, the rep chimed in and said that he recognized my name and our website on my badge and conceded that my headphones were probably far better that what he was showing me. He was right, but I was hardly there to be a show off. Speaking of show offs, Jermaine Jackson (brother of Michael Jackson) stopped by the Monster booths at the same time that I did. I think he enjoyed the sound of the headphones as much as I did.
The rep did point me toward another Monster product that he thought might give my Aëdles a run for their money. They were called the DNA Pro 2.0 ($299). What’s interesting about these headphones is that they come with an iOS downloadable app that allows you to select equalization settings that mimic those of specific artists or musical genres. Imagine 50 Cent or Sinatra recordings sounding close to studio quality. That’s what they feel they’ve accomplished in the DNA Pro 2.0. For now, I’ll stick with the Aëdles.
One of the cooler things that there was an ample supply of was retro-styled turntables from companies such as Audiology and Crossley. I never knew turntables could come in so many colors and styles. The Audiology tables also come with USB outputs so that you can record your favorite vinyl to your computer. Boy, these things look like a lot of fun.
After my little visit to the convention center it was now time to get over to the Venetian and get to work. Since I already had my badge I was able to head straight to the rooms. For the next two-and-a-half days I would visit almost every room in the place and a couple that weren’t. Across the street at the Mirage was where LucetteNicoll of Nicoll Public Relations invited me to come and see the latest offerings from Classe’, B&W, and Rotel.
When I arrived I was pleasantly surprised to see Dave Nauber, President of Classe Audio, and easily one of the nicest men in high-end audio. He greeted me with a warm smile and then proceeded to give show me the new Classe’ Sigma Series components: the SSP ($5,000), AMP5 ($5,000) and AMP2 ($3,500). These new products carry on Classe’s tradition of high-quality construction and thoughtful design at amazingly affordable prices. The AMP2 and AMP5 are two and five channel200 watt class D switching amps, respectively. The SSP is a 7.1 channel surround processor that offers a ton of audio and video options. I’ve already made my request for review samples so stay tuned.
Back over at the Venetian I ran into a few friends from Chicago who had varying opinions on the quality of this year’s show. Some were eulogizing the show and predicting that it would not be long before the Vegas show went the way of HDCD. On the other hand there were those who thought that without T.H.E. Show that CES could now become more focused and easier to manage. No more trying to parse your time between multiple locations. I tend to lean toward the latter. While I missed the other show, this year’s show was certainly less chaotic than in recent years and let’s face it; Vegas is still Vegas. Besides without two shows there was more time to spend at the convention center. I had a ball checking out the latest in 4K flatscreen TVs, wrist watches that can monitor all biological functions, robots and gadgets that can turn your car into something that would make James Bond envious. So visiting all of the rooms that I was interested in was very manageable and a lot less taxing at the end of the day. In fact, I would definitely say that I enjoyed more rooms this year than I have in a long time.
There were a lot of great rooms at this year’s show and when I started writing this I had a “top five” systems list that I was going to write about that quickly turned into a “top ten”, then eventually a “top 20.” So after some considerable thought I worked it back down to my top five. Believe me there were so many rooms that made an impression on me that on any given day, this list could have looked dramatically different. But I decided to stick with the companies that first came to mind. As they say, your first mind is usually right.
You can always rely on Karem Kucukasian, president of Absolare, to have an elegant looking and sounding room. This year he used a pair of the new Absolare Passion 845 push-pull monoblock amplifiers ($40,000/pair) to drive a pair of the stunning Rockport Technologies Avior loudspeakers. The front ends were a Kodo “The Beat” turntable clad in a black leather casing that mimicked the styling of the Absolare electronics and a full blown MSB Technologies digital rig. The Kodo fed the Absolare Passion phonostage ($33,000) and was outfitted with a Schroeder tonearm and Lyra Atlas cartridge.
Kucukasian was kind enough to play a couple tracks for me that he had been saving for our esteemed Clement Perry who unfortunately did not make this year’s show. His loss was my gain. The system was the sound of classic tubes with the tightness and detail of a fine Hi-Res digital recording. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.
I’ve not had many opportunities to spend time listening to any of the gorgeous loudspeakers from Focus Audio. So I made sure to make them one of my earliest stops at the Venetian, and boy am I glad I did. I was well prepared to taken by their loudspeakers because I remembered hearing them many CESes ago when they shared a room with Vitus Audio. But I had completely forgotten that they also made some impressive tube electronics. Last year our own Key Kim reviewed the Liszt Sonata integrated amp and was very impressed by it. This year the company was demoing the new Liszt Concerto monoblock amplifiers ($30,000/pair) and using them to drive their Master 3 loudspeakers. The source was the lovely Metronome Kalista transport and Nausicaa DAC. As good as this system sounded (spacious, airy and detailed as described by Key Kim in his indepth review of the Litz integrated here), you can expect to see more from Focus Audio in the pages of StereoTimes.com.
I came across the Pass Labs room towards the end of the third day of the show and it turned out to be a great way to end the day. Using the awesome TAD Reference One loudspeakers they drove them to perfection with the massive two-chassis-per-side Xs150 monoblock amps ($65,000/pair) and Xs Preamp. The front end was a turntable feeding aXsPhono. Pass’ Kent English was kind enough to play a track from Joe Bonamassa that simply rocked, showing off the systems immense capabilities.
But there was a lot more to see at in the Pass room this year. They were also introducing two new integrated amps: the INT-60 ($9,000) and INT-250 ($12,000). They also showed off a rather impressive new headphone amp called the… Headphone Amp (price TBD). I’ve already put in my bid to review some of this new gear so stay tuned.
Isomike/EMM Labs/Merging Technologies
At every show there’s always that one room that you walk into and before you can gather your thoughts, the first word that slips from your mouth is, “damn!” At this show, that room was the Isomike/EMM Labs/Merging Technologies room. My eyes were immediately drawn to the beautifully massive, 750 wpc EMM Labs MTRX monoblock amplifiers ($130,000). The front end source was the DA2 DAC ($25,000). The DA2 will play music at resolutions of up to 32-bit/384kHz and double DSD. The MTRX and DA2 were displayed in optional gold accented faceplates that were stunning. The speakers were the excellent Sony SS-AR1 and the racks were from Merging Technologies. Music in this room sounded magnificent and I had to pry myself away from its charms (expansive soundstage and well defined musical images). I’m hoping to see these amps again at next year’s show because a show is about the only place I’d get to hear them.
Lawrence Audio from Taiwan has become one of my favorite loudspeaker companies over the past few years. Their products are a wonderful combination of musically thoughtful design, high-quality construction and a keen sense of artistic beauty. This was all on display this year in the form of their gorgeous Double Bass loudspeaker ($29,000/pair). The Jeff Rowland Design Group’sAeris DAC ($9,800)and Model 825 Stereo Amplifier ($32,000) were used to drive the speakers and the system was connected via M&G Audio’s Reference Series cables. The speaker cables are very wide ribbons, looking almost like a skin shed from a python. Hi-Res music flowed sweetly through this room, sounding as musically satisfying and natural as I have come to expect from Lawrence Audio. As a bonus designer Lawrence Liao and sales manager Angela Yang are two of the kindest people you can hope to meet in this industry. Always a great room to check out.
Here is a roundup of some of the other products that left a lasting impression on me:
Enigma Acoustics Speakers/NuPrime Audio
Muraudio Domain PX1 Omni ESL
Questyle/Triangle Signature Loudspeakers
Naim Audio Mu-So
Wadia Digital di122 Digital Decoding Engine and a102 Amp
Dynaudio Focus 600 XD Active Speakers
RBH Sound Loudspeakers
Ryan Speakers R610 Loudspeakers
ESS Laboratories AMT Series
Classe’ Audio Sigma SSP, AMP2 and AMP5
ADL (Alpha Design Labs) H128 Headphones
That’s my report for this year, and I am already looking forward to next year when it moves back to the weekend. From what I understand the Munich show is quite the spectacle and that there are those who simply are enamored with it because they get to see a lot of things that they can’t see elswhere. Well that doesn’t make the Munich show better. Just different. I’ve also heard that the rooms leave something to be desired and unless you’ve got someone sponsoring you, it can be extremely costly as well. I’ve heard similar things about shows in other parts of the world as well. And the proliferation of shows in this country has just gotten silly. There’s T.H.E. Show Newport, AXPONA, California Audio Show, RMAF and probably a few others. Anyway, you can have your Munich show and even some of these smaller shows too (except for AXPONA which is in my “Sweet Home Chicago”). For me, the CES in Las Vegas is still the best show around.