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Las Vegas again hosted the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), January 2002. Most of CES concentrated on impressing the media and public with the latest gadgets. From ovens that ‘know' when your food is done, and telephones that use GPS to tell you where you are, to mobile entertainment systems for cars that include DVD/VCR/satellite radio systems, CES has it all. A small part of CES played host to the high-end audio market, providing space to display and demonstrate the latest in audio equipment designed to fulfill the promise of audiophile nirvana.
High-end, audio exhibitors were divided into two shows in three locations: CES was divided between the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) and the Alexis Park Resort; The Home Entertainment Show (T.H.E. Show) was located at the Tuscany Hotel. The split between CES and T.H.E. Show occurred because many high-end audio exhibitors believed the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) was not adequately addressing the unique needs of their portion of the market. Some exhibitors had displays at both shows. Hundreds of manufacturers from all over the world were in attendance. As such, only a few will be mentioned in this brief report.
Most of the Home Theater vendors were located in the LVCC with some of the larger audio manufacturers. These included mass market names like Panasonic, Toshiba, and Sony as well as smaller manufacturers of higher quality gear, including Linn, Denon, and Klipsch. Due to high background noise level, no high-end audio demonstrations took place at the LVCC.
At the Alexis Park Resort and Tuscany Hotel, manufacturers had hotel rooms or suites in which to display their wares. While this setup had acoustic limitations imposed by the size and shape of each hotel room/suite, it was vastly superior to the open or semi-open displays set amidst the chaos of the LVCC. The Alexis Park and Tuscany shows were quiet and relaxing, allowing the attending crowd to catch its collective breath and enjoy exhibits at a more leisurely pace. Despite acoustic challenges of hotel suites, most vendors displayed and demonstrated their equipment in the most complimentary manner possible.
For some, no amount of effort helped. In one case, a very impressive and beautifully set up system was overwhelmed by a neighboring, high-end, home theater exhibit where pounding, overpowering bass seemed to be the single, defining parameter. Thursday, January 10, proved frustrating for all as aircraft from nearby McCarran Airport flew overhead every few minutes adding their inescapable sonic signature to the show.
One of the more interesting new amplifiers at the show is made by Phoenix Acoustics of Quebec, Canada. The SE15 Revelation is an SET monobloc amplifier that uses a 6922 input stage, a Svetlana 6N1P driving a Russian military 6C33C in triode mode, and a proprietary, polarized output transformer to deliver 15 watts of pure Class A power to the speaker. The clear and natural mids for which SET amps are so famous were present in abundance and so was powerful, quick, and superbly controlled bass. At an estimated price of $10,000 per pair, the SE15 is not cheap, but instead of simply being expensive audio jewelry or yet another variation on an overused theme, these amplifiers are unique and seem to have great sonic potential.
The Danish company GamuT, famous for its excellent line of amplifiers, introduced two CD-players. The CD-1 is a premium grade CD-player with a 24-bit/96KHz DAC. The CD-3 is very similar, but with a simpler, less expensive power supply. The prices for these new units are $2,995 and $2,295, respectively.
The French company, Kora, had several products on display, including their Eclipse tube preamplifier, and their Galaxy, a beautifully designed, exquisitely built, 50 watt x 2, triode stereo power amplifier. The visual twin to the Galaxy, the 100-watt monobloc Cosmos, was demonstrated.
Elac, of Germany, had several of their impressive-looking, high end series of speakers on hand. They were equally impressive to hear. The unusual woofers and wave-guide tweeter design are characteristic of the entire line. However, the most interesting Elac speaker at the show was the 4Pi Series, with a proprietary, omnidirectional ribbon tweeter forming a metallic dome on top of the floor-standing cabinet.
ASW, the German loudspeaker company, displayed several of their products. The Genius 300 was was a conventional appearing, floorstanding loudspeaker that looked more like fine furniture than most furniture. The beautifully applied and richly finished veneer were treats for the eyes. More importantly, even in the hotel suite, they sounded surprisingly rich, full, and musical. The carbon-fiber woofers and fabric-dome tweeters worked very well together. The Genius series also includes two smaller, bookshelf-sized speakers.
Ars Auris Audio, an Italian manufacturer of high-end loudspeakers, presented their finely-crafted line. The speakers on hand ranged from the Do model, a two-way bookshelf model available in wood, MDF, or Italian marble to the very impressive, floorstanding Sol, which was rated from 25Hz to 30KHz with a sensitivity of 92dB.
As last year, one of the most impressive sounding demonstrations was by Viva of Italy, creators of very exclusive and beautiful vacuum tube equipment. Viva's presentation included a pair of Aurora monobloc amplifiers, with a Walker reference turntable and preamp, powering a pair of Avantgarde Duo, horn loudspeakers. Despite the poor acoustical environment, this combination was captivating in its ability to reproduce music; it was very good at convincing listeners to stay much longer than they originally intended. Viva also displayed their new Logos amplifier, a 110 watt-per-channel, integrated stereo amplifier.
U-Vola, also from Italy, displayed its unique, suspended loudspeaker. These speakers use ellipsoid-shaped cabinets with a two-way, bass-reflex layout. The cabinet design achieves great rigidity through its shape and through its mineral aggregate composition (a material similar to synthetic marble). The U-Vola is designed to hang like a ‘pendant lamp' for both acoustic and aesthetic reasons. Not only were they impressively innovative, but they sounded remarkably natural.
The Japanese company, Niro, markets a line of ‘Ultimate' Audio Components. Designed by Mr. Niro Nakamichi, the Niro 1000 Power Engine uses a pure Class A, balanced topology. Niro claims the 1000 Power Engine and Control Engine eliminate everything that could possibly degrade the signal. The Power Engine is an ‘electro-mechanical' amplifier. Huge and heavy at 174 pounds, this amplifier is like nothing else on the market. With a price of $23,000 for the Power Engine ST and $20,000 for the Control Engine, the Niro is not for the budget minded. On the other hand, Niro just introduced the Integrated Engine for $6,990.
April Music, Inc, located in Seoul, South Korea, unveiled a new CD-player for the audio bargain market. The Stello uses a Philips transport with a 24/192 Delta-Sigma DAC. The Stella will read CD, CD-R, and CD-RW discs. It also has an XLR balanced output in addition to the usual RCA.
The Swiss company Nagra, demonstrated several products, including their miniature, reel-to-reel, stereo tape recorder, the SNST-R. This little jewel very is well built, and the sound output quality was quite surprising. Nagra also demonstrated other equipment, including their MPA solid state amplifier, VPA vacuum tube amplifier, and PL-L pure class A, vacuum tube, line preamplifier.
Blueroom Loudspeakers, a new British company, introduced its line of Minipod speakers and Minipod Bass Station to the U.S. market. The Minipod uses a molded plastic cabinet with good quality drivers and crossover components. It is designed to be used in budget or multichannel systems. They look unusual, but the sound they produce is surprisingly good for their size and price range.
O'Heocha of Ireland was in attendance at the Alexis Park Resort.
Their D1 series of loudspeakers are elegant in shape, beautiful in finish. From the front, they look like slender rectangles; however, from the top they have a semi-ellipsoid shape to reduce internal standing waves. If a prize for the most unusual-looking loudspeaker of the show was awarded, it would have been given to O'Heocha's D2 series.
These speakers would be at home decorating the sets of Star Wars movies. The D2 speakers are notable, not only for their innovative shape, but for their quality of construction. This is obvious by the beautifully executed aluminum cabinet and brilliant hand polish.
Despite the unusual appearance, or perhaps because of it, the D2 series was very captivating in sound output quality. Despite the high background noise level at the show, detail was superb and imaging well defined.
Avid Audio Company of England introduced an "affordable" high-end turntable to complement their well-regarded Acutus. While not as beautifully finished as the Acutus, the new Volvere shares many design features, and with a lower price, is well worth considering. Avid also had its new Isochelf on display, an audio equipment rack with sprung, isolated shelves to improve vibration isolation of components.
The British company Rega was on hand, displaying many items from their extensive line of equipment. One of the most interesting was a completely redesigned Rega Planet CD-player. The new Planet incorporates many design features of the Jupiter, including a similar, extruded case and top-loading transport, but at the Planet price. Finally, Rega has redesigned the Planar 9. Details were not available, but Rega promises it will be something to cheer about.
Music Hall of America showed off the MMF-7. Only recently available, the MMF-7 incorporates some of the unique features of the MMF-5, such as the split plinth. New features, including an external, belt drive motor with an external power supply, Project Nine Tonearm, and a Goldring Eroica, high-output, moving-coil cartridge, boost performance of this turntable to surprising levels, all at a list price of $999 USD. On the other end of the scale was the new MMF-1, an entry level turntable complete and ready to play for a total price of $199 USD!
Outlaw Audio, an American company, produces a number of innovative and cost effective products. Perhaps the most interesting introduced at CES was the Model 950 processor/preamp. This is a 7.1 channel preamp and digital processor designed to decode input from DVD or satellite, then output it to multiple power amplifiers in a home theater or multichannel audio system. Several other manufacturers, including Marantz and McIntosh, were showing products with similar functional features. What made the Outlaw Audio 950 unique was that it was the only 7.1 processor/preamp less than $3,500 (list price $900).
The high-end loudspeaker company Thiel (Kentucky, USA) had, overall, a very impressive line. Included were two newcomers - the SW1 subwoofer, and the CS 1.6. The design of the CS1.6, from its small-footprint, floorstanding cabinet to its innovative drivers (the woofer is a 6.5-inch unit with a 3-inch voice coil), according to Thiel, is designed to provide completely time and phase coherent output.
While there were many exhibits that were entertaining and informative, there were two that stood out due to the quality of audio output and despite limitations of the hotel suite environment:
The Australian audio company, Halcro, demonstrated their DM68 Super Fidelity Monobloc amplfiers at the Tuscany Hotel. Rated at 225 watts per channel, but with headroom unmatched by almost any amplifier, the DM68 was designed to drive any loudspeaker on the market. The specifications are impressive, including total harmonic distortion of 0.000001%, and a power factor corrected power supply that will operate on 85 to 270v, without any internal or external switches. However, specifications don't tell the whole story. The dynamic range and tonal balance were superb. More to the point, the music reached into the room and enveloped the listener with a presentation that was involving and moving. What more could you ask for? If only multichannel audio could surround the listener with music in the same manner as a pair of Halcro DM68 monoblocs. The DM58, a slightly less powerful version of the same design, also was demonstrated. The sound quality was almost as good as the DM68.
My favorite high-end audio exhibit demonstrated just how intimate and expressive properly matched SET amplifiers and horn loudspeakers can be. Avantgarde USA, the US distributor of the famous German horn loudspeakers, now handles an excellent line of vacuum tube amplifiers and preamps designed by Dr. Eduardo de Lima and manufactured by Audiopax of Brazil. The demonstration combined a pair of Audiopax Model 88, SET monoblocs with a pair of Avantgarde Duos. The combination was stunning, not just by reproducing music in a convincing manner, but by allowing the listener to experience every nuance, to feel completely involved, and to be totally enveloped in the music. The Halcro DM68 performed this feat with in a similar manner using effortless power and high quality; the Avantgarde/Audiopax did it with finesse and subtlety. Becoming entranced by the sound of this system was easy. Prying oneself away and escaping to see more of the show was not.
While touring the hundreds of exhibits, three trends were observed that are likely to have some degree of impact on the audio market. The first two trends are quite important. The third, while interesting, may turn out to be primarily a fashion fad.
The first was very obvious: most audio equipment designers and manufacturers seem to be jumping onto the multichannel bandwagon. Companies that long have been recognized as leaders in the two-channel audio market, such as McIntosh, Klipsch, Marantz, and Thiel displayed multichannel audio and home theater. McIntosh even had a separate large conference room for its high-end home theater. One demonstration, set up by Thiel, utilized a 5.1 system playing from a Sony SACD player. The speakers used were five of the new Thiel CS 1.6. While the speakers were technically interesting, the multichannel setup was rife with problems. Sitting in the best seat I could find, apparent phase distortion between one front and one rear speaker caused a breakup of imaging, distraction from the music being played, and resulted in a poor overall audio experience. It has been said, that to properly set up a stereo, you have only two problems - the left channel and the right channel. With multichannel, problems seem not to multiply, but to grow exponentially. Perhaps next year there will be an audio demonstration that will prove the worth of multichannel systems. Then again, perhaps not.
Second, was the apparent trickle-down of design and technology. This is a very welcome trend whereby a company redesigns their top-of-the-line components. Superior design features from the obsolete top-of-the-line equipment then are included in the redesign of less expensive components. Budget-minded audiophiles have good reason to cheer.
The third observed trend is the apparent move by many speaker designers away from simple, rectangular boxes. The idea is to prevent standing waves and unwanted cabinet resonance from interfering with driver output and overall sound quality. It already has been proven that properly designed and executed rectangular boxes work just fine. They do, however, have some acoustical problems that can be overcome by high quality components and proper voicing. No one who has ever heard Spendor loudspeakers can claim that the rectangular box from which they are made causes them to sound badly! Non-rectangular speaker cabinets covered a range of shapes from not-quite-rectangular, to ellipsoid, to extra-terrestrial. Do the new shapes help the sound quality? In some cases, the answer is, “yes.” A brief listen to B&W's Nautilus line, or the drum-shaped speakers from nOrh will demonstrate the potential. But, fancy cabinet shapes cannot substitute for good drivers and components, build quality, or proper voicing.
The defining feature of high-end audio at the 2002 CES was the tremendously innovative spirit of audio enthusiasts. I look forward with great anticipation to next year's CES.
Photographs used in this review courtesy of publicity materials provided by the vendors.
© Copyright 2002 Richard George & Deborah George - http://www.tnt-audio.com
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