CES 2005 Dave Thomas
2005 CES/T.H.E. Show
On the morning of the first day of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show and T.H.E. Show, I was terrified that I would never make out of Midway Airport in Chicago because of a snowstorm that dumped nearly a foot of snow over most of the Midwest. So I arrived at the airport two hours early and was lucky enough to not only make it out of the airport, but to actually ended up on a flight that got me into Las Vegas an hour early. Courtenay Osborne, Mike Wright, and myself, decided to save a few bucks and bunk up together at the Hotel San Remo. After all, when you’re in “the city that never sleeps” you don’t spend much time in your room anyway.
So here I was having escaped the blowing blizzard that engulfed Chicago and ready to bask in the warm sun-filled skies of Las Vegas. But there was no sun-filled sky. There was no warmth. Instead, to my and most everyone else’s amazement, there was … snow. That’s right, @#$%&* snow! Granted, the snow only lasted for a few minutes but the rest of the day was no bargain either, a steady rain and temps in the 30s. Thankfully there was plenty of great music and good company to make this year’s festivities still enjoyable despite the bad weather.
There were many great rooms to see during the weekend but rather than try to tell you about each and every one, I’ll tell you about a few rooms that were noteworthy and finally I’ll give you my Ten Outstanding Sounds of The Show.
For starters, there were a number of small speaker systems that really got my attention. The Opera Audio Consonance Eric-1, Spendor S5e (top left $1799) andMobile Fidelity OML-1 (right $999) imaged like crazy and made me appreciate some of the great things that can be had in a reasonably priced and sized loudspeaker. The same could be said for excellent subwoofer maker, TBI, who introduced their new Majestic Diamond Embedded Transmission Line speaker system. The EMB-1A ($200) combined with their Magellan Sub ($1250) to create both a two-channel and multi-channel home entertainment system. Jan Plummer’s excellent subs could be found in a number of other rooms as well, meaning that even their contemporaries are discovering what a gem this company is.
Another somewhat more interesting encounter that I had with a small speaker came as I was making my way through the hallways of the St. Tropez Resort, which of course was the home of T.H.E. Show and located right next door to Alexis Park. I was deep in thought contemplating which venue’s free lunch I wanted to partake of when I heard a voice say, “I’ve got 97db efficient speakers in here.” I was a little startled at first because the last time I heard a proposition like that was when I was on vacation in Amsterdam and what the guy was offering then would have gotten mearrested, especially in Georgia. Luckily this time the guy was the very amiable Steve Cox of Cox Audio Systems and what he had to offer was a chance to hear his 97db efficient SM-081 Loudspeaker ( right $2900). The SM-081 is extremely fast and detailed and handles percussion about as taut as you could ask of any speaker. But what was really impressive was the demo Steve gave me of his diminutive SM-052 bookshelf speaker and a subwoofer in a test of just how loud his systems can play music without losing coherency. Though the system could play I couldn’t help think of how the poor folks in his adjoining room must have felt during their demo.
A speaker that was small in stature but big in all other ways was the Ars Aures Do($3,000). The fit-n-finish of this speaker and all the others from this Italian company are first-rate. Particularly fine sounding was the Sensorial ($12,000) whose sound I have enjoyed at previous shows. Mike Wright was particularly smitten with this design and expects to get it in for a review soon.
There were also a couple of rooms where I found what I would call the Most Exciting Discoveries at the show. The first is the affordable and very musical components from Berendsen Audio of Germany (above). These true high-end components had a very nice synergy with the equally exciting Von Schweikert Audio VR4jr.
One of my favorite accessory makers is Golden Sound. This year they were showing off a couple of really cool items that I hope to try out in my own system. The first was the Ultra Tweeter ($400/pair), which is said to open up the frequency band and allow the speakers to perform more efficiently. The second accessory and by far the most eyebrow raising was the Golden Sound Intelligent Chip ($16). According to Golden Sound’s Allen Chang, all you have to do is set this 1” x 1 ½” wafer atop your CD player and play the disc that you want to “upgrade” for 2-4 seconds, remove the chip and place it back in its case. That’s it! To add to the mystery, Allen says that you can only use the chip 10 times then it can be thrown away. If you want to know more you’ll have to contact Golden Sound yourself.
Another exciting discovery was a neat little tubed integrated/headphone amp fromGrommes called the PHI-26 ($995). It sounded mind-blowingly good driving a pair of Joseph Audio RM25s. And as good as it sounded with speakers it is even better as a headphone amp. Folks, the size and sound of true high-end quality is coming in packages that are getting increasingly smaller and cheaper. This is good stuff.
The SOTA turntable (photo left) was featured atopBrightstar's new IsoRock SM Reference anti-vibration platform ($650) that was designed specifically for the SOTA Mellennia turntable (although it also fits many other larger components).
The Outstanding Sound at the Shows
So as you can see there were a lot of great things to see and hear at this year’s events, but the question that most people always want to know is what rooms did I think were the most outstanding. So here they are, in no particular order, my ten choices for Best Sound at the Show:
VAC/Scientific Fidelity: Kevin Hayes was showing off his extreme statement on the integrated amplifier the 110 watt/channel Phi-Beta ($19K). Paired with a prototype of the Scientific Fidelity Style-Lust loudspeakers, presented one of the most holographic images I’ve ever heard at a show. The speaker is a two-way design that could be very at home in a modern art museum or even the set of Blade Runner. Despite their size and angular shape they simply disappeared when fed by the Phi Beta. Unfortunately, the speaker is not in production yet and I fear I may not again have the chance to enjoy this experience. Elsewhere in the VAC room were the new Auricle Preamp ($2,495) a class-A triode design with MM phono and remote control and Auricle Musicbloc 70/watt monobloc amps ($2,495/ea).
Messenger: Those of you who are familiar with the Dali Model 5 loudspeaker already know what a difficult speaker it can be to get maximum performance from if not paired with the right electronics. This was not a problem for Bruce Wulach’s legendary Messenger preamp ($25,000) and a pre-production (enclosed in wooden crates) version of his monoblock amplifiers got stunning results from the Dali speakers. A huge and very well focused soundstage brought a new realism to Barbara Morrison’s “Don’t Go To Strangers” from her CD, I Know How To Do It. The Messenger knows how to do it too.
Black Diamond Racing/Thor/Discovery/Sota:Fortunately, there was a lot of analog to be heard at both CES and T.H.E. SHOW but none of it was better than what I found in the room which featured a SOTAMillennia turntable($7,750), ThorTPA-60 mono amps ($17,490),TA1000 mkII line stage, TA3000 mkII phono preamp,Discovery Cables, and the wonderful new Credo S100 loudspeakers($7,000) which are also available through Discovery. Contributing greatly to the overall sound of this system were Black Diamond Racing isolation products which were used throughout the room including the BDR-2 amp stands ($1,900) made especially for the Thor amplifiers. I made repeat visits to this room and enjoyed every piece of tube-sweetened vinyl that I heard. Discovery Cable's Joseph De Phillips and the rest of the folks in this room were very accommodating - often going back-and-forth between digital and analog sources - and pleasant to be around. By the way, SOTA's Donna and Kirk Bodinet (Bodinet, pictured above, next to the Millennia) informed me that a SOTA turntable is making a recurring appearance on the hit Fox medical drama "House" (Tuesdays at 9pm/8pm CST).
Escalante Design: I first heard this Provo, Utah-based company’s first loudspeaker, thePinyon ($6,450), at Alexis Park last year and remembered noting, “Excellent imaging, but needs a little more bass.” This year the Pinyons are back but this time they’ve brought a friend along, the Uinta subwoofer ($3,490). Frankly folks, I couldn’t find any real fault with this system. You get the Pinyon’s pinpoint and lifelike imaging coupled with the Uinta’s ability to provide a massive and realistic sounding musical foundation. Both of these pieces are the brainchild of thoughtful yet demanding perfectionist, Tierry Budge. As an added bonus, I got to hear a first recording of company owner, Matthew Waldron’s rock/funk band Hoodooh. The band rocks and so do these speakers.
Coda/Legacy: Ever see a six-foot tall speaker disappear? I did. It was the Legacy Audio Whispers being driven by Coda Technologies electronics. Remember Coda? Years ago these guys were producing world-class amplifiers then suddenly faded into the abyss of OEM projects for a number of other high-end companies. But now they’re back and ready to hit stride with great products like the S1 mono amplifiers ($7,900/pr) and05r FET Control Buffer ($3,350). They also used Jena Labs cables and power condtioners, Cardas cables, and Tyler Acoustics Linbrook Monitors. Very nice indeed.
Argento Vitus Audio: This Danish company made a big splash at last year’s CES only to sort of fade from the U.S. audio landscape in the months that followed, but this year Hans-Ole Vitus and his stunningly built components are back, and I suspect will soon claim their place on the consciousness of U.S. audiophiles. To my knowledge there are no audio components in existence more beautifully built than the Argento cables andVitus Audio equipment. The two companies are now combined as Argento Vitus Audio. This system powered a pair of Avalon Acoustics Eidolon Diamond loudspeakers to near perfection. Vitus achieved this level of performance despite the fact that for the second consecutive year, his equipment was handled by U.S. Customs agents with all of the care of a pride of lions over fresh kill. Though extremely expensive one look inside and one good listen and you’ll know where the money went.
Tyler Acoustics/Jolida: Ty Lashbrook continues to amaze me with his lovingly crafted cabinets stuffed with the highest quality drivers at shockingly affordable prices. Maybe it’s because of his personal, down-to-earth touch and his joy for woodwork. However he does it I’m glad that he does. This year he showed a couple of rooms worth of his high-value loudspeaker line, but his main system featured the awesome Woodmere towers being driven by the gorgeous looking (and sounding) Jolida “Musical Envoy” 200 watt tube mono amps. The drool factor was high in this room.
Penaudio/Portal: Sami Pentilla, the designer of the Penaudio loudspeakers from Finland, is usually most comfortable hanging back at U.S. shows and allowing his designs to speak for themselves. This year, the new Serenade ($9,000) had a lot to say. This design goes one step beyond the achievements of Penaudio’s Chara and Charisma system that I reviewed last year. Its enclosure is taller than the Chara/Charisma system and the full musical performance was seamless and nicely detailed. Coupled with the Portal Audio Palladin mono amps ($3,500/pair), the sound from this system was worthy of many repeat visits.
deHaviland/PranaWire: This was the most memorable sound at the show for me. Using a 50-year-old Ampex 351-2 reel-to-reel tape recorder, Kara Chaffee played a selection of classical music reels (she found on ebay no less!) that through a system featuring theGM70 50/watt triode mono amps ($8,995), Mercury preamp ($3,495), and the Nola Speakers’ Viper was simply breathtaking. Bear in that I’m not really a classical music enthusiast, but when any music is reproduced like this it will be enjoyed. I had to leave to keep from getting spoiled.
Virtual Dynamics/Luminance: Virtual Dynamics Chief, Rick Schulz introduced
the very fast and detailed Luminance Audio Threshold amplifier. Bolstered by
a system including the Linn CD12, Virtual Dynamics cables, and Ascendo
System E loudspeakers, the sound from this room was extremely open and
detailed. Priced at $3000 this amp is a flat out steal! Stay tuned for more
on this amp. It could be a serious giant killer.
Big Speakers! Let’s face it. Nothing gets the Neanderthal gene pumped up more than a nice, beefy, bass-pulsing, chest-thumping, sidewalk-cracking, relationship-killing pair of speakers. Of course it would be even nicer if they also reproduced music in a realistic manner. Fortunately, most of the behemoths I heard during the CES/Show weekend did just that. Here are just some of my favorites:
Let’s face it; Usher Audio produces some of the biggest bargains in high-end audio. I couldn’t count the number of times people gasped at the prices of this beautiful line of speakers from Taiwan. This year they’ve upgraded their popular “Dancer Series” loudspeakers with Beryllium Oxide (BeO) drivers, and all I can say is WOW! I reviewed the wonderful AC10 loudspeaker more than a year ago and this year I’m hopeful of getting my paws on the new BE10 or BE20 (no price yet). But at this show it was the 8871 mkII speakers ($9,660), which were blowing away the large groups of show-goers that were constantly gathering in the Usher room. I also got the added thrill of meeting Dr. Joseph D’Appolito himself. I couldn’t help but tell him how great I thought it was that he would participate in the design of such wonderful and affordable speakers. He told me that what was even better was that he gets them for free. What a cool guy!
Viola Audio Labs (photo above) features the designs of Tom Colangelo and Paul Jayson, part of the brain trust behind the legendary Cello electronics company that made statement products during most of the 90’s and was headed by Mark Levinson. But for the past couple of years Viola has been something of an enigma in the US while being considerably more active and visible overseas. This is unfortunate because they produce a spectacular line of stunningly beautiful and outrageously well-built components. Their Allegro Reference Monitors and Basso Passive Subwoofer sounded as huge as they looked being driven by the elegantly styled, Symphony stereo power amplifier and Cadenza preamplifier. Also in the room were their awe-inspiring statement products, the two-box Bravo stereo amplifier and two-box Spirito preamplifier. I won’t bother telling you the prices because this stuff falls into the “if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it” category. Should you be fortunate enough to see and hear this gear in person, you’ll know how much it costs.
Wisdom Audio (right) has long been one of my favorite loudspeaker companies and it was a pleasure to visit their room once again. Over in the T.H.E. Show’s Golden Section, a special part of the show adjacent to the St Tropez rooms, they were featuring the new “Neo Series” NS-87i in-wall speakers and NS-50i in-wall center channel speaker, and 7-B subwoofer, in a home theater system that was showing a very nice DVD of a Diana Krall concert. In another system, the M-50s were being used with Edge Electronics’ excellent “G” Series components. But as I am partial to the affordable end of most high-end companies, one of my favorite sounds at the show came from the Wisdom NS-27s being mated with the Edge G3 integrated amp and a Pioneer CD player.
The Duevel speaker line features omni-directional tweeter/midrange drivers atop beautifully veneered cabinets. Their new top-of-the-line Jupiter loudspeakers ($26,700) were powered by a Pluto Audio analog rig, the VRS Audio Systems hard-drive server and the great VAC Phi Beta Integrated. The sound was absolutely holographic though the high traffic in this room did not allow me the best chance to really get into them. Look for a review this year.
Focus Audio demonstrated their stunning looking and sounding Master Three loudspeaker ($19,200) at Alexis Park this year. The Master Three features much of the same technology and physical appearance of its big brother the Master Two but at a lower price and more manageable size, though at nearly six feet tall and almost 200 lbs they are still formidable.
The Pierre Gabriel Grand Master loudspeakers ($50,000) must be seen and heard to be believed. At six feet and 1,000 lbs/pair they are huge, well-built, and drop-dead gorgeous yet shockingly detailed. These aren’t just speakers that are big for the sake of being big, they are designed to cover as much of the musical spectrum as is accurately possible. Under show conditions this can be tough but bolstered by Jadis electronics and Pierre Gabriel Signature cables that tube magic, characterized by lots of detail and imaging, also has believable scale and weight through this speaker. Excellent!
There were many more big loveable and wonderful sounding speakers that deserve mention as well such as designs from: Pearl Audio, Rockport Technologies, Epiphany Audio, Von Schweikert Audio, ESP and PBN Montana. You’d better believe that we’ll be seeking to review many of these in the future.
So that’s it for me this year. Time to sift through all of the business cards, notations, and literature. I would like to thanks all of the great people who made this year’s show so enjoyable in spite of the weather. I’m already looking forward to next year and hope to tell you more about some exciting new companies and new things from some exciting old companies. Until then, peace!