CES 2014 Dave Thomas
Well, it finally happened. Every year that I plan to attend the Consumer Electronics Show and T.H.E. Show in Las Vegas, I always say a little prayer that the weather will cooperate and I will be able to get out of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport without incident. Sadly, this year a record breaking cold snap and over a foot of snow crapped all over my plans to enjoy four days of warmth, music, and well, shooting crap. I didn’t arrive in Las Vegas until just before midnight Wednesday night so the first two days of the shows were a goner. So I went straight to my room at the Flamingo and without bothering to unpack, fell asleep knowing that I was now facing two days to do four days of work. Lots of sleep was in order.
The next morning I hit the ground running (to Starbuck’s that is). Since I was already staying at the Flamingo, once again the host hotel for T.H.E. Show, armed with my notebook, demo disc, and a handful of business cards, I made my way downstairs to the main exhibit floor. The first room I visited was the Fidelis/Audio Arts room which featured the Stenheim Alumine two-way loudspeakers ($14,975/pr) with Alumine third-way bass extension stands ($34,450/pr). Music was provided by a Metronome CD player and Holbone turntable. Amplification was a Robert Koda preamp and CH Audio power amp. The Stenheim speakers are gorgeously built and executed with clean lines and flawless construction. The sound of the system was extremely musical and dynamic, sounding far bigger and more natural than you’d normally hear under show conditions. This was a great room to start the day with and really set the bar high for the rest of the day.
Quintessence Acoustics/PBN Audio
The next stop was a room that is usually pretty reliable for good sound. The Quintessence Acoustics/PBN Audio room featured the new Quintessence QLS loudspeaker system ($50,000/pr). The system is comprised of two 6” tall line source towers that hold nine 5.5” woofer-midrange drivers and nine 6.5” ribbon tweeters. Also part of the speaker system was the QRS subwoofers ($10,000/ea) which contain two 12” drivers each and a 1000 watt plate amplifier. The source was the great VPI Classic turntable. Amplification was the PBN Preamp and Phono stage and a pair of new Tom Maker (formerly of Edge Audio) designed amplifiers. No information was available on the amps but Tom Campagna of Quintessence told me that he believes that the amps will sell for around $20,000/pr. Cables were from MG Audio. This was a room that I would frequent often, this was my kind of sound: big, lively and highly resolved. It’s an amazing combination. Normally big sounding systems are anything but highly resolved. But the Tom Maker amps on these line source speakers seemed to be a synergistic match.
From Germany comes Audionet. These products are classically European styled in that they eschew a lot of the buttons, lights and fancy metalwork of many U.S. companies in favor of a more elegant, understated look. This means that while listening to music you’ll spend more time focused on the music and not on the aesthetics (which are actually quite nice). Thankfully, this system plays music brilliantly. Feeding a pair of TAD Reference One loudspeakers was a Audionet ART G3 CD player ($12,200), DNP preamp ($20,300) with EPX power supply ($10,100) and Max monoblock amplifiers ($30,000/pr). Don’t be fooled by these products simple looks. They are designed with a plethora of exciting high-tech features and they are priced accordingly.
From Taiwan there was loudspeaker manufacturer Coin Audio. They were displaying a couple of very attractive loudspeakers from their “Mansion Series” that would like right at home on the cover of Architectural digest. The Tower ($8,600/pr) is a floor standing design and the Compact ($2,299/pr) is for bookshelf or stand mounting. The speakers come elegantly finished in stealth black, walnut burl, American walnut, and glossy white. These are bass reflex designs with downward firing ports to enhance bass extension. Paired with an Audio Refinement CD player and integrated amp, the sound was very well rendered and musically enjoyable. But something about their “lifestyle” system looks made me only want to listen to chamber music or live recordings in intimate venues. I’d be curious as to how well these lovelies can handle rock, funk, and R&B. These may well be worth seeking out for a review.
Pearl Evolution/Musical Cable
Another company that was new to me was Pearl Evolution out of Italy. They featured a loudspeaker - the 10,000 euro/pair Ballerina 401/8 DPG - that looked as if they’d be right at home at the Museum of Modern Art. It is designed in what I would consider to be a rather “shapely” aesthetic, with a softly curved woofer enclosure and a long, slender (and mostly open) front baffle. The mid and upper frequencies come via a D’Appolito (midrange-tweeter-midrange) configuration. Using a Unison Research Unico integrated amp and Aura Note CD player. Cables for the system were provided by another Italian company called Musical Cable. Once I stopped gawking at the speakers I realized that the sound was a surprisingly detailed and lifelike. I stopped by this room a couple of times and the sound was always enjoyable.
One of the more interesting stops I made was to the Magnepan room. It was actually one of the best sounds I heard all week, but sadly I have no idea of what I was listening to. The reason for this was because the demo system was hidden behind an acoustically transparent curtain. So while I could hear and enjoy the system the Manepan reps would not reveal what was in the system until the final day of the show. They were actually holding a contest to see which member of the media could guess the cost of the speakers. The person who was closest would participate in a donation presentation to a deserving charity. I didn’t get back to the Maggie room on Friday so I still don’t know what’s in the system. But being the owner of a pair of Maggie MG20s myself, the curiosity is killing me.
The legendary Mark Levinson was back and this time was a featured part of T.H.E. Show and held court with his astonishing Daniel Hertz system. The system featured the mammoth M1 loudspeakers ($120K/pr) being driven by two pairs of his M5 L mono amps and M6 L preamp which includes a USB DAC. Using his Mac Book as a source, Levinson also introduced a new Mac based software called “Master Class” ($660) that can be used to improve the mastering of your recordings. He demonstrated this on a decades old recording of John Coltrane that was nothing short of astonishing.
Speaking of great recordings, Levinson, along with baritone Jose Andrade, has been involved with a charitable organization that benefits La Fenice, the legendary opera house in Venice that has been home to some of the world’s finest music for more than 200 years. Between demos Levinson plugged The Legend of La Fenice a 28 CD boxed set of recordings from La Fenice’s archives spanning the years 1966 – 1987, that he and Andrade had produced. The recordings are from operas, live concerts and jazz from the likes of Dave Brubeck and the Modern Jazz Quartet. More information about The Legend of La Fenice can be found on their website (www.legendlf.com).
Levinson’s show demos are always brilliant but with the one caveat being that he typically only demos with his own recordings which are of course exceptional. It does make me wonder what some of my iTunes downloads would sound like on his system.
Well for that, he announced the availability of what he calls the “Baby Daniel System” which consists of his M8 loudspeakers ($4,499/pair) and M9 integrated amp ($2,499) which offers USB DAC and Apple AirPlay capability.
My Audio Design (MAD)/Tweak Studio
Out of England comes the musically astute MAD speaker line. This is an interesting company in that much of their speaker line are simple looking, classic English box speakers such as the Model 1920 (which I reviewed a year or so ago) and Grand Maestro Monitors ($12K/pr w/stands) while others like the Duke Royal Limited Edition speakers which look more like a hooded monk with the British flag emblazoned on them, and even creepier, the Royal Salute which is shaped like something that should be saying, “Take me to your leader.” But regardless of their looks (or lack of) these speakers image like… well, like mad (pardon the pun).
It certainly didn’t hurt that my man from Chicago Arnold Martinez of Tweak Studio set up the system using a Burmester CD 052 ($8,000) to feed a 113 Bluetooth DAC ($6,000) and Stello AI700 integrated amp ($6,500). Cabling was all from MIT and the components were set up on Stillpoints racks. Also in the system was a Sota Comet turntable w/Mojo cartridge and Burmester 100 phono stage ($27,000). Recording artist Lyn Stanley stopped by to drop off a copy of her album, Lost In Romance. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make it back to this room to hear it.
I did get a chance to listen to my homemade demo CD with MAD’s Tim Jung and it was one of the best times I had that week. Jung enjoys all types of music so when I went from playing Basia’s fluffy live version of “Baby You’re Mine” to Bobby McFerrin’s spiritually charged “I Shall Be Released,” he appreciated both tunes. Thankfully both tunes sounded wonderfully natural on this system.
Increcable Acoustic Laboratory
It is always a pleasure to run into Stephen Monte at a show. He’s the proprietor of a Bensalem, PA based audio store called Quest For Sound and a high-end audio distribution company called NAT Distribution. NAT is the distributor of Increcable Acoustic Laboratory out of Seattle, Washington. This company makes extremely good cable products and accessories and now they’ve launched an incredible (sorry for another pun) line of integrated amps called the TIA (Tube Integrated Amp) Series. The TIA-240R ($4,500) was the featured amp in the Increcable room. It uses four KT66 output tubes to put out 40 watts in ultra linear mode and 22 watts in triode mode. This is a solidly built and impressive looking amp at a reasonable price. But of course the real kicker is that this system, which also included a VPI Claasic turntable, Sound Quest SQ12 CD player and KEF R900 loudspeakers ($5,000/pr) sounded absolutely fantastic. I hope to get one of these amps in for review some time this year. I’m that excited about it.
Pass Labs is a brand that I have become more involved with over the last two years thanks to reviews I’ve done of their XP-15 phono stage and XVR-1 electronic crossover, both of which are now part of my reference system. So I headed over to the Venetian and directly to their room to see what else was new and exciting. I immediately spotted the super-nice and extremely knowledgeable Kent English and it wasn’t long before he was showing off the virtues of the new XA160.8 mono amps ($26,000/pr). These amps are part of the new “Point 8 Series” which boast larger chassis for larger power supplies, more storage capacitance, greater reference voltage, and larger heat sinks. The new amps provide greater pure Class-A operation and physically, look more like the company’s top-of-the-line “XS Series” amps.
The Point 8 Series consists of four stereo amps: the Class-A X150.8, the X250.8, the X350.8 and the XA30.8 and six mono amps: the X260.8, X600.8, the XA60.8, the XA100.8, the XA160.8 and the XA200.8.
Also part of the demo system was the Pass Labs SP10 power supply, XP25 phono stage, and XP30 linestage. The source was an Oppo Digital BDP105 and the speakers were the Sony SS AR1. The sound was what you might expect from Pass Labs: Lifelike, authoritative and eminently musical. There’s just no beating well done Class-A amplification.
Vitus Audio/Light Harmonic/Alluxity
The Great Dane Hans-Ole Vitus of Vitus Audio was back with another great sounding room. This time it was a pair of Wilson Audio Alexias ($48,500/pr) that were the featured loudspeakers being driven by one of Vitus’ Class-A beauties, the deceptively powerful SIA-25 amp ($27,000) and SL-102 linestage. The source was a Mac Mini feeding the gorgeous sounding and quite intimidating looking Light Harmonic Da Vinci DAC ($31,000) and cabling was via Fono Acoustica, except for the digital cable which was LH’s.
Across the hall was the Alluxity Audio room, run by Hans-Ole’s son Alexander Vitus Mogenson. Unfortunately, his Alluxity Power One amp ($12,600) did not survive the trip from Denmark so he was forced to borrow an RS-100 stereo amp from his father (not a bad substitute) to pair with his Pre One ($9,150) linestage. The younger Vitus also made good use of a LH Da Vinci DAC and Wilson Audio Sasha loudspeakers.
Recently, it was announced that all three companies’ products will be distributed by Audio Association, a division of Light Harmonic.
Other noteworthy sights
Rogue Audio introduced their new Pharaoh hybrid integrated amp ($3,495). It’s a 175 watt amp with a tube preamp circuit. It also features an XLR input, three line level inputs and even a MM/MC phono input.
Usher Audio showed a massive new loudspeaker called the Grand Tower ($37,800/pr). This beast stands about six feet tall and is built in three sections: two woofer cabinets sandwiching a tweeter/midrange cabinet. In the tweeter/mid cabinet, a diamond tweeter is in between a pair of 7” midranges and the woofer cabinets hold an 11” Nomex-Kevlar woofer. Despite their size they are 90dB efficient and go down to 24Hz.
Because I’m currently using two pairs of Bel Canto mono amps to drive my Maggie MG20s, I was very keen to see what was new from these folks out of Minneapolis. Needless to say I was completely caught off guard to find a completely new system design simply called Black. The three piece Bel Canto Black system is comprised of a ASC1 control unit ($20,000) and two MPS1 mono power stream amplifiers ($30,000/pr). The system accepts nine inputs and the amps put out a whopping 1200 watts. Each chassis is built from a solid billet of aircraft grade aluminum.
From Germany came the ADAM Beta MkII loudspeakers ($35,000/pr). The Beta MkII a two cabinet design. The upper cabinet holds a 7.5” midrange/woofer, an X-ART midrange and an X-ART tweeter. The X-ART drivers are proprietary AirMotion designs. The bottom cabinet holds two 10" woofers. These are simply gorgeous looking and sounding speakers. The demo system also includes the Cary Audio 805 monos and DAC100 DAC. Music files from a laptop were the source. This was yet another exceptional looking and sounding loudspeaker and setup.
Well that’s it folks. Four days worth of work in only two days’ time. Despite the bad weather that kept me from getting out of Chicago and missing the first two days, I still felt as though it was a very productive show. Maybe it was a good thing that I was forced to be more focused in the rooms I visited and not waste time in rooms that I had no interest in. In short, I actually felt as though I was working instead of just hanging out. At any rate, I enjoyed this show and am already looking forward to next year. Who knows, maybe the idea of a two day show will catch on.