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August, 2008

CEDIA 2008 Denver - Show Report Preview

Sunday, August 31st, 2008 by Mike

We received our CEDIA 2008 Expo Show Magazine last week. There is one of these for each day of the show - and there are often lots of stories about high-end audio.

I thought I’d show you all a few of them - and why we actually go and take photos at these shows [and also because they are in Denver - a hop skip and jump away].

The main convention floor. Yeah, it is about … 1/6? the size of CES. But,that IS STILL darn big.

Mark Levinson is still alive and kicking.

The theme for speakers at the show, last year especially, was speakers that were hidden away. Who wants to see those ugly things anyway? But this company is capitalizing on what WE all know - speakers are often works of art.

Simaudio and home-theater

Cable news. The gossip is that Esoteric is branding AcroLink cable. And hurray for anybody who tries to do away with RCA connectors [and spades, please].

People also write about personnel changes in the industry.

Halcro and Wadia [I know what you are thinking :-) ]. Yes, sad to say, McIntosh is about the only tubed gear at this show.

Theta - somehow, though attrition and persistence in large part, they have made it to the top of the heap in surround sound processors [from the perspective of someone who does not cover HT and who will pipe digital through EMM Labs foregoing the fancy shmancy digital babel that is the high-end video world of today].



Revel is still hanging in there… and in fact coming out with speakers quite frequently these days…. is perhaps not in the avantgarde style and wicked price performance of old.


A music server that looks like a jukebox with a computer screen [GUI] interface to Music Giants catalogs, lossless and uncompressed audio, etc.

Photos from downstairs

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008 by Mike

Just a few odds and ends… OK. Yes. Audio porn. While it still gets through those parental filters.

The Kharma Mini Exquisite.

The Audio Note Kegon Balanced from the front

The Audio Note Kegon Balanced from the side

The Marten Coltrane, showing off its bottom port.

The Audio Note E/SEC Signature speaker with 8 hand rubbed coats of lacquer, in MADRONE burl with piano finish .

A closeup of the finish.

Playback Designs MPS-5 versus the EMMLabs CDSA SE

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008 by Mike

This was a rather hurried back and forth shootout that lasted about an hour to an hour and a half. Neli and I were somewhat at an advantage, because we are very familiar with the system - and a very high-resolution system at that.

The system consisted of the Marten ‘Coltrane Supreme’ loudspeakers, Lamm ML2.1 amps, and Lamm L2 linestage. Cables were a mix of Nordost ODIN, Valhalla and Jorma Design PRIME. Powercords were Elrod and AcroLink. All components were on HRS platforms (and the front end on the HRS SXR equipment rack) except the Marten speaker crossover [Hmmm… we got to get this boy a M3 too].

[More photos of the PD in the previous post]

The Playback Designs MPS-5 (PD) only had about 300-400 hours on it so far, so we assumed that it was enough like the CDSA that its break-in process would be go through likewise phases of dynamic compression before opening up at around 700 to 1000 hours.

In some large sense the fact that the PD is still breaking in invalidates some of what we heard. But, considering how many of the reviews out there are of unbroken-in equipment - we thought we’d at least publish a few impressions to add a little sanity to the mix.

The short and sweet is that the PD is a very good player but I don’t think it beats the CDSA SE with the latest transport and software updates.

That doesn’t mean EMMLabs can rest easy - this player has a lot going for it - and it is similar enough to the CDSA [at this point] that it will cause confusion in the marketplace [though at $15K versus the CDSA’s 11.5K, there is a price difference - though the PD does offer additional functionality for the higher price tag by providing digital inputs on the back of the unit).

OK. Details…

The PD had very good PRaT which I thought was slightly better than the CDSA.

The PD had a slightly more colorful tone - which is not to say warm, tho it might be thought of that way - but more like the Kharma kind of exuberance - or that of analog. The Meitner is also known for its pureness of tone - and the PD was like that, only tipped up a little. I did not find it to be out of proportion to reality, necessarily, but it was a definite difference from way the CDSA was interpreting the CD.

Another difference was that either the soft notes were made more prominent - or the midrange and highs were made more prominent - which I think resulted in several more sonic differences [according to my mental model of what is happening]:

1. The soundstage was more forward. This was neither more or less pleasant than the CDSA - it just WAS.

2. There was more ‘perceived’ resolution - a lot of the subtleties of the music were more evident [note that this differs from Dave’s interpretation - by I think I have an explanation for this further on]

3. There was a higher noise floor

4. Because lots of very soft sounds were now more in evidence there wasn’t a clear demarcation between images in the soundstage.

5. This lead to a feeling that there was a larger presence, more of a oneness or wholeness to the stage - perhaps even more ‘continuousness’ where notes flowed well into each other.

All this elevation of low-level detail also to a feeling that there was [is? have to remember - this player isn’t broken in yet, and although the CDSA doesn’t sound like this when it is breaking in - this is not the CDSA] an innate lack of dynamic range between the quietest note and the loudest - and that there was ‘fuzz’ between the musicians. I felt that there were too many ‘cues’ [very low level subtle sounds like the sound bouncing off the guitar] telling the ear where everything was and concluded that there was some information that really shouldn’t be there - that things were moving around too much and too large - and that it also tended to make the notes rounder - even though the notes were great there were just a lot of other sounds around the note that was filling in around it - perhaps making it *seem* rounder.

So, in conclusion, this is a very nice player but CDSA SE owners do not have anything to worry about, …yet. However, if they look in the ’solid-state players less than $50K rear view mirror’, they will see a new player has appeared out of nowhere where before there was none in sight.

Emm Labs is a company with equipment in most pro studios in the world. This is Playback Design’s first product.

I am hoping that Playback Designs and EMM Labs continue to diverge with respect to the sound of their equipment - both to reduce the potential of litigation [the head engineer at PD is from EMM Labs] and to offer the audiophile more choices.

Our heartfelt thanks go to Dave for lugging his player up all those stairs :-)


[Whew! Hard review to write, trying to be fair to both players and to both manufacturers who we like and respect - and one of which, Emm Labs, we represent in the marketplace. Also, people get so passionate about their latest high-end audio toy - one of the reasons magazines only publish positive, non-comparative reviews is just to avoid the poop storms :-) ].

Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD player

Thursday, August 21st, 2008 by Mike

Thanks so much to Dave for bringing up his new Playback Designs player yesterday so we could hear it back to back with the Emmlabs CDSA SE.

More later about what Neli and I heard, but Dave wrote up his impressions which is available on the Asylum and Audiogon.

Here are some photos…. [still learning to wrangle this fullframe Canon 5D…]

The TAS Review of the Burmester $65K 069 Reference CD Player / PRE

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008 by Mike

Let’s talk about TAS’s review of the $65K Burmester CD player / PRE.

If it was $650K then that would be something… but $65K. Pshaaah. This is US Dollars we are talking about. This new Burmie is less than the old $30K Burmie in real $.

Second, even though Mr. Cordesman who reviewed the player seemed to like th Emm Labs CDSA better than the Burmie, without saying as much, I hated to see him perpetuate the misnomer about the sound of redbook versus SACD, especially on the CDSA.

A few SACDs do sound better than most redbook: DSOTM, Abraxus, … uh, any others? The problem is that, although SACD did have more resolution and a cleaner sound, say, 5 years ago - redbook keeps improving and SACD is kind of losing (lost) momentum. So, to my ears, a good redbook, which is most of them made in the last, 3-5 years, say, sound as good as most SACD.

Ah Ha! you say, then why get the Meitner CDSA when SACDs are not the cats meow anymore? Well, because redbook on the CDSA sounds better than the redbook on any other solid-state player that we have heard, tho we have heard that the Esoteric $50K+ implementation has some goodness as well.

And maybe this Burmie plays redbook well as well. Kind of hard to tell from the review. Mr Cordesman was moving things around …. Pass on Vandy 5s? Boulder on Hansen Prince speakers? Audioquest cables? Sounds like the system was/are tuned to his ears [and not mine! :-) ] and subtleties are not what these system designs are going for.

All this is to say, RedBook is pretty darn good, the CDSA (and CDSD/DCC2) play redbook better than anything near them in price, and all those [many] reviewers comparing things to the Meitner players are just trying to avoid saying that the players under review do not sound as good, *playing redbook*, as the Meitner [assuming they have ears and a balanced system] and so spin it by back-handed compliments that imply the CDSA is all about SACDs. Only about 20%-30% of the CDs we play here on the CDSA are SACD. In fact, I never pay attention anymore to what FORMAT it is we are playing - and haven’t for years now.

There are not many ‘deals’ in audio these days, what with the dollar sinking and the flooding of the market of ridiculously priced equipment - the barrier to entry for new manufacturers so low. But the $10K CDSA is one. The Audio Note $4.5K/m PALLAS cable is another. The $4.2K Acoustic Zen Adagios. And uh….uh….uh…. down the list would be the $10K Audio Aero Capitole CD player and $7.5K Lamm LP2 Phono and perhaps their $14K L2 Reference as well. The SoundLabs [even the U1] and the Kharma 3.2. [and we like Odyssey but Quad prices have gone up significantly. Anything else? There are lots of ‘good values’ out there - but if people know of other ‘GREAT values’ out there, please post a comment]

Funny thing about all these great price/performance pieces in the high-end - is that they do not get as much respect from the people who look at price tags: on both ends. The brands are too respectable for the cheaper-is-better crowd and the prices are too low for the expensive-is-better crowd. So… only the people in the middle somewhere, dare I say ‘better-sounding-is-better’ audiophiles? seem to understand and can appreciate the balance of features and performance that makes something worth much more than its asking price.

CEDIA coming up…

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008 by Mike

The next few months… the Olympics, the Democratic convention here in Denver, a fews days later CEDIA in the same place…. then, of course, The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.

We will cover CEDIA and RMAF.

The convention…? Well, I guess I *could* take photos… of the microphone and sound system. Of the people, well, we don’t take photos of people. Too boring … or too embarrassing… depending on how you look at it. :-)

We got a bunch of smaller stuff this summer - a lot of it burning in on the Nordost ViDar. We should be getting our Audio Note M9 Phono pretty soon now….

Haven’t bought much in the way of music… but Neli tells me she just bought a ton of classical and weird rock-and-roll (like Henry Kaiser … yep, that is definitely classified as weird ;-) ) over in Princeton NJ. So, I guess we will have some new music to listen to after all. Or new old music. Or, they are used, so old old music.

Haven’t decided what we are taking to show in our rooms at RMAF yet. This topic always elicits lots of .. ahem… discussion.

September is almost here - and things always pick up as we move back indoors and the shows do help to spark ideas for the blog. :-)

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