CES 2014: Most Interestings of Show (part one)

[Similar to the RMAF 2013 show report – we will put the politically correct version for all ages and levels of audiophile, along with well over 1000 photos, over on Ultimist – and we will put the more opinionated report here on the blog, which we will call ‘Most Interesting of Show’, for people who are focused on Pursuing the Ultimate Music Experiences.]

There were actually quite a few rooms this year that we thought were interesting. Interesting sometimes due to an intriguing pairing of different brands of gear together and sometimes due to interesting sonics, and there were also a couple of exceptional sounding systems as well.

In no particular order:

Acapella Atlas speakers driven by Einstein electronics and TechDAS Air Force One turntable

This system, when driven by the Einstein CD player, was more or less competitive with the best at the show: the Perfect8 / VAC / Walker, the SoundLab / Wavac, the Lamm / Verity, etc. But with the TechDAS Air Force One table on the Einstein OTL amp driving the Acapella Atlas speakers, this system forced me to step back [mentally :-)] and compare what I was hearing to the best I have ever heard [which was at about 4 times the price: Marten Supreme 1 speakers, Audio Note UK Gaku-on amp and M9 pre, Nordost Odin cabling and Brinkmann Balance TT (although we still had the Walker TT at the time, it was stuck downstairs. doh!)].

We played Tin Pan Alley. Not exactly a well-rounded test song but we have nevertheless heard it many times on many variations of very serious systems. Here we heard really good solidity and even-handed dynamics up and down the frequency and loudness spectrums [on other systems, the aggressive guitar notes are often over or under emphasized]. Really good separation and decent harmonics. Although not at the other-worldly level of resolution and harmonics of the aforementioned super system, this system here was directly on the path and was an in-kind sound and one of the best sounding systems I have heard. What a freaking surprise this system was to these somewhat jaded show-going ears.

SoundLab Majestic 945PX speakers driven by WAVAC electronics

Another system that took me completely by surprise. Yow. The WAVAC amps on the big SoundLab speakers was certainly the best I’ve heard the SoundLab speakers sound [and we’ve tried many, many different front ends with these speakers in the 5 years or so they were here at Audio Federation. (We decided to take a break from being dealers several years ago although we still like their electrostatic speaker line very much)]. Most people put cold and nasty solid-state amps on these speakers. Low and behold, they get a cold and nasty sound. Putting a nice sounding solid-state amp on these speakers tended to generate a sound that was kind of laid back and not very exciting [the Sanders amp and olde Edge pyramid amps were the best of these and did manage to be a little more lively than a sleeping dog]. Putting tube amps on these speakers was kind of the holy grail, but, at least with the previous generation of the Ultimate speakers, the tube amps tended to not like this gig a whole heckuva lot.

I didn’t get to spend a lot of time here, and I am not sure Neli did either when she was here, but we agree this was really something special. Warm and musical, well controlled, dynamic, lots of separation in the sound-stage… After all the previous show systems where WAVAC sounded cold and wimpy, and all the previous show systems where the SoundLabs were edgy and lean, thank goodness these two finally found each other.

This system made me think hard about what in my heart of hearts do I really want out of electrostatic speakers, and how would this be different from other speakers. And I think now that there should be no difference – that electrostatics should be held to the standards of standard cone driver speakers, but with their single-driver and high-resolution advantages they should not have a problem if correctly designed and partnered. Like this system clearly shows.

Perfect8 THE FORCE Mk II speakers on VAC electronics and Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond V turntable. Stealth cables.

The Walker turntable on VAC driving Perfect8 speakers had a few minor issues but did some things that were extremely pleasing making me wonder just what were those things, anyway, and how could we get to hear them here. The things I think we liked the best were the really nice sized scale of the sound and the easy dynamic swings in the upper mids. This was a big sound without any apologies. There was some really good separation in the upper frequencies – those ribbon drivers really kick ass: everything seemed very stable and clear sounding, and with excellent dynamics.

That said there was some blurriness and smearing in the mids and on down, with the commensurate lack of separation and resolution. Some of this is probably due to asking a little too much of the extremely high value but reasonably priced VAC electronics in a sea of state-of-the-art gear. The Perfect8 guys also mentioned that they chose to put the DSP time-aligned sub-woofer arrays to the outside of the speakers, and if instead they were placed inside of the speakers the bass would have a little more energy and tightness to it.

Anyway, another system that strove to break new ground. It was great to hear the Walker again, still one of the top 2 or 3 tables [we sold our store demo table a few years ago after they decided to change to a direct-to-customer business model] .

Wilson Alexia speaker driven by Lamm M1.2 hybrid amplifiers. CEC transport and TechDAS DAC through Lamm L2 Reference linestage. Kubala-Sosna cables

After privately wondering whether the Wilson Alexia was a flawed speaker, after much ballyhooed amp after much over-hyped amp after yet another amp failed to bring out the bass beyond a few little blumpety blumps, the good old relatively inexpensive Lamm m1.2 hybrid amp finally made the speakers sound like what one would think the big brother to the Sasha should sound like. High resolution, dynamic, some bass slam, wide-band… it was all there.

Atma-sphere M-60mk3.2 amps on PranaFidelity Vayu/fs speakers
Another pleasant surprise was the Atma-sphere OTL amps on the PranaFidelity speakers. I haven’t been a real fan of the Atma-sphere amps on the Classic Audio speakers system that they have been showing for the last, I don’t know, 5 years? 10 years? And Atma-sphere on the SoundLab speakers did not work for us either. But this system? It sounded bold and colorful and continuous [but not too smooth] and musical. Liked this I did.

The EMMLabs MTRX amp, and their DAC2X and PRE2 with laptop source, on the Sony SS-AR1 speakers.

These amps really drove the poop out of the speakers. Yep, poop ALL over the floor. You could hear exactly what the amps were trying to get the speakers to do, and whether the speakers were capable of doing it or not. Do not think ‘yet another big mofo solid-state amp’. Those other solid-state amps sound wimpy and weak and are probably in need of a flu shot. There really is that big of a difference – this is not one of those subtle audiophile-ish things.

The tone here is very Meitneresque: tuneful and clear sounding and not at all solid-state-ish, although it is certainly not tube-ish either. It is kind of like you always thought solid-state amps were supposed to sound, before you learned that the vast majority of them are stereotypically harsh, lean, uneven, aggressive and unpleasant to listen to.

These amps seriously change the landscape and set a new bar for performance, much like their CDSA CD player did several years ago, sounding better at $10K than the $60K top player at the time. At $130K these 1500 watters arn’t cheap, but there is finally [finally!] a solid-state amp commensurate with the extreme high quality of the bevy of hard-to-drive statement speakers from Magico, YG Acoustics and, more recently, Marten [not to mention Sonus Faber, Venture, Avalon, etc. Lots of hard-to-drive speakers out there that have never been driven well]. Word to the wise: Once you hear these on your favorite speakers, whether at a friends house or dealership, you are going to feel really silly [or perhaps some other emotion :-/] for having bought one of those other mega amps. Just sayin’.