CES 2014: Most Interestings of Show (part four)

[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:


Kharma Elegance DB11S speakers on Kharma electronics and cables, dCS digital

I wasn’t happy with Kharma’s room last year at THE Show. It was cold and analytical. Not Kharma-ish at all.

This year’s room at the Venetian was way different. That old Kharma excitingness was back.

I have spent a lot of time trying to quantify and qualify this sound and what makes it different. It is definitively more exciting than most other speaker sounds [I used to compare it to how one feels about one’s girl (boy) friend versus how one feels about one’s wife (husband) – and I know none of us have girl (boy) friends, of course, but I think we can imagine just what that would be like just fine ;-)].

Is the midrange and upper bass slightly more dynamic than the rest of the frequency band? Are the mids more harmonically rich? I don’t know, but I do like it; although to hear it best I kind of have to sort of turn my mind’s ear and point it toward the 6th dimension [I don’t know how else to describe this].

Anyway, a bold sound, a little too much for the room but it worked much of the time. Very dynamic and powerful, especially in the upper to mid bass. Very harmonically rich and engaging. Uneven and not very linear top to bottom, however, and a little wild. But it was fun and exciting, so I liked it, especially in the context of the show where a lot of systems sounds are, whether good or bad, just plain boring.


Theorem Imaging Science speakers on Lampizator electronics

These guys are so infuriating. We only got a very little time to listen to these before they drug us over to the next room to see their smaller system that was not playing any music. Argh.

I think this system is interesting because it did sound pretty darn good. Maybe they do wonders with cross-overs but I suspect it is the fact that the cabinets are made from granite and are so inert and stable that there is not much box coloration at all. And this is seemingly very, very important if you want to elevate your playback into state-of-the-art territory. All of the energy for each note goes into the note and not into warming up and vibrating some large chunk of wood or fiberboard or composite material. Lots of good separation and dynamics. Speakers that start with an aluminum, granite or perhaps carbon fiber cabinet enclosure have a real advantage over those that do not.

The harmonics also seemed quite rich [but not too rich] and musical as provided by the Polish Lampizator company.


Lamm ML3 amps, LL1 linestage, LP2.1 phono, LP1 phono on Verity Lohengrin II speakers with Kubala-Sosna cables and HRS (under the TechDAS turntable) and Kanso rackage

We have a friend customer who has the ML3 amps on these the latest Verity Lohengrin II speakers [with Jorma cables instead of Kubala-Sosna and Audio Aero La Source front end, all on RixRax equipment racks with Harmonic Resolution Systems M3x isolation bases under everything]. His goal was [more or less] a sound that was always musical and never aggressive, otherwise with as high a resolution and as much accuracy as possible. That system succeeded wonderfully for him. He could spend 2 or 3 times as much and get something better [IMHO] but, heck, this is pretty gawd darn expensive already.

As I sat in this room and heard how much of the wonderfulness of the ML3 amps was not getting through to my ears, I still thought our friend bought the right thing… for him. But for me? I want to hear that amp. I know it to have wonderfully detailed and subtle harmonic and dynamic transitions that add so much [for me] to the music. And more.

But the speakers, and to some degree the cables, and perhaps even the unfamiliar Kanso equipment rack, were softening up the sound enough that I did not feel as engaged here as I did in previous years, or even as much as I did in the Lamm M1.2 amp on the Wilson Alexia speakers room next door.

[Vladimir Lamm swapped back and forth between the LP2.1 phono stage (which debuted this show. yes we have photos on the inside of the chassis to be posted on Ultimist) and the more expensive LP1 Signature phono stage, several times by using the two tonearms on the TechDAS at the same time [say what? this was fun]. With two very slightly different cartridges it was a little bit of a Fuji apples to Braeburn apples comparison, but the short and quick is that if you didn’t hear them back to back (the more expensive LP1 being smoother, less grainy, and just more of that good old analog wonderfulness) you would think you were already listening to the LP1 when it was in fact the less expensive LP2.1 all along (the original LP2 has been a giant killer among phono stages here at the Fed, at least until you get up into the $20-$30K range of the competition).]


Acoustic Zen Crescendo Mk. II Speakers on Triode Corp electronics

It is funny [or not] when I read the better show reports and how they report on these rooms setup by Acoustic Zen and Triode Corp at all these shows. They point out something like that they heard a slight issue with the sound of a part of one of the tracks they played here. Ah, then this, they imply, can’t be best of show then.

What this really says to the perceptive reader who reads a lot of these things and thinks to themselves a little bit is that, hey, these rooms are such reliable performers, and it is so boring to keep awarding them the accolades they deserve, that they will dig deep down and find something [anything!] wrong so they do not have to put them somewhere on the BOS list yet again. The Lamm rooms experience this same thing.

Show reporters get so bored with seeing the same things each show [most of the gear, the setups, the people… it is all 98% the same from show to show] that they need to mix it up once in awhile and pick someone else as BOS, someone else to talk and rave about. And heaven forbid that they bore the readers [equals less traffic equals less ad revenue] by talking about the same old boring rooms that sound good, that perform well, each show after show after show.

And the speakers are only $18K? And the electronics are actually fairly reasonably priced?? BO-ring. Can’t get any more boring than this. Show reports got to be exciting wiiiild stuff, man…

They played music here. It sounded like music. It did nothing egregiously wrong and got a lot just right. It was immensely enjoyable. Like freaking always.

Well, I guess [and after all I am kind of a show reporter too…] I am also a wee tiny bit bored :-).

Yah, you know, each show it is the same… I can’t ever afford to spend a lot of time here [and this is what sucks about being a show reporter who actually goes to all the rooms (otherwise you have prejudged the show before you even arrive! Having decided what is best by the choice of what rooms you omit even visiting)]. You know I have to go and check out all those other rooms…

*sigh*

CEs 2014: day 3, 4


WAVAC on soundLab. surprisingly, one of the, if not THE, best sounds of the show.


Perfect8 on Walker Audio and VAC


Kharma is finally back with their characteristically energetic sound.


Lamm on Verity Lohengrin speakers.


Lamm on Wilson Alexia speakers. First time I have heard the bass of the Alexia sound anywhere near what one would expect from a Wilson speaker

Heart and Mind Ratings of Common High-end Audio Gear

[UPDATE Sept. 07, 2017]

[Most of the scores for major gear remain untouched 4 years later. I removed many items which are no longer being made or whose companies have gone out of business :-(. I also updated some of the values as I have become to appreciate that the level of detail offered by some of the better tube gear comes a lot closer to that offered by solid-state these days and it is often those subtle details that help entertain the Mind Рergo higher mind scores. 

Going through these numbers again – and yes, I have many more items to add, but – it seems apparent that for long term enjoyment one might consider choosing well-balanced vis-a-vis mind vs. heart components or at least design well-balanced systems from a mix of less-balanced components.

Realize also that Boy Toys, whose only claim to fame is that they do BIG, and GeeWiz Wonders whose only claim to fame is cool gadgetry, are not ¬†represented well by the Heart vs. Mind scores, since their appeal does not have to do with how they sound… BUT it still might be useful to rate them on a similar table, or in this table, so people can figure out just why someone is raving about X and whether it has any relevancy to what you, personally, are looking for at all]

In order to help describe what we think are the key differences between the Audio Note U.K. Gaku-On and Lamm ML3 amplifiers we came up with semi-subjective rating that has to do with how much the characteristic sound of the amp appeals to one’s mind versus how much it appeals to one’s heart.

We will now try our hardest to apply this same approach to all sorts of other gear. However, it seems like perhaps a change might be useful here. Instead of just rating things based on a simple HEART < —– > MIND scale we will instead try and rate Heart and Mind separately, on a scale from 0 to 10.

One reason why these kind of ratings may be really useful is that people who like the quality of the sound to affect their Heart really hate sound directed at their mind. And visa-versa. Really hate. Spending lots of time to let everyone know how much they hate a particular component or system when what they are really saying is that they do not like the fact it is Mind-centric (or visa-versa).

Mind-centric sound is often called ‘sophisticated’, or ‘high resolution’ or having ‘lots of inner detail’. This is completely UNRELATED to the possibility of the sound being ‘cold’.

Heart-centric sound is often called ’emotional’ or ‘involving’. This is completely UNRELATED to the possibility of the sound being ‘warm’.

[NOTE: real world values are very fuzzy and depend heavily upon the music played and system the component / cable is in, and, for Audio Note components, the tubes used]

Name Heart Mind
———– amps ———–
Audio Note U.K. Gaku-On amp 10.0 7
Lamm ML3 amp 7 10.0
EMM Labs MTRX amp 6 9
Audio Note U.K. Kageki 2A3 amp 9 6
Audio Note U.K. Kegon Balanced amp 8 7.5
Audio Note U.K. Kegon amp 9 6
Lamm ML2.2 amp 7 7
Acapella LaMusika [top-of-the-line smooth, tonally correct solid state w/ micro-dynamics] amps 5 8
———– speakers ———–
Acapella Apollon speakers 8 8
Acapella Triolon Excalibur speakers 8.5 7
Marten Coltrane Supreme I speakers 4 10.0
Kharma Mini Exquisite speaker 8 6.5
Wilson Alexandria II, XLF speakers 6 8
Wilson MAXX III speakers 5 7
Acoustic Zen Adagio speakers 6 4
Audio Note AN/E SPe HE speakers 8 5
Audio Note AN/E SEC Signature speakers 7 7
Sonus Faber Stradivarius speakers 7 4
Sonus Faber Extrema speakers 7.5 4
———– cd players ———–
Emm Labs XDS1 CD player 7 8
Esoteric K-01 CD player 4 8
Audio Note Level 5 digital 11 8
Audio Note Level 4 digital separates 8 7
———– cables ———–
Nordost ODIN interconnects 7 9
Nordost ODIN speaker cables 7 8
Tara Labs the Zero GOLD 7 7
Nordost ODIN power cords 8 9
Nordost Valhalla interconnects 6 6
Audio Note Sogon cables 8 4
Audio Note brown PALLAS interconnect 7 9
Audio Note black PALLAS interconnect 7.5 4
Stealth INDRA 4 7.5
ELROD classic (average) 6.5 4
ELROD new (average) 7.5 6
Pranawire (average) 9 4
———– preamps ———–
Audio Note M10 preamp 9 7
Audio Note M9 preamp 8 6
LAMM LL1 preamp 5 7
LAMM L2 preamp 5 6
———– phono preamps ———–
Audio Note M9 phonostage with S9 step-up transformer 10 8
Lamm LP2 phono preamp 6 6
———– turntables (neutral cartridge) —-
Walker Proscenium Gold turntable 7 11
Brinkmann Balance turntable 6 7
Audio Note TT2 turntable 8.5 6
Clearaudio Statement turntable 6 9
Spiral Groove SP1 turntable 8 8
TECHDAS Air Force One turntable 7.5 9.5

UPDATE: 1/1/2018 Turntables. I have heard many tables many times [though the Clearaudio just 2 or 3 times – but it made an impression]. The tables listed above are rated based on their CONSISTENT sound – they almost ALWAYS have the above sonic characteristics. If the vast majority of tables sound more or less the same [a strong statement, I know], the vast majority of their sound ultimately coming from the tonearm and cartridge used, more or less like the Brinkmann, say, then one should choose the table based on ease-of-use and ease of setup and overall engineering quality. Again, why we liked the Brinkmann, but there are now a ton of tables at a variety of price points that do these things well [or well-enough for most people]. Anyway, Mea Culpa, I find it hard to hear uniquely distinguishing characteristics of this broad swath of ‘pretty good’ tables, especially at shows.

ORIGINAL POST:

Rated 0 to 10 and we are assuming they are in a system that really shows off their capability. There are a lot more components and things we can rate, but this is hopefully a decent start.

OK. You all know this is just my Wild Eyed Opinion. But I think most people would agree that the relative values here are close and in proportion to what we experience when we listen to these things.

There are, you know, components with a value of 0,0 and we won’t point fingers but it is an interesting state of affairs for those that own them. The more educated we are about the REAL comparative performance of our gear the less chance end up with stuff that is not what we are looking for.

From this table, one can see why the Gaku-On amps on the Coltrane Supreme speakers was such a significant system. Even though the ML3 on the Supremes was awesomely intense and deeply subtle, the Gaku-On on the Supremes whacks ya, you poor defenseless listener you, over BOTH sides of the head. A roller-coaster ride to wheresoever the music takes you.

This kind of pairing of opposites works well for the most listeners, I think. Like the Edge NL10 amps driven by the Audio Aero Capitole player – it entertains both sides of the brain. On the other hand, there is something kind of special about well-balanced components, components who heart-centric rating is close to the mind-centric rating.

It seems, looking at things here, that some gear uses either some warmth and/or dynamics and/or well-integrated micro-dynamics to appeal to the Heart.