CES 2014: Most Interestings of Show (part three)

[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.]

Again, in no particular order… [if I forget to mention a brand of cable or rack, and you think it needs to be mentioned, please let us know, either here or in a personal email. Oh yeah, and anything else I got wrong? Let me know about that too πŸ˜‰ (Neli does try to correct my bad grammar, but sometimes she has a hard time keeping up with my fingers when they are on their wild grammar-killing sprees)].

Thiel TM3 speakers on D’Agostino electronics and dCS digital
This system was interesting to me because it had the best sound of any Thiel speaker system I have heard lo these many years. It was musical, approachable, decent harmonics, not grainy or shouty, and even engaging to a certain degree.

I didn’t play our own music here, so their ultimate capabilities are unknown to me, but if I was a Thiel dealer, I would be looking into these speakers (and the new modern-looking Thiel TT3) and picking up D’Agostino gear to play on them very, very seriously [OK, yes, D’Agostino is a wee bit expensive for these speakers, but they really seemed to like each other].

Tri-Art Audio
This somewhat startling-looking system sounded pretty darn good. I heard very little boxiness or speaker coloration, so there was good separation, which I am quite partial to. From separation we usually get good imaging and soundstaging, linear-ish dynamics and response. So the performance of this system was up there with the second or third tier of rooms at this show. Not a lot of bass here, but at a show that is often for the best.

I really just thought this was interesting because, well, if you are someone who really likes the use of natural-looking high-end audio cabinetry, your choices in brands of gear are severely limited. And here we have someone who used just that approach and it worked! It is something well-worth listening to.

Astell and Kern

Astell and Kern is a Korean company that makes, as I understand it, a handheld device with a DAC and discrete component output stage that orchestrates digital playback. In this room they were showing a system with prototypes of their forthcoming speakers, tube amplifier (a solid-state amplifier will also be available), and preamp [and maybe cables too, I forget].

Although they did not play this loud enough for me to get a sense of the overall quality [no, I am too damn overly polite and did not ask them to turn it up. I’ll try to do better in the future], these speakers are by the same designer who built the Metal Design Systems [I think it was called] speakers that showed here several years ago and with which I was extremely impressed [probably still have their brochure here somewhere. I know I saw it here a year ago but sometimes I do have to throw things out when the file cabinet will no longer accept new brochures πŸ˜‰ I can’t be the only one who collects these things].

So, the fact that they are (1) using this speaker designer who can build speakers with excellent [excellent!] separation and transparency [both attributes a reflection of accuracy for those who shy away from audiophile terminology], and also that they are (2) willing to go the extra mile and build a tube amp for those of us who think tube amps are usually better sounding than solid-state for listening to music, and (3) they are heavily into the modern streaming-music revolution, so they will be offering us the conveniences of same – well, this is a company to watch, IMHO.

Ayre Acoustics electronics on Vivid Giya G1 speakers. HRS amp stands. Cardas cables.
Vivid, a home audio speaker company that deserves a lot more accolades than it gets. Ayre, an home audio electronics company that… also deserves a lot more accolades than it gets.

This system was approachable, enjoyable, somewhat sophisticated, although a little laid back. Essentially, I could actually spend time listening to this over the course of many, many hours and you wouldn’t have to hold a gun to my head. Quietly in the top 10 rooms.

Other the years, Ayre is slowly edging out all other solid-state amplifiers in the reasonably priced [or, at least, not outrageously priced] category to my way of thinking. Just enough accuracy, resolution, dynamics, harmonics to keep it all sounding like music.

Magico S3 speakers on Vitus electronics

It seems these are new speakers from Magico [who seems to pop them out like … well, like popcorn. Not sure how they do it but I kind of wish they’d stop it. Keeping up with all these puppies is tiring me out], and one can hope that they took the lessons learned from the successful nd smaller S1 speaker [hope they are successful; a very nice speaker at a very nice price] and made these using the same design parameters with just a bit more bass.

Did they succeed?

Hard to tell. Hard to tell.

I like that they put these on some well-known electronics. Unfortunately the sound was not very exciting, not quite as tight as what would show these off to be the true bigger brother to the S1 – but this is also often a signature trait of the electronics being used. So… hard to tell. Hard to tell.

Magico ‘the ultimate’ speakers on static display

I am sure there will be plenty of reports that regurgitate the specifications of these $600K speakers. So I will just post a few observations.

What I wonder is, when run in 5-way mode, or even 3-way mode, where does one put all those amps? Especially if you use higher quality monoblocks. Can you imagine 10 amps on their 10 amp stands, each with their own power cord and interconnect and speaker cables? I only ask this with a slightest bit of tongue in cheek πŸ™‚

The speakers are solid aluminum [which we were not supposed to touch and I, at least, did not get to touch them. Alon would kill me (again πŸ™‚ )]. But it *looks* like some kind of composite material; the corners are mitered so well, and the paint job so thick and warm-looking, that it is hard to believe it is made of metal. The fit-and-finish here is amazing.

We have a few dozen photos of this speaker which we will be posting on Ultimist.

CES 2014: Most Interestings of Show (part two)

[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.]

Again, in no particular order… [if I forget to mention a brand of cable or rack, and you think it needs to be mentioned, please let us know, either here or in a personal email. Oh yeah, and anything else I got wrong? Let me know about that too πŸ˜‰ (Neli does try to correct my bad grammar, but sometimes she has a hard time keeping up with my fingers when they are on their wild grammar-killing sprees)].

Nola Concert Grand Reference Gold speakers on Audio Research electronics and Nordost Odin cables. Krolodesign’s Tomo equipment rack

They were playing the reel-to-reel both times I visited this room. These are really fun and open sounding speakers and ever since our Dunlavy 4a days we both have a fondness and appreciation for this type of sound. Very much this can be a Be Here Now (or else!) kind of sound [well, at least you New Agers and Psychologists out there will know what I mean, anyway].

Unfortunately, even with the very high-bandwidth (dynamic and open) looking speakers [and Nola is known for this type of sound], and the very high-bandwidth ODIN cables [and these cables are known for their high-bandwidth as well], and, of course, nice tunes from the tape player (in many ways still the best source available), the sound here was kind of muted: the dynamics flat and harmonics blanched.

It was my impression listening to these speakers that they were extremely transparent and responsive [yummy] and it seemed that one could listen to them and hear everything going on upstream [who doesn’t love diving into the music and peering around at everything going on – the gear and the notes and the musicians and… – just like diving off a coral reef. kind of.]. I would love to hear this system using a more powerful amp, and if they are going to stick with ARC electronics [which they have for many years now, so why wouldn’t they. They used the Reference 75 amps here this year, BTW] perhaps the 200 watt ARC or larger might be fun next time. [no matter how efficient a speaker is, it does not seem to always be the whole story. The type of amp and the type of sound you want to get also comes into play in our experience].

Zanden electronics driving Magico S5 speakers

This looked to be a wonderful combination of the very musical Zanden with the very accurate Magico. However, although the Zanden seemed to drive the speakers fine [at the volume that was being played] it didn’t come off as being special in any way that we could easily gather from my two visits and Neli’s one. The digital seemed to do a better job than the analog here, but there was less excitingness than what we would have wished for.

Cessaro Chopin speakers on Electra-Fidelity and TW Acoustic
What the previous two systems missed this had in spades. Dynamics, excitement, harmonic color. Got here too late, they were packing, when Neli and I went for my second visit at the end of the show. Trying to think if there was a room with more excitingness [no, you are right. it is not a real word. but it should be, no? see a few posts back for a discussion about what this word means if you care (and can’t figure it out by context :-))].

Horns do have an advantage, I think, although the SoundLab / WAVAC system was also exciting to a degree as well [and it is an electrostatic speaker]. The Acapella (horn speaker) / Einstein system was pretty exciting when playing the TechDAS TT, but was too polite to be exciting IMHO when playing digital. Oh, the EmmLabs MTRX amps on the [sorry, but really not so great] Sony speakers was pretty much a hang-on-to-your-calm-audiophile-demeanor kick ass kind of sound, too. The Kharma room also had some good excitingness, but in a less relaxed and casual manner than this room here.

Anyway, I think this was the most exciting system at the show unless you have a hankering for a $100K TT or $130K amps [or both :-)].

This room may have even sounded this good last year, but I think they were answering a long question by an attendee when my long-suffering self got there during the photo safari part of the show. Glad I got to hear it [a little!] this year. I originally thought these were the Horning speakers. I originally thought these were Tron amps but now, although very blurry in the photos, it appears they may not be [I spent most of my camera time there photographing the cool spectacle that IS the TW-Acoustic TT (with 3 arms no less) and the speakers].

UPDATE: as per the comments: The amps were a “special edition of the Electra-Fidelity A3-500 300B amplifiers utilizing the circuit design and hand wound transformers of Jack Elliano at Electra-Print. The output transformers are wound with solid silver and the design features a proprietary low IMD circuit. Manufactured in Las Vegas, NV.”

Zellaton speakers on CH Precision
Only spent a short time here and only want to note that, although at RMAF 2013 this got some little buzz which seemed overblown at the time, this system here did do enough right that it put itself up into the top 20 or 30 or so rooms. In other words perhaps there is something going on here after all, and although it was on the list for a second visit this show, other events pushed any such visit into the realms of time-machines and the twilight zone.

Vandersteen 7 speakers, liquid-cooled M7-HPA Vandersteen high-pass amp, Aesthetix electronics, Harmonic Resolution Systems rack
The always cheerful and enthusiastic Ms. Vandersteen was searching for a particular LP when I visited here so I got to photograph the system and new amplifier without… actually… disturbing… anybody’s listening experience [yes!]. But. I also did not actually get to hear this system. [WHAT was I thinking? Sometimes I worry about my decision making processes breaking down like an old Buick in the high country]

The Vandy 7 speakers have a built-in active subwoofer and now the new Vandy amp handles the frequencies above this – providing a 100% Vandersteen-built amplification stage for the 7 speakers. Interesting idea. Neli heard this system a few times and it sounded good to her but did not call attention to itself in a way that made her consider it to be remarkable in any specific area. This could be exactly what a purist might want out of a system – someone who perhaps eschews the possibly [they would say] exaggerated audiophile attributes and / or overt musicality which others treasure dearly. [uh, this is where you, the reader, need to step up and think about what YOU want for the sound of your system]

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’.