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Audio Federation

January 2002 Newsletter

"CES 2002"

Many links to other CES 2002 reports are at the Audio Asylum. This report was written before we decided to enter the high-end audio fray ourselves.

The Las Vegas C.E.S. 2002 & T.H.E. Show/Expo 2002 Magical Mystery Speaker Tour Report

This is a highly opinionated review - this is what *we* heard. So *please* do not be offended if *your* favorite speaker did not sound right to *our* ears. For better or worse, we are stuck with (to) these ears, just as you are yours.

----------------------- Context ----------------------------

We (my wife and I) stayed at the Tuscany hotel, Las Vegas, the site of this year's T.H.E. (The Home Entertainment) Show, (now called T.H.E Expo). Construction was in progress on the hotel during our entire stay and there were periodic 'glitches' associated with the newness of the hotel (for example a (very loud and unignorable) fire alarm accidently went off *very* early Friday morning in our building, 'N'). The temperature was in the 60s and the ambience (especially at the more open-air design of the Alexis Hotel - the site of the CES high-end audio show) was great music punctuated by the near-overwhelming roars of airliners taking off from the Las Vegas Airport. The two shows were close enough together that one could walk from one to the other in about 8-10 minutes, though there was also a shuttle (some controversy surrounded the T.H.E. Show's shuttle being prevented by CES from pulling into the Alexis parking lot).

The first day (Tuesday) was the least busy, with Wednesday and Thursday having at least 50-100% more people in attendence. The last day (for CES), Friday, was our last day and the day during which it was easiest to get one's own CDs played. There seemed to be a distinct preference for orchestral classical music and Dianna Krall. Straying outside these two genres was subtley discouraged (though things loosened up a bit on Friday).

Some general themes at the show(s) were: lots of Aero Audio Capitole, Accuphase SACD, and Sony SCD-1 CD players; DCS upsamplers; tube amplifiers; and fewer turntables being used than I expected to see.

Our goal at CES/THE show was to hear the state-of-the-art in full-range speakers. I feel we were successful at this (though we did not hear the Krell Lat-1 or the Avalon Sentinel - which were not at the conference, or the Sonus Faber Amati, B&W nautilus and Meridian speakers which we had auditioned previously, or the Wilson Grand Slamms (didn't find them until it was too late), and a couple of others that we may have somehow missed). If one makes the effort to mentally compensate for the known problems of inadequate set-up time, lack of break-in time, and irregularly shaped and smallish hotel rooms - the essentual character and quality of the speakers can be determined. Determining the character and quality of the other components (CD players, amplifiers, cables) in this environment, however, is beyond our capabilities as skilled listeners. We focused on more expensive, full-range speakers, in the $10K and above category. In general, we thought the vast majority of the room setups sounded quite good - as good or better than your typical audio dealer salon.

A note about an implicit categorization that has became evident during our listening to between 50 and 100 speakers. There is a '20th century sound' (one could call it the pre-Avalon Eidolon sound, though many speakers came into production at that time that were similarly revolutionary). This sound is 'boxey', is often slightly off-timbre, and lacks transparency (some speakers are extreme offenders and continuously remind one that one is listening to sound coming out of a box). There is a 'modern speaker sound' (like the Eidolons, Revels, Kharmas, etc.) which are very revealing and the sound 'just-happens' to come from a box. Then there is the 'sound-stage sound', where the solidity of the instruments is enough such that the listening mind is relieved of the task of reminding itself that there was originally a stage upon which there was originally a real, physical person making the music being listened to (Pipedreams, Acapellas, perhaps the Kharma Exquisites do this to some extent). Each one of these advances in the state-of-the-art allows the 'thinking mind' to relax and the 'emotional mind' to enjoy. And each one of these advances is addicting!

Prejudices: We like lots of detail and bass (and now, great soundstaging), and don't want to spend years tweaking the setup (we do not believe that a good-sounding system should require the 'perfect' setup in order to sound decent). This is a highly opinionated review - this is what *we* heard. So *please* do not be offended if your speaker did not sound right to *our* ears.

----------------------- Impressions ----------------------------

Odeon 33. A speaker containing 2 horns in evidence (and midrange and tweeter). All Accuphase system (which we are somewhat familiar with - hearing these at John Barnes' Audio Unlimited salon). Very, very nice midrange. Detail and musicality. We though the bass might be a little bit shy. Quite impressive; we went back the second day to listen again. Thought the low end was still kind of absent (but it does exist), still excellent, textured mid-range, very enjoyable. Prehaps not as open and sparkly on the very top end as some.

Wilson Watt Puppy 6:
a. VTL amplification. The Watt Puppy Sound. What can we say, detailed, dynamic, all the frequencies are there - it just doesn't sound like the sounds are generated by musical instruments - more like a instantaneous sound field that one has to continously remind oneself is a piano, and guitar, etc. We really want to like these (we like their looks and being able to seperate a speaker into parts is advantageous for us), but try as we might...
b. All nagra system (forget which CD player). Uninvolving. No soundstage (but it *was* a very small room).

Gershman Opera Sauvage. A very boxy, 20th century sound.

Avantgarde Duo. Very dynamic, exciting. We went back 3 times to hear these. They do a lot right. The bass is present but perhaps only over a set of frequencies (reminds me of my Extremas - frequencies at or near about 45hz sound full, but above and below the bass trails off (i.e. it appeared that there was a dip in the frequency response curve in the mid-bass region - near the point between the horns and cones, and that the bass rapidly fell off below, say, the mid 30s)). Went back and still liked the dynamics, but thought real instruments sounded a little unnatural. Many people were inquiring about the speakers saying they thought that perhaps, finally, Avantgarde has gotten it right. Went back a third time - heard some of Buena Vista Social Club. Bass is indeed present - it sounds integrated from top to bottom, but when ones attention wanders, one feels there is wonething 'wrong', like the bass is on a different sound stage or something.

Shun Mook Bella Voce Signature. Very listenable. Went back to hear these a few times, and finally were there when they were playing something besides opera, some orchestral classical music. Boxey, bright, compressed on mass cresendos of strings. There is a beauty to this speakers sound - but I think its competition has passed it by.

MBL 101D. All MBL system. Very high quality fit and finish to all their products. A very open, detailed sound. Speakers dissapear. Lacking some sense of reality, of the excitment of the underlying music. These attributes and the lack of solidity of the soundstage keep this speaker in the 'modern speaker' category (with the Eidolon etc.). We liked their unique appearance and the concepts behind their design. We went back to hear them. A track with a Fender bass playing sounded recessed, not authoritative. Lots of detail, open, and fun to listen to, but unrealistic - perhaps a larger room would help some.

Von Schweikert (VR4 III, VR5, Db-99) - We loved the VR4s when we first heard them years ago, and the VR4s are still great 'bangs for the buck' speakers. We thought the more expensive speakers in the line are boring and somewhat boxey sounding. Not really up to the quality of the Avalon Eidolons or Revel Salons (but they don't cost as much either).

Burmester - Top of the line Burmester everything. Very expensive. Very detailed. Very digital. Lifeless and cold. I think their individual components are excellent - but perhaps they should not all be in the same system together... This may be an issue with the MBL system as well. MBL makes great speakers - what makes them think they can make good amps and transports, too? Burmester makes great pre-amps, what makes them think they can make great speakers?

Merlins - Merlins were shown in at least two locations. They sounded quite good during the (very) short time I spent listening to them.

Nearfield Pipedreams (both 7? and 8? footers). Heard these 5 times in 3 different systems.
a. VAC (tubed) amplification. Dianna Krall, etc. A little lack of dynamics in the low/mid-range somewhere. Sibilants were a little unpleasant but were fixed with a flip of a switch on the speakers. Very realistic and enveloping soundstage (quite intense if one is in the sweet spot).
b. Marsh (solid state) amplification. Pink Floyd, etc. Lots of midrange energy. Exciting (OK, it takes quite a bit to make Dark Side of the Moon exciting after hearing it a zillion times, so being (periodically) dragged into excitement of the music here is really a significant point). Went back to hear these again - played Frisell (1st track, quartet), Getz & Gilberto (Girl from Ipanema). Not as sparkly on the high end as some speakers. Overall a competent sound from these speakers, a fairly solid sound stage, and fairly consistent from system to system, venue to venue.
c. Plinius (solid state). Large room. Dianna Krall, a car racing around a race track. A consistant pipedream sound. Of the 3 systems, we probably preferred the Marsh and then the VAC. The Plinius system seemed a little ... boring.

Tannoy Churchills (Inner Ear room). Aero Audio Capitole CD player directly into Tenor amplifiers. Warm, engaging, pleasant. If the Churchills had some more resolution/detail in the treble and were not so 'beamy' (almost like some horns in this regard. We had also heard these at Audio Unlimited, and so were familiar with their sound), we would just buy this system and be done with it. But they don't - the beaminess could be perhaps dealt with in a large room by sitting outside the sweet spot (i.e. pointing the speakers almost straight ahead), but the lack of detail is something we, personaly, do not want to live without (I do not want to stress this too much - it is just that after living with the Dunlavy SCIVs (which have very little detail) for a few years, we are perhaps over-compensating by prefering a *very* detailed sound).

Moondog Maya Horn System and Yote 2A3 SET amp. Tact RCS 2.0. Red rock audio black powder cables. THE Expo. Talk about vintage looking - but the sound (avantgarde bells and drums) was very beautiful. On the web it says the speakers (crossoverless) frequency range is 40-17000. Liked the sound enough to go back. Went back to hear these again. Opera, classical, playing too softly to tell much - except that bass was not very evident during when these speakers are played softly.

Rockport Hyperions, Audio Aero Capitole CD player directly into Tenor amplifiers. THE Expo. Slow sounding, not enough dynamics (overly damped room?). We talked to the guy who was setting up the room and this was probably fixed. We went back a second time only to hear the last minute of a demo for Johnathan Valin. Real business then transpired (w/o music accompaniment) and so we left. We really did not give this system the listening time it deserved.

Kharma Exquisites, Lamm amplification (biamped with Lamm ML1.1s), Walker Proscenium Gold Signature turntable. Larger room (25x30x12ft ?). A little bright/foward, not involving (perhaps the speakers were not broken in?). Went back a different day. Played Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, 1st track (So What). and Girl from Ipanema. OK sound, not very involving, not much of a soundstage. Then an orchestral classical piece was played on the turntable... *WOW*. Soundstaging, authority, involvment.

Lumenwhites - We saw these in 3 different systems:
a. Lumenwhite 'Whitelight'. Edge amplification. We went to this room to see the amps, based on the good reviews in TAS. They seemed musical and quick footed, hard to tell w/o knowing the speakers better. And what speakers! Five ceramic drivers - fast fast fast. This might have been the best system of the 3, but there was some smearing of notes in time - I suspect it was the cables (you know: the highs arrive first, the mids and lows stroll in on the weekend?). There is some question about how much bass these speakers really have - and this has to do with the character of the speaker as a whole: do they emit sound with a leading edge *sharper* that what the input signal is indicating? These can almost assault the senses they are so violently quick. But on vocals, they sound natural enough - with lots of detail and texture. We were later shocked to learn that they list for $38K - the fit and finish is not comensurate with this price.
b. The smaller 'Whiteflame' Lumenwhites. VAIC Classic 52-B Monoblocks amplification, DCS upsampling, Wadia 860 CD player, Accoustic Dreams cables (when in production, < $1000!). Detailed, harmonically rich, very engaging. One of the better sounds of the show. Bass was present and accounted for on these smaller speakers as well as the (slightly) larger ones. It is a very, very tight bass, however. If these speakers were not so damn expensive - this would be a *great* system for a smaller room.
c. The (slightly) larger 'Whitelights' again. Large VAIC 52-B monoblock amps. Different CD player. Same sound as that in the room with the smaller speakers.

Talon Khorus - 2 way. Clean sounding, but not much detail or bass. Personally, I would prefer Dunlavys.

Audio Physic (Virgo?) Hovland HP-100 pre and Saphire amplification. We were there to see the Hovland equipment. Very warm and enjoyable sound. Bass was somewhat ill-defined though - completely unfamiliar with these speakers so am unsure just what they are able to do in the lower registers with different amplification.

Kharma Grand Ceramiques - Lamm L2, ML1, CEC TL-1X? CD transport, DCS upsampler. This was the one room where I thought I could definitely determine the character of the amplification - very agile in the mids and treble, competent but somewhat unnatural and lacking authority and texture in the bass. And Miles Davis's horn on So What actually sounded musical during those passages that typcially make us cringe. The speaker seems competent as well, perhaps a bit more boxey sounding that the eidolon and revel salons. Not as realistic as Pipedreams or Acapella.

Avalon Opus - The Avalon sound. Nice, dynamic, transparent, detailed sound. Like its bigger bother, the Eidolon, the soundstaging was not as palpable as the Pipedreams or the Acapella.

Eggleston Andra II - very detailed treble, (perhaps) even more so that the Revel Salons, which excel in detailed presentations. Mids were foward sounding, and low mids/bass was loosey goosey (no sharp edges, no texture, and this in one of the larger rooms using Pass Labs 600 watt monsters). Seems to be quite a bit like the Andra I.

Floating Synthese (full range). Cool looking. Lack of dynamics and compressed sound on loud complicated passages (much worse than the Eidolons in this respect).

Joseph Audio Pearl (Watt Puppy clones). A little bright, timbre a little off. But very dynamic and more involving than the Watt Puppies.

Quad 989. Heard these for only a short time and the mids and lows seemed *very* compressed. I cannot believe people would sacrifice this much of the frequency range just to enjoy the top few octaves, so perhaps the amplification was all wrong.

Piega C40 - Aloia amplification. This sounded... different. Am not sure why. It *might* be a new advance in totally boxless sound. Heard them on 2 separate occasions. Very detailed, dynamic and musical high mids and trebble. Lacking some dynamics in the very low end. Played Girl from Ipanema and a Beethoven quartet (Quartet in B flat major op. 130 Emerson String Quartet). These speakers are similar to the lumenwhites, though somewhat more musical and 2/3 the price. I would guess it would take some serious listening to really determine all of the more subtle differences. This technique of replacing large woofers (was B&W 801N the last one?) with 2 medium size woofers (was B&W 800 signiture the latest) has now progressed to using 3 mid-ranges to generate the lows (and well.. the pipedreams use uncounted many). This creates very fast, tight bass, but somewhat lacking in the dynamic punch plus followthrough that larger woofers provide.

Maggies. Gamut amplification. Went to see the amplifier (D200). Thought it was sweeter, though possessing somewhat less authority, than the Edge amps. Hard to tell. The maggies sounded totally unnatural and like a hodgepodge of unintegrated drivers.

Sound Labs M-1. Unfamiliar amplification. Oh! This is what all the fuss is about... Detailed, pleasant, engaging yummy sound, able to play many genres of music. If we did not have a wall of windows looking out on pine trees and deer and the rocky mountains that these large, black panels would almost completely obscure the lower half of, these would be our choice for our personal system.

Acapella - Campanile. Audio Aero stereo and monoblock amps (Capitole Power Amp and Capitole Transtrac) and Capitole CD player. Nirvana cables. 'You are there!' sound. Our lives are now divided into pre-Acapella and post-Acapella. The first few seconds of hearing (some female vocalist on) them, not really paying much attention (except to their somewhat unique looks), it was like my brain did a double take - my ears told my brain that there was someone actually in the room singing. The soundstage is as much more present and solid than the pipedreams, as much so as the pipedreams are above ordinary (high quality) speakers. This extra-ordinary 'solidity' is present about, say, 30-60% of the time. The rest of the time the solidity is closer to what the pipedreams offer. (I am assuming that the speakers were largely responsible for this).
In addition to this is the dynamic capabilities of the speaker. We play the Frisell CD (Quartet, track 1) because we have heard him in concert a number of times, and most playback systems just completely fail to capture the dynamic envelope of even a single note. They *all* sound compressed - every other speaker we played this on (Exquisites, Pipedreams, ...), sounded compressed compared to live Frisell music. This system (I cannot be sure which component or combination of components is responsible), was close enough to the real Dynamic that it would take more time than we had at the show to determine the differences.
We did not have time to do an extensive evaluation. But to some extent we do not have to. It was just so much better than anything else in the areas it excels in, and at least competent in the others, that we thought it was way and above the Best of the Show.

Oskar A.V.T. Kithara. Accoustic Arts amplification - Very nice mids and highs (another planer/electrostatic approach). *Very* placement-insensitive. *Slightly* boxey bass, and not as tight as some. But at < $4000 retail - these are a steal.

Acapella - Violins. ERAudio applification, Sony SCD-1. Uneven, a little bright, somewhat compressed low midrange dynamics. They show the same character as the larger speakers but lack the totally focused soundstage. We heard enough to help understand the characteristics of the Acapella sound - but these could have really used a larger room. People seemed to like them though.

Red Rose - NHT/Audio Physic-looking speakers. Red Rose amplification (*very* small sized amplifiers). Quite dynamic bass. These smallish speakers actually moved a *lot* of air in the lower frequencies. However, when a female vocalist started singing, they sounded compressed and boxey and unnatural.

Wilson MAXX - Halcro amps. Very dynamic. Detailed, cold, unnatural. Does not evoke the mental image of real instruments.

Revel Salons - Halcro amplification (The DM58 monoblocks, not the DM36 stereo amp), Accuphase SACD player. Have heard this speaker on Spectral 150 watt monoblocks, Levinson 33 monoblocks, Linn Klimax 500watt monoblocks. The first 2 sounded cold and unpleasant (though detailed). The Linns opened up the sound, though it was slightly thin sounding. The Halcros actually made these speakers sound nice - probably the best they ever will: vast amounts of detail, engaging, dynamic except at the lowest registers. And there is a slight (much less so than the Wilsons) unnaturalness to the sound, more so than the Kharma Ceramiques or Avalon Eidolons. They are less boxy than the Ceramiques and have more dynamic bass than the Eidolons and much more resolution/detail than either of the other two. The soundstaging is definitely not in the same category as the Pipedreams of Acapellas.

Magnepan (MC1 ($725) in-wall fold-out speakers). Amazingly good sound came from these speakers and their little sub-woofer considering their placement/convenience factor and their low cost.

----------------------- Best of Show ----------------------------

Aero Audio room: Acapella Campanile, Capitole CD player and amplifiers,

Kharma Exquisites, Lamm, Walker Proscenium Gold Signature turntable (Classical music on turntable only)

Sound Lab room: The Sound Lab M-1 speaker, Purist Audio Design, Wolcott

Accoustic Dream room(s): Lumenwhite, VAIC, DCS.

Inner Ear room: Tannoy Churchills, Tenor Amplification, Aero Audio Capitole.

Piega room: C40 speakers, Aloia equipment.




email: mike&

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February, 2002