|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
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*
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
b. All nagra system (forget which CD player).
Uninvolving. No soundstage (but it *was* a very small
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
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
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
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
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 ...
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*
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Kharma Exquisites, Lamm, Walker Proscenium Gold Signature
turntable (Classical music on turntable only)
Sound Lab room: The Sound Lab M-1 speaker, Purist Audio
Accoustic Dream room(s): Lumenwhite, VAIC, DCS.
Inner Ear room: Tannoy Churchills, Tenor Amplification,
Aero Audio Capitole.
Piega room: C40 speakers, Aloia equipment.