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CES 2008 Show Report
Despite the weatherman's dire predictions of cold, rain and possibly snow, the weather for CES 2008 was great. Clear, sunny skies for 3 of the four days with the temperatures in the high 50s to low 60s. Great weather for listening to big tube amps. The number of exhibits at the Venetian was down from the year before. Very few exhibits on the ballroom level, though the two main floors of the Venetian Towers were packed. T.H.E. Show was utilizing both the St. Tropez and the Alexis Park which are next door to each other. The shuttle bus service between the Venetian and the St. Tropez and Alexis Park was very convenient and allowed one to move back and forth between the two venues fairly quickly. I usually spent the morning at the Venetian and the afternoons at T.H.E. Show before returning to the Venetian at the end of the day. Foot traffic at both locations seem to be down from last year. Some exhibitors were complaining of the lack of attendees. However, the exhibitors from well known, though not necessarily big companies, said that the traffic in their rooms was just fine. In fact, some of the exhibitors complained that the traffic was too much at times to let them talk with their existing dealers. After a one year absence, it was nice having software available for purchase in the ballroom at the Alexis Park once again. Not as many vendors, but most of the major new vinyl vendors were there.
Listed below are the rooms that I found to have outstanding sound. While I attempted to get to
all of the rooms at the Venetian, the Alexis Park, and the St. Tropez in the four days I was there, I did not get a chance to listen to all of the rooms. Some rooms were too crowded when I dropped by. In other rooms I did not get a chance to play my own music. I really can't tell how a system sounds without listening to my own CDs or LPs. And yes, there were turntables in lots of the rooms this year. I also avoided some of the rooms because the music was TOO LOUD.
The music that I used for auditioning was:
Planet Terror soundtrack, The Grindhouse Blues track, Varese Sarabande 302 066 807
Van Helsing soundtrack, Final Battle track, Decca B0002331-12
Dinosaur soundtrack, The Egg Travels track, Walt Disney 60672-7
The Greatest Cinema Choral Classics, The Passion of the Christ track, Silva Screen SILKD6040
Surf Music Unplugged, The Duo-Tones, Mr. Moto track, Hepcat HPCD001
Rachmaninoff, Poques from Suite No. 1, Op.5, Teldec 9031-74717
Barber, Violin concerto third movement, Sony SK 89029
Sabicas, Flamenco Puro, Columbia WS 304
Nirvana, Unplugged in New York, Geffen DGC 24727
Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Trio, Warner Brothers 7599-25491
Peter Townshend, The Secret Policeman's Ball, Island ILPS 9601
Judas Priest, Turbo Lover, Columbia 7464-40158
Louis Armstrong, St. James Infirmary, Classic Records reissue 45rpm
So with the above caveats, here are my favorite rooms in no particular order:
This room featured the Venture Excellence loudspeakers ($56,000) from Belgium, with the Concert Fidelity 2420 amplifier ($23,000), Concert Fidelity CF080 preamp ($18,000), and Weiss Jason transport ($16,000) and Medea DAC ($13,000). Power treatment and power cords were by Sound Application and cabling by FMS Cabling. Very musical sounding room.
Harmonic Technology/INEX Innovation
This room used the Audio Physic Virgo V loudspeakers. The source was a highly modified (by INEX) CD player with separate DAC. Preamp was the INEX Photon ($12,500). Amplification was by the INEX AmpliCable Elite ($12,000). Harmonic Tech supplied the 1m Cyberlight II digital cable, the 10m Cyberlight II preamp to amp cables, and the power cords. The power cords were a preproduction revision of the current model and will be officially released in March. We did A-B-A comparisons with the old and new power cords. Under these limited test conditions, the new power cords are a winner.
The AmpliCable Elite is a different product in that it combines a monoblock solid-state amplifier with the speaker cable. I had heard earlier versions of the INEX AmpliCable and INEX preamp both at the 2007 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and an earlier version in my own home. Both times I had not been terribly excited by what I heard. However, this time I was impressed. Very musical with nice detailing. I could easily live with this system.
Year after year, whether at CES or at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, the Merlin room always sounds wonderful. The Merlins VSM-MXE speakers with the Joule Electra LAP150 MK2 preamplifier and the VZN100 MK4 OTL amplifiers are a marriage made in heaven. The sound was once again detailed with a large soundstage and holographic imaging. Most importantly, it plays music. I returned to the room numerous times to get my ears retuned to ‘good sound'. If you don't need thunderous bass down to 20Hz, the Merlin/Joule Electra combination is hard to beat.
VMPS/Spread Spectrum Technologies
This room was set up for trinaural sound (three speakers - left, right and center) as it had been in 2003 when the VMPS room had won the Best of CES Award for High End Audio. The all analog trinaural processor and the Ampzilla amps were from Spread Spectrum (John Bongiorno). At the 2003 CES the VMPS RX/M loudpseakers had been used. This year the RMV60 speakers ($8900) were used with two of the VLA (Very Large Array) sub towers ($4960 each). The source was an Audience modded CD player. The cabling was also from Audience. There were mechanical problems the first few days that prevented the room from sounding its best. However, by day four the sound was spectacular. The room was not very large—only 13.5' x 19' x 8'. Yet the VLA towers put out incredible, room shaking bass. I talked to another attendee who loves bass who said that he had never heard bass that low and that loud with so little distortion. I agree. Truly amazing. The RMV60s with the VLAs are an astonishing system for the money.
Aurum provides a compete, captive system—CD player/preamp, amp, cabling and loudspeakers. The amp is actually a stereo tri-amp; i.e. six amplifiers in one. The tweeters and midrange drivers of the three-way speakers are each driven by a single 300B tube. Each woofer is driven by an in-house designed solid state amp. This is the fifth year that I have heard this system. Each year it sounds better and better. Sitting in the near field the system threw a very wide and deep soundstage with pinpoint imaging. The low bass was powerful and very well controlled. This was one of three rooms that could reproduce the low bass on the Van Helsing CD at high volume and with minimal distortion. Very impressive and extremely musical.
The Herron room was again an all Herron room. The electronics consisted of the VTPH-2 tubed phono stage, the new VTSP-3 tubed line stage preamplifier, and the M1 monoblock solid state amps driving the latest version of the large three way Herron loudspeakers. No release date for the speakers has been announced. The sources were a VPI HRX turntable with VPI 12.7 tonearm and an Audio Technica OC9/II cartridge. The digital source was a Herron modded CD player. Interconnects were also by Herron Audio. Speaker cables by DiMarzio. The Herron room is another room that always sounds great year after year. The music is detailed with a broad and deep soundstage. Imaging was excellent. The bass, for such a small room, was excellent. I would have liked to have spent more time in the Herron room, listening to wonderful music, but the room was usually full of happy listeners.
This room featured the new line of affordable Marten loudspeakers: the Formfloor ($6500) with FormSub ($4450). The sources consisted of an EAR. Acute CD player, ($5895) and the EAR Disc Master turntable ($17,000) with Helius Omega tonearm ($3400). Cabling was by Jorma. Last year EAR had been in the Venetian ballroom area where they kept getting overwhelmed by the music from the surrounding rooms. This year they had a room in the Venetian towers so it was possible to actually hear the music in their room. The sound was very nice. The FormFloor loudspeakers were very good, though you really need to have the FormSub connected if you wanted a concert hall experience. A very musical system to which I returned several times to rest my tired ears.
Harbeth/Resolution Audio/DNM Design
The Resolution Audio Opus 21 CD playr ($3500) modded by Great Northern Sound ($950) provided the sound. The preamp was the DNM 3D-6 ($13,995) and the amp was the DNM PA3 Delta Sigma ($4995). Cabling was also by DNM. The Harbeth Monitor 40 loudspeakers ($10,995) made a very favorable impression on myself and other attendees with whom I talked. These are near field speakers. If you get out of the near field sound quality drops of significantly. However, if you stay in the near field the sound is amazingly good. For full orchestral music a subwoofer is needed.
The digital source for this room was the Modwright tube modified Slim Devices Transporter ($3600) with FLAC files fed from a laptop computer. The preamp was a Modwright LS 36.5 with PS 36.5 outboard power supply ($8995). The loudspeakers were Emerald Physics CS2 ($2995) which were biamped with Wyred 4 Sound 4CH Class D amps ($2495). The speakers, which were shown in several rooms, are an open baffle dipole with DSP active crossover. Cabling was by Acoustic Zen. Dan Wright of Modwright ripped several of my CDs and played them through the system. Very nice sound. I have heard the Emerald Design speakers before. However, this is the best that I have heard them. For a $3000 speaker they are quite good. Mating these speakers with much more costly equipment upstream was not a problem.
King Audio is a Chinese company that had two rooms. One was for auditioning their flagship electrostatic loudspeaker and the second for auditioning their $4000 Prince II electrostatic speaker. I only got to hear the $4000 speaker which was very impressive for its price point. With a Jolida Music Envoy preamp, a MBL CD player and MBL amp the sound was excellent. Being an electrostatic speaker, the Prince II could not play real loud, nor could it play very low. It definitely needs a subwoofer. However, if you are looking for a bargain in an electrostatic speaker, the Prince II should be on your short list.
The Maxxhorn speakers were shown with a Scheu Diamond turntable ($2999), with a Schroeder Model 2 tone arm and Shelter 90X cartridge. The preamp was from Gill Audio. Phonostage was the Art Audio Reference. The amps were the Art Audio PX25 (6 watts per channel). The Maxxhorn speakers had been redesigned since I had heard them at the 2007 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. The redesign was needed because they had changed their single driver to an $8000 driver imported from Japan. The sound of the Maxxhorns with the new driver was incredibly detailed. I was hearing things on my LPs that I had not heard before. Unfortunately, it was not possible to play CDs in the room as their CD player had been damaged in transit. Being unable to play my CDs I can not comment on the Maxxhorn's bass which had impressed me in previous years.
Atma-Sphere/Triplanar/Classic Audio Reproductions
While I have always loved the sound of Atma-Sphere electronics and the Triplanar tonearm I have never been enamored with the Classic Audio Reproductions version of the J. B. Lansing Hartsfield loudspeaker. This year the Hartsfield ($27,500) was using a field coil driver for the midrange. To my ears, the new driver made a major improvement. Driven by an Atma-Sphere MP1 Mk3 preamp ($12,100) and M60 Mk3 amp ($6350) the sound was very enjoyable. A version using all field coil drivers is suppose to be available for Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2008. I am really looking forward to hearing that version.
In a room on the 7th floor of the Venetian was a room showcasing some of the most original, new products in vinyl playback. The system was composed of an EMT JSD5 cartridge, a Thales tonearm, Audiostone Pythagoras turntable, EMT JPA 66 preamp with phonostage, Tidal amp, and Tidal Piano speakers. The EMT cartridges are hand made by one woman in Switzerland. They had a 4 minute video, which I found fascinating, that showed the woman making a cartridge. The recently introduced Thales tonearm is a tangential pivoted tonearm. The arm is not a linear tracker as the stylus does not move down a radii as it does on a linear tracking arm such as an ET 2 or Kuzma. The stylus on the Thales arm travels in an arc as it moves across the LP. However, with the aid of a rod attached to the headshell the offset angle is changed such that the stylus is always tangential to the record groove. Thus, there is zero tracking distortion, just as you have with a linear tracking tonearm. Other tonearms, such as the Garrard Zero 100 attempted to accomplish the same thing. However, the Thales is a much more elegant solution. For a detailed description and some animated drawings showing how the arm works go to www.tonarm.ch.
The Thales tonearm was mounted on the new Audiostone Pythagoras turntable. The Pythagoras was designed by Micha Huber, the same person who designed the Thales tonearm. The Pythagoras is a turntable built into a multi-shelved rack. The platter and shelves of the Pythagoras are made of granite. Granite, as a rule, rings when struck. Thus, it is usually not a good choice of material for turntable bases or platters. However, the granite on the Pythagoras is very well damped. As a demonstration, while one of my LPs was playing on the turntable, Micha rapped his knuckles sharply on the spinning LP three times. Each time there was a brief, dull thunk, but no ringing. Note to Turntable Designers: If you are going to do this demo, please have your own LP playing. While my LP did not appear to suffer any damaged from the bouncing stylus, my heart rate just about doubled. The Pythagoras is belt driven using a synchronous motor. At startup an optical sensor measures the platter's speed and the power supply adjusts to set the exact speed. Once the speed is set, there are no further adjustments. This eliminates any hunting-seeking while the LP is playing. For a full rundown on all of the features of the Pythagoras go to www.audiostone.com.
The EMT preamp/phonostage is designed as the ultimate phonostage for vinyl owners with pre RIAA LPs, whether they be 78s, 45s, or 33 1/3rds, as the JPA 66 can be set for any phono equalization curve ever used. The bass turnover frequency is continuously variable from 0 to 2kHz. The gain at the 10kHz hinge point is also continuously variable from 0 to 16 dB. The hinge point at 35-40kHz can also be turned off for those LPs that were made without it. There is a rumble filter at 22Hz that can be turned on or off. There is a scratch filter. The unit has 4 phono and 2 line level inputs with individual input level control on each phono input. The MC circuit has 73dB of gain (all tube, no solid state) adjustable +/- 10dB. The MM circuit has 53dB of gain with adjustable capacitance. The JPA 66 is a tube unit that is capable of driving any type of amp, solid state or tube. I spent almost an hour talking with Jules Limon, the EMT engineer who designed the JPA 66. I was totally impressed by the research that he had done developing the specifications for the unit as well as his attention to detail. For further details go to http://www.emt-studiotechnik.de.
So how do these components sound? I played three of my LPs on the system. The sound was very nice, relaxed, smooth, detailed, musical. However, I have never heard any of these components before. Thus, I really can't make a judgement. However, if you are in the market for a phonostage for your pre RIAA LPs you definitely need to give the JPA 66 a listen. Likewise, if you want a truly unique tonearm, love the sound of linear tracking tonearms, but hate the complexity of hoses, pumps, etc. the Thales should also be on your short list. Of all of the hundreds of components that I saw at CES and T.H.E. Show, the JPA 66 and the Thales were the only components that I really, really wanted to hear in my own system.