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Positive Feedback ISSUE47
The Neoteric Listener Returns to CES
On the surface, CES 2010 had all of the fun of CES 2009. Slot junkies cranking the penny slots for cigarettes on end? Check. Porn star wannabes whose chances of making it were as next to nothing as their outfits? Check. Huffing and puffing on the stairway because I was too impatient to wait for the elevator? Check. Ok, so maybe I didn't hear anyone chanting, "There must be more money!", but there's no denying that this year's CES was a thinner, more resolute affair. Not for me, of course, you'd think I swallowed a subwoofer, but the reduced press corps rabble meant that I could easily navigate the corridors of the Venetian and the Flamingo. I also had no trouble eluding the dime-store Milton Friedmans who tried to convince me that the reduction in exhibitors was a sign of strength. To hell with survival of the fittest, give me my row of quirky Eastern European monoblocks and North Dakota Manchurian Ash floorstanders! Could be that some people are like Ringo and stayed at home because they don't like the food. Even if it was an off year, however, almost everyone I spoke to agreed that CES offered plenty of excitement and more than enough exceptional new audio gear to experience.
That's not to say that the only fun of CES is the equipment. I am the neoteric listener, after all, so a big part of going to the show is getting to meet my fellow writers, talking with manufacturers and audio dealers, and interacting with all of the people who create the things that make my living room such a mess. The audio world is a relatively small one, and it's always surprising to meet someone whose name I only recognize when lasered onto a fascia panel. Almost everyone you meet is personable and smart (the ones who aren't, are left behind, I guess), although you're bound to meet a few condescending stuffed potatoes in any such group. For people like my editors Dave and Carol Clark, CES is a fatiguing steeplechase from room to room, taking notes and photos, and exchanging brief pleasantries... which is a lot of work, and I'm glad they're doing it. For me, CES is a an audio carnival of laughs, such as my attempt to chronicle fellow PFO writer Danny Kaey's one-man-tirade against the practice of using "audiophile recordings" to demonstrate products. It's not my start-up capital and R & D money on the line, so if people want to show off their speakers by cranking up train noises to realistic levels, more power to 'em. Whatever sells, I guess, but I have to agree that the plethora of gongs, bird whistles, and sound effects emanating from the rooms made many halls sound like one giant Disneyland Tiki Room.
Naturally, the most common question people ask about CES is, "What sounded good?" and the simple answer is, "It depends." Not the interminable sophistry of "What do you mean, by good sound?" there are endless online chat room purgatories for that. No, I mean that the variety of products showcased at CES to suit different needs at different price points practically guarantees a tailor-made solution to your audio desires. For some, it's a spare no expense system deluxe, for others, it's a ten dollar USB cable. Your enjoyment of a product couldn't be measured by a dollar amount. The Amphion Ion at a little more than a thousand bucks was a snappy looking, nifty sounding monitor that delighted all and sundry. Moreover, one of my favorite speakers at the show was the Audience mini-monitor. Granted, it costs 5k, not an insignificant sum, but it was extremely impressive in delivering fantastic sound, especially in the bass region. In contrast, one highly-praised speaker costing ten times as much seemed a little anemic in its handling of bass, and sure wasn't worth my fifty grand. Fortunately, if you enjoy audio, then the chance to buy the 45 RPM Vinyl LP of Sam Cooke's Night Beat from Acoustic Sounds (and buy it you should) is as almost as exciting as hearing the Lamm amplifiers, Kubala-Sosna Emotion cabling, and Wilson Sasha loudspeakers combination that Dave and Carol Clark write about in this edition of PFO… All right, so it isn't quite as stupendous, but I know the 45 is much more likely to give me audio satisfaction, and that sums up my CES conundrum perfectly: Is this a museum or a bazaar?
On one hand, I spent time looking for exciting new gear that would interest readers of "The Neoteric Listener." That is, audiophile-approved products at a price that most people can afford. Fortunately, there were many such offerings: The Peachtree Audio Nova integrated amplifier and iDecco idoc/integrated amplifier/preamp; the Nola Boxer two-way speaker (though that doesn't mean I didn't eye its older sibling, the Metro Grand Reference loudspeakers); the Pro-ject Audio Juke Box remote controllable amplifier and manual turntable, the Rogue Audio Cronus integrated—all terrific products (and all things I tried shamelessly to get for this column, you can bet on that!). All of these items are reasonably priced, even by non-audiophile standards, and each product has enough features and sound quality to interest even the most spendthrift connoisseur.
On the other hand… there were the empress' dowery (or credit line, anyway) products. As I've said before, superb materials, engineering, and innovation don't come cheap. How cheap and how superb is a matter of perspective, but there's no way of escaping the bitter truth that the rooms that absolutely stun you with an unbelievable level of detail, range, and musicality will set you back 50 large, minimum. I rarely have fifty little, maximum, but that shouldn't stop me from barging in the queue to listen at the feet of the gods, and it didn't. I loved the darTZeel NHB-458 monoblocks/Evolution Acoustics MM2 speaker pairing—this is how I'd spend my two hundred thousand (including Evolution acoustic's cables, a Playback Design Music Playback System 5, a really comfy armchair, and an even comfier investment portfolio). The E.A.R. Yoshino electronics/Marten pairing was the type of sound that you could purchase once and never look back (or for more). In fact, the entire Marten line was a revelation for me. There were bigger, badder, bolder speakers (see the new Hansen, Wilson, and Magico speakers) but not necessarily better, and the Martens sounded fantastic in a number of rooms featuring different electronics and sources. The Raysonic electronics/Acoustic Zen loudspeaker combo also provided visceral thrills, as did the Vivid/Luxman room (see Dave and Carol Clark's show review in this edition of PFO for images and model numbers). There were other stars, too: outstanding Gershman Black Swans, large TAD floorstanders, massive Pass Lab amplifiers—all an amazing dazzle, really, that even my innate suburban capacity to become blasé about everything short of perfection couldn't diminish. For awhile...CES "It Goes to 11" awaits!