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Positive Feedback ISSUE 47
january/february 2010


CES 2010 - Las Vegas All Over Again (Why ?)
by Jim Merod



Here We Go Once More

The Venetian Hotel's unwelcoming prestige plops those who trudge its CES-affiliated corridors on their rears. One's patience is stretched to its maximum waiting for elevators. The Flamingo Hotel's longer in the tooth ancient elegance makes for a more relaxed, happier venue for "The Show" ... a funky, gentle welcome for reviewers eager to hear good sound. The discrepancy between the so called "higher" status CES audiophile world and its blue collar rival has been in place each year since the old CES "high-end" bash at the Alexis Park (the traditional playground of airline personnel on lay-over's) went the way of typewriters.

I will not strive for exhaustive reporting, as my dear pal and audiophile scholar Greg Weaver accomplishes annually. Instead, I'll highlight the three sound systems that earned my greatest respect.

Three, Two, One

Jonathan Tinn found a way to bring Evolution Acoustics' $35,000 "MM Two" speakers into play with the gloriously expensive darTZeel $125,000 monoblock amplifiers. The result was utterly compelling—in fact, spooky real sound that essentially "recreated" the soundstage dimensions and ambient vibe of New York's famous Birdland, where I recorded Chico O'Farrill's 18-piece Afro-Cuban Orchestra.

This system was so utterly real in its offering of what actually occurred on John Valenti's magnificent jazz club's stage that I found myself literally unable to avoid return trips to Jonathan Tinn's musical universe. Three days in a row I wandered in, hopeful that the exotically appointed front row middle seat was unoccupied. Over and over I recommended, to all I knew within the span of those three days that a visit to that uniquely engaging sonic set up was imperative.

Not to be outflanked, Dan Wright's elegantly uncluttered room avoided visual glamour, sublimating all of its glory to the flat out "rightness" of its musical presentation. Dan is an understated man but his sound presentation, elegant in its visual simplicity, was far from sonically shy. You had to sit and hear the "dead on" relaxation and timbral seduction it delivered... genuinely a sound system to be sought after and savored.

Not last in the least, and quite probably first in magnitude of sheer sonic and musical accuracy, John McDonald's Audience set up was, on one hand, nearly infinitely underwhelming visually but, on the other hand, infinitely beguiling musically and most of all precise with dynamic and spatial sonic accuracy.

Let me expand a bit. A few weeks before walking into the Audience Room in The Flamingo, I heard (in Maestro McDonald's Sonic Laboratory) his long-gestating 16+16 line array speakers. Those speakers may be the absolutely best, most thoroughly 3-D and wholly-resolving speakers I've heard in a lifetime of listening. They are now in full production mode and I recommend anyone looking for an "ultimate" sonic experience to check them out at leisure with purposive ambition. With my mid-December audition, I heard a speaker whose previous iterations across fourteen years or so I'd heard at five or six "places" along the way to its present sonic triumph. When I came upon the 16+16's dazzling musical brilliance—audio performance that arrests my ability to articulate its life-like truthfulness—I was not prepared even though I was familiar with the steady escalation of this rare behemoth's climb toward a lonely high audio plateau.

Audience's 16+16 line array speakers are in a class by themselves. I want them. I need them. And, as Elvis often crooned lustily, I love them. That's all I can say right here. But a stunning follow up to that "startlement" came out of left fields at The Flamingo when I sat down, as a courtesy to John McDonald and his faithful audio crew, only to hear not a "miniature version" of the gigantic 16+16 speakers but, in the Audience 2+2, another sonic universe altogether. Yes, the soundstage is smaller. You'd be right to think that, when 64 drivers are replaced by 8 drivers, things musical change considerably. They do, but not for the worse. In very seductive and concrete ways, the 2+2 line array speakers are the emotional and lyrical equal of their far bigger cousin.

How, you ask. First, I have never heard a more accurate presentation of my recordings. Dynamic heft, just right. Timbral resonance and ambient complexity, dead on. A sense of "being there" (in Birdland; at Yoshi's; outdoors; indoors; small hall; big venue… regardless) delivered unabated, no particle or nuance left unrevealed.

Second, imaging. How do such relatively modest-sized speakers throw such large un-blurred images, musical details and "you are there" audio elements in front and all around the listener? With the right recordings, these little dragon-slayer speakers deliver a virtual three-dimensional, surround sound hologram at (around) an auditor. That illusion of concrete musical immediacy and contextual spatial presence has everything to do with phase accuracy on the recording recreated by the phase precision of the 2+2 speakers.

Third, you have to hear these beautiful boxes to believe what I'm reporting. This ain't normal. It's almost un-believable. If I were not fully certain of what I've experienced with them—and re-experience again, now that I have these lovely rapscallions here @ Casa BluePort to temporarily work with in monitoring and mastering my next BluePort album—I'd be reluctant to say such laudatory things. The bottom line is that you have to listen to the 2+2 for yourself. At $5000/pair, they are a glimpse of musical nirvana and sonic magic at a price that resembles the era when Studebaker and the good ol' Nash "Rambler" gave hard working grunts a chance to drive their squeeze to Steak'n Shake in affordable style.