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Show Stoppers - The Best of the Best
If you're looking for a complete CES Show report, then I suggest perusing my other esteemed colleagues' online write-ups. If you're looking for an assessment of the latest and greatest in digital gear, boy are you in the wrong place! If you're high-end audio manufacturer, I apologize to you in advance if your product (s) aren't listed. This isn't an intentional slight since I went to this year's CES looking for goodies that went above and beyond the call of duty. Now for the good news. If your heart belongs to analog, tubes and high-end audio equipment that brings listeners closer to the real thing, then you're in the right place! The following is a synopsis of the best of the best rooms at both The Show and CES.
1. The Flamingo Hotel - 2010 was the first year for "THE Show" at The Flamingo Hotel. The new venue was far more exhibitor friendly—not to mention being located a hop, skip and jump from the main event at The Venetian. Many manufacturers were extremely happy with the volume of traffic and venue—especially given that they were able to bring their gear in themselves and not have to depend upon the whims and fancies of the Venetian show staff. It's clear that the folks at the Venetian need to do a far better job of accommodating the needs of CES high-end audio exhibitors.
That said, the most striking, though silent exhibit at The Flamingo Hotel, was its exotic, 15 acre wildlife habitat! Every day at breakfast, I had my own personal, front row window seat looking out upon the flock of Chilean pink flamingos sleeping on one leg, exotic Japanese Koi fish (one of which recently sold for a million dollars), Ibis's, various types of ducks and white and black swans. Add in the exotic Paradise Falls, ponds and trees and this old country boy had flashbacks of his nature roots!
2. Open Reel Tape Decks - Almost as rare as snow in Jamaica, this year's CES show had no less than seven exhibitors bringing their beloved analog reel-to-reel tape decks to Vegas (and many more manufacturers admitting their passion for open reel tapes and yearning they had brought their machine). Of course, kudos for the resurgence of interest in audiophile quality, open reel tape recordings goes to the folks The Tape Project. Once one hears a Tape Project Tape played back on a top deck through a top flight system, one realizes today's current digital format is sadly flawed. But the bulk of audiophiles haven't heard these amazing tapes (or tapes in general) and unfortunately don't know what they're missing.
And The Tape Project releases may just be the tip of the iceberg. In my travels through the halls of the show, several individuals conveyed serious interest in releasing some top titles in the 15 ips, 2 track format and hopefully, continuing to stoke interest in the format, if just at the ultimate end of the hobby. Unfortunately, because of production costs and limited distribution, these tapes won't be cheap.
One reel-to-reel deck that caught my eye (and many others) at CES was Ocean Way Studios modded Ampex ATR-102 ¼" tape machine playing back some mouth watering 15 and 30 ips master tapes recorded at Ocean Way Studios (including a stunning John Williams soundtrack) And playing these tapes and demoing Ocean Way's new HR2 speakers was none other than Alan Sides, the owner and one of the most respected engineer/producers in the music industry. For those unacquainted with Sides' work, he has recorded over 400 albums, won two Grammy's and has worked with the likes of Phil Collins, Green Day, Eric Clapton, Alanis Morrisette, Faith Hill, Beck, Mary J. Blige, Ry Cooder, Joni Mitchell, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Andre Previn and Frank Zappa. One thing is for sure: Eve Anna Manley and Alan Sides certainly knew each other!
Speaking of eye and ear candy, nothing looked better than the flock of customized Technics reel-to-reel decks residing in Jeff Jacobs J-Corder room. For those reel-to-reel enthusiasts looking to customize their current decks, Jeff also distributes the Dark Lab quick release hubs and several different brands of Darklab and Technics reels. In addition, Jeff is putting the finishing touches on several new modifications for Technics decks including a customized head block, eliminating the two/four track switching option to improve the sound and direct wiring out from the head block directly to a Repro, thus obviating the need for an extra set of connectors. In addition, this wire will be electrically matched for head impedance and wire length so as to further improve the sound of the totally tricked out Technics decks.
EAR USA also featured a fabulous sounding, modified Technics deck. Here, and not for the first time at CES either, was EAR importer Dan Meinwald's personal, Tim de Paravicini dPv modified Technics 1500US. (Of which there may be only machines in the US.)
Needless to say, any resemblance between a stock Technics deck and the dPv machine is purely coincidental. (Be forewarned though: if you want your Technics deck modded by Tim, be prepared to wait the better part of a year to see it again!) Aside from a complete makeover, the Technics electronics are replaced with Tim's. Bandwidth is considerably increased at all EQ settings. Tim also adds his own equalization curve with bandwidth greater than either NAB or IEC.
At the show, Tim was kind enough to play a first generation tape copy of a British group (whose name escapes me because I didn't write it down) that he had made. This recording was played back through Tim's EAR electronics and the new Marten Design Getz, a scaled-down version of the Bird; the main difference between the two speakers is that the Getz uses one active (ceramic) woofer and a passive (aluminum) radiator and no ports instead of the Bird's dual woofers (and dual ports). Tim's tape had the all the sonic qualities that one associates with the tape medium: big, ballsy and dynamic bass, a huge soundstage, limitless dynamic range and shadings and more harmonics and musical texture than one can shake a baton at.
Another modified Technics machine was spotted at the Venetian in the TAD room. Here TAD speaker designer Andrew Jones brought along his Bottlehead Electronics modified Technics RS1500 wired, as is mine, directly out from the tape head and run into a Bottlehead Electronics tube Repro. In addition to the RS1500 Bottlehead tape path mod, Andrew's deck sported the new Flux Magnetics extended response playback head. (Attendees at the upcoming Stockholm show will have a chance to hear this playback system too.)
Technics machines weren't the only open reel format machines seen at CES. An additional repeat CES reel-to-reel tape analog source offender was On a Higher Note's chief proprietor Philip O'Hanlon, importer and representative for Luxman, Vivid speakers and Brinkman electronics. Philip brought once again to CES his stunning sounding Arian Jansen/Canorus Audio (firstname.lastname@example.org) modded, Revox PR99 reel-to-reel player. For those unfamiliar with Arian's work (I was lucky enough to get to know him even better at a PFO dinner late one night), he holds eleven patents in the field of power electronics.
The Sonorus modified PR99 (or B77) comes with a different EQ's for each tape speeds. At 15 ips, the machine records and plays back with IEC EQ. At 7½ ips, the machine records and plays back with NAB EQ. Arian carries out many modification to the deck, including servicing the basic machine; all the pots are lubricated; all light bulbs and switches are replaced; and the machine is bench test to ensure it meets its original specs. Other modifications carried out on the PR99 include modifying the playback board; the audio/record (optional) PCBs are completely revised; and the power supply is modified so the machine's electronics are buffered from any AC line noise on the AC; and the muting system that works when the tape is fast forwarding/rewinding is removed entirely because it veils playback. Needless to say that Philip's Revox performed admirably playing back the Tape Project tapes.
NOLA speakers showed once again with United Home Audio who brought along their prototype $15,000 United Home Audio Phase VI modified Tascam deck. Like the J-Corder machines, the UHA Tascam deck is a real work of art and will fit quite nicely into any home décor. According to Greg Beron of United Home Audio, the Tascam machine was selected based upon extensive sonic comparisons and parts availability. The UHA Phase VI machine is optimized for 15 ips/IEC eg. no 15 or 7½ ips/NAB capability. Greg also shared that the Phase VI machine is almost finished; all that remains is whether or not to add the newly released, super high quality Cardas IEC and XLR connectors.
Last but not least, was the Magico room. Paul Stubblebine, one of the Tape Project principals, brought along a very rare bird, a modded studio Otari MTR-20. According to Dan Schmalle of Bottlehead Electronics, this Otari began its life as a ½ inch, four track machine; Paul turned the Otari, courtesy of a specially made Flux Magnetics extended response playback head, into a ½ inch, two track tape machine. The direct output Otari was connected to a Bottlehead Tube Repro mounted under the tape deck. I would to more than life itself like report that this deck and system sounded absolutely jaw dropping, but unfortunately whether it was the room, electricity at the Venetian, etc., the sound of the Magico room proved less than optimal to evaluate this super deck and the mouth watering, ½ inch copies of the Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus or Bruch's Scottish Fantasy Tape Project releases.
3. VMPS Speakers - Speaker designer Brian Cheney gave a new meaning to bringing your own music to the show. Brian brought along his own musicians to demonstrate the faithfulness of his newest speaker design, the $12,900 VMPS RM50 dual line source bi-pole (with digital controller) speakers driven by Atmasphere MA1 OTLs on the mid/treble and dual Classe M1000 monoblocks for the bass towers, to live music. Show attendees got to hear the artists perform live and then do the Memorex test.
Now the listening comparisons weren't exactly isosonic as different types of microphones were used with the different recording platforms. A pair of M Audio Sputnik tube condenser microphones in MS (mid-side), one forward facing in cardioid and one sideways in figure 8 for 180 degree stereo spread fed an Alesis Masterlink 24/88.2 PCM recorder while a single Audio Technica stereo mike in XY, 110 degree spread fed a Korg M1000 DSD.
I was lucky enough sit in on the sessions starring finger style guitarist Austin Wey and performing with two different types of guitars. As far as the listening comparisons, we're once again we're faced with famous Russian geneticist T.D. Lysenko paradox. Lysenko, in his efforts to appease Stalin and feed the Russian people, decided to cross a radish with a cabbage in a vain attempt to produce a vegetable with the radish bulb and cabbage head; instead Lysenko ended up with a vegetable with the radishes leaves and cabbage roots.
What emerged, ultimately, from the live vs. recorded comparison was that neither digital recording technique was remotely close to the sound of the live performance (a 15 ips, 2-track, ¼ inch open reel deck would have blown both digital recorders away!). In fact, the 24/88.2 PCM was really bad. One listener remarked that the guitar had more body with the 24/88.2 PCM; that was only because there was nothing else to subtract. Both digital recorders lost the guitar's delicateness and softness, the silence between notes, the difference in sound between the two models of guitar and most of the harmonic overtones—not to mention the instrument sounded larger than life. But Brian did prove that his speakers are more than capable—and of course a guitar recording should show off his ribbon drivers to their utmost—of resolving all the issues with digital recordings!
4. Kubala-Sosna Cables - These fine cables from my home state of New Jersey were featured in many rooms at CES. According to Joe Kubala, the newest KS Elation cable series takes the performance of the Emotion line to the next sonic rung while still embodying their basic philosophy of minimal Z cable impedance and a neutral, balanced and extended sound.
Two other pieces of high-end audio gear caught my eye and ear in the KS room. First was the stunning looking, $15,000 Mark Conti designed, battery powered Veloce Audio Platino LS1 tubed linestage equipped with the optional LP1 phono stage. A beautiful looking piece designed with a pair of 12AU7 and 12AT7 tubes shrouded in highly polished aluminum sticking out the front of the unit, the Platino features a sizable 24 dB of gain. Another piece of gear catching my eye and ear in the KS room was the $30,000 Marten Heritage Bird speakers and the $20,150 Clearaudio Innovation Wood/Universal Arm/Benz LP-S cartridge combo. For all intents and purposes, the Birds are essentially Coltrane's in a more conventional box; the Coltrane cabinets are carbon fiber while the Birds are veneered MDF.
5. Favorite personal story: Keith Herron - Every year the song remains the same. I walk into Keith Herron's room, exchange pleasantries and ask him what's new by way of this electronics. Then we sit down, forget about the equipment and begin listening to music. I never get tired of it and for good reason. Keith always brings recordings by friends of his that were never released—or as in this year—some recordings he made of an accordion orchestra and accompanied percussion (and anyone lucky enough to have found a copy of the Vanguard release Accordiorama knows how good an accordion orchestra can sound!). And Keith's recording sounded amazing.
6. Steve Hoffman talk - By now I've lost track of the number of times that I've heard Steve give his CES record mastering act. And I never grow tired of hearing Steve even if I've heard the music before since he always has a different spin on an old story. Steve played for the rapt and attentive audience several cuts from several upcoming LP and SACD releases in addition to some old standards from yesteryear. Steve kicked off the afternoon's festivities with his old standby story about the origin of magnetic tape recorders and how Bing Crosby helped found Ampex Corporation. Next, Steve played a nothing less than spectacular mono recording of Bing Crosby done on the very first Ampex reel to reel tape deck serial number 001. Then Steve played a cut from the upcoming Analogue Productions Nat King Cole reissue series entitled "Stardust" and discussed how they dealt with artistic issues such as how much reverb to add to the release when mastering. In the end, he and Chad chose to give us more of how Nat sounded in the studio. And it sounded like a pretty good choice. Finally, before I had to leave, Steve put on the system the moving Peggy Lee singing "Fever."
One quick note before moving on. Steve made it abundantly clear that comparing reissued LPs with their original release is fraught with many problems, not the least of which is knowing the origin of the source tape used for the original and reissue LP release. Take for instance, the 45 rpm Analogue Productions Art Pepper+Eleven reissue. Of all the Art Pepper+Eleven releases—and that includes the original LP, CD, SACD, Analogue Productions 33⅓ release—only the 45 rpm Analogue Productions LP was cut from the original session tapes, a generation earlier than the other LPs or digital copy. And it's a undeniable fact that the earlier the tape generation, the better the sound. So the only way to hear the original tapes is via the 45 rpm Analogue Productions release.
Another issue that rears its ugly head in many late ‘50s and ‘60s recordings is the matter of reverb. Many recordings from that era were recorded on the "dry" side with the engineers then adding reverb to the mix. But subtlety didn't seem to exist in the recording engineer's lexicon; back then, many artists were as Steve described it "drowned" in reverb. Or it seems the attitude was that if a little bit was good, more is better. So for example, Analogue Productions Art Pepper+Eleven is the only version from the "original" tape recorded in Contemporary's mailroom not swimming in reverb.
7. Avalon Speakers - Avalon proudly displayed the $47,995 per pair Time, their newest speaker introduced back in May 2009. The Time is a three-way design featuring a 1 x 1 inch concave dome tweeter, 1 x 3½ inch concave ceramic dome midrange and 2 x 11 inch Nonex Kevlar composite cone woofer. Driven by Jeff Rowland's newest 600 watt/channel flagship $29,800 Model 301 monoblocks, the sound was very different from early Avalon speakers. The speakers sounded very coherent, with great extension at the extremes and none of the upper midrange forwardness characterizing early Avalon designs. Lucien also shared that Avalon will soon be introducing an update to their longstanding reference speaker, The Sentinel.
Another interesting sound treatment product used in the Avalon room was from Acustica Appicata of Italy. These passive acoustic devices act by absorbing and diffusing wide range of frequencies. Acustica Appicata claims their room treatment product works by improving room articulation and tonal balance and redistribute soundstage energy.
8. Lamm Audio/Wilson Audio - CES served as the coming out party for several Lamm products including Vladamir's statement preamplifier, the $42,690 four box LL1 Signature line level preamplifier. The LL1 Signature features a single inverting gain stage pure class-A built around paralleled low impedance triodes. The unit, also, for those impressed by measurements, sports some very impressive specs (see the Lamm website, www.lammindustries.com). The analog source was the stunning $96,000 Redpoint Solo Voce turntable outfitted with the 12-inch Ikeda ($6800) arm and Dynavector DRT XV-1t cartridge ($9000). Tipping the scales as we Olympic weightlifters like to say 300 kilos (660 lbs)—and more than the world record for the clean and jerk world—the Solo Voce takes analog playback to the edge-of-the-art.
I suspect the dramatic improvement in the room's sound from days 2 to 3 may lead to some disagreement among show attendees regarding the sound of the Lamm/Wilson demonstration. For the first two days of CES (and of course one should discount what is heard for the first day or two of the show), the sound in the room proved disappointing. In fact, the "smaller" system in the second Lamm room featuring the Wilson Sashas sounded far better. Then Vlad, Peter and company got it together (part of the problem may have been the turntable as the Solo Voce was having trouble maintaining proper speed on day 2). On Saturday, the system really began to bloom and come to life. Spread out far apart and severely toed in as per the configuration that Wilson favors, the MAXX3 speakers threw a huge soundstage without any hole in the middle. Percussion on Saul Goodman's Mallets, Melody and Mayhem on Capitol and voices on Bach's Quodlibet on Telefunken were rendered with precision, delicacy and harmonic accuracy! What really impressed me the most about the sound in the room (and specifically the performance of the Redpoint table) was that this was one of the very few systems capable of tracking the bells and other percussion instruments on Saul Goodman's Mallets, Melody and Mayhem on Capitol without breaking up. Oh yes, this was another room using Kubala-Sosna Elation cables and possessed that trademark KS midrange presence, delicacy, harmonic accuracy and low distortion!
9. Sumiko - There's many things the boys from Sumiko do well and setting up systems at CES is definitely one of them. I can't remember Sumiko ever having bad sound at a show. This year they used in their statement room the $45K Sonus Faber Stradi vari combined with a triple stack of REL Gibraltar G4 subwoofers per side. The Sonus Fabers driven by the monstrous 600 watt/channel ARC Reference 610T amplifiers sounded very special with a great sense of ease and harmonic completeness. The RELs are self powered and equipped with a 750 w/channel MOSFET amplifiers. Bill Peugh of Sumiko also noted that setting up the REL subwoofers in the room took all of 16 minutes at the show due to the ingenious remote control ability of the RELs. This was especially important Peugh mentioned since, "the ‘immovable' marble desk in the room really sucked out the bass on the Strads;" therefore, they needed to increase the x-over point on the right channel to compensate for the bass suck-out on that side of the room.
10. Blue Light Audio - No K-Mart Blue Light Specials in aisle 8 were found in this room! What was present in the room was arguably the best sound at The Show and the CES show, especially considering the size of the hotel room. Jonathan Tinn and company unveiled several new products at The Show including the supersized, (who says big, much less solid-state amplifiers can't sound good; I certainly won't anymore!), 1 kW/channel Dartzeel NHB-458 monoblock amplifiers Reference priced at a hefty 135K ($135/watt). Music was played through the exquisite looking, not to mention sounding, $35,000 Evolution MM Two Loudspeakers (maximum musicality). The MM2s are nearly identical to their bigger brothers, the Evolution 3, save for the top woofer. Finished in a stacked Baltic birch wood, the inside of the MM2s cabinet varies from three to six inches thick and is internally damped to reduce standing waves. The woofers are powered by amplifiers rated at 600 watt/channel compared to 1200 for its bigger brother.
Another component in the Blue Light Audio product whose sound took me totally by surprise was the Steve Dobbins modified Technics SP10 direct drive turntable outfitted with the Reed tonearm from Eastern Europe and the fancy new $4200 Ortofon A9 cartridge. Don't, expect, however, to pick a used Technics for a song on eBay; the last Technics SP10 went for the tidy sum of $9000. Despite the speakers being situated in a relatively small room (actually the amount of equipment jammed into the room may have made the room seem smaller than it actually was) that preventing the system from breathing, the piano was rich, drums were tight, controlled and very dynamic and percussion instruments didn't break up. Another table displayed but not playing in the Blue Light room that deserves further investigation is the Kodo Audio "The Beat" Reference table (a modified Garrard 301 turntable) equipped with the Reed tonearm.
11. Vandersteen Model 7 speakers - I've always admired Richard Vandersteen's designs and speakers. So much in fact, that I almost bought a pair of 2s as my first high-end speakers way back in 1980. But the Vandersteen "coloration" (and what speaker doesn't have them) have always prevented me from warming up to them. That attitude might have changed with the release of the newest statement piece from Vandersteen, the $45,000 Model 7s. Driven with Aesthetix electronics and using the Clearaudio Wood Innovation turntable as a source, these speakers were very un-Vandersteen-like. Richard Vandersteen explained to me the 7's newly designed drivers allowed him to use a shallower crossover slope, in effect helping him realize his ultimate goal of coherence. Whatever the reason, these speakers were extremely fast sounding and resolving, had very tight low frequencies and were very open and transparent. By far, the 7s are the best Vandersteen I've heard to date.
Some Show Quickies
Audio Deske Systeme Record Cleaning Machine - This was, of all the accessories seen at the show, the Audio Deske Systeme RCM, the one product that I more than life itself wanted to drag home! Unfortunately because this machine is back ordered, obtaining a review sample is going to be extremely difficult. Now I've always wondered ever since my long gone laboratory research days why someone hasn't investigated the use of ultrasonic cleaning for LPs. Well someone has and it's Reiner Glass of Audio Deske Systeme. Reiner has spent much of his time finding an ultrasonic frequency that didn't damage the LP and this machine is his statement piece. Priced at $3495, the automated RCM machine takes 5 minutes to simultaneously sonically and wet clean both sides of the LP cleaning time.
Keith Monks Record Limited Edition Ruby record cleaning machine - After a 27 year hiatus, the embodiment of Percy Wilson's brilliant record cleaning machine design from the late ‘50s (of which there's an excellent article in the AES journal on playback) is back on American shores. At the show was none other than Keith Monk's son Jonathan demoing the new limited edition Ruby cleaner. My only question is whether audiophiles are patient enough to wait the extra time this machine takes to clean both sides of an LP as opposed to other machines that take on the order of seconds to vacuum dry the LP.
conrad-johnson ART amplifier - This soon to be released brute of a tube amplifier is conservatively rated at 275 watts/channel tube and sports a new metalwork for cj as well as other changes to the circuit design including a new driver stage. Only 125 pairs of the new limited edition $33K ART amplifiers will be built with the first units scheduled for release this February. Hopefully, we'll have a pair of these in house to evaluate in the near future!
VAC Statement 440 amplifier - Power was an ongoing theme at the show and few tube amplifiers save maybe for the VTLs or ARC 600T monoblock tube amplifiers, sported more horsepower than the soon to be released VAC four chassis, KT-88 based Statement 440 watt/channel tube monoblock amplifiers (with separate power supplies for each channel). At the show, designer Kevin Hayes shared that that he is still undecided on whether the final version will be wired for triode or ultralinear pentode. One of the features of the new amplifier is its very low impedance driver (VLID) circuit resulting in according to Kevin, greater headroom and more apparent power per watt. Having had the opportunity to audition several VAC amplifiers in my reference system over the years, and being somewhat familiar with Kevin's meticulousness and dedication, the Statement is going to be one amplifier to reckon with down the road.