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Music, Sound and Personalities: The 2003 CES and T.H.E. SHOW
(All photographs by Dave Glackin; image processing by David W. Robinson.)
My nineteenth CES was a joy. There was lots of good sound and music, as well as friends, camaraderie, and evening events. The high-end portion of the official CES remains at the Alexis Park, the best venue that it's ever been held in, IMHO. The chance to get out into the fresh air and grass, walk by the pool, and see old friends is so much better than the dim, smoke-infested rat-warren Sahara that we used to endure. Unlike the bad old days, my ears and brain were still firing on all cylinders after five days.
T.H.E. SHOW was held at a new location this year, the Hotel San Remo on Tropicana. Mike Maloney has found an excellent new venue, after a tough year of being forced to do so, through no fault of his own. My experience after covering the Alexis Park and the San Remo was that it was much easier to find good-sounding rooms at the San Remo. The San Remo offered some very large rooms that accommodated large systems with aplomb, in addition to having good smaller rooms. My congratulations on a sterling recovery from the vagaries of the Tuscany, Mike. Pictured is a happy Mike Maloney. http://www.the-expo.net
Once again I had the good fortune to see the show with my close friend and LP mastering engineer extraordinaire Stan Ricker. This was our sixth show together. Please see my interview with Stan in Positive Feedback Online, Issues 1, 2 & 3 (this sucker was so long that it wouldn't fit in a single issue even on the web!). Stan was a featured guest of honor at T.H.E. Party, put on by the reborn Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab at the San Remo on Saturday night. Stan is like a heat-seeking missile for good sound. It's easy to separate the wheat from the chaff when you're seeing the show with him, which sure eased my load of trying to cover the entire high-end show.
I've used the same piece of music as a kind of "transfer standard" at every audio show that I've reported on over the last decade. That's the infamous track 9 of Cantate Domino, on the Proprius label. There's something to be said for hearing hundreds of systems with the same piece of music.
But in addition to some occasional other cuts, this year we used I'm Crazy Bout My Baby from the album of the same name, with Tom Loncaric and His Orchestra, featuring vocalist Paul King. This is a new recording of a really hot, tight, jumpin' 40s-style band that's a blast and a half to listen to. In fact, I just got done listening to the LP on my own system, and my wife wouldn't let me get back to typing until we had heard the whole thing. I defy you to sit still while this music is playing. These cats can really swing, and it sounds like they've been playing together for so long that playing off one another is just second nature to them. This was recorded live to analog with a minimum of takes, using Ampex machines and vintage microphones, which is absolutely the right way to record music like this. Stan Ricker mastered the vinyl release, which appears on TL Records. The LP is accompanied by a CD whose sleeve is glued to the jacket sleeve, which allows for some interesting comparisons. So if you want a joyful, flat-out blast of a recording that will have you up and dancing around the house, buy this. I'm Crazy Bout My Baby has my very highest recommendation. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
EIGHT GREAT SYSTEMS
Here for your reading pleasure are eight great systems that really floated my boat, because of their first-rate sound, cutting-edge technology, eye-popping artistic implementation, or some combination thereof. Rather than choosing a single 'best sound in show" this year, I am going to describe the characteristics of these systems and let you draw your own conclusions regarding which is best. After all, one man's 'best" system might be another man's 'cultish lunatic fringe el-tweako out-there seriously warped" system. Only you know for sure...
The bigger Halcro/Wilson room recreated the Best Symphony Hall Experience I've heard in my 25 years of listening to high-end audio. This is an award I've never given before, because I've never had this experience at this level in any show before. And that's really saying something. I've always been aware of the gap between the live classical concert experience and the audio experience, and this system goes further in closing that gap than anything I have ever heard. The sound was large-scale, dynamic and effortless. Most ear-catching were the phenomenal bass drum and tympani low-level taps and high-level whacks that were tight and fast, and that produced pressure pulses traveling through the room that were quite reminiscent of the live experience. This system also reproduced the most realistic organ that I have ever heard. It was like sitting 15 feet in front of the pipes, with them all laid out in front of you going full tilt. True, some said that Peter McGrath was "cheating," because he was playing master tapes from his Nagra-D, and indeed I could not hear my reference CDs that I used throughout the show. But be that as it may, I have heard a lot of music on a lot of systems in the last 25 years, and have never heard anything quite like this. This was a surround system, configured with two Wilson Maxx speakers in the front and two Wilson Sophia speakers in the rear, all powered by Halcro amps (two dm58s were up front, with the center-channel speaker off). It was in a very large room at T.H.E. SHOW, which undoubtedly contributed to the sense of realism. Gordon Holt has been telling us for years that surround sound is the way to go for high-end audio. Based on this and other systems in this show, as well as other systems I have heard including one in Gordon's home, I am now convinced that this is indeed the way to go, albeit an expensive one. Bravo to Halcro, Wilson, and Peter McGrath. Pictured are Peter McGrath and his Nagra D. http://www.halcro.com and http://www.wilsonaudio.com
The Most Outstanding Work of Art in Vacuum Tube Audio Engineering was to be found in the Electron Luv amplifiers of Josh Stippich. The audacious appearance of these amps created the biggest "you've just gotta see this" buzz of the show. Electron Luv was exhibiting at T.H.E. SHOW with Cain & Cain single-horn Ben loudspeakers and Prana Wire from Joe Cohen. The Electron Luv 75 TL monoblock amps use 75 TL transmitter tubes for the driver and output stages, and Western Electric mercury vapor rectifiers. Josh, a self-taught metal worker, crafted some unique art-deco chassis for his amps that have to be seen to be believed. It was a pleasure to meet someone who is such a gifted craftsman and circuit designer, but who is so humble. Heck, I've got to give him another award for the Best Work by a Young Designer in the entire show. Josh notes that he built these amps for fun, and that they are the only pair in existence, but that he will build to order. Josh also builds 845-based and 2A3-based amps, some of which were being demonstrated in an adjacent room. These rooms were put together by Alan Kafton of Audio Excellence AZ. Pictured are Josh Stippich with his amp, and below the 75 TL amp aglow with a closeup of a 75 TL tube. Check out http://www.electronluv.com , http://www.pranawire.com and http://www.audioexcellenceaz.com
The Best Sounding Revolutionary Technology was in the TacT room, also at T.H.E. SHOW. This was probably the most revealing system in the show, allowing me to hear details in recordings that are well known to me that I have never heard before. The TacT system uses fully digital amplification to correct for room effects and for loudspeaker nonlinearities, and it time aligns the full frequency spectrum. Initial setup is done using a microphone placed at the listening position. TacT used their own unique speaker system, in which the crossover components, plus all of the pieces that are normally used to make a speaker linear, have been removed and incorporated into the amplifier. This renders the speakers very light and very fast, with vanishingly little overhang. The subwoofers in the TacT system are linear to 4 kHz, much higher than normal subs. This results in a much better match of their characteristics to the main speakers. The results were astounding. The Sheffield Drum Record, a recording that I have heard on many systems over many years, sounded like it never has before. It had incredible impact, instantaneous transient response and cleanliness, and the rim shots were heard right now. I never knew this recording sounds quite this good. On Cantate Domino, I heard the organ through the massed choir more clearly than ever. So what's the down side? One, the system was a little lacking in the areas of air and instrumental timbre, in my opinion. Second, the good folks at TacT do not like SACD, and the system would only accommodate CDs. But given the clean, articulate and transparent nature of this system, Stan noted that "I could be very comfortable in using this arrangement as a mastering system." High praise indeed. Pictured are Dr. Radomir Bozovic, the designer of the TacT system, and Peter Lyngdorf. http://www.tactaudio.com
The System I'd Most Like to Take Home was found in the Herron Audio room at the Alexis Park. Keith Herron was demonstrating a system consisting of his tubed line stage and phono preamp, his solid state M150 monoblock power amps, Herron Audio interconnects, a VPI Aries turntable, and a Burmester CD player, all feeding the Pearl loudspeakers from Joseph Audio. The sound in this room was open, airy, and relaxed, with excellent timbre and delicacy, coupled with the all-too-rare feel of live music. This system sent chills up my spine multiple times. When played on this system, Cantate Domino had articulation, effortlessness, transparency, delicacy, and jump, and individual voices were really fleshed out. At this point we had just about finished the Alexis Park (not yet having seen T.H.E. SHOW), and Stan noted that "This sounds more like my mastering system than anything I've heard." Keith Herron inveigled us to stay and hear some recording made locally in the St. Louis area, and he had us glued to our seats for some time. It is always a pleasure to visit Keith Herron's room, because he has such impeccable taste in music, he so obviously thoroughly enjoys playing music for music's sake, and he always comes up with fabulous pieces that I have not heard. For this, Keith Herron also takes Best Musical Sensibilities in the Show. Quipped Keith with regard to his legendary private-label Pinot NoAir, "I brought a bottle of vacuum to the show, but I exhaled it yesterday." Judging the nose on a bottle of Pinot NoAir is best done very carefully, lest you lose yours. Pictured is a proud Keith Herron. http://www.herronaudio.com and http://www.josephaudio.com
The Most Outstanding Work of Art in Solid State Audio Design was to be found in the Hovland Company room at the Alexis Park. The Radia dual-mono solid state amp was being showcased, with a stunning chassis designed by architect and Hovland CEO Jeff Tonkin. The circuitry is the result of a long evolutionary process by company founder Bob Hovland and electronics designer Mike Garges. The Radia is an excellent visual match for the striking HP100 tubed preamp that has received such a positive response in the worldwide audio press. [An aside about the flexibility of the phono stage: any cartridge loading can be achieved via internal resistor sockets.] The preamp and amp were powering a pair of Lumenwhite Whiteflame loudspeakers, a three-way five-driver design using ceramic drivers and a maple cabinet. The sound was at once dynamic and delicate, alive and transparent, and quite involving. In fact, Hovland was one of the few rooms in which I just wanted to sit and listen. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching this company evolve over the years from an operation centered around Bob Hovland's garage and Jeff Tonkin's extraordinary personal listening room, to an impressive facility in Los Angeles where Hovland products are manufactured. I also continue to be very impressed with Hovland's Music Groove 2 tonearm cable, which is firmly ensconced in my reference system. I still have no idea how they topped the sound of the previous incarnation of this cable, but they sure did. You're a class act, guys. Pictured are Jeff Tonkin and Mike Garges, and the Hovland Radia. http://www.hovlandcompany.com
Bobby Palkovic, gracious as always, was demonstrating The System That's Consistently Outstanding in the Merlin Music Systems room. Bobby was exhibiting the latest incarnation of the Merlin VSM Millennium loudspeaker, powered as usual by electronics from Joule Electra. A TNT turntable with a 12-inch JMW Memorial arm and Cardas Heart cartridge was spinning the vinyl, while an Audio Aero Capitole CD player was spinning the poylcarbonate. I've been captivated by every system that Bobby has demonstrated at CES, and this one was no exception. I heard a combination of delicacy and power, truth of timbre and dynamics, transparency plus "jump", and utter cleanliness and articulation, that were indeed captivating. We spent quite a lot of time in the Merlin room happily playing tunes, quite unmotivated to leave and see the show. That's the sure sign of a great system. Bobby has fine-tuned the Merlins to great effect, and I can't wait to see what he comes up with next (perhaps the much anticipated subwoofers ... ?). Pictured is a proud Bobby Palkovic, and below is Stan Ricker and the author after a satisfying listening session. (And I didn't "accidentally" walk away with any of your CDs this year...you think...)http://www.merlinmusic.com
The Most Dramatic Demonstration of Absolute Polarity that I have ever heard occurred in the V.Y.G.E.R./Acoustic Dreams room, in one of the big rooms at T.H.E. SHOW. These massive V.Y.G.E.R. turntables from Rome come in three flavors: the Indian and the Indian Signature, available with high or low pressure air-bearing arms, and the Atlantic, which comes with the high pressure arm only. (What these model designations have to do with JPL's Voyager spacecraft or with Star Trek, which is the origin of the name of the turntable line, is beyond me. And because I worked on the first Voyager flybys of Jupiter and Saturn at JPL, I oughtta know.) We heard the system with a Clearaudio Insider cartridge, a Hovland HP 100 preamp, Ayon amps, and Lumenwhite speakers, so there were many similarities to the Hovland room above. The sound was gorgeous, foiled only by some drywall dust that fell onto the arm tube and ruined the reproduction toward the end of one of our test LPs. Such are the vagaries of show conditions. Early on, Stan noted that the system's absolute polarity was reversed with respect to his pressing of I'm Crazy Bout My Baby, which was cut with correct polarity. Reversing some cables in the system was like removing a blanket from between us and the musicians. What was somewhat muffled before was now immediate, direct, and lifelike. So do what Clark Johnsen does, and watch your absolute polarity, folks. You'll be glad you did. Pictured are two views of the VYGER turntable. http://www.acousticdreams.net
One of the Most Stunningly Lifelike Systemsin the show was Edge Electronics, also in one of the big rooms at T.H.E. SHOW. They were showcasing their Edge Reference Monoblock amps, designed as rather "edgy" looking metallic silver pyramids. These babies weigh in at 155 lbs apiece and put out 800 watts. They were fed from one of the latest VPI TNT turntables and an Edge preamp, and were feeding a pair of prototype loudspeakers using ceramic drivers. Unlike the big Halcro/Wilson system which transported the listener into the symphony hall, the Edge system excelled at bringing a small group into the listening room. This system was exceedingly clean when played loud, and the stunning presentation was marred only by some problems with absolute polarity. We corrected this, based on the pressing of I'm Crazy Bout My Baby. The folks at Edge loved demoing their system with a Christian McBride CD, on which Stan could hear that new steel strings and plenty of rosin on the bow were being used. But the record dealers who were just outside in the hall were being driven stark raving batshit from listening to this same cut about 200 times a day. (They volunteered this information; I didn't have to pry.) Edge electronics are known for their use of laser bias of the output stage. That is, a red laser shines on the silicon substrate of the bias transistor, allowing the bias to be set quickly and accurately. The results speak for themselves. Pictured are the NL Reference Amps. http://www.edgeamp.com
THIRTY WORTHY SYSTEMS
The other systems or components in the show that really floated my boat for one reason or another are described below. The mediocre systems, or ones that simply didn't grab my attention, were left on the cutting room floor.
But first, the Best Live Sound in Show was provided courtesy of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. In the MoFi hospitality suite on Thursday night, a small number of lucky people were treated to some beautiful singing and acoustic guitar playing by Lori Lieberman. She played selections from her new CD Monterey (Drive On Records), which I look forward to hearing. My thanks to Colie Brice and John Wood for the invitation. Pictured is Lori Lieberman. http://www.mofi.comand http://www.lorilieberman.com
The Best Mono Cartridge and Best New Stereo Cartridge were to be found in the Lyra/Audio Physic/Burmester room, honchoed with aplomb and grace by Sedrick Harris of Immedia. I have recently been completely bowled over by the Lyra Helikon Mono cartridge, after hearing a comparison between it and a Benz stereo cartridge on several old mono records. Yes, there is a very good rationale for having two arms and two cartridges. The Helikon Mono is astounding. In fact, Stig Bjorge of Scan Tech (manufacturer of Lyra cartridges) told me that this is the first cartridge that surprised him, and that's really saying something. Jonathan Carr, the designer of all Scan Tech cartridges, told me that a new mono cartridge will be coming out for $800. I can hardly wait to hear it. Meanwhile, Sedrick Harris described the new Lyra Titan cartridge that was playing in the Immedia room, along with the new Audio Physic Brilon loudspeakers. According to Sedrick, the new titanium-bodied Titan beats the pants off of the highly regarded stereo Helikon. That comparison I've gotta hear. Meanwhile, the Audio Physic Yara, my favorite small speaker from last year, is available in a wider array of options that Sedrick was proudly showing off. Pictured are Stan and Jonathan Carr. http://www.lyraaudio.com or http://www.scantechsweden.com
Hart Huschens of Audio Advancements was displaying the Most Fascinating Array of European Imports. In particular, Hart's Ear Max triode headphone amp has long been a favorite of mine. I tried very hard not to slobber too much all over Hart's DPS (Der Platten Spieler) turntable, sporting a beautiful "Jazz Age" LP picture disc. It was also a pleasure to talk with H. H. Morch, manufacturer of the Morch tonearms that are imported by Hart. He proved to be one of the most gracious gentlemen in the show. Pictured are Hart (above) with his product listing, and below, the DPS minus most of slobber and Mr. Morch. http://www.audioadvancements.com
Bruce Thigpen of Eminent Technology manufactures My Personal Reference Loudspeaker, namely the model LFT-8, which has given me many years of happiness in my reference system. True, it's not the most expensive, or the most glamorous, but nothing has displaced it yet for me. My longstanding colleague and close friend, Raymond Chowkwanyun, late of Positive Feedback and currently writing for EnjoyTheMusic.com, has tested many, many speakers, and has settled on two pairs of LFT-8s for a long-term relationship. Mated with VTL 300s (my system) or huge Manley amps (Ray's system), these speakers really do it for us. Bruce was exhibiting his newer smaller planar speaker (pictured), which he promises one day to build up into a big planar speaker. I look forward to that event. http://www.eminent-tech.com
The Best Grit and Determination (for the nth year running) was exhibited by Barry Kohan of Bright Star Audio. Barry's well known line of vibration control products are used in many applications throughout the industry, and they were scattered through more than 50 rooms in the show, all personally set up by Barry. This must be the toughest workout he gets all year. I look forward to trying out Barry's Isonode anti-vibration feet. http://www.brightstaraudio.com
EveAnna Manley of Manley Laboratories, with Israel Blume of Coincident Speaker Technology set up a room that sounded great as always. The Manley Steelhead phono preamp, Wave preamp/DAC, and Snapper monoblocks were powering a pair of Coincident Total Victory loudspeakers. The sound in this room, from a company that exhibits the Best Ability to Combine Pro and High-End Hardware was live, coherent, dynamic, integrated top-to-bottom, enjoyable, and fun. In lieu of a photo of EveAnna, we have a picture of the venerable Stingray. http://www.manleylabs.com and http://www.coincidentspeaker.com
A very old and treasured friend of mine, Robert Lee of Acoustic Zen, was exhibiting his cables with Rogue Audio. Robert is a true music lover and a dedicated practitioner of the audio arts. The sound in his two rooms, with Rogue electronics and Meadlowlark loudspeakers, was among the nicer in the show: dynamic and smooth with good detail, without a hint of strain or congestion. A smiling Robert is pictured with an absolutely radiant pair of his cables. We had an enjoyable dinner with Robert, during which we were able to talk over old times, including his long lost company of nearly two decades ago, True Image. http://www.AcousticZen.com and http://www.rogueaudio.com
Roy Hall of Music Hall was exhibiting the Most Gorgeous CD & SACD Players at the show. The Shanling CD-T100 CD player has grabbed a lot of press attention over the last few months, with its high build quality, stunning appearance, tubed line level and headphone outputs, 24/96 upsampling, HDCD capability, and great sound. The Shanling is my new reference CD player. But I may have to trade up, for pictured is the gorgeous new Shanling SACD/CD player. http://www.musichallaudio.com