April 2006

CES 2006: Las Vegas' Annual Electric Circus

Imagine 38 acres of nothing but TVs blasting, stereos booming and a few thousand subwoofers woofing. Throw in about 150,000 gawkers gawking at all this glitz and mayhem and you have the basic scenario for the 2006 edition of the annual electrogizmo dog-and-pony extravaganza called the Consumer Electronics Show. And since it's in Las Vegas, multiply the overload factor by a thousand.
How the Consumer Electronics Association expects anyone to take in all the exhibits, press conferences, free lunches, keynote addresses, symposia, just to mention some of the offerings spread across an entire city, is beyond comprehension. (It's the largest tradeshow in Vegas each year.)

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Sharp Aquos high-definition television
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Spiral Grove SG1 turntable
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VAC Standard Musicbloc 160 amp
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Silverline Prelude
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Bel Canto Design e.One PRe3 Preamp and e.One S300 Amp
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Bel Canto Design e.One PRe3 Preamp and e.One S300 Amp
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Esoteric UZ-1 DVD/Universal Disc Player

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But we journalists, retailers, industry folk and other interested Jacks and Jills somehow put on the comfortable shoes and walk the halls for several days in an attempt to take in as much as possible. Does anyone manage to more than scratch the surface? Not unless he or she possesses of an omniscient omnipresence. So we mere mortals do the best we can, and leave knowing we might have missed a hidden gem.

Thankfully, since my beat is focused primarily on the home audio and video arenas, I don't have to traipse through the miles of silicon chips, cordless toothbrushes and microelectronic everything elses. I didn't have any startling epiphanies, but there was plenty of cool stuff and lots of great sound, including an impressive number of exciting new turntables, but developments in home video seemed to be where all the action was.

A couple of years ago in my report about then-current television technology, the LCD screen was a distant third or fourth in the running, well behind traditional CRTs, plasmas and DLP screens. Size limitations, poor reproduction of rich black tones and limited viewing angles were just a few of the LCD's shortcomings. But at CES 2006, LCD was the buzzword in just about every manufacturer's booth. Since, at least in video, size does matter, the most obvious development in LCD technology over the last few years is the quantum leap in screen size--from the maximum of around 30 inches in 2003, to the astounding 82-inch prototype Sony had on display to magnificent effect in Las Vegas. In addition to its unrivaled size, this display is the first Sony Extended Video YCC-compliant television. This new technology expands color data range to cover the entire color spectrum, unlike today's standard, which only offers a portion of that spectrum. The colors, in fact, were unbelievable. Sony introduced a number of other products in its Grand Wega and Bravia lines that promise to uphold Sony's reputation as one of the best, most consistent performers in home video.

Sharp's new Aquos high-definition screens (sharpusa.com) were beyond impressive: the Aquos LC-65D90U ($20,000) at 65 inches is the largest currently available LCD on the market. But for those of us on a realistic budget, Sharp introduced a new lineup of more modestly sized and priced screens at CES: all true high def, 1080p displays (meaning 1080 lines of video resolution, progressive scan format) that had me drooling in the aisles, coveting one for my own living room. The new models include the LC-45D90U (45-inch screen; $4,999), the LC-37D90U (37-inch screen; $3,499) and the LC-32D50U (32-inch screen; $2,299).

Toshiba, Mitsubishi and a score of others were also touting new LCD sets, all with a variety of sizes and definition levels to suit most budgets. From all indications, LCD technology is still in its infancy and the future of LCD and its offshoots will be very bright indeed. If only program content were as exciting as these new displays!

By a rough estimate, around 30 percent of the demonstration suites I entered, regardless of the primary product being pushed in that room, featured a turntable at the ready to be part of the demo. And why is that, in this day of digital everything? Well, as you've possibly heard me say before, it's because vinyl, when played on a quality analog system, still beats the pants off digital, even the $50,000 digital systems on parade in Vegas. Not to worry, there is still plenty of fresh vinyl out there, both reissues and stacks of newly recorded LPs. Most major releases are being issued on vinyl by companies like Mobile Fidelity (whose 45-r.p.m. versions of Patricia Barber's albums are breathtaking), Classic Records (who continues to pump out Blue Note after Blue Note) and a handful of others.

Two new tables stood out this year: the Avid line from England (musicdirect.com) and Allen Perkins' new designs from his recently formed Spiral Groove (spiral-groove.com).

The Avid philosophy is to isolate the stylus totally from any outside vibration. Designer Conrad Mas showed me the basics of his approach and explained his idea is to "create a system, via our unique suspension, that is isolated from the rest of the world." His tables employ parts that are made to perhaps the strictest, most precise tolerances in the industry--Avid also machines parts for the likes of Aston Martin, Sony and Jaguar. The Avid Acutus table ($13,000) was a marvel to behold, a work of art in its own right, but the sound was nothing short of spectacular. Listening to a Ray Brown LP, I heard instrument shapes that were clearly defined and spot on, timbres that were absolutely accurate, great attack from the bass and percussion and the locomotion of the rhythmic underpinnings of the music itself were impossible to miss. It rocked! But so did the Avid Diva turntable ($2,500 without an arm), though to a somewhat lesser degree. But the same characteristics were there, and Ray still sounded like Ray should, with plenty of ambient information surrounding the instruments and that unmistakable realism only vinyl can faithfully transmit. The Diva utilizes the same design ideas of the Acutus but has been scaled down a bit in some of the details to meet a more affordable price point.

Perkins also seeks to control external vibration and noise in his Spiral Groove tables but he uses a slightly different approach. "Noise is the nemesis," he says. "An uncompromised signal emerging from a silent background, the goal." Perkins' previous turntables have won accolades from critics around the world as some of the best-sounding analog anywhere, and it looks like Spiral Groove will follow in those giant shoes. He's engineered these new models from the ground up and the sound was spectacular. We'll be hearing more from these "groovy" turntables in the future.

Another room featured at least 10 different turntables, priced from about a grand to several times that, from Clearaudio (musicalsurroundings.com), and the effect was nearly overwhelming, but it was gratifying to know that vinyl is not going anywhere, in spite of what many folks think.

Kevin Hayes of VAC (vac-amps.com) was very excited about his new VAC Standard Musicbloc 160 ($4,000/each). "I was surprised at how good these things turned out to be" he said. "I am hearing new things from all my old recordings. I have to say I find these amps quite addictive." Hearing them was to believe, and the 160 watts per channel allow these babies to power just about any speaker you can throw at them. Definitely worth checking out. Hayes also promised some other new goodies later in the year and we hope to get our hands on one of his amps for a full review at that time.

Another Kevin--Kevin Deal of Upscale Audio in Los Angeles--imports and distributes the terrific PrimaLuna tube equipment discussed in a recent edition of this column. PrimaLuna is engineered in Europe and meticulously constructed by hand in China to exacting Dutch standards. They introduced a couple of new products, the ProLogue Six and Seven monoblock amps ($2,295/pair and $2,695/pair, respectively), which produce 70 watts per stereo channel. If they are anything like the ProLogue Two we reviewed earlier, they will be incredible bargains and beautiful music makers. Deal promises some new items for 2006 that will take the PrimaLuna philosophy of high performance and great value to new heights. I can't wait.

Wavelength Audio (wavelengthaudio.com), one of the leaders of the single-ended triode movement, introduced a nifty new monoblock, the Jupiter ($6,000/pair), the first amp in nearly 60 years built around the old RCA 50 power tube. Producing only about six watts each, these are not for everyone, but matched with the right speaker, there are few amps out there that can equal their outstanding musicality.

Audio Note UK (triodeandco.com) was showing off some new gear and the sound was spectacular. Audio Note is renowned for its devotion to audio purity and the "simpler is better" philosophy, best evidenced in the single-ended amps we've so often praised in these pages. The new Paladin stereo amp ($2,450) is based on the old RCA 45 tube and produces a walloping two watts per channel. But the music I heard was magical. It was effortless, detailed and got deep into my soul like little else I heard during the show. Like the Wavelength, this amp needs to be paired with a highly efficient speaker, but the resulting sound can be spine tingling.

There was also live music to be heard during the week, and one Art Audio (artaudio.com) and Bosendorfer Loudspeakers (bosendorfernewyork.com) provided one such opportunity. These companies presented Vincent Falcone, former music director for Frank Sinatra, playing a fabulous jewel-encrusted Bosendorfer piano. Art Audio amps were everywhere it seemed, and in each case, the sound was impressively lifelike. Art Audio's chief designer Joe Fratus and his crew, including Kevin Carter, continue to dazzle with new and exciting product including the Vivo stereo amp ($12,500), which produces a dazzling 25 watts per channel, but, unlike most Art Audio amps, this jewel is set up in a push-pull configuration instead of being single-ended, thus the increased power rating from around eight watts for the typical amp employing the 300B tube used here.

Needless to say, the Bosendorfer speakers were as dazzling as its piano. The company's new, diminutive bookshelf model, the VC-S (starting at $5,500) presented a surprisingly big sound that was clean, authoritative and imbued with great finesse. Bosendorfer has carried the same standards they exhibit in its musical instruments into its loudspeaker line, which are, after all, musical instruments, too.

Silverline Audio (silverlineaudio.com) introduced its new Prelude speakers ($1200), which had everyone scratching their heads, looking around the room for a hidden subwoofer. These slim little boxes were able to create astonishing realism and an incredibly large image, in spite of their small size. The power and punch from these was enough to give me goose bumps at times.

A couple of other speakers deserve mention. The brand new Almarro M3A (almarro.com; $2,600/pair) produced a quality of music that is still haunting me as I write this. These modest boxes reproduce an almost frightening level of musicality, and allow the listener to simply get lost in the music, forgetting all about the equipment and the technology. Listening to them is nonfatiguing and effortless--an absolute joy. They were definitely one of the highlights of the show for me. If I drank scotch, I'd have poured one, lit up a big cigar and relaxed to music for endless hours in that room.
Triangle (triangle-fr.com), long a fave in this column, has revamped many of its typically value-priced speakers, improving bass response as well as the high end. Triangle has consistently produced a line of highly musical, compelling and very affordable speakers that, like the Almarro, are just plain easy and fun to listen to. They've promised me more review samples, so I should be filing a more complete report on these new models in the near future.

More and more amplifier designers are exploring the world of so-called digital amplifiers, and two of the leaders in this area are Bel Canto (belcantodesign.com) and Jeff Rowland Design Group (jeffrowland.com), both of whom now employ a modular digital amp technology called ICEpower developed in Denmark by Bang & Olufsen. Rowland's ICEpower integrated amp, the Concerto, which I gave a rave review in the November 2004 issue of JazzTimes, and the introduction of a new, very affordable stereo amp is exciting news. The Rowland Model 102 ($1,490), which should be shipping about the time your read this, offers 100 watts of solid, musical power. There is nothing at all icy about this sound. For jazz lovers looking for a reliable amplifier that will last forever and will also reproduce music the way it should be, this amp is a no-brainer.

Bel Canto is in the process of revamping its entire product line, which, at least on the amp side, will also include the ICEpower modules. The new S300 ($1,600) is a stereo amp capable of 150 watts driving an eight-ohm speaker, while the REF1000 monoblocks ($2,100/each) will produce 500 watts each into the same speaker load--now that's impressive juice. Other projected products include the S300i ($2,000), an integrated amp based on the S300, the Pre3 ($2,000), a nifty new, multifunction preamplifier, the DAC3 ($2,500), a totally new version of Bel Canto's extremely popular and great sounding digital-to-analog converter, and the Phono3 ($2,000), another revision, this time of its similarly successful phono preamplifier.

And last but not least was the superb digital playback system offered by Esoteric. The combination of its new P-03 SACD/CD transport ($12,500) and its D-03 dual channel digital-to-analog converter created some of the most surprising music of the show, and certainly the most satisfying I heard from a digital source. The company is also introducing a more moderately priced series of digital components including the SZ-1 SACD/CD player ($5,600) and the UZ-1 universal player ($6,600), which will play DVDs in addition to SACDs and CDs. Now, who's gonna bring the corkscrew?

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