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CES 2002: More, Better

Jazz lovers, I did it for you: I sacrificed every ounce of my stamina during nearly a week of sorting through boom boxes, piles of power drills and a plethora of Pentium products on display at the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, all to uncover what the future holds for you and your enjoyment of music.

It wasn’t easy. I had to listen to Miles Davis on $38,000 speakers, Patricia Barber powered by $22,000 amplifiers and Bennie Wallace on another $60K system. I guess I let you down by not making the trek to audition the Million Dollar System, assembled by Wisdom Audio and designed to fill an auditorium-I apologize for my oversight, but if a pair of 14-foot-tall speakers powered by 10 Jeff Rowland 150-watt amps and two of his 250-watters interests you, then run, don’t walk, to your local dealer because I heard they only have one left at that price.

Vegas is not a city known for timidity, and CES, the mother of all trade shows, with around 100,000 attendees wandering 1.2 million square feet of exhibit space, floats on excess. (Actually there are two electronics shows; a second Minguslike rebel show exclusively for high-end audio, T.H.E. Expo, takes place in another hotel.)

Dizzied by acres of flat video screens (there is probably one in your future) and billions of gigabytes of hard drives, cutting through the nonaudio chaff can be challenging, but luckily, most of the better home-sound equipment is displayed at an offsite hotel, so that, as one mainstream British electronics buyer was overheard to say, “They can make their noise.” Most exhibitors in the main convention center choose not to fire up their equipment, preferring static displays-however, the cacophony of thousands of televisions, car stereos and satellite radios can create a state of vertigo unequalled anywhere on this planet.

Overall, though, what CES 2002 proved is that the good stuff keeps getting better and the mediocre stuff keeps getting better too-luckily for us, that holds true for software as well as for hardware.

Like last year, turntables were everywhere, but the advent of high-quality digital formats like SACD and DVD-audio seems to have taken some of the limelight away from the still-lauded and still-stalwart LP. Tube-driven equipment seemed to be in even greater abundance this year than at the 2001 show.

Linn Hi-Fi is at it again with a new compact little box full of surprises: the Classik Movie System ($2,950 in black, $3,000 in colors) combines a CD/DVD player, AM/FM tuner, preamplifier and a 75-watt five-channel amp into one unit the size of a Cuban cigar box. Linn quality assures this to be a long-lasting addition to movie and music lovers with limited space (or unlimited for that matter) but a desire for the best.

One company that has made a very strong showing among high-end circles in the past few years is Balanced Audio Technology, whose steely, well-constructed mega-buck components rely heavily on tube technology but deliver the strength and reliability of solid-state boxes (which they also produce). I heard its new 150-watt VK-300x integrated amp (from $4,000 to $6,000 depending on options) and was very impressed with its presentation of a private recording of a Boz Scaggs radio broadcast: his voice was highly believable, lifelike and smooth, rock solid in fact, and instrumental timbres were right on. I eagerly await my next opportunity to hear more BAT products.

On the affordable side, relatively speaking, Art Audio offered its new integrated amp, the Gill Signature ($3,800), which, powering a pair of Soliloquy 6.5 speakers ($6,395) with only 15 watts of juice, provided some of the best sound I heard in Vegas. I auditioned an XRCD of Miles Davis’ Bags’ Groove and his trumpet came to life magically, three dimensional, seemingly floating in space. Highs were open and airy, mids were liquid but upfront and the bass was solid and definitely not sloppy. The entire effect was a sound that was one of the most present and credible at the show, and also the least fatiguing or strident. These puppies were real! I didn’t want to leave this room and found myself yearning to return even while listening to systems three or four times the price across town.

Antique Sound Lab markets a minimum of 25 tube amplifiers, preamps and headphone amps, many of them receiving impressive critical accolades, and starting at an even more impressive $198 for a pair of their new 10-watt monoblock amps, the Wave AV-8s. These tiny titans won’t fill a concert hall, but would be great for a bedroom or office when matched with the right small, efficient speakers. The company offers integrated amps as well as separates at relatively bargain prices. The new AQ1001 DT ($1,200) integrated amp delivered the best sound for the buck I heard: clean, transparent and plenty of punch.

On the solid-state side, Simaudio’s Moon electronics continue to win approval from critics and consumers around the world. I managed to hear some impressive sounds in its show room that proved its praise is well deserved. Phases of the Moon run from a tidy “little” i-5 70-watt integrated amp ($2,595) to the 1000-watt Moon Rock monoblock amps ($29,995/pair).

I also heard wonderful solid-state sound from Pass Labs, McIntosh and Rowland (paired with more modest speakers from Wisdom Audio) and beautiful tube sound from Wavelength Audio, Atma-Sphere, Moondog Audio (whose 3-watt amp and horn speakers have to be heard to be believed) and Air Tight.

Esoteric speaker designs were everywhere and many produced spectacular music. MBL, a German company, presented their flagship 101D (gulp, $35,800) with a notorious midrange driver that looks like a distended silver football. These speakers produce a stereo image that is as out of this world as their looks-it is palpable, real and intoxicating.

Another German outfit, Avantgarde, has been quite successful with various incarnations of their horn-fitted speakers. I was impressed by the way its Duo ($16,970-18,970, depending on various options) handled Dave Holland and friends from the Point of View CD: a very credible, solid image and a lush, pleasing mid-range; these work great with your flea-powered tube amps.

Likewise the magnificent Carfrae Loudspeakers from England. Its Little Big Horn is based loosely on old-fashioned cabinet design using a single Lowther full-range driver and a gently curved horn to reinforce and amplify the sound. They are very efficient and perfect with low-powered amplifiers. Wavelength Audio amps powered the Little Big Horns and the roughly 10 watts they pumped through the speakers were enough to make me want to handcuff myself to the chair and never leave. The sound was open, not boxy, full of detail (like Milt Jackson’s breathing and quiet solfeggio from the aforementioned Bags’ Groove CD), relaxed and breathtaking. I think these are the speakers I’d like to fall from the sky into my living room.

Joseph Audio, Vandersteen, Opera (from Italy, of course), Audio Physic, Alón and Legacy were other loudspeaker manufacturers who were showing traditional boxes with nontraditional sound.

Speakers flaunting creative, but perhaps more conventional ideas, were also plentiful. Silverline Audio has developed a line of loudspeakers that has captured the fancy of all the right critics and after finally hearing them, I can understand why. Designer Alan Yun’s speakers perform a trick not many can do: when you fire them up with your favorite music, they disappear. Well, not really of course, but it is as if the music is just there, with no indication that the two boxes in front of you are the source-this is uncanny and occurs when speakers project a three dimensional image that fills the room in such a way that the source of the sound is lost and the sound itself takes over. It’s hard to explain, but it does happen. I listened to several Silverline models and they all exhibited this phenomenon. Needless to say, these are well worth investigating if you are considering an upgrade.

Another guy making stupendous speakers is former jazz guitarist Albert Von Schweikert, who paid his dues touring with Sonny and Cher. He has since become one of the hottest names around the audio world for his innovative, high-quality speakers. I heard his VR-4s ($4,750) and his dB-99s ($5,995 to $6,995 depending on finish) and both made my mouth water. There was a “rightness” and airiness that most box speakers don’t exhibit and an authority not possible with some of the esoteric designs I have heard. I heard a live broadcast recording of Dianne Reeves that was the most realistic presentation I think I have ever heard (more on this recording later). Von Schweikert has conducted meticulous testing to achieve these results, comparing live musicians to the sound of the same musicians played through his speakers, adjusting his design until the two matched. I have not been able to forget the effect of either of these speakers and I hope to offer a more extensive review in the near future.

I had a personal revelation in the suite hosted by Von Schweikert Audio, where the music source consisted of live recordings made by Mike Pappas, chief engineer at KUVO radio, Denver’s full-time jazz station. He used a machine incorporating Sony’s DSD (Direct Stream Digital) process (which Sony is touting along with SACD) and the results were nothing short of spine tingling. I have never heard recorded music so closely mimic the live experience. Producer Joe Harley, who has worked with just about every format imaginable (and has some great new sides to his name on Groove Note) says, “Listening to SACD and DSD is like taking the lid off. Sitting behind the console, I can’t hear any difference between the live feed and the DSD signal, and I have pretty good ears. The brain just clicks into a feeling of realness.”

I agree. The shocker was when Pappas played a standard CD version of one of his treasures. The sound, though good by CD standards, was flat, lifeless and two-dimensional by comparison to the DSD master. The limiting factor is the 44.1 kHz sampling rate used in standard CDs and until you hear this for yourself, you won’t believe what you have been missing-it’s like opening a window that hasn’t been cleaned in 50 years and suddenly seeing the Bernese Alps glistening outside.

Pappas assured me that commercial SACD versions of DSD originals would be “essentially identical to the original, like first generation.” The implication in all this is that, at least in the future, recordings can finally become an accurate portrait of live music, at least when DSD is utilized. And since SACD is the only way to faithfully replicate that, we can hope that Sony wins this battle. I heard several people, including those mentioned here, say that DVD-audio is not living up to the expectation of its hype and that the sound is not as good as SACD. And many are complaining about the fact that DVD-audio requires a video monitor to view the various menus DVD releases offer.

Pappas summarized this way: “I evaluated every high-resolution format available before selecting DSD. Even 192/24 PCM doesn’t get close to the sonic performance that I get from DSD. The subtlety and detail that DSD provides is not available in any other format I’ve heard. For jazz lovers the SACD format offers a wide variety of reissues that are sonically out of this world along with a myriad of new releases and the variety of SACDs is increasing every week.

“Another aspect of SACD that seems to be forgotten is that this is the only high-resolution format that offers backward compatibility, in its hybrid version, to the more than a half-billion existing CD players,” Pappas says. “This is a huge benefit for the consumer who never has to worry about whether or not their latest music purchase will play in their CD players.”

“Within the year we will begin to hear of more and more hardware manufacturers jumping on the SACD bandwagon,” attests Harley. Pappas chimes in, “The specification for a digital output for SACD has just been formalized and manufacturers are working on building product to support this. This is based upon Firewire technology, which when you think about it, offers a wide vista of opportunities for, not only outboard digital to analog converters, but the potential to interface with other consumer technologies.” DSD quality on your iPod, anyone?

On other “software” fronts, John Wood from the recently revived Mobile Fidelity label shoved a test pressing of the company’s new SACD version of Patricia Barber’s Modern Cool into my hands and I have listened to it several times, each time astonished by the increased clarity. Mobile Fidelity will be releasing SACDs of other Barber titles, Night Club and Café Blue, in the not-too-distant future. He has hinted at affiliations with other labels, including Fantasy, for SACD releases, and promises new MoFi vinyl will be released shortly as well.

Speaking of vinyl, Classic Records, up to now known mostly for their LP reissues of some great classical material, unveiled their new series of early ’50s Blue Note gems in spanking new mono versions. They have spared no expense in replicating the originals, even refurbishing an old mono lathe for cutting the masters and eliminating the “groove guard” raised edge found on most LPs since the mid-’50s. The first release is a 10-inch LP of Miles Davis’ Young Man With a Horn, and many more of these are on the way.

Chesky Records has begun a commitment to what they call the 2/4/6 disc, a DVD-audio disc that offers stereo, four-channel and six-channel mixes. Says producer David Chesky, “If you hate surround, play the two; if you have a 5.1 surround system, play the four; and if you are a crazy audiophile and want the best, play the six.” In the meantime, they are releasing a healthy number of SACDs including a new Beatles tribute by the a cappella group the Persuasions. After hearing them live at CES, I am eager to hear the entire disc, which, I understand, is fantastic.

JVC/XRCD, Hi-Res Music, MA Recordings and others are doing all they can to deliver jazz in a way that brings us all a bit closer to the performers and their original intentions.

And that is what it is all about, isn’t it, all this electro-magnetic chicanery? It’s the drive of all these pocket protector-toting folks to get the experience of listening to recorded music in our homes as close to the experience of live music as possible. Let it be, the Persuasions might echo.

Originally Published