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CES 2003

Baking soda used to be a product sold primarily as a leavening agent for cookies, cakes and other yummies, though a few brave souls read the box and used it as an antacid, mouthwash or dentifrice. One of those yellow boxes could last for years, which is not great for growing sales figures. Then a marketing genius at Arm & Hammer realized that a box of baking soda in the fridge could cut down odors, though the product needed to be replaced every few months to remain effective. Millions of homemakers took this finding as gospel, and sales of this humble product soared, reviving the financial outlook of Church & Dwight Co. Inc., the corporate identity of Arm & Hammer-all it took was promoting a new use most consumers would have never dreamed of. Now baking soda is a marketable ingredient in hundreds of different products, from uses as laundry detergent, toothpaste and deodorant to an all-purpose cleaner for pots, sinks and fresh produce.

The home audio industry has, of late, had to repurpose itself after a few rough years not doing so well selling “simple” stereo to a world already full of simple (and not-so-simple) stereos. In order to resuscitate business in a withering economy, it looks like home theater has become the Arm & Hammer in the icebox for audio manufacturers, big and small.

As proof, this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was focused on convincing consumers of audio equipment that more is better and surround sound is where it’s at: No modern home can be considered complete without a home theater system comprising six or seven speakers and a like-number of amplifiers. New products to service this expanding need were on display at this Felliniesque confab in great abundance-from in-wall speaker systems to very expensive A/V receivers and processors that could easily recreate, with lifelike realism, the sensation of earthquakes, alien invasions and, hey, even jazz performances in your living room.

But even with all the buzz surrounding home theater, and the sparks flying through the air about broadband delivery of music and video, good ol’ stereo equipment held its own at the show and displayed an amazing vitality. To wit, new and exciting two-channel tube electronics were in evidence in just about every other demo room. Art Audio had a number of newish efforts on display, including the very musical Symphony II 10-watt amp ($5,500), the killer six-watt(!) PX-25 ($6,000) and the company’s statement monoblock amps, the Adagios, rolling out 44 watts for only $18,000/pair. Art Audio was also wooing LP lovers with the Vinyl Reference phono stage ($3,995), which is a preamplifier adjunct specifically designed to properly amplify the signal from your phono cartridge, a task most modern preamps are not equipped to handle. This baby is being hailed by audiophiles as one of the best in the business.

The deHavilland Aries 845-G Single Ended Directly Heated Triode Amplifier-wow, is that a mouthful!-is beginning to garner some great press. At $5,999, this pair of monoblock amps delivers a reasonably hefty 30 watts with a musicality that is unquestionably sweet. Designed around the classic 845 tube, which many tuboholics consider one of the best and most potent for the reproduction of music, the Aries offers fantastic dynamics and natural-sounding midrange with enough current to drive a wide variety of speakers. Of special note: Unlike about 99 percent of the gear at CES, the deHavilland line is designed by a woman, Kara Chaffee, who built her first tube amp at age 13. This represents a nice change of pace in an otherwise totally geeked-out universe of male propellerheads.

Speaking of tubes, one of the newest and most talked-about suppliers of high-quality vacuum tubes is Sophia Electric, whose burning bottles are found in a large number of high-end amps, including the above-mentioned Art Audio Symphony II. Now Sophia is marketing its own line of amplifiers built around those workhorse tubes, and the company is selling the amps at what most consider being modest prices. How does $799 sound for a killer, ballsy 10-watt tube amp? The Sophia Baby Amplifier is just such an item. The included volume control precludes the need for a preamp, except for phonographs, making this an even better deal. Sophia also cranked up an 845-based amp offering around 25 watts for $5,995 and another designed around the venerable 300B tube, which delivers nine watts for $3,995. All of these Sophia products, which sound liquid and relaxing, are worthy of consideration by those in the market for reasonably priced tube gear.

The lineup from Antique Soundlab is similarly solid and affordable, and its newest entry in the amplifier race is the smallish Wave AV-20 monoblock ($249 each; $498/stereo pair). Affordability and high performance in one package, this Wave is ideal for floating a second system, but it will kick enough butt to power an efficient speaker to conversation-stopping levels without losing that special tube magic. Also on display were several new headphone amps that can handily double as very nice preamps, including the MG Head 32 ($600), which is ideally designed to work with AKG headphones, and the Wave Head Hybrid ($250), which drive high-impedance headphones like Sennheisers perfectly and would partner fantastically with the Wave AV-20 amps for that nifty tube system you’ve always wanted.

For more juice, McIntosh Labora-tory introduced the MC402 amplifier ($5,000), a solid-state design capable of dishing out 400 stereo watts, enough to wake up your neighbors several houses down. The amp’s articulated front panel is utterly gorgeous, but that sort of innate beauty has been a McIntosh trademark from day one. McIntosh also unveiled a very high-quality preamp, the Audio Control Center C46 ($4,250), which radiates the same level of craftsmanship of every McIntosh product I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Now, some of the so-called “flea-powered” amps, say, less than 15 watts, require speakers of greater-than-normal efficiency-which means speakers that don’t waste, as heat, even the tiniest bit of the wattage they are fed and instead convert all the energy into music. The higher the efficiency rating-measured as decibels achieved with one watt of power-the better; 90 decibels or above is considered efficient, and anything over 100 decibels per watt is a highly efficient box indeed. Luckily, with all the terrific new tube equipment on display in Vegas, there was a Zenlike balance of attractive and efficient speakers to be considered. One that kept popping up in conversations I overheard in the hallways was the Abby by Cain & Cain-woodworkers who also happen to be serious audiophiles. The Abby ($1,500) is 95db efficient and a single driver unit, meaning that it has only one “speaker” in the box and that a mere handful of watts will be more than adequate to produce that startling realism and coherence for which such designs are noted. Using the right driver, and only one, means you avoid all those problems of making multiple cones work together properly as do most loudspeakers, plus you avoid the distorting effects of the internal electronics that so often rattle the final sound. Terry Cain has done an impressive job with the sonics-these speakers are great for jazz lovers-and the woodwork, as expected, is second to none. If you set up these speakers correctly, and fire ’em with a good tube amp, you can bathe yourself in the luscious sounds of Ella, Dexter or Dolphy. Wanna pump more power into ’em? They’ll take what you have and produce that much more sound. Yet somehow, the marriage of this type of speaker with relatively low-powered tubes is hard to beat.

Need a subwoofer? Virtual Bass Technologies’ new Magellan VIII ($1,200) may just be the answer. It is a compact box, just over a foot and a half square and about half a foot high, but when powered by Magellan’s outboard sub amp (included), the clean, articulate bass plumbs depths unknown to the average home. Get one of these if you love Ron Carter and Dave Holland.

Triangle introduced its new flagship speaker to these shores and the welcoming arms of many audiophiles-but names must be in short supply for new speakers: The Triangle Magellan (no relation to the VBT sub above), measuring in at close to seven-feet tall, is the very big sibling of the Ventis and other Triangle speakers I raved about in previous columns. Family traits include a musicality that is practically unrivaled in the high-end world. Needless to say, when the Magellan ($32,000) is asked to launch your musical armada, the results are phenomenal-focused, clear and commanding, just as it should be

at this price.

Albert Von Schweikert displayed his VR-1 ($995), which provided a nice taste of the wonderful sounds this crafty former jazz musician’s speakers can produce, even in its smallish enclosure. Meanwhile, Pat McGinty of Meadowlark Audio launched his new bird, the Kestrel2 ($1,695), a revised version of his classic speaker design, now updated with his recent rethinking of the transmission line idea-that is to say, the manner in which a speaker deals with the unwanted, distortion-causing, backward-firing wave of the woofer. The result of McGinty’s research is that the bass in all the new Meadowlarks is astonishing: deep and clean. Like the Swift I reported on in my October 2002 column, the Kestrel2, and the larger Osprey ($2,995), create an engaging, realistic recreation of any musical event they are asked to portray. I like these a lot.

As always, there were plenty of good turntables on display in Vegas, and many rooms featured vinyl as source material for their demonstrations. But I have to admit: the sound of CDs is getting better and better. Sony and Philips, the forces behind the Super Audio CD, were surely grinning when it was announced that several major releases, including Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and a spate of titles by Bob Dylan and the Police, were about to spring forth in their new format: SACD hybrids. That means that these discs will play on any CD player, though an SACD player will extract that extra mile of definition and resolution. These new SACDs, plus increased manufacturing facilities, will help push the Super Audio CD just a bit further into the mainstream.

In the meantime, several new “universal” players debuted in Vegas; these are machines that can play any old silver disc you have handy, including SACDs, DVD-audio discs as well as standard CDs and DVDs. Among these was the new player by Scottish innovator Linn Hi-Fi, the UniDisk 1.1 (price not set at press time, but estimated to be between $7,000 and $8,000). When this box hits the shelves, others will follow suit since it will be the first truly high-performance solution to the multiplicity of formats now on the market. Fear not: The technology for this unit will eventually filter down to lower-priced models.

Also significant is Bel Canto Design’s PLaR (estimated to be around $8,500), which should ship later this year. According to my ears, Bel Canto has one of the best digital-to-analog converters on the market with the DAC2, and the company’s new player incorporates the equivalent of six channels of that spectacular audio technology. The PLaR also includes Faroudja video processing (probably the industry leader), which, I wager, will make this unit the one to beat in the very high-performance player category. Bel Canto also featured its new PRePro audio/video preamp and processor ($7,900), which includes the latest in surround sound technology and broadcast-quality video switching-it even sports a small video monitor on its face for easier access to all menus and functions. This is another groundbreaker for Bel Canto, and it was deservedly honored with an Innovations Award from the Consumer Electronics Show. Bel Canto has, in just the past couple of years, proven itself to be one of the companies to watch for new and exciting digital products, especially considering the company’s not-to-distant past as a purveyor of simple but solid tube equipment.

NAD also presented a significant new product, the L70 ($999), an all-in-one, integrated DVD/CD player and surround-sound receiver. Its titanium finish makes this a very handsome unit, and its features and performance will undoubtedly make it a popular seller for NAD, whose products allow music lovers to enjoy high-end audio performance without breaking the bank.

Pushing technology up against the wall, literally, were speaker manufacturers like Thiel, NHT, KEF and Magnepan, among many others, who were touting in- or on-wall loudspeaker systems. Even McIntosh’s new XR27 speaker, priced at $5,000 each, was presented as wall mountable, if so desired. Imagine six or seven of those powered up properly to view an old Ralph Gleason Jazz Casual episode or the Thelonious Monk Straight No Chaser flick. Damn, now that is one home theater system I would like to stick in my living room while the Arm & Hammer quietly does its job around the rest of the house.

Originally Published