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Converging on Vegas: The 2004 Consumer Electronics Show

I was certain I was having a nightmare-stuck in the unquestionably hellish vortex of Las Vegas, surrounded by 130,000 propellerheads, all kicking tires on the newest and glitziest electronic gizmos, displayed in more than 2,400 exhibits. The items ranged from handheld wireless Internet devices to $150,000 speaker systems and everything in between, including all the component parts to construct these products, from computer chips to naked speaker cones.

The pandemonious mirage continued in hundreds of individual hotel rooms where innumerable stereo systems were assembled for the perusal and hopeful approval of herds of highbrow oddballs, who, to a man, were out to prove his knowledge of hi-fi technology was second to none. The surreal ritual in each of these display rooms was the same: a sofa packed with these near-zombies, their hypnotized gaze glued unwaveringly to the mass of electronics huddled between a pair of speakers, listening intently. Routinely one or two would rise from their seat to, predictably, walk to the rear of one of the speakers and bend over to examine its backside as if hoping to discover some secret information that would reveal why the system sounded so good-or so average.

I pinched myself and discovered that this was no dream-that I was, in fact one of them.

Welcome to the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show.

Grazing from room to room, I auditioned dozens and dozens of components, trying to digest it all in hopes of conveying some of the highlights to JazzTimes readers. For me, the story this year seemed to be speakers, in every conceivable size, shape and material, from tiny to gigantic, from square to spherical, from wood to aluminum.

One of the most striking new speaker designs came from the Russian company Sound-e-Motion. All of its speakers are spherical and crafted from hundreds of slices of bonded, select hardwoods, as are the stands. Spherical speakers are not new-Anthony Gallo Acoustics has had great success with its line of grapefruit-sized speakers-but Gallo’s are made of aluminum. Sound-e-Motion has overcome the production problems of fashioning spheres of wood and the results are strikingly handsome-and they sound wonderful. I heard the M10-5 BF ($4,500) and was impressed by the purity and coherence of the music pouring forth. The one shortcoming of these speakers is a lack of deep bass-they only go down to 80Hz, so a subwoofer would help round out the sound quite a bit.

Another fascinating design, also using wood in a creative manner comes from Duevel in Germany. These speakers are omnidirectional, which means the sound fires in all directions: in this case, the highs and midrange fire down through a wooden horn and are reflected into the room by a radiating surface below the horn, and the woofer fires upward, transmitting the bass via the conical convex bottom of that same wooden radiator. The model on display was the Bella Luna diamante ($7,499), which created a marvelous soundstage with excellent imaging, meaning that all the instruments were reproduced in the positions they were recorded in from left to right in a very believable fashion, as if they were directly in front of you on an actual stage.

From Canada comes yet another novel speaker concept, the Tetra 505 Limited ($8,000). It consists of speakers, both tweeter and woofer, mounted in a wooden tetrahedron (an equilateral pyramid) that is then mounted on a largish wooden base. The sound is nothing short of phenomenal, and the woodwork is truly beautiful. They created a sound stage that was both deep and wide and included lots of space between instruments and delivered a delightful amount of the natural ambience of the recording venue. The bass was deep and strong while the midrange was amazing, producing lifelike imaging. Patricia Barber’s voice was sculpted in 3D, placing her right in the room with me. These speakers were a revelation.

One of the wackiest speakers on display in Vegas was the U-vola ($3,500/pair) from Italy. These 20-inch tall elliptical speakers combine high-concept design with quite good sound. They are made to be suspended from the ceiling by a steel wire, but they can also be hung from specially designed stands. The U-volas come in a variety of colors and finishes including one that mimics a watermelon and another a world globe. Leave it to the Italians.

Audes is a name that deserves to be more widely recognized for excellent speakers. I heard the Audes Blues ($2,200) and was lulled by the striking sound quality of these very attractive boxes. I was impressed by their pure tonality and overall purity. Strike one up for these Estonian-produced speakers. They promised to send me a pair for review, so look for that in a future issue.

One of the most venerated names in high-end speaker manufacturing over the last decade is Genesis. After going through a recent financial restructuring, the company is up and running again, and now zooming faster than ever. Genesis’ room at CES offered some great new products as well as its $135,000 flagship model, the 1.1. I listened to a surround system based around the 6.1 ($9,000 in rosewood) as the front left and right speakers. The sound was nothing less than authoritative, but with the capacity to handle the most delicate passages with the aural equivalent of kid gloves. All Genesis speakers are built around two concepts: they are dipole radiators, meaning that sound emanates from the rear as well as the front, and they incorporate the company’s trademark servo bass technology, which includes a self-contained high-powered amplifier for the woofers. As a result, all Genesis speakers reproduce music exceedingly faithfully, as if it were live, which then guarantees accurate playback of any and all home-theater sonics, from dialogue and music to the loudest crashes and bangs. Congratulations to Genesis on its very successful rebirth.

Speaking of home theater: For the average Joe, the quick and easy way to assemble a surround sound system is to get one of the attractively priced but dreadful-sounding prepackaged theater-in-a-box setups. What you get are six plastic-housed speakers that might have been repurposed from the boom box department-five satellites and something labeled a subwoofer. You might get surround sound, but it is sound you will eventually regret being surrounded by.

But that is beginning to change as more high-quality manufacturers have seen the writing on the wall and have begun developing compact systems consisting of decent or superb sounding speakers capable of surprising realism and subwoofers that can really do justice, not just to film sound effects, but to music as well. The folks from HSU Research were showing off its new Ventriloquist VT-12 surround system ($299; $199 when purchased together with one of their subs), and it was shockingly good. Consisting of five small satellites and a reasonably sized center-channel speaker, this system, when combined with the HSU STF-2 sub ($299), pumped out sound totally unexpected from such a modestly priced ($598) assembly. It offered surprising presence and fullness: Holly Cole sounded rich, open, airy and uncompromising, while the punch and verve from the Latin percussion of Giovanni Hidalgo and the bass of Andy Gonzalez from the Body Acoustic CD were in-your-face.

Moving up a rung or so, I found the Anthony Gallo Acoustics 5.1 Micro system ($1,599) to be another wonderful delight. Thanks to the acoustic properties of these five four-inch spheres and the probing depths of the included TR-2 subwoofer, the Gallos created sound with lots of dimension, focus and clarity. They are the perfect choice for anyone looking for large sound to fill a small space.

But the best of all these high-end theaters-in-a-box came from France’s Triangle. Its Galaxy system ($1,599 for a 5.1 surround system; $999 for a 2.1 stereo system) produced music so startlingly robust that almost everyone walking into the room assumed that the sound was coming from the over four-feet tall Volante speakers ($6,995) standing next to the Galaxy satellites. Demonstrating only the stereo version, comprised of two five-pound cast-aluminum satellites and the modest-sized Meteor 0.1 powered subwoofer, Triangle once again proved that it can provide astounding value and high performance at truly affordable price points. The Galaxy system, without question, is absolutely the best-sounding, relatively low priced theater-in-a-box you are likely to hear anywhere.

And those giant Volante speakers? When they were finally auditioned, they created some of the most involving, pleasant and pure, uncolored sound of the show.

But the speakers that, dollar-for-dollar, delivered the most engaging, most lifelike music of the show were produced by Joseph Audio from the U.S.A. Jeff Joseph has, for many years, created speakers that have won “best-of-show” awards at more than a handful of audio expos, particularly his twenty-grand Pearls, which I heard this year in Las Vegas. But price isn’t everything, and the speakers that won that “best sound for the buck” accolade from me were Joseph’s $3,500 RM25si Signature Mk2s. With a name implying a pedigree like that, they almost have to be good, but they were more than that. The sound I heard was stunning and the proof of that, and their ability to engage the listener, can be found in the number of times I found myself returning to the Joseph demo room as well as another manufacturer’s demo room where, powered by a mere 60 watts of tube power, the RM25s were just as captivating and believable. I can’t think of words enough to describe the qualities of these speakers except to say they got everything right. They were easy to listen to, nonfatiguing and downright fun. The amazing bass that poured from these relatively small boxes was weighty, tight and tuneful, nothing flabby or boomy about it-it was hard to believe that there was no subwoofer at work to help produce that stunning bass. If you have $3,500 to spend on speakers and want something that will entice you to relisten to every CD or LP in your collection, then put the Josephs on your very short list.

On the other end of the price spectrum were the brand new Von Schweikert Audio VR-11XTCs ($100,000). Each of these 700-pound, seven-and-a-half-feet-tall babies features two 15-inch woofers, each powered by a separate self-contained 1,000-watt amplifier-that’s 4,000 watts of built-in power just for the bass! As expected, these towers dispensed an enormous sound in keeping with their enormous size. The VR-11XTCs, as few other speakers can, are capable of lifelike volume levels of real music with all the dynamics, the spatial cues and the subtleties of timbre found in live jazz, and more impressively, boisterous symphonic music with the full force of a live orchestra-all without straining a bit. These giants can do it all. You just need an enormous house with a living room that goes on forever to do these extraordinary speakers justice.

Of course CES (and the competing expo called the High End Show, next door to CES’s hotel where the high-end demo rooms were located) featured much more than just speakers. For example, the Mel Audio Design Group from Italy demonstrated a full line of exquisite components-and speakers-that not only sounded good but also displayed that unique sense of Italian style. Take, for example, Mel’s round, spaceship-looking CD player, the Rechav II ($3,595), which comes in a variety of colors from Lamborghini orange to Bugatti metal blue-gray. Talk about a conversation starter.

More than slightly upscale was the Burmester 979 belt-drive CD transport ($15,115) and its 980 DAC ($12,415), considered by many reviewers to be among the best CD-playback systems available. It sounded pretty damn good to me!

On the other hand, the Nottingham Space turntable ($2,699 with arm) left no question that analog can still beat digital in transmitting the sensation of live music.

The stalwart folks at McIntosh have just introduced the company’s first tube-powered integrated amp in decades, the MA2275 ($6,100), capable of firing up a minimum of 75 watt per channel. As to be expected from McIntosh, this unit is built like a tank and will likely be handed down from one generation to the next.

Another well-respected name in audio that has unfortunately been fairly silent for several years is Thorens, one of the most well-known fabricators of high-quality turntables. Thorens is back with a wide range of great looking tables with prices ranging from $899 to $2,199. This certainly bodes well for audiophiles with sizable vinyl collections.

One more sleeping giant, Grommes Hi-Fi, has resurrected its home-audio division and now offers two classic designs from the company’s once highly proclaimed product line. Grommes was demonstrating the 360 monoblock amps ($3,000/pair), which were powering the Joseph RM25s mentioned above. The sound was heavenly. It was warm, without being colored and very easy to listen to-no harshness in the mids and highs and the bass was anything but flabby. A very respectable reentry product from this venerable company.

The news from Bel Canto Design, the developers of the amazing eVo digital amplifiers, includes the introduction of a new two-channel preamplifier, the PRe2 ($2,990), which is based on its award-winning PRe6 preamp. And according to the headman at Bel Canto, John Stronczer, the company just introduced the Bel Canto web store (, which will try to be as much like a real store as possible. It features a system-builder guide to help consumers assemble the right system for them and will eventually offer accessories and cables as well as the company’s growing lineup of electronics. “We want to directly connect with our customers and offer higher value and better service,” Stronczer said. Prices through Bel Canto’s Web store will be somewhat lower than at brick-and-mortar retailers, reflecting the direct-to-the-consumer nature of the transaction.

Canada’s Tenor Audio was showing off its new hybrid amp, the 300Hp monoblocks ($32,000/pair). These wonders combine the best elements of tube and solid-state technology to create a sound that is up-against-the-wall astounding with 300 delicious watts per mono amp. These can drive just about any speaker and they do so with an authority that is gripping in the bass and delicate in the highs and midrange. Handcrafted in Montreal, these are clearly not for everyone, but for those that can afford them, the experience will be nonpareil.

Australia’s Halcro amplifiers have been praised around the world for their excellence in sound and build quality. In addition, their handsome styling makes them especially easy on the eyes. But the ears are where it counts, the Halcro DM 38 stereo amplifier ($17,990) never failed to exhibit complete control over the entire audible spectrum. The Halcro, with its solid-state design, produces music that is always strong where it should be and properly ethereal when it needs to be and totally free of audible distortion. Plus, the amp is absolutely stone silent when there is no music being played, which is more evidence of Halcro’s excellent design and construction. The Halcro folks said that by fall the company would be introducing a new line of more affordable equipment-great news for audiophiles on a budget.

An American company, also known for powerful and solidly built components, is the Colorado-based Jeff Rowland Design Group. With a reputation established principally on very large amps with lots of power producing lots of crystal clear sound-its current flagship model, the M302, weighs in at 95 pounds-it was a pleasant surprise to see Rowland demonstrating a new affordable and more compact line of components. On display were the Concerto integrated amp ($5,900), the Concerto preamplifier ($3,900) and the 501 monoblock amps ($6,700/pair). Though Lilliputian in relation to their larger sibs, the 501s are still capable of delivering 500 watts per channel of that typical Rowland muscle with grace. I couldn’t believe such performance could come from such small, but elegant boxes-each weighs only 13 pounds. Rowland is to be congratulated for making his astonishing quality available to a much wider audience with these relatively affordable units.

The buzzword preached by CES officials for the last several years has been convergence, that inevitable merging of computer technology with everything from audio equipment to household appliances. So let’s take a quick look at a nifty new product that actually achieves convergence between your personal computer and high-end audio. Wavelength Audio’s Gordon Rankin has created a USB link to join your computer and your sound system that is quite ingenious. Called the Cosecant USB DAC (digital-to-analog converter) ($3,500), it allows you to get the maximum quality sound from your computer’s various audio functions: you can use your computer’s CD drive as a CD playback mechanism; you can use your computer’s hard drive as a storage device for music; and you can use it for streaming Internet audio, such as streaming FM broadcasts from all over the world. I’m sure Rankin will develop other uses as time goes on. The Cosecant connects to your system’s preamp or integrated amp and the resulting sound is phenomenally good. Rankin does offer that, when downloading music from Internet sites or copying from a CD, you choose the AIFF format, which is a lossless encoding scheme, unlike converting to an MP3, which delivers pretty lousy audio quality-in this way you will get the same quality as the original CD. This is an incredible sounding device. If you enjoy downloading music from the Net, or the convenience of having several hundred gigs of music on your computer, but want the best sound you can get from these sources, this is about the only way to achieve that. Wavelength seems to be the first to offer such a device, but once the word gets out there will inevitably be dozens of copycats. But based on Wavelength’s dedication to the ultimate in performance, probably none will even come close to matching the quality of Rankin’s design.

CES promoters: your constant preaching may have finally produced results for lovers of high performance audio-convergence has at last arrived for audiophiles.

Originally Published