Among the 1.85 million square feet of exhibit space at the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas, Nev., Jan. 7-10, hundreds of audio equipment manufacturers proffered thousands of different solutions for extracting music from a black or silver disc, amplifying that electronic signal enough to drive a loudspeaker and, finally, trying to create the best speaker design around. Oh, and there were thousands of speaker cables, power cables, power conditioners, equipment racks, acoustic room-treatment products and vacuum tubes, just to mention a few other product categories. Mind-boggling is an understatement.
One morning I sat in a demo room listening to music through a pair of wacky-looking speakers from Italy-they looked like two chrome-trimmed robots from a ’50s sci-fi flick, painted Ferrari Red-and wondered how people come up with so many different, often bizarre, engineering solutions for making beautiful music come alive. And though most of us think of simple rectangular boxes when we think of a loudspeaker, even seemingly spare enclosures can be remarkably complex and remarkably different, one from another. The possibilities seem to be endless, and the manifestation of most of those possibilities is at CES every January. For audio geeks, it is truly a marvel-like Christmas in July, only in January.
There were no grand revelations this year, no big surprises to take the breath and ears away, but the overall quality and quality presented by established names and newcomers alike at this over-the-top expo attested to the basic vitality of the hi-fi world, guaranteeing that music fans will always have a wide selection of playback gear from which to choose. This is a good thing.
Some highlights: The universe of Moon products, launched from Canada by Simaudio (simaudio.com), has recently increased by two heavenly bodies, the CD-1 CD player and the 50-watt i-1 integrated amplifier ($1,500 each). Yep, they sound great, as do all Moon units, and they are built ruggedly as are all the Moons-well beyond the standards of most equipment-but the real significance in these is their price point. Finally, just about anyone can afford this well regarded, well engineered and well built gear. Says Moon marketing chief Lionel Goodfield, “We set out to create a new line in which price just could not be a barrier, but would still carry our name and reputation with pride and merit. I think this stuff rocks.” And so do I. Goodfield promised review samples for JazzTimes later in the year.
Another price-beater is the brand new Arcam Solo Mini ($999; audiophilesystems.com), a very affordable all-in-one-almost, ya gotta add speakers-component comprising a 25-watt per channel amp, CD player and AM-FM tuner. In addition, via Arcam’s optional rLead or rDock, you can run your iPod through the Solo Mini with full control of the iPod via the Arcam’s controls, and the iPod menu info will appear on the Arcam’s control screen as well. A great convenience, certainly, but one with the added bonus of greatly improved sound from your poddy thing. Arcam’s rep for sound beyond the price tag continues with the Solo Mini, making it a great solution for a second or third system, maybe for the kitchen, office or a small apartment. They will also offer a pair of matching speakers, featuring a rugged aluminum enclosure, for $300 apiece.
Japan’s Almarro Products (almarro.com) displayed the prototype for a new amplifier; tube of course, based on the indestructible 6C33C-B tube that was developed for guidance systems in Soviet-era MIG fighters. Their A340 (around $5,500) is a monoblock design employing two of those meaty tubes for each channel to produce 40 watts of delicious Almarro juice. I’ve used an Almarro amp with these same tubes for several years and it just purrs like a kitten with no sign of fatigue. Long tube life is apparently a hallmark of Almarro and this particular tube type, as is fantastic performance and engaging musical reproduction.
On the other side of the price spectrum, VAC, Valve Amplification Company (vac-amps.com), introduced a new preamp, the Phi Alpha ($11,000), a jaw-droppingly handsome box; and a new amp, the Phi Alpha 160 Monoblocs ($7,000 each channel), likewise knockout beauts. VAC also debuted a new DAC (digital-to-analog converter), the Alpha D/A Converter ($7,500), which mates handily with the other two components. All of these inherit the technology and most of the incredible sonics of the VAC Phi Beta components that have been very favorably noted in these pages in the past. Designer and prez Keith Hays has an enviable rep in high-end audio for his attention to detail, his ability to create highly musical electronics and his dedication to eking every bit of nuance and quality from his tubes.
Vienna Acoustics (sumikoaudio.com) unveiled a breathtakingly attractive new speaker with breathtaking sonics, The Music ($25,000), which takes advantage of several innovative features to produce music at lifelike sound-pressure levels that nonetheless maintains the necessary delicacy and nuance of the real thing. This is the top model of a new line inspired by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. The cabinetry is top-notch and a pair of these in the living room would provide endless hours of great listening, as well as serving as a catalyst for hours of conversation. Sumiko also showed a cool USB version of their Pro-Ject Debut III turntable ($449) that allows for easy connection of the table to your computer via an included USB-equipped phono preamp. This gadget makes transferring LPs to CD much easier, and helps guarantee a good sounding transfer to boot.
Named for another great artist, the Callas Monitor loudspeakers ($5,500), from the Northeast Italian-based Opera company (epitomeav.com), sang in the Venetian Hotel much like their namesake: with great authority, tremendous finesse and obvious ease. Powered by Unison Research’s (epitomeav.com) gorgeous new P70 tube amp ($7,000), the sound was seductive, like Callas doing Puccini, and the two created a system any jazz lover would covet. Unison also showed a less powerful version of this amp, the P40 ($4,950), which sacrifices only a bit of sheer muscle but doesn’t lose any of the grace or inherent sonic strengths of its larger sibling. Any of the entries in the Unison lineup would please even the most discriminating jazzophile or audiophile, or any combination thereof.
From Profundo, an importer and distributor of ultra high-end stuff located in the SF Bay Area, we show-goers were treated to luscious, tasty music from a Basis Audio turntable setup ($22,000) rigged with a Transfiguration Orpheus phono cartridge ($5,000), run through the sexy Trenner & Friedl Miles loudspeaker ($27,000)-they also sell a Mingus, an Ella, a Dizzy and Duke model, among others-all powered by Viva Audio electronics, the Linea F preamp ($22,000) and Verona Tre mono amps ($24,000/pair). Proprietor Bob Clarke played some Beatles from George Martin’s glorious remix LP Love, and I was transfixed-I’d never heard the music sound so transparent, detailed and moving.
Some of the most magical speakers I’ve ever heard used to come from Germany’s Audio Physic. A couple of years ago, owner/designer Joachim Gerhard left AP to form a new company, Sonics, distributed by Immedia (immediasound.com) in Berkeley. His speakers continue to perform an amazing disappearing act: They really seem to totally vanish from the listening environment so that the music is just there in the room, sort of hanging in the air, with no apparent point of origin. And the music that is so holographically projected is nothing short of startling, honest and real. Put some jazz on the Spiral Groove turntable designed by Immedia’s head honcho Allen Perkins and suddenly Blakey is in the room. Music Matters chief Joe Harley, one of the guys responsible for the wonderful 45-rpm LP reissues of classic Blue Notes (musicmattersjazz.com), put on a couple of hot acetates of upcoming releases. The music was convincing, airy, quick, loaded with snap-but no crackles and pops-so believable, it made the hairs on the back of my goosebumps stand up. The Sonics Allegretto model in question is fairly priced at a mere $4,500-yes, in this high-end world, that is cheap, particularly considering the level of pleasure that can be achieved with them.
Benchmark (benchmarkmedia.com), a youngish company making great waves with their affordable and musical DACs, was showing their DAC1 Pre ($1,575), a new unit combining the functions of a DAC, preamp and headphone amplifier into a handy compact package. Benchmark DACs have been praised for their recovery of detail and outstanding level of performance, all at very moderate price points. The sound of their room, shared with Studio Electric’s wonderful spherical loudspeakers (studio-electric.com) was one of those that invited long, languorous listening.
Canadian Tash Gorka (divertech.com) is a man who loves music. His wife loves music. They love JazzTimes. So devoted is he to music and its definitive reproduction that Tash has become a minor legend in high-end audio, partly for his distribution of Antique Sound Labs, an affordable line of tube amps, but principally for his role in developing the Reference 3A lineup of speakers, all of which are tube-friendly. Tash had his flagship model, the Grand Veena ($7,500) fired up in his room with a pair of his ASL Hurricane amps ($6,200/pair) and the combination created some powerful Category Five audio. The resulting music did indeed blow me away, but the sound in Tash’s demo rooms always does. He also introduced a new model, the Episode ($5,500), which was on display but not playing when I was in the room. Tash told me it produces most of the qualities of the Grand Veena, though with just a bit less bass.
Space doesn’t allow us to elaborate on the terrific sound we heard in several other demo rooms including those playing gear by E.A.R., Bel Canto, Esoteric, Paradigm, DeVore Fidelity, Art Audio, Joseph Audio, PrimaLuna, Triangle, McIntosh (more on their fantastic new turntable in a future issue) and many others. In future issues we’ll try to make sure what was heard in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas.