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Look, Listen, Learn: Must-Have Gadgets Abound at 2008 CEDIA Expo

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Imagine a fantastic, outsized home-entertainment toy store, although nothing is for sale-that’s the CEDIA Expo, the Custom Electronics Design & Installation Association tradeshow, where manufacturers exhibit their newest, most cutting-edge audio, video, home theater and custom electronics products. In 2008 the show floor covered over 500,000 square feet of exhibits, including demonstrations of the aforementioned products plus demos of entire home audio/video distribution systems-even central vacuum and home security systems. CEDIA is somewhat like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held in Las Vegas every January, but considerably smaller and more focused on custom home electronics.

CEDIA Expo attendance was approximately 25,000, down slightly from 29,000 last year, and much less than the typical 125,000 attendees at CES. Still, it seemed as if all 25,000 people were on the show floor at the same time; it was a zoo, difficult to walk in a straight line without stumbling into someone. But if you want to be dazzled with the latest and greatest home electronics, CEDIA is the place to be. The event started in the late 1980s as a small show dedicated to custom electronics and has since grown to include almost any home entertainment product or electronic accessory that plugs into the wall. This year’s edition was held Sept. 4-7 at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver.

Your author also visited the Total Home Entertainment Show (T.H.E. Show-cute, huh?) at the Denver Athletic Club, next door to the Convention Center, where a few high-end audio companies were displaying and demonstrating separate from the CEDIA Expo. This proved to be the best place for serious music listening, as volumes at CEDIA were through the roof with competing home-theater demonstrations, subwoofer tryouts and screaming crowd chatter. (One of the reasons that T.H.E. Show started in the first place was to provide an alternative quiet environment for audio demonstrations.) An elegant old building with turn-of-the-century wood-paneled rooms and chandeliers, the Denver Athletic Club was a nice place to enjoy some music without distractions.

Best of Show

The MartinLogan CLX speakers were unquestionably the most exciting audio demonstration of the weekend. Celebrating the formidable MartinLogan company’s 25th anniversary, the CLX system was demonstrated in a medium-sized carpeted room at T.H.E. Show, a listening area with walls covered in wood paneling that didn’t sound particularly live; the room was, however, treated with 10 Acoustic Sciences Corp. (ASC) TubeTraps of various sizes, designed to tame any exaggerated bass.

The CLX stands over 70-inches high and 25-inches wide, and features high- and low-frequency sections for a full-range speaker system, no subwoofer needed. The CLX system was powered by Ayre electronics of Boulder, Colo. The source and amplification system included the Ayre KX-R preamp, two monoblock MX-R amps with 300 watts each and the C-5xe universal disc player, all connected to the Ayre L-5xe AC power filter.

The most dramatic demonstration was a CD recording of “Aqua Marine” by Japanese fusion bassist/cellist Isao Suzuki and his quartet. Suzuki’s cello sounded full and resonant and provided the best example of the accurate low-frequency capabilities of the CLX speakers. The sound of the bow across the cello strings was rich and full with a palpable in-room presence. The bass membrane moves a significant amount of air and could be seen moving with each bass note. At one point I noticed two subwoofers placed behind the speakers, which turned out not to be connected to the system, so I was listening only to the mighty bass response of the CLX speakers. A recording of the Count Basie Orchestra revealed startling midrange transparency and swift transient response, especially in the horns-a classic band brought to life.

I have always enjoyed the open, unveiled sound quality of electrostatic drivers and this was one of the best demonstrations I’ve heard of this technology. The CLX system is available in several finishes and colors, starting with the Linear Frame at $21,832 per pair.

Out of Sight Sound

In the world of high-end audio and home theater, there is inevitably a tug-of-war between the audiophile and the interior decorator-you know who I’m talking about. The audiophile wants the best sound quality, but the decorator doesn’t want to see the speakers or equipment, period! Magnepan may have found the key to domestic bliss with its introduction of the MM-C2 Planar Ribbon speakers. The MM-C2 is a wall-mounted speaker system (10 1/2-inches wide x 46-inches tall with a thin profile) designed to flank a plasma or LCD television, even a projection screen. The MM-C2 can be used as left and right speakers, center-channel speakers or for surround-sound. When not in use the MM-C2 sits against the wall, but when activated it pivots on a concealed motorized hinge and aims itself toward the listening area. It’s capable of good mid-bass, but for deep bass it should be used with a subwoofer.

The real secret is the custom grilles that can be ordered with the model. To help the MM-C2s blend seamlessly with the décor, the customer can send a digital file of a photograph or artwork to Magnepan and they’ll create a silkscreen of the art for the grilles. The grilles on the surround speakers at T.H.E. show were screened with images of Marilyn Monroe, and looked more like a cool retro wall-hanging than a speaker.

The MM-C2s were demonstrated as center-channel speakers with a pair of full-range Magneplanar 3.6 speakers for the left and right and bass. The Blu-ray DVD used for demonstration is a must-have disc: Tony Bennett’s An American Classic, featuring the timeless crooner in duet with k.d. lang, Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall and others. Although the audio wasn’t produced in high-definition, the sound quality in Dolby Digital 2.0 was outstanding. In fact, while listening to these high-resolution beauties, it was possible to hear the difference between the onscreen vocalists using studio mics and those with lapel mics. The Maggies, as their fans call them, will be a hit. The final price of the MM-C2 is expected to be about $1,500 per pair and they’ll be available by the end of the year.

Protean Preamp

Parasound’s HALO P7 preamp will appeal to both music enthusiasts and home-theater fans who enjoy pure two-channel sound and multichannel music and movies: The unit is both a two-channel and a 7.1-channel analog preamp. For two-channel listening, the P7 functions as a stereo preamp and even has an analog bass management feature to determine whether bass is output from a subwoofer or from the stereo speakers, a very useful function for satellite speakers with a subwoofer. For multichannel music and movies the preamp outputs of a surround sound receiver are connected to the multichannel inputs of the P7, allowing digital sources to be decoded in the receiver while the P7 (connected to a five- or seven-channel amplifier) controls the system. The real benefit of the P7 is it isolates analog circuits from noisier digital circuits to preserve analog purity-always a good idea, as any audiophile worth his or her weight in 180-gram vinyl knows.

For vinyl lovers, the P7 includes moving-magnet and moving-coil inputs and has both XLR and RCA outputs for connection to external amplifiers. (XLR cables provide better resistance to interference from external sources, especially for long cable runs.) The P7 features a serial port for connection to a home-theater touch-panel controller, infrared connections for remote control to your CD/DVD player, and more.

In short, Parasound’s new unit offers the best of both worlds: two-channel audio purity and multichannel home-theater capability. It is available now with a suggested retail price of $1,999.

Affordable Elegance

Bower & Wilkins is a familiar speaker brand to audiophiles and music enthusiasts; it’s also a premium brand that is more of an investment than a purchase. However, two speaker models in the company’s more affordable CM Series offer B&W quality at prices that won’t require putting another mortgage on the house. The new CM9 is a three-way vented tower speaker with twin 6 1/2-inch Kevlar/paper bass drivers, one 6-inch woven Kevlar midrange and a single 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter. The CM5 is a two-way bookshelf vented speaker with one 6 1/2-inch Kevlar mid-bass driver and a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter. You’ll need a subwoofer with the CM5 speakers and black or brushed aluminum stands are available for $200 each. Both models are offered in wenge, rosenut and gloss-black finishes. The CM9s have a suggested retail price of $1,500 each and the CM5s are offered at $750 apiece.

Around the House

The Russound Collage is not a high-end audio system, but it’s one heck of an innovation, surely worth mentioning. The Collage is an easier way to add a whole house music system to your home without tearing up the walls and running wires from room to room.

Whole house music distribution systems are very popular for homes large and small, but unless your home is pre-wired, installation can be expensive and difficult for most homeowners. Russound, a maker of custom home electronics, has introduced the Collage system that uses Powerline Carrier (PLC) Technology to distribute music, intercom, video surveillance and system control anywhere in a home using the existing electrical wiring. The basic component of Collage is an in-wall keypad with a built-in stereo amp for connection to in-wall speakers. The amplified keypad needs to be connected to AC power from a light switch or electrical outlet (in the same stud bay) and to an Internet connection.

Additional keypads can be installed in rooms where you want music, and the audio and video signals are carried over the electrical wires (additional keypads need only be connected to 110 volts). The keypad has a small LCD video display and a click-wheel (like an iPod) for controlling the system and is compatible with SHOUTcast and Rhapsody Internet radio sites. An external Media Bridge can connect a CD player or other audio source to the system and an iPod dock is available. A price was not announced, but Russound representatives promised that Collage will significantly reduce the cost and labor of adding a multiroom system to an existing home. The Collage will be available in the second quarter of 2009.

Originally Published