[SoundStage!]The Candy Store
Back-Issue Article

February 2004

Step Up to the Buffet at CES 2004

While walking through the lobby of the Bellagio on Saturday night, my mind was racing ahead to the Epicurean delights waiting to stimulate my palette. We had been in Las Vegas for two evenings and I had yet to have a meal that truly tantalized my taste buds. This night promised to be a sure thing. I could still vividly remember visiting the Grand Buffet at the Bellagio just a year before: prawns sautéed in sweet syrup and crusted with pecans, beef fillets sliced thin and wrapped around a bit of crab, crème brûlée imbedded with fresh raspberries and covered with a glassy layer of caramelized sugar. Oh my.

It seems that each year we are drawn to this town and its buffets. For Las Vegas is nothing if not an extremely accomplished buffet. Where else in the world can you find anything (and I mean anything) your heart desires? If you have the money and ambition, you can step up and find anything your appetite is yearning for. How appropriate, then, that this would be the Mecca that draws us each year to explore the depth of our shared hunger for aural pleasure.

Just as with my visit to the Bellagio, I came to CES and T.H.E. Show this year with expectations of what might be waiting for me. Perhaps my biggest expectation was related to the proliferation of multichannel audio. I thought this might be the year that the high-end industry stepped up en masse to support the new formats. But sometimes it is just better to approach the buffet with an open mind and let it surprise you. For the chefs at the show are a varied lot, and much of the joy lies in seeing just what they have cooked up for us.

Chez Von Schweikert

It seems that this was Albert’s year. In years past it has been Halcro, Wilson, and Talon. But if there was one man who deserves credit for filling the most space on this year’s menu, it would have to be Albert Von Schweikert.

In the weeks preceding the show, I had heard about Albert's new statement speaker, the VR-11SE. This new behemoth with a six-figure price tag laid claim to being able to so closely replicate a live performance that listeners would be unable to differentiate. I must say that I hate statements like this. I have never heard an audio system (nor do I believe I ever will) that could even come close to making me believe I was listening to live performers. That truly would be the holy grail.

What I can say about Albert’s newest creation is this: In a very large venue, the VR-11SE was able to reproduce amazing dynamic range. It is this dynamic range that provides the "startle factor" that feels close to live music. Many horn-speaker advocates claim that this is what makes their super-efficiency models so dear to their hearts. With large symphonic music the VR-11SEs reproduced the scale of the music with a real sense of ease. The bass was amazing, which is typical of Von Schweikert speakers. The soundstage was deep and wide. The imaging quite good for a pair of speakers that are almost eight feet tall and weigh 693 pounds each. I did find the upper midrange and treble a little forward for my tastes. This may have been a room issue. When I heard the speakers there was a large patch of wooden parquet flooring right in front of them. Al, the owner of our store, went back later when the exhibitors had covered the floor with rugs. He felt that the speaker was much more balanced after the treatment.

Coming back to Earth for a moment, the $3995 Von Schweikert VR-4jr is an exciting new model that I think will find a lot of fans. An elegant two-piece stacking speaker system, the VR-4jr claims a solid 23Hz in a cabinet less than 40" tall. In my brief listening session, I found this speaker to be quite impressive. It shared many of the positive attributes of the extremely well-regarded VR-4 (bass, soundstaging, dynamics) in a much more attractive package. Our store has already found many admirers of the VR-1 and VR-2. I look forward to getting our first pair of the VR-4jrs.

Revenge of the nerds

For some reason, I just can’t stop thinking about that movie when I see the ads for Gilmore Audio speakers. A sexy, scantily clad model poses next to a fairly sexy-looking speaker. And then there’s Mark Gilmore. Sorry, Mark. On my second or third stop in one of the Gilmore rooms, I spotted the Gilmore Girl, Linda O’Neil. Being an audio nerd myself, I couldn’t resist the temptation for a photo op.

Gilmore Audio had a very strong presence at both high-end venues this year. Featured in at least three different rooms, the Gilmore speakers use a large Corian baffle, the same material from which countertops are made. Mounted in the Corian baffle are four large woofers and a long ribbon driver. The woofer design is called "planar-dynamic-hybrid." Each woofer has a flat honeycomb cone, which is supposed to possess the positive attributes of a planar driver without its limited dynamics. The drivers are mounted in a free-air arrangement -- no cabinet.

The speakers definitely showed promise. The top end was gorgeous, as is not unusual with a well-integrated ribbon. Some of the most glorious-sounding speakers I have ever heard use ribbons. The bass from the Gilmores was quite extended, if a bit on the sloppy side. The Atma-Sphere OTL tube amplification provided a glorious midband as well as a sweet, airy top end. I was left wondering how these guys would sound with a little more grip. Perhaps a pair of Simaudio or Halcro monoblocks might do the trick.

Dinner and dancing?

Upon entering the Audiopax room, I found Eduardo de Lima of Audiopax with a woman in his arms, dancing. Yes, dancing. I must say that although hundreds of rooms at the show are filled with music, it is a rare occurrence to find someone actually dancing. I’m not sure if this reflects tradition or simply a severe lack of female attendance. Whatever the reason, it was a pleasant surprise.

Don't dismiss the relevance of the dancing. Of all the rooms I visited, I can't remember one that was more musical. The Audiopax Model 88 single-ended tube amps ($12,490 pair) were driving a pair of Audiopax Ref 100 speakers ($12,990 pair). Also in attendance was the new Zanden CD transport. The music drew me in with its effortless quality. The midband was palpable and the highs extended. The bass was solid. The speakers threw an immense soundstage and imaged as well as any minimonitors. I found myself wanting the next dance.

Look who came to dinner

Who but Jim Fosgate would pair a turntable as a source with a multichannel surround system. As a tube/analog diehard, I’ve often joked that I’ll be ready to trade in my two-channel rig when a tube/analog processor becomes available. I may have to eat my words. Never have I seen such a gorgeous multichannel pre/pro.

The entire case is covered in polished copper. Knowing how Fosgate works, I’m sure this design is function first. Copper provides excellent shielding to lower noise. Lighting the top is a row of small input tubes. The unit, dubbed the FAP-V1 ($13,000), is completely analog, including analog Dolby Pro Logic II, Fosgate’s own invention.

Jim put on a record with which I’m quite familiar, a 45-RPM version of Louis Armstrong’s "Saint James Infirmary." The imaging was all out front where it was supposed to be. Instruments remained in correct locations. The rest of the channels just put me more into the venue, adding presence. I was quite taken. When I mentioned that many may consider it a sin, mixing analog with multichannel audio, Jim Fosgate simply replied, "Why not if it makes it better?" Why not indeed.

Small bites

A big surprise in a small package was the Sophia Electric Baby amplifier. Known for its pricier SET pieces, Sophia Electric has produced a sub-compact EL84-based integrated for under a thousand dollars. Played through an $8000 pair of Zingali Overture speakers, the Baby did not seem out of place. This little guy is at the top of my list for checking out further. Put this little amp together with a pair of Triangle Titus speakers and a good CD source and you could end up with a killer system for well under $3000.

Speaking of Triangle, I heard very good sound from the new Stratos range, powered by a unique integrated amplifier from Cairn. The Cairn 4810 is billed as a mulit-solutions integrated amplifier. Using optional "plug and play" modules, the 4810 can be configured in a variety of ways. Current modules include two channels XLR in & out, 24-bit/192kHz DAC, AM/FM RDS tuner, MM/MC phono, video switch, and four channels in & out. A 7.1 decoder module is in the works and will be available soon.

The Grommes-Precision tube monoblocks seemed a bargain at $3000 per pair. They were making music beyond their limited price though a pair of Joseph Audio speakers. The looks may be quite retro, but the sound was absolutely today.

Gershman Acoustics was showing an updated version of the GAP speaker, one of my old favorites. The sound with Linar electronics was fluid and airy. I loved the blue glow from the components' faceplates, a look that Hovland made popular and seems to be showing up more and more. Speaking of looks, Gershman is offering a new "antiqued crackle finish" for its speakers that is sure to be a hit among the more aesthetically concerned halves of many households.

The Reference Audio Mods room was perfect for those who don’t want to limit the wood in their systems to speaker cabinets. Shown was a Modified Marantz SA-1 housed in a case of cocobolo wood, a solid-oak (case and knobs) Audio Consulting Silver Rock Potentiometer, and a solid-wood Teres 200 turntable with a Morsiani C37 wooden tonearm. The sound was very immediate through a pair of Mantra Sound Loudspeakers (wood, of course).

Art Audio never fails to give a great showing, and 2004 was no exception. The new 845-based SET Carissa amp was powering a pair of DeVore Fidelity speakers to good effect. The 16Wpc Carissa is available with optional volume control for those who wish to simplify. The DeVore speakers also caught my attention as a SET-friendly speaker for listeners who aren’t fond of horns.

T+A of Germany may not be a new company (they have been building amps since 1984), but they get my vote for best new look. The V10 integrated tube amplifier is a work of art. As is common with German design, form follows function. The elegant feet are actually shock absorbers cradling the entire chassis and isolating it from vibration. The thick acrylic panel is also designed with isolation in mind. Encapsulating the transformer and capacitors in solid aluminum provides aesthetic appeal as well as prevents resonance effects and dissipates heat. Mixing digital technology with analog, T+A uses a DSP to control the power supply and speed of the turntable motor. This stuff is gorgeous and sounded gorgeous driving Amphion’s new Krypton statement loudspeaker.

Another German company that deserves some attention is FJ (what is it with Germans and initials?). The OM speaker was well under three feet tall, with a forward firing silk-dome tweeter and a midbass driver firing straight up from the top (not front) of the cabinet. Made from layers of Baltic birch, this cabinet felt like a concrete post and weighed almost as much. Placed almost against the back wall, the OMs provided a fairly deep soundstage and surprisingly precise images. Amplification was by TRON and source was a DPS turntable with a Schroeder tonearm and Allerts cartridge. Very musical!

Sumiko, distributors of many fine lines, had a few surprises, although they were all static displays. Sonus Faber has released their new statement speaker, the Stradivari Homage. The unusual elliptical cabinet is said to eliminate many room-boundary issues. Each driver is loaded into a tunable cavity designed for that specific driver. Finished in a high gloss Red Violin finish, the Stradivari is a thing to behold. REL, whose sub-bass systems I spoke of in last month’s column, has introduced the first of the 5 series. The new subs feature a more user-friendly front control and display and offer complete remote control of setup from the listening position. Primare was showing the DVD30, a universal player that will handle all current formats, and an integrated surround amplifier. This latter unit combined multichannel amplification with a preamp/processor (no tuner).

I found a pleasant surprise in the Golden Sound (makers of DH cones) room. I was told I looked tired. I was. I was told to sit down and listen to some good music to refresh and relax me. I sat. The Golden Sound crew proceeded to play a beautiful Beatles tribute SACD through an extremely imposing multichannel speaker setup. The fronts alone consisted of four towers, each nearly seven feet tall. Most of the time such imposing speakers sound, well, imposing. In this case they did exactly as promised. The speakers disappeared and the music was smooth, refreshing, relaxing. Shelves and treatment were provided by Machina Dynamica, maker of Brilliant Pebbles.

Awards de funky

Everyone expects awards to be given out at shows. I find it impossible to narrow things down to which room sounded best. I also find it completely unfair. At best the cards are stacked against exhibitors from the start. Room conditions, inadequate power, and shipping issues are all barriers. The planets align for some and crash into each other for others. However, to fulfill expectations, I will give out a few awards -- call them show candy.

Name that least likely belongs on a piece of audio equipment – Flying Mole, makers of inexpensive digital amplifiers, some of which are modular. They had a whole wall of these things hooked together for an outrageous 30,000 watts of power.

Most unusual demo software – Insane Clown Posse on DTS DVD-Audio 5.1. Sitting in the Genesis room, I couldn’t believe it when the exhibitor stuck on this disc. I thought that only people in prison or on their way to prison listened to Insane Clown Posse. So how was it? I went back to hear it twice.

Most unusual place to find an esoteric high-end audio component – The Hilton convention center is filled with miles and miles of small, cheap non-audio electronics. As I walked past booth after booth, filled with anything from light bulbs to disco smoke machines, something caught my eye. In a small booth was an Asian company selling a very inexpensive and small LCD panel for your computer. The LCD panel sat on a small table with a few brochures. Underneath of it, with no explanation, sat a Thor Audio tube preamplifier. This preamp sells for over $8000. The exhibitors of the LCD seemed to know nothing about it. A few cards sat next to it with "Thor" handwritten on them and a phone number. I’m still scratching my head.

Amplifier most likely to heat your home – The new Atma-Sphere MA-3 monoblocks use 54 tubes per channel for a total of 108 fire-bottles. With so many tubes, these amps also win the award for amplifier most likely to require a second mortgage for a retube.

Most common CES color scheme – Rainbow. Whether it be Pro-Ject turntables or Von Schweikert and Meridian speakers, I saw many displays of multi-colored equipment for the crowd's perusal.

Speaker with the most non-parallel surfaces – Morkai Diamond F1. Remember when you were a kid and you mixed up the sugar water and watched the crystals grow? Just add some drivers.

Tube amp least in need of Viagra – KR Audio Kronzilla. Need I say more?

Clearing the table

Well that may seem like quite a buffet. For those who attended CES this year or have attended shows in the past, you realize that I’ve only given you an appetizer.

What happened to my multichannel expectation? As I said, sometimes it’s best not to come without any preconceived notions. Multichannel audio was present. I saw slightly more such equipment than I did last year. I spoke to many manufacturers who are still sitting on the fence. One insider, whom I greatly respect, feels that the number of formats will just continue to grow and universal players will incorporate and discard formats as this happens. Who’s to know?

As for the Grand Buffet at the Bellagio, I missed it. The line was a good two-hours long, and we had tickets to a show. We ate in the café. The fish and chips were good, but the crème brûlée was out of this world.

...Bill Brooks

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