[SOUNDSTAGE! CES 98]

[SIGNATURE SOUND}
www.sigsound.com


SoundStage!
Full Report Coverage by Contributor
John Upton

San Jose, California's Canary Audio builds a fairly robust line of tube-based amplifiers and preamplifiers. Their two-room suite featured two complete audio systems, one focusing on top-of-the-line components and the other comprised of more affordable offerings. System one featured Canary Audio's CA-801 dual-mono line-stage preamplifier ($3,955) and the CA-303 monoblocks ($5,825). The CA-801 is an unconventional two-box design. One enclosure houses the preamp circuitry and the second contains two fully discrete power supplies, each sporting its own separate power cord. Tubes used in this preamp include two 12AX7s and two 12AU7s. The CA-303 monoblocks feature a pair of the legendary Western Electric 300B tubes in a push-pull configuration. Rated at 24 watts per channel, the amplifiers sounded as if they had little difficulty driving a modified pair of Evett and Shaw's Genoa speakers. While I personally prefer the 300Bs in single-ended designs, the CA303s sounded quite promising. The remainder of the main system contained an Absolute Music CD transport and a California Audio Labs DAC. Interconnects and speaker cables consisted of factory-fresh examples of Canary Audio's new Carillon series of audiophile cables. These cables were so new, in fact, that pricing information on them was unavailable at Show time.

The second system featured Canary's CA-606 ($1,415) single-chassis preamplifier and CA-304 ($1,885) power amplifier. As implied by its name, the CA-304 uses the popular EL34 tubes in a push-pull circuit and is rated at 40 watts per channel. The remains of the system consisted of an Esti CD player, Carillon interconnects and speaker cables, and Canary Audio's new BelAir three-way speakers ($3,900).

Hosted by Colin Whatmough, the managing director and designer of Australia's Whatmough Monitors, room 2162 featured an assortment of products produced in countries around the globe. A CEC belt-drive transport coupled with a Woodside tube DAC served as source components for a Welborne Labs passive linestage, a pair of KR Enterprises monoblock amplifiers, and Whatmough Model 302 loudspeakers ($4,495/pair). While the Whatmough name may not be familiar to North American audiophiles (at least it wasn't to me), the Whatmough line consists of a wide assortment of loudspeakers that range from smallish monitors to large floorstanders.

At quick glance, the Whatmough Model 302 on active display appeared to be another conventional three-way speaker consisting of two 170mm mid-bass drivers and one 30mm inverted-dome tweeter. Closer inspection, however, revealed some rather unique innovations. The crossover filter network on the 302 is mounted outside the speaker enclosure in its own isolated module. According to Whatmough, this arrangement serves to minimize the sonically detrimental influence of acoustic and magnetic elements on the crossover elements. With a stated efficiency rating of 93 dB, the Model 302 would also appear to be a possible partner to a low-power tube amplifier, though I might be concerned a bit about its 4-ohm nominal impedance.

Housed in yet another two-room suite, Hong Kong's Whitley Limited presented two systems built around their Raudio speakers. The main system featured the Raudio Auditorium model, a two-way, transmission-line design. The balance of the setup consisted of a Resolution Audio CD50 CD player, a Kora Eclipse preamp, Kora Triode 100SB monoblocks, and Jena Labs interconnects and speaker cables. Though RAudio speakers are not currently available in the U.S., their representative
believed the likely retail price for the Auditorium to be in the $7,000 range.

A second system featured the Raudio Christin, a smaller two-way ported speaker with an estimated U.S. retail price in the $2,400 range. The Christins were driven by the visually stunning Kora Design 30 integrated amplifier and another Resolution Audio CD 50 player. Speaker cables and interconnects were once again provided by Jena Labs.

This is the second straight Show at which I have been assigned a room featuring Richard Vandersteen's flagship model 5 loudspeakers ($9,800). Each model 5 contains a rear-mounted 3/4'' metal-dome tweeter that can be switched on or off as the user prefers, a 1'' metal-dome tweeter, a 4 1/2'' midrange driver, a 7'' woofer, and a 12'' subwoofer with a dedicated, built-in 400-watt amp. The frequency range of this large floorstanding speaker is said to be 22Hz to 30kHz, which should capably satisfy the most extreme musical tastes. At Hi-Fi '97, I heard the 5s driven quite well with a full complement of Pass solid-state components. At CES '98, however, the choice of amplification was very much different.

With source materials provided by a Wadia 860 CD player ($7,450), the Vandersteen model 5s were driven by the Quicksilver line preamplifier ($995) and Quicksilver's V4 120-watt monoblock amplifiers ($3,800). Wiring included Audioquest's Diamond interconnects and Dragon (tri-wired) speaker cables. With Quicksilver in place of Pass, the model 5 speakers did sound a quite a bit different than I recall, and in the usual "tubes vs. transistors" ways. Under Show conditions, I could not venture any definitive conclusions on which was the better combination. It should be noted, however, that the Vandersteens lost none of their considerable bass drive capabilities when powered by the Quicksilver tube amps—no doubt due, at least in part, to the model 5's self-powered subwoofers.

One of the better active displays I heard was found in the Sutherland Engineering room. Ron Sutherland put together an excellent-sounding system featuring his A-2000 100-watt monoblock amplifiers ($10,000/pair) and C-2000 preamplifier ($8,000). The analog front end consisted of a Basis series 2000 turntable, a Graham model 2.0 tonearm, and one of the new Koetsu cartridges. The digital source consisted of a Wadia 860 CD player, speakers were the Martin-Logan SL3s and Transparent Audio cable was employed throughout.

This was my first opportunity to examine, visually and aurally, Sutherland's "instrument grade" components, and I left the display deeply impressed by the experience. The A-2000 and C-2000 appear to be phenomenally well-built and certainly look capable of delivering the sonic goods. I'm sure many of you have seen pictures of Sutherland components in various audio magazines, but let me tell you, the pictures don't do justice to seeing these babies in real life. All this would be for nothing, however, if they couldn't play music. Rest assured, however, that based on my all-too-brief audition, the Sutherlands can definitely boogie with the best of them.

Also on display was an as yet unnamed preamp that will likely retail in the neighborhood of $5,500 (linestage) to $6,500 (with phono stage). I wasn't quite sure what this particular piece of equipment even was at first since it had no visible dials, switches, buttons, or other moving parts anywhere on its exterior. I later learned that it was indeed a preamp, and that source selection, volume control, and other features were accessed through a type of touch-sensitive paneling on the front of the unit. This new preamp will also come with an optional remote control, but with touch-sensitive controls this fun to play with, I can't imagine anybody actually ordering the remote.

No surprises here—the Mobile Fidelity room featured, you guessed it, compact discs. In addition to a display wall full of virtually every Mo-Fi CD available, Mobile Fidelity also had an active display featuring a 96kHz/24-bit DVD recording. This system consisted of a modified Theta Digital front end with a Pass Audio Labs preamp, Pass Aleph 1.3 monoblock amplifiers, EgglestonWorks Andra loudspeakers, and Straightwire cable throughout.

Mobile Fidelity’s 96/24 DVD software (played on a Pioneer DVD player) was a live jazz concert from Copenhagen featuring Harry "Sweets" Edison and Eddy "Lockjaw" Davis. While I got the sense during the demonstration that I was listening to the future of digital sound, my visit to the Mobile Fidelity room was very early in the Show, and I don’t think the system had been completely dialed in yet. In any event, for those waiting for the arrival of ultra-high-quality DVD audio may soon be rewarded for their patience. For those interested, Mobile Fidelity's new releases for January 1998 include: Blue Oyster Cult’s Agent of Fortune; the Saturday Night Fever Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, and Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth.

Pass Labs had their new state-of-the-art X-Series audio products on static display. The gigantic Pass Labs X-1000 monoblock amplifier is said to deliver a thunderous 1000 watts into an 8-ohm load and 2000 watts into 4 ohms. The X-1000 features Pass' "super-symmetric" balanced single-ended class-A topology. For those whose power needs exceed 1000 watts per channel, the Pass X-1000s can be operated in an array producing up to 2000 watts per channel. If, for example, you should find yourself in need 8000 watts to drive a 4-ohm load, you need look no further than a quartet of Pass X-1000 monoblocks. Also on display was Pass' new X2 preamp featuring a simple, single-MOSFET gain stage operated in balanced single-ended class A. The X2 accepts both single-ended and balanced inputs, but does not come with a remote control. Finally, Pass also displayed the new D-1 standalone digital-to-analog converter, which uses four matched Burr-Brown PCM-63 (K) DACs. The input system on this unit accepts AT&T, AES/EBU, SPDIF, and Toslink inputs. The price for a pair of X-1000 monoblocks is $24,000, which makes the X-2 preamplifier at $2,500 and the D1 DAC at $5,000 seem like comparative bargains. I can't tell you how these products sound, but they sure looked interesting.

Roy Hall of Music Hall has a reputation for presenting consistently excellent-sounding exhibits. This year's display finds his reputation fully intact as Music Hall put together one of the best-sounding rooms of the Show. It was truly amazing to behold how much audio gear these guys were able to pack into their display suite without sacrificing the sonics. The active display consisted of a Creek CD 43 compact disc player ($995), a Creek P 43 remote-controlled preamp ($695), and Creek's A-52 SE monoblock amps ($1,195). The receiving end of the Creek electronics consisted of, alternately, Epos's much-heralded ES-12 loudspeakers ($1,095), and the new Epos ES-30s ($3,995). Cabling consisted of Cable Talk Concert 2.1 speaker cables and DNM interconnects. The ES-30 is a three-way speaker featuring a 25mm aluminum-dome tweeter and a 200mm bass driver. The midrange driver is actually a re-engineered version of the midrange/bass driver from the ES-12. Frequency response is claimed to be 25Hz to 22kHz with a 6-ohm nominal impedance and 88 dB/watt sensitivity. Also in the room, on passive display, were Creek's T-43 tuner ($695), OBH-11 headphone amplifier ($199), OBH-12 remote passive preamplifier ($325), OBH-10 remote passive volume control ($225), and OBH-9 moving coil phono preamplifier ($249).

For the analog lover, Music Hall introduced the all-new MMF-2 turntable. For the amazingly low price of $299, the MMF-2 setup includes a belt-driven turntable, a tonearm, and a Goldring Elan cartridge. I had the pleasure of a brief demonstration of the capabilities of this turntable, and while I don't think Rockport has anything to worry about in terms of absolute sonics, the MMF-2 sounded surprisingly good. A bargain-priced, good-sounding, packaged system like this seems to me to be an excellent way to add analog capability to a system in need of that occasional taste of LP magic.

The much-heralded Bow Technologies compact disc player was the center of attention in the Bow/Alpha-Core room. The Bow ZZ8 CD player ($6,900) is a top-loading model that features a customized Phillips CDM-12 Pro CD-ROM drive along with four K-grade Burr-Brown PCM 1702 20-bit, 8x-oversampling D/A converters. Packed into a heavy, 35-pound chassis, the ZZ8 is fully remote controlled and features BNC and XLR digital outputs. The ZZ8 also supports HDCD. The remainder of the active display contained a Bow Technologies Wazoo 2x50-watt integrated amplifier ($2,800), ESP's Concert Grand speakers, and Alpha-Core's Goertz cabling. There may be something to the minimalist approach, as the uncluttered Bow/ESP system produced a clean, uncluttered, yet highly detailed sound. The Bow ZZ8 was certainly one of the best single-box CD players I heard.

Walking into the Graham/Musical Surroundings display was like taking a trip to analog heaven. Turntables, tonearms, and cartridges were EVERYWHERE, though, regrettably, on static display only. Tastefully displayed in a glass jeweler's-type case was the legendary Koetsu line of moving-coil cartridges, ranging in price from the $2,500 Standard all the way up to the $7,500 Onyx Platinum. An assortment of Benz-Micro cartridges shared the display case, including the popular Benz Glider ($750) and the MC-Ruby 2 low-output moving-coil cartridge ($3,000). Graham announced the new Model 2.0L tonearm system designed specifically for the LINN LP-12 turntable. Tonearms in this new series are priced from $2,250 for the Model 2.0L Basic up to $3,000 for the Model 2L Deluxe ($3000).

Basis Audio exhibited an assortment of their 2000-series turntables ranging in price from the basic model 2000 ($2,000) all the way up to the model 2800 ($7,500). Making its debut for availability in April 1998 was the new Basis 1400 turntable. At the price of just $1,400, the Basis 1400 comes equipped with a "universally praised British-sourced tonearm" (looked like an RB250 to me) to which Basis has added a VTA adjustment. Build quality for this model looked very good and includes items such as an inch-thick acrylic sub-chassis and inch-thick acrylic platter. Unfortunately, the 1400 was not on active display anywhere at the Show, but if its looks are at all indicative of its sonic capabilities, Basis may have a formidable contender at the 1400's price point.

On active display in the Vince Christian, Limited room was Christian's Studio professional monitor. According to Christian, the Studio was designed so listeners could hear the music and hear through the music, i.e., unmask microphone techniques and reveal underlying detail. While designed primarily for the recording industry, Christian maintains that the Studio is also quite at home in the high-end listening room. The Studio is a three-way design featuring a 5-inch carbon-fiber woofer, a 4-inch midrange, and a 1-inch soft-dome tweeter. The price for a pair of Studio monitors is $3,750, which includes dedicated speaker stands. Christian is also experimenting with new speaker and equipment stands built of solid plate steel. Details on the actual weight of the stands were unavailable, but they looked really heavy. Rounding out the Christian display was a Goldmund SRA integrated amplifier, a Resolution Audio CD 50 CD player, and JPS Labs interconnects and speaker cables.

Yet another two-room offering, the Mesa Engineering/Samadhi Acoustics displays showed what both companies were capable of in the realm of affordable components and in their more upscale offerings. In the smaller of the two display rooms, Samadhi Acoustics exhibited their diminutive Magic Cube loudspeakers ($1,395). Designed by Fi magazine's Dick Olsher, these 7 1/2-inch-square two-way speakers feature a front-firing tweeter and a 4 1/2-inch aluminum-cone woofer firing straight up. Samadhi Acoustics had labeled this configuration as "ceiling boundary ambiance enhancement" technology. According to Samadhi, this configuration results in "exceptional spaciousness" with ideal point-source imaging. Mesa's heralded Tigris integrated amplifier ($2,495) powered the Magic Cubes. The Tigris features dual-triode, paralleled 12AX7 tubes in the preamp stage while the output stage features 4 EL84 and 2 6V6 tubes in a push-pull configuration. The Tigris operates in full class A and features an output power ranging from 35 watts per channel in an all-pentode configuration down to 20 watts per channel in a 2/3-triode configuration. The Tigris also functions as a full-featured headphone amplifier. An Accuphase DP55 CD player served as the source component for this system, with interconnect and speaker cables supplied by Kimber and power conditioning courtesy of VansEvers.

The big room featured a system including an Accuphase DP75 CD Player, a Prism Audio Ultimate Paramount tube preamplifier, the Mesa Baron amplifier (the one being displayed was upgraded over stock and priced at $4,500 using GoldAero Tesla E34Ls - the standard 5881 equipped Baron is priced at $3,995), and Samadhi Acoustics Experience speakers. Again, cabling came courtesy of Kimber throughout and VansEvers supplied power conditioning. The Samadhi Acoustics Experience loudspeaker certainly looked like nothing I had seen before. Its two 7-inch bass drivers are housed in a cylindrical PVC polymer enclosure. The bass load is split between the two woofers, each mounted in its own chamber at opposite ends of the cylindrical base. Again, this configuration conforms to Samadhi's "ceiling boundary ambiance enhancement" system. The remaining complement of drivers, consisting of a 4-inch midrange driver and a 1-inch tweeter, are housed in a forward-firing housing mounted on top of the bass cylinder. The price of a Samadhi Experience (actually two of them) is $16,400.

Western Electric, the producer of the legendary 300B triode power tube, presented an active display which, naturally, featured these truly magical tubes. The amplifiers on display included David Berning's 300B OTL amplifiers (!) and the Cary 300SCI monoblocks. The rest of the system consisted of a Cary SLP-98 preamp, an Accuphase CD Player, and speakers manufactured by Genesis and Loth-X (Lowther drivers—very cool). Unfortunately, the system was not active during any of my visits, so I was forced to satisfy my 300B cravings elsewhere. I did learn a bit more about the tube-manufacturing process while watching Western Electric's interesting (though perhaps overly long) videotape on the manufacture of the 300B tubes, so the visit wasn't a total loss. I also discovered that Western Electric is expanding the scope of its tube-making operations beyond the 300B to include 274B and 212E tubes. Further, according to representative Al Hamilton, Western Electric has secured tube-manufacturing equipment in England and will soon begin production of the KT-88 power tube! The tentative availability date for the new KT-88s is sometime between July and September of 1998.

New to North America, Manger is a German manufacturer of speakers and speaker drivers. Their claim to fame is the Manger Sound Transducer(R), a bending-wave transducer designed by Josef Manger. On active display were the Manger Zerobox 107 speakers, which featured two Manger Sound Transducers and two 200mm woofers in each speaker enclosure. These speakers didn't sound quite like anything I'd heard before, sounding somewhat like a cross between a panel-type speaker and a conventional, dynamic model. The Zerobox 107, though not yet available in the U.S., would likely carry a retail price of approximately $7,000. The source components in the active system consisted of a CEC TL 1X transport ($5,650), coupled with either a Parasound D-AC1600 ($899) or D-AC2000 ($2,000) DAC. The preamp was Parasound's P-AB2000 line driver ($1,500) feeding a prototype John Curl-designed power amp called the 350 X2.

Switzerland's ASW Electronics Labs, another newcomer to the North American shores, produces three full lines of home-audio and home theater loudspeakers. On active display in their home-audio setup was the flagship of the ASW "Design Series" of speakers called the Alpha ($4,500). The transmission-line-loaded Alpha is a medium-sized, four-way, floorstanding design. Other components in the system were a Bryston preamp and power amps and a Dynaco CD player. For home theater, ASW constructed a surround-sound system featuring their Cantius line of speakers. The front speakers in the system were ASW’s MLVI ($2,381), a three-way bass-reflex design; the surround speakers were the two-way ASW MLII ($639), and the center channel was the ASW CS. The amplification and source components included a Denon ARV-2000 surround-sound receiver and a Sony DVD 3000 DVD Player. A large-screen Toshiba direct-view television handled the visuals which, during my visit, consisted of scenes from The Fifth Element, a very nice DVD transfer.

In addition to a static display of virtually every product produced by VAC, the PBN Audio/ VAC suite featured an excellent-sounding system that incorporated VAC's new "Visionary System" of audio products. These distinctly styled components are designed to be stacked on top of each other through a series of external pillars built into each piece, eliminating the need for separate equipment racks and stands. Not only are the key components unified in a physical sense, they are also unified electronically—the key functions of each unit can be controlled from a single VAC remote.

An assortment of Visionary System components were featured on active display. VAC's PAM-160 vacuum tube monoblock amplifiers, powered by the popular KT-88 power tubes, can be operated in triode/ultralinear mode, offer variable feedback, and can be configured for 2-, 4-, or 8-ohm speaker loads. The preamp, called the CPA-2, is a fully remote-controlled triode-based class-A tube preamplifier and is available with or without a phono stage. The digital source was a VAC CDP-1 compact disc player with HDCD decoding and a 12AX7 triode output. Power sequencing was courtesy of the VAC PSC-1 remote-controlled power controller/sequencer, and cables throughout were by Monster Cable. Availability of the Visionary System components is scheduled for early April, 1998.

The VAC electronics were used to power a pair of PBN Audio’s Montana ESP loudspeakers ($7,995). The ESPs are a five-way design incorporating a single tweeter, two midrange drivers, and two woofers all custom manufactured for PBN by ScanSpeak of Denmark. Per PBN, these large floorstanding speakers are capable of a frequency range of 20Hz to 22kHz with a nominal 4-ohm impedance and 92-dB-per-watt sensitivity.


Back to Full Report Page

CES '98 SoundStage! Advertising Sponsors
The Audible Difference | Audio Odyssey | Cardas Audio | Coincident Speaker Technology | Clayton Audio | DH Labs/Silver Sonic | JPS Labs | Nirvana Audio | Signature Sound | SoundRack Systems | TRI | Von Schweikert Research | Wavelength Audio

Copyright 1998 SoundStage!
Reproduction, Without Permision, is Prohibited
All Rights Reserved