[SOUNDSTAGE! CES 98]

[THE AUDIBLE DIFFERENCE]
www.highendaudio.com


SoundStage!
Full Report Coverage by Contributor
Todd Warnke

The Martin-Logan room, as always, was crowded. With as many people as there were I had a hard time getting to listen closely, but what I did hear impressed me. With an all-Krell setup—KAV-300cd CD player ($3500), Krell KAV-250p preamp ($2000) and KAV-250a amp ($3000)—the Martin-Logan SL3s ($3195) sounded very transparent, lively and had good bass to boot. This was my first chance to see and hear the Kimber Select wire. Looks good, sounds good, costs a bunch too.

Room 1805 was occupied by Artech Electronics, Audiolab, Prisma Cable, JA Mitchell and Blu-Tack. The new Audiolab line looks very familiar and has a sound, as is usual with Audiolab, that is both musical and very good for the price. The 8000CDM transport ($1795) fed a 8000DAX DAC ($1395). Control and power came from the 8000Q preamp ($1395) and a pair of 8000MX monoblocks ($995 each). At 125 watts each, the monos look like they could be a great value. Speakers were NHT 3.3s ($4300), and all wire was by Prisma. Audiolab was also showing their new $695 integrated amp, the 8000LX, which looks very much like the famous 8000S integrated on which it is based. If it sounds at all like the 8000S, Audiolab should have another hit on their hands. Look for a review from SoundStage! sometime soon.

Hovland and Merlin Music Systems were my next stop. I know Hovland by their wire and the justly famous MusiCap, but this was the first time I encountered their preamp and power amp. The Hovland HP-100 preamp ($4595) is a visual stunner. The smoked-aluminum finish looked smooth as silk. The amp, the Aurora, is an experimental/demonstration unit. A large cube, with the corner turned toward the listener and the tubes arrayed on the back corner, it looked as attention-grabbing as a show car. The analog front end—Basis 2001 turntable, ($3000) and Graham 1.5 arm ($1996)—was everywhere at the Show. Hovland was using the Benz-Micro Glider cartridge ($750), one of my personal favorites. Digits were decoded using a G&D Transforms Reference 1 transport ($649) and a Dodson Audio DA-217 Mk II DAC ($3795). Speakers were the omnipresent Merlin VSM-SE ($5950). Replaying "La Nevada" from Gil Evans’ Out of the Cool, this setup made me feel as if I were in the studio with the band. Very incisive and exact. Very good.

GM Accessori Audio/Triangle—I want this system! This was the first time I had encountered either of these companies, so when I walked in the room and looked at the products, I guessed at their cost: $2000-$3000 per component and $4000-$5000 for the speakers. After listening to Peter Gabriel and Pink Floyd (the first was my choice, the second theirs) I was convinced I was right. Boy, was I wrong! The electronics are from Italy and look it. The CD player, an Audio Analogue Paganini, (price to be announced, but not more than $1495) is a 24-bit unit, and along with the preamp and power amp, the Bellini ($895) and the Donizetti ($1095) respectively, look like junior Rowland stuff. The speakers, from France, are fast, detailed and kick serious bass. At $2700, the Triangle Zays offer innovative engineering and great looks. Best budget sound of Show? You bet. Best sound period, almost. Oh, look forward to reviews. I got on my knees and begged!

I am always pleasantly surprised each time I hear Pat McGinty’s Meadowlark Audio Shearwater loudspeakers ($2000). They offer better sound than both their size and price would seem to allow. The Balanced Audio Technology electronics used also offer superb value for their price (VK-D5 CD player, $4500; VK-5I preamp, $4000; VK-60 power amp, $4950). Wire was by Music Metre. The combo worked well together. Musical and detailed.

Cardas Audio had a static display, but you could view a number of the Cardas products—and Cardas has a LOT of products, including cables, connectors, hookup wire, you name it. George and Colleen Cardas were on hand for informative discussions throughout the day.

UK Distribution/Opera loudspeakers was next on the agenda. This was my second chance to see the new Kimber Select cables. Wherever I encountered them, I also heard good sound. The rest of the setup was a Theta Miles CD player ($2095), into a prototype integrated amp (the Aida) and Opera Platea speakers ($1495). The Opera speakers showed surprising bass for their size and shape—a slender column that looks similar to the Totem Staafs.

Eton and LPG Lautsprecher Produktions had primarily a static setup. When your business is OEM drivers, I guess that makes sense. They did have a setup based on Meridian electronics and Om speakers, but when I was in the room it was quiet.

It takes guts to go to Vegas, pay for a room and all of the other Show costs, and show off a budget speaker using non-audiophile-approved electronics. Fortunately Angstrom Loudspeakers has much more than guts, they’ve got the real deal here. Using an Onkyo Integra receiver and an Onkyo CD player, the sound from the Angstrom Omega 5 speakers ($369) was astounding: Full, vibrant and involving. I was extremely impressed.

Coda Technology, Celestial and Sahuaro Audio shared the next room. First, you gotta see this wire. With only air as insulation, they are big. Looking like those snakes you stuff in a can, only about four times bigger around, they are the strangest thing I’ve seen in audio. Would my wife let me have them? Not without having a dedicated room. Still, sonics count more than visual appeal, and in this case the looks would seem to be justified. The digital front end was an EAD T-1000 transport ($1195) feeding a Dodson DA-217 DAC ($2995). The all-Coda electronics (04R preamp, $2500; and 11.5 amp, $5200) looked very good. The speakers, the Sirius by Celestial ($4995), were stand mounted and finished in a piano-black lacquer. The sound was precise and yet very relaxing and inviting—tube-like but not soft. Very interesting stuff.

Speaker manufacturer Voce Divina, accessories maker Bybee Technology, and amplification manufacturer Bruce Moore Audio shared space. This spot was my second chance to hear the Basis/Graham analog combo, this time with a new (to me) cartridge, the Pluto Audio Pluto One ($7000). Digits were courtesy of a Bow Technology transport and the Timbre TT-1 DAC ($3295). Bruce Moore Audio contributed the preamp and power amps (the Companion preamp at $2100, and the Dual 70 power amp, $3500). They looked very solid and very much underpriced, especially for the sound I heard in the room. Highwire cables joined everything in the room, including the speakers. And as for those, I envy John Upton. The Voce Divina Soprano is going to his house for review. These monitors were sitting on and crossed over to the Baritone integrated stand/sub by an active crossover, the Passo. Combined, the speakers/crossover retail for $9200. The sound was involving and extremely relaxing. Very classy, very smooth, very detailed.

What can I say? Gilbert Yeung simply makes music. This, of course, was in the Blue Circle Audio / Merlin Music Systems / Sounds of Silence room. The turntable used, a custom job by Roy Gaiot, and the cartridge, a Decca Crown Jewel, were molested when Gilbert played his Village People album! On the other hand, I treated the system with the respect it deserved by playing Gil Evans through the digital setup, an all-EAD rig (T-2000 transport and DSP-9000III, $5995). Gilbert used his BC3 preamp ($3300) and a pair of the BC6 amps ($3700 each), vertically bi-amping the superb Merlin VSM-SE ($5950). Wire was Cardas Golden Cross throughout. As for the sound, whenever I needed a soothing musical wash I found myself in the Blue Circle room. Pure.

I loved the Discovery Cable / Silent Running Audio / Clearaudio room. Joe DePhillips has, um, discovered a great line in the Pentagon stuff. Working from his specs, they have developed a complete line, all wired with Discovery, of course. The speakers, the Betas ($9000), are very fast and very detailed, but also extremely musical. All the electronics were by Pentagon as well, from the preamp and power amp (the C-70, $3000 with phono; and the P-70, $7000), to the CD player, the $4500 CD70. In the main room vinyl was reproduced by the Clearaudio Reference and Clearaudio/Souther TQ-1 ($6500 and $2500). In the second room, the very interesting Pentagon integrated was playing, using an all-in-one $2500 table/arm/cartridge Clearaudio rig. More to come!

German Physiks gave out the most thoughtful and comprehensive information packet that I received: A zippered pouch for carrying all my brochures, papers and CDs, along with a CD-ROM that lists all of their products, distributors, reviews and white papers. The rest of the room was as equally impressive. The source in the audio portion of their demo was a Balanced Audio Technology VK-D5 CD player ($4500), which was joined to a BAT VK-5i preamp ($4000) and a BAT VK-500 amp ($5000). Speakers were German Physiks Movie Ones ($9970 for a complete surround setup). When they played the Gil Evans "La Nevada" track, what I heard was simply wonderful: Full, deep and powerful bass, with highs that were slightly prominent but not harsh or abrasive. In fact, this room may have had the best-sounding treble I encountered. The tweeter, a DDD Bending Wave Concerter, is based on principles pioneered in the development of the Walsh driver. While a show is a very bad place to come to judgments, what I heard in the German Physiks room was very, very interesting.

My father lived in Switzerland for two years and instilled in all his children an admiration for Swiss precision. The Ensemble room would have made him proud. The Dichrono Drive transport fed an HDCD-compatible Dichrono DAC ($9400 each). Power and control were provided by the new Ecco integrated amp. At $4750 and based on the Evocco integrated ($6990), this unit offers the Ensemble experience to many more audiophiles. Speakers were the affordable (for Ensemble) Animata ($3,480). The sound in the room was extremely nimble with a wonderful, dancing quality.

Verity Audio and Lamm partnered up for this Show. The Basis/Graham table/arm combo was, once again, the analog source. Polycarb was reproduced using a Parasound C/BD-2000 transport ($1550), a very affordable belt-drive unit, and a Musetex Bidat DAC ($1990). The awesome Lamm L1 preamp ($6990) and ML1 monoblock amps ($9990 each) powered the brand-new Verity Fidelio speakers ($6600). Cabling was by Nirvana Audio. Verity Audio is well known for the excellent Parsifal loudspeakers that have impressed many SoundStagers on previous occasions. At this show, while I visited the room they had the beautiful Parsifal Encore speakers ($12,500) sitting silently while the Fidelios performed — transparent, detailed and wonderfully dynamic. The whole setup was impressive to say the least.

The Dynaudio room used a Theta Jade transport ($2495) feeding the Theta DS Pro Generation V-a DAC ($5595, balanced), and that flowing into an Audio Research Reference One preamp ($8495) and then a Krell FBA-600 amp ($12,500), and all strung together with Transparent wire. I knew the Dynaudio Contour 3.0 ($4999) was showing me all it was capable of. And the setup was very good indeed. Precise and detailed, the sound was also musical and relaxing. Extremely good.

Accuphase and Axiss Distribution were up next, but let me get the facts out of the way first. Wire was by Acrotec, and the CD player was an Accuphase DP-65 ($5750); the preamp was the Accuphase C265 ($6000), and the amp the too-cool-for-words Accuphase A50 ($14,995, with a real-time digital read out showing power used, to the 10th of a watt). Speakers were the Odeon #30 Ultimate. These are German-made horns that literally and figuratively blew me away. They are the first horns I’ve heard that, tonally, are very good to excellent. Dynamically, they are simply crushing. I mean, Gawd damn! They literally pinned me against the back wall while playing Pink Floyd, and never, ever, showed any signs of strain. No crispiness, no glare, no harshness, no grain. Nothing but awe-inspiring power. OK, for $27,500 you expect something fantastic. Well, these babies delivered. Like I said, excellent tonality, good imaging and the kind of power I wish tigers would unleash on Sigfried and Roy.

In the Chario/Axiss Distibution room the Accuphase DP-65 CD player was the digital source ($5750) while the preamp was an Air Tight ATC-2 ($5400). The amp was the Air Tight ATM-3 monoblocks ($11,500 a pair). All this was in front of the Chario Academy 3 speakers ($14,500). The sound was very dynamic and detailed. I have always like the Academy speakers, and this was the best I’ve heard them at a show. Airtight was also showing a new KT-88-based kit amp. At $1995 it would seem to offer a lot of value to the DIY set.

Adcom was showing their relatively new line, and to great effect. The GCD-750 CD player ($1250) was linked, via Straightwire cables, to a GFP-750 preamp (also $1250). The amp was the GFA-5802 ($1750) and speakers were Celestion A Compact, which is based on the A1 ($1695), but instead of a 7" woofer, the A Compact uses a 4" model. The bass I heard was suprising—very punchy, detailed and warm. This system was one I would easily recommend to a friend on a budget and with tight room considerations.

Shun Mook and The Original Cable Jacket folks once again paired up, and I can only say whoa! Dynamic, effortless, moving, palpable. Jeff Joseph was won over by the monks of Shun Mook in San Francisco, as I was in Las Vegas. The all-Theta source components (Jade transport, $2495; and DS Pro Generation V-a, $3795) were coupled to Audio Research electronics (Reference One preamp and VT200 amp, $8495 and $8995 respectively). Nordost SPM harmoniously joined the various pieces. Pucks were arrayed all over the room, as well as on or under all the componentry. I wasn’t in a position to say what their effect was, but the sum of the system won me over.

Nirvana Audio, Wavelength Audio and tmh Audio were all together in a well-set-up room. The Kochel speaker, finished in a Sappelle veneer ($9995, $8995 in Black Ash), is a three-way, horn-loaded system. The leaf tweeter is similar in some ways to a ribbon and gave excellent, non-fatiguing highs. The analog setup was the ubiquitous Basis/Graham. Digits were read and converted by a Mark Levinson Model 31.5 transport and Model 30.5 DAC ($9495 and $15,950 respectively). The Wavelength Sine V3 preamp fed a Wavelength Duetta amp ($3500 and $4750). The system, strung together with Stephen Creamer’s Nirvana S-L series speaker cables and interconnects, offered dynamic and involving sound.

Pathos Acoustics is a new company to me. I fell hard for the look of their gear. A Copland CDA-288 CD Player ($3200) was the source for the Pathos InControl preamp and InPower amp ($5990 each). The speakers, Triangle Octants, $7500, were on the receiving end of the signal. The sound was superbly refined and delicate.

The well-known British-based companies Exposure and Rogers displayed together to fine effect. I say, "Long live the LS3/5a!" Rogers was showing their version of this classic perched on sub/stands, the AB1 ($1100 for the speakers, $900 for the subs). The front end was an all-Rega analog setup: Planar 9 table with RB900 arm ($2600) and an Exact cartridge ($600), with digital courtesy of the Exposure CD Player ($1995). The preamp was the Exposure XXI ($1995) while power was supplied by the Exposure XVIII monoblocks ($2750). JPS cables were used throughout. Before I get to the sound, I hope that someday Mike Pranka, from Exposure's U.S. distributor Toffco, can explain why a company that gave such a sensible name to its CD player insists on using Roman numerals for the rest of the line! Anyway, as you would expect with LS3/5a speakers, vocals were very nuanced and natural. The subs also made a contribution, giving my Gil Evans CD a good solid foundation. This was an exceedingly musical and enjoyable room. Well done.

Arcam was showing a simple but effect advertisement for British hi-fi. Using the Alpha 8 CD player ($949) and the Alpha 9 integrated amp ($949) to drive a pair of Castle Avon ($1599) loudspeakers (hung together with the affordable Nordost Red Dawn and Blue Heaven wire), Arcam amply demonstrated just how good entry-level gear can be.

In the Perreaux, AudioVector, Audiophile Systems room, Perreaux was showing a new line of preamps and power amps, with the most far-out facias imaginable. An Arcam 8 CD player, the Perreaux SM6 preamp ($2995) and the 400 amp ($2995) moved the AudioVector F3 to sing beautifully. Wire was Nordost SPM.

Aural Symphonics—pardon the pun, but I don’t much spark from static displays. AS showed their extensive and updated product line (every type of interconnect, speaker cable, digital and video cables, and power cords), which was well represented in some of the active demo systems.

The Snell room was closed, with a sign saying "Dealer/Distributor Only." I can report that the door was very nice and gave a satisfying "rap," with no ringing or undue overhang, when knocked on.

If you’ve never seen the MBL stuff in person, you are missing one of the most sensuous experiences any audiophile can have. The 101D speakers ($34,900) were sporting new covers that are extremely graceful. With the 6010 CA preamp ($11,190) driving 9006 amp ($12,900) and being driven by the 1521 transport ($6000) and a 1611 DAC ($14,100), it was very interesting to sit back and listen to $80,000 of components (exclusive of the top-of-the-line WireWorld wire). Tori Amos playing "All Apologies" was dynamic and involving, but Sara K! Wow! When I closed my eyes I was sure she was in the room.

Canadian audio magazine Inner Ear Report and electronics manufacturer Wyetech Labs displayed together. Once again Nordost SPM was wiring together a system I really liked. Using a Polyfusion 920 transport and 805 DAC ($2900 and $3250) as the digital source, the Wyetech Opal 002 preamp ($6500) and Topaz amp ($11,000) seemed made to light up the Tannoy Churchill speakers ($14,000). The Topaz uses a 211 output tube, and so the 97-dB-efficient Churchills come in handy. The imaging was a bit diffuse, but the tonality was very good, while the involvement factor was off the scale. Each instrument in Gil Evans "La Nevada" had its own personality, its own space and dynamics. The piano and trombone especially were the best I’ve heard.


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