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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
February 2006

Extreme Synergy

January is the cruelest month -- for us here at SoundStage!, that is. CES adds work to our load and shortens the month by a week, so we have even less time to get all of our content ready for February 1. CES attendance is mandatory, not just to produce our daily show coverage, but simply to stay in touch with what's currently happening in the ever-expanding A/V universe.

"Expansion" was a theme of CES 2006. Not only is the entire consumer-electronics market growing -- due to products like the iPod, TiVO, satellite radio, and high-definition TV -- but even niches like high-end audio seem to be swelling as well. The Alexis Park, where the high-end-audio exhibits were housed, was packed from the very back all the way to the front. As we made our way around over the course of four days, it seemed like every room we visited added two more to our list. Normally, I leave CES satisfied that I visited 90% of the demos I wanted to and knowing that I have a good grasp of what happened at the show. Not this year. By Sunday afternoon, during the waning hours of the show, I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to miss a lot.

Even so, I still saw and heard a considerable amount of the show, and among the trends I spotted was one that made me feel very happy for audiophiles who first and foremost love music, not the equipment that reproduces it. I have seen no statistics on the average length of time audiophiles keep products they buy, but I would bet my house that it has been getting steadily shorter. The Internet has made buying and selling audio equipment a hobby. I have lamented my lack of listening-for-enjoyment time in this space in the past, so I won't belabor the point here. I will say to those who buy and sell habitually that at some point it will grow old and you'll be left with your music. Why not become more acquainted with it now?

The trend I spotted at CES was by no means an ever-present one, but it is something whose spirit I hope takes hold very soon. In a few rooms, most notably those of Ayre Acoustics, Audio Research and Aurum Acoustics, there were systems put together with a goal of promoting extreme synergy. I'm not talking about the mixing and matching of products that seem to work well together. Instead, extreme synergy mates products that sound their very best when used together, and anything other than this represents compromise. This is good for music lovers because it removes the equipment from consideration. No worrying about which CD player to mate with which preamp, only which CD to play.

In the Ayre room, Steve Silberman showed me his company's new full line of cables and L-5xe power conditioner. Of course, these are meant to be used with Ayre amplifiers, preamplifiers, and digital sources. The only thing in the Ayre room through which a signal passed that was not made by Charles Hansen and his merry band were the JBL K2 9800 speakers (which showed great promise despite some room-induced bass problems). I have an Ayre preamp, power amp and universal player here now, and the extreme synergy is obvious.

Aurum Acoustics takes extreme synergy to the next step. The Integris Active 300B speaker system ($30,000) could be used with a preamp, but Derrick Moss of Aurum Acoustics designed the Integris CD player with integral volume control ($10,800) as its mate instead. Forget about using the speakers with any other amp. "Many audiophiles see audio systems as wondrous collections of components." Derrick shared with me. "They listen to equipment, and that's it. Music is just the means to the end for them -- the end being the evaluation (and love) of equipment. Some people have even taken offense to our approach and gotten huffy when told we can't break it down into conventional pieces for them."

Those people lose out -- the Aurum Acoustics system is a finely wrought thing. As I pointed out in my show diary, "I listened to entire cuts while in front of this system, a guilty pleasure during a hectic show." Buyers get to listen to entire albums.

My last listening stop at CES was a room in which I had a hard time getting a seat earlier in the show. Here, Audio Research used an entire Reference system -- Reference CD7 CD player ($8995), Reference 3 preamp ($9995), Reference 210 mono amps ($19,990 per pair) -- along with Wilson Audio Sophia Series 2 speakers ($13,990 per pair) to produce the best sound I heard at CES. The synergy among ARC products is understandable, but it has also been enhanced -- made extreme -- in the company's current Reference line, which has taken a leap forward in many sonic ways. Audio Research uses Wilson Audio speakers at the plant, not so much in the design of products but for quality control and assurance. The results speak for themselves. I was jubilant when I heard ARC Reference electronics driving Wilson MAXX 2s last fall, and I was no less impressed by the sound coming from Sophia 2s in Las Vegas. A very picky friend of mine who also heard this rig has been daydreaming about buying it -- down to the cables used -- ever since.

How the extreme-synergy approach will fare with consumers remains to be seen, but Aurum Acoustics is a good test case, as it has embraced the idea of selling a full system instead of separate pieces. Because of what I heard, I'm pulling for this company -- and the others I've mentioned. They are all presenting audiophiles with a significant opportunity -- to shift their focus away from churning equipment and back to the music. Will audiophiles seize it?

...Marc Mickelson

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