CES 2014: Staff Report
CES 2014 has come and gone. It was my eighth time attending in the last nine years. I have seen changes and I have seen stagnation. Living alone, I cherish my quiet times. Stepping into the zaniness of CES and the Las Vegas Strip is culture shock but I somehow morph into a dynamo intent on visiting my hit list plus wherever whim takes me. I enjoy new time with the people I have met over the years and making new friends. To that point, CES 2014 was fun for me.
The part that was not fun was my failed loudspeaker search. For the fourth year in a row I came home without selecting a clear winner for my new personal reference. Apparently my criteria are too rigid but I think they are valid for the amount of money I am prepared to spend. Admittedly, I am bent toward speakers that are not boxes or are at least boxes with unique features.
Recently my Quad ESL-2805 loudspeakers suffered an electronic failure. My only other speakers were a pair of 35-year old Large Advents stuffed in the closet for over two decades. I pulled them out and plopped them down by eyeball. They were elevated about 8” using stands I had built mainly to protect them from an errant toe or vacuum cleaner. The only speaker cable I had that would work on their threaded-post terminals was zip-cord. I was stunned when I started playing music. I could not believe how good they sounded—and that was with rotted foam that eventually blew chunks. Was it tonally accurate? Hell no! Was it fun? Did I want to listen to more songs? Hell yes!
Has the industry not come further in 35 years? These ancient, diseased Advents sounded better than the majority of the rooms I visited at CES. Manufacturers can try to hide behind show conditions but it does not square with me. I have been around too long and know every year some exhibitors get it right and others DO NOT get it right every year. One of the most musical rooms I heard was the NFS (Not For Sale) party room at T.H.E. Show. They were using Fritz Carbon-7 loudspeakerswith a 1960’s vintageHeathkit. The only room treatment was a psychedelic laser light show. Damn, that room sounded good.
A major contributor to poor sounding rooms (besides lack of room treatment)is unwise demo music selection. Exhibitors take note. A piano piece consisting of five middle keys played in endless repetition is coma inducing. I do not need to sit and listen to that for ten minutes. I will learn nothing about the system and expect the exhibitor is either hiding something or designed the equipment specifically with that limited range of music as a reference. On the other hand if an exhibitor is playing dynamic but abrasive music with a hard edge I also wonder about how they voiced their designs. And this is definitely a situation where louder is not better. I don’t make it more than three steps into those rooms. Anybody following too closely behind me is going to get trampled on my exit.
As usual, I do not try to cover numerous rooms. I choose a few rooms for various reasons and try to do them some justice. I applaud those very few rooms that let listeners hear how natural and involving music reproduction can be. They push the boundaries and raise the bar for everyone. Unfortunately those complete systems tend to cost more than my home and leave me frustrated with the more affordable offerings. For those more affordable offerings that also delight I applaud even louder and throw in some whistles and shout-outs. They are the backbone of the industry. They will keep it alive and bring pleasure to thousands. Other manufacturers struggle and fail and then they struggle some more. Sometimes they get it right but frequently not. I wonder what barometer or compass they are using.
OK, I am grumpy because I did not find new speakers within my budget. I admit it. That does not make my observations wrong. I offer this advice to manufacturers. If you are going to build equipment, if you are going to spend thousands of dollars to exhibit at a show—get it right. Get a pair of Advents off of EBay (foam rot is optional). Set them up willy-nilly using zip cord and an old Heathkit. If you can’t beat that, stay home.
To fellow ‘files, I say this---Don’t stay home. Shows can be frustrating and they may or may not help you make a purchasing decision but they can also be a blast. If there is a regional show near you give it a chance. Audio shows are the new way the industry is doing business so embrace them and enjoy. Hopefully, with experience and feedback, exhibitors will up their game.
ENIGMAcoustics (Venetian Suite 29-330)
ENIGMAcoustics was proudly demonstrating their Mythology M1 loudspeaker system ($14,690) with Ayre electronics. The price includes speakers, stands, and the amazing Sopranino self-biased electrostatic super tweeters that I reviewedhere.
The woofer and tweeter were specifically designed to complement the transparency and fast transient response of the super tweeter. The laminated-birch cabinet sports an aluminum baffle and a gorgeous piano-grade finish. The integrated speaker stand has a solid aluminum pillar with thick top and bottom plates and tempered glass.
On the introduction to Dire Straights’ “Money for Nothing” the Mythology M1 loudspeakers produced a surprisingly tight and deep bass. I did not hear any breakup or strain. Later, on a violin piece I was not surprised. The violins were as extended and engaging as I had come to expect from the Sopranino super tweeters.
B.M.C. (Venetian Suite 30-122)
B.M.C. likes to do things backwards—and forwards. Their latest introduction, the PureVox loudspeaker (estimated price $6,500) is a quasi-bipolar balanced design. Quasi-bipolar balanced means the same driver complement is found on the front baffle and the 45-degree rear-angled top baffle. This design is intended to provide improved soundstage depth at the sides to more closely match depth in the center of the soundstage.
The sealed cabinet has an extruded aluminum exterior of varying thicknesses to reduce internal resonance. Resonance is further reduced by resin layers of varying thickness and strategically placed stabilization bars. Drivers include two AMT tweeters and two 6.9” Kevlar/fiberglass bass/midrange drivers. I did not have the opportunity to hear the speakers set up and optimized. They caught my eye because they are not a typical box design.
No frequency performance specifications were provided. However, the B.M.C. website does indicate the speakers have a sensitivity of 89dB and an impedance of 4ohms. In addition to traditional binding posts, the PureVox include SpeakON terminals. Each speaker has a three-position switch (just like my Advents!) offering the choice of neutral, more air, or more warmth. The speakers stand 39.4” high and weigh 60 pounds. PureVox loudspeakers are available in three color choices—B.M.C. silver, champagne, and blue titanium. Expect a big brother to be introduced later.
Prana Fidelity (T.H.E. Show Room 4050)
Following on the success of his widely respected stand mount Fifty90 loudspeaker, Steven Norber introduced a floor standing loudspeaker, the Vayu/fs ($6,950). Vayu is Sanskrit for wind, and is the Hindu deity, "lord of the winds." The initials 'fs' are less esoteric and stand for, "floor standing." The name reminds me so much of Steven’s personality which is an eclectic mix of feet-on-the-ground-engineer and whimsy.
Following Steven’s philosophy of offering versatile loudspeakers, there are two switches on the back of each cabinet. The top switch has two positions for the high frequency roll off. The lower position creates a -2dB roll off from 16kHzto 20kHz, and the upper position removes this roll off for a flat high frequency response. Steven notes that the most common setting is the lower position for most recordings, systems, and rooms--however there are occasions where the flat response can open up the high frequencies without adding excess.
Steven further explained that while the top switch makes a quantitative (measurable) change to the frequency response, the bottom switch makes a qualitative change to the character of the midrange because different materials used in three separate resistor networks. The total resistive values of these networks are all the same (within 0.5% tolerance). The only difference is in the selection of materials (carbons, metals, and ceramics), and the sonic character each lends to the midrange.
The bottom switch has three positions. The lower position is the neutral or natural character. The middle position creates the perception the midrange has been moved forward about 8" inches, and the upper position adds warmth. Steven confided to me that he originally intended to design the midrange with two tonal options but could not make up his mind and decided to provide more choices to owners. Between the two switches there are six different settings available to suit a variety of recordings, rooms, and personal tastes.
Steven had some of his own electronic creations in the room but during show hours an Atma-Sphere MP-3 MK III.2 preamplifier ($5,600-9,000 depending on options) and M-60 MKIII.2 60wpc Class A triode OTL amplifiers ($7,200) were in use. The amplifiers are fully differential balanced input through output.
The analog source was a Kuzma Ltd. Stabi M turntable with Kusma 4Point tone arm. The digital source was an Aesthetix Romulus CDP/DAC. Wires were from Audio Conductors.
ZestoAudio, WyWires, TAD, Merrill Williams (T.H.E. Show Room 4024)
Come big or stay home. Approximately 4 years ago Zesto Audio burst on the scene with their Andros PS1 vacuum tube phono stage ($4,300) then followed a year or two later with the Leto vacuum tube preamplifier ($7,500). Both were received with much enthusiasm. As Carolyn Counnas explained to me, it only took George 30 years to become an overnight success. Her contribution to that success is the artistic design of the graceful and very stylish appearance of the Zesto product line. Carolyn is also George’s staunchest supporter and promoter. I remember her grabbing my sleeve and dragging me into their room at the California Audio Show when they introduced the Andros PS1. That was over my loud protestations that I “don’t do vinyl”.
This year they proudly displayed their long-awaited amplifier, the BIA 120 Class-A stereo power amplifier (12,500). Loudspeakers were TAD Evolution One ($29,800). The analog source was a Merrill Williams Audio REAL 101 Turntable ($7200) using a Tri-Planar U2 (classic 10”) tone arm ($6200) and Dynavector XV-1s Cartridge ($5450).
Cables used were WyWires Platinum Series BiWire speaker cables ($3,999), Platinum Series Single speaker cables ($2,299), Platinum Series interconnects (XLR $1,599-single ended $1,399), Silver Series USB cable ($429) Juice HC Silver Power Cords ($599). Also in the system was a WyWires/Daedalus Silver Series Power Broker AC distributor ($2499), Steve Blinn Designs Reference equipment rack ($1,899), and Acoustimac acoustic treatments ($100-$200).
The participants in this room are all about the music. They get it right every year and at a relatively modest cost. George Counnas’s philosophy is that engineering only goes so far then the ears and heart must lead the rest of the way.
Clarity Cable & Avatar Acoustics (T.H.E Show Room 4009)
This is not the first time these curvy Italian beauties have caught my eye and ear. If they had a lower bass response (rated at 38Hz +/- 3dB) I would trade my Quad ESL-2805s for the RossoFiorentinoVolterrra loudspeakers ($12,995). The upper end extension to 100 kHz gives them a spacious and airy sound that reminds me of my Quads coupled to ENIGMAcousticsSopranino super tweeters.
The Volterras are coupled here with the AMR (Abbingdon Music Research) CD-777 SE CD player ($4,995) and AMR AM-777 integrated amplifier. Clarity Cable products in use include the Organic Speaker Cables ($2,100), Organic RCA interconnects ($1,400), Vortex power cord ($750), Power Distributor ($1,200), and Sound of Silence footers (price TBD).
Clarity Cable was introducing their Power Distributor which is an outlet box laminated from four different woods to reduce or eliminate the vibration found in wall-mounted outlets. It comes with a Vortex power cord and either the Afterburner 8 from Avatar Acoustics or special-order Leviton outlets. The price is $1,200 with a six foot Vortex power cord but other lengths are available.
Show Favorites: The following three rooms are my undisputed show favorites. I apologize for rooms I missed but due to my search for a personal speaker within my budget and time constraints, I did not hear every expensive room.
Aaudio Imports, Lansche, Ypsilon (Venetian Suite 30-121)
This room made my top-3 list because of the sonic performance. I spent a lot of time in the room between the end of one day and before the show opened the next day. I played parts or all of most of the30 demo and just-for-fun tracks I brought to CES. I was never disappointed. My desire to listen to an entire track was at constant battle with my anticipation of the next one. Bass response was superb and driver integration was seamless. However, the standout drivers were the tweeters. The plasma ion tweeters on the Lansche 5.1 loudspeakers ($50,000) are simply stunning. The high-gloss finish on wood veneer was equally impressive. The Lansche 5.1s looked every bit as good as they sounded.
This room ruined the rest of the show for me. Except for my other top-3 picks most other rooms sounded relatively thick and muddy and/or edgy and shrill/glassy. In addition I give the speakers mega-bonus points for their ability to work in more modest-sized room and having a baby brother (Lansche 3.1) for smaller rooms.
Just as no man is an island, loudspeakers do not work alone. There was a tremendous supporting cast. Ypsilon products included the Aelius monoblock amplifiers ($36,000), PST-100 MKII preamplifier ($37,000), CDT-100 transport/player ($26,000), DAC-100 valve DAC ($29,000), VPS-100 valve phono stage ($26,000), and MC10L step up transformer ($6,200). Power was delivered through an HB Cable Design Power Slave marble power distributor ($8,995). Cables were products from Stage III. The equipment rack ($16,100) and amplifier stands ($4,500) were from the Tandem Statement Series. The turntable (TTT Compact $13,200) and tone-arm (Simplicity $9,200) were from Thales.
Scaena, Audio Consulting (Venetian Suite 29-223)
The Scaena Silver GhostIso-Linear Array loudspeakers are a favorite of mine. They never fail to impress and delight. And they never fail to make me royally pissed I was not born rich instead of tall and good looking. I love the way these speakers scale large when necessary but also offer great imaging for vocals and solo instruments. For me, line source arrays do things large panels cannot, that being keeping performers correctly sized and disappearing so completely.
There were several notable changes in the Scaena room this year. Most obvious was they were forced back into a standard suite. Last year they had a large room on the 34thor 35th floor and what a difference it made. It is a shame the Venetian has such a limited number of larger rooms to offer.
Due to a major change in subwoofer design and size Scaena was able to position the towers and subwoofers in closer proximity in the lower level of the bi-level suite. In previous years they had positioned the subwoofers on the lower level and the towers on the upper level. The new subwoofers have 12” drivers compared to 18” in the previous model. The new subwoofers did a fantastic job. Bass performance was excellent and integration was seamless.
A final, significant change was this year electronics were provided by the Swiss company, Audio Consulting. The Silver Rock MIPA Toroidal 120 W (@ 8 ohms) amplifier (MIPA = Mains Independent Power Transformer) ($52,000) debuted in December 2013. Its outboard battery power supply contains two 12V batteries in series per channel. A 30wpc configuration using one onboard 12V battery per channel is optional.
Complementing the amplifier was the Audio Consulting SWGLA Preamplifier (SWGLA = Silver Wire Gain Line amplifier) ($22,500) shown in the beautiful and stylish maple and palisander (a variety of rosewood) veneered natural wood chassis.
Perfect8 Technologies AB (T.H.E. Show Red Rock VIII)
Two gorgeous products from the Swedish company Perfect8 Technologies made their public debut at T.H.E. Show, The Force MKII loudspeakers and The Rack. Every piece is a work of art and the glass and gold towers are particularly stunning. As presented at the Show, the Force MKII loudspeakers employed 6 glass-enclosed, opposed 10”-driver, DSP-controlled subwoofers. The normal complement is four subwoofers for a package price of $350,000. At that price point the supporting cast should be nothing less than stunning and it was. I cannot recall ever hearing a VAC powered system that did not sound completely engaging.
Other associated equipment included a Walker Proscenium Black Diamond V Turntable and cables by Stealth and Perfect8. The Rack is constructed from the same Super Silent Glass (SSG) used for the towers and subwoofers and incorporates a high tech polymer spring damper system in every shelf support. The MSRP for a five-shelf unit is $20,000.
There is too much technology involved in the speaker design to go into here so let me jump into what really matters. My sleeping room was at the Flamingo so on two evenings I spent after-hours listening time in the Perfect8 room. I heard a variety demo tracks as well as personal favorites from the Perfect8 team. Each track amazed me with effortless presentation. Bass integration was seamless. Not only did the Perfect8 loudspeakers scale majestically when required but they could do solo vocals with such delicacy my heart ached.
In the past I thought I had heard systems that disappeared. I was wrong. After hearing the Perfect8 system I realize those other systems always left a residue, a shadow if you will. The Perfect8 system was absolutely devoid of any hint of any mechanical or electronic involvement—no glare, no edge, no boundaries. It was music more pure than I have ever heard it before. I cannot find the words to adequately describe how thoroughly amazed I was by each track and how much I was pulled into each one.
I noticed the enthusiasm with which each new album was placed on the turntable. I watched Perfect8 Chief Executive Officer, Jonas Räntilä, ham it up and lip sync. It was obvious that for the Super 8 team music came first and the equipment was only a conduit. But what a gorgeous conduit they built.
Due to the inclement weather that walloped the east coast, grounding a lot of flights, this year’s CES was noticeably less busy. Nevertheless, there were notable components, which I would like to highlight.
The Perfect Eight Technologies Cube
Most striking was the Perfect Eight company’s about six inch square mini monitors, The Cube, which are quite small but nevertheless quite capable of filling the large room downstairs at The Home Entertainment Show. These $70,000 speakers include one subwoofer and two crossovers and a powered ten inch, dual woofers. They had VAC amplifiers driving them with a music server digital and Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond V vinyl sources. They are 86 db efficient speakers.
The demonstration of these took place shortly after THE Show ended. What was shocking was that they filled what must have been a 40 by 25 by 10 foot room and did so with ease. Especially with vinyl, they would have satisfied any audiophile, except perhaps for the price or if they had heard the Force with six subwoofers earlier that day or three days prior. Most who were present were somewhat in awe at what they heard. Granted that one subwoofer can hardly function as well as six with three on each side time to roll the bass toward you. I was greatly impressed.
The BMC PureVox
I had heard that BMC would have little speakers at CES but had not anticipated much about them. Had I, I would have no doubt been wrong. As you can see, they include their own rack. Their cabinet exterior is made of extruded aluminum of varying thickness. This plus layers of resin and bracing bars gives them little or no resonances that I could feel. These are a two-way system with two 6.9 inch dynamic drivers. One is on the front and the other on the back on a face that is a 45ºs angle. The tweeters, again front and back, are AMT ribbons. They cost $6500.
I think that a friend and I were the first people other than those in the factory to hear these speakers after Carlos put each on his shoulder and merely sat them in front of the Arcadias, that had been playing with no spikes and quickly attached them to the BMC M2 amps and turned them on. He was using the BMC PureDac to drive the amps. Frankly, I was immediately impressed. They improved greatly in the next several hours and more additional day. Each time I returned to this room, there were more people there listening to the PureVox.
Essence of Music Disc cleaner.
Essence of Music shared a room with Clarity Cable at THE Show and did demonstrations of this two-step cleaner. Which as they say “improves your player’s ability to read the disc by penetrating, renewing, and visibly improving the polycarbonate surface.” I had already heard the improvement that this nano-coating technology gives in my system as well as another, but I again heard more sense of the recording environment, such as reverberations off the studio wall, decay of notes, and noises of the performers. The soundstage improved enormously and the timbre of the instruments was right on. I have purchased quite a few SHM (Super High Materials) discs from Japan and always notice just these improvements with them. What the discs do is to use the plastic from LCD screens on TVs. This kit will allow improving 400 discs. To get all SHM discs would cost me at least $1200. This kit might be a major savings for me. But alas, after this thought, I cleaned one of my SHM cds and found it too was much improved.
Treatment is to spray on step one and rubbing it around the playing surface thoroughly. Step two is spraying on step two and allowing it to emulsify the first step and then rubbed off with the provided microfiber cloths. The final step is to again spray on the second spray and rub it off using another large provided cloth.
I have about 700 albums on my music server with probably half from ripped cds. I have started redoing these with Essence of Music treated source cds. I am not happy about this but, if I want the greater realism, it is necessary. I have already reripped some twenty cds and sacds and kept the originals for comparison. I will stop doing this as I always hear a substantial improvement.
The Tripoint Troy Signature grounding unit
There were no Tripoint Troy Signatures at CES or THE Show, but Miguel Alvarez and I plus a dealer friend and the man who imports Feastrex and other devices from Japan met there. This gave us the opportunity to further inquire about how this grounding and filtering device works. It consists of a 76 pound with no apparent way into the beautifully finished bubinga cabinet and with three Cardas pure copper binding posts on the back. There is an attached grounding wire that looks like a power cord but contains only a grounding wire. The wall plug also looks like a norm two blade and a grounding post, but only the ground is connected to anything in the box. The special silver grounding wires (four provided with the unit) are attached to the grounding posts and to every component’s chassis. I had already convinced myself as I had reviewed the earlier Troy and the Signature had received rave reviews from those in Taiwan on Esoteric Audio.
I had long ago experimented with tying all chasses together to a copper bar and tried the Granite Audio grounding device. Neither did much. The Troy and the new Troy Signature, however, greatly improve the ease of the music as well as the sound stage realism, the dynamics, and the timbre of instruments. Frankly this unit eclipses all the contributions of ac filters, cables, and power cords. I now own one.
Mike, Good to hear from you. Your room treatment was "stealth" indeed but very effective and economical. Great room as always. Thanks for providing a place to relax and meet interesting people at the end of the day. If you have not realized it yet, I was the kid sleeping next door.