Greetings from Sodom. How we wish you were here. The weather is getting warmer now that the trees are all cleared. We share no conscience and we recognize no crime. Yeah we got dogs and Valvoline; it’s a pretty damned good time.”*
Welcome to CES 2009. It never fails to amaze me the things that I see during this eclectic display every year. A fine mix of the most amazing displays of human creativity and engineering interlaced with the spectacle that is the annual Adult Video Entertainment convention. And it all happens in the same building no less. It is truly a diametrically opposed spectacle that seems to be so comfortable and at home in Sin City.
I have lived in Las Vegas for 12 years and this marks a couple of milestones for me. It is my eighth visit to CES as a journalist and my first for Dagogo. I have to admit that this year my enthusiasm was infinitely higher than it has been in that past 5 years. I had a great time with the staff of Dagogo as we came together to break bread, break silence and no doubt to some degree break wind in a sense. There was lots of warm wind at the dinner table as a result of a group of fanatical audiophile journalists sharing their modest and most humble opinions on the state-of-the-art and the world at large. It was a wonderful evening to be sure! I am already looking forward to next year.
In my previous life I was always saddled with writing to an audience that looked primarily for low- to mid-priced equipment. Now with the gloves off, and the leash tossed by the wayside I became a far more dangerous man. I learned early in life that I was not great at innately putting limits on myself and still struggle to this day with that demon. So the thought of being allowed to run rampant through Toyland required some sobering, self-inflicted rules of engagement. I am happy to say that I did not buy a $20,000 cartridge or an $85,000 pair of speakers made from unobtanium! That being said, it is never over till the thinly challenged, non-gender specific, upright mammal sings!
According to a number of people I spoke with overall traffic seemed down this year, but many exhibitors said they were getting more serious inquiries and picking up more dealers etc. Quality is always better than quantity.
One other note of importance is that vinyl lives and it lives well. I have to say that roughly 80% of the rooms I found myself in were spinning vinyl. Yes, it is more difficult to live with than CD. No, I cannot store 4,000 tunes on a vinyl device the size of a cigarette lighter. No, I cannot take it on a plane with me and listen to it rather than pay $10.00 to watch a rerun movie. What I can do though is listen for hours without fatigue, read liner notes and enjoy the interaction with the music media and the ritual that is the vinyl experience. It forces me to slow down and revel in the joy of taking time to be involved with the music. Something that we rarely get to do in this day and age! When I find myself tapping my foot impatiently waiting for the microwave to finish my 30-second heating something is tragically wrong with the world in which I live. Vinyl brings me back to a better space and time.
My first foray into a room this year was the Koetsu, Chario, Montegiro and Goldnote room of Hiram Toro, Koetsu USA. I had business with Hiram and wanted to make sure our scheduled meeting was still on. He was out of the room but his lovely wife, Glenda, and his sons, Gabriel and Danny, were there making sure that all the goodies were set up and ready to go. What a wonderful audio family with a great story to tell. At any rate, I was early enough to listen unfettered, which is a real treat at CES. I was particularly captivated by the Montegiro Lusso turntable with DaVinci and SME 309 arms mounted with a Koetsu Coralstone Platinum and Goldnote Tuscany cartridges, altogether representing $53,000.00 worth of analog front-end, feeding the Goldnote 75-watt-per-channel Demidoff Silver Plus integrated amplifier through Goldnote’s premium Pamphili phone stages ending in the charming Chario Academy Sovran speakers.
▲Montegiro Lusso turntable
Goldenote Stibbert tube CD player▼
During my time there, I really enjoyed how well the overall system meshed and performed. Considering that almost nothing was done to the room in the way of treatment and it was not the most optimum setup (is there such a thing at these shows?) there was a sizeable soundstage and very smooth delivery. I later heard from another attendee that the room did not sound so good when the source was CD. The Montegiro initially was running the Koetsu Coralstone, about which much has been written. I got the chance to listen to the Goldenote Tuscany at approximately one third the price. Watch out Coralstone. If the sound that the $5,800.00 Tuscany produced at the show is any indication, this cartridge is going to give a few $5,000 and above cartridges a lot to be nervous about. Look for a full review on the Montegiro Lusso, Goldnote Tuscany and Koetsu Tiger Eye Platinum cartridges here in the next couple of months from yours truly.
Almost directly across the hall was the Audes room. If you are not familiar with this speaker manufacturer from Estonia, you should be. When they first started importing speakers into the U.S. they were primarily inexpensive, value-added speakers. Their original Blues was one of the best bargains to be found in floor-standing speakers. Alas, the global economy started to whittle away at the screaming deals and their pricing became a bit more mainstream, but they continue to build fine speakers with a great deal of value. Their flagship Orpheus was given a number of updates this year and is all but a brand new speaker. Not a bad thing, as this is one great speaker, and at roughly $12,900.00, it represents a great deal of speaker for the money. They sounded very good in the room being driven by $12,495.00 Mastersound Reference 845 integrated amplifiers. The sound was lush and playing with some real dynamic punch. While its stated low frequency is 41Hz, the Orpheus can really run with authority when combined with the right electronics, and produce low frequencies more on the order of 34Hz. Of particular interest was the new System 7. While it was only on static display when I was there, it looked rather interesting nonetheless. Its name was derived by the profile of the speaker on its matching stands. This is an all-in-house speaker design including all drivers and crossover networks. We will keep an eye on this one.
▼Mastersound Reference 845
▼Audes System 7▼
I found my way next to a perennial favorite of mine, and that was the Usher room. The most notable news from importer and distributor Stan Tracht and the Usher wizards this year is the trickle down of the top line cabinet design and materials of the Dancer series to a smaller more mid priced speaker. The new Mini Dancers One and Two sounded exceptionally good, effectively tolling the death knoll for the 6300 series of speakers. At $3,900.00, the Mini Dancer really belted out some great sounding tunes and looked gorgeous with the curved boat tail cabinet design of the largest dancers and sound to match. They were motivated by Usher’s new upgraded mono block power amp. It now sports 150 watts a side and still had that very nice balance of drive and pace and a small smattering of warmth that takes the edge of the solid-state signature. Fronted by the Usher CD, the sound was quite convincing and represented a great value in a system costing much less than $15,000.00. Keep a close eye on this new line.
◄Usher Mini Dancer
The Gershman and Manley room was next up and it was a real pleasure to walk into this room. The thumping rhythmic waves of Keb Mo sucked me right out of the hallway and into the room. On display were the $14,000.00 Gershman GAP 828s being driven by a pair of $12,000.00 Manley 500 mono block amps running through the Manley $5,250.00 300B Pre-Amp. System output is stated at 500 watts per channel from 10 KT90s per side! Talk about overhead! That is serious power in any format, but that kind of pump from tubes is something that you have to hear for yourself. The system was being fronted by a Roksan Caspian CD. This was a great sounding system. Full of dynamic slam and fast, rhythmic bass! Of course, 500 watts a channel will usually get you that and then some. The KT90 tubes do a great job at providing very tightly controlled bass and this system was demonstrating that trait really well. The finish on the Gershman speakers is first rate piano black and the sound was very well integrated with no apparent gaps in the frequency range. I often use Keb Mo recordings during my listening sessions and this sounded as good as I have heard Keb ever sound at a show.
As I wandered the halls of the Venetian, ducking into rooms and making short stops to look for interesting things, I ran across the Metal Sound Design room. I had never heard of the company but from the hallway I heard some good sounds and could see a static display of a monitor speaker that looked quite industrial and they piqued my curiosity. I sat down for a listen to the RHEAW speaker system which included the base module. It was being fed by ICE solid-state amplifiers. The designer Yu Kuk Il apologized and said that the speakers were designed with tubes in mind and that they mated much better to high quality tube amps but they had not received their amps and were working with borrowed equipment (a reoccurring theme this year). This Korean company based out of Seoul has yet to find an American distributor, which is sad because this was one of the top three speakers I heard this year. They have a total of seven speakers in their line and in 2005 they were voted an Innovations award at CES. I was a judge for this event this year and know what it takes to win this award. It says a great deal about the design and quality of the product. The $85,000.00 REAHW combination was simply stunning. I played Nils Lofgren’s “Keith Don’t Go” from a demo disc that I have. It is an acoustic solo version of the song and in a good system will have you feeling that you are right in front of the artist. Everyone in the room and some outside the room were stunned at just how fantastic this speaker sounded. The unit delivered extremely smooth midrange, sparking highs and bass that was low, tuneful and fully controlled. The room had absolutely no treatment and we were relatively near-field in position. I ended up staying for over a half an hour. I inquired about a review pair only to find out that they had no distribution and the speakers weigh over 600 lbs so shipping them is a costly venture. I am staying in close touch with their U.S. representative in hopes that they find a distributor and I can get my hands on a pair for review. In the meantime check them out at www.ilmsd.com and take a look at the Planet and Moon speakers while you are there.
Kuzma had a room this year that was featuring the roughly $9,500.00 (table only) Reference turntable with the Reference tonearm mated to a ZYX cartridge. This was feeding lovely vinyl sounds to Plinius electronics anchored by the 300 watt-per-channel Haito integrated amp and driving the $7,995.00 Reference 3A Grand Veena. It was a very dynamic system and they were playing some live music. I was not aware who the artist was but the reproduction of the “live” experience was pretty convincing for a show demo. Of particular note was the video they were displaying that showed how the Kuzma tables were made. Our own Phillip Holmes is a seasoned metal fabricator and he was marveling at how much hand work was involved in the place of more modern CNC machining in the tables construction. Old world craftsmanship alive and well in 2009!
Kuzma Reference turntable▼
Always a very interesting room to venture into was the Joseph Audio room. Anyone who has been around a while and who has a sense of humor remembers a number of years ago when Jeff demoed his speakers at CES using M&Ms as tuning devices on the tops of the speakers. There is nothing like a little tongue and cheek poke at the insanity that sometimes follows the art of tweaking to make an indelible impression on people. To this day I miss seeing the M&Ms on the speakers. But Jeff has his very serious side and this year he displayed it in the form of the new $7,000.00 Pulsar monitor speaker. In my earlier years I was the proud owner of some of Jeff’s model 7 speakers and kept those for almost 12 years before letting them go to a friend. These are the uber 7s as it were. They were mounted on Atacana stands with a full Bel Canto system of CD, pre and power amps with Cardas cables. What struck me while I was in the room was how well these speakers handled low-level resolution. These are very detailed monitors with excellent bottom-end extension. I hope you will read about them in our pages soon.
◄Joseph Audio Pulsor
One must always keep moving at CES and it is a matter of small getting snippets in rooms and moving on unless there is something really ear grabbing. Such was the case with Von Schweikert room where Albert Von Schweikert was featuring his new small speaker the Unifield 3. He was being aided by a Consonance CD running through a VAC DAC (do you think that little rhyme is intentional on VAC’s part?) and Moscode Amp. Everything was strung with VS cables.
This room sounded about 80% as good as my own listening room. I say that because I currently am running the VS Unifield 3 speakers with matching VS bi-wire speaker cables in my system for review. 80% is saying something because the $15,000.00 speakers are as good as any small speaker I have ever heard, including the illustrious Magico! It is a full range speaker but not in the way you are used to. It is a small monitor using a full range dynamic driver and a ribbon super tweeter with a separate base driver in its own housing.
If you are looking for a speaker that will go just about full range, take up a small footprint and are easy to place, check out the Unifield 3. There now, you don’t even have to read the full review. (Yes you do. –Editor) Big thumbs up here. As a side note they do require matching with the right electronics, but Albert can tell you what works best and what does not work well at all.
I finally had a chance to really sit down and audition the $7,500.00 Gradient Helsinki speakers. I had seen them but quite honestly they looked so odd that I passed them by at the Rocky Mountain Audio Festival. Bad mistake and I should know better than to ever judge a book by its cover. Once nestled into the sweet spot I was stunned out just how well this speaker images. It is holographic and completely removes itself from the room. Add to that the fact that the sweet spot was actually quite wide and you have a winner on your hands. While the speaker shows a sensitivity of only 83dB, it was being satisfactorily driven by a $20,000 DNM Pre-amp and matching $20,000.0 D&M power amp sporting a modest 23 watts per channel. The notable thing about the amp and pre-amp was that they are housed in acrylic and contain almost no metal! Very interesting concept to be sure, and the sound was dynamic and presented way more punch and slam that one is used to hearing in a combination like this with low sensitivity mated with low power. Gradient was also showing its new smaller speaker, the $3,000.00 Laura matched to a set of Resolution Electronics. The entire package with speakers was $9,000.00. A great package for smaller rooms and apartment living.
Gradient Laura & Resolution electronics▼
I was glad I stopped by the Magico room as they were showing their new V2 floor standing speaker. At $18,000.00, it is a bargain when compared to the rest of the line. They were using a Silver Stone music hard drive system delivering music to a Convergent SL1 pre-amp and a beautiful $12,000.00 Convergent JL2 stereo amp sporting eight 6550 tubes per side. Ricky Lee Jones’ voice just oozed out the lyrics to “Dat Dere”. It was smooth as silk and shows that with the right components you can get analogue sweetness out of a digital source. This was a system I could listen to for a very long time and not grow tired of.
This 2.5-way speaker offers a frequency response range from 32Hz to 40 kHz and is worth a serious look.
No CES is worth the trouble without a visit to Dennis Had and Billy Wright from Cary Audio. I still say that they build some of the finest audio gear on the planet and they do it all in a little shop in Apex, NC right near Cary and Raleigh, NC. Dennis always has something new and this year was no exception. At one end of the spectrum were the new Anniversary 211 Founder’s Series monoblock amps. Wooohooo. This sounded just dandy! For $20,000.00 a pair one has a right to that expectation and one would not be let down by these beauties. They have been seriously worked over by Dennis himself and feature a new look that is at once simplistic yet very elegant. Gone is the flat face plate with the glowing eye, and in its place is a sculpted face with a VU meter in place of the eye. Very fetching indeed. Still using 845 output tubes driven by 300Bs, these amps will put out a sweet sounding 110 watts a side in push/pull configuration. These were driving a pair of Martens and throwing down some serious sounds. Definitely one of my choices for my top 3 rooms! On the other end of the spectrum is the new $2750.00 Exciter integrated amp. A small desktop unit, designed to please the discerning headphone fanatic and the high-end audiophile alike. Dennis was using it mated to a laptop computer, driving a pair of monitor speakers and showing the movie Transformers. What a great little theater system. Doug Schroeder will be reviewing this great new piece very soon.
▼Cary Audio Exciter
Cary Audio Anniversary 211 Founder’s Series monoblock▼
I am a big fan of Western Electric tubes. Despite the high cost that only a few Detroit automotive CEOs can afford, they are still some of the best sounding 300B tubes to be found, so I made a bee line for the W.E. room. On display was an all Western Electrics system of tube electronics driving some Isophon speakers with an Acoustic Signature turntable (there goes that vinyl thing again). The driving force behind this system was the W.E. 300B power amps at $60,000.00 a pair. These are not only sonically stellar amplifiers but also some of the most beautifully built I have seen. Also on display was the W.E. Type 117 Line Stage, the W.E. Type 116 Phone Stage and the W.E. Type 203 CD player. When all put together to drive the $45,000.00 Isophon Arraba speakers, the sound was intoxicating. The Arrabas are three way towers with three 9-inch ceramic woofers, coupled with a 7-inch ceramic midrange driver and a 1¾-inch diamond tweeter.
That is it for my first installment. But wait there is more! If you act now and mark this page, Parts 2 and 3 coming soon to a Dagogo near you!
*Thanks to the late and great Kevin Gilbert and Toy Matinee. Lyrics from “The Last Plane Out”.
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