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2009 CES & T.H.E Show Coverage 7, Day Two

KR Audio, Merlin, Musical Surroundings, Euro Audio Team, Zetex

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The only true competitor for biggest vacuum tube at the show was the KR Audio T1610. The KR Audio room was playing the Kronzilla DX, using two of the monstrous T1610 in parallel per mono amp. I spoke at length with the rep from KR Audio had found out that the T1610 is a huge 300B, based on their work with that legendary tube. The plate voltage is only 400 volts. The expected lifetime is 5,000 hours (very good) and replacement price is $1,500 per pair of tubes. Considering what NOS Genelex KT88s go for, not to mention a 212E triode, that price seems very reasonable for a tube with that much power and a long lifetime.

The amps were driving Audio Epilog Cocoa2, producing very delicate and dimensional sound. The Cocoa2, according to their web site, is 5,800 Euros. The rated efficiency is 90dB per watt and frequency response is 40Hz to 20kHz for this two-way with two woofers.

Across the hall, the svelte looks of the Merlin VSM MXE caught my attention. I had a nice chat with Bob Palkovich. He stressed that perfecting a design was much harder than a brand new creation. He mentioned that the VSM MXE came with a filter designed to be run in a tape loop to filter out bass frequencies that the speaker wasn’t designed to recreate. This would eliminate some IM distortion and free up the amp and speaker to concentrate on what it would do well. The filter cuts above 200kHz, the bass is boosted 5.2 dB at 35Hz (for flat response) and there is a filter that gently rolls off bass below 27Hz.

That doesn’t mean that the bass didn’t sound full range. Far from it. For a speaker that has a filter intentionally rolling off the bass, you wouldn’t know it. I had no inclination. The only people who might notice are organ freaks (but you could add a subwoofer for that). Bob uses a custom made choke in the crossover with a huge directional laminated stacked core to get a series resistance of .11 ohms (as opposed to the normal 1.7 ohms you will find in a “good quality” choke). You won’t find an inductor like this in your father’s speakers. The choke is custom made for Merlin by Bob Hovland. The “Bass Augmentation Module” which does the filter jobs, uses a rechargeable battery supply. It is available in single-ended or balanced versions. The 6.5” driver has an X-max of +/- 12mm. Impedance is 8 ohms (6.5 minimum and 15.6 at the crossover). Sensitivity is 89 dB/watt. These are easy to drive with tubes.

From what I’ve read, Bob always has a good room. This time was no different. The system built around the Merlin speakers included the Joule Electra VZN100 OTL amps and “Marianne Electra Memorial Edition LA-300ME preamp”. This room really clicked. Midrange, whether owing to the mouth-watering Joule Electra electronics or the speakers, was transparent. Soundstaging was exemplary. The Merlins sounded much larger than they look. For full-range sound in a relatively compact package, this is a first-rate design. The preamp was making its debut at CES. It sounded so good I forgot to take pictures.

Musical Surroundings always has something new. There was a new vacuum tube phono preamp, designed by Jim Fosgate, on display. The Fosgate Signature phono stage is priced at $2,500. Input tubes are two 6922, followed by two 12AX7 for high gain and two 12AT7 drive the output cables. The unit uses a tube rectifier.

Another device from Fosgate, and one that is not quite finished, is a phono system analyzer, a tool for turntable setup. I’m sorry I can’t give more details, but I believe it is intended to help set VTA and antiskate—though I may be wrong. Price will be $200.

The Aesthetix room was showing the newly updated metal for the Io and Callisto–aluminum in place of the older version’s steel. They also have introduced upgraded capacitors (Teflon). This is a refinement of the well respected Io and Callisto, but now renamed the Io Eclipse and Callisto Eclipse. The older units can be upgraded. A system built around the Rhea Phono and Calypso Linestage was driving the Atlas Stereo amp (200wpc). The source was the Clearaudio Innovation Wood ($9,500), Universal Tonearm ($5,000) and Da Vinci cartridge ($5,500). Speakers were the Vandersteen Quattro. I wish I had a chance to really listen, but this room was full of activity (as you would expect). I can say that the Atlas Stereo amp was sounding warm and full-bodied, and not like your stereotypical transistor gear.

Convergent Audio Technologies (CAT) was showing with a beautiful analog front-end from Euro Audio Team (EAT). The EAT Forte sports a two-part 16” platter weighing 44lbs. The bottom half of the platter incorporates neodymium magnets, though this isn’t a magnetically suspended platter. It uses an inverted bearing with a ceramic ball mating to a teflon cup. The magnets lower the pressure on the ball and teflon cup and the amount of bearing pressure can be adjusted. The platter comes with sorbothane damping (though I don’t know where the sorbothane is located) and a matt made from recycled vinyl records. The platter is driven by two low torque AC motors, coupled with an active speed controller that is supposed to smooth out any perturbations in the line voltage. The two motors and motor controller are housed in a separate enclosure which is made of sandwiched metal and MDF. The turntable feet use a magnetic structure to improve isolation. The Forte in use was sporting an awesome looking 12” tonearm made by Ikeda for EAT. Price with tonearm is E13,300 (euros) and E5,500 without tonearm. Considering the fit and finish, level of technology and size, that seems like a good deal.

The CAT electronics were the JL2 amps and the LS1 Legend preamp. Cartridge was a VdH Colibri. Speakers were Hansens, but I did not write down what model. I was too distracted by the turntable and Jozefina Krahulcova, CEO of EAT.

The sound was marvelous. The EAT Forte was one of the best new analog product at the show and is an intriguing product. I heard very low levels of distortion, noise, feedback, speed variation and coloration. The sound of the system was slightly warm, highly transparent and deeply involving.

I popped into the Zetex room, not knowing who or what Zetex is. They manufacture digital amps that are incorporated into numerous product lines that you would be familiar with, though not names you would usually see in Dagogo. I do think that digital amps are making a lot of gains. Zetex had a custom made amp for CES that incorporated a crossover, DSP and two switching amps, all done in the digital domain, driving some nice quality minimonitors. The sound was quite good actually, though not as three-dimensional as good analog with tubes.

An engineer who was there answering questions stated that the technology is advancing and improving quite rapidly. Zetex has teamed up with NAD to offer cutting edge digital products at an affordable price. If you are a digital only guy (not me), I can understand that keeping everything in the digital domain, including the power amps, can make a lot of sense. We will hopefully be reviewing NAD’s top-of-the-line integrated amp sometime this year. It might be another NAD price-barrier breaking performer that brings great sound to those who aren’t independently wealthy.

The Aaudio Imports room was displaying gear from Acapella, Einstein, Isoclean, Stage III and Symposium. I can understand the avid following that Acapella enjoys. Teamed up with Einstein’s “The Final Cut” OTL, they sound faster and more immediate than 95% of the competition. Priced at $64,300 for the pair, the Acapella High Violon MK4 should be heard if you have a need for speed. The ion tweeter reminds me of the Hal 9000 camera in Arthur C Clarke’s 2001:

“Open the CD player, Hal”.

“Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’m just the speaker. Use your remote control. And my name isn’t Hal.”

The system’s electronics included “The Source”, a balanced tube CD player, selling for $16,900. The preamp was “The Tube MKII” balanced preamp priced at $17,400. “The Final Cut” balanced OTL mono block amps are $32,700 for the pair. By the way, “The Final Cut” sports great specifications:
S/N ratio > 95dB
THD < 0.05%
Damping factor 90/8-ohm, 45/4-ohm
Output power 60 watts into 8 ohms, 45 watts into 4 ohms

Meeting Volker Bohlmeier, owner of Einstein, was fun. He really enjoys talking shop and answering questions. We discussed tubes, transistors and German singers. His choice of transistors for “The Turntable’s Choice” makes a lot of sense considering the difficulties finding low noise tubes. Einstein gets my vote for best looking electronics. The stuff is just so sexy.

For something completely different, the Ocean Way Monitor Systems room was producing state-of-the-art sound in several aspects. First, there wasn’t a more dynamic sound anywhere at the show. Second, the frequency response and phase coherence were first rate. This monitor system, the three-way HR-2A, uses active crossovers, analog equalization and three amplifiers. The mid bass and high frequency drivers are front loaded horns with matching flares (120º by 40º) that have wide dispersion, and do a very good job of imaging. The bass is covered down to 18Hz by a twin ported enclosure.

Amplifiers in the system were rated at 1,000 watts per channel into the bass enclosure, 500 watts per channel into the mid enclosure and 150 watts per channel into the high frequency horn. Allen Sides of Ocean Way, our DJ, played Take Six and a big band recording. There are a few negatives. They look like something you’d see at a live venue. They won’t be forgiving of a mediocre front-end or bad recordings. Lastly, there was a very (and I mean really small) slight “classic horn” coloration. It didn’t really bother me but it is there. I’d love to hear these with tube amps. Price is $38,600, which includes installation, alignment, and all cables.

Luxman was showing their new D-80 CD/SACD ($10,500) player and SQ-38u integrated amp ($6,000) with the Vivid Audio B1 loudspeakers. The SQ-38u uses PP EL34 for 30 wpc output and also incorporates a moving-coil step-up transformer. Also included are tone controls, a headphone output, mono switch, MM/MC selection switch, two pairs of speaker outputs, remote control, pre-out and main-in loop, tape monitor loop, classic Luxman looks. The output is Ultralinear and phase splitting is the classic Mullard circuit (long-tail pair). Tubes used are 4xEL34, 5xECC83 and 2xECC82. This really is an old school creation, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’d love to hear this integrated amp with the MaxxHorn Luminations. Sound of the system was warm and smooth, while offering good imaging and depth.

The Triode Corporation LTD of Japan introduced a tube phono preamp, the TRV-EQ3SE. Priced rather attractively at $2,799, the unit features three sets of inputs (MM, MC1, MC2), single-ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs. The unit can accept MC cartridges with outputs as low as .19 mV, which are stepped up by an EI core transformer using 77% super permalloy metal. The input impedance of the transformer is 2 ohms or 47 ohms, selectable on the front panel. This would make it a natural partner for classic MC designs that need to be loaded way down. Tubes are four JJ ECC803 and one JJ 5AR4.

The rest of the system included the TRV-M88PP ($14,000/pair) and the Acoustic Zen Crescendos ($14,000).

The Sumiko room proved to be a highlight of the show. Disclosure: I like SME tonearms. A handsome looking SME 30-12 (fitted with V-12 tonearm), priced at $50,000, was mated with Audio Research electronics driving the Vienna Acoustics “The Kiss”, $15,000 with stands.

The sound of the system was non-mechanical and non-electrical. I couldn’t pick out anything that gave an aural clue of problems with the front-end, electronics or speakers. Granted, the system was playing music that wasn’t all that challenging, and at rather subdued levels. Still, it was remarkably clean and open. I use an SME V and have had a lot of listening time at Albert Porter’s house where he uses the SME 312S. I was told the V-12 was better than the 312S. It’s hard to imagine. I thought the 312S was about as good as you could get in a medium mass arm. If the V-12 is significantly better, it could be a contender for the best medium mass arm in the world, and maybe the only legitimate medium mass 12” arm available. Of course, it is made of magnesium, a material that is lighter, more rigid and quieter than aluminum. It’s also difficult to machine and requires special shop practices (google magnesium and thermite to see what I mean). There are other good 12” arms out

there, but most are high mass. A magnesium 12” SME allows you to use cartridges that wouldn’t work on a high mass arm like the Ikeda, the classic SME 3012, etc…. The V-12 is $6,995.

TAD was showing the $30,000 Compact Reference (CR1) that uses the Beryllium tweeter technology coaxially mounted inside the midrange. The CR1 is basically a scaled down Reference One. The CR1 approached an ideal point source, producing excellent imaging and depth that approaches the best I’ve heard. In a small to medium size room, it could be a great choice. It sounded very ESL-like through the midrange owing to the point source arrangement and excellent crossover. Obviously, the highs were very extended, with no audible resonances. I would imagine that the Beryllium driver does have a resonance, just not one in the audible range. TAD, the high-end wing of Pioneer, shows just what the large Japanese firms can do when they want to kick high-end butt. They have the technical expertise and engineering horsepower to do just about anything. It reminds me of the glory days of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when audio was king, before video started shifting the focus of the big companies. There’s a boat load of competition at this price point. But, if you have a medium to small room and imaging is your thing, you owe it to yourself to check these out.

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