Vegas 08 Roundup
Vegas 08 was truly an exhibition of sports cars for your living room. If one were to add up all the equipment on display, I have no doubt this year’s total audio MSRP would double years past. $100k speakers? Check. $139k amps? Check. $25k monitors? Check. $21k subwoofer? Yup, Vegas had it all.
Apologies for those readers looking for gear they can actually put in their living rooms – next year, one hopes more reasonably-priced equipment will make an appearance. For now, lean back and ogle these remaining supermodels of hi-fi not previously covered in our posts...
Salagar @ CES
Vegas 08: Marten and E.A.R.
Tim De Paravacini is the Gandalf of hi-fi. The man behind E.A.R. Yoshino and the go-to guy for anything tube amp related is, without a doubt, one of the world's greatest sorcerers of sound. In Vegas, I had breakfast with the man and, after a 45 minute narrated adventure through the inner workings of a Technics reel-to-reel, it dawned on me that my brain is simply not large enough to handle Mr. Tim's wisdom. I shook his hand and had to go watch some American Idol before returning to CES lest my skull explode with tech talk.
In any case, it should come as no surprise the E.A.R. room with Marten Design loudspeakers was one of my favorites. Tim's now-famous Acute CD player and Disc Master turntable did duty for the new Marten Form speakers.
These new speakers, as you can see in the pic above, are triangular in shape and jaw-droppingly gorgeous. At $6500/pair, the smallish Form speakers immediately struck me as perfect high-performance speakers for the design-conscious hi-fi fan. Edgy Euro-styled faux-industrial loft-living your thing? Your new speakers have arrived.
As for sound, I didn't get a huge amount of listening in, though the Marten speakers are, from past experience, in the Intense group while the E.A.R. components fit roughly into the Vivid camp. This E.A.R. and Marten pairing is a perfect match that leans more to the Vivid side than, say, into the Precise or Intense groups. The speakers being svelte two-ways made for excellent room/speaker interaction that was, to my ears, excellent.
The Form speakers feature the same Accuton ceramic woofer as the far more expensive Marten speakers, but now with a ribbon tweeter instead of the ceramic or diamond tweeters of the bigger brothers. To my ears, the ribbon was a great choice and did, in some ways, create a more appealing every-day response than the stiff domes. Having heard the Marten Birds, Miles IIIs, Coltrane Supremes and Dukes, I think the new Form speakers are my favorite Martens far. Of course, I may just be in love with the looks, hard to say.
The bass response via the bottom-firing port was tremendous. Marten added a subwoofer a few days into CES, but when I was first there listening sans-sub, the bass was anything but shy. The Form speakers, as the perfect design-conscious speakers they are, don't need a sub for satisfying high-performance, every-day listening. Expect to see more about these triangular Jessica Albas in the near future here on the 'Flare.
Visit our EAR/Marten gallery here for more flattering photos.
Vegas 08: Vivid and Luxman
And now, for one of the most talked about rooms in Vegas. On A Higher Note's presentation in the Mirage Penthouse wasn't for the timid audiophiles, but the true music loving, hi-fi fans who feel a nice glass of wine goes perfectly with concert-level volumes and earth-shattering dynamics. I should know, I spent more time in the Vivid Penthouse than any other room at Vegas.
The new Vivid Giya speakers (Roughly $54k) were on everyone's list, in no small part due to the proliferation of our SonicFlare coverage. I ran into French photographers, talk radio pundits and a variety of unusual personalities from the far reaches of audiophilia sitting in the shadow of the Giyas. Everyone had to see the twirling carbon fiber speakers and play critic about their looks and sound.
Unfortunately, despite being in the room on numerous occasions, I didn't have a chance to listen to my own mega mix. The room was consistently packed with people who came for the critical listening. The Vivid demo featured a reel-to-reel machine playing new tapes by The Tape Project that sounded, simply, out of this world. These ungodly good recordings did, no doubt, cast the Vivid/Luxman setup in the best possible light, but discerning the true nature of the components and speakers was nearly impossible.
That said, the big rig sounded fantastic and I have no doubt the sound fits with the Vivid/Luxman sound I heard about at RMAF and raved over accordingly.
One track that did get massive play was Yello's Planet Dada. This track's bass energy, as we've already talked about, is unbelievable. Laurance Dickie, designer of the Vivid speakers, built a number of custom pro rigs for DJ buddies after leaving his gig at B&W designing their premium Nautilus. While in the pro world, Dickie developed his signature short coil, long gap drivers with output suitable for dance clubs. Each Giyas' double 11" woofers put out so much bass down low -- while keeping the rest of the frequency clear -- it was terrifying (in the best way possible).
In fact, as Danny mentioned, during one spirited demo, two embedded lights in the ceiling fell out. Dangling like busted eyeballs, main man Philip O'Hanlon decided it was time to dial it back a bit.
The way the Giyas produce so much clean, clear bass while keeping the volume at standard listening levels is, in part, the the big twirl up top. After Laurance Dickie and I finished talking about Europe, camping and Burning Man, I pinned him down on what in the name of all that is good and holy the twirl actually does. SImply, the twirl creates near-zero cabinet coloration while amplifying the bass to epic levels.
Philip forwarded me the patent application for the Giya loading system with corresponding charts and the twirl, based on the numbers, sends the back bass wave down this long, tapered funnel which, in turn, allows deeper, cleaner bass at lower power than a vented or sealed design with the same internal volume. The Giya does sport ports which, if you look closely, hug the bass drivers much like intake vents on a Porsche. This unusual porting combined with a massively long, tapered cabinet, allows the bass goes deeper and louder than most any other design with double woofers.
Additionally, the woofers on opposite sides of the cabinets are mechanically coupled -- meaning, they are attached via the magnets and, through special a O-ring design, function without vibrating the cabinet. When playing at tremendous levels, the cabinet barely affects the mid and high drivers which are, themselves, isolated from the rest of the cabinet via the O-ring design.
And the tech only starts there. I had a chance to peek at the crossover while Laurance was switching cables. Get this -- the crossover is a triple decker design. Three roughly 6" by 8" crossover boards are stacked on top of each other at the bottom of the cabinet. Truly a work of genius/madness.
The complete setup included the new Luxman B-1000f super class-A monoblock amps, the C-1000f preamp, Weiss digital CD player and, as previously mentioned, The Tape Project's custom reel-to-reel and media. Cable by Shunyata, racks by Still Points.
If you're in Los Angeles, the Giyas will be appearing at The Digital Ear for the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society get together come Sunday, Feb 24th from 2-5pm. Visit here for more details. The SonicFlare posse will be there so drop on by and say "hi."
seen and heard @ CES, part IIIAyre
Vegas 08: Wilson Thor's Hammer
Wilson Audio's display in the Mirage tower showed off their premier products and their new super sub, Thor's Hammer (middle, above). Thor's Hammer is a double 15" woofer with custom woofers featuring double spiders -- imagine a 10" woofer sans cone welded on the back of a 15" magnet (pictured left). Alas, the sub was only on static display and not bumping tunes and blowing out windows. Price is what one would expect from a statement Wilson product: $21,000.
Daryl Wilson, son of Dave Wilson, and I had a moment to talk about Wilson, SonicFlare and "sports cars for your living room." The Wilson image is, I'm told, modeled on Ferrari. The finishes, the lines, the identity -- Wilson wants to be the Ferrari of high-end audio and is aiming for prime time publicity in music videos and films. I hope they succeed -- the sooner one brand becomes mainstream and desirable, the sooner the entire industry gains recognition.
More Wilson pics in our gallery.
Vegas 08: TAD
TAD, Pioneer's premier brand, showed off a new line of products by designer Andrew Jones. The new TAD products include a mega monitor (shown above) featuring the same beryllium mid/tweeter and custom drivers as the big daddy TAD Reference 1 speaker. Also new are a center channel and prototype monoblock amps.
While I didn't get a chance to hear the new gear, one TAD employee showed me shots from earlier in the day where the TAD room was packed with listeners sitting on the floor and smashed against the walls. Indeed, the large TAD room was one of the most popular at CES. If the traffic is any indication, expect to see and hear a lot more of the new TAD speakers this coming year.
Check out our gallery for more TAD photos.
Vegas 08: Montagna
"What are these speakers?" "Uh..." "English?" "Uh..." "Ferrari?" "Ah! Ferrari!" "Lamborghini?" "Lamborghini!" And so began my dialogue with the designer of the wild Montagna Spark 03 speakers from Italy. Mr. Giorgio Montagna exhibited his creations without the help of a translator, leaving only the universal language of popular Italian exports as the single mode of communication.
Thankfully, there was also a brochure in English describing the Spark 03 speakers and their unusual traits. Starting with the drivers -- all custom, all with wildly expensive heavy-weight Alnico V magnets (popular in exotic speaker designs). The metal dome tweeter mates to the 4" metal dome midrange around 5kHz. The 4" dome midrange magnet alone is a massive 5lbs (you can see it sitting on the floor in the pic above). The 15" woofer kicks in at 430Hz and takes it down below 35Hz.
Sensitivity is a wildly high 102.5db which, if memory serves, is higher than any other non-horn 3-way loudspeaker on the market. Mated with the NuForce gear, the sound was unbelievably revealing, fast and powerful, handling my most tortuous tracks as if they were elevator music. That said, I don't think NuForce was the best match for these speakers. Mr. Montagna has a tube amp in the works that is, undoubtedly, made to fit the qualities of Alnico magnets and metal domes. While the sound was fantastic, I would love to hear these speakers again with purpose-built components.
Other tricks include "floating" feet that allows the speaker to sway back and forth if bumped. Also, the high and mid drivers can be rotated and positioned in any way whatsoever. There's an integrated leveler on the top of the speaker for precise placement. The entire speaker is machined aluminum and steel and finished with Italian automotive paint (hence the Ferrari and Lamborgini references). Overall, the construction and finish is absolutely outstanding and worthy of the best Italy has to offer.
Of course, Italian craftsmanship is never cheap. If the speakers are picked up for US sales, the price will be roughly $120k. That makes, oh, a half dozen speakers in Vegas over the $100k mark. I hope Montagna finds some way into the US market, for no other reason than to satisfy my need to hear these hyper-exotic creations again.
More pictures in our gallery.
Vegas 08: Guru Speakers
It's no secret I love these guys. At RMAF, I raved about the $2595 Guru QM10's monstrous bass and dynamics from their mini-me cabinet and 4" woofer. After my RMAF coverage where I took these speakers to the limit, the Guru guys integrated an overload meter (the tiny dot between the woofer and tweeter) that lights up when the driver is nearing max excursion. I tested it out with healthy doses of Spoon and Yello and it works as advertised and keeps the music at a sensible (though ear-busting) level. To find out more about these speakers and their 30Hz bass extension, read my RMAF coverage for all the details.
Guru also has an active version in the works for studio monitoring and hi-fi fans who love powered speakers (count me among them). Shown above is the flawless high-gloss finish. There is also a matte version and, I'm told, a tricked out flame affair in the works. Visit the US site importer Sjofn Hi-Fi to purchase.
More pics in our Guru gallery.
Vegas 08: Davone Audio
Davone Audio out of Denmark demoed their new Rithm speakers in the large, open convention area at CES. While we usually don't cover products that aren't sold in the states, these Davone Rithm speakers are just too cool to pass up. What you're looking at is a 28" tall speaker with a 8" coax driver (tweeter inside woofer) that's bottom ported out the front. A classy (and patented) multi-ply construction makes up the flowing baffle (big pic next page) and binding posts are hidden in the tail area. I love speakers with excellent industrial design and Davone's Eames-worthy pieces are true to the increasingly popular mid-century design aesthetic.
From what I could tell, the sound was nice, despite the massive room with unfortunate background noise. Here's hoping a US distributor picks up these speakers for the design-conscious American hi-fi fans. Price is, I'm told, roughly $6000 a pair.
seen and heard @ CES, part II
Yello, Vivid & Luxman = maximum satisfaction
What do you get when you crank Yello’s Planet Dada Flamboyant Mix to 115db peaks? Hint: duck for cover, as ceiling mounted objects may start flying. The following is a true story of the events as they unfolded around 8:34pm local time, Tuesday, Januray 8th, 2008. As guests started pouring into Philip O’Hanlon’s Luxman/Vivid/Weiss room (Mr. O’Hanlon is of course the preeminent Irish posterchild of the O’Hanlon family tree; whomever would call him British ought to be punished by drinking ten rounds of nice, warm, toasty British Ale, followed by four servings of fish & chips, deep fried, natrually), everyone immediately opined and conversed about the unusually striking Vivid Giya loudspeaker.
“Yes, but how do they sound?” That was the question on everyone’s mind. Philip, his usual confident self, left that answer to the Giya’s and promptly turned the knob, volume knob that is, to about 1 o’clock. For the attendants of this show and tell event this was superb entertainment. Driven by Luxman’s reference B-1000f monoblocks capable of delivering 2kw of power into 1Ohm, the Giya’s were moving some serious air, with peaks hitting 115db. If you read my article on how much fun it is to listen to music loud, than imagine the vibe this session initiated. Then, suddenly, “POP, POP” No, the drivers didn’t blow up; neither did the B-1000f’s: instead, two ceiling mounted spot lights came undone by the shear power and bass energy emanating through the room…
Wow. Now that my friends, is show business! (Nikon D300, ISO 6400, NR = Medium)
What do you get for $5000 these days? Well, you can buy a pair of Zu Druids with a nice Manley integrated, or, the new Nikon D3 body only - of course. Having shot all my photos this year with the D3’s smaller brother, the D300, I am definitely looking forward to getting the D3 at some point in the future. Unlike the D300, the D3 is a full frame (ie. no crop) sensor design, which means that all your Nikon glass will work exactly the way it was designed: the astounding 14-24mm ultra-wide angle for example will be just that, an ultra-wide at 14mm. 9fps, totally useable ISO 6400 performance, what else does one need?
No surprise then that I saw at least a dozen or so D3s at CES, mostly Japanese bloggers and techies. Being my spontaneous self, I managed to fire off a salvo at an innocent female bystander in the cramped confinement of elevator shaft #3 at the Venetian. Hearing 9fps clacking away made for amusing giggles from the Japanese fella’ who “lent” me the camera and even more so from the cute female. Now where are those fotos, dude? (He promised to email them, I’ll keep you posted)
Music Servers galore
Talking to a famous Hollywood insider, er, audiophile insider during CES, our conversation turned to the future of high performance audio. “You know Danny, what I love about HE audio is that this industry perfects what the masses want and use.” Thus, as I had predicted 5 years ago, music servers and various (high-end) iPod gadgets were all the rage at this years show. With companies like Naim, Wadia, Sooloos, Hovland, Krell, Modwright (Transporter) and many others displaying their latest wares, I think one can safely say that these types of devices will soon penetrate even the most die-hard audiophiles as being the legitimate successor to the venerable compact disc. If you thought entering this realm would mean spending gobs of money, think again.
The most inexpensive way to begin serving yourself is via the iPod/iPhone. Wadia, one of the most recognized names in the digital domain launched their iPod/iPhone dock, aptly dubbed the “iTransport” which allows the iPod to output its signal natively, ie. bypassing the iPod’s guts and internal DACs. Then your DAC of choice takes over and, voila, high quality music from the iPod comes alive.
In essence, this $349 device, coupled with a 6th generation iPod is your least complicated way to enter the world of hard disk based, integrated music servers. The minute they become available, a unit is being dispatched to us for a full review.
Vegas 2008: Sonicweld
What can I say about Sonicweld I haven't already said before? Actually, quite a lot. In Vegas, the Sonicweld complete super system had a larger room than at the RMAF and for great results -- there's nothing quite like judicious volume knob cranking for concert-level decibels. And yet, while the space was larger, I feel the Sonicweld system was just itching to peel the paint off the walls with 120dB blasts.
As for technology I didn't cover in my RMAF analysis, one of the interesting elements of the Sonicweld Puserod speakers are the six titanium midrange drivers. The magic happens in the mid, as we know, and these 2" drivers with all of 1 gram of moving mass and neodymium magnets make the mids pop like almost nothing else out there. Simply, the Sonicweld system is, if nothing else, a speed demon that, with such tiny decay between the notes, lets you "hear into the music" with 1080p-like detail.
This super accuracy means the Sonicweld system has a prototypical Precise-type sound. Tube junkies will think it needs more warmth and may get scared off by the hyper real dynamics. Then again, I heard comments from tube heads who couldn't get enough of the Sonicweld sound. When you're at this level, tonal characteristics are simply a matter of personal taste.
One element everyone can (or should) agree on is the Sonicweld bass. I'm a firm believer that only a powered, EQed sub can truly handle the monster lows and Yello's "Planet Dada" track over the Sonicweld system was just worlds of sternum-pounding fun. While other systems were able to bang out the deep notes, the Sonicweld double 15" subs are truly in a class of their own if, for no other reason, than they integrate seamlessly with the rest of the system via the central DEQX processor. This digital EQ combined with two of the most serious 15" aluminum cone drivers ever devised created a bass experience that allowed you to feel the subsonic notes without bloat in the other frequencies. Absolutely wild.
Hear these speakers if you get a chance and ogle more Sonicweld pics here.
Clearaudio @ CESClearaudio always has the most turntables on display at CES. Last time I checked there were more than 20 turntables in their arsenal! The "Statement" was the eye-catcher in their room, prominently displaying Clearaudio's utlimate knowledge in turntable design and manufacturing. Fun starts at just a tad over $1000 and virtually every turntable they make is upgradeable for improved performance and sonics! Way cool...
seen and heard @ CES, part I
Mastertape dubs from Quinton / AAA and The TapeProject
Who’d have thunk it? It’s 2008, music servers are knocking on everyone’s door; iTunes is quickly becoming the norm for music purchases; vinyl records, especially 45rpm double disc editions, are selling like hot cakes and yet two companies are embarking on travels to even higher esoteric grounds: real time duplicated reel to reel mastertape dubs!
Indeed, you heard right – mind you these have nothing in common with pre-recorded tapes of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s (mass dupe'd at typically 30x (!) normal speed, hit or miss sonics) – no sir, these are pristinely produced reference quality (is there any other?) tapes duplicated with the best possible machines and mastering labs.
Both Quinton / AAA (Austrian high-end label from Vienna in collaboration with the AnalogAudioAssociation from Germany) and TapeProject (Paul Stubbelbine, Dan Schmalle and Michael Romanowski) make these dubs available on RMGI SM468 tape, in ¼” width recorded with the CCIR/IEC eq curve and 2mm track gap at 15ips speed for best possible sound.
Tapes were seen and heard at the Luxman/Vivid room Mirage Suites (Studer A80 w/ Doc Bottlehead custom electronics), EAR/Tim d.Paravicini custom electronics Technics RS-1500, FIM and Kubala-Sosna/Kharma room as well as several others. Rumor has it that next year a dedicated tape room will be available for all to see and witness… wow!
The six Quinton / AAA titles (2 10” reels per title) currently available (though to be dramatically expanding their catalog this year) are modern day audiophile jazz recordings. Artistically, these are what I would classify as contemporary jazz recordings by such artists as Sabina Hank, Joe Locke, Ed Howard and many others. Sound quality is simply stunning to say the least. Everything you have heard about the sound of mastertapes is true – I personally compared the sound of the six titels to their respective compact disc counterparts on my system and can tell you that the discs have absolutely zero chance against the superior tapes. The best of the best!
The TapeProject on the other hand (also 2 tapes per title), went the route of actually reissuing classical, rock, pop and jazz titles, ten of which are available as of this writing. Applause is to be given to these guys for I know that securing the rights to these titels (Saxopone Colossus, Waltz for Debby, Symphonic Dances from Reference Recordings, etc.) could not have been easy to do. Sound wise these are the definitive versions to be had as was aptly demonstrated in various rooms at CES. I am not kidding: you won’t find better versions of these classic recordings anywhere from anyone – period.
There is only one downside to these elaborate and time consuming works of art: cost. At roughly $300+ a title
(yes, both labels offer subscription models with certain discounts if you commit to buying a set), these master recordings aren’t cheap. Add to that cost a well maintained or reconditioned consumer or pro deck ($1000 to $10000+) and you quickly see how expensive this proposition is. Alas, for people who want the best, there is nothing better! Full reviews scheduled shortly! (Joe Kubala holding Quinton's Kyoto and giving it the ol' Thumbs up, way up!)
Yep, I don’t think I have seen a higher iPhone density at any other time or place since its launch in late June. It looks as though just about everyone had one! Surprisingly, foreigners sprung tons of iPhones, which means they either a) bought them legit through their international carriers, or b), bought them in the US (what with the instant 40% discount you get these days with the dollar being so low) and unlocked them through third party apps.
This tremendous iPhone density perhaps explains some of the hick-ups I’ve noticed during my visit: sporadic internet access restrictions; iPhone’s striking visual voicemail not working properly; missed calls (and voicemails) not showing up until the next day; etc. Meanwhile, someyoungguy who ran around with an ATT badge claimed to a friend of his that iPhone now accounts for 80-90% of continued internet traffic read: website usage on ATT’s GSM system – staggering numbers if true, since iPhone has been on sale today for exactly 200 days.
Several audio & music demos I came across featured iPhone’s as the source, or at least, people who had brought theirs had asked the iPhone be used for music playback. Wow!
I get a kick thinking back to what all naysayers had professed 6 months ago “iPhone? No one will buy one, its too expensive!” I think Apple has a winner on their hands!
Stay tuned for part II…
Vegas 08: Acoustic Systems
If you're familiar with the the brand Acoustic Systems and the mad scientist Frank Chang, well, forget everything you know. The story from CES isn't the stick 'em tweaks, but the new Acoustic Systems Tango loudspeakers ($20k, big pics here). The speakers combined with 1200 watt (yes, into 8 ohms) monoblocks by Karan Acoustics simply blew me away and provided one of the very best Vivid style sounds at the show.
I last heard the Acoustic Systems Tango speakers at RMAF and wasn't thrilled. Same Karan equipment, but at CES the Tangos appear to have new midrange and bass woofers. While at RMAF the sound was nice and laid back, at CES it became lively and exciting and just made me want to get up and dance. Vivid sound is defined by a warm tone with in-your-face precision and attack. The sound isn't laid back or mellowed for everyday listening, but big and full and tons of fun.
While the magic is in the midrange and treble, the bass is in another world entirely. I put on the loudest, most annoying hiphop track I had then took a gander at the triple 8" drivers -- no movement. The system was hitting in the low 20s and the drivers were barely breaking a sweat. I asked Frank Chang about the driver technology and he was either coy or confused by my questions. I'm a junky for driver specs but I could find out a thing.
What he did reveal is a unique "pressure releasing" port system in the form of a little notch the size of a fig newton. A few other companies have used tiny pressure ports (typically in subs) with great results and the new Acoustic Systems Tango really takes it to the proverbial 11. Fantastic job and I can't wait to hear the speakers and amps again.