CES 2011: Serving Up Some Mighty Tasty and Saucy Gear

Posted on by Mike Quinn

Bologna, in northern central Italy, is the hometown of baloney.

It is also the home of ragù, not the overly sweet jarred stuff we choked down as kids or as quick-meal-gulpin’ singles, but the long-simmered, ultra-rich meat sauce served every Sunday for lunch by nonnas and mamas throughout the city. With maybe 300,000 Bolognese grannies and moms in this generally acknowledged capital of Italian eating, there are likewise 300,000 recipes for this deceptively simple stew of subtle, yet complex flavors. Cream, no cream. Wine, no wine. A bit of parsley, parsley free. Extra pork fat, or leaner beef. The variations are infinite and so are the results. Clearly, some versions are stellar, delicious, maybe even transcendent, while other, less well-executed interpretations may resemble food, but, compared side by side with the best recipes, just barely.

Life presents many similarly varied options. How many drumsticks are there to choose from at your local drum shop? How many different reeds for how many different horns? How many different jeans for how many great, and not so great, looking asses? The list goes on. There just is not one easy solution for many of life’s delights.

Sahara Hotel, Las Vegas During CES 2011

The same seemingly endless list of choices exists in audio. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, scattered around the 1.85 MILLION square feet of exhibit space, hundreds of audio equipment manufacturers proffered thousands of different solutions for extracting music from a black or silver disc, for amplifying that electronic signal enough to drive a loudspeaker, and, finally, for creating the, hopefully, best speaker design around. Oh, and there were thousands of speaker cables, power cables, power conditioners, equipment racks, acoustic room treatment products and vacuum tubes, just to mention a few other product categories. Mind boggling is an understatement.

One morning I sat in a demo room listening to music through a pair of wacky looking speakers from Italy—they resembled two chrome-trimmed robots from a ’50s sci-fi flick, painted Ferrari Red—and wondered how people come up with so many different, often bizarre, engineering solutions for making beautiful music come alive. And though most of us think of simple rectangular boxes when we think of a loudspeaker, even seemingly spare enclosures can be remarkably complex and remarkably different, one from another. The possibilities seem to be endless, and the manifestation of most of those possibilities is at CES every January. For audio geeks, it is truly a marvel—like Christmas in July, only it’s Christmas in January.

There were no grand revelations this year, no big surprises to take the breath and ears away, but the overall quality and quality presented by established names and newcomers alike at this over-the-top expo attested to the basic vitality of the hi-fi world, and today guarantees that we music fans will always have a wide selection of playback gear from which to choose. This is a good thing.

Some highlights:

Jeff Joseph

I’ve always been impressed with loudspeakers from Joseph Audio (www.josephaudio.com). They consistently possess an inherent musicality, no doubt due in part to Jeff Joseph’s obvious deep love of music—this love pushes him and his team to create speakers which hit not only the highs and lows, sonically speaking, but magically transmit the more difficult to convey emotional content of the music, soulfully speaking.

Joseph Audio Perspective Loudspeaker

Joseph’s new entry, the Perspective ($11,800/pair) displayed both muscular authority and delicate finesse, typical Joseph traits.  Jeff sprinkles his demos with imaginative and always satisfying musical examples (and M&Ms)—one of these featured a jazz drummer whose bass drum seemed to float in front of us, lots of air, plenty of punch, and plenty of bottom. Sounds like Cassius Clay to me! Another heavyweight champ from Joseph Audio.

The universe of Moon products, launched from Canada by Simaudio (www.simaudio.com), has recently increased by two heavenly bodies, the Moon 850P preamplifier ($25,000) and the 880M monoblock power amplifier ($38,000/pair). The preamp is a dual-mono design, meaning the circuitry for the individual channels, left and right, work entirely independently of one another. This is a good thing. As is the dual box design which isolates the power supply from the actual audio circuits, helping to make this unit extremely quiet.

MOON 850P Preamplifier

The amps deliver 800 watts into an eight-ohm speaker, nearly enough juice to launch the Space Shuttle, but imbued with the musical delicacy of a mother cradling her newborn infant. I was knocked out by this combo’s ability to handle with aplomb, all the music I was allowed to feed it, no mean trick. Says Moon marketing chief Lionel Goodfield, “We set out to create a new line in which price was no object. Yes, these new products are expensive, but I think this stuff rocks.” I have to agree, Lionel.

Valve Amplification Company—VAC (www.vac-amps.com)—has consistently produced an impressive lineup of tube-based amps and preamps. VAC Chief, Kevin Hays, is truly one of the good guys in high performance audio, and a deft, affable combination of passionate music lover and techie geek. He is tireless in his quest for better sound, and has set a pretty high bar for himself, and, actually, for the rest of the industry. The VAC Phi Series electronics have wooed me since their introduction a few years back. The most recent incarnation, the VAC Phi 300.1a, carries on in proven VAC style…lots of style, power, and most importantly, music. The legendary KT88 power tubes are known for their musicality, and VAC’s designs showcase their qualities in a solid, reliable fashion, all housed in an elegant and handsome chassis. Up the ladder some, the VAC Statement Series is just that: a powerful (no pun intended) statement of strength, control and attention to details…all in the pursuit of musical bliss. In the monoblock 450 amplifiers, more than 105 pounds of hand-wound transformers and a quarter-inch thick aircraft aluminum chassis add emphasis to the declaration of authority made by these beauties.

VAC Statement 450 Monoblock Amplifier

When played through the humongous KingSound Emperor II full range electrostatic speaker panels (kingsaudio.com.hk), the 450s created a relaxed, natural sense of music that was addicting. I didn’t want to leave. These speakers and these amps created a curtain of sound that filled the room with three-dimensional music that was impossible to resist. Kevin, you about ready to free up some review samples???

It is no secret that we are big fans of DeVore Fidelity’s speakers (www.devorefidelity.com).

John DeVore and His O/96 Loudspeakers

I have loved John DeVore’s products for nearly a decade, and have put my money where my ears are: I own a pair of his fantabulous Nines. But for the last couple of years, John has been possessed with idea of creating a new line of speakers that are even easier to drive than his original monkeys, especially friendly to very low-powered amps in the two or three watt range. The result debuted in Vegas this year, the O/96 Oscar ($12,000/pair, including stands), the first of his new Orangutan lineup. The O/96 is a very efficient two-way speaker, full range, capable of producing prodigious amounts of music with those finicky flea-powered amps. Needless to say, I was blown away by the sound, and kept returning to the DeVore demo room for more and more and more. Wish I had the resources to buy these speakers too…they would mate well with my three-watt Fi X amplifier in the bedroom system. So, I’ll keep buying those Lotto tickets, maybe, just maybe….

Bel Canto Design (www.belcantodesign.com) is a much respected high performance audio manufacturer which started out life creating some extremely luscious tube amplifiers. Perhaps adopting a more practical approach to audio (tubes can be a pain to maintain and obtain), Bel Canto head honcho John Stronczer took his company in a new direction in the early years of this century, swapping the then-new “digital amplifier” technology for his much-loved vacuum tubes.

John Stronczer of Bel Canto Design

From the very beginning, Bel Canto set the pace and the bar for reliable, affordable, efficient audio designs based around these new ideas. Well, Stronczer has obviously not been one to rest on his laurels, and Bel Canto continues to innovate and amaze the audio world. The most revolutionary of their new products is the e.One VBS1 ($1,495), a “virtual battery” power supply. For many years, using battery-powered preamps and such has been considered the ultimate in sonic purity, if not also the pinnacle of audio nerdiness. But batteries are expensive, bulky, and in constant need of recharging and so on, so this concept never really spread widely. But, as a by product of  Bel Canto’s work in “switching amplifier” technology, battery power is now within reach of anyone with a few extra bucks. This virtual battery offers much cleaner power to components than any other power filtering device, and certainly more so than AC taken directly from the wall outlet. The result is cleaner sound, higher resolution and increased musical naturalness. This is a brilliant concept, and I’ll wager in years to come, EVERY electronics designer will offer some form of this device. John, hats off AGAIN for leading the pack to a new frontier!

Oracle Paris Turntable

For budding vinyl fans, Canada’s Oracle Audio (www.oracle-audio.com) is introducing their Paris turntable ($3,000 with no arm, $4,000 with a matching Pro-Ject tonearm), a stylish little devil on the outside with potent sonic cojones inside! Oracle has a long history of producing great sounding analog playback gear. Looks like now, even more music fans can listen to their Oracle for a very sound future!

Another Canadian, Tash Goka, is a man who loves music. His wife loves music. So devoted is he to music, and its definitive reproduction, that Tash has become a minor legend in the high-end, partly for his distribution of Antique Sound Labs, an affordable line of tube amps, but principally for his role in developing the Reference 3A (divertech.com) lineup of speakers, all of which are tube friendly of course.

Reference 3A Grand Veena Loudspeakers

Tash had his flagship model, the Grand Veena ($7,500) fired up in his room with a pair of his ASL Hurricane amps ($6,200/pair) and the combination created some powerful Category Five audio. The resulting music did indeed blow me away, but the sound in Tash’s demo rooms always does. We hope to get a sample of one of Tash’s less expensive speakers, the Episode, for a full review later this year. Tash, are you listening?

Brazil is not a country known for its high performance audio gear. High performance beaches, high performance samba and high performance beer, maybe, but one does not typically associate craftsman-level tube amps and Sugar Loaf Mountain or Copacabana. Porra!

Eduardo de Lima of AudioPax

You’re doing Brazilian designer Eduardo de Lima and his astonishing AudioPax (www.audiopax.com) equipment a disservice by so quickly eliminating Brazil in this way. I’ve been admiring Eduardo’s work for many years and it was like old home week when I entered his demo room in January. He brought along his trademark AudioPax KT-88 tube based amps, the 88 A3 monoblocks ($19,000/pair), as was expected. But the big surprise was his new line of speakers. Puxa vida! His Arpeggione ($30,000) speakers were a revelation, on every possible level. The sound was exemplary, the looks beyond Ipanema-beautiful. I sat spellbound listening to disc after disc, bathing in music so real, I was often fooled into thinking there really was a Keith Jarrett Standards Trio behind the curtains! Eduardo, parabens para um trabalho muito bem feito! On our next visit to Rio, we’ll visit Eduardo’s workshop so we can report on how such amazing equipment comes together.

Space doesn’t allow us to elaborate on the terrific sound we heard in several other demo rooms including those playing gear by E.A.R., PrimaLuna, Silbatone, Triode Electronics, and many others. In future reports, we’ll try to make sure what was heard in Vegas, doesn’t stay in Vegas.

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