CES 2012 Report - Jonathan Valin on Loudspeakers $25K and Above

Show report
CES 2012 Report - Jonathan Valin on Loudspeakers $25K and Above

This year’s CES was high on audio excitement, but (with several exceptions we will come to) not so high on fidelity. But…that’s okay. I’m sure that the vast majority of ultra-high-end loudspeaker-makers probably figure that for $25k to $200k or so, potential buyers/distributors expect to be knocked on their butts by the sound—and they’re doubtlessly right to think that way. Forget the timbral, dynamic, and textural subtleties that make, oh, recorded voices sound like actual voices. This is a trade show, after all, so why not embrace excess?

The plain truth is you’d have to be made of stone or straw not to get an almost literal kick out of the thunderous bass drum transients, very deep-reaching synth lines, and room-shaking orchestral tuttis that the Big Boys were generating in abundance on the 35th floor of The Venetian Hotel.

Take, for example, Magico’s new $165k, 750-pound, aluminum-encased, four-way flagship floorstander, the Model 7.

Whether you love ’em or hate ’em (or a little of each), Magico’s irascible Alon Wolf and sweet-natured Yair Tammam, the Jay and Silent Bob of the high end, have in a mere four years changed the face of audio—and changed our expectations of what to look for in large dynamic speakers. Where these big boxes used to be all about bass and slam and dynamic excitement, Magico has transformed them into virtual electrostats, marrying the neutrality, resolution, speed, transparency, and disappearing act of membrane speakers to the power, punch, focus, and dimensionality of cones. It is a Magico act that I have grown to love, which is why it hurts me to say that I found the Q7 (when driven, as it was for three days, by an “unspecified” amplifier, probably of Magico’s own construction) a disappointment. To my ear, it was almost as if Magico had abandoned the standard of transparency to sources it had labored to perfect in its near-unbroken line of loudspeaker successes, culminating in the 2011 TAS Product of the Year Award-winning Q5, and opted for the thunder and lightning of several of its chief competitors.

Oh, the Q7s were very in high energy, all right—from top to bottom—setting a new benchmark (for Magico) in low-end extension and power delivery and in sheer midbass clout. But these things seemed to come at a significant cost. The Q7 (as driven by those “unspecified” amps) were considerably darker, less neutral, and more weighted toward the bass than previous Magicos have been, with a presence range that seemed a mite elevated (voices, such as Captain Luke’s grumbly bass-baritone, were more forward than they should have been) and a beryllium tweeter that was, for the most part, very well behaved but that could still show its teeth on hard treble-range transients. In addition, the Q7s lacked focus (though they had plenty of stage depth and width): At volume, centered vocalists and instrumentalists were splayed across the soundspace (as they sometimes are with omnis), with little edge definition or depth of image and a marked lack of the delicate midband textural details that previous Magicos have been so superb at reproducing. As a result the presentation was exciting as hell, but never, ever, realistic (or transparent to sources). The little movements towards and away from the microphone that Guitar Gabriel makes at the end of “Keys to the Chevy”—details that every Magico I’ve heard in the past could toss off in its sleep—simply weren’t clearly audible. Moreover, Gabriel’s reedy timbre was too dark and chesty, while Captain Luke’s bass-baritone (on “Rainy Night in Talinn”) was turned into a contra-bassoonitone.

The sound was such a departure from the Magico norm that I figured something else was going wrong. I guessed the “unspecified” amplifiers, which had great bass and dynamics, God knows, but not-so-great anything else that matters. And, it turns out, I was right. However, I’m not going to spill the beans about what a change in amps did to the sonic picture. You’re simply going to have to wade through the rest of this show report, like I had to, to get to the silver lining.

Coming to the YG Acoustics room, which was next door to Magico on the 35th floor (coincidence? you be the judge), fresh from the disappointment of the Model 7s turned out to be a genuine tonic. I have to admit that the dramatic change-for-the-better surprised me, as I haven’t been a fan of the Tenor preamplifier and amplifiers that YG was using. Nonetheless, the Tenors sounded so much less colored and more neutral than they have in the past that they made the $119k Anat III Signatures (recently rave-reviewed by the Peter Breuninger in our pages), well, downright Magico-like: neutral, quick, well balanced from top to bottom, and delicately detailed. On “Rainy Night in Georgia” Captain Luke sounded like Captain Luke again, instead of Darth Vader—less dark, more agile, although perhaps a bit lean. Mario Lanza Live in London, one of the toughest timbral/dynamic challenges for any speaker/amp, also fared well, with just a little stress on those unbelievable fortississississimos he belts out. I wouldn’t say the sound from the Anat III Signature was “fool-you” realistic (as it was last year with the Scaena 3.4s and conrad-johnson/dCS electronics), but it was certainly a big step closer to that goal.

From YG, I traveled to the Wisdom Audio room, where its $80k planar-magnetic LS4 was crossed over (at 80Hz) to a pair of its $10k/apiece S10 transmission-line subs via a $6.5k Wisdom outboard crossover). The $106.5k combination is said to go down to 15Hz at 100dB sensitivity. As one might expect, the sound was very full bodied with a good blend of subs and mains. Driven by ARC electronics, the LS4/S10 may have been a little dark in overall balance, but not roaringly so. I detected a touch of megphonics on vocals, but ambience retrieval was superb, as was the resolution of synth lines on “The Calvini Hit” cut from The International.

Still on the 35th floor, I ambled over to the Verity room where its $96k ribbon/cone hybrid Lohengrin 2 was being driven by Lamm ML2.2s (one of my favorite amplifiers). I very much liked this combination at Rocky Mountain, but here, whether because of the room or break-in issues, the sound was a bit lightweight, lacking body and power on the bottom and the top. Attila Bouzay’s resonant zither didn’t have its usual harmonic richness; plus, I had trouble hearing his nimble fingerwork. On other cuts, the sound remained delicate but thin.

From Verity I went to the Wilson MAXX 3 exhibit, where Vladimir Lamm was showing his flagship four-chassis ML3 Signature amplifiers. The sound was considerably less dark and over-ripe than when I heard the ML3s driving the Alexandria 2s in Vegas a year ago. The speakers sounded very natural on a Louis and Ella cut and on my own LP of Joan Baez singing “Copper Kettle” (played back though the OneOf turntable fitted with Graham ’arm and ZYX cartridge). I was going to mark the room down as my first contender for Best of Show when it faltered a bit on the “Dance of the Hours” cut from Venice. The sound was still exceedingly lovely, but the string choirs lacked a bit of detail, the bells and treble-range percussion were a little soft, and the dynamics a little muted on orchestral tuttis.

Nearby the MAXXes, I found the $50k Enigma Acoustics Finale, which looked as if it had been designed by Zorro. (At the point when I showed up, no one then in the room could tell me a thing about the speaker’s driver complement or its design, although it appeared to be a Z-shaped ribbon/cone hybrid). Driven by Pass Labs amps, the Finale was easy to listen to, which may not seem to be saying much but, in this often-obstreperous crowd, was a bit of a relief.

From the enigmatic Enigma, I traveled to the D’Agostino room, where a beautiful new 200Wpc stereo version of his Momentum amp was driving Wilson Sashas (the first of many rooms that used these excellent speakers). I’ve very much liked the Sashas with the D’Agostino amps in the past, and this show proved no exception. The sound was relaxed, well balanced, and very attractive on computer-sourced material. Of course, it is difficult to judge a system when you can’t play your own music, but this was clearly a good room.

We descend now (though not sonically, as you will quickly see) to the 34th floor, where MBL was showing its gigantic $250k 101 X-treme radialstrahler—a speaker I reviewed several moons ago, and positively loved. The 101 X-tremes have not fared particularly well at past trade shows; here, I am happy to say, they sounded almost as good as they did in my own listening room.

Say what you will about omnis, they have at their finest a spatiality and three-dimensionality that is unlike that of almost any other speaker. The X-tremes also have, thanks to their D’Appolito configuration, better image focus than other omnis, as well as excellent overall balance and superb transient response. (I heard a bit of a familiar kodo drum recording that no other speaker in Vegas could touch for sheer dynamic range or overall realism.) These giant MBLs also have the ability to sound fool-you real on certain instruments and voices—not always or even often—but enough times to make you sit up and take notice.

It's odd how "realism" works in hi-fi. It's never a matter of intellect, or at least it isn’t at first. It's visceral, immediate, unmediated by reflection, like the involuntary blink you make when a bright light flashes in your eyes. The X-tremes can make your ear/mind “blink.” (So could a select few other speakers at this show.) On the superbly recorded and otherwise musically remarkable Blue Tofu cut “A Battle Between,” Andrea Mathews and the incredible instrumentalists backing her up sounded simply wonderful. Oh, the X-treme midbass may have been a little strong, but its dynamics were so terrific and overall balance so gemütlich that I didn’t care. (I still think MBL makes the best tweeter in the world.)

The mbl 101 X-treme is a speaker that, whatever its weaknesses, simply makes you want to keep listening. My first Best of Show contender—and easily the best setup of the X-treme I’ve ever heard at a trade show.

Elsewhere on the 34th floor I heard the excellent multiway Sony SSAR1s sound lovely, dark, and deep, playing back four-channel IsoMike recordings of mostly Baroque music. And was, once again, surprised by Tenor electronics, which showed very well with Hansen Audio’s new $68k three-way floorstander, The Emperor E. In the past, Hansen/Tenor combos have sounded overly pretty to me, with too much color and too little texture in the bass, kind of like a sonic finger-painting. This was not the case here. Indeed, I thought this was one of the better showings for Hansen. The Emperor E had greater neutrality and finer detail, top to bottom, than I’ve heard from Hansens in the past.

We now descend to the 30th floor, where Vienna Acoustics was showing its $27k four-way with coincident driver mid/tweet “The Music,” driven by Rowland electronics. On a Mozart piano concerto (with Gulda and Harnoncourt), “The Music” sounded, uh, musical—a little light in timbre, a little recessed in the lower mids and bass, but lively and natural in the heart of the midrange and the treble. Ditto for a recording of Alison Krauss doing “Paper Airplane.” A good showing for VA.

Across the hall, Karl Schuemann was showing his latest AudioMachina creation, the $26k CRG stand-mounted three-way (with powered CRS subwoofer), driven by ModWright electronics. For years now, Karl has been making thin-profile speakers that, somehow, manage to produce prodigious yet extremely articulate and deep-reaching bass. The CRG/CRS was no exception; indeed, the demure powered CRS woof was kind of astonishing given the extension and solidity of its bottom octaves. On the Blue Tofu disc mentioned above (which I urge you to buy for both sound and sense), the AudioMachina was fast on transients, full-bodied in timbre, a little dark in balance (but not excessively so), and extremely satisfying overall, with (as noted) exceptionally good deep bass (and “A Battle Between” has very deep synth bass) and a nice blend of sub and sat. One of these days, our gifted Dr. Schuemann, who, unlike so many in this business, is the soul of modesty despite his superior engineering background, is going to make a no-holds-barred reference loudspeaker—he certainly has the chops to do it.

California-based Ntt Audio Labs was showing its $158k three-way, five-driver flagship, the 103 Mk 2, a large articulated array of progressively narrower, time-aligned MDF boxes. In spite of its size and complexity, the 103 pulled off a surprisingly good disappearing act, sounding very open and natural on voices, such as Norah Jones’, which it reproduced with nice breathy texture. It was also very, very good—deep-reaching, uncolored, and well-defined—in the bass, even on the easily smudged floor-shaking synth beats of the Blue Tofu cut. This is a very good speaker that is far more delicate and sophisticated in sound than it may look from its building-block-like appearance. I loved it.

The $30k Von Schweikert VR-5 Anniversary mulitway flooorstanders, which impressed me at RMAF, were here being driven by sexy-looking Audio Power Labs 50 TNT directly-heated-triode amplifiers. On my tricky Blue Tofu cut, the VR-5s generated better and tighter low bass than I would’ve expected from SETs. Overall the sound was a little dark with a glint of brightness in the upper mids, but the buttery smooth midrange made the speakers very listenable.

 Directly across from the VR-5, the Italian company Eventus Audio was showing its handsome, $60k, three-way, carbon-fiber-driver floorstander, the Nebula, driven by Audia Flight Strumento electronics and an Oracle turntable. Eventus takes considerable care with its cabinets, using high-density resins impregnated with aluminum for its build materials and a technology called S.A.C.C. (Simulated Anechoic Cabinet Construction) to break up standing waves inside the enclosure. Though a little bright and a touch edgy on my Joan Baez LP, the Nebula showed extremely well on the Blue Tofu digital recording, where it sounded open and natural with exceptional bass.

The Spanish company Wadax introduced its $106.5k La Pasión—an active three-way floorstander with DSP, two dedicated 400W digital amps for woofer and midrange, and a separate amp for the tweeter built into the DAC. Although I heard some bass boom or breakup when I wasn’t dead-centered between the speakers, in the sweet spot the presentation was very smooth with nice detail on voices and instruments.

 RBH Sound showed its $50k three-way, eight-driver 8t, with one beryllium tweet, four beryllium-alloy midranges, and three aluminum woofers (in a separate cabinet) per speaker side. Driven by Boulder electronics, the 8t sounded very lively and realistic in the midband on my Blue Tofu cut, though its bass was less exemplary due to a room-resonance problem.

 A few doors down Zanden was showing its electronics with a Grand Prix turntable, fitted with Triplanar tonearm and Lyra Titan cartridge, and the near-ubiquitous, $27k Wilson Audio Sasha loudspeaker. Though perhaps not the last word in low bass, from Venice to Joan Baez the sound was otherwise absolutely wonderful—perhaps the best I’ve heard from the Sashas. Light, lively, open, delicate, incredibly spacious. Kudos to Zanden and Grand Prix and, of course, to Wilson Audio, which earns my second Best Sound of Show nomination.

Kondo Audio Note was showing a $50k two-way called (I think) the Buyura and driven, naturally, by Audio Note electronics. Initially, the midrange lacked focus and bite, and the bass was a bit muddy. But the sound changed dramatically when the field-coil mid/woof crossover was adjusted, becoming much more neutral and focused with tighter bass (although the speaker also became a little brighter overall).

Nearby Burmester was showing its $60k B80 Mk II three-way floorstander, driven, of course, by Burmester electronics. Perhaps there was a room issue, because on my Blue Tofu cut there was simply too much bass, making the speaker sound dark and a little hooded in the mids (though quite detailed). I’ve liked the smaller Burmester speaker at previous shows, but this year the B80 wasn’t my stein of lager.

Across the hall from Burmester, CH Precision was showing the three-way Magico Q3 with Luxman amps. Though the bass suffered a little from room problems, the usual marvelously transparent Magico midrange and treble shone through.

Last year at CES I had a rare epiphany when I heard the Scaena 3.4s make two vocalists sound so “there” it was as if there were no speaker or electronics in the room. This year’s Epiphany Award goes to Perfect8 Technologies’ gorgeous, three-way, ribbon/cone, glass-baffled floorstander The Point Mk II, with separately glass-enclosed side-firing, active-DSP’d subs (one of which wasn’t working, causing the deep bass to thin down on my Blue Tofu cut). Still and all, and in spite of the defective subwoofer, The Points disappeared more completely than any other loudspeaker at this year’s CES. There was absolutely no sense of driver or box on any cut from Andrea Matthews to Guitar Gabriel, which, of course, makes The Point my third contender for Best of Show. (The Points were being driven—beautifully—by BAlabo electronics, BTW.)

Hansen Audio introduced another speaker at CES, the $39k Prince E three-way floorstander and, driven by Viola electronics (and sourced by a Red Point turntable), it was one helluva debut. Absolutely gorgeous on Joanie’s “Copper Kettle,” the speaker showed great delicacy of detail, with none of the typical Hansen opacity in the bass or lower mids. The Prince E may not have had all the detail I hear at home from The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” but the presentation was still phenomenal. Clearly, the best Hansen showing yet, and my fourth nominee for BOS.

Avantgarde Acoustics demo’d its $37k, spherically-horn-loaded three-way Duo Grosso (with sealed-box cone bass), driven by Avantgarde electronics. As usual, the Avantgardes had great clarity and dynamics, but they also had too much spittiness and bite in the upper mids.

Anything but spitty, the ribbon/cone Nola Reference Baby Grand II, driven by ARC electronics (including the new Reference 5SE linestage), showed extremely well. The Carmen Suite was delightful with particularly marvelous treble. (Unless the Perfect8 Points unseat them, the Nolas still boast the best blend of ribbons and cones I’ve heard.) Superb on “Keys to the Highway,” the Baby Grand IIs lost a little reach in the low end and a little bass-range transient speed on my Blue Tofu cut. Still, this is a great speaker.

Also on the 30th floor, Sonus faber intro’d its $120k four-way Aïda, with built-in passive sub and extra mid/tweet drivers on back to augment ambience. Driven by ARC electronics, the Aïda sounded a little dark and elevated in the presence range on male and female voice alike.

Rives Audio showed the $95k Talon Phoenix ceramic-driver multiway, driven by VAC electronics. Alas, the speakers sounded a bit dark, with too much tweet on top.

Next door, Aaudio Imports demo’d its superb Ypsilon electronics with the $100k Lansche Model 7, which combines a plasma tweeter with two 4” midrange cone and four 8.7” woofers in a D’Appolito configuration. Like the Lansche Model 5 that wowed me at RMAF, the Model 7 was extraordinary, with a superb blend of drivers, terrific bass articulation, a lovely treble, and a high-texture midrange. I heard details on my Blue Tofu cut that I’d not heard before from other speakers, without any loss of bass extension, power, or impact. More than a little dark in balance, the Model 7s were still so exemplary that they earn my fifth nomination for Best Sound of Show.

As if it hadn’t already done enough to impress me, Aaudio also introduced the $36.3k BMC Arcadia three-way bipoles with AMT tweeter in a ceramic-compound (silicon-oxide) enclosure of considerable elegance. For all the world, these newcomers sounded like Magicos—showing extraordinary coherence, neutrality, and resolution. An outstanding debut, and another BOS contender.

Down the hall, ZenSati was showing the $78k TAD Reference Ones with Bully amplifiers. The combination was good but not great, as the amp and speaker were not capable of the differentiations in the bass that I heard in other rooms.

T+A showed its $37.5k CWT1000 electrostatic/cone line array, with side-mounted woofers. The ’stat tweeter was simply superb, making a lovely highly textured blend with the mids. Unfortunately, there was a bit too much bass in this room, rather spoiling an otherwise excellent presentation. A promising speaker, nonetheless.

The final entry on the 30th floor was the $139k three-way Venture Ultimate Reference, with graphite-composite drivers in a ported enclosure. I thought the speaker had quite a nice balance (and it was certainly striking to behold), but it lacked a little image focus in this room compared to the competition.

We come now to the 29th floor and the $25k, two-way, stand-mounted Magico Q1, driven by Aesthetix electronics and sourced by an AMG turntable fitted with Graham Phantom tonearm and Benz Glider cartridge. The sound was simply superb—on Joanie, on Venice, on The Talking Heads—with incredibly fine detail, extraordinary bass, and excellent dynamics in addition to the Q1’s seamless blend of drivers and near-complete disappearing act. While the Magicos may have gained a little glow from the Aesthetix electronics, that added warmth certainly didn’t hurt their showing. My seventh nominee for Best Sound of Show.

Eggleston Works’ three-way $25k Andra III were being driven by Rogue Audio’s Medusa hybrid-tube Class D amp. The sound was big and forward—not subtle, but bold and dark and lovely, albeit a little soft on top.

Ted Denney of Synergistic Research managed his usual magic with the $90k YG Acoustics Anat Studios, driven by Esoteric electronics with Synergistic’s Music Cable as a source and a new Denney item, the Tranquility Base (an equipment stand with active EM), removing grit and grain from noisy components like servers. The sound was remarkably expansive and realistic, but with the Tranquility Bases removed low-level ambient cues and layered depth were reduced. A remarkable demo.

Scaena showed its new, yet-to-be-priced 3.4 with true ribbon tweeter and revised midrange drivers, and once again wowed me with that incredible freed-up, free-standing “Scaena effect.” Even on the toughest CD I own, the Lanza Live in London, the new Scaenas showed no compression and no sense of box, although stage depth was somewhat curtailed, perhaps due to nearfield listening conditions. No, this wasn’t quite the you-are-there experience of last year, but it was still plenty impressive. Even sixteen feet away, the subs integrated well with the towers, though they weren’t the very last word in definition at this bass showcase and may have had a little room-induced boom on the very bottom.

Danish manufacturer Peak Consult showed its $110k three-way Kepheus floorstander, driven by Chord electronics. My Blue Tofu cut sounded dark, rich, and full-bodied, with tremendous bass definition (perhaps the best bass yet). There was a little highlighting of Andrea Matthews’ voice, but not enough to bother me. A ravishing sound.

Neat Acoustics of Great Britain was showing its $25k Ultimate XL10 three-way, seven-driver floorstander with EMIT tweeter, driven by c-j electronics. In a show that positively stomped on the bass pedal, the XL10 was a wonderful surprise—extremely natural in timbre, texture, and balance, with no darkness or grain, even on bass-heavy cuts like the Blue Tofu, it is my eighth nominee for BOS.

The $29.5k Electrocompaniet Nordic Tone multiway loudspeaker has been vaporware for so long that I gave up hope (and interest) in reviewing it. Now, however, it finally appears ready for launch. Although still dark in balance, with just a touch of bass boom in the room it was in, this loudspeaker remains extremely promising, with excellent detail, transient response, and timbre on The Capeman and other cuts.

One of my favorite loudspeakers, the mbl 101 E Mk II, did not fare well driven by CAT electronics, lacking focus, dynamics, and bass punch, power, and extension. As the speaker itself possesses these things in abundance (as do the CAT amps), something must've been broken.

AS Distribution intro’d the $30k Blumenhofer Acoustics Genuin FS2 two-way with horn-loaded tweet and 12” cone woof in a bass-reflex cabinet. Driven by Grandin Audio electronics and sourced by an Acoustic Signature Ascona turntable, the Genuin proved to be the genuine article, producing surprisingly coherent, neutral sound with no cupped-hands coloration and very well integrated bass. Whenever the Ascona turntable was in the system, the sound was superb, with remarkable delicacy, neutral timbre, and very high resolution of detail.

After steering clear of CES for awhile, Andy Payor’s Rockport Technologies was once again on hand in the form of the $29.5k Avior 3.5-way floorstander, driven by VTL’s S400 Series 2 stereo amp. On “Copper Kettle” the VTL gear did a 180 from RMAF, making the Avior sound very solid and detailed, with excellent staging. Perhaps not the last word in transient response or bass resolution on the Bouzay zither cut or the full orchestra of Venice, the Avior was nonetheless consistently lovely and musical to hear, with superb string tone and instrumental body.

Cary Audio did a beautiful job driving one of my favorite speakers, the $40k three-way stand-mount TAD CR1 (with coincident mid/tweet). As the Aesthetix gear did with the Magico Q1s, the Cary electronics added a touch of gemütlichkeit to the TAD’s usual superb imaging, coherence, and resolution. This was an excellent demo.

The Wilson Sashas were being show again on 29th floor, this time with VTL amplification and a dCS source. The sound was very good, but curiously a little thin and dry compared to the best demos of these speakers, with somewhat anemic bass.

Constellation Audio introduced its new “budget” line of electronics—the Performance Series (comprising the Centaur stereo amp, Cygnus digital file player/DAC, and Virgo linestage)—in the company of Tidal’s gorgeous three-way, ceramic-and-diamond driver Contriva Diacera, and made the best sound I’ve ever heard from a Tidal loudspeaker. Though the ceramic drivers still added a touch of forwardness and glittery whitishness to the sound, like images projected on the sparkly screen in an old movie house, dynamics and resolution of detail were simply superb. I can’t wait to hear these new Constellations in my own system (I’m slated to review them); on the basis of this showing (and what they did in Munich) I’m betting they’re great.

The gorgeous, $60k, three-way, ceramic-and-diamond driver Estelon XA-Ds, driven by Concert Fidelity electronics, sound pretty much the way they do in my room (I have a pair on review), which is to say beautifully of a piece, but just the slightest big ceramique. This is in many ways an astonishing speaker—as high in resolution as any I’ve heard and dead-center-neutral in balance—but (like all ceramic-driver speakers) it does have a bit of a sonic signature. Unlike other ceramic driver speakers, what the Estelon does not do is compress large-scale dynamics. I will have a good deal more to say about the XA-Ds in the future.

Axiss Audio intro’d Franco Serblin’s new speaker, the $39.95k trapezoidally-shaped three-way Ktema, driven by Air Tight electronics. On Schnittke’s “Quasi Una Sonata,” the Ktema brought very rich, lifelike timbre to both violin and piano, with good reach in the bass and excellent transient response. Boasting a very nice balance of delicacy and color, they may not be as finely detailed as my reference Magico Q5s, but they come mighty close (with superb ambience retrieval). A sparkling debut.

Like Constellation, Soulution introduced a new series of electronics at CES—the 501 monoblocks, the 540 DAC, and 590 USB converter. All I can say (as I said about the Constellation Performance Series) is that these electronics must be great because they made the Magico Q3s sound better than I’ve ever heard them sound before (and, as you will soon see, worked near-equal wonders with the Q7). Since every sonic parameter was phenomenal, the Magico Q3s (in the Soulution room) become my ninth Best Sound of Show nominee.

Before we return to the Magico room—and those pesky Q7s—a word about another intro: the three-way $29.8k TAD Evolution Series speaker, which uses the same beryllium tweeter as the Reference One but with a magnesium rather than a beryllium midrange in its coincident mid/tweet setup, along with twin 7” woofers. Because of room conditions (the speaker was set up side-by-side with the Reference One), it was hard to make a judgment about the E 1, but knowing their greatly gifted designer Andrew Jones as I do I’m sure they will prove to be excellent.

And now back to the Q7 saga.

By the end of the show I’d more or less made up my mind that the new Magico simply wasn’t going to please me the way it sounded on Days One, Two, and Three. As noted, I blamed the “unspecified” amplifiers for the Q7’s problems (I thought maybe the server wasn’t helping, either). This would not have been the first time, BTW, that I was underwhelmed by a Magico loudspeaker that, in my own digs, turned out to be a masterpiece. (Consider the Q5.) But just as I was about to write the whole thing off as “one of those things,” I got a call on the morning of Day Four from Mssr. Wolf asking me to return to the room as “there have been some changes.”

Since I was planning to revisit some of the exhibits on the top floor anyway, I hied my way back up to 35. Here’s what I encountered: Gone were the “unspecified” amps and in their place were the Soulution 501 monoblocks that had so impressed me driving the Q3s. Gone as well was almost everything I didn’t like about the sonic presentation. What had been dark and thunderous became neutral and nuanced. What had been splayed and ill-focused became lifelike and well defined. What had lacked dimensionality and texture gained both back again. What had been a little biting in the upper midrange and softish in the top treble became smooth and clear and extended. Maybe the speaker didn’t have quite the same clout in the midbass that it had with ol’ unspecified (which is precisely why, I suspect, the original amps were chosen), but it sure sounded more like the real thing.

So, with some trepidation and some genuine uncertainty as to how it “really” sounds in more ideal circumstances (i.e., with a turntable), I nominate the Magico Q7 as my tenth and final contender for Best Sound of CES.

And now, at long last, the envelope please.


Jonathan Valin's Best of Show

Best Sound of Show

Although there were many worthy contenders this year, I’m going to settle on the Perfect8 The Point Mk II, simply because it disappeared better as a sound source than anything else (and consequently made voices and instruments sound more “there” than anything else). Of course, The Point also had a non-functional subwoofer on one speaker side, which makes my choice of a broken speaker for BOS seem a little capricious—even to me. Let’s just say that this year you wouldn’t go wrong with any of my runners-up, which include (in the order I encountered them) the MBL 101 X-tremes (driven, of course, by MBL electronics), the Wilson Audio Sashas (driven by Zanden electronics), the Hansen Audio Prince E (driven by Viola electronics), the Lansche Model 7 (driven by Ypsilon electronics), the BMC Arcadia (driven by BMC electronics), the Magico Q1 (driven by Aesthetix electronics), the Neat Acoustics XL10 (driven by conrad-johnson electronics), the Magico Q3 (driven by Soulution electronics), and, yes, at least on Day Four, the Magico Q7 (driven by Soulution electronics).

Best Bargain of Show

This is always tough for me to answer, since I don’t report on bargain-priced gear, but I did get a good listen to the two-way Raidho C1.1, which at $17k (including stand) is a lot less money than everything else in this report, and I can highly recommend it. (It would’ve been a top contender for BOS if it fell in my price range.)

Most Significant Product Introduction

This is another toughie since so much was new and very good, but I’m going to go with the Constellation Performance Series electronics and the Soulution “500 Series” electronics, both of which worked wonders for the speakers they were paired with.

Most Significant Trend

Fewer turntables and tape machines than I’ve seen at CES in the past, and far fewer than at RMAF, where virtually every room was equipped with one of each. I don’t know what this means, given how hot analog is at the moment, but it’s a fact of sad old CES life that digital still holds sway in Vegas.

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