CES 2012 Report - Kirk Midtskog on Solid-State Electronics $12,000 and Below

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CES 2012 Report - Kirk Midtskog on Solid-State Electronics $12,000 and Below

This year's CES seemed more relaxed than last year's, at least in the corridors of the primary “High Performance Audio” venue, The Venetian, Las Vegas. Maybe people are just not continually, anxiously trying to predict the general direction of the world economy as much now; it has simply been too difficult to nail down for a few years, and so folks simply plug along without much hand-wringing anymore. Instability could be the new norm...for a while at least. In any event, my CES coverage category proved to be filled with new offerings from a wide variety of companies.

Krell Industries introduced the 275-watt 500i integrated amplifier priced at $5000. The preamp section borrows many design elements from Krell's flagship Phantom preamp: discrete circuitry, balanced topology, a dedicated power supply, no negative feedback, and a balanced resistor ladder volume control. The power amp section features a large 1750W transformer and 68,000µF of capacitance that fits into a 5” high, sleek-looking chassis. Also using only discrete circuitry throughout (no integrated circuits and op-amps), the power amp section boasts 275 watts into 8 ohms and 550 watts into 4 ohms, which makes it able to deliver the juice as the speaker impedance demands more power to maintain output linearity. Rather than a beefed-up version of its 300i model (150 watts), Krell has sought to bring more of its upper-level components' performance to a more affordable and smaller package. It does not have provisions for digital inputs (with an internal DAC), I assume because Krell believes that the digital world is in constant flux and the purchaser of the 500i would be better served by an outboard, more easily upgraded music server/DAC solution. The 500i should begin shipping around March of this year, and I certainly look forward to hearing it someday. (It was on static display only.)

Another brand-new integrated amp, this time from a smaller company, also caught my eye: the 200 watt, $4995 ModWright Instruments KWI 200. This somewhat muscular, nice-looking unit captures the “simple and integrated” theme very well. One box handles preamp and power amp functions (of course) as well as optional digital and phono (mm) signals (USB DAC $1150, phono $350). It has only two large knobs, for volume and source selection, and two numeric displays (same functions), which truly are legible from across a fairly large room. The asynchronous onboard DAC can handle up to 24/192 files via USB or RCA S/PDIF inputs. The KWI200 uses a digitally-controlled analog volume control that feeds a buffered input to a version of the same power amp stage found in all of ModWright's amplifiers. The KWI200 outputs 200 watts into 8 ohms and 400 in to 4 ohms—beefy, indeed. I heard the unit demonstrated with a VPI Classic One turntable and a Dynavector 20X H cartridge with Audio Machina CRM Compact Reference Monitor speakers. The setup sounded dynamic, present, detailed, nuanced, and well balanced. Look for more about the ModWright KWI200, as I believe it is worth auditioning.

Ron Sutherland, known for his well-regarded phonostages, has recently brought his engineering skills to building preamplifiers and a power amp. Sutherland Engineering offers a brand new line called the Destination Series whose models can be characterized by “channel-separated construction”; everything is housed in separate L and R mono chassis, including the new phonostage called the Phono Blocks. The Phono Blocks ($10,000) are a further expression of Sutherland's channel-separation approach found in his 20/20 model which houses the two channels' circuits in separate smaller boxes held together by larger outer chassis plates (with quite a bit of space between the two “inner” boxes). The Phono Blocks take the separation even further by placing each channel's circuitry in two standard-width chassis. The Line Blocks ($15,000) linestage adds a third chassis just for the control electronics: input selection, volume control, and the display—which gets a bit of retro chic in the form of a pair of 1950s-style Nixie tubes whose elements display numbers depending on which elements (within the tubes) get voltage fed to them. The two other Line Blocks' chassis have all the input and output connections, and are where the signals are actually buffered and amplified, thereby keeping the control electronics well away from the audio signals. The most recent addition to the new Destination Series is the 400-watt Power Blocks, which are housed in the same low-profile chassis as all the other models in the line. The Power Blocks are based on the ICE Class-D module, but Sutherland has greatly modified the standard ICE module to suite his needs. I will say that I did not hear the typical chalky grain structure I have heard from many Class D amplifiers. Fronted by a beautiful Merrill-Williams Audio REAL 101 turntable and Ortofon cartridge, the entire Destination Series stack feeding a pair of Vandersteen Quatro speakers sounded just beautiful: detailed, intimate, low in noise, musically compelling, and realistic in tonal colors. Sutherland also makes a new all-in-one chassis, full-featured preamp called the N1, which also uses the same Nixie display tubes and some other trickled-down technology from the Destination Series.

Peachtree Audio, known for its great-sounding budget electronics that incorporated iPod docking and USB inputs before a lot of other companies caught on, has gone more upmarket in an effort to deliver much higher performance but still keep prices competitive. The Grand Pre, a flexible preamp has a range of both digital and analog inputs: digital, BNC (75 ohm) two S/PDIF (RCA), two optical, USB (asynchronous); analog, balanced XLR and RCA. Outputs include fixed line-out, high-pass preamp-out, RCA and XLR preamp-out for connecting to a power amp (or a powered subwoofer). Loaded with technology like an ESS Sabre32 DAC, galvanic isolation, a 24/192 USB connection, and a VCA gain control, the Grand Pre appears to be well equipped for $2999. Also more upmarket and more powerful for Peachtree is the 220 power amp, a Class D stereo amplifier with both RCA and XLR inputs priced at $1399, it increases its output from 220 watts into eight ohms to 400 into four ohms. I heard the new Peachtree gear (fed by high-res files) driving a pair of B&W 802 Diamond speakers and cabled with Shunyata Python signal and power cables (and a Triton power conditioner) sound remarkably fluid, full-range, dynamically alive, and musical—definitely non-Class D sounding in the absence of a sense of an underlying chalky, teeth-vibrating grain structure. These components seem to offer flexibility and good sonic performance at real-world prices.

T+A now offers its relatively powerful (140 watts) and flexible integrated amplifier, E Series Power Plant in an updated balanced version in which the XLR inputs feed their own, symmetrical, fully differential section. The new Power Plant Balanced has five analog-only inputs (T+A has a separate digital streamer and DAC), two for XLR and another one that can be set up as an optional mm or mc phono input, as well as record- and preamp-outputs. At $3100 (only $400 higher than the original version), it struck me as well priced for its feature set and apparent sound quality. I heard the Power Plant Balanced being fed by a T+A disc player and driving a pair of Dynaudio's new Focus 260 speakers (review forthcoming). The sound was neutral, detailed, and dynamic, with clear, taut bass. The T+A electronics mated very well with the Focus 260 speaker.

This year's CES was encouraging, not so much for what the industry may be doing to push the performance envelope (and envelope-busting prices), but rather for what the industry is doing to offer good performance at reasonable prices. I was actually more impressed by some of the mid-range gear than I was with some of the top-level equipment.

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Kirk Midtskog's Best of Show

Best Sound (cost no object)

TAD Reference One speakers and matching Reference electronics.

Best Sound (for the lowest price)

NAD C 390DD Direct Digital Powered DAC Amplifier (150 watts, $2600). While not exactly cheap, it has many different digital inputs, room correction selections (250Hz and below), and it sounds good, too.

Most Significant Product Introduction

Dynaudio Xeo 3 wireless powered speakers. For $2300 you get a pair of amplified (active) speakers (based on the Excite X12), a dedicated transmitter, and a remote control. Sound: lively, balanced, and clean.

Greatest Technological Breakthrough

Shunyata Research applies its noise-reducing ZiTron technology from its signal cables to its power cords. (Robert Harley reported on the technology in his review of Shunyata's Anaconda signal cables in Issue 220.)

Most Significant Trend

Integration. DACs are often included in integrated amplifiers and preamps...and sometimes a phonostage is also offered in the same chassis.