CES 2012 Report - Neil Gader on Solid-State Electronics Above $12,000

Show report
Solid-state power amplifiers
CES 2012 Report - Neil Gader on Solid-State Electronics Above $12,000

The rolling juggernaut that is computer-based audio continued to build on the momentum it has established in recent years. At all price levels, this year’s CES saw introductions of more USB/DACs, both bundled and stand-alone plus wireless-streaming options than ever before. Even loudspeakers got into the act. The Dynaudio Xeo 5—an active, DAC-equipped, wireless floorstanding speaker—was just one example ($4500/pr.). Perhaps the ultimate expression of this new alignment is the Burmester Music Center that packages elements of the firm’s top-line 077 line preamp, 069 CD transport, plus two terabytes of usable triple-hard-drive storage with proprietary software that drives the included controller, an iPad 2! At $50k, a tour de force for the well-heeled hobbyist. This year, my beat was solid-state electronics above $12k. Here’s my alphabetized snapshot of gear that caught my eye.

New from Accuphase Labs is the potent M6000 monoblock that uses 16 parallel power MOSFETs in a push-pull arrangement to generate 150W at 8 ohms and a whoa-Nellie 1200W into 1 ohm. A nice feature is the four-stage gain selector to minimize noise. The champagne-anodized monos tip the scale at a sobering 85 pounds but summoned a superior sense of air and transparency no doubt aided by the sweet Focal Scala Utopia loudspeakers. Price: $50,000/pr.

The Concert Fidelity ZL-120V2SE is a combination of the audio circuitry of the ZL-120V2 and the power-supply section of its big brother, the ZL-200. A minimalist design that uses a relatively small number of MOSFET output devices, it’s rated at120Wpc.  And its power transformer doubles the capacity of the current V2 version. Rectification has also been beefed up, and the power-supply caps increased by 50%. This should translate to significantly more current on demand. Sonic improvements are said to include more powerful, tighter bass, superior dynamics, and the ability to effectively drive lower-sensitivity loudspeakers. Price: $34,000/pr.

Constellation brings some of its out-of-this-world tech and heft to earthbound hobbyists with the Performance Series. Bargains are a relative issue in the high end, but the Centaur amp at $24k and the Virgo linestage at $19k are still one-third the price of the firm’s flagship offerings and should likely expand the market for this stellar level of quality. The circuit schematics are said to be identical with the flagship offerings to maintain the family sound and voicing even when the lines are intermixed. Listening to the energy and speed from Paul Simon's “Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes” through the Tidal Contrive Diacera speakers made all claims mighty convincing.

D’Agostino Master Audio Systems has fleshed out its Momentum lineup by introducing a stereo amp $25k. The amp features 200Wpc, 1% metal-film resistors, and 69MHz output transistors exactly like the Momentum monoblocks. The Momentum preamp uses a complementary balanced circuit topology, and is fully discrete with no op-amps. It comes with six inputs at $28k. Also I was told to keep an eye out for a pure differential phono preamp due later this year. Driving the Wilson Sashas, the system exemplified transparency and slam. Also, optional black accenting is now available.

While Mark Levinson was touting its more down to earth 500 series electronics, a 40th Anniversary preamp, the model No. 52 Reference, is looming on the horizon. This reference level, dual-mono design bears a great many of the hallmarks of the legendary model No. 32 but will also include a built-in fully configurable phono section and superior software control. Price: TBA.

For MBL fanciers, the wait is over. After a couple of production delays the stunning Corona line begins shipping as this issue goes to press. Notably it includes the mbl C15 monoblock. Rated at a hefty 500 watts, it incorporates Juergen Reis' innovative take on pure linear switching-amp technology, and offers excellent connectivity with balanced and unbalanced inputs. Estimated price $20k/pr.

After MSB resolved some thermal issues that delayed production for a few months the innovative S-200 is shipping. A Pure Class A design it offers 200Wpc with no negative feedback either locally or globally. No wonder it left the palm of my hand medium rare after a brief encounter with its top plate. More importantly, its reproduction of Harry Connick, Jr.’s brand of soothing swing was as warm and buttery smooth as I’ve ever heard the YG Kipod Signature II loudspeaker sound. Price: $15,000.

More evolutionary than revolutionary Pass Labs took off the wraps of its Xs-150 and Xs-300 monoblock amps. Delivering 150W and 300W respectively and doubling down all the way to 2 ohms. In development for three years both models employ double-stacked chassis, with the power supply and current source in one chassis and the input and main output stage in the other chassis. There’s twice as much storage capacitance as earlier Pass Labs amps, bigger and better transformers, and lower standby currents. At $65k and $85k a pair respectively, they add further dimension to the sonics—not exactly something Pass amps have lacked in the past, but the benefits of the new technology were anything but subtle during my listening through Pass' own RM2 speaker system.

​Soulution returned to CES with the 501 mono amps designed to bring the famed coherence and transparency and articulation of the Series 710/700 amps to a more affordable segment.  Its power supply is a switch mode unit with extensive filtering that quells noise artifacts and stabilizes output voltage at virtually all output demands. At its core is a novel voltage amplification stage without feedback to the input (no differential amplifier!). The sound through Kubala Sosna wire and the Magico Q3 matured steadily throughout the show and tracks from the Manhattan Jazz Quintet exhibited remarkable texture from a brushed snare and cymbals. Brass dynamics were wide open. Price: $50,000/pr. est. Integrated amp watchers should see the 530 integrated shipping later this year as well. Price TBD.

Spiral Groove will begin distributing the Qualia Indigo Series electronics from Japan. First to appear will be the Indigo preamp at an estimated $67k, although pricing is yet to be finalized. The series will ultimately includes a USB/DAC phonostage and an amplifier to be introduced later this year. The build-quality is beyond reproach with chassis’ cast from massive single blocks of aircraft-spec aluminum.

TAD, like MBL is a vertically integrated company. While its flagship electronics included stunning monoblocks and a CD player, this year saw the debut of the missing piece of the puzzle, the widely anticipated C-600 preamp. A no-holds-barred dual-mono design, it features separate power supplies for each channel and is built upon a massive vibration-absorbing aluminum subchassis similar to the M600 monos. The last link in the chain is now in place to compliment the majestic Reference One loudspeakers. Price: $42,000.

Vitus Audio premiered its relatively wallet-friendly Reference Series products with the $13,000 RS-100 (OK, I said “relatively”), a stereo Class AB amplifier, and the RC101 linestage preamp ($11,000) . Similar to the previously announced Ri100 integrated  the fully balanced RS-100 outputs 300Wpc and will offer better power handling and resolution thanks to an enhanced output stage and power supply. Build-quality, Vitus’ calling card, is stellar.

Other Choice Bits

New to our shores is CH Precision from Switzerland (CH, get it?). The young team of engineers is led by Florian Cossy, formerly of Goldmund and Orpheus Labs. The two-channel fully discrete amp is configurable among stereo, bi-amp, or bridge modes, outputting from 100Wpc up to 350W in mono.  Due later this spring, with a price estimate of $38-$42k.

Marten of Sweden was demoing its M-Amp monobocks with the impressive Marten Django loudspeakers and Jorma Designs cabling. These 550W 100-pound behemoths use their own wideband Class D stage and a feature known as AMS (Adaptive Modulation Servo) to eliminate the smallest imperfections in the modulation stage. Price: $40,000/pr.

Jeff Rowland was featuring his Model 725 monoblocks that sport the firm’s customary, extravagant aluminum machining, mil-spec ceramic circuit boards, and composite circuit architecture with separate Class AB voltage and current blocks. Using a highly efficient compact switch-mode power supply, this is a no-overall-negative-feedback design. Price: $??.

Theta Digital, one of the high-end’s old guard, introduced its Prometheus monoblock amplifier. Designed to push the state-of-the-art in nearly every respect Prometheus is rated at 250 watts RMS full-band into 8 ohms, 500 watts RMS full band into 4 ohms with a damping factor that exceeds 2500 from 0Hz to 20kHz. Prometheus is Theta’s first Class D amplifier. Price: $12,000/mirror-image pr.

Finally the Viola Audio Lab Crescendo preamp represents a U.S. debut and arrives with an integrated DAC that includes an Apple iPod Touch for navigation. Driving the new  Hansen Prince E speaker through Jorma Design cabling, it was nothing less than a bracing experience. Price: $19,000.


Neil Gader's Best of Show

Best Sound (cost no object)

A tough category where to my mind, the herculean Magico Q7, Wilson Sasha,  and Sweden’s Perfect 8 all had it going on. Under these particular show conditions however the Talon Phoenix in the Rives/Talon room provided some of the most rewarding listening. I’d given up Talon for dead, but Rives’ Richard Bird, has raised this DSP/active-crossover big bird from the ashes.

Best Sound (for the lowest price)

The all-new Revel M106, a two-way compact ($1700/pr. and driven by Levinson electronics) will be a game-changer for the aficionado short on space. Full-bodied, smooth, and dynamically responsive. In short, a small Revel-ation. 

Most Significant Product Introduction

First runner-up goes to Arturo Manzano’s Nepresso barista skills for jump-starting beleaguered and bedraggled journalists with the show’s best espresso.  And I fell hard for Cardas’ EM5813 ear buds ($329-$429). Comfortable, and midrange “juicy”  pretty well sums it up. The first in-ear phones that didn’t freak me out. 

Greatest Technological Breakthrough

Head-scratching, as well, are the Synergistic Research Tranquility Bases from the fertile mind of Synergistic’s Ted Denny. Available in three levels these active, tunable isolation platforms made me a believer. 

Most Important Trend

The merger of computer/server based USB/DAC, wireless, even HDMI into the greater high-end landscape. Electronics companies at the most elite levels are either offering these options or are about to.