CES 2014 Show Report: Loudspeakers $15-$25k

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Floorstanding,
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CES 2014 Show Report: Loudspeakers $15-$25k

Introduction

For me, the whole point of all this hi-fi stuff is to elicit an emotional, visceral response. It’s that “wow” moment that reaches deep inside and twists you into knots and fits of passion, all-night aural benders, air-guitar sessions (who cares if anyone sees), and sometimes tears of joy. Some audiophiles reach this high through endless tweaking, some through new gear, and others via a combination in the pursuit of perfection. My fix is music; the system is the vessel of delivery. The ability of the system to move me when I’ve heard the same album, the same track, the same pressing hundreds of times is my benchmark, then come the technical aspects of soundstage, imaging, dynamics, and everything else. A Bugatti Veyron and a Subaru WRX each elicit unique emotional responses, even though they are in vastly different categories; stereo systems are much the same way. During CES/T.H.E. Show I sought the sirens of audio, the systems that begged for a second, third, and sometimes a fourth listen. Though the show seemed to have a dearth of speakers in the $15-$25k range, that doesn’t mean there weren’t amazing systems worth your own personal audition. In the words of an old Roman guy, veni, vidi, vici.  

Most Significant

Magico S3
When you walk into a room and mistake a lower-priced model loudspeaker for a far more expensive version, it’s both embarrassing and exciting. This is exactly what happened to me when I visited the Magico exhibit. After designer Alon Wolf razzed me for my blunder, we sat down to listen to Chris Jones’ Roadhouses & Automobiles. The sound that the Magico S3s ($22,600/pr) produced was absolutely stunning; from the very first guitars picks on “Thank You (R.J. Reynolds)” it was immediately discernable how good these speakers were. Everything sounded right, from the fast, tight bass, to the extremely wide and deep soundstage that sacrificed nothing in terms of imaging, to the effortless ease with which the speakers filled the very large room with the sense that I was “there.” What’s more, the S3s kept ripping me out of “reviewer mode” and made my hands clammy with passion. Yes, this is how it’s supposed to be done; precisely the emotional response that makes you fall in love with a speaker. It just kept going from there as Alon played more music from the Aurender W20 (price TBA) server, and I found myself going back to this room over and over throughout the course of the week. Granted, it didn’t hurt that the room also sported the dCS Vivaldi, Vitus monoblocks, and the very best Synergistic cables—most people won’t spend $300k on a system and buy $22,600 speakers—but it showed what the S3s were capable of. Maybe it’s the new polycarbonate midrange enclosure, or the newly developed 8" woofers, or the superb overall design concepts at Magico, but the S3 is the epitome of “the most bang for your buck.”

Davone Grande
Another room that just blew me away was the Davone/Rogers (not the British Rogers) setup, which was an all-tube/analog system fronted by a VPI Classic 4 with their new 3D-printed tonearm (see analog report for more). The Davone Grande ($19,800/pr) is not really a floorstander, and definitely not a bookshelf; whatever you call it, it’s beautiful, and the sound is intoxicating. When we played the aforementioned 45rpm test pressing of Midnight Blue, the raucous chatter immediately ceased; after side one had finished, the room was stunned. Yes, the speakers are that good: lush, full soundstage; deep, tight bass (27Hz); crystal clear highs; and a rightness that shined on every track we played. Simply amazing paired with the Rogers EHF-200 MkII tube amp, which sports KT150s (yes, 150s!), Rogers PA-1A phono, and Kimber Kables. Reviews are definitely in order.

PMC FACT.12
In the Rega room, PMC’s Mike Picanza was showing off the FACT.12 ($19,500/pr) floorstander, which really rocked the Stevie Ray Vaughan hybrid CD I brought, as well as the Kenny Burrell and Weezer vinyl via Rega’s new RP10 (see analog for more) and Elicit-R integrated. The FACT.12s had a tight punch and great, non-fatiguing highs; the highs are important here, which on many speakers drive me crazy when listening to SRV. The soundstage wasn’t quite as wide as in some rooms, but the imaging was superb. My one quibble with the speakers is their 84dB sensitivity; bring plenty of power to the playground with these.

Cabasse Baltic EV
Is it cheating to mention a speaker that comes with two separate powered subs? I don’t think so. The Baltic EVs ($17k w/ subs) were amazingly fresh sounding driven by a lot of really expensive Esoteric gear (including the Grandioso D1 two-chassis mono DAC and P1 SACD Transport that Alan Taffel reported on). Stevie Ray Vaughan once again shined on this system, with its ultra clean highs and extremely taut bass that dips to 22Hz (which you should expect from two powered subs). If you can get over the fact that these look like a pair of eyes staring at you, these speakers not only sound great, their sleek modernity won’t offend the home décor (or maybe they do?) like a lot of other speakers.

Silverline Grandeur Mk II
Though the Grandeur has been seen in some form or fashion since CES 1999, the latest iteration, the Grandeur Mk II ($24k/pr), has an updated crossover and cabinet design, putting it in that “new-to-you” category. Fronted by a Sondek LP12 (ah, nostalgia!) with Itok tonearm and Benz Micro Red MC cartridge, and driven by a Manley Stingray iTube integrated, the Grandeurs sounded really, really great. What I love about this setup is that the integrated was run in triode mode (20Wpc) and the speakers made sweet, sweet music to my ears. Definitely worth an audition.

Auspicious Debuts

ENIGMAcoustics Mythology M1
OK, maybe these speakers technically fit into Chris Martens’ under-$15k category, but just barely. That said, I just had to include the Mythology M1s ($14,690/pr), because these speakers had the best highs of my “category” thanks to the superb Supranino electrostatic tweeter, aided by the Ayre K5XEMP preamp, V5XE power amp, and Cardas cables. Plus, they had pretty incredible bass extension for their size, and really bumped on a track from the Titanic soundtrack. Yes, Jack, these bookshelf speakers can fly.

Stenheim Alumine 2 Way
Over at T.H.E. Show, Audio Arts and Stenheim were showing off the Alumine 3 Way, which is just an Alumine 2 Way bookshelf speaker ($18,950 w/ stands) that rests atop an added bass extension. I listened to the Alumine 2 Way without the 3rd Way bass extension plugged in because it put the price out of my category. The Alumine 2 Ways were incredibly tight and fast in the mids and highs thanks to its aluminum enclosure (hence the name, Alumine), and would be perfect for smaller rooms. Kudos to the designer, Jean-Pascal Panchard, who couldn’t be more than 30 years old. It’s great to see really young designers making a splash in the industry.

Brodmann VC7
The VC7s ($24,999/pr) are probably new to most people, and follow in the footsteps of Brodmann’s original enterprise as a piano manufacturer with beautiful finishes that will appeal to those who want speakers that are also furniture. With 91dB sensitivity and 25Hz-27kHz frequency response, these sleek speakers sounded sublime in all regards.

Brodmann VC2
Not to make a show-coverage faux pas, but the VC2s ($19,900/pr) are also worth mentioning because they ultimately sound like a slightly younger version of the VC7s, with just a little less of everything. Though not new to hi-fi shows, the VC2s offer an attractive alternative and save you five grand without sacrificing much.

ELAC FS 507 VX-JET
Again, not exactly a “debut,” but ELAC is definitely doing something right with their FS 507 VX-JETs ($18k/pr), which feature an insanely cool adjustable tweeter assembly (called the VX-JET) that provides “a flexible listening experience and room adjustment.” Not to totally disregard my previous statements on eliciting visceral responses, but the “tweakability” of the speaker really got me going. Definitely worth auditioning if you are in the market for speakers in this price range.

In Other News

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, especially as a new voice writing for TAS, but there was an extreme dearth of “new” loudspeakers in the $15-$25k range at CES. Silverline Audio had an additional speakers on static display that fell into this category: The Bolero Supreme ($15k/pr), which is a highly efficient 3-way floorstander (92.5dB, 26-35kHz) that looks akin to some Wilson designs. Also, Lawrence Audio's Cello ($18k/pr), which looks like, well, a cello. But, what’s one to do when a speaker is on static display? Over at T.H.E. Show, Chapman Audio is building some surprisingly impressive speakers, and their flagship model, the T-9 MKII ($19,995/pr) definitely deserves more attention than it has received. Besides the aforementioned, the “other news” is really a reflection on trends in the speaker world. Maybe manufacturers have speakers in the works that fall within the $15-$25k, and it’s possible that I missed a room or two, but throughout both CES and T.H.E. Show it seemed that everything was below $15k or well above $25k. Maybe this is endemic of the price range itself; $15-$25k is still a huge number for the vast majority of people, and means that the buyer is probably investing some $50k+ in their system. It’s much easier to mentally justify a $10k speaker than a $25k speaker, unless that speaker is simply amazing (hence the above speakers). Take the Magico S3, for example: Before CES 2014, the Magico Q1 was the only model close to this range, and they are $25k exactly. The S1 is below $15k at $12.6k, and the S5 above at $28.6k. It has taken a while for a lot of manufacturers to round out that “mid-range dearth,” and many don’t play in that sandbox at all. I don’t want to come across as overly negative; in fact, this may make it that much easier to choose your next loudspeaker, because there isn’t an overwhelming amount of choices, and the choices you have are all excellent. If you have a $20k budget for a loudspeaker, you can’t go wrong by auditioning the five most significant speakers listed above, or even the auspicious debuts.

Best Sound (cost no object)
Fronted by the amazing Sperling L-1 turntable, the Zellaton Reference floorstanders left me gasping for breath, and was the only system that truly gave me new insight into my 45rpm test pressing of Midnight Blue.

Best Sound (for the money)
I’m a little biased after my recent review, but the $249 Audioengine A2+ powered desktop speakers are simply incredible.

Most Significant Product Introduction
Not to be a cheerleader, but Magico is doing everything right, and the S3 is no exception. Listen to the S3 and you’ll understand why it’s a standard-setting achievement. 

Most Significant Trend
High-quality vinyl pressings are growing exponentially, and with more and more people buying vinyl, this is a trend that surely will keep on expanding. See how I conveniently avoided talk of digital?

Most Coveted Product
The Rogers High Fidelity EHF-200 Mk2 integrated tube amp that employs KT150s and has a convenient switch between triode and ultra-linear modes. I’m a sucker for tube amps, sue me (I also use Edison bulbs).

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