(Editor's Note: JV has already commented on the Magico M5, Vandersteen Model Seven, and Wilson Audio MAXX Series 3 loudspeakers in other blogs. However, in his upcoming CES Report in The Absolute Sound, JV comments on many more noteworthy speakers above $20K. Following is an excerpt from JV's report)
From Magico I went to another favorite, the T.A.D. suites, where Andrew Jones was again showing his soon-to-be-released, three-way, $30k stand-mounted CR-1 Compact Monitor, with concentric beryllium dome mid/tweet, driven this year by Pass and Bel Canto amplification. As usual I’d brought my own music with me, and on the old blues number “Keys to the Highway” [MusicMakers], the CR-1s sounded very, very good—as they have consistently in the past. A little dark in balance (as usual—I attribute this to amplification), they were extraordinarily high in resolution and focus and lovely in tone color on Guitar Gabriel’s voice and guitar. As I’ve said before, once Andrew gets done tinkering, the CR-1s are going to be strong contenders in the ultra-high-end mini-monitor sweepstakes.
Better still, however, was the surround setup in T.A.D.’s second room, featuring a quartet of Jones’ classic three-way Reference One floorstanders, with beryllium mid/tweet and dual ten-inch woofers in a vented three-hundred-plus-pound Magico-grade enclosure. Playing back IsoMike recordings via Pass electronics and an EMM Labs front end, the Reference Ones sounded just plain gorgeous—fuller, more neutral, more authoritative, more spacious than a pair of their littler brothers. (Of course, there were four of them.) This had to rank as one of the most remarkable surround-sound demos I’d heard at a trade show—and I’d only been to four rooms at this point!
Next up in this gallery of wonders was the $92.4k Venture Grand Ultimate—a ported three-way floorstander with four 7" graphite woofers, a 5" graphite inverted-cone midrange, and a 2" graphite tweeter. As the Venture folks happened to have a turntable in their joint (a Spiral Groove with a Graham arm), I had them play back Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” (from Live From Austin TX), and the sound was just lovely—very full and rich and dynamic on voice and piano, with excellent control of the fat Fender bass lines. On Attila Bozay’s low-level-timbre/dynamic-scale torture-test “Improvisations,” the Ventures were almost equally impressive—very dense in tone color and detail, although perhaps (and I’m not at all sure of this) not quite as well scaled on pppp’s as what I’m used to from the CLXes. I don’t know for sure. I just know that, after hearing so much loveliness, I wondered if I was really at a trade show.
From Venture I ventured into a room with a very high-sensitivity $42k speaker system called the Phoenix Green Gem, which consisted of a pair of stand-mounted sats and a central JBL-Paragon-like sub with two woofers at either end. Driven by Angelus Labor “Spiritual” electronics and a gorgeous Angelus Labor “Gabriel” turntable (decked out with four 13" arms!), the Green Gems wowed me once again on Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me,” which sounded extraordinarily natural in timbre and texture. On the percussion workout of “Schlagstücke 5” [Nova], the Green Gems were a little soft on top but very tight and well defined in the bass on piano and timp (although a little less dynamically explosive on both than what I’m used to from this disc).
I next visited my old friend Andy Payor, who was showing his $44.5k Rockport Aquila three-way floorstanders with Ypsilon electronics and a Blue Smoke Black Box music server. The sound was a little dark (electronics, I think) but simply gorgeous on “Rainy Night in Georgia,” with fine focus and timbre and very good resolution of detail on voice and guitar. There is a relaxed quality to Andy’s loudspeakers—an easy unforced flow of sound that is, all by itself, very reminiscent of live music. It is, I think, one of the secrets to his success. Rockport speakers just never sound “hi-fi.”
From Andy I went to listen to the $64.3k Acapella High Violin Mk IV—a unique three-way floorstander that I’ve heard (and often liked) at previous shows. What makes the Acapellas special is their unusual panoply of drivers—an ion/plasma tweeter (which glows at you from the depths of its horn like the Magic Eye on a ’50s tuner), a spherical wooden horn midrange, and an internal woofer. Driven by Einstein electronics, this latest version of the High Violin was clearly also the greatest version of the High Violin, sounding more coherent, less horn-like in coloration, and more realistic than previous iterations. On the demanding Mario Lanza CD, with its true ffffs, the High Violins were effortlessly dynamic, with no edginess whatsoever (and this is a disc that can sound edgy!). The Acapella might not have been as transparent and immediate as a ’stat like the CLX (and it was definitely a bit darker in balance), but it had near-’stat-like resolution and simply beautiful timbre on the Lanza and the Guitar Gabriel cuts. (If this reminds you of what I said about the M5, le me add that on a tricky recording of a female vocalist, the High Violin didn’t reproduce the singer’s very slight foreign accent as clearly as the M5 did—or as the CLXes do.)
On to another favorite from shows past, the $20k Avalon Indras driven by VTL electronics. (VTL showed two preamps—the 5.5 and the 6.5. The more expensive of the pair, the 6.5, was far superior.) The Indras are, quite simply, great loudspeakers. Everything about them is praiseworthy—their neutrality, their resolution, their soundstaging and imaging, their overall balance, their dynamics. (If I’ve heard the Indras sound a little more open in the past, it is because I’ve heard them in bigger rooms than this with different electronics.)
From there to another favorite, the $56k Nola Baby Grand Reference—an open-baffle multi-way floorstander from Carl Marchisotto that I’ve heard often and like enormously. Carl was using ARC electronics. The Nolas acquitted themselves on the Lanza with their usual aplomb—outstanding transparency, neutrality, timbre, dynamics, air, focus, bloom, outstanding realism. This is another indisputably great loudspeaker and, in a different year at a different show, it would have been a Best of Show winner. As it stands, it was merely great.
(Editor's Note: JV's full CES 2009 Report appears in the current issue of The Absolute Sound.)