JV's CES 2013 Show Report: Loudspeakers $20k and Above

Show report
Categories:
Floorstanding,
Stand-mount
JV's CES 2013 Show Report: Loudspeakers $20k and Above

I’m happy to report that good-sounding speakers outweighed not-so-good-sounding ones at this year’s CES, although judging their virtues and flaws was made more difficult by two relatively new wrinkles. First, though most rooms were equipped with analog, digital, and computer-audio sources, a number of them, including several I was quite curious about, were sourced by servers only. This presents a problem for me, because unless I’m familiar with some of the cuts stored on these servers I end up listening to music I haven’t heard before in a variety of formats I haven’t heard before on stereo systems I haven’t heard before in hotel rooms that are far from ideal listening spaces. Under these circumstances, it is impossible to determine whether the speakers at the back end of the chain are reproducing anything like what was actually recorded at the front end.

Of course, when a voice or an instrument sounds “real” it makes little difference whether you’re familiar with the recording or not. The absolute sound is, after all, the absolute sound. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions I will come to, I didn’t hear much of the absolute sound at CES 2013. Oh, many speakers sounded unusually beautiful, liquid, dynamic, and exciting, but “fool-you” realistic? Not so much.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that many of these speakers aren’t capable of sounding highly realistic under better circumstances. It just means I didn’t hear them sound this way.

As usual, let me preface this report with an apology. I do my best to cover the most interesting high-end speakers at The Venetian, but I’m just one guy and there are bound to be rooms that I miss. To those manufacturers I didn’t get the chance to visit, my sincere apologies.

The 29th Floor

I’m going to report on these ultra-high-end speakers in roughly the order I heard them, beginning with the exhibits on the 29th floor of The Venetian.

As fate would have it, the first speaker I heard was the $77k Marten Coltrane Tenor—the latest addition to the Swedish speaker-manufacturer’s renowned Coltrane line.  A three-way, four-driver floorstander in a handsome, ported, carbon-fiber/hardwood enclosure, the Tenor (like other Coltranes) uses an Accuton diamond tweeter and an Accuton ceramic midrange, but its twin, convex, aluminum-sandwich woofers are entirely new designs. I’ve very much liked Marten speakers at past shows, but at CES the tiny room was clearly not doing these largish numbers any favors (nor, IMO, were the Nagra electronics). On my Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos, the Tenors were very clear but too bright and aggressive in the pianos’ upper octaves, with little to no stage depth (and this is a recording with considerable stage depth). Ditto for Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time,” where Lennie’s voice sounded nasal and hooded, his marvelous backup singers too bright, and the bass line non-existent.

The $160k Danish-engineered Angel Sound S8s (pictured at the start of this blog) certainly made a design statement. With highly sculpted, sealed enclosures formed from MDF and fiber-glass-reinforced plastic, these three-ways with ScanSpeak drivers looked to me like banana-colored creamy whips. On my Blue Tofu cut, “Battle Between,” they even sounded the way creamy whips taste—sweet, liquid, and yummy. The S8s didn’t have the pop in the bottom octaves that the Blue Tofu cut is capable of, but what bass they did have was well-defined. Not an exciting presentation, but a very listenable one.

The $28.5k (including stands) Raidho D1 was one of the speakers I was most eager to hear at this year’s CES. A stand-mount two-way housed in exactly the same compact, angled, aluminum-fronted enclosure as its less expensive brother, the marvelous $17.5k C1.1, the D1 uses a diamond/carbonite-sandwich mid/woof instead of a ceramic-sandwich one. Putting aside the fact that a diamond membrane this size is an engineering/manufacturing first, the advantage of Raidho’s new driver is that (because of its greatly increased stiffness—diamond is 140 times harder than ceramic) the mid/woof’s first break-up mode is raised from 12.5kHz to 20kHz, making for an audibly smoother blend with Raidho’s fabulous quasi-ribbon tweeter. The diamond driver also goes deeper in the bass than the ceramic one—with considerably more oomph. I will go into more detail about the D1 when I get to my Best of Show winners, but suffice it to say that the new Raidho was my first Best Sound of Show nominee.

The $28.5k JosephAudio Pearl 3 is the latest iteration of Jeff Joseph’s highly-regarded, WATT/Puppy-like, two-box, three-way floorstander with twin aluminum woofers housed in the large rectangular bottom enclosure and a magnesium midrange and fabric-dome tweeter in the trapezoidal top enclosure. On the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto, the Pearl 3s sounded suitably gorgeous, with a very good blend of drivers. Oh, the bass might have been a little subdued compared to what I'm used to, but it was also very articulate. The same blend of virtues and flaws was apparent on my Leonard Cohen LP, which was equally gorgeous but a little lacking in punch and texture in the lower mids and bass, with the luscious banduria sounding not as rich and plum-colored as it should’ve.

Last year I named The Point from Perfect 8 Technologies my Best of Show winner. This year the Boys from Linköping, Sweden, were back with the $115k Point Mk II, which boasts a better dipolar AMT tweeter (mounted, as before, on a tempered glass baffle with two dipole cone midranges arrayed beneath it), a new crossover, higher sensitivity, and improved, powered, DSP’d, side-firing ten-inch woofers (mounted in a push-push configuration in a glass cube below the baffle). Once again, The Point pulled off one of the best disappearing acts at this year’s CES.  And once again, the speaker was simply wonderful in the midrange, reproducing Frank, Dean, and Der Bingle’s voices on “Style” with lifelike presence. However, the AMT treble was a little “toppy” on this same cut, and the bass from Nelson Riddle’s orchestra was not as dynamic or full-bodied as it should’ve been, rolling off below about 80Hz with audible suckout in the power range.

I was pleased to see that Andy Payor made an appearance at this year’s CES—not in person but in the form of his three-way (9-inch carbon-fiber-sandwich woofer, 6-inch carbon-fiber-sandwich midrange, and 1-inch beryllium dome tweeter) floorstanding Rockport Atrias. Driven beautifully by VTL MB450 Signature monoblocks (my favorite VTL amps), the more compact Atrias sounded, to my ear, considerably better and more of a piece than the larger, twin-woofered Aviors Andy has been featuring at other shows. The Atrias were superb on the twin pianos of Satie’s “Three Piece in the Form of a Pear,” on the Poulenc Concerto, and on the incomparable prelude to The Three-Penny Opera. Tone color was simply ravishing—not real, mind you, but incredibly beautiful. Since beautiful and exciting fit the needs of a large class of listeners, the Atrias are my second nominee for Best Sound of Show.

Sonus faber was showing its three-and-a-halfway $120k Aida floorstander powered (surprise, surprise!) by ARC electronics, including Audio Research’s new Reference 10 linestage preamp. On my Shostakovich Concerto, the sound was very lively with that traditional ARC blend of air and light and excellent staging. However, either the room or the Aida’s largish box may have been eating some low-level resolution because the sound wasn’t as detailed as I know this LP to be.

Alfred Vassilkov (one of my favorite speaker designers) introduced a new Estelon at CES—the $25k two-way, three-driver (two Accuton ceramic mid/basses and an Accuton ceramic tweeter) stand-mount XC. Dark, rich, robust, and beautiful-sounding (driven by Vitus electronics), the XC were immediate contenders for best intro in my price category. Also on display from Estelon were the $33k XB three-way floorstanders (driven once again by Vitus electronics). Like the XC, the larger XB was dark and beautiful-sounding but a little more refined and delicate than the XCs, with superb soundstaging and very deep and well-defined bass. Best of all (naturally) were the $65k Estelon X Diamonds (reviewed by me in TAS), which were simply more lifelike, more neutral, and more articulate than either the XB or XC (as they should be for better than thirty grand more dough). The X Diamonds reproduced the two pianos on the Poulenc concerto with genuinely lifelike sparkle in the top octaves and superb timbre and articulation in the mids. Though they were a little lighter-weight in the bottom octaves in The Venetian than they are in my room (where their bass is sensationally good), the X Diamonds remained true models of neutrality, transparency, and low-level resolution. Let’s face it: Mr. Vassilkov simply makes great loudspeakers.

And speaking of great speakers, my next stop was Richard Vandersteen’s room, where his superb Model 7s were being driven by Aesthetix electronics. Although I myself prefer the sound of the 7s when they are driven by ARC gear (Richard seems to switch between Aesthetix and Audio Research from show to show), the sound was nonetheless excellent—a little warmer and “browner” than the 7s with ARC but very finely detailed and present on everything from Shostakovich to Blue Tofu. Although it will take some time to perfect, Richard is currently working on a Model 9, a larger, more expensive, and (one assumes) even better version of the superb Model 7.

At RMAF I heard (and was intrigued by) Zellaton’s Studio Reference One. At CES Zellaton was showing a less expensive model, the $39.75k Grand—a two-and-a-halfway floorstander that is essentially an “augmented” single driver speaker in a semi-open baffle, with an aluminum-sandwich cone covering most of the audible range (up to 8kHz). Turns out that Zellaton, which has been around in one form or another since the 1930s, invented the sandwich driver. Just as interesting were the CH electronics driving the Zellaton, the work of the same Swiss engineer who designed most of Goldmund’s electronics, including its fabulous JOB amplifier. As was the case in Denver, the Zellaton’s tonal balance is disconcertingly odd, with some suckout in the power range and other dips and boosts at the seams where its augmenting drivers roll in. Nonetheless, like the Studio Reference the Grand had qualities that were special, chief among which was a freestanding imaging and staging that made for exceptionally lifelike presence, speed, coherence, and resolution throughout the midband.

What would a trade show be without a Wilson Sascha on hand? At CES, I got to hear this excellent speaker (Wilson’s best W/P design) driven by Dan D’Agostino’s gorgeous Momentum amplifiers, a Pass Labs preamplifier, and a Light Harmonic DAC. What made this demo especially interesting was that the Light Harmonic is capable of playing back native DSD files. Though it’s way too early to say with any confidence, I thought the DSD files were, well, different—less digital-sounding, more natural than other digital sources. It will take further listening to reach a reasoned judgment about this new medium, which may be (if the majors support it) the future of digital playback.

Soulution was demo’ing its superb 500 Series electronics with one of my favorite loudspeakers, the $35k Magico S5—the aluminum-bodied three-way, four-driver floorstander that has so impressed me at previous shows. The sound on the Poulenc Concerto was superb on pianos and orchestra, incredibly full-bodied and beautiful, pacey and exciting. Ditto for the Brecht/Weill Three Penny Opera, with lifelike reproduction of voice and ambience. These speakers may not be the last words in inner detail (for that you’ll need a Q5 or Q7), but they are so gemütlich, so winningly forgiving and natural, that what you may lose in resolution is more than gained back in sheer sonic enjoyment. My third Best of Show contender.

It has occurred to me that I have been unfair to Focal—whose speakers (particularly its Grand Utopia) I haven’t always loved. At previous recent shows, however, its Stella Utopia has sounded fantastic and at CES its $30k Scala Utopia—a three-way floorstander of moderate size—pulled off the same trick, thanks in large part (I think) to the AirTight ATM-3011 amplifier driving it. This new $50k, 200W monoblock is the product of four years of work, and it was capable of a delicacy of detail and fineness of texture and articulation unmatched by any other speaker/amp at the show. The sound on Venice was just what it is supposed to be—ravishingly beautiful, breathtakingly detailed, and explosively dynamic. My fourth Best of Show contender.

The 30th Floor

In the first room I visited on the 30th floor, Dynaudio was displaying its $85k multiway floorstander, the Evidence Platinum, driven by Octave electronics. The sound was exceptional: unusually robust in timbre, very fast and powerful top to bottom, with exceptionally deep, well-defined bass. On my Shostakovich LP, there was a trace of upper-midrange brightness on piano and strings; nevertheless, the speaker was quite impressive overall.

Nearby, Lansche was showing its revised, $108k, plasma-and-cone-driver Model 7. Driven by Ypsilon electronics, the latest Model 7 had, as expected, great treble and upper midrange, but it also had more support in the lower mids and upper bass than it has had in the past, giving it a fuller, more naturally balanced sound. Someone at Lansche has been fiddling with this speaker—the crossover has been changed—and for the better. Indeed, its reproduction of the Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos was simply the best I’d heard at the show—utterly pellucid with, once again, better power range and bass than previous iterations. While the Model 7 still doesn’t have much deep bass to speak of, it has very good upper bass, reproducing cello and doublebass pizzicatos with lifelike snap and color. My fifth Best of Show contender.

Across the way, BMC was showing its Asian-made, British-designed Arcadia multiway with side-firing woofers, driven by BMC’s own stylish electronics. I liked this speaker a lot at last year’s CES, and I liked it just as much this year. On a recording of Maria Callas signing Carmen, the Arcadia sounded quite neutral, very dynamic, and natural. And when I played back my Blue Tofu cut, I was treated to the best reproduction of this song I heard at the show, with simply incredible deep bass and a very neutral and natural midrange. So…the Acadia is my sixth Best of Show nominee (for the second year in a row).

After Tony Cordesman’s enthusiastic review in TAS, I was eager to hear the $95k Rives Talon—an all-ceramic-driver three-way, driven in the treble and midrange by VAC electronics and in the bottom octaves by Rives Bird’s switching amp and analog DSP. There was a little boom in the bass in the Venetian hotel room, at least off-axis; nonetheless, the bottom was very deep and solid (and just a little elevated vis-à-vis the mids and treble). The Talon was extremely good on voice—transparent but with natural body and weight. On Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time” and “Mack the Knife” from Three Penny Opera it was also supremely detailed with superb delineation of individual voices and instruments.

Elsewhere on the thirtieth floor, the $78k TAD Reference One—one of the world’s great loudspeakers—was being driven by Zanden electronics. On Blue Tofu’s “Battle Between” the sound was voluptuous with plenty of bottom end wallop, although slightly lacking in drive and speed. The Zanden gear tended to make Guitar Gabriel sound more like a baritone than a tenor, but the presentation was very detailed and beautiful in spite of this.

Kondo Audio Note was showing its $75k Biyura two-way with field-coil woofer and horn-loaded, silver-diaphragm tweeter, powered, of course, by Kondo electronics. The Biyura was quite detailed and pleasant sounding, although it did lack power-range fullness, color, and oomph on the Satie “Three Pieces.”

Crystal Cable was showing its gorgeous, ribbon/cone, glass-enclosed $90k Absolute Arabesque, an updated version of the Arabesque whiich was completely wired with Absolute Dream cables (even the ribbons and crossovers) and driven this year by Siltech’s ultra-pricey, ultra-sexy Saga electronics. Once again—and in spite of what you might expect from a speaker in a glass box—the sound was terrific. Very neutral and transparent, with a superb disappearing act, the Arabesque was utterly natural on voice and extremely dynamic on orchestra, with maybe just a little touch of extra brightness when pushed really hard.

Old hand Carl Marchisotto unveiled his single-box flagship (there is also a two box version, with separate woofer tower)—the $195k Nola Concert Grand Reference. Like all of Carl’s speakers, the Concert Grand combines true ribbon drivers and a plethora of smaller cone midrange drivers (run as dipoles) in an open-baffle “top” section with large woofers in a sealed “lower” section. Carl has clearly done a good deal of work on the woofer enclosure, whose audible resonances used to be the one slight weakness of the Grand Series. As a result, driven (as usual) by ARC electronics, the Concert Grand References sounded breathtakingly of a piece, with that boxless openness and spaciousness that are characteristic of all Marchisotto loudspeakers. There wasn’t a thing that I didn’t like about them. Clearly a statement-level product that we ought to review—and a BOS contender.

The 34th Floor

Generally speaking the higher up in the Venetian tower you get, the more things cost (though that wasn’t the case this year). The first  speaker I listened to on 34 was the $98k Venture Grand Ultimate Mk II—an updated version of the three-way, six-drive floorstander that Tony Cordesman reviewed in TAS.  I rather liked the smaller Venture speaker I heard in Denver at RMAF; this bigger number was a little less satisfying. Even though it had excellent bass and very good dynamics, the overall sound was a little hooded, with some marked sibilance in the upper midrange.

Also on 34 was the $29.8k TAD Evolution One three-way floorstander with coaxial midrange and tweeter. In Denver, where the E One was parked immediately beside the much larger TAD Reference One, this “entry-level” TAD was a little disappointing. Not so in Vegas. Given a room of its own, with no other speakers to mess with it, it generated a big, full, dark, voluptuously beautiful sound with superb transient response. (TAD speaker really do start and stop on a dime like no others.) Driven by TAD’s own electronics the E One made a very very impressive showing and, consequently, become my eighth nominee for Best of Show.

Sony showed its $27k SS-AR1 four-driver, three-way floorstander with Pass electronics, and the sound was excellent—particularly on Cantate Domino.

And MBL showed its $263k D’Appolito radialstrahler flagship with separate push-push woofer towers, the always fabulous mbl X-Tremes, which were no less fabulous this year. Really, this MBL belongs in its own category. The X-Tremes sound like nothing else; do certain things with imaging and staging and dynamics that nothing else does; and have an immersiveness that simply can’t be beat. Of course, they are Best of Show contenders. They always are.

We come now to the speaker that has perplexed me, intrigued me, and awed me more than any other large multiway of recent vintage—Magico’s redoubtable Q7. I have heard this speaker at many shows and I’ve always come away impressed by its incredible bass, superb resolution, rich, robust tonal palette, and stunning dynamic range. Here, driven by Constellation Performance Series electronics, it sounded better than I’ve yet heard it sound at any trade show. There is no question that this is one of the world’s greatest loudspeakers, capable of reproducing just about any note at any level from whisper soft to thunderously loud without blur, distortion, or compression. And yet, and yet. I’ve heard virtually every loudspeaker Magico has made (often in my home), and not a single one of them has had the midbass, upper bass, and power range solidity, color, and impact of the Q7. At the same time, all of them were capable of a level of fool-you realism in the midband that I just don’t hear from the mighty Q (at least at trade shows). Oh, the speaker is incomparably powerful and gorgeous-sounding—and it without question earns a nomination for Best of Show. But, as I’ve heard it at MOC and CES, it seems more of an “as you like it” kind of speaker than a fidelity to sources or absolute sound one. Since the vast majority of our readers are in fact “as you like it” types, this should trouble no one (except, maybe, me). 

The 35th Floor

Man…that was quite a climb. At the top of the tower, I heard the $106.8k YG Acoustics Sonja multiway floorstander. Although it looks sleeker and more stylish than YG’s previous flagship, the Anat Reference, I was led to believe that, outside of cosmetics, there wasn’t much difference between the two speakers. After hearing the Sonja all I can say is that I was misinformed. Driven by D’Agostino Momentum amplifiers, this was, far and away, the best sound I’ve ever heard any YG loudspeaker make. Simply glorious tone color, super bass, exceptional dynamics, and wonderful overall coherence. Naturally, the Sonja becomes a Best of Show contender—and a must-review product.

On 35, those pesky fellows from April Music (who proved me an idiot at RMAF) were back with the $80k Marten Coltrane II multiway floorstanders, and once again their little Class D amp sounded fabulous—so clear, so neutral, so natural that for a second time I did an aural double-take. These things were simply superb on my Blue Tofu cut (with exceptional bass). Indeed, they were superb on everything I played. I don’t know what April Music is doing right, but they sure have a lock on Class D amplification. And they also earn my twelfth nomination for Best of Show.

Scaena, which so impressed me a couple of years ago at CES, was showing its new $150k Silver Ghost ribbon/cone line array (with outboard subwoofers). The Silver Ghost comes with a true ribbon tweeter, rather than a quasi-ribbon one, but, alas, this year’s showing was not a success. Although the Silver Ghosts were quite open, they were also too thin in the upper bass and power range, too ill-defined in the bottom octaves, and too bright on top. As a consequence, the winds and brass on my Brecht/Weill recording were shrill, and the gorgeous LP Venice was rendered less than gorgeous.

Wisdom showed the on-wall version of its $108k (with one woofer) LS4, Perhaps because of the wall-mounting, the speakers had a marked “cupped-hands” coloration. Not a good sound.

Lamm showed its ultra-pricey ML3 monoblock with a Wilson MAXX loudspeaker and, frankly, I think the speakers let these marvelous amplifiers down a bit. To my ear the MAXXes just don’t have any low bass (and not much top treble, either). Oh, they’re swell in the upper bass (where Fender guitars mostly play), but they just seem to cut off below about 60-80Hz, making for a old-fashioned, one-note-bass kind of sound. (I’ve heard these Lamm amps sound fabulous on other occasions, so I’m not pointing a finger in their direction.)

I kind of felt the same way about the Lamm ML2.2s with the Verity Audio Lohengrin IIs. While the sound was better here than in the Wilson room, with more neutral (albeit cooler) color and less one-note bass, there was still a marked absence of delicacy and resolution. Once again, I do not blame the amps. I’ve heard these marvels with Magico Q7s in Robert Harley’s listening room and they produced the most beguiling, highly resolved, and lifelike sound I’ve heard from Magico’s monoliths.

Best of Show

I thought about dividing this award among several very worthy contenders, but the truth is that one speaker sounded more like the absolute sound than any of the others—and not by a small margin. That speaker is the new Raidho D1. There has always been something simply magical about Raidho’s quasi-ribbon tweeter; now, with the addition of a diamond/carbonite mid/bass that can better keep pace with the ribbon, this mini-monitor is capable of even greater jaw-dropping realism.

Best Sound for Lowest Price

At T.H.E. Show I got to hear $5495 Maggie’s 3.7s coupled with Maggie’s DWM bass panels and, folks, you could not recognize the sound. I don’t really know how deep the DWMs are capable of going but where they play they add a lifelike density of tone color and dynamic excitement that the 3.7s alone simply can’t muster. A sensational showing.

Most Significant Product Introduction

The Raidho D1, of course, with a tip of the hat to AirTight for its marvelous new ATM-3011 and Magico for its very promising S-1 floorstanding two-way.

(Those of you interested in seeing pictures of all the speakers mentioned in this blog--and many others--should go to http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p186032036.