Loudspeakers $25k and Above at CES 2011

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Loudspeakers $25k and Above at CES 2011

Save for Saturday afternoon, I thought the high-end exhibits at CES were poorly attended this year, which was a shame because, at least in my pearly neck of the woods, the sound was for the most part very good and often excellent. There were several exceptions, which I’ll come to, and certain question marks, and there were also more than a few exhibits that sounded a lot alike. Whether this was because of the uniform acoustics of the Venetian hotel rooms, the implementation of virtually the same drivers and enclosure/crossover materials in a number of speakers, the use of the same strongly colored electronics in certain instances, the vagaries of Las Vegas current (which drove several exhibitors a bit crazy, especially early in the show), or some combination of all of the above I don’t know. Nonetheless, a surprising number of speakers sounded almost exactly the same shade of dark, sweet, soft, and gemütlich.

I should tell you now that one speaker at this show—my Best Sound of CES winner, in fact—was a genuine revelation. Going back to my seminal, ear-opening, mind-expanding experience with the Maggie 1-Us in the early 70s, I can count the number of times I’ve heard stereo systems that were “fool-me” realistic on both hands without using up all my fingers. This year—at a trade show, no less—I heard a speaker that was so uncannily lifelike and so “not there” as a sound source that I was almost literally stunned.

Because I’ve not listened to this speaker in my home with a variety of music—and because it presents peculiarities of setup that may prove to be its undoing (at least in a room considerably smaller than a bi-level suite at the Venetian Hotel), and because I have only heard it with one set of electronics, the sound of which I’m no longer familiar with (although I used to be), I’m unsure whether this epiphany will be repeatable in my own listening room. If it is, and I hope to find out, then the Magico Q5, which is (at least in my setup) capable of this same level of “fool-me” realism on select sources, will face competition.

I’m going to list the speakers in the order that I heard them, although in some cases (particularly with speakers that I auditioned on the first day of the show) I made a return visit later in the show to see if the sound had changed or improved (and in all instances it had). As usual, I apologize in advance to manufacturers I may have missed—or for any mistakes I may make in pricing or specifications or nomenclature. There are a lot of very expensive speakers at CES, and I’m just one guy with a briefcase full of blues (and classical).

Since I began my annual trek on the top floor, with the Big Boys in the outsized 35th floor suites, it chanced that the very first speakers I heard—and I think I’ve only heard them being actively exhibited once before—were Wilson Audio’s $158k flagship Alexandria X-2 being driven by the TAS Amplifier of the Year award-winning Lamm Industries ML3s and sourced, at least on the analog side, by the latest version of the AAS Gabriel/Da Vinci turntable with Da Vinci’s 12-inch Grandezza arm and Grandezza cartridge. (It was, BTW, an absolute joy to see Peter Brem and Jolanda Costa, the authors of Da Vinci’s gear, at this year’s CES; I hope to review their new record player in the near future.) All of these treasures (save for the speakers) were sitting on Critical Mass stands and platforms. (This was a very good show for Critical Mass, which was also doing its job of taming floorborne and airborne resonances in other very-high-end exhibits).

Given that this was one of the highest of high-end rooms I’d anticipated a very very good sound, but on the first hour of the first day of the show—with so much still being worked out—the presentation was not good. It was overly sweet and soft. Though rich in timbre and amazingly ambient, the sound lacked dynamic bite, as if transient attacks were being swallowed up in a superabundance of mid-to-upper bass. Thus, Heifetz’s Guarnerius (on the great RCA recording of the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto) and Eden and Tamir’s pianos on Satie’s incredibly delightful Trois Morceaux en forme de poire (on a truly great Decca LP) were swamped by reverberation, losing some of their sparkle and articulation on loud passages.

However, when I returned on the last day of the show, Sunday afternoon, most of these kinks had been worked out and the sound was much more neutral and competitive. Though still a little soft on the very top, making Heiftez’s fiddle sound slightly more recessed (less spotlit) and more velvety in timbre and texture—and his performance a bit less sensationally dynamic—than it should have, the presentation was now exceptionally natural and detailed in the midband and the bass. (I returned to the Wilson room one final time—at Peter McGrath’s behest—to listen to one of his marvelous mastertapes, a superb recording of Leonard Shure playing Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30, Opus 109. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, now: For classical music lovers McGrath is a national treasure.)

My next stop was the Magico room, where Alon Wolf and Yair Tammam’s newest speaker, the aluminum-bodied, three-and-a-half-way, $35k Q3, was being debuted, driven by Soulution electronics. This was a much better CES for Magico than last year’s Q5 intro. Though there is definitely a family resemblance between the Q3’s sound and that of the (IMO) incomparable Q5, this is an altogether warmer, more forgiving speaker, whose romantic character may appeal to many audiophiles more than the austere (and higher-fidelity) presentation of the Q5 does. Let me put it this way: If you prefer the sound of Elman to Heifetz, then you’ll prefer the Q3 to the Q5.

Although Magico’s pernicious habit of only serving up music from its own (state-of-the-art) server—and its refusal to acknowledge that some of us still listen to LPs—made it impossible for me to audition much of my own music on Day One (making it equally impossible for me to get a fix on the Q3s), Wolf did happen to have an old reference of mine on his hard drive, Mario Lanza Live in London, and at least on this very demanding music (the most dynamic vocal recording I own, which is why I bring it to shows) the Q3s were superb, with exceptional transient response and no dynamic compression.

Of course, I couldn’t judge bass response on the Lanza disc, so—on the last day of the show—I surrendered a couple of my reference discs to Wolf for a few hours so that he could burn them to his hard drive. It was worth the aggravation, because I got to hear the very busy, very percussive, vastly staged, relatively deep-reaching Track 7 of The International sound better than I’ve heard it sound. Tremendous articulation and power in the bass, albeit with the same attractive touch of warmth that the Q3s added to other music. Unlike the Alexandrias and many another large multiway box speaker at CES, the Q3s, like the Q5s, seem to get group delay right; they are phase-coherent in a way that makes the utterance of fundamentals and harmonics seem more proportionately lifelike—and makes other speakers’ delivery of these musical essentials seem just the slightest bit smeared, as if pitches were being veiled or swamped by harmonics. (I will have much more to say on this and related subjects when I review the Q5s.) In any event, the Q3s were without question a Best of Show finalist by Day Four of CES.

My next stop was the BAlabo suite were its reference-grade electronics were driving Tidal’s top-of-the-line, $200k+, modular Sunray loudspeakers—a gorgeous three-box floorstander that uses a variety of black-ceramic and black-diamond Accuton drivers, including four side-firing 9” woofers in separate bass enclosures stacked atop and below the mid/tweet enclosure. The sound here was a bit reminiscent of the Wilson/Lamm room (on Day One), which is to say that it was beautiful, but soft and listless. On “Key to the Highway,” Guitar Gabriel’s ragged tenor lacked the immediacy that it usually has, and Track 7 of The International simply had no deep bass. Since I know for a fact that BAlabo electronics have sensationally good bass and very high articulation, I assume that the speakers were suffering from room and/or current issues, as the sound should have been considerably fuller than it was.

Sonus faber introduced a spectacular new $200k multiway floorstander with side-firing woofers, originally called the Fenice but now simply denominated “The Sonus Faber.” Driven by ARC’s Reference 40 preamp and ARC’s Class D DS450 stereo amp on Day One and ARC’s 610Ts on Day Four (when I returned for a second listen), The Sonus Faber is unquestionably the best speaker this company has made. The sound on Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense (and other LPs I played back) was lively, detailed, exciting, and natural. Thanks in part to what looks like a heroic cabinet, the presentation was not dark and overly ripe—the way sonus has so often sounded to me in the past. Only 30 of these statement products are going to be made, and our Robert Harley may get a shot at reviewing one of them. (Other reviewers’ misguided opinions notwithstanding, the sound was considerably better with the tube 610Ts than with the transistor DS450, with oodles of air and bloom and tremendous clout in the bass.)

Trenner & Friedl from Austria showed an odd, $175k three-way called The Duke, which combines two separate stacked boxes housing 12” honeycomb-diaphragm woofers with a smaller pivoted (for time-alignment) enclosure on top housing a papyrus-cone Alnico-magnet midrange, a horn-loaded, titanium-diaphragm, compression-driver tweeter, a diamond-diaphragm supertweeter, and an active digital crossover. Though (like so many other speakers at this CES) they were a bit dark and overly ripe in balance, they had truly spectacular bass definition and transient response on that audiophile ball-buster, Hugh Masekela’s “Coal Train.” Driven very articulately by Rowland electronics, these speakers struck me as being excellent options for what I call “as you like it” listeners. (Of course, they would have to be very rich “as you like it” listeners.) I myself liked them.

Wilson Audio’s $26k Sashas were being driven superbly well by D’Agostino deco-ish amps—the first of Dan’s comeback-tour electronics (which I would dearly love to review). My Captain Luke cut—“Rainy Night in You-Know-Where”—sounded a bit less present than it did on a couple of other speakers we will come to, but very natural in timbre (and his grumbly bass-baritone can be a bitch to reproduce). Ditto for Guitar Gabriel on “Key to the Chevy” (both voice and guitar). The “Calvini Hit” track of The International had tremendous dynamics and jump. The Sashas were very close to a Best of Show contender on this day, although the real story may be Dan’s new electronics.

I also heard the Sashas in the Vitus electronics room, where the sound was considerably darker and heavier. Either the electronics or the room or the speakers themselves were adding a fulsome warmth to the presentation. For instance, the combo made Tina Weymouth’s bass in “Take Me to the River” much more prominent than it actually is, adding far too much weight to what is, in fact, a dry, light, lithe, toe-tapping mix. Adding a veritable sonic boat anchor to rhythms may appeal to some, but it is not a sound for me. (And it is not high fidelity, either.)

I heard the TAD Reference Ones in two different rooms, one of which was a genuine knockout. In TAD’s own room, with TAD’s electronics (including its new Class D amplifier), the sound was a little dark (what else is new?) but very detailed and beautiful. In the VTL room, driven by the now-fully-balanced VTL 450 Series 3 amplifier they were almost a revelation. No darkness here. No euphony (or much less of it). On the Heifetz recording of the Prokofiev Second and the Satie piano pieces, the TADs came very close to the transparency and neutrality and resolution I get in my own room with Magico Q5s and some of the world’s finest electronics. This is the best I’ve ever heard VTL sound at a trade show, and the TAD Reference Ones are simply marvelous. It just goes to show that, allowing for the small differences in accent caused by electronics, really well-engineered, really low-distortion transducers are starting to sound more alike—more transparent to sources and (sources permitting) more like the real thing. A definite Best of Show finalist.

Quite the oddest speaker at CES was a massive, unpurchasable, one-off horn system from a company called Silbatone that used vintage Western-Electric drivers and Japanese replicas of W-Es, driven by Silbatone’s own electronics. The sound was more coherent than you might expect from a massive horn system, though low bass was severely limited.

Driven by Lamm’s new M2.2 amplifiers (the greatly revised and much more expensive replacements for my long-time favorite SETs, the M2.1s), Venture’s $200k XTreme multiway floorstander with side-firing woofers (a trend, perhaps?) sounded, once again, dark but highly coherent. The Prokofiev was extremely lovely and detailed, with voluptuous string tone and exceptional transient bite. The speakers made Heifetz’s David a bit sweeter than it usually sounds—in fact, they made everything a little sweeter than it usually sounds—but with no sacrifice in detail. Indeed, this was among the most detailed transducers I heard at CES. Though the treble was bit livelier than the bass (probably a room thing), the XTremes were still one of the better sounds at CES.

One of YG Acoustics’ new speakers, the aluminum-coned $74k Anat Compact Reference IIIs, was being shown in the Synergistic Research room with Technical Brain electronics. Once again, the sound was little dark and the bass a little heavy. Frankly, I blamed the room because Technical Brain is not inherently dark-sounding and Synergistic Galileo is simply the most transparent wire I’ve heard. Nonetheless, the Anats were fast on transients and quite detailed, and once Ted Denny made an adjustment to his Vibratron (part of Syngergistic’s ART room-treatment system) the 60Hz room-hump got reduced and the entire system was more neutral and natural, sounding very realistic on Sinatra, Dean-o, and Der Bingle’s delightful recording of “Style.”

Hansen Audio showed its new $98k King E three-ways with Tenor electronics. As always with Hansen speakers, this was a most gemütlich sound. Indeed, with Tenor amplification, these speakers were the veritable Kings of gemütlich. The Hansens’ bass was, as always, very very good—which was quite obvious on the cellos, doublebasses, and percussion of the Prokofiev Second and, for that matter, the toms, kickdrum, and Tina’s Fender on “Once in a Lifetime.” Bass definition was very good, too (extension, power, and definition do not always come together this well in one package). I thought, once again, there was a bit of softness in the top treble and a slight overall darkness to the soundfield—which was probably the result of the prominence of the bass (itself probably a combination of amp, room, speaker, and cable effects). In any event, the relative reticence of the treble made The Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” sound a bit more like a studio recording than a live one. Still and all, this was a full, rich, and attractive sound—once again a presentation that I thought would strongly appeal to (wealthy) “as you like it” listeners.

From Estonia, Alfred & Partners Estelon XA beautiful, three-way, ceramic-driver floorstanders with marble-composite enclosures were being shown in several rooms, the first of which was with Tenor electronics. Perhaps for this very reason, the Estelons here had some of the same dark and stately voluptuousness of the Tenor-driven Hansens. They were not as finely detailed as the Hansens, but nonetheless made a gemütlich sound with full and attractive bass. However, I also heard the Estelon XAs in a different room, driven by conrad-johnson’s ART amps and GAT preamp, where they were Best of Show contenders. With the c-j equipment (which, BTW, has none of the golden coloration that I used to find both appealing and off-putting), the Estelons were very natural on Captain Luke, Guitar Gabriel, you name it.

Danish speaker-maker Peak Consult showed its $89k three-way, four-driver El Diablo V, replete with Audiotechnology mids and woofs and a Scanspeak tweet housed in a multifaceted solid-wood and HDF box that combines a transmission-line on its upper woofer with a port on its lower one. Bass response here was exceptionally fast and deep and while the treble might have been comparatively soft it wasn’t as muted or subdued as it was in some other rooms. Though I thought there might have been a touch of thickness in the midbass, overall dynamics were sensational, making for sterling reproduction of the highly percussive International cuts.

Avantgarde’s Duo Omega three-ways with spherical horn midrange and tweet coupled with a dynamic woofer sounded very coherent but a bit thin in the bass. On the original Liberty LP of Julie London singing “Cry Me A River,” Ms. London’s lithe, sophisticated soprano acquired a definite horn coloration, making her sound about a half-octave lower in pitch than she usually does. Not my cup of, uh, hands.

The long-awaited, long-delayed, digitally-crossed-over-and-corrected $28.5k Electrocompaniet Nordic Tone Model One was again shown with Electrocompaniet electronics. (When it is going to be shown in my room is what I’d like to know?). Revised with Scanspeak sliced-paper drivers (replacing the original SEAS drivers) and a brand-new crossover, it is still a little dark in balance (I blame the electronics), but capable of reproducing details in very complex, very dynamic cuts that very few other speakers can resolve. This remains a potentially remarkable transducer.

Symposium Acoutstics—maker of superb stands and equipment platforms and, just for the record, one of the most lifelike loudspeakers I’ve ever heard, the Panorama—showed a smaller speaker at this year’s CES, the $30k Reflection TLS, a hybrid ribbon-cone system with two 8” Kevlar woofers in transmission-line and sealed boxes. Driven by VAC electronics (which added a bit of overall darkness, I thought), the Reflection TLS evinced superb delicacy of detail on my Captain Luke and Guitar Gabriel cuts. Clearly capable of unusually high resolution, this was one of the better sounds at CES.

Focal showed its $29.5k, ported, three-way Scala Utopia, driven (gorgeously) by Cary electronics. In spite of the port, the Scalas generated very solid bass—and a rich, robust sound—on an Eagles’ cut. Because of room placement (close to the backwall), they did not have tremendous depth of image or field, but they did have ravishingly beautiful timbre, fully justifying my friend Wayne Garcia’s enthusiasm for the Cary electronics. I also heard the Scalas driven by Air Tight electronics, where, despite a bit of midbass elevation, the Prokofiev Second sounded every bit as gorgeous as it did with the Cary electronics. The Air Tight amps may not be the last word in neutrality, but they are so damn beautiful-sounding you may not care—the closest thing to Marantz 9s currently in the marketplace.

New to me was the $25k Rosso Fiorentino Siena three-way, five-driver, sealed-box floorstander driven at the show by AMR electronics. These speakers were one of the great surprises at CES. They simply sounded terrific, which is to say transparent and lifelike, on everything I played, from Heifetz to David Byrne. Very neutral and high in resolution, the Sienas also had (for me) lovable bass without any of the port overhang that adds excess energy and color to cellos, doublebasses, and, yes, electric bass (at least as it is recorded on LP and CD). To hear “Take Me to the River” through this system was to hear something very close to the transparency and realism I hear at home on this same cut. A definite Best of Show finalist from an unexpected and unheralded source. (I must also commend the sound of the AMR phonostage and the Dr. Feickert turntable in this room.)

I heard the $90k Marten Coltrane II three-way floorstanders with ceramic mid and woof and diamond tweeter in several rooms, the first time with the wonderful Lars SET amps and dCS digital. These nice-looking speakers sounded very neutral on Diana Krall doing Joanie from Live in Paris. I thought I detected just the slightest hint of ceramic whiteness or enclosure grain, but, even so, the overall presentation was very natural. On a Paul Bley piano recording, the Coltrane IIs did a nice job of reproducing mike placements and ambience, bespeaking high transparency to sources. A contender for BOS.

I also heard the Coltrane IIs with Marten’s own amplification, which produced a very lively sound with less chalkiness than I’m used to from ceramic-driver speakers, though there was still a touch of dinnerware-white to the presentation (just as there was in the Lars room). For giggles, I had them throw on the Mario Lanza disc—to see if the speakers would cry uncle on fortissississimos. They did not; in fact, they did an excellent job on the big dynamic swings, without any of the compression that some ceramic-driver speakers tend to show at loud levels. No question that the Coltrane II is an excellent speaker—and, in two rooms, one of the better sounds at the show.

The Magico Q5s, my current reference speakers, were being shown by Soulution this year, driven by Soulution’s 710 amp and 721 preamp. The combo elicited wonderful microdynamics from my Satie piano recording (a terrific sense of “touch”), albeit with a slightly darker tonality due, I think, in part to the room interacting with Soulution’s big bottom end. The sound here was first-rate, albeit a little heavier-of-hand than what I’m currently getting with Technical BrainVoices, like Julie London’s, weren’t quite as “there” as I know they are capable of being. I also thought the speakers could’ve used a bit more toe-in than they were given.

Like several other speakers on this list, those shapely $32k three-way floorstanders from Morel, the Fat Ladies, driven by Technical Brain, were a story of two days. Recently upgraded with a slightly improved woofer (there have been no other changes), the Ladies sounded a bit dark and lacking in presence and immediacy on my first listen (on Thursday). However, by the time I returned on Sunday, they had mutated into Best of Show finalists. Apparently, there was some problem with the polarity of the amps’ power cords, which, when rectified, turned a very very good sound into an outright great one. I don’t know what Russell Kauffman has done to these speakers—or, rather, how a small change in the woofer could make such a large difference in presence—but the things I criticized the Ladies for in my review in Issue 207 (the very things I heard in the room on Thursday—a slight lack of presence and immediacy) have been solved. The Ladies now sound almost as full of light and life as Magico Q5s, with a near-ideally-neutral balance (unusual in a ported speaker) of bass to mids to highs. And their resolution! Well, I guess some of the credit for that should go to Technical Brain’s TBP Zero EX and TBC Zero EX (which, I was told, Morel purchased during the show).

Though they’re not in my bailiwick, I need to say a few words about Magnepan’s much-anticipated debut of its replacements for the venerable 3.6s, the 3.7 true-ribbon/quasi-ribbon/planar-magnet dipoles. At least on a first listen (with Audio Research electronics, including the DS450 Class D transistor amp), I think that Maggie may have finally succeeded in ameliorating my one and only complaint about its “true ribbon” speakers—to wit, that those true ribbon sticks out like true sore thumbs. On cuts like the busy, exciting, opening theme from Pirates of the Caribbean, the 3.7s hung together astonishingly well, with none of the excess brightness and treble-range prominence I’m used to from true-ribbon Maggies. They were also exceptionally good at resolving low-level detail (and this is a cut with lots of detail). On the other hand, at least in the ARC room, the 3.7s, though quite respectable, were not as full or as thrillingly dynamic in the bass on Pirates as I’ve heard this music sound. The International also lacked for low-end dynamics via the ARC amp, which, unlike most Class D amps, did not seem to have a killer bottom octave, either here or when I heard it in the sonus faber suite. This said, on a cut without deep bass dynamics, like Julie London singing “Cry Me A River,” the 3.7s were as realistic as almost anything I heard at the show (including some very pricey numbers)—so open, so neutral, so natural, so freed-up from enclosure grain and coloration, with marvelous resolution of microdynamics (such as the pianists’ touch on the Satie or Heifetz’s bowing on the Prokofiev). As noted, my only reservation was its handling of large-scale dynamics in the bass. I hope to acquire a pair of these speakers soon to find out whether, as I suspect, it was the amp or the room or both that were robbing the 3.7s of power.

Ayon was showing its electronics with the $35k, three-way, five-driver lumenwhite Artisan—equipped with a ring-radiator tweet, ceramic mid, and three 7” ceramic woofers. The speakers were outstanding on my Captain Luke and Guitar Gabriel cuts, though I thought I detected a touch of hollowness in the sound. This may have been caused by the speakers’ proximity to an even larger pair of lumenwhite speakers sitting beside them, although it was impossible to tell what was doing what to what because there was so much noise in the room from people talking that it was rather like eating dinner at Bouchon on a Friday night.

Broadmann, an Austrian piano-maker, showed a $63,990 loudspeaker called the jb155 with three front-firing drivers and two side-mounted woofers in a peculiar, undamped, ventilated cabinet with built-in tuning rods—kind of like a Shakti Hallograph in a box. While it evinced no dynamic compression even at very loud levels, the jb155’s timbre was so overly warm that the speakers made Mario Lanza sound like a baritone in a shower stall. A sonic mess.

The Lawrence Audio Eagle—a $100k floorstander with diamond tweet, ceramic mid, and 13” Focal woofers in a ported MDF box—sounded powerful and authoritative but otherwise so undistinguished that I didn’t jot down any other notes.

The $72k Talon Phoenix is a three-way, four-driver floorstander that will be available with an active digital crossover and powered woofer in about six months. (The version I heard had a passive crossover and no built-in amplification.) Powered by VAC, the Phoenix was just a smidge on the dark side (like so many others). It made Captain Luke sound chestier than he actually is and turned his acoustic guitar into something like an acoustic bass guitar.

Nola made its usual top-flight showing with the superb $55k Baby Grand Reference ribbon/cone hybrid that I reviewed last year. Driven (as usual) by ARC and sourced (among other things) by Greg Beron’s fantastic United Home Audio reel-to-reel tape deck, the Baby Grands sounded fantastic—fast, detailed, dynamic, deep-reaching, transparent, with a vast soundstage. Of course, none of this was a surprise, since I reviewed these speakers last year—and loved ’em. What was a surprise, although nothing Nola’s cagey designer Carl Marchisotto builds should surprise me anymore, was something else in the Nola room—a skinny little three-way floorstander called “The Contender.” Folks, if ever a product were appropriately named, this one is. It was almost unbelievable to hear the vast, detailed soundfield these little guys—about the height of a six-year-old—threw. On top of which, their bass seemed incredibly deep-reaching and articulate for such a diminutive transducer. My winner of Best Bargain Loudspeaker of CES 2011, The Contender is exactly what its name says it is—a serious challenge to speakers in its $3k price range.

Next up was the $80k Acapella High Violoncello II—a larger version of the High Violon with an extra woofer inside its box but the same ion tweeter and distinctive horn-loaded midrange. Compared to previous Acapellas, it seemed to have very little horn coloration, although its imaging was a little vague on the Mario Lanza cut, suggesting a slight lack of coherence. On the other hand, it had absolutely no dynamic compression on the punishing Lanza disc, as you might expect from a low-distortion horn speaker, and very high resolution of inner detail. I would have to say that this was the best Acapella speaker I’ve heard. The electronics were from Einstein.

Burmester was showing its $55k B80 three-way with MTM mids and tweet and side-firing woofers, powered by MBL electronics. (Just kidding. Naturally, Burmester was rolling its own amps, preamp, and CD player with its speakers.) A bit to my surprise given past performances, this entirely Burmester system produced an outstandingly neutral, natural, low-distortion sound. Julie London cried me a river exceptionally realistically with a nice sense of three-dimensional solidity and just a touch more chest than I’m used to (although Julie’s chest was one of her best features). The Talking Heads were also pretty damn impressive—maybe just a little bleached and whitish in timbre, but so detailed, so controlled, such marvelous top-to-bottom coherence, and truly great bass. A BOS finalist.

Waterfall had its two-and-a-halfway, $54k Niagras on hand again—and, once again, the sound was very open, very lively (but not overly bright in spite of the speaker’s undamped tempered-glass enclosure), and as transparent as, well, glass. The midbass was a little one-note due to a room resonance, but, this aside, bass was articulate and surprisingly deep for a two-and-a-halfway.

The Lotus Group was showing its $125k Granadas—those singular augmented one-ways with an ultra-pricey, full-range Feastrex driver buttressed by two big paper woofers in what amounts to an infinite baffle “enclosure.” Even digitized (as all sources are with the Granadas because of the speaker’s integral DSP crossover), my Satie LP had lovely sparkle on top, although the pianos’ bottom end didn’t sound as deep-reaching or as fully developed harmonically as I’ve heard it sound. (Great transients, though.) Same with The Talking Heads. The midrange was a little recessed and the bass, as noted, a bit sonically foreshortened, but the amount of detail was phenomenal and the overall presentation extremely listenable, even at very loud levels, without every sounding analytical. A one-of.

They used to say that McIntosh was the “doctor’s amplifier,” because of its upscale looks and appeal. Well, if McIntosh is the doctor’s amp, then its $37k XRT1K line-array floorstander fitted out with scores of identical little drivers is the “doctor’s office loudspeaker.” I don’t mean this to sound as mean as it probably does. What I do mean is that this is a great speaker for casual or background listening. It does absolutely nothing wrong and nothing outstandingly right. It’s just fun to listen to. Pleasant, musical, and relaxing.

T+A showed its $45k Solitaire, which combines an electrostatic tweeter with six cone midranges in a line array and two side-mounted 10” woofers in a sealed enclosure. Believe it or not, the Solitaire produced the deepest bass I heard at the show. Unfortunately, that sensational bass did not mate up seamlessly with the Solitaire’s mids and treble. (It’s hard to mate ’stats with anything other than more ’stats.) This slight bass discontinuity might have been exacerbated by room or placement; whatever the reason it did darken the soundfield, although it didn’t keep timbres on cuts like “Cry Me A River” from being lovely nor did it reduce detail, which was exceptionally high, top to bottom. This is an interesting and ambitious speaker, which, though not wholly successful, did some things better than any other at the show.

As previously noted, Lamm introduced its replacement for the ML2.1 (my favorite low-powered amplifier), the new ML2.2. For the launch, Lamm paired two pairs of the ML2.2s with Verity Audio’s $96k flagship, the Lohengrin II. Here again was a sound that came very close to what I hear at home on the discs that I brought to the show. The Satie, the Julie London, the Prokofiev—all were reproduced with outstanding transparency and a high degree of realism and even a strong taste of the freestanding “Scaena effect” (about which you will read in a moment). Bass was deep and fast, with none of the group-delay blur and phasiness of many ported speakers (and none of that bunched-up midbass, either). The best Verity speaker I’ve heard at a trade show and a CES 2011 Best of Show finalist.

We come now to my CES 2011 Best of Show winner—the $66k Scaena 3.4 ribbon/cone line-array loudspeaker with outboard woofers (newly redesigned, BTW). I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Scaena speakers since they were introduced several years ago. I heard them sound magical (or would that be Magico?) a year or two ago, but I’ve also heard them sound awful—phasey, incoherent, with bass that didn’t come close to mating up with the midrange and treble. On top of this, I’ve had (and still do) reservations about the Scaena idea of line arrays mated to tar-barrel-sized subwoofers.

Almost a decade ago, I reviewed the Scaena’s progenitor, the Nearfield Acoustics’ Pipedream, which used some of the same design elements. And while that speaker possessed many standard-setting qualities, top-to-bottom coherence and uniformity of manufacture were not two of them. As has often been the case at trade shows with the Scaenas, I could never get the Pipedream’s outstanding bass to mate up with its outstanding midrange. Like a satyr, the thing always remained two halves of different critters. On top of this I must’ve heard six versions of the Pipedreams during the year that I had them, and not a single pair sounded alike.

So…without seeking to tar Scaena, which is a different company run by different people, with the Nearfield Acoustics brush, I think you should keep these caveats in mind and understand, as well, that I have not heard these speakers in my home and have no idea, at this point, whether I can make a system that is this complex (and giant outboard woofers really complicate setup) sound like what I heard in the Venetian Hotel.

This said, I have to confess that I haven’t been this impressed by a product at a trade show since I heard the Magico Q5s playing back Nojima Plays Liszt at RMAF. Indeed, the Scaenas, driven by conrad-johnson ART amplifiers and a GAT preamplifier, did something only the Q5s do to this extent: They completely disappear as sound sources.

At this year’s show, I sat in drop-jawed wonder listening to Captain Luke singing “Rainy Night in Georgia” and Guitar Gabriel singing “Key to the Highway.” I’ve heard these cuts sound real before—that they are capable of sounding unusually realistic is why I bring them to trade shows. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard these two old men sound more realistic than this. The speakers just weren’t there. Neither, for that matter, were the electronics. All that was being transmitted were the voices and the instruments, as if they were materializing from the very air of the room. There was no sense of enclosure, no sense of drivers and crossovers, no sense of electronic mediation, no sense of window or aperture. We all know “real” when we hear it; we don’t even have to think about it. This was that real. Only, because it was coming from a dCS CD player, a conrad-johnson amplifier and preamplifier, and four woofers about fifteen feet away from two line-array columns of ribbons and cones that were about six feet away from me—all of which were obviously “there,” too—I had to think about it. The music didn’t seem to be “coming from” anything. And that was—and remains—marvelous and baffling.

In my experience only the Magico Q5s are consistently capable of this “fool-you-into-thinking-you-are-in-the-presence-of-real-singers-or-musicians” level of realism, of not hearing “where it comes from.” However, I’ve heard the Magicos do this trick with a great variety of music. With the Scaenas I’ve heard a grand total of two old men—and a spectacular techno-pop cut from The International. Whether these speakers are capable of this same magic on all extremely well-recorded music, I just don’t know. I know the Magico Q5s are. But we will see, as I plan to review the 3.4s later in the year.

Best Sound of Show: Scaena 3.4.

Best Sound of Show Runners-up (in the order I heard them): Magico Q3, TAD Reference One (in the VTL room), Rosso Fiorentino Siena, Morel Fat Ladies (on Day Four), Burmester B80, Verity Audio Lohengrin II

Best Bargain: Nola “The Contender,” Magnepan 3.7

Most Significant New Products: Magico Q3, Lamm ML2.2 monoblock amplifier, Rosso Fiorentino Siena, Magnepan 3.7, Nola "The Contender," VTL MB-450 Series III Signature monoblock amplifier

Greatest Technological Breakthrough: None

Most Important Trend: The plethora of expensive loudspeakers with side-firing woofers