While I've never disliked Hansen's peculiar apostrophe-shaped loudspeakers, I haven't been wild about them, either. For all they do well--and they do a lot well--they've also sounded a bit thick and bass-heavy to me, no matter when or where I've heard them.
Well, stop the presses. This year Lars Hansen introduced a giant apostrophe (or should that be exclamation point?) in his huge, $239k, ten-driver, ported, three-way floorstander--the Grand Master. Driven by Tenor electronics (another brand I haven't overly warmed to--at least not since the demise of its late sorely lamented 75Wp OTL), the Grand Master was, indeed, grand. On everything from "Rainy Night in You Know Where" to "The International" it sounded simply fabulous, with wonderful balance, wonderful bass, wonderful dynamics, wonderful resolution, and (a scarcity at this show) wonderful musicality.
If the YG Acoustics Anat Reference II earns "Most Improved Speaker on Earth. Period," then the Hansen Grand Master has to be the "Most Improved Speaker...Ever." In fact, I was so shocked and smitten with its sound that I floated out of the room on a veritable cloud of delight and forgot to take a picture! (Thus the stock photo above.) Congratulations to Lars (and to Tenor, too). I assume that the speaker will be reviewed by You Know Whom. It's way too big for my room, but it certainly deserves a lengthy write-up.
Of course, the excellence of Andrew Jones' $65k TAD Reference One is scarcely a surprise. Like the Anats, these speakers are, to me, the quintessence of great hi-fi. They have absolutely killer dynamics, sensational low-level resolution, wonderful soundstaging, and gorgeous timbre. All they don't have (or at least haven't in the past to my ear) is the breath of life.
I'm going to be writing about this in the future because it is an interesting subject, but in a nutshell here's the conundrum: The way we review things--bass, midrange, treble, dynamics, resolution, soundstaging, etc.--you would think that more of everything in each of these categories would add up to greater realism. However, that isn't the case. Although bits and pieces of these things are necessary for a lifelike sound, those bits and pieces are highly select. In other words, achieving a convincing semblance of the absolute sound isn't simply an additive process; otherwise, the most detailed amp or speaker would always be the most realistic--and it ain't.
Now, i'm saying these things about the Reference One, but I could be saying them about virtually every speaker I heard at CES. Almost all of the best of them sounded overly dark, almost all of the best of them were audiophile-laundry-list champeens. But very very very few of them sounded "real" rather than hi-fi.
I'm also saying these things about the Reference One because, though a little too dark in balance (as virtually every speaker in Vegas was--almost), this year the TAD did sound real. Indeed, it produced the most lifelike reproduction of "Keys to the Highway" (that great blues song penned by Big Bill Broonzy and sung on CD by the late Guitar Gabriel) at the show, simply wonderful and realistic delicacy of detail on the old man's voice.
What changed? Well, take a look at the next picture.
Yep! TAD is now making its own--apparently quite marvelous--electronics. This thing is very special sounding, judging by what I heard at the show. It is also unique. If you look at the picture above you think you're seeing an amp on a stand. But that's not a stand. It's the innards of the amp! To isolate transformers and delicate circuits from their own electrical crosscurrents and vibration of every kind, Jones (who is as clever a gent as any in all of high-end audio) devised a huge cast-iron base to house them (see the picture of the base being held up by one of TAD's folks).
This cast-iron monstrosity weighs nearly a hundred pounds all by itself and gives the individual parts some of the best electrical/environmental isolation conceivable.
One can only judge by the results, of course. But, as noted, the results spoke volumes this year. Congratulations to Andrew, TAD, and VTL (whose preamp showed better than I've ever heard it show before) for a wonderful demo.
We come now to a system I am very familiar with, since I listen to it almost every day at home: Magico M5s, driven by Sopulution 700 monoblocks, a Soulution 720 preamp, Soulution's new 750 phonostage (which may be THE BEST phonostage I've ever heard--and THE BEST product Soulution has yet made), and Soulution's new 745 CD/SCAD player (which, judging from what I heard at the show) may be right up there with the 750.
Rather than beating around the bush, let me just quote what I wrote in my notepad: "So neutral, so fast, so dynamic, so of a piece, so natural! This is WAY BEST so far." The M5s might have taken second place to the TADs on "Keys to the Highway," but it was a goddamn close second place. And they were without question first place winners on "Rainy Night in GA." Where almost everything else at the show sounded hi-fi dark, the M5s sounded just plain naturally neutral. Nope, they aren't as detailed as some others (at least at low levels). Nope, they don't have the sledgehammer bass of some others (although they're pretty damn sledgy). Nope they don't have this or that, either. What they do have is what most of the other competition (not all) doesn't--at least to the same extent. They have a grip on the sound of the real thing that never loosens on anything they play that is capable of sounding like the real thing.
Now I have heard equally realistic sound (in some ways more realistic) from MartinLogan CLXes. But the Logans' realism is limited by the CLXes' own limitations in ways that the M5s' isn't.
I'm not declaring these speakers and amps the winners of Best of Show. I'm still collating and the competition is stiff. But along with the Magico Q5s, the Maggie 1.7s, the YG Anat Reference IIs, the Hansen Grandmasters, and the TAD Reference Ones--and several other VERY worthy products that I will come to in Part Two of my contenders list--they are "up there." They are also, unquestionably, one of the best and first choices you can make (assuming you have the money) if what you want from your stereo isn't thrills and chills but the sound of real instruments making music iin a real space.