Although I liked the sound of Marten loudspeakers in the past, they always seemed like Swedish versions of Kharmas, and since Kharma was then still active in the U.S. market I saw little reason to pick the copies ahead of the originals. Now, with Kharma apparently out of the picture in the States, paying more attention to Marten makes better sense, and this year I am very glad I did.
I’ll begin with the $54k Marten Coltrane Soprano—a handsome two-way floorstander with two laser-vented Accuton ceramic mid/bass drivers and a Jantzen Audio diamond tweeter, driven (beautifully) by Engström’s great-sounding $90k Lars amplifier (shown in the first photo). I threw a toughie at the Soprano to begin: “Mario Lanza in London.” I’m not so sure that any two-way Kharma I’ve heard could’ve handled this extremely challenging disc, which can oh-so-easily turn to pure harsh shoutiness if amp or speaker doesn’t have the dynamic range necessary to handle such a very dynamic recording. Here, Lanza’s tenor simply soared—a superb performance from these little Swedish meatballs. The Sopranos had all the neutrality, focus, and boxlessness of a great Kharma, without the slight whiteness and overwound dynamics of certain Kharmas. But wait, as they say on late-night TV ads, there’s more.
A few doors down I heard the $165k Marten Coltrane Memento driven by Vitus electronics and fed by a super-sounding Bergmann turntable with air-bearing straight-line-tracking arm, air-bearing platter, and air-bearing feet. This large ceramic/diamond-driver multiway was a little warmer in balance than the smaller Soprano, but just as natural, with simply superb focus and resolution. Both speakers go to show that a dark tonal balance isn’t a prerequisite of high-end loudspeakers; both were extremely realistic on the music I played; both are in the running for BOS.
Also in the running, as it always is, is MBL’s omnidirectional 101 E Mk II, which was terrific—as it always is. Three-D, boxless, beautiful in tone color, dynamic as all get-out, the 101s simply disappear like nothing else—and sound like nothing else. If there is a speaker out there that is more quintessentially fun to listen to…well, point me to it. The 101s may have been a little bright in the upper mids (as MBLs tend to be), but when music sounds this freed-up, colorful, and exciting, who cares? Marvelous.
GamuT showed exceptionally well again at CES, this time with its $45k S-7—a three-way floorstander with ScanSpeak drivers and stacked birch-ply cabinet. Listening to Joan Baez’s “Gospel Ship” I was reminded of just how neutral and natural (no darkness here) these GamuT numbers can sound. If anything the S-7s were a little warmer and more gemütlich than the bigger GamuTs I heard last year, demonstrating lifelike excellence on voice and guitar. The S-7s were equally natural on the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra. Though the S-7’s bass did not go as deep as the bigger GamuTs, it was very very good--taut and clear with excellent transient response. Another contender.
A speaker I liked at RMAF—the $32k Focal Scalas—I liked again at CES. Driven by some of my favorite electronics—those marvelous Marantz 9 clones, the Airtight ATM-3s—the Scalas made Joanie and her guitar sound both beautiful AND realistic on “Gospel Ship” and “House Carpenter.” The sound here was not quite as “you-are-there” present as, oh, that of the Vandy 7s, but low-level resolution and dynamic scale were extraordinary for a cone speaker.
Lumen-White’s $35k, ceramic-driver-equipped, three-way Artisan, driven by Ayon electronics, may not make the final cut, but I simply have to note if the BOS awards came down to the sound on just one track the Artisan would sweep the field. That is how extraordinarily realistic it sounded on the jaunty Sinatra/Martin/Crosby number “Style.” (Here, BTW, is another speaker that did not sound “hi-fi dark” in balance; it was a model of neutrality.)
Yet another speaker that surprised and impressed me last year surprised and impressed me even more this. I still don’t quite understand how a speaker with a glass cabinet and no internal damping doesn’t ring like a porcelain bell, but hearing is believing, and the $60k Crystal Cable Arabesques—three-driver, two-way, ribbon/sliced-paper cone in absolutely gorgeous glass enclosures—sounded even better than they did in 2009. They managed to sound lovely, accurate, and realistic on Captain Luke’s difficult-to-reproduce bass-baritone (which many speakers tend to slant toward the bass side, making him sound darker than he should, or toward the baritone side, making his voice lighter-weight than it is), and absolutely superb on Guitar Gabriel’s “Keys to the Highway.” If there was a theme to this year’s show, it might have been improvements, for here is yet another impressive example of a speaker that sounded better than it had before.
Avalon, whose speakers I have so often liked in the past, introduced its new $49k Time mulitway floorstander in Vegas, driven by Rowland amplification. The presentation was dark (which is not typical of Avalon), big (which is), and gorgeous (ditto), with exceptionally lifelike presence. Yeah, Captain Luke sounded a bit more like a bass than a bass-baritone, but, my goodness, what a beautiful sound. The Time also had fabulous bass definition, impact, extension, and articulation, which made Cut 7 of "The International" a standout in a show during which I had heard this track sound superb on several other speakers.
CES proved to be another very strong showing for, perhaps, the most beautiful and certainly among the most expensive loudspeakers, Perfect8's $375k (yup, you're reading that right) The Force--a ribbon-cone hybrid dipole with a glass baffle, glass sub, and solid-gold wiring. The Force did a masterful job with Joan Baez's "Pretty Boy Floyd" (the Woody Guthrie song that ends with one of the truly great morals in all contemporary folk songs: "As through this world I've wandered I've seen lots of funny men; some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen"). Joanie and guitar sounded exceptionally natural, with a little more color and body than they had through last year's Force. (Apparently the differences are due to improved magnets and crossover.) The speakers were also superb on a very dynamic piano recording that I play now and then to test for low-end dynamics. The thing is filled with crashing fortes and huge deep sostenutos, and The Force handled them superbly well, with only a hint of lightness in the very bottom. This is a fascinating loudspeaker.
I can’t say that the $39k Gershman Black Swans, driven (as usual) by wonderful VAC electronics, sounded “improved.” They merely sounded their usual impressive great. The Swans are simply wonderfully well-balanced, highly musical loudspeakers, with rich, liquid timbres, excellent bass, high resolution, and superior dynamics. What’s not to like? A really good speaker at a really good price.
For the finish I’ve saved the $27k Wilson Audio Sasha W/P multiway floorstander. Here’s an instance where that theme of improvements was, perhaps, as excitingly expressed as it was in the YG room. I hadn’t been bowled over by the Sasha at RMAF, but in Vegas, driven superbly by Zanden electronics and fed by an absolutely marvelous-sounding Grand Prix turntable, the Sasha was a top-rank Best of Show contender. Let me, once again, consult my notes (well, memos to me—notes to you). Here are the very words I wrote: “Light, nimble, wonderful air and speed and resolution. Fantastic sound!” And so it was on everything I played. I do not know, at this point, whom I will award Best of Show, too, but the Sasha is definitely going to be in the hunt and if it doesn’t win will certainly be a prime runner-up.