More Contenders for Best of Show, Part Two: Usual and Unusual Suspects

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More Contenders for Best of Show, Part Two: Usual and Unusual Suspects

As it was at CES, the Lotus Group Granada was a model of neutrality. Even though it was digitizing analog sources via its DSP crossover (which not only crosses over the woofers to the Feastrex via fourth-order slopes but also eq's each driver and provides sophisticated room correction), it still managed to reproduce Joan Baez’s voice and guitar on “Gospel Ship” with exceptionally natural timbre. Oh, maybe it was subtracting a little bit of the most delicate tremolo from Joanie’s soprano, but it wasn’t subtracting anything else. What it was doing that so many other speakers weren’t was sounding flat, uncolored, and utterly coherent. This essentially three-driver two-way speaker (using the marvelous Feastrex cone from Japan from 200Hz up, and a couple of Acoustic Elegance woofers from 200Hz down) needs a review in TAS. Robert named it “Best of Show” at RMAF (and I named it a runner-up), and it was a strong contender again at CES.

Speaking of strong contenders doing repeat business, the Electrocompaniet Nordic Tone—another digitally corrected speaker of astonishing quality—sounded very nearly as marvelous in Vegas as it did in Denver. Yeah, it was still a little dark in balance (as it was at RMAF—the electronics, I think), but, oy, the dynamics, the resolution, the bass! This is a potentially great speaker that is consistently revealing details in the music and the mix that others don’t, particularly in the bass and in dynamics. The listening room was too small to tell about soundstaging, but I think it might be great, too. Whether all this adds up to greater realism is an open question, but for those who like their music gorgeous and dynamic and who also want to hear all there is to hear (at least on digital sources), they are already a top contender—and a top contender for Best of Show at CES 2010.

A speaker that took me pleasantly by surprise was the $99k Venture Grand Ultimates--three-way floorstanders with four 8-inch woofers, a 7-inch midrange, and a 2-inch tweeter. The bass and midrange drivers are carbon-fiber/graphite compounds, the tweeter a banana-pulp/graphite mix. The sound the Ultimates produced via a first-rate analog rig (Verdier table, Schroeder arm, London Reference cartridge) was exceptional—detailed and beautiful on the old Pete Townshend standby “Street in the City.” The speakers were, like so many others at this show, just a tad dark in balance but gorgeous in timbre and exceptionally high in textural resolution, reproducing the very light brush of Townshend’s fingers over the strings following a strong crescendo with lifelike clarity.

For the second time in a row at CES, the $54k Scaena 3.2s (driven by McIntosh electronics and fed by my fave, the dCS Scarlatti) sounded exceptionally natural (a rarity at this show). Yeah, the 3.2s were too close together because of the narrow width of the room, but putting those woofers at a distance (as Scaena did last year) does wonders for their blend with the ribbon/cone midrange/tweeter columns. Set up the way they were, the Scaenas generated a soundfield that was exceptionally freed-up from enclosure and drivers. Indeed, their “disappearing act” was, perhaps, the best at CES (alongside that of the M5s). Timbres were unusually lifelike on “Keys to the Highway” and other cuts. There may have been a little bit of added brightness in the upper mids due to the close seating position, but, really, I had the feeling that the only limitations with this speaker were the room. Without doubt this is a top contender for BOS.

We come now to the speaker that won my Best of Show award at RMAF, the fab $46k Vandersteen Model 7, driven in Vegas by Aesthetix electronics. At CES, they sounded just as freed-up and spacious as they did in Denver. The sound was slightly more sibilant and less bloomy with the Aesthetic gear than it was with the ARC Richard used in CO, but every bit as lovely, coherent, and neutral in balance. This is simply a great loudspeaker, no matter what is driving it. On Joan Baez’s “Gospel Ship” texture, color, dynamics, and timbre were entirely lifelike, with superb resolution of Joanie’s characteristic tremolo. On “Misunderstood” Townshend and his guitar sounded so alive it was uncanny. Indeed, I wrote in my notepad: “So alive, so neutral, so present, so there!” It will be hard NOT to give another award to this masterpiece, which will certainly be a runner-up if it isn’t the Best of Show winner.