Other Ultra-High-End Loudspeaker Highlights from CES 2014

Show report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers
Other Ultra-High-End Loudspeaker Highlights from CES 2014

Because I know many of you are used to a more comprehensive show report than our new format allows for—and many manufacturers quite rightly expect to be mentioned, favorably or not, when a reviewer spends often considerable amounts of time listening to music in their rooms—I’m going to augment my “Five Highlights” blog with a description of other worthy loudspeakers, priced at $20k or more, that I heard at The Venetian (and T.H.E. Show).

I’m going to do this, as I customarily do, floor by floor, starting with the 29th floor at The Venetian. As usual, I apologize in advance to manufacturers whose exhibits I missed—and for any mistakes in pricing or nomenclature. As I’ve said many times before, I’m just one guy with a briefcase full of blues (and classical).

So…first up from Floor 29 was the $69.9k Estelon X Diamond three-way, ceramic-driver floorstanders in their distinctive hour-glass-shaped, crushed stone-and-laminate enclosures. I rave-reviewed the Xes in TAS about a year ago and, on the basis of this show, have no reason to modify my views. The Estelons were being driven by (superb-sounding) Chord electronics and sourced by a Jadis (!) turntable. I had Alfred play cuts from The Reiner Sound, and the Ravel “Feria” was absolutely phenomenal. Oh, strings may have been a little whitish on tuttis and the bass not quite as full as I’ve heard it sound through my reference Raidho C4.1s, but, all in all, this was a terrific way to start a trade show!

Next up were the $100k Zellaton References driven by CH Precision electronics. Webern’s Six Movement for Strings sounded very very detailed through these handsome, five sandwich-driver (Zellaton invented the sandwich driver) floorstanders, which also had super-definition and outstanding pace. Though they were a little “whited out” in tone color on this cut (and on The Reiner Sound), I have to admit that I heard more detail on “L.A. Woman” through the References that ever before. These Zellatons are very stat-like in their speed, resolution, and low distortion, although they are also somewhat lacking in density of tone color through the power range and low bass.

I spent a good deal of time listening to Constellation Audio’s new $20k Argo integrated amp sourced by a Constellation Cygnus Media Player/DAC and driving $27k Magico S5, the oval-aluminum-enclosure, four-driver, three-way floorstander introduced a couple of years ago—and the current top model in Magico’s more affordable S Series line. Although the S5s didn’t have the richest balance of the Magicos I heard at CES 2014, driven by Constellation they most certainly had the most detail. On “Diamond Dogs” the singing of David Bowie and the playing of his band were incredibly well resolved, standard-setting in this regard. On The Firebird (from Reference) the sound was also lovely, with well-defined deep bass. Though not quite as full in the power range as what I’m used to, the S5s were not nearly as lean as the Zellatons. Speaking of which, alongside the Zellatons, I do not think I heard a higher-resolution system than this Constellation/Magico combo at the show. Constellation really is the champ of detail retrieval (and transient speed), and the S5s were fully up to the challenge.

Apparently Arnie Nudell’s Genesis loudspeakers still live, as I heard a Japanese version of the $45k five-way Genesis 4 with dynamic mids, ring-radiator and planar-magnetic tweets, and side-mounted servo-woofers. What a blast from the past! The speaker was a little hot on top with slightly discontinuous bass on Isaac Hayes’ Shaft, all of which, frankly, was also reminiscent of the old days. A hot exciting sound that is not the last word in overall coherence.

ENIGMAcoustics was coupling its $3695 electrostatic supertweeter with Magico V3 three-way floorstanders. I heard demonstrations with the supertweeter on and off using Saint-Saëns’ Habanera. Without the tweeter (which was mounted on a stand beside and slightly above the speaker), the sound was terrific—very full-range and robust and of a piece. With the tweeter in, the sound was distinctly more spacious, smoother, more open, with a bigger violin tone but, to be honest I preferred the V3 on its own.

Krell was showing its new plateau-biased Class A stereo amp with YG Acoustics’ top-of-the-line Sonja 1.1—a gorgeous-sounding speaker that I’ve liked very much at previous shows. With the Krell gear driving it, the Sonja sounded a little bright and aggressive (which are not inherent qualities of the speaker judging by past demos), although it was also very lively and present on voice.

Waterfall Acoustics was showing its glass-bodied, two-and-a-halfway, $40k Niagra loudspeaker driven by Boulder. On the Mussorgsky Pictures for organ, the Niagras were, as usual, surprisingly wonderful with very deep and powerful bass, smooth detailed mids, sweet highs, and not a hint of “glassiness.” Kind of amazing, ain’t it?

Angel Sound was showing its $180k S8 three-way with ScanSpeak drivers mounted in Angel’s distinctive candle-in-the-wind-shaped, one-piece, composite enclosure. Driven by Angel Sound’s own electronics and cabling and sourced by a CEC CD player, the S8s sounded—dare I say it?—positively angelic on Shelby Lynne’s Dusty tribute album.

Joseph Audio was showing its $31.5k Pearl 3 WATT/Puppy-like three-way with Bel Canto electronics (as usual). This is a swell speaker—rich, robust, and downright beautiful-sounding. Although the room was a little overwhelmed at very loud levels on “L.A. Woman,” at anything less than blast-zone SPLs the Pearls were just plain great.

Synergistic Research (whose cables, interconnects, and power cords went so far toward “warming up” and beautifying the Magico S3s in Magico’s own room) was showing a $30k Magico Q3 in its own room with custom-built Rogue electronics. In an all-digital setup, the Q3s sounded extremely full on the first day I heard them, with a bit of room boom and a hint of beryllium brightness. The boom aside, this was a gorgeous sound, with tremendous soundstaging, timbre, and dynamics on Copland’s Billy the Kid and The Eagles’ Hotel California. When I returned later in the show Ted Denny—who, IMO, makes some of the most effective passive room treatments money can buy—had adjusted his ART, HFT, and FEQs to make for even a more expansive presentation, eliminating the little touch of brightness and the room boom. Quite a demonstration of how effective Denny’s small and large Helmhotz-like radiators can be, even in a hotel room!

Richard Vandersteen was showing his $52k Vandersteen Model Sevens with Aesthetix electronics and Richard’s own brand-new $52k amplifier. Since the Sevens have their own built-in bass amplifier, Vandersteen reasoned that driving the rest of the speaker with a dedicated, bandwidth-limited amplifier of exactly the same sonic quality would improve the overall presentation. He reasoned correctly, as this was the most consistent sound, top to bottom, that I have ever heard from a Vandy, with superb overall balance, exceptional control and definition in the bass and power range, and outstanding transient response. Not a warm presentation (or a dark one), the Vandy Sevens driven by Vandy amps were dead-central neutral.

I spend a good deal of time in Soulution’s room, listening to Cyrill Hammer’s new $65k 711 stereo amplifier and a prototype of his $55k 725 preamplifier. The speakers were Magico S3s—the selfsame numbers that Magico was using in its own room—but the sound couldn’t have been more different than the much warmer Synergistic/Vitus-driven setup. Here the S3s sounded more like Magicos traditionally sound, which is to say, neutral, ultra-high in resolution, ultra-high in transient speed, and simply phenomenal in the low-to-mid bass with tremendous sock and definition. As I said in my first blog, the powerful, speedy, detailed, honest, transparent sound of these electronics, which simply changed sound and soundstaging on a record-by-record basis (as should be the case), gave me a severe case of equipment-lust. I hope to get the stereo version of the amp and the preamp later in 2014.

Mr. Miura of Air Tight was showing a prototype single-driver (well, two identical drivers), full-range loudspeaker with his own impeccably made, gorgeous-sounding electronics, a Transrotor Crescendo turntable, and the PC-1 Supreme cartridge. Though the speaker is definitely a “work in progress,” as is always the case with single-driver speakers there were areas in the upper bass, midrange, and lower treble where instruments sounded so real and so “there” they astounded.

Crystal Cable, whose Absolute Dream wires are one of my references, showed an extremely promising two-way, temporarily dubbed the “Concept” speaker, that had phenomenal bass (and not just for a two-way). Driven by another “Concept” product, an integrated amp whose circuitry was said to be derived from Siltech’s great SAGA system. Alongside the Raidho X1 the two Concepts might have been the most promising debuts in my part of the forest. Pricing hasn’t been firmed up yet for either product, but Edwin and Gabi told me they were hoping to bring each in at around $15k (apiece). I’ll certainly be waiting for my pair.

We now move to the 30th floor, where Raidho was showing its $28k D1s—two-ways with a diamond-cone mid/bass and quasi-ribbon tweeter—driven by Class D Rowland integrated amplifier. Although there was a little too much bass (a room node, I think) on Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs,” the sound was otherwise Raidho-like, which is to say downright gorgeous in tone color, outstanding in transient speed, and 3-D in imaging and soundstaging. The real news in the Raidho room wasn’t the D1s, which are already acknowledged to be world-class minis; rather, it was the introduction of the tiny $7k X1 two-way stand-mount (with ceramic mid/bass and quasi-ribbon tweet), which sounded exactly like what it is—a miniature C1.1. The X-1 looks like a real winner for listeners looking for the Raidho sound at a lower price.

Jeff Catalano of High Water Sound has been telling me for years that his favorite Cessaro horn speaker for smaller rooms is the two-way, front-loaded $40k Chopin. This year he showed with that speaker, driven by Tron electronics and sourced by TW Acustic, and as it turns out he was absolutely right about the Chopins, which were simply superb, boasting a seamless blend of drivers and a lack of horn coloration unparalleled in the horn systems I’ve previously heard (including other Cessaros). Man, you should have heard these things rock on The Doors! Though a little congested on tuttis, the Chopins were also gorgeous on Ravel, with simply beautiful string tone—well, simply beautiful everything.

The company that makes Robert’s current electronics references, Absolare was—guess what?—also showing with Magico, in this case, the S5. It is amazing how different the same speakers can sound with different gear. In the Constellation room the S5s were models of resolution. Here they were models of gorgeous tone color—my Ravel in particular had breathtakingly beautiful timbre on clarinet and strings. Unfortunately, the Absolare folks were playing a bit too loud, which rather compressed the sound of Debussy’s Iberia on Chad Kassem’s great new reissue, flattening dynamic contrasts.

A current reference of mine, Zanden Audio was—what can I say?—also showing with Magico S5s, and a Gran Prix turntable. Here the strings was a little drier than in the luscious Absolare room, but the clarinets, bassoons, and basses were simply terrific—very deep and very well-defined in the low end. If you don’t know it yet, Zanden’s newest gear—the 8120 stereo amp, the 3100 linestage, and 1300 phonostage—is well worth searching out.

Acapella was showing its €100k Atlas spherical-horn and ion tweeter floorstander (with three, isobarically-loaded ten-inch woofers inside the cabinet). The sound was a little top-heavy but pleasant.

Carl Marchisotto of Nola introduced his $197k Concert Grand Reference Golds—twelve-driver, ribbon/cone floorstanders in a large, partially open-backed enclosure. The speaker was driven by ARC electronics and sourced by United Home Audio’s new OPS tape deck (OPS for “outboard power supply”). The Beatles’ “Mothers Nature Son” never sounded better than it did here (played back on reel-to-reel). The speaker was exceptionally smooth, coherent, and majestic, with better bass definition and control than past Nolas. But it was also a little lacking in dynamic energy, low level and high, and I’m not sure why.

VTL was showing with Wilson Audio’s $48k Alexia multiway floorstander (with articulating sub-cabinets) and a Spiral Groove turntable with Lyra Etna cartridge. The sound was excellent—full-bodied and robust, though better, I thought, on digital than on analog. As I noted in my original blog, Luke and Bea played an organ recital recording in which the reproduction of pedal point was phenomenal.

Lansche introduced a revised version of its 5.1 loudspeaker with ion tweeter driven by Ypsilon electronics, and, man, has it improved this speaker, which never before sounded this coherent and well balanced. Very warm and gemütlich, with excellent bass integration, the 5.1 may not have been the very last work in presence on voice, guitar, and harp on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “The Sky is Falling,” but it was exceedingly lovely on all three instruments and very realistic on dynamics.

In the Musical Surroundings room, I heard the Focal Scala Utopia driven by Aesthetix and Musical Surroundings own electronics (including the phonostage that our Paul Seydor has raved about) and sourced by an AMG Viella 12 ’table with AMG cartridge sound phenomenally good on The Doors’ “L.A. Woman.” Big, rich, meaty, and hard-hitting, this was a Best of Show contender—and at a relatively low price.

Like Focal, Vienna Acoustics also showed surpassingly well with its $30k, five-driver, four-way The Music floorstander, driven by D’Agostino Momentum electronics. Both “Riders on the Storm” and “L.A. Woman” were exceptionally dynamic, with rich tone color and kick-ass drum and bass.

We now move to the 34th floor, where Venture was showing its $30k three-way, five-driver Vidi with a Weiss Medus DAC. Though a little lightweight, these speakers were very detailed on the Rach 3, with super-resolution of inner lines on the piano. All in all, a good show for Venture.

April Music was driving a diminutive, snail-shaped $40k Vivid Audio Giya G3 with its own Aura Note v2 Class D high-end receiver. The Giyas sounded warm and lovely on female chorus, light and pleasant on string orchestra, and quite present on male voice with good mouth sound, bespeaking high resolution.

One of my favorite speakers, the $78k TAD Reference One was being driven by TAD’s own electronics. The sound was dark, rich, and beautiful on male voice, sensationally realistic on Peter, Paul & Mary, and downright “there” on voice and piano. A Best of Show contender, as usual, although this year the TAD electronics, now wired with Argento cable, seemed improved.

And that, as they say, is that.