Robert Harley's Best of CES

Show report
Robert Harley's Best of CES

Best Sound (cost-no-object)

I heard quite a number of outstanding systems at this show. My contenders for Best Sound include Sonus faber’s $250k flagship loudspeaker (called simply the “Sonus faber”) driven by Audio Research 610t amplifiers. The sound was wonderful, combining a warm and lush rendering of timbre with high resolution of recorded detail. Another great sound was the new King E from Hansen. This is a ground-up effort with new enclosure material, drivers, and crossovers. The $97k King E sounded every bit as good as the phenomenal $250k Hansen Grand Master that so impressed me last year.

But the system that gets my vote for Best Sound was the Wilson Alexandria X-2 driven by the Lamm ML3 Signature power amplifiers, LL1 Signature preamp, LP2 phonostage, da Vinci AAS Gabriel turntable with a da Vinci Grand Reference Grandezza tonearm and Grand Reference Grandezza cartridge. The digital front end included the NeoDio NR22T transport and NR22D DAC. Cables were Kubala-Sosna’s top-of-the-line Elation Series, and the racks were from Critical Mass Systems. I’ve heard the X-2 quite a number of times (and lived with a pair for 18 months), but I’ve never experienced anything like what I heard in Las Vegas. The system simply didn’t sound like hi-fi. The immediacy of the music was palpable, the expression laid bare with seemingly no electronics or speakers between me and the musicians. On a sonic basis, the soundstage was enormous when called for (Peter McGrath’s recording of Handel’s Messiah, for example) but became intimate and properly scaled on solo voice. This was one of the best systems I’ve heard at any show. It was also signfiicantly better in every way compared to the sound in my previous room.

Best Sound (for the lowest price)

This CES brought out lots of amazing loudspeaker bargains. The $995 Audience TheOne, a tiny cube housing Audience’s 3.5” full-range driver coupled to a passive radiator, sounded amazing with its lack of a crossover. The speaker was surprisingly full range, and disappeared completely. Another great value was the MMMicroOne from Evolution Acoustics ($2k per pair). This slim two way employs dual 4” custom ceramic-matrix drivers coupled to a pleated-diaphragm ribbon tweeter. When driven by DarTZeel electroncs and the new Playback Designs disc player, the MMMicroOne was utterly transparent, smooth, and engaging. The bass extension was surprising for the size (and the placement well out into the room). What’s more, the MMMicroOne’s finish quality was what you’d find on the world’s finest loudspeakers.

The Best Sound for the lowest price award goes to the new PSB Imagine Mini. Driven by NAD electronics, the Imagine Mini sounded far better than any $700-per-pair speaker has any right to. The sound was completely “out-of-the-box”, dynamic, and significantly, avoided the kind of raggedy treble so often heard in sub-$1k speakers. With the Imagine Mini, Paul Barton has solidified his reputation as the speaker designer who squeezes the most sound out of the smallest parts budget. The cabinet was nicely done, to boot.