CES 2014 Report: Electronics $15,000 and below

Show report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers
CES 2014 Report: Electronics $15,000 and below


This year’s CES had a fairly relaxed atmosphere. Perhaps unusually cold weather in much of the U.S. prevented many attendees from flying into Las Vegas for the first couple of days, or maybe the gravitational pull of the High End Show in Munich has reduced CES’ importance as an international show for “high-performance audio.” For whatever reason, CES 2014 did not have the urgency or gravitas of years past. Even so, my coverage area had many intriguing new entries, and I came away impressed by many fine sounding electronics under $15k—under $5k, for that matter. Aside from improved integrated amps, preamps, and power amps, the presence of on-board DACs in preamps and integrated amps continues to be a trend. It will be interesting to watch whether this DAC integration accelerates, or whether separate DACs become favored by consumers as digital processing technology continues to evolve fairly rapidly. For example, more DSD-capable DACs are appearing on the market, yet manufacturers seem to be slower to offer DSD through their DACs in preamp sections. Another trend, also evident last year, are more Class D (and Class-D-like) power supplies being implemented in amplification products.

Most Significant

Rogue Audio Pharaoh
Rogue Audio unveiled a new full-featured integrated amplifier. The Pharaoh is the most powerful integrated Rogue has produced and is based on its “tubeD” platform first used in the Hydra and Medusa power amplifiers. Rogue is ratcheting up the performance in its top integrated by leveraging lessons learned from the Sphinx, which impressed Ron Doering in his recent TAS review. The Pharaoh has a tube mu-follower preamp section, a MC/MM phono section (with 40 or 60 dB of gain), a tube headphone amp, and a Hypex-based Class-D power amp section that delivers 175W into 8 ohms and 350W into 4. According to Rogue, its damping factor is >1000 and it uses “ultra high-quality components throughout.” Sonically, the Pharaoh had no telltale chalky grain structure and upper-end glare of some Class-D amps of a few years ago. Instead, the Pharaoh delivered a detailed, musically rich presentation with a respectably wide and deep soundstage, and it drove a pair of 85dB-sensitive Dynaudio C1 Signature speakers with aplomb.

Constellation Audio Inspiration Line
Constellation Audio’s Dr. Murali quietly showed me, in a closed-off adjoining suite, two chassis from its brand new Inspiration line, which will be priced well below the company’s far more expensive Reference and Performance lines. Murugasu told me each Inspiration model will come in at “under $10,000” and the lineup will include a preamp and stereo power amp (available Q2) with other models to follow: mono power amp, phono stage, DAC, integrated/DAC amp, and possibly a music streamer. Murugasu assured me that a substantial portion of Constellation’s more expensive lines’ performance characteristics (much praised by both RH and JV) will be evident in the new, lower-priced Constellations. If what I heard in a demo of the mid-level Performance Series Argo integrated amp powering a pair of Magico S5 speakers (cabling by WireWorld) is any indication of what to expect from the Inspiration models, the sonic results should be excellent. The Argo/S5 combo was stunningly dynamic and revealing of fine detail. Hopefully, Constellation can deliver its characteristic stellar performance at more earthly prices.

April Music Aura
April Music debuted the Aura, a small, beautiful, classic-looking, top-loading CD player/receiver whose casework is based on a 15-year design by industrial designer Sir Kenneth Grange. The $2995 Aura is a sleek and simple-to-use music player with a headphone amp, preamp outputs, two RCA analog inputs, and digital inputs for optical, USB for memory stick (96/24), and USB B for PC connection (192/24). It also comes with a radio receiver and, of course, plays CDs. It produces 125W into 8 ohms, and to prove his point about it being able to the deliver the sonic goods, April Music’s principal Simon Lee demonstrated the Aura with a pair of $54,000 Vivid G1 Giya speakers and Verastar cables. The sound was quite full, detailed, and engaging. April Music also demoed their brand new small-chassis Stello HP100 Mk2 preamp/headphone amp ($1300), DA100 DAC that supports DSD128 and 384/24 PMC ($1500), and S100 Mk2 power amp ($1200), which outputs 50W of Class AB power into 8 ohms. The combo’s sound was refreshingly sweet, liquid, and lively.

Arcam FMJ 49
Arcam, of Cambridge, previewed its most powerful integrated amp to date, the FMJ 49, rated at 200W into 8 ohms (400W into 4), operates in pure Class A up to 50W. At $5000 and rather large and heavy, it is definitely Arcam’s most ambitious integrated amp in its long tradition of “audio-first” two-channel and A/V electronics. I heard the FMJ 49 fronted by an Arcam CD transport/DAC and powering a pair of Canton Vento 830 stand-mounted speakers. The sound was wonderfully smooth and low noise, yet revealing and dynamically vivid. It is made in Arcam’s Rochester, NY factory and shows great promise in the highly competitive integrated amp market.

T+A Elektroakustik 3000 HV
Germany’s T+A Elektroakustik debuted its 3000 HV series electronics, of which the P 3000 HV preamp falls right at the upper limit of my $15k coverage range. HV stands for high voltage and refers to T+A’s use of high voltage levels in the driver stages so that current levels in the output stages can be low, which apparently reduces non-linearity by operating the output transistors far below their power capacity limits. Offering ample balanced and unbalanced inputs (and both types of outputs), the P 3000 HV also requires two power cords: one for the isolated digital control power supplies and one for the analog sections. The sound of an entire HV system was beautifully clear, grain free, detailed, and musically compelling.

Auspicious Debuts

VTL TL-6.5 II Signature
VTL debuted its TL-6.5 II Signature linestage preamp, some seven years after the original TL-6.5 was introduced. Some of the trickle-down technology from VTL’s flagship TL-7.5 appearing in the new 6.5 II includes current-sourced shunt power regulated power supplies, new FET transistors which operate in a “normally-on” state (like tubes), and a shock-mounted high-current gain stage for greater vibrational isolation. The sound of an all-VTL system powering Wilson Alexias was ravishingly beautiful and detailed.

Alluxity Pre One
Alluxity, a new spin off from the Danish company Vitus, showed its $9,000 Pre One preamp, a two gain-stage affair that aims to be simple to use, easy to upgrade as future improvements become available, and sonically pure by virtue of its straight forward approach to circuit design.

Hegel H80
Norway’s Hegel demonstrated the virtues of its new $2000, 75W H80 integrated amp/DAC by quickly switching between it and Hegel’s $20,000 P30 and H30 pre/pwr combo. The tonal balance of the smaller H80 sounded remarkably similar to that of the larger combo, but the dynamic punch was greater and lower levels of noise-induced grain was, predictably, significantly lower with the pre/pwr combo. Still, the H80 delivered higher performance than I expected, given the price differential. Review forthcoming.

Jeff Rowland Continuum S2
Jeff Rowland Design Group showed its $9500 Continuum S2 integrated amp. With both RCA and XLR inputs and outputs, an intuitive user interface, and 400Wpc on hand, it should be a versatile and able performer in a wide variety of systems. I heard it driving a pair of Raidho’s stunning new $7100, stand-mounted speakers, the X1, and was simply amazed by the level of resolution the system brought forth. Truly remarkable.

Primare PRE60 Reference
Primare of Sweden is ratcheting up performance over its previous offerings with its new PRE60 Reference preamp/DAC and A60 Reference power amp ($10,000 each). The PRE60 features a custom made C-core transformer and short-signal-path multilayer circuit boards. The A60 produces 250W into 8 ohms (500W into 4), is fully balanced, and uses “heavy switch mode” power supplies that can deliver 2600A (peak). The combo, fronted by a Primare media player and powering a pair of Vienna Acoustics Liszt speakers with Transparent cables, sounded smooth and sophisticated with a large soundstage and well fleshed-out images.

BMC featured its new $1790 PureDAC pre/DAC which substantially brings down the price of entry to BMC’s proprietary digital interface technology. The DSD128-capable PureDAC can connect to a BMC power amp directly, thereby bypassing one amplification stage in the power amp. I listened to the PureDAC, a pair of M2 mono amps, and BMC’s fantastic new PureVOX bipolar speakers ($6500). The sound quality was simply marvelous: open, detailed, fluid, dynamically engaging, and quite deep reaching in the bass.

Burmester 101
Burmester, a German company known for producing upscale gear, debuted its new 120W, $12,000 101 integrated amp. It has RCA and XLR inputs, a preamp output, and a headphone jack. The 101 was designed to partner with the 102 CD player ($9495) and B10 ($9000) speakers to form a well-matched system, both sonically and visually. The complete Classic Line Burmester system sounded quite suave and lovely. It would make a nice smaller-space system for those who appreciate a taste of the quality for which Burmester is famous.

Rega Elicity-R
Rega debuted a new, over-achieving integrated called the Elicit-R. Priced at $2995, its 105W rating does not really tell you the surprisingly high level of control and dynamic oomph this rather small and attractive amp can deliver. I was really impressed by the musical power and enjoyment factor—not to mention the good imaging and detail retrieval—of the Elicit-R when paired with Rega’s new Saturn-R CD/DAC player, and PMC FACT.12 speakers.

In Other News

The Unison Research Triode 25 push/pull integrated tube amp ($3495) sounded lovely when playing with a U.R. Unico CDE CD player and powering Opera Quinta speakers ($6995). The EL34-based amp can run in either triode (25W) or pentode mode (45W) and sounded engaging, open, and agile—even in the bass. It’s hand made in Italy and its cosmetics have a nice dash of brio, too. Gato Audio of Denmark showed several new items ranging from $3000 to $6000: two integrated amps (DIA-250, [250W], and DIA-400 [400W], both with 192/24 DACs), PRD-3 preamp/DAC, and DPA-4004 and DPA-2506 power amps which can be configured to varying power output levels across four or six channels, depending on the amp and your needs. For more detailed info about Gato, please see Wayne Garcia’s review of the Gato AMP-150 and CDD-1 CD player in Issue 233. Octave introduced the $8300, two-chassis HP 300SE preamp (phono stage + $600). It is a greatly enhanced version of Octave’s HP300Mk2 with more connections and an improved power supply. The all-Octave system powering Dynaudio C2 Platinums had wonderful punch and verve. Simaudio released its $8000 Moon 760A (130W) and 820S auxiliary power supply for two low-current Moon devices like DAC and/or preamp. Both were just on static display. Resolution Audio showed its 50W Class AB Cantata Amplifier 2.0 integrated ($4495) and matching Music Center 2.0 ($6495). The casework uses aluminum billet that looks as though its top had been chiseled out by a sculptor. This ostensibly reduces resonances, but it also looks really cool. The integrated’s basic design is apparently based on a circuit that Resolution has licensed from DNM Electronics and has subsequently refined and updated. The sound of the combo, using a pair Epos Elan 30 speakers, was well balanced and carried no hint of underlying noise. ARC unveiled its first full-featured preamp in a long while, the $9000 SP-20. Featuring a MM/MC phono section, lots of RCA and XLR inputs and outputs, and a touchscreen user interface, the introduction of the SP-20 should be welcome news to fans of tube preamps. PrimaLuna unveiled its new Dialog Premium HP integrated ($3999) and power amp ($3899). Both pieces are very versatile: triode or ultra-linear, accept many different output tube types, the integrated can be used as power amp, and the power amp can be bridged into a mono amp for more power.

Best Sound (cost no object)
Lansche No.5.1 speakers powered by top level Ypsilon electronics. Lansche has greatly updated its speakers to now convey appreciable presence and heft. The results are stunning: ultra fine resolution, dynamic force, and lower-end power.

Best Sound (for the money)
Tie between the Golden Ear Triton One speaker and the Unison Research Triode 25 integrated amp. The $5000 Triton One delivers sound quality I expect from $15k speakers. The $3500 Triode 25 simply sounds right.

Most Significant Product Introduction
While still rather expensive, the $42,800 YG Acoustics Hailey 1.2 speaker brings much of YG’s more costly models’ performance to a more affordable price level. The soundstage is enormous, the details abundant, the timbres colorful.

Most Significant Trend
The incorporation of DACs into preamps and integrated amps continues as well as the inclusion of digital inputs to access the DACs in disc players (“transport/DACs”). Class-D power supplies are also on the rise.

Most Coveted Product
Even though computer audio offers fantastic sound quality, the sound of a great turntable still stirs my soul more. The Basis Audio Inspiration turntable (and Superarm 9) is one of the greats.