So, for CES/T.H.E. Show 2014 I was on a mission to find that aural high—and find it I did, though some of the places were surprising. My assignment was to cover not only loudspeakers $15-$25k, but analog as well. This was a daunting—yet very exciting—task, one that ended up being more of a Venn diagram in which several amazing products from both categories were found in the same room. When this occurred, it was the perfect storm. Furthermore, one particular aspect of analog became glaringly apparent during the course of CES/T.H.E. Show: the importance of high-quality vinyl pressings. I was fortunate enough to receive an amazing Analogue Productions 45rpm test pressing of Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue from Nate Lennox of Acoustic Sounds, which I toted around during convention week. There was a lot of great music wafting from the rooms in the Venetian and Flamingo, but this particular pressing had the ability to silence entire rooms, to leave grown men and women speechless and bleary eyed, to elicit the visceral response that is the criterion by which all components should be judged. When even the exhibitor—who has spent countless hundreds, if not thousands, of hours with the same setup—is left spellbound by the heretofore-unrealized sonic capabilities of their system, it’s magical. So here’s to those who help create that magic, because I still have goose bumps almost a week later.
Sperling L-1 Turntable
In the Audioarts room, Gideon Schwartz was demoing the Sperling L-1 Turntable ($35,950) with Durand Talea balanced tonearm ($9500) and Jan Allaerts MC2 Boron Mk2 cartridge (Price TBA). The L-1 is a beautiful all-German handcrafted, hand-assembled turntable with seemingly endless sonic possibilities, depending on one’s listening preferences. Its two rotational discs can accommodate any tonearm geometry, the tape tensioner can be adjusted on the fly depending on desired subjective tone, and the platter can be ordered with “wedge inserts” made of various materials (wood, Portuguese argillaceous shale, metal, etc.) to fine tune even further. Fed into a Trinity phono and preamp, driven by the new CH Precision M1 monoblocks, pumped into the stunning Zellaton Reference floorstanders, and connected with Tellurium Q Black Diamond cables, this was the best sounding analog room of CES—by far. Gotta love that German precision, because I heard details on the 45rpm test pressing of Midnight Blue that I had never heard before. I hope he’s not mad at me for saying this, but after side one of the record finished, Gideon was all puffy-eyed and choked up—and so was I. The amount of information this ’table retrieves is phenomenal, and with its endless configurations, the L-1 should be at the top of the list for any vinyl aficionado looking in this price range. Absolutely breathtaking.
Clearaudio Master Innovation Turntable
Another stunner was the Clearaudio Master Innovation ($26,400; w/ Everest stand $39,800), with TT-1i tangential tonearm ($30k) and Goldfinger cartridge ($15k). With its no-contact magnetic drive and ceramic magnetic bearing, the Master Innovation is about as vibration free as it gets. As Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings says, “Music is vibration with order.” Boy could you hear that lack of vibration; again with the Midnight Blue test pressing, the noisy room was silenced and there were calls for another listen—so we did. The emotional grip was only a hair less than the Sperling, but there are absolutely no complaints to be found with the Clearaudio setup. Plus, the TT-1i (based on the Statement TT-1) employs a rail system that slides into the play position and magnetically locks as the carbon fiber ’arm stays “captive” in a glass tube, which is driven only by the record groove. The Germans must be doing something right, because fans of tangential tonearms will want for nothing with the fabulous TT-1i.
TW-Acustic Raven AC Anniversary SE
A third show stopper was the German (must be something in the water over there) TW-Acustic Raven AC Anniversary SE ($32k) with three tonearms: The TW 10.5 ($5500), Ortofon 309D ($3399), and Ortofon TA-210 ($1899) with Ortofon Windfeld, Cadenza, and Quintet Black cartridges ($3899, $1219, TBA, respectively). Fans of high efficiency and SET amps would revel in this room’s sweet sonics, and as we A/B’ed the Windfeld and Quintet Black cartridges, the Cessaro Chopins (97dB) sounded simply amazing. What’s striking is this ’table’s massive copper platter, which is fixed to a “proprietary compound.” Incredible resolution makes this an aural gem at this price point.
Rega RP10 w/ RB2000 Tonearm and Apheta MC Cartridge
I’ve long been a fan of Rega’s no-fuss design philosophy, and the RP10 with RB2000 tonearm and Apheta MC cartridge ($6495 for the package) is a true bargain for those who want amazing quality without all the hassle. Though lacking the extreme detail of pricier ’tables, the RP10 blows away most everything in this price range, and sounded great via the new Elicit-R integrated, new Aria phonostage, and PMC FACT.12 floorstanders. Plus, the Rega’s ubiquitous distribution means you’ll have no trouble auditioning for yourself.
VPI JMW 3D-printed Tonearm
3D printing was the hot topic over at the main CES convention, and the fact that VPI has jumped on this burgeoning technology really impressed me. Their new JMW 3D-printed tonearm ($2500 for the 10"; $3k for 12") was in multiple rooms throughout CES/T.H.E. Show, including the superb Davone/Rogers room mentioned in my speaker report. I’m assuming that this is a harbinger of things to come; will we see 3D-printed platters, plinths, or even entire turntables in the near future? The potential for extremely precise 3D-printed components seems endless, and the JMW 3D ’arm may very well usher in a new era in high-end audio.
Merrill-Williams REAL 101 Turntable w/ Tri-Planar
George Merrill and Tri Mai were showing off their REAL 101/Tri-Planar combo ($7200) over at T.H.E. Show, and with the tubed Zesto components, the sound beat out every other setup besides the Perfect8/VAC system (see JV’s report). The rubber-sandwiched REAL plinth is a resonance-absorbing beast, and the endlessly adjustable Tri-Planar tonearm is an audio perfectionist’s dream.
Transrotor Orion Reference FMD
The Orion Reference features a new power supply to drive the Free Magnet Drive (hence FMD) two-chassis bearing/platter, and is a gorgeous ’table to boot. The 80mm aluminum platter “floats” within the transparent, double-chassis acrylic plinth, and features the TR 5009 ’arm and Merlo reference cartridge. Prices were a little vague because of the exchange rate, but expect to pay around $25k for this work of art.
The Thales TTT-Compact ($13.2k) features a unique battery-powered drive system that runs 16 hours between charges. The main three-way switch features on, off, and charge modes, and as soon as the ’table is turned on, the power supply is decoupled from AC power. Paired with the Simplicity tonearm (below, $9200), Lyra Atlas cartridge, Lansche 5.1s, and Ypsilon components, this was one sweet system.
Thales Simplicity Tonearm
The Simplicity tonearm ($9200) deserves a special mention here because (get ready for this) it’s a dual-tube, tangential, tetragonal gimbaled “solution” that features a removable headshell for easy cartridge setup. With extremely flexible proprietary wiring and tracking errors as low as 0.008º the Simplicity is one hell of an ’arm paired with the TTT-Compact.
Music Hall Ikura
Kicking off the affordable turntables is the Music Hall Ikura ($1195) with Ortofon 2m Blue cartridge. Though not as plug and play as the Regas in the same price range, the Ikura is still extremely simple to set up. Plus, the Ikura comes in a chic white or black finish and features a fully isolated dual-plinth construction that will perform great for the easy price tag.
Music Hall MMF-5.1LE
Easier on the budget is the Music Hall MMF-5.1LE ($995), a dual-plinth, bright red entry-level turntable that sports a nifty cowhide mat and Pro-Ject 9 tonearm. The main upgrade here is more isolation between plinths and other component. I’d definitely like to test this one out at home.
Thorens TD 209
On static display in the Thorens room they were showing the new TD 209 ($1499) with a newly designed TP 90 tonearm that features user-adjustable height, azimuth, and overhang—something that some turntables in this price range don’t have. The notable thing about this turntable is the shape of its plinth, which looks like a sideways arrowhead flying saucer; supposedly this a purely aesthetic choice, but I wonder if it changes sonics at all.
For the tape fans out there, don’t be mad at me for the absence of reel-to-reel coverage; nothing exactly “new” to cover here. But, as others have already noted, the United Home Audio front end in the Nola Grand room was incredible, especially when they played Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The dynamic range of UHA decks is simply amazing, the resolution stunning, and the sound of a superbly mastered tape can’t be beat. If you want to dabble in the reel-to-reel world, United Home Audio is the way to go. The very futuristic Japanese TechDAS Air Force One ($79,500, ’table only) looks like it’s about to take flight, or was maybe dropped off by some time traveller. I didn’t get to listen to it, but the technology employed begs an audition if you’re in the market for a $100k analog front end. At a more modest price, if you haven’t checked out the “fairly new” Rega RP6 ($1495) with RB303 tonearm, do yourself a favor and give it a listen. It’s a dream ’table for those on a tighter budget. In the Musical Surroundings second room there was a really cool new two-piece titanium MC cartridge from AMG. The Teatro ($2k) uses separate coils for each channel and are “Ohno cast mono-crystal high-purity oxygen-free copper wire.” They were also showing the new 9W2 9" tonearm ($3500) with a 211mm pivot-to-spindle distance designed for the Linn LP12, AMG Viella 12, or other turntables that accommodate such lengths. Overall, it was a great show for analog fans, though much of the new products that came out seemed to be overshadowed by the onslaught of new DACs, DSD streaming devices, and general digital craze currently driving the high end totally bonkers. Not saying that digital is bad by any means (I’m a huge fan of DACs and computer-based audio), but there was simply less excitement for analog at CES, besides the notables already mentioned—that is, from what I saw. T.H.E. Show definitely embraced more analog, and for that I commend the organizers and exhibitors.
Best Sound (cost no object)
As in my speaker report, the Sperling/Trinity/Zellaton/CH Precision setup in the Audioarts room was the best analog room of CES.
Best Sound (for the money)
The Rega RP10 takes the cake here, for what other turntable package sounds so amazing for the $6495 price tag?
Most Significant Product Introduction
The VPI JMW 3D-printed tonearm easily wins this category. 3D printing in the hi-fi world? Come on, how could I resist.
Most Significant Trend
I hate to repeat myself, but the ever-expanding world of high-quality vinyl pressings deserves another mention. Even the mainstream labels are pumping out great vinyl these days.
Most Coveted Product
My 45rpm Analogue Productions test pressing of Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue—everyone wanted it after they heard it.