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CES 2015: High-End Electronics $15k and Up

As the saying goes, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas…except when it comes to reporting on the one and only behemoth Consumer Electronics Show.

As the newest TAS staffer (and CES first-timer), the first order of business each day was to absorb as much information—and, of course, music—as possible, and Jonathan Valin was kind enough to escort me around the Venetian a good part of the time. My bailiwick? Electronics over $15k, and some other selected gear that captured my aural, and in some cases also visual, attention.

After settling into my “hotel” on the Strip, the name of which I won’t reveal here (not the Venetian), I decided to give my little in-room “stereo system” a go, to unwind in advance of the show. The right speaker wasn’t even functioning, so let’s just say things only went up from there.

I’m delighted to report that foraging for spectacular, hair-raising sound was immensely enjoyable, although I must admit I’d hoped for a few more mind-blowing moments or revelations at the show. Still, it was an impressive audiophile Summit Meeting.

Read on to get the higher-end electronics scoop—and more—with a side of commentary.

Most Significant Sounds Overall

Boulder DAC
This room appeared to have been billed as YG Acoustics’ secondary one of the two it sponsored at CES, but it could well have been its première chambre.

If you’re an analog hound (like some people we know are, but we won’t mention any names), you might be skeptical about digital. Really skeptical. Well, here’s a system that could change your mind. Personally, I am a big analog fan and I don’t despise digital, but this system turned even Jonathan Valin’s hardcore-analog head. Boulder’s amazing brand-new 2120 DAC (which will retail between $55k and $60k), sourcing its $55k 2110 preamp and $53k 2160 600Wpc stereo amp, paired very nicely with YG Acoustics’ three-way Sonja 1. 2 D’Appolito floorstanders.

Among several other alternative pop and classic R&B tunes, I was excited to give Calexico’s fine rendition of “Alone, Again, Or” a listen, and it simply swept me off my feet. The mariachi horns swelled in their rich, full glory, and the guitars sounded sublime. Truth be told, it was just about the only time I got goosebumps at the show.

Boulder’s app and user-friendly interface also impressed—and this was just the alpha version we were playing with!

Let’s just say this room had Jonathan by the, um, ears…and that alone speaks volumes.

D’Agostino Master Audio Systems’ Momentum Amp and Preamp
Please see Jonathan Valin’s notes on the YG Acoustics’ Carmel II/D’Agostino Momentum system, as this was a favorite room for both of us. Particularly noteworthy are JV’s comments about the D’Agostino’s electronics being shape-shifters, depending upon the electronics used behind and the speakers used ahead of them.

Lamm Industries
Illustrious electronics manufacturer Vladimir Lamm of Lamm Industries offered not one, but two rooms of extraordinary sound quality at this year’s CES, one featuring SET tube monoblocks and the other showing hybrid solid-state monoblocks.

In Lamm’s first room, Jonathan mentioned he wasn’t a particular fan of the Verity Audio Lohengrin IIS loudspeakers. What a difference an amp makes! Here, the Lohengrins sounded just beautiful and sumptuous, driven by Lamm’s stellar Signature line of electronics, the 32W ML3 and 18W ML 2.2 single-ended-triode tube amplifiers, coupled with a pair of its LL1 line-level mono preamps and LP1 phono preamplifier. The warm, gorgeous timbre on Leonard Cohen’s “Ain’t No Cure for Love” from his Live in London LP had both of us grinning with delight. When Cohen calls out to his beautiful-sounding backup singers, “Tell ’em, angels,” we almost believed we were in heaven with them.

Mr. Lamm also treated us to some thrillingly lifelike pipe organ music, the timbre of which his amps and preamp reproduced impressively in the midrange, and effortlessly in the low end. Big-time tone color without distortion or any losses of clarity!

In Lamm Industries’ other super-sounding room—featuring Lamm’s 110W M1.2 Class A solid-state monoblocks, L2 line-level preamplifier, and LP2.1 phono preamp (all from Lamm’s “lower”-priced Reference line)—we listened to “The Girl from Ipanema” from Getz/Gilberto’s LP played back on an Air Force Two turntable with a Graham Elite tonearm and a world-premiere ZYX UNIverse Premium cartridge. Astrid Gilberto’s soft vocals and Stan Getz’s breathy tenor sax on the bossa nova classic sounded crisp, clean, and very natural with just a beguiling hint of added warmth. Overall, the presentation was incredibly true to life.

The introduction of MBL’s Noble line makes good sense: It’s a brand-new, mid-priced family of electronics designed to allow for more flexibility and system options than MBL’s current electronics offerings, namely its entry-level Corona line and flagship Reference family. Indeed, an audiophile could pair these electronics with almost any other loudspeakers she might have. Plus, the Nobility is available in five color combinations, so you can customize (or accessorize, if you will).

When I entered the MBL suite at CES, The Weavers’ wonderful classic “Guantanamera” was playing. I took that as a sign that I was in for something interesting. In fact, we listened to all kinds of music on MBL’s Radialstrahler 101 E MKII omnidirectional loudspeakers driven by all-new Noble electronics: the N51 integrated amplifier ($20,700, including remote control), a pair of N21 stereo power amps ($19,350 each), and the N31 CD-DAC, a D/A converter that offers 192kHz/24-bit and DSD playback ($18k, including remote control). The sweet tune filled the room with its wide-open sound, thanks to the expansiveness of MBL’s omnidirectionals. Subsequently, we ventured all over the map musically, from the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” to an oddball version of Falco’s early-’80s tune, “Der Kommisar” backed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, to Curt Elling’s jazz baritone vocals, and more.

This MBL system delivered a big, full, rich sound on every type of music with incredible resolution and without distracting colorations—even at hefty volume and with plenty of challenging deep bass, such as on Notorious B.I.G.’s hip-hop anthem, “Hypnotize.”

According to Juergen Reis, design engineer of all MBL gear for 32 years running, consistency and balance are the keys to quality standards and lifelike tonality, especially when you’re designing gear to be interchangeable within a system that includes speakers and sources at various price points.

“For us, it’s very important always to have a balanced sound, so the tone can run or swim without being altered in any way. In the end we want you get the same tonal characteristics that were played and recorded,” Reis said.

“For the power amplifiers, we aim for constant timbral quality from the bass to the treble, so distortion characteristics don’t change with frequency. Also, we try to ensure that the load of the speaker doesn’t alter the sound. We want our amps and preamps to always provide you with a balanced, harmonious presentation.

“At CES we decided to prove that the Noble line of electronics is of such high sonic worth that it can play our Reference speakers without any weaknesses,” he went on. “The 101 [loudspeaker] is very transparent and very sensitive. If something upstream of it is wrong, you will hear it. So if the Noble line played the MBL 101s well, you can rest assured that other loudspeakers will also be driven very easily.”

All told, we heard a pleasing yet subtle warmth from the Noble line; any other colorations were minimal enough not to “compromise” the original recordings’ characteristics.

Sponsored by Musical Surroundings, this was just a straight-up, damned-good-sounding room. Magico S5 loudspeakers powered by a pair of Aesthetix 300W Atlas Hybrid stereo amps (being run in mono) and an Aesthetix Metis preamp delivered the goods across a wide range of tracks with deep, broad soundstaging and natural timbre that was only slightly sweeter than life. Impressive resolution played up the big, sassy vocals and rich brass on Rickie Lee Jones’ “Danny’s All-Star Joint.” The track sounded as airy, crisp, and clean as you please.

Equally enjoyable were the Pixies’ “Debaser” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven” from the post-punk group’s Doolittle album. On the former tune, the bass and kickdrum of the heavy-hitting rhythm section were separate and distinct; you could almost feel this bass as much as you could hear it (which was a good thing). On the latter, the percussion was crisp and airy, while the background violins and cello came through nicely, as did the touch of room sound on the recording.

Pure audio delight!

Auspicious Debuts and Other Rooms of Note

Good news is I encountered a fair number of auspicious debuts. The downside (if you can call it that) could be that this segment may resemble a roll call. It’s worth noting that these products are listed in no particular order.

D’Agostino Master Audio Systems debuted its new MLife integrated amp (its name could be subject to change) that offers extra digital options and other user-friendly bells and whistles in addition to the manufacturer’s acclaimed (not to mention striking-looking and -sounding) Class A solid-state Momentum gain stage. Essentially, the MLife contains the same amp and preamp circuits as the Momentum gear, but replaces the tone controls with a 5-inch LCD display and adds a wired/wireless network interface that allows for built-in streaming from a server, or AirPlay, Bluetooth, and Tidal playback. The MLife outputs 200Wpc into eight ohms and is controllable via iOS and Android apps. The new amp will be available in March of this year at a retail price of $48k. In addition to the MLife, D’Agostino also introduced a new Cinema Standard multichannel amp.

Another D’Agostino showing—one that proved at least as auspicious as the MLife—was the aforementioned Momentum monoblock amplifiers and preamp (both currently in market) paired with YG Carmel 2 loudspeakers in the YG Acoustics room. (See Most Significant Sounds Overall above.)

Raidho Acoustics debuted its new Aavik Acoustics U-300 Unity integrated amplifier ($30,000), which was shown to extraordinary effect with its new, tall, thin, and quite wonderful X-3 loudspeakers ($30,000). All too often, sourcing components from different audio companies can mean different boxes (and endless cables), but here, as its “Unity” name suggests, this powerful, yet quite compact 300Wpc Class D integrated amp delivers true integration par excellence. In addition to an amp and preamp, this baby provides three analog inputs, a 192kHz/24-bit DAC, plus a state-of-the-art RIAA phonostage. The U-300 Unity also boasted a smartly designed volume control that was both elegant and ergonomic.

Aaudio served up a number of new introductions in the room it sponsored, but the most relevant one for my show assignment was the Ypsilon Phaethon integrated amplifier ($24,800), featuring a unique “bridged single-ended” output stage. Here, it powered a pair of Lansche 3.1 loudspeakers with plasma ion tweeters. Not too shabby!

The introduction of the new Crystal Cable Cube System paired with Crystal’s petite, two-way Arabesque Minissimo stand-mounted loudspeakers proved that not only can great sound come in small packages; it can also offer a great look! These compact and stylish, eye-and-ear-pleasing speakers come in three colors: orange, turquoise, and pearly white. The cabinet is a one-piece “apostrophe”-shaped block of milled resin and metal.

Oh, and did I mention the Cube/Minissimos also sound terrific? The marketing materials sum it up nicely as “The Little Loudspeaker That Could.” The Minissimo features Scan-Speak Illuminator drivers—a 25mm beryllium tweeter, and a 150mm laminated-paper-cone mid/bass. (The Minissimos were shown at CES with a tiny Astell&Kern AK240 “server.”)

Suitable for a wide range of room sizes, the Minissimo really comes to life with some power behind it! Crystal’s brand-new Cube System is the perfect partner. A compact, cubical, Class AB integrated amplifier offering sophisticated technology trickled down from Siltech’s state-of-the-art SAGA system amp/preamp, it outputs 100Wpc and comes with an adorable (yet substantial) cube-shaped remote (the Cubissimo).

Another unexpected feature of the Cube is that it’s pure analog, with no digital or switching circuits inside, and uses LED light to bias its transistors (just like the amp in Siltech’s SAGA System). Word is a separate box is in development that will serve as a WiFi receiver and DAC. Eventually, a separate phonostage will likely be developed as well.

“We want the best out of analog,” says Siltech’s Edwin van der Kley-Rijnveld, the Cube’s designer. “The Cube is driven by very clean current—that’s the idea; that’s how we got this wide dynamic range. The Cube is equal to the best transistor amplifiers out there.”

More than just cute, these diminutive Cubes pack a punch!

In Other News

I feel compelled to mention the forthcoming—and quite possibly game-changing—new headphones from HiFiMan, the HE-1000s. Slated to become the brand’s flagship, these planar-magnetic ’phones are expected to hit the market sometime in mid-2015. Price is still to be determined, but will reflect their top-of-the-line status. The HE-1000s will be paired with their own amplifier and will most likely be sold together as a unit to ensure that the headphones get enough power to maximize their dynamic range and sound quality. HiFiMan has also given some thought to the industrial design side: These headphones have a unique look that’s at once modern and retro. What’s more, they felt remarkably light and comfortable on my head.

Although it’s outside my primary domain, the new Revox Joy system of compact components (desktop-to-floorstanding loudspeakers and matching integrated amplifiers, some equipped with DACs and wireless connectivity) made for an impressive display of both stylish looks and great digital sound from a longtime industry player (with origins in analog, naturally). The entry-level system’s clean, simple lines and small scale will appeal to a wider range of listeners (read: women, too!). And at its relatively friendly price of $2300, neither your bank account nor your other half should cause you too much grief. Something else your significant other might love: This Swiss-designed, German-made system is available in an incredible 200 color options (based on the RAL European color palette). It would also make a good choice for a secondary system in, say, a kitchen or bedroom…especially with so many color choices to match your décor.

The debut of the Diasoul i loudspeakers ($85k) marks some interesting and unexpected innovations in both R&D and design aspects. This 3-way, seven-driver floorstander uses a tweeter with a diaphragm made of boron-carbide. The material’s properties offer distinct advantages, as boron-carbide has the highest propagation velocity and lowest internal losses of any material apart from diamond. Also, the Diasoul i is quite distinctive-looking: Its overall design is almost anthropomorphic, or robot-like, with its round, four-tweeter “head,” and rather thorax-like midrange enclosure, and abdomen-looking woofer segment. The Diasoul i was driven by Zanden’s excellent tube electronics—the 8120 stereo amplifier ($19,990) and 3100 linestage preamplifier ($12,500), both of which were 2014 TAS Product of the Year Award winners.

Elsewhere, Absolare debuted the Passion Signature 845 85Wpch push-pull amp (alongside the Passion Signature preamp), driving Rockport Technologies’ 3-way floorstanding Aviors, and VAC showed its new $17.7k 160i SE integrated amplifier with Dynaudio’s CS 2 Platinum speakers.

Best of Show

Best Sound (cost-no-object): The massively impressive (and impressively massive) Focal Grande Utopia EM loudspeakers sounded wonderful driven by the hugely powerful NAIM Statement electronics. (This combo should have sounded top-notch, carrying $197k and $249k price tags, respectively.)

Best Sound (for the money): For my money, it’s all about the Maggies. Pretty much in a category all their own, the $1395 Magnepan .7s (with optional DWM bass panels) offer big bang for the buck (.7 review in issue 250).

Most Significant Product Introduction: The new and truly innovative Diasoul i loudspeakers ($85k) offer a unique four-speaker tweeter that leverages boron-carbide, a material with the highest propagation velocity and lowest internal losses of any substance apart from diamond.

Most Significant Trend: Cute, colorful modular components and loudspeakers in customizable finishes—such as the Revox Joy system and Crystal Cable’s Cube System and Arabesque Minissimo speakers—made for systems designed to complement almost any décor, budget, or sonic priority.

Most Coveted Product: An outrageous pair of very “Vegas” sunglasses! No, seriously, a toss-up between the thrilling MBL Radialstrahler 101 E MKII omnidirectional loudspeakers and the adorable Crystal Cable Cube integrated amplifier with Arabesque Minissimo loudspeakers.

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