Five Best-Sounding Systems and Debuts:
Constellation Hercules II electronics and MartinLogan Neolith electrostatic hybrid loudspeakers
While I was duly impressed by the sound of these gorgeous red MartinLogan Neolith hybrid electrostats ($80k/pr.) powered by Constellation’s stellar (and aptly named) 1100Wpc Hercules II mega-monoblocks ($175k/pr.), Altair II preamp ($80k), and Orion phonostage upon my first visit to the demo room on Thursday, and when I returned on Friday—following some minor cartridge setup and loading adjustments—the system stole the show (and my heart). We enjoyed a new and noteworthy source, the Continuum Obsidian turntable—soon to be in market (price TBD)—with a Continuum Viper tonearm and a (well-used) Air Tight PC-1 cartridge. (There was also an SAT ’arm with a Prometheus cartridge.) This system hit the sweet spot between bold dynamics, transient attack, and full-on energy tempered by transparency, musicality, and highly detailed delicacy on JV’s Penderecki String Trio LP, where you could hear the occasional intake of a player’s breath and practically feel bows scraping strings, but it still rocked out on tracks from the MoFi Pixies LP Doolittle, which sealed the deal for me.
LAMM Signature electronics with Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand loudspeakers
Vladimir Lamm continues his decades-long tradition of creating some of the finest and most musical-sounding tube electronics anywhere, as demo’d in his flagship room at CES (Suite 35-307), where he presented the world premier of the LL1.1 Signature line-level preamplifier ($45,390/pr., two mono preamps and two separate power supplies). Also in this superb playback chain were the Lamm LP2.1 phono preamp ($8990), LP1 Signature phono preamp ($35,690), ML2.2 amps ($37,390/pr.), and ML3 Signature amps ($139,490/pr.), rated at 32 Watts into 4, 8, or 16 ohms, driving Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand loudspeakers ($225,000)—and lending them an almost omnidirectional quality. All wires were from the Kubala-Sosna Elation series. The source was a heavy-duty vintage EMT 927 turntable with an SME 3012 tonearm and a ZYX UNIverse Premium cartridge ($14,495). For all the many components in the playback chain, this setup succeeded in pulling off that rare and amazing high-end magic trick of all but vanishing—so spacious, realistic, and dimensional was the sound. From the incredible imaging, detail, and wide-open soundstaging to the slightly-warmer-than-the-real-thing timbre, the sound was full of bloom and simply gorgeous on Ella Fitzgerald’s honey-coated vocals, Ben Webster’s sensual reedy saxophone breathiness, and, well, on every track we played.
Aavik Acoustics P-300 and C-300 with Raidho 3.1 loudspeakers
Michael Børresen—whose design mind is behind Denmark’s Aavik Acoustics, Raidho, Ansuz, and Scansonic—has done it again with two new electronics debuts, the Aavik P-300 power amplifier ($48k) and the Aavik C-300 preamplifier ($36k), the follow-ups to last year’s well-received release of the brand’s inaugural U-300 integrated amp. These new 300 Series components drove a pair of Raidho 3.1 speakers ($65.5k)—another CES debut—in a setup with a dCS DAC and cables from Ansuz. Rated at 150 watts into 8 ohms, the P-300 features a short and simple circuit path wherein a single transistor pair handles all the gain and feedback, plus a unique, efficient Class A non-switching output section where the bipolar output devices conduct current continuously, thereby avoiding switching distortion. The C-300 boasts two built-in DACs (PCM and DSD) and a floating balanced, discrete, bipolar phono section; virtual ground circuits allow for elimination of undesirable noise. In usual Raidho/Aavik style, these technologies are reflected in the deeply engaging presentation that renders digital tracks with more musicality, depth, and richness of timbre. Combine outstanding sonics with the two brands’ elegant yet minimalist looks and form factors, and you get Scandinavian design at its best.
YG Acoustics with Boulder electronics and DAC
I felt compelled to include this room in my top five in large part because it marked only one of a couple of times I experienced a frisson at the show. And the source was digital. It was during the Calexico version of “Alone Again, Or” played back on what must be one of the finest digital sources out there, the Boulder Amplifiers 2120 DAC. The Mexican-style guitar and mariachi horns came thrillingly alive via the YG Acoustics Sonja 1.3 speakers with exciting attack and resolution galore. Sublime. Even JV stuck around to listen to a Bartók string quartet with dazzling glissandos, some Beach Boys, and a remix of Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.” Other demo system components here included Boulder 2150 mono power amplifiers ($99k/pr.), Boulder 2110 stereo preamp ($55k), and Kubala-Sosna Elation! cables and Xpander power distribution box. Although the big yet highly resolved sound wasn’t quite as true-to-life as some other systems with its front-focused projection, it still packed a powerful punch and beautiful color for fun listening.
VTL tube electronics with Wilson Audio Sabrina loudspeakers
Remarkable imaging and compelling musicality were on tap in longtime tube electronics manufacturers Luke and Bea Manley of VTL’s demo room of delights. The esteemed couple debuted the TL2.5i preamplifier ($5k) within a beautiful-sounding system that also included the company’s S-400 Series II Reference stereo amp ($33,500), TL6.5 Series II Signature line preamplifier ($15k), TP6.5 Signature phono preamp ($9500), and Wilson Audio Sabrina speakers ($15,900). The Spiral Groove Revolution turntable with Centroid tonearm ($21k) with Lyra Etna cartridge served as the analog source, and cables and power cords were Nordost Odin. This setup slid into the top five in part because it was one of the best occasions on which I’d heard Wilsons. (And if I dare say, an even more robust speaker might have rendered this system off the charts.) On JV’s LPs—Analogue Productions’ incredible Dreamin’ with Dean and Penderecki’s String Trio on Yarlung Records—transients were quick and sure-footed, while delicate details were presented with transparency and accuracy, but without losing that pretty sense of music with just enough airiness. Dean Martin’s breathy intake, subtle rasp, and vibrato were full of life. Next up was the little guilty-pleasure ditty Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” where the funky bass was well-controlled with effortless snap and punch overall. Amazing versatility that delighted across those diverse genres without missing a beat.
I’ve covered a number of the most auspicious debuts within my assigned bailiwick in the top five above, but here are several other new and noteworthy electronics in my price category (apologies for any that were missed inadvertently).
Accuphase P-7300 stereo power amplifier and C-3680 preamplifier
Arturo Manzano of Axiss Audio really outdid himself at this show with his pair of demo rooms that featured multiple setups in addition to plenty of static displays. And he was no slouch when it came new electronics introductions either (U.S. debuts), including the flagship Accuphase P-7300 Class AB stereo power amp ($32k), which is rated at 125 watts into 8 ohms and 800 watts into 1 ohm and boasts a large toroidal transformer with aluminum heatsinks and capacitor technology specially developed for hybrid electric vehicles (that also eliminates vibration), along with a C-3860 stereo preamp featuring the company’s proprietary balanced AAVA volume control.
Accuphase electronics were paired with Gauder Akustik RC-7 Mark 2 speakers with diamond drivers ($60k/pr.) with an Accuphase DG-58 digital equalizer and DP-720 CD player. Aside from the occasional hint of upper-range brightness (which all but disappeared once I moved a few feet further back from the speakers), on Joni Mitchell’s Blue, dulcimer, piano, and her lilting vocals on “Carey” and other cuts sounded so resolved, energetic, and musical—though almost a touch too clean and pristine at times—that I almost forgot I was listening to a CD.
Zanden 9600mk2 and 3000mk2
The lovely-sounding—not to mention slick-looking with shiny chrome chassis—new Zanden electronics debuts, the 9600mk2 monoblock 845 tube amplifier and 3000mk2 tube preamplifier, are celebrated designer Mr. Yamada’s latest creations, featuring upgraded board designs and new transformers. These updates resulted in a new and different sound that’s full, and full of detail, texture, and dimensionality. This system, which also included Verity Audio Sarastro IIS 3-way speakers and a Grand Prix Audio Monaco 1.5 turntable, Tri-Planar Ultimate tonearm and Air Tight PC-1S cartridge, narrowly missed my top five.
Rogers 34S-1 integrated amplifier
The new flagship Rogers 34S-1 100Wpc integrated amp ($19,900) might well be the only tube amplifier that offers an app to control many of its functions—including switching to triode mode. (The app is only available for Apple’s iOS platform now, but an Android version is forthcoming.) Roger Gibboni, who founded his namesake company in 2009 and comes from an aerospace engineering background, backs Rogers components—which are handmade in Warwick, NY, and put through extreme temperature tests(!)—with a lifetime warranty and “high-touch” sales relationship, where he keeps customers up-to-date on engineering design upgrades, etc.
Nagra Classic integrated amplifier and HD amplifier
Following the 2012 hiring of Philippe Chambon as chief design engineer and a shift away from emphasis on measurements-focused approaches, the storied Swiss company Nagra is back in a big way with several new debuts. The demo room showcased the brand-new Classic integrated amp, rated at 100Wpc into 8 ohms with 10 Watts of high-bias Class A ($20k) and the Classic DAC ($15,800); both of these are slated for a May/Q2 release in the U.S. On static display—with an open chassis that allowed visitors to see inside—was the real showstopper, the flagship NAGRA HD monoblock amplifier (now shipping). The 1000Wpc behemoth retails for $80k/pr. and features MOSFET power (with plenty in reserve), making it a good choice to drive tough loads. An HD preamplifier will be introduced at the Munich High-End Show to round out this big Swiss statement.
Conrad-Johnson GAT Series 2 preamplifier
With its launch of the flagship Conrad-Johnson GAT Series 2 preamplifier (alongside other debuts in lower price ranges), it’s clear this esteemed marque is still alive and well. This preamp, which features both a new, more powerful regulator for increased filter capacitance and new-old-stock PCC88 tubes, has a $24k MSRP and is expected to hit in mid-February. In C-J fashion, the preamp looks to be as easy on the ears as it is on the eyes—as heard in a setup that included new Serenade Signature floorstanding speakers from Penaudio ($11k), an Acoustic Signature Challenger 3 turntable, and room treatments from Stein Music of Germany.
Crystal Cable integrated amplifier
In their usual fashion, high-end power couple Gabi and Edwin Rijnveld of Crystal Cable/Siltech presented yet another thoroughly enjoyable demo room setup. This time, listeners were treated to the latest version of the petite Minissimo loudspeakers, priced at €16k (with diamond tweeters and silver internal wiring and voice coils) paired with the €10k Submissimo powered subwoofer and driven by the flagship Siltech Saga amplifier with cables from (duh) Crystal Cable. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (digital) came alive with lightning-fast transients and lush verisimilitude. They also introduced an entirely redesigned integrated amplifier as part of their Cube System. The brand-new design has been rethought from the board up and has already won a CES 2016 Innovation Award. The new integrated amp, which was on static display, will be feedback-free from input to output. It features innovative chimney cooling (via discreet vents in its top), and its already-small footprint has been reduced in weight and by 1 cm in each dimension. There’s an external power supply to remove digital noise, and a phonostage option in the works. Price for a targeted summer release is estimated to be around $15k–$25k in the U.S.
Esoteric S-02 stereo power amplifier and C-02X linestage preamplifier
In an all-digital demo room with two systems, there were just two electronics components within my price category making their U.S. debuts: the Esoteric C-02X linestage preamplifier ($20k), which boasts the same super capacitors found in the company’s flagship Grandioso model for enhanced speed, dynamics, and openness; and the S-02 stereo power amplifier ($20k), delivering 145Wpc into 8 ohms and featuring a new balanced input stage.
D’Agostino Master Audio Systems Progression mono amplifier
The inimitable Dan D’Agostino has once again created high-end electronics of distinctive design aesthetics and outstanding sonics. On static display was the brand-new Progression mono amplifier (due to ship in February, est. $45k/pr.), the first release in the company’s new series offering D’Agostino sound quality at lower price points than his Reference lines. Some differences: a larger footprint; aluminum heatsinks take the place of copper ones. This Progression amp also features a new meter design with a 270-degree needle swing. This, the largest and most powerful mono amp the company has made to date, delivers 800W into 8 ohms, 1600W into 4 ohms, and 3200W into 2 ohms. A Progression stereo amp, preamp (which might debut in Munich), and a lifestyle amp are to follow. (See RH’s CES analog report for details on the new D’Agostino Momentum phonostage.)
Aesthetix Saturn Atlas Eclipse mono amplifier
A new debut for the Saturn series, the Atlas Eclipse mono amp ($25k/pr.) features multi-faceted upgrades. Aesthetically, it’s been “reskinned,” meaning the chassis has been redesigned to match that of the Metis, and it will be available in both black and silver finishes so folks can purchase the one that matches their other (Saturn or Jupiter) Series components. There’s new isolation on the power supply and the aptly named high-end StealthCap capacitors are used (i.e., it’s like they’re not there). The designer, Jim White, super-matches the output devices, and this can reduce certain distortion factors by as much as 40–50%, says Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings. Seen on static display at the show, the amp is expected to ship by mid-February.
Other Great Sounds, Other News
Exciting news for those who dig Magico sound but who lack the coin for its upper-tier models: In a demo room at the Mirage, designer Alon Wolf and company unveiled the Magico S1 ($16,500) two-way loudspeaker that boasted thick, rich, full sound with a decent dose of bass from a 7-inch woofer—inside a clean, smooth, braced aluminum enclosure without grilles or fussiness. The presentation felt like the audio equivalent of a New Orleans night—heady, sensual, and slightly heavier than the real thing. Intoxicating at times. Elsewhere in the Mirage outpost, Synergistic Research’s Ted Denney was A/B’ing his latest highly customizable—down to genre or track—room correction tools and UEF (uniform energy field) panels to some striking results with Magico S-7s. Another noteworthy room in the Mirage was On a Higher Note, where in addition to a hi-fi system including a host of Luxman electronics and superb Vivid loudspeakers, Philip O’Hanlon presented a mini-concert and recording-and-playback comparison session with solo singer Lori Lieberman who accompanied herself on acoustic guitar—and who’s best known for her original version of the hit single, “Killing Me Softly.” The results between her live performance vs. what we heard on the digital playback vs. what we heard on her classic LP were striking to say the least.
More Magico speakers were heard in the Venetian, the show’s main high-end venue. This all-star setup included Soulution’s exceptional electronics (701 monoblock, 755 phonostage, 725 preamp) driving Magico S7 loudspeakers with a Transrotor Orion turntable/SME tonearm/Air Tight Opus cartridge as the source. The components were supported by top-of-the-line Maxxum equipment racks from Critical Mass Systems and cabled by Vovox. For some strange reason the sound in this room was not quite as outstanding as it rightfully deserved to be, given how exceptional I’d heard this gear sound at other shows (and in reference setups). There were many more rooms at the show that served up great sound than I have space to include here, but I want to shout out a few. Kevin Hayes and the team in the VAC room with Focal EM Grand Utopia loudspeakers offered a wonderful listening experience alongside four VAC electronics debuts at a lower price point (outside my bailiwick). MBL delivers consistently superb sound with its omnidirectional loudspeakers—this time the MBL 101E Mk IIs—and latest Noble electronics. The Vandersteen room featured Richard Vandersteen’s innovative liquid-cooled M7-HPA monoblock amplifiers and his new 5A Carbon speakers, plus a host of Brinkmann gear, including the U.S. debuts of its Marconi preamp and Edison phono preamp. I (along with others) have raved about the MartinLogan Neolith setup, but I must also mention the new, solid-sounding MartinLogan Renaissance ESL 15A hybrid electrostats driven by Constellation Inspiration Series electronics. In time for its 25th anniversary, Pass Labs presented on static display several lines of its electronics. Watch for live demo debuts of the new gear soon. Another classic brand, Audio Research Corporation (now owned by the Italian company Fine Sounds and part of its World of McIntosh family) presented its new, top-of-the-line $34k/pr. Reference 250 SE power amplifier (among other electronics outside my category). The strikingly modern-looking Chord electronics, which boast ultra-high-tech power supplies drove Vienna Acoustics Klimt loudspeakers with ear-pleasing results. Speaking of ear-pleasing sound, the brand-new Monitor Audio Platinum PL500 II loudspeakers ($29k) driven by Moon by Simaudio electronics exceeded sonic expectations, delivering high-end quality (think Raidho-like) beyond those well-known brands’ respective price categories.
JM’s Best of Show
Best Sound (cost no object)
If you’re after astonishing resolution and coherence with a side of full-on energy and slam when the music demands it—and if you have the means—look no further than the stunningly gorgeous MartinLogan Neolith hybrid electrostatic speakers ($80k/pr.).
Best Sound (for the money)
A tie: the brand-new Elac UB5 speaker (everybody’s favorite sleeper) delivering big sound and big bass for the money ($499/pr.) driven by Audio Alchemy electronics, and the Air Tight Bonsai loudspeaker ($2500). Driven by the high-end Japanese brand’s tube electronics, these pretty little one-way wonders trick you into thinking they’re much bigger—and pricier—than they are.
Most Significant Product Introduction
A tie: The brand-new Magico S1 two-way speakers ($16.5k) deliver healthy bass and plenty of punch, and the new Rogers 34S-1 integrated tube amplifier that can be controlled by its own Mac app.
Most Significant Trends
Tie between the continuing (and welcome) trickle-down technology trend many high-end manufacturers are embracing, and the London Grammar “Hey Now” track getting overplayed (subsonic bass bits and all).
Most Coveted Product
Once again, as in Munich, I was smitten by the Crystal Cable Cube System’s many diminutive charms—and the new Minissimo loudspeakers have diamond tweeters. Small and spendy system, but exceptional.