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CES 2016: Speakers Under $20,000

CES 2016: Speakers Under $20,000


Funny thing about the high end and how quickly one technology is jilted for another. I’m referring of course to the venerable compact disc player—a source component that has never performed as strongly as it does today. So, I decided to bring a couple CDs to this year’s high-end audio bacchanal, also known as CES, but silly me, each time I sought to play “Autumn Leaves” with the Manhattan Jazz Quintet, I was mostly met by expressions of abject sympathy and come-hither winks at the glowing iPad playlist. Inquiring of no one in particular, I asked, “What do I have to do to get a CD played in this joint?” Thankfully, to the rescue came the good folks at Esoteric and dCS. Call me nuts but I’m predicting a comeback for the CD along the lines of the LP. The so-called cloud may be the future but for my money you just can’t keep a good physical medium down.

Attendance seemed perceptibly lighter in the halls of the Venetian this year. The reasons might be the series of winter storms, which created flight delays, or the aggravating midweek scheduling on the heels of New Year’s. More likely it was due to an inexorable shift of momentum—or another “M” word, as in Munich. Factor in the strength of regional North American shows and CES has become just another stop along the way rather than a do-or-die requirement. Times change, but it has to be admitted that CES and the high end have had a terrific run together. Even recalibrated, it’s a partnership that will remain relevant for years to come. To quote a line from Sam Peckinpah’s celebrated film The Wild Bunch, “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.” And there was much to see, hear, and marvel over in my category—loudspeakers under $20k.

Most Significant

Elac Uni-Fi UB5
Yes, I’m sounding like a broken record but Andrew Jones and his Elac team have launched another winner. Last year it was the entry-level Debut Series; this year it’s the (still entry-level) Uni-Fi Series based around a concentric transducer—the tweeter/midrange configuration favored by Jones back in his days at KEF and TAD. Enthralling crowds was the UB5 ($499), a compact, three-way, bass-reflex design of extraordinary precision, focus, and dynamic excitement that will challenge compact monitors in virtually all sonic areas. It redefines what it means to be a budget compact monitor in 2016. And soon to be available in a three-way floorstander, the UF5 and UCS center channel.

Ryan Audio Tempus III
A California-based company, Ryan Audio introduced the impressive Tempus III ($15,995)—an expressively musical speaker with an effortless, rounded, full-bodied sound. Sensual? You bet. Massively built of four layers of MDF, the four-way design with beryllium-dome tweeter is time aligned with an eight degree slope to the front baffle and weighs in at 160 pounds per. Driven by Constellation electronics, an Aurender music server, a PS Audio DirectStream DAC, AudioQuest cables, and Shunyata power conditioning, the Tempus III reproduction was as comfortable and non-fatiguing as a favorite easy chair.

Monitor Audio Platinum Series II
’s curvaceous premier series shines with an air-motion tweeter and all-new drivers in ultra-elegant designs. The four models range from the PL100 ($5700), a two-way compact, all the way to the masterful PL500 tower ($29,000), plus two medium-sized floorstanders in between. The Platinum II Series features the MPD tweeter (micro-pleated diaphragm), a complex sandwich cone midrange, and low frequency “bolt-through” transducers with robust oversize magnets. The stunning enclosures use an anti-resonant composite baffle, and MDF wood veneers in ebony, rosewood, and black lacquer. Listening to the PL200 floorstander ($12,000) sonics were rich, nicely weighted, with excellent integration of the difficult-to-handle tweeter/midrange transition.

TAD “Concept” Compact Evolution
exhibited a new, smaller concept model based on the CE1 compact, driven by an Audio Alchemy front end and amplification and cabled by Nordost. Reportedly nearing production, it employs a smaller beryllium-tweeter/magnesium-cone concentric driver, and a narrower baffle. The smaller form factor is better proportioned than its bigger brother, and the sound from this concentric-transducer-based three-way was superb. Although Andrew Jones has since departed for Elac, he collaborated on this entry-level TAD and it shows. The magic is all in evidence and ready to roll into smaller and medium-scale listening room. The price is TBA, but hopefully TAD can hold the line well below the $15k range.

Magico S1 MK II
The smallest and most affordable floorstander in the Magico line at $16,500/pr. (M-Cast finish), the new MK II version of the S1 has received an external and internal makeover incorporating technology derived from the sophisticated S7. The two-way, acoustic-suspension design features a newly redesigned diamond-coated beryllium tweeter and 7″ mid/bass with a cone formulated using multi-wall carbon fiber and graphene nanoplatelet—both lighter and stiffer than the previous cone materials used in the S5. The enclosure is formed from a single piece of extruded aluminum that is 3/8-inch thick and 12-inches in diameter. Noteworthy visual touches includes the convex 3D top plate (which also reduces diffraction effects and vertical standing waves), the heavier four-point integrated outrigger stands give it greater stability and lowers the center of gravity. It’s also a warmer less austere look. Driven by CAT electronics and a Berkeley Audio DAC, the S1 MK II sonics demonstrated astounding speed and spatiality. A hugely improved speaker that breaks the bonds of the conventional two-way experience.

Auspicious Debuts

Dynaudio Xeo 2
Don’t call the Xeo 2 ($1599) just a speaker. Dynaudio dubs it a Music System. Fully active, with a touch-sensitive volume control on the leading edge of the cabinet, the little Xeo 2 no longer needs a wireless transmitter like earlier Xeo 4 and 6 models. Housed in a composite enclosure with a heavy aluminum front baffle, it has 130 watts of power (65 watts to each driver). It’s equipped for Bluetooth and WiFi streaming; however, the candy colors (pictured) are not production models—only possibilities. Nearby, the more conventional Dynaudio Excite X44 ($5499) features new 20cm woofers in a three-way design that features powerful impact and depth.

MartinLogan EM-ESL X
Just outside my assigned category the Martin Logan Renaissance ESL 15A at $25k might be the Best Buy in the high end—such was the majesty and uncompressed dynamic output of this hybrid. Fortunately (and for the rest of us), there’s also the new ML EM-ESL X ($3995), which significantly ups the radiating area over the EM-ESL. This hybrid, passive design equipped with ML’s rigid AirFrame technology–composed of aluminum and composite materials—uses twin 8″ woofers. At 91dB sensitivity it is relatively amplifier friendly, although experience says the more power, the better, up to 400W.

Joseph Audio Profile
Joseph Audio
’s Profile is a small, slender two-and-a-half-way floorstander, priced at a reasonable $7000. It’s equipped with a pair of potent 5.5″ aluminum woofers and a soft-dome tweeter (internally chambered) that mirrors the stand-mount Prism compact. There are handsome outrigger footers for stability, and Cardas internal wiring as well. Since the impedance doesn’t drop below 6 ohms, even tube amps will find the Profile easy to drive. Sonically its highs were very smooth, detail was abundant, and tonality was accurate, with a wealth of room-filling output.

Dali Opticon 8 and Zenzor AX Series
featured the Opticon 8 ($3800), a three-way using Dali’s celebrated hybrid ribbon/soft-dome tweeter. It also sports a more basic version of Dali’s costly SMC woofers, now built entirely in-house, with a midrange in its own enclosure. Costs are kept in line via the textured vinyl-laminate enclosure. Performance was near full-range, lively, and dynamically open, approaching the pricier Rubicon in flavor and output. Pointing towards the future was the wireless DALI Zenzor 5AX and 1AX. These two-way, Bluetooth speakers ($1495 and $895) are each powered by a built-in 50Wpc Class D amplifier in the left speaker.

Scansonic MB-1
From its four-model MB Series (MB as in Raidho’s Michael Børresen), Scansonic was demoing the exquisite little MB-1 $2100 plus the $1000 stand. Derived from the critically lauded Raidhos X-1, this little two-way offers the same room-filling experience from its tiny drivers for terrific small-speaker performance. Driven by the Aavik U-300 integrated and cabled by Ansuz, it become virtually invisible in the room.

GoldenEar Triton Two+ and Three+
has upgraded the Triton Two ($3500) and Three ($2500) to “+” status. In the words of GoldenEar’s Sandy Gross, GE was seeking a livelier more transparent sound that would more closely emulate the flagship Triton One. Driven by Pass Labs monoblocks, the Two+ was especially arresting in the areas of extension, low-end pitch definition, and enhanced dynamics. Personally, as good as the smaller Three+ is, I’d hold out for the slightly larger Two+ (if you have the room to spare). Also newly introduced was the dual-8″ woofer, SuperSub X ($1249), the smaller sibling to the SuperSub XXL.

Emotiva Airmotiv
Emotiva has expanded its well-regarded, highly affordable Airmotiv line, known for its folded ribbon tweeter. Introductions included the Airmotiv T1 ($349 ea.)—a three-way, bass-reflex tower design with dual 6.5” woven Kevlar woofers, one 5.25” woven Kevlar mid/woofer, and one 25mm x 32mm Airmotiv tweeter. The T1 has inserts for removable spikes. For two-way bookshelf-loudspeaker enthusiasts, there’s the Airmotiv B1 ($299/pr.) a two-way ported design with 5.25” woven-Kevlar woofer and an Airmotiv tweeter.

In Other News

Although Revel didn’t demo the new and affordable Concentra2 Series, shipping should be commencing as this issue goes to press. And with a little luck a review soon thereafter. Stereo models include the F36, $2000/pr.; F35, $1500/pr.; and M16, $850/pr. Also looking like a winner is the Micromega MySpeaker driven by built-in Class AB amplification with an analog input plus USB/TosLink and SPDIF inputs ($999)

The Spendor D9 ($10,000) is a three-way version of the slender D7 tower. The added midrange driver resides in its own dedicated internal enclosure, while preserving the crucial tweeter height of the D7. Penaudio, the Finnish company known for its gorgeous birch-laminate cabinets, is back in the States and showcased the Serenade Signature. At $11,000, the Serenade is a three-way, bass-reflex, four-driver tower.

The HRT Stage IV system consists of four Stage loudspeakers in a vertical quad stack configuration at $3200 with custom stands. And stage it does, brilliantly. Focal enthusiasts on the lookout for the highly anticipated Sopra will be relieved to know that the high demand speakers are now shipping. Uniquely styled, the Sopra is chock full of premium Utopia technology in a much smaller footprint. The compact No.1 is $9000 and the floorstanding No.2 is $14,000.

OneAudio from Australia produces turnkey active/DSP systems complete with high-performance amps and loudspeakers in wireless or wired packages ($TBA). A compact two-way system was demo’d, and both wired and wireless versions had solid bass footing, with good vocal color and little in the way of localization artifacts.

Atohm impressed with the GT 2.0, a 2.5-way, bass-reflex, 90dB-sensitivity floorstander at $7499. Handmade in France, it was brilliantly finished in a glossy rosewood. It presented a more forward signature, nicely balanced into the mids, with excellent percussion dynamics.

Synergistic Research demoed its latest UEF acoustic treatment. Soon to be available in a five or ten pack of small, ultra-lightweight panels, the UEFs are coated with a proprietary substance that designer Ted Denney confirms will one day be available for direct wall coverage and other applications. When positioned to the sides, and behind the loudspeakers they elevate soundstage height and improve overall spatiality. Price: TBA.

Little but lively describes the Air Tight Bonsai S ($2500) The polymer-coned, single-driver mini-monitor was an amazing micro of stunning intimacy. Similarly, Audience debuted the V2 + version of its ClairAudient 1+1 loudspeaker ($2395)—its crossover-less, full-range-driver mini. It’s been refreshed with an improved transducer, improved passive-radiator tuning, new tellurium binding posts, and Au24x internal wire. Marvelous.

Concentric-driver fans should keep an eye on the Cabasse Murano $7000, a gorgeous, rear-ported, three-way compact. Equally impressive was the REL six pack twin-tower of G2 subs ($4000 each), flanking the elegant Rockport Avior. A stunning show of seamless low-frequency integration and transparency. Thiel’s SmartSub ($TBA) offers a full panel of connectivity, wireless control, and auto-room-correction. At the business end are a pair of 12″ aluminum woofers and 1250W of power.

NG’s Best Of Show

Best Sound (cost no object)
As a rule I tend to gravitate to cone drivers but the MartinLogan Neolith mated with Constellation Reference electronics and MIT cabling made me a believer. Pure, airy gorgeousness and sheer transparency.

Best Sound (for the money)
Andrew Jones is on a blazing hitting streak with Elac. The pint-sized three-way Uni-Fi B5 with Jones’ trademark concentric driver clears the bases at a bargain $499 a pair.

Most Significant Product Introduction
The SugarCube from Musical Surroundings combines a Michael Yee phonostage with SweetVinyl’s digital ADC/DAC recording system, including real-time digital pop and de-clicking technology. $TBA

Most Significant Trend
is not quite a bonafide trend but fingers crossed for its widespread adoption. My first experience with this technology in the Vandersteen exhibit room was nothing short of exhilarating.

Most Coveted Product
Spinning grooves in the Constellation/ML room was the new Continuum Obsidian turntable with Viper tonearm (est. $30K+ range/TBA). Massive, magnetic, and musical. Drool-worthy in my book.

Sidebar: News from Nordost
Nordost announced four key product introductions. The Tyr 2 digital cables bridge the gap between the existing Norse 2 and Reference digital cables. These 75-ohm SPDIF and 110-ohm AES/EBU wires are constructed using silver-plated, solid-core conductors suspended in Nordost’s patented Dual Mono-Filament technology. The Tyr 2 is $1499/1m.

Also new are the Blue Heaven and Heimdall 2 Ethernet cables. These are fully shielded, and terminated with high-quality 8P8C/RJ45 connectors. Designed to meet the demands for high-speed, high-bandwidth data transfer, they achieve speeds of up to 600MHz for the Blue Heaven, and 1000MHz for the Heimdall 2. Blue Heaven is $399/1m; Heimdall 2 is $699/1m.

Finally, the Blue Heaven Headphone Cable uses AWG 7/42 conductors twisted in a Litz configuration to increase flexibility, eliminate triboelectric noise within the cable, and improve its mechanical damping. In order to accommodate the added demands on headphone cables, Nordost adds an Aramid-fiber strength member to the construction of this cable. They are compatible with many popular headphones on the market and priced at $399/1.25m and $499/2m.

By Neil Gader


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