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CES: Highlights from Venetian Floor 30 – Loudspeakers

For those Hi-Fi+ readers who might never have had the opportunity to attend CES, let me try to give you some idea of the sheer magnitude of the event.  CES sprawls across four large convention facilities in Las Vega, NV, USA: the Westgate Hotel Exposition Hall, the Sands Expo Hall, the huge Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), the Venetian Hotel Exposition Hall, plus four and a half floors of the upper floors of the Venetian hotel. In short, when Joni Mitchell wrote ‘Miles of Aisles’, she could easily have had a trade show like this one in mind.

Happily for Hi-Fi+, most CES high-end audio exhibits are clustered in the aforementioned upper floors of the Venetian Hotel, although by tradition some high-end headphone manufacturers continue to exhibit in the LVCC’s South Hall. Added to this, there are also unofficial off piste high-end demonstration areas at the Mirage Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, and elsewhere. To conceptualise the sheer size of CES, it helps to know that the Venetian Hotel’s floors each have three long, double-loaded corridors, so that each one of the main exhibit floors might accommodate as many if not more exhibitors than one would typically see at the National Audio Show at Whittlebury Hall in the UK.

This year Hi-Fi+ decided to try a new approach, assigning representatives to cover specific geographic areas for reporting purposes. Editor Alan Sircom took the Venetian Expo Hall and floors 31, 34, 35 (where the upper floors have fewer but larger exhibit suites), the off-expo maze that is the Mirage Hotel, and acted as back-up photographer when things got a little too dark for compact cameras and iPhones; yours truly (Publisher Chris Martens) took the more densely populated Venetian floor 30 plus key LVCC South Hall headphone exhibits; and new Hi-Fi+ contributor Sydney Schips handled the also very densely populated Venetian floor 29. Each of us will be preparing show reports.

CES: Highlights from Venetian Floor 30 – Loudspeakers

In any report like this one, despite our best efforts, it is inevitable that some worthy manufacturers will go unmentioned. Please know that this is not by intent and no slights are intended; more often than not, it’s simply a matter of too much show to see and hear, coupled with not enough time in the day. Still, we try our best…

For the sake of clarity, I have broken my report down by product categories, starting with this segment, which focuses on loudspeakers.

Loudspeakers

Acapella Audio Arts
The German firm Acapella Audio Arts was showing its handmade Cellini hybrid horn-type loudspeaker ($56,000/pair), which uses a driver array consisting of two isobaric-loaded 10-inch dynamic woofers, the firm’s signature ‘hyper spherical’ midrange horn, and Acapella’s Ion-type TW 1 tweeter.

The result is an effortlessly expressive loudspeaker that exhibits few if any signs of typical horn-type colourations.  


Acoustic Zen
Many readers know of Acoustic Zen’s famous Adagio and Crescendo floorstanding speakers, yet may not be aware that there is a third, even larger Acoustic Zen model called the Maestro ($43,000/pair). As you can see from our photo, the Maestro literally towers over its designer, Robert Lee. The very tall loudspeaker features a centrally positioned, horn-loaded ribbon tweeter, two 5-inch ‘high midrange’ driver, one 8-inch ‘low midrange’ driver, and two 10-inch transmission line-loaded woofers.

Driven by stunningly beautiful Triode Corporation monoblock amps, the Maestro produced a gloriously sumptuous sound that was beautiful but not ‘lush’ in the pejorative sense of the term—a sound that epitomised what the late, great jazz saxophonist Paul Desmond used to call a ‘dry martini’ sound. This big speaker floored me with its ability to sound highly engaging and seductive, yet highly relaxing, all at the same time.

 

Burmester
Some Burmester followers may already be familiar with the German firm’s large-ish Ambience BA71 tower type speaker, but for CES Burmester showed a new, more accessibly sized and priced Ambience model—a relatively compact floorstander called the BA31 (~$28,000 – $30,000/pair). The BA31 sports a front-firing, Heil-type ‘Air Motion Transformer’ tweeter flanked by a pair of dynamic-type mid-bass drivers.

On the rear of the BA31 a second, rear-firing AMT ‘ambience drivers’ with a control to very ambience output to suit listeners’ tastes. Cabinetwork reflects, as you would expect, traditional Burmester attention to fit and finish.

DALI
Danish manufacturer DALI introduced at CES a lovely new mid-priced range of speakers known as the Rubicon series. As long-term followers of the DALI brand can attest, some of the firm’s best value-for-money-orientated products come its mid-priced offerings, so the arrival of a new range is considered welcome news indeed.

Rubicon models, in keeping with past DALI practice, feature ribbon tweeters expertly integrated with wood pulp/composite driver, all contained in enclosures clad in traditional elegant Scandinavian woodwork. Rubicon models include the flagship Rubicon 8 ($7,995/pair), Rubicon 6 ($5,995/pair), Rubicon 5 ($4,595/pair), the standmount Rubicon 2 ($2,995/pair), and the thus far very well received wall-mount Rubicon LCD ($1695/ea.).

DeVore Fidelity
John DeVore of DeVore Fidelity had recently shown an almost-finished version of his new Gibbon X floorstanding loudspeaker at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2014. But, as dedicated designers will do, Mr. Devore sought out—and achieved—a handful of small but very worthwhile sonic improvements in final production version of the Gibbon X ($15,500/pair) as shown at CES.  The speaker uses a tweeter custom-made to DeVore specifications by SEAS, a roughly 5-inch mid-bass driver, and two roughly 8-inch side-firing woofers patterned after the design used for the woofers in DeVore’s flagship Silverback loudspeaker.

Over time, I have enjoyed any number of DeVore models (all of which are named after families of simians—hence, Gibbon, Orangutan, Silverback, etc.) at trade shows, but to my way of thinking the Gibbon X may stand the most well-rounded and capable of them all. What is more, I see the Gibbon X as a speaker likely to enjoy transcontinental appeal, in that it sounds somewhat like a perfect merger of the sonic virtues I have heard from great American and British loudspeaker in the past. Note, too, that DeVore—much like great British speaker makers past and present—knows and loves fine woodwork, so that the Gibbon X looks every bit as good as it sounds. Happily, DeVore announced at CES that his speakers soon will be available in the UK, under the auspices of the UK distributor GT Audio.

 

Dynaudio
The Danish speaker maker Dynaudio took significant steps forward with several of its model ranges at CES. Focusing first on passive loudspeaker, the firm introduced a new Contour S range, including the lovely Contour S3.4LE floorstander ($7,850/pair) and S14.LE standmount monitors ($4,250/pair). Both were sounding very good as driven by Octave electronics.

But perhaps even more progress was made with various types of self-powered (and in several cases wireless) loudspeakers. Personal favourites of mine were the compact Excite X14A self-powered, two-way monitors ($2,000/pair), which sport built-in 50 Wpc amplifiers for each of their drive units. The little Excites simply sounded ‘right’, which is a comment I don’t offer lightly. 

Then building on the wireless concepts pioneered with its Xeo range of speakers, Dynaudio offered a new, upscale range of Focus XD-series self-powered wireless models, which to my ears sounded even more refined and sophisticated than the Xeo models. The Focus XD speakers include built-in amplifiers that deliver 150 Wpc to each of their drive units, can handle direct DAC inputs at up to 192/24 resolutions, and wireless inputs at up to 96/24 resolutions. Models include the Focus 600XD ($13,500/pair), Focus 400XD ($11,000/pair), and Focus 200XD ($7,000/pair).

Last but not least, Dynaudio previewed a new wireless, Bluetooth enabled, connection module called simply Dynaudio Connect ($500 by the end of Q1, 2015); the module can be used either with Focus XD or Xeo modules and supports Bluetooth or wireless connections at up to 96/24 resolution, operating under a Wi-Fi app.

ESS
In the US, ESS is perhaps best known as the firm from which the late Dr. Oskar Heil launched loudspeakers that incorporated Heil’s ground-breaking ‘Air Motion Transformer’—a driver whose topology continues to fascinate and attract speaker designers to this day.

But what (some) people may not realise is that ESS is still very much alive and well and building both an updated present-day replica of the original ESS-AMT1 loudspeaker, but also launch a quite competitively priced range of new ESS AMT models, including the AMT 8 ($3,200/pair), AMT 10 ($3,900/pair), and AMT 12 ($4,400/pair). Interestingly, ESS speaker use the Heil AMT driver exactly as Dr. Heil originally did; that is, as a dipole radiator (whereas many contemporary designers use front firing monopole AMT drivers, only).

 

Golden Ear
Hard on the heels of its critically acclaimed Triton One floorstander (with built-in self-powered subwoofers), GoldenEar launched its most ambitious passive loudspeaker to date: namely, the Triton Five floorstander ($1998/pair). The deceptively simple driver array of the Triton Five is comprised of a Heil-type HVFR tweeter flanked by two very wide bandwidth 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers, with the low-end augmented by a two pairs of large surface area, horizontally-opposed, and thus vibration cancelling low-frequency passive radiator. Listeners unfamiliar with the GoldenEar product line heard the Triton Fives and assumed—purely on the basis of sound quality—that the Fives must surely have been the nearly $5,000/pair Triton Ones. Imagine their surprise, then, when they learned they were actually listening a set of tower-type speakers that could be had for a tick under $2000/pair.

Moreover, GoldenEar also debuted its most capable and ambitious subwoofer to date—one whose colourful name is the SuperSub XXL ($1999.99/ea.). The inventive SuperSub XXL features two active 12-inch bass drivers set in a vibration-cancelling, horizontally-opposed configuration, supplemented by two 12.75-inch x 14.5-inch passive radiators set in a patent-pending vibration cancelling, vertically-opposed configuration. Providing propulsion is a 1600-wat DSP controlled subwoofer amplifier.

During a brief listen what struck me most was not the sub’s powerful and deep low-frequency output, which I expected, but rather it’s unusually high degrees of tautness, transient speed, and control, which I did not expect.
 

King Sound
King Sound specialises in electrostatic and hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers and for CES centred its demonstration on one of the middle models in its range: namely, the Prince III full-range electrostats ($9,995), which were ably driven by Hegel electronics. It seems to me that King’s speakers have progressively got better over the last several years, with the Prince III in particular standing as a sort of ‘sweet spot’ in the range.

The Prince III is big enough to produce meaningful bass extension and satisfying dynamics, but not so large as to be visually overwhelming within the room. Moreover, through the clever expedient of placing requisite panel power electronics, etc., in outboard boxes, the Prince III panels are themselves relatively light (under 40 lbs.) and easy to reposition within the room.

Lawrence Audio
On firm I believe is richly deserving of more widespread exposure to the worldwide high-end audio community is Lawrence Audio—a Taiwanese firm that specialises in developing hybrid dynamic/ribbon driver equipped loudspeakers. A perfect case in point would be the primary Lawrence model on demonstration at CES; namely, the Double Bass floorstanding loudspeaker ($28,000/pair). Note, please, that almost all Lawrence models are named after stringed instruments, which the speakers somewhat resemble albeit in an angular and somewhat futuristic way, so the term ‘Double Bass’ is more an indicator of relative size (fairly large, in this case) rather than of low frequency output.

The driver array found in the Double Bass consists of a comparatively small ribbon tweeter, two mid-sized ribbon-type midrange drivers, a roughly 8-inch dynamic-type mid-bass driver, and a larger roughly 13-inch woofer. What struck me about the Double Bass (and had caught my ear regarding other Lawrence models) is the uncannily smooth integration of the ribbon and dynamic-type driver elements. It is this quality that give Lawrence speakers a best-of-two-worlds character, combining the delicacy, speed, and precision of ribbons with the typically more impactful and naturally organic sound of dynamic drivers.

 

Magnepan
The venerable quasi-ribbon/planar magnetic speaker maker Magnepan was showing one of its newest and most affordable models at CES: namely, the .7 floorstanding loudspeaker ($1,400/pair). Essentially, the .7 is a dramatically updated version of, and thus the replacement for, one of the oldest models in the Magnepan range: the aging model 12.

The .7 incorporates many of the same fundamental crossover design insights already incorporated in Magnepan’s 1.7, 3.7, and even 20.7 loudspeakers, so that the entire range now shares consistent technology from top to bottom. Augmenting the speaker system’s bass output was a single Magnepan DWM planar magnetic woofer panel tucked discretely to one side of the room. Though not as taut and tightly focused as some Magnepan demonstrations I have heard, the .7 demo showed the speaker to be cable of unusually wide, deep soundstages while conveying a convincing a sense of scale rarely achieved by speakers in this price bracket.

MartinLogan
For CES MartinLogan rolled out a new, pull-out-all-the-stops flagship product: the hybrid electrostatic/dynamic driver-equipped Neolith floorstanding loudspeaker ($79,995/pair). The Neolith is a large, imposing speaker that neither looks nor sounds quite like anything MartinLogan has built in recent times, and it is a speaker whose overall configuration can be viewed in several ways.

One way to look at the Neolith would be to consider it to be a gigantic reinterpretation of the design of MartinLogan’s Summit X loudspeaker. Another interpretation would be to think of it as a MartinLogan CLX electrostat mounted atop a very large and very capable dynamic woofer system. But a MartinLogan spokesman said he found the Neolith to be a 21st century update on the firm’s original 1983-vintage Monolith loudspeaker—a most astute observation.

Accordingly, Neolith has a 48-inch x 22-inch curvilinear XStat CLS electrostatic panel braced by a sturdy frame and resting atop a big 26.8-inch x 30.3-inch x 34.2-inch woofer enclosure that houses both a front-firing 12-in bass driver and a rear firing 15-in low-bass driver. In contrast to other less costly MartinLogans, the Neoliths woofer section is entirely passive—not self-powered. We’re eager to get more listening time with this giant system, if only to learn what a no-holds-barred MartinLogan design can really do.

Morel
The Israeli loudspeaker manufacturer Morel showed just how affordable (and compact) truly refined standmount monitor-type loudspeakers could be with its lovely, two-way Octave 6 Limited Edition models ($2,500/pair).

Nola
In a reprise of its demonstration from last Fall’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, Nola demonstrated its modestly sized Studio Grand Reference Gold speaker ($19,800/pair) once again at CES, and again the sonic results were sublime. The Studio Grand Reference Gold uses a new Nola-made ribbon tweeter, an open-back pistonic-type midrange driver, and an SEAS woofer—an array that, visually speaking, looks almost too small to account for the big, beautiful, full-bodied, and very spacious sound the speaker in fact produces. In terms of achieving a sound highly reminiscent of the real thing, this relatively affordable Nola was one of our favourite demos at CES.

 

Paradigm
The Canadian firm Paradigm took CES as its opportunity to introduce its new Prestige range of loudspeakers, which—for those Paradigm mavens up to speed on the firm’s nomenclature system—are member of the Reference family and that slot in to the range above the present Studio models and just below the top-of-the-line Signature models. The intent behind the Prestige range was to provide a level of overall fit, finish, and quality of build noticeably higher than that of the already very good Studio models, but, more importantly, unexpectedly high levels of performance.

Paradigm achieved these results through a process more evolutionary than revolutionary, but a careful listening session convinced me there is more to these speakers than at first meets the eye. To give some idea of the scope of the Prestige range, the largest model is the 95F floorstander ($5,000/pair) while the entry point would be the 15B bookshelf monitor ($1,595/pair). A powered sub, called the 2000 SW, will also be along shortly.

PMC
PMC took CES as its opportunity for the US rollout of its new twenty.26 floorstanding loudspeaker ($11,000/pair)—one influenced in no small part by PMC’s spectacular Fact.12 loudspeaker, but one that costs considerably less and that might actually be a better fit for some small-to-mid-size rooms. The key question that remains is whether the twenty.26 will also be able to channel much of the exquisite, wide-open, and wonderfully natural sound of its bigger brother (let’s hope it does). A Hi-Fi+ review of the twenty.26 will be coming soon.


Raidho
The Scandinavian firm Raidho surprised many by rolling our its all-new X-3 floorstanding loudspeaker ($30,000/pair, and the largest of the firm’s X0series models)—an entry that seems to be positioned in fairly direct competition to the firm’s own critically acclaimed two-way D-1 standmount monitors. But the longer one listens, the more apparent it is that the models perhaps are designed to appeal to different listeners (or at least to listeners with different tastes).

The X-3 is a relatively tall, slim, and more or less full-range floorstanding whose driver array consists of a centrally positioned ribbon tweeter, two pairs of small-diameter (100mm) ceramic mid-bass drivers, and a side-firing woofer. Where the D-1 (and the C1.1, for that matter) are all about subtlety, purity, detail, and emotional nuance, the X-3 (which is also quite subtle, detailed, and nuanced in its own right) has a slightly more organic and naturalistic presentation, has greater dynamic clout and bass extension, and is perhaps just a smidgeon more tolerant of good but not great playback material. As a result, the X-3 can A) crank when necessary, B) boogie on demand, C) generate powerful low bass as needed, and D) serve up traditional Raidho sonic virtues in a package that is serious, but not overly self-serious, and whose grin-inducing ‘fun factor’ is undeniable.

RBH-Status
For CES the Salt Lake City, Utah-based firm RBH was showing (in nearly finalised form) a speaker I had only seen once before in very early prototype form; namely, the RBH-Status two-way Voce Fina standmount monitor ($15,000/pair with stands and solid stone plinths included). What makes the speaker so eye catching is that its enclosures are made of imposing, solid slabs of either polished granite or marble (talk about high-density materials!).

When I first saw RBH’s Voce Fina prototypes, I thought they might be intended as marketing gimmicks—speakers designed to attract lots of ooh/ahh commentary regarding their audacious construction materials, but little more. Man, was I ever wrong. A brief introductory listen convinced me that the Voce Fina is capable of a precise and unexpectedly authoritative sound with very good frequency extension and dynamic expression considering the speaker’s compact two-way monitor format. The Voce Finas are well worth hearing, even if you aren’t really in the market, if only to hear what an honest-to-goodness ‘rock’ speaker really sounds like.

 

Scansonic
CES attendees were pointedly reminded of the not well known fact that the premium brand Raidho and the mid-priced brand Scansonic are both sister companies within their parent firm, Dantax Group. Thus, in a booth directly across the hall from where Raidho’s new Michael Borresen-designed Raidho X-3s were being shown, was a room showing Scansonic’s new, also Michael Borresen-designed, MB-series speakers. The sonic results of this collaboration where, let me tell you, intensely gratifying, yielding a range of not-too-expensive speakers that we suspect can outperform most speakers in their hotly contested price class, while appearing able to do battle against well-regarded and better established classic already on the market.

There are three models in the MB series: the MB 1 standmount monitor ($2,000/pair), the MB 2.5 floorstander ($3,300/pair), and the MB 3.5 floorstander ($5,000 pair). All models use ribbon tweeters, 4-inch carbon fibre composite mid/bass drivers, and—in the floorstanders—side firing 6-inch aluminium woofers.

Think of these beauties as ‘Raidho’s for the rest of us’, but under the Scansonic brand name. Based on an introductory listen with the MB 3.5, my educated guess is that the MB range likely will earn a reputation for delivering exceptionally sophisticated and well-rounded performance for the money. Can you say, classics in the making? Sure you can. 

Sony
Sony’s top-tier AR and ES-series loudspeakers have garnered a lot of attention from the high-end press in recent years and yet it seems there is a forgotten model in the group: specifically, the SS-NA5ES standmount monitors ($6,000/pair), which are the little brothers to the more familiar SS-NA2ES floorstanders. For listeners worldwide who don’t have room for floorstanders, the SS-NA5ES is well worth a look and listen, as it captures much of the performance and overall ‘feel’ of the bigger and more costly SS-NA2ES, but in a far more compact (and less costly) package.

At the show, Sony paired these surprisingly capable monitors with its HAPZ1-ES high-res player and TAA1-ES integrated amplifier to show how a very satisfying and capable all-Sony system could be assembled for just under $10,000.

SVS
SVS is primarily known as a maker of powerful yet sensibly priced subwoofers geared, it would seem, primarily for home cinema use. Naturally (or sadly, depending upon your point of view), this means the high-end community has largely ignored the brand, which is arguably a mistake on our part. In any even, at CES SVS showed its highly affordable new range of prime-series loudspeakers that can, yes, be configured as home cinema packages, but that also show enough sonic promise to be very worthy candidates for use in affordable music-centred systems.

How affordable are the Primes? Pricing ranges from $270/pair for the Prime SAT satellite speakers, up through $499/pair for the Prime Bookshelf monitor, on up to $999/pair for the flagship Prime Towers. Stated simply, this range gives listeners a terrific amount of loudspeaker for the money, along with unexpectedly robust dynamic output (rockers on a budget please take note).

T+A
It had been quite a while since I gave loudspeakers for the German firm T+A a good listen, so at CES I took some time to pay attention to the firm’s Solitaire CWT 1000-8SE floorstanding loudspeakers ($55,000/pair, and middle models in the T+A Solitaire SE range).  The CWT 1000-8SE is a very impressive line array-type design featuring a long, slender (920mm x 50mm) electrostatic tweeter panel positioned along side a line array of eight 120mm midrange drivers, plus four side-firing 210mm bass units.  Just in case you are wondering, the CWT in the speaker’s name stands for Cylinder Wave Transducer. The enclosures are made of laminates of multiple densities of wood with, in some models, carbon fibre outer skins.

Up to this point I had thought of T+A primarily as an electronics component manufacturer, but these Solitaire towers really stopped me in my tracks and made me take notice of their precise and very revealing, yet never stiff or analytical, sound. 

 

Thiel
Operating under new management, Thiel, in what is sure to be seen as a controversial move, is stepping away from the time/phase-aligned designs of the late company founder Jim Thiel, to release new more conventionally designed ‘Third Avenue’-series loudspeakers (Third Avenue is a major thoroughfare in Nashville, Tennessee, the music-minded city where Thiel has relocated).

Thiel’s new range consists of the TT1 floorstander ($5798/pair), TM3 standmount monitor ($3498/pair), TC1 centre channel speaker ($2,495 ea.), and the upcoming Sub 1 ($3,000/pair). A company spokesman indicated that, after Jim Thiel’s passing, a decision was taken to try to design speakers that would preserve (or even improve upon) the classic Thiel sound, but that would use rather more conventional drive units and crossover topologies (Jim Thiel’s signature first-order crossovers helped phase coherency, but at the price forcing drivers to work far above and below they’re intended operating ranges, thus imposing certain unwanted dynamic constraints, not to mention higher build costs).

Totem Acoustic
Totem was thinking small—at least in terms of cabinet size—when it planned this year’s CES demonstration, with a significant part of its display centred on its tiny new Kin Mini standmount monitors ($499/pair) and Kin Sub ($700 each, with an 8-inch woofer, 120W BASH amplifier, and an acoustic suspension enclosure). Together, and for a smidgeon less than $1200, the Kin Mini/Sub combo represents a visually unobtrusive speaker system that produces a big, rich, natural sound that far exceeds expectations for such a compact system. 

Vienna Acoustics
Vienna brought to CES a loudspeaker it has brought to many past shows—namely, the Imperial Liszt ($15,000/pairs, and also known as the ‘junior version’ of Vienna’s famous Die Musik loudspeaker)—but this time with the announcement that the Imperial Liszt is shipping at last. Like Vienna’s flagship Die Musik, the Imperial Liszt uses a swivel-adjustable top module that houses Vienna’s signature flat-diaphragm coincident midrange/tweeter array, while the lower section of the speaker houses a multi-woofer low-frequency array. Our though is that the Imperial Liszt might be ideal for those who have long admired Die Musik, but needed speakers that sold at a far less stratospheric price point.

Following along in a similar vein, Vienna also showed its new Beethoven Concert Grand Symphony Edition floorstander ($8,500/pair).  Conceptually, the Beethoven Concert Grand Symphony Edition might be considered the ‘Son of the Imperial Liszt’, as its woofer-array section is very similar indeed. Up top, however, the Beethoven Concert Grand Symphony Edition foregoes the Imperial Liszt’s swivelling coincident tweeter/midrange driver module, instead providing a more conventional upper cabinet section that houses separate (that is, non-coincident) high-quality midrange and tweeter drive units. Sonically, though, the family resemblance between the Beethoven CGSE and the Imperial Liszt is readily apparent, as is the connection between the Imperial Liszt and Die Musik.

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