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CES Report: Electronics $15k and Less

Over the course of CES 2015 I was bombarded in print and in conversation with reports on the rapid ascent of wearables, and the advances in software apps for our various smart devices—events that have curiously coincided with the demise of traditional physical gadgets and gizmos. I considered the extent to which such innovation may reshape the familiar high-end environment. How about an audio system with wearables that simultaneously monitors your health, fitness, and blood pressure, and then makes music suggestions to improve your sense of well being? Far-fetched? It doesn’t take a Jules Verne to realize that this is no mere flight of fancy. At the very least the future of electronics suggests greater integration and more incisive and robust networked devices, along with the apps to serve them. There are already a bunch of DSP-powered loudspeakers with built in DACs. Virtually every exhibitor in the Venetian already had a smart device or two, often serving as system controllers. While these changes may be slower to occur at the purist upper reaches of the high end, more affordable audio segments will compete aggressively to capture nascent high-end millennials, who came of age with a mouse in one hand and a smart phone in the other.  

Related to this trend is the reemergence of active loudspeakers in the high end. A product type once considered res non grata is now showing signs of life, thanks in part to its system-integration potential. ATC and Linn, for example, provided succinct A/B demonstrations of their respective passive and active designs. The differences weren’t even close—in both instances, “active” products had tighter, cleaner bass, smoother highs, and far more ambient immersion and soundstage information. For this CES edition my beat was electronics under the $15,000 threshold. Ultra-luxe integrated amp (IA) offerings—from the likes of Rowland, MBL, and Pass Labs—continue to loom large due in part to audiophile baby-boomers downsizing, and the heightened interest in merging tech and connectivity into single boxes. Unfortunately, many items were so new that they could only be seen and not heard. At least, not yet. So here goes. 

Most Significant

Pass Labs INT-60 and INT-250 Integrated Amps
I’ve made no effort to disguise my fondness for the aging Pass Labs INT-150 integrated, but news for IA fans doesn’t get any bigger than Pass Labs’ debut of its latest INT-60 ($9000) and INT-250 ($12,000). They use the same power supply and output stages and glowing meters as Pass’ lavish Point 8 amps, which debuted at CES a year ago. And they both feature direct-access buttons for the four inputs on their faceplates, plus digital level-displays. The back panels offer four line-level inputs, a line-level output, and two pairs of Furutech binding posts. Importantly the 250Wpc INT-250 is optimized for speaker loads of 86dB sensitivity or less. Fingers crossed that sonic lightning strikes a second time.

PS Audio BHK Signature 250 Amplifier
Paul MacGowan of PS Audio generously provided me with a tour of the final pre-production version of the Bascom H. King Signature 250 stereo amplifier. First shown in prototype form at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October, the BHK is the first product in PS’s history to feature vacuum tubes. It features a triode front end followed by an all-MOSFET output stage. Power is rated at 250Wpc into 8 ohms and 400Wpc into 4 ohms. The amplifier will also be available as the monoblock BHK Signature 300. It’s expected to be in full production by May. The price is projected at $7499 for both the stereo and monoblock versions.

Parasound Halo Integrated/DAC
’s all-new, dual-mono, 160Wpc (into 8 ohms) Halo is based on the circuitry of the P5 preamp and the top-notch John Curl-designed gain stage found in the A21 and A23 amps—plus the larger power supply of the A21. It uses the latest generation ESS Sabre32 Reference DAC (ES9018K2M), for decoding PCM up to 384kHz/32-bit and DSD, and a full complement of digital inputs including asynchronous USB 2.0. Fully equipped, the Halo also had an mm/mc phonostage with three load settings, and subwoofer inputs and output with variable low- and high-pass crossovers. Cosmetics include new badging, heavy metal end caps, and a nifty backlit remote. Reportedly shipping soon. Price: $2500.

Primare Pre60 Preamp and A60 Amplifier
Handcrafted and manufactured in Sweden, Primare’s latest, the Pre60 preamp and A60 amp ($10,000 apiece), have just begun shipping. Finished in elegant two-tone titanium, the Pre60 accepts all inputs, including USB, LAN, and WLAN, and works with BT, Tidal, and Spotify. The A60 amp employs the latest generation UFPD modules, producing a healthy 250Wpc of Class D power into 8 ohms. The Primare app allows control from smart devices, including streaming, radio, and stored media. WBT Nextgen speaker inputs provide a luxurious finishing touch. The bona fides of the room system were excellent. The Primare duo were sourced by the E.A.T. E-Glo phonostage, Dr. Feickert Firebird turntable with Acoustical Systems Axiom tonearm and Archon cartridge, with Vienna Acoustics Liszt loudspeakers on the back end, and IsoTek power conditioning and cabling throughout. Sonics were detailed, expansive, and visceral.

Atoll Electronique IN400 Integrated Amp
Looks are a matter of personal taste, but I love the smooth curves of Atoll Electronique resonance-busting chassis in the IN400 ($7300). Not to mention the cool dual attenuators. From France, the IN features 160Wpc into 8 ohms, and a dual-mono, low-feedback design comprising discrete components. Around back, there are five analog RCA inputs, an HT bypass, and an XLR input. Its USB input features a 24/192 Burr Brown DAC. Optional are a phono and DAC board,  and a ¼** headphone amplifier accessible from the front panel. With the Attoll driving the lovely glass-walled Waterfall Niagara flagship speakers ($39,500), the sonics were inviting and warmly musical.

Auspicious Debuts

Classé Audio Sigma SSP Processor and Amp2 Amplifier
The Classé Audio Sigma brings much of the high-end precision of the tony Delta line to a sweetspot price of $3500. Sporting switching technologies for both the power supply and the amplification stages, the Sigma Amp2 outputs 200Wpc/400Wpc,. A multichannel version, the Amp5, is also available at $5000. The Sigma SSP processor is a crossover product, optimized for stereo playback with streaming USB capability, but also outfitted with 7.1-channel processing power and the modular capability to swap out HDMI and video boards. Clever rack ears are built into the Sigma chassis—invisible until needed.

Constellation Inspiration Integrated
debuted the Inspiration integrated ($12,500). If Constellation’s track record holds, this IA should give its pricier siblings a strong run for the money. Rated at a conservative 100Wpc, it derives the lion’s share of its design from the headier Performance line, although with some price-conscious part substitution.  A phonostage and media server are due later this spring.

Rogue Audio RP-5 Preamp
Rogue Audio
give its new RP-5 tube preamp ($3495) a new platform with fluorescent display and microprocessor-controlled rotary volume knob, plus an mm/mc phonostage with selectable loading and gain. Two other versions will follow by mid-Spring, including the smaller RP-3 ($2500) and the fully balanced flagship RP-7, estimated to price out between $4500 and $5000.

VTL 2.5i Preamp
The VTL 2.5i  is an improved version of the 2.5, upgraded with audiophile-grade parts and a handy user-selectable gain switches to compensate for higher-output sources like CD players or lower-output ones like phonostages. The optional internal phonostage is retrofittable, supports both mm and mc, and offers adjustable load and gain settings Price: $3000, linestage; $4000 with phonostage.

Creek Evo 100A Integrated
I got the lowdown from Mike Creek about his latest, the Creek Evo 100A ($2195). While outwardly resembling the Evo 50A, the Evo 100A’s internal heat sinks have been enlarged to power the additional transistors of this Class G design. Plus it has a high-current output stage in the preamp section to drive a wide range of headphones. Five line inputs and two balanced inputs flesh out the back panel. An optional Ruby DAC module as well as radio and phono options will be available upon request.

Lyngdorf SDA-2400 Stereo Amp
Modest in size but exceptionally versatile, the stackable or rack-mountable Lyngdorf SDA-2400 digital stereo amp ($2500) ships with a full complement of analog and digital inputs, and is designed to operate with a preamp or surround processor or in the company of bespoke Lyngdorf systems or as a power amplifier for media players with volume-controlled outputs. Boasting 400Wpc into 4 ohms, the output stage uses Pulse Width Modulation with a patented switch-speed-optimization technology for very low and linear distortion and superior signal to noise.

T+A R-Series
The incredible twenty year run of T+A’s current R series has finally come to an end but in the coming months look for superb R replacements in the form of the PA2000R 180Wpc integrated amp, the 6200R turntable, and the MP2000R media player three months Pricing is to be announced but the $6000­–$8000 range looks likely.

Cary Audio TL-300d Preamp/DAC
The Cary Audio TL-300d combines Cary’s well-known tube preamp expertise with a state-of-the-art four-chip DAC capable of processing signals up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD64/128/256.  The full array of digital inputs includes USB, SPIDIF, TosLink, aptX, Bluetooth, and AES/EBU. The fluid brushed-aluminum front-panel cosmetics include a VFD display, and a tube display window that flanks the large central volume control. Price estimate: $8000–$9000.

In Other News

A potent blast from the Rotel past is the new (yikes) 350Wpc behemoth, the RB 1590 ($2999). Like it’s forbear, the even more powerful 380Wpc RB 1090, the new RB should make power-hungry, low-sensitivity loudspeakers very happy.

Exogal was founded in 2013 by former Wadia engineers. Designed and manufactured in the U.S., its first product is the tiny Comet DAC/preamp ($2500). No lightweight, the Comet DAC includes balanced and unbalanced analog outputs, a digital volume control, and an asynchronous USB input. It’s even equipped with a headphone jack. Getting up and running is as simple as connecting your computer, or other digital/analog source. Be on the lookout for an amp, the 125Wpc Ion, to join the line later this year.

A potential desktop delight for 2015 might just be the remarkably low-profile, six-inch-square Olasonic NanoCompo Series $800 separates. Designed in Japan by a group of ex-Sony engineers the NanoCompos include a Nano UA1 integrated amp with 192/24 BurrBrown DAC,(96/24 over USB), a TI 26Wpc Class D amp, and front-panel headphone jack and remote. A CD transport and DAC are also available.

Cambridge (Hint: name change, don’t call them Cambridge Audio anymore, just Cambridge) Say goodbye to Azur and welcome to a pair of handsome integrated amps: the 60Wpc CX A60 ($799) and the premium 80Wpc CX A80 ($999), a dual mono design with USB audio and a balanced input.

Questyle, known for its wireless preamp and headphone amps, has launched the 150i, a potent 150Wpc (into 4 ohms), Class AB, current-mode integrated. Shipping in April with pricing estimated in the $3500–$4000 range.

Nagra is placing the finishing touches on the Classic Amp 100 with remote, and balance, and RCA inputs. Based on the venerable MSA amp but with nearly double the MOSFET power at 120W (into 8 ohms). Casework was still in the prototype stage, but the jewel-like, brushed Nagra look will likely prevail. Price TBA.

Now shipping is the PrimaLuna Dialogue Premium HP (for high power and headphone!) integrated ($4399). This impeccably crafted IA, known for its adaptive auto-bias circuit, adjusts for each individual tube type, all the way up to KT120 or KT150 output tubes—the latter yielding 84Wpc.

The popular VAC Sigma 160i SE integrated still sports 85Wpc from its KT88 output tubes, but now offers two Statement Line sourced options—an XLR input option ($1500) and an  MC step-up transformer upgrade ($2200); in addition, some critical parts in passive stages have been upgraded. Base price remains $14,000.

Ypsilon will be launching a more modestly priced preamp and stereo amp late this spring with the hand-wired transformers that the Greek firm is known for, along with a phono and DAC later on. Details are sketchy at this point, but (fingers crossed) look for under-$10,000 pricing.

In wire news, Synergistic Research unwrapped its new four-level Atmosphere Series, which replaces the vaunted Element Series. A personal favorite, the Shunyata Venom PS8, gets company with the debut of the MPC-12, which includes twelve outlets (digital and analog) and built-in “Defender”-level filtration technology ($2495). Plus there’s now a single-outlet Venom Amp-1 ($595), a good solution for monoblocks.

Best of Show

Best Sound (cost no object): Gorgeous sonics and vivid naturalism defined the new Rockport Cygnus loudspeaker at $62,500. Anchored by a dCS Vivaldi digital stack, driven by D’Agostino Momentum monoblocks, wired with Transparent Audio products, and supported by HRS racks, the system gently whispered state of the art.

Best Sound (for the money): Yep, I really stepped in it this time. While supposedly listening to the GoldenEar Triton 1s ($5000/pr.), I commented to Sandy Gross that the bass seemed less extended. Turns out, these were the new, smaller, unpowered Triton 5s ($2000/pr.). GoldenEar continues to amaze.

Most Significant Product Introduction: Devialet Phantom—a uniquely gorgeous, spherical, self-powered $2500 loudspeaker that can perform on its own or synch to other Phantoms in pairs or in multiples throughout the house via WiFi and its Spark app. Stunning.

Most Significant Trend: Look at all those headphone jacks! So, on the hardware side, the trend is headphone amps. On the software side, it’s greater integration through WiFi and smart apps

Most Coveted Product: The Rowland Design Group Daemon Super integrated is sheer connectivity. With a rich 5 x7 touchscreen, precision-weighted rotary volume wheel, and (gulp) 1500Wpc power, it’s the sexiest über integrated I’ve yet encountered at $38,000.

By Neil Gader


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