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Loudspeakers $20k and Up at CES 2014

Loudspeakers $20k and Up at CES 2014

As you know from previous reports, my swan-like neck of the high-end woods is usually crowded with exotic numbers from manufacturers eager to show off their best and most expensive goodies. But with the ascendance of Munich and the decline of Las Vegas as the international showgoer’s destination of choice (and—this year, at least—the very bad weather on the East Coast, which made visitors and speaker-makers alike late for the party), CES 2014 was less well attended and considerably less varied and pricey than in past years. With some very notable exceptions that I will come to momentarily, ultra-high-end-loudspeaker manufacturers generally went down-market—or mid-market—this time around, with far fewer $100k+ Goliaths and a whole lot more $20–$40k Davids.

After the foregoing introduction you’re probably asking yourself why I put  a picture of Magico’s Alon Wolf, who is not exactly the epitome of thrift, at the start of this report. The answer is not because Alon had the best sound at the show (although the Magico sound was very very good); rather, it is because he had the most sound at the show, which this year might fairly have been called the Magico Electronics Show (or MES). Not since the heyday of David Wilson back in the late nineties, when Wilson Audio Specialties virtually owned the high end, have I seen a single loudspeaker manufacturer’s products in so many different venues. By my count nine of the forty-five or so rooms I visited were using Magicos—fully one-fifth of the ultra-high-end displays at The Venetian (and I don’t know how many others at T.H.E. Show).

Whatever you may think of the sound of Magico speakers, the fact that so many different electronics/source companies decided to display with them (in many cases with the same models that their competitors were using) is certainly remarkable. Among other things, it made my job a whole lot easier—and, in a way, more interesting. When you hear the selfsame speaker in two or three different systems, you get a considerably better idea of what the speaker itself sounds like and of how the associated electronics and sources driving it are affecting that sound than you do when you only hear it once or twice during the course of a show in the same system.

However, before I go all Magico on you, let’s turn to the show’s other highlights.

Why begin with “the show highlights?” Well, this year we have decided to change the format of our CES reports and concentrate on the peaks, rather than gradually working up to them from the valleys. So, instead of launching directly into my usual room-by-room and floor-by-floor pillorying of hapless manufacturers, I will give you my five “bests” of CES 2014, along with a few side notes on other interesting displays.

My first highlight came as far and away the biggest surprise of this show—in fact, maybe, of any show I’ve attended.

I have heard the gigantic $190k Focal Grande Utopia EMs on several occasions, and unlike their stellar little brothers, the $90k Stella Utopia EMs, I’ve never liked them. To my ear, the Grandes have always sounded slow, stolid, and bass-heavy, with poor resolution and sluggish transient response. Of course, in your average-sized hotel room a seven-foot-tall, two-foot-wide, three-foot-deep, six-hundred-pound giant has a whole lot lined up against it from “go,” even if its parts do articulate to optimize “focus time” (whatever that means) and its sixteen-inch woofers are controlled by adjustable sixty-pound outboard electro-magnets. Here, driven by top-of-the-line VAC Statement electronics (including VAC’s marvelous, two-box, $70k Statement Phonostage) on Critical Mass Systems stands and platforms in a huge suite on the 35th floor of The Venetian, the Grande Utopia EM was one of the two or three best loudspeakers I’ve heard at a trade show. I’d have to hearken back to the Rockport Hyperions to summon up the memory of another dynamic-driver box-speaker that impressed me this much at CES. Whether it was The Doors or Keb’ Mo’ or Ravel, the Grande Utopia EMs driven by VAC were phenomenally realistic, with gorgeous timbre top to bottom, genuinely lifelike transient response, tremendous weight and impact from the bass through the power range, outstanding soundstaging, lifelike imaging, and superb resolution. Clearly I was, uh, wrong about these numbers, though just as clearly they need space around, between, and above them (and maybe VAC electronics) to sound their truly astonishing best.

My second highlight was far from a surprise, as I can’t remember a show where MBL didn’t perform well. This year its $42k 111F—MBL’s largest hybrid with two, side-mounted, dual-driver, dynamic woofers in a push-push configuration, and two, side-mounted, dual-dynamic-driver subwoofers (ditto), combined with Radialstrahler midrange and tweeter in a single box—showed their usual merits: superb bass, tremendous dynamics, a dark beautiful tonal balance, unparalleled spaciousness, and sui generis soundstaging. Next to the Focals and two speakers we will come to shortly, they were probably the best sound at The Venetian. However…

The Venetian wasn’t the only venue in town. Over at The Flamingo, T.H.E. Show was offering its own choice selection of wares, including a “mystery” Magnepan concealed behind a curtain in what I thought was an ill-considered publicity stunt. (I never did solve the mystery, and thus do not know which Maggie was playing behind “Door Number One,” though I thought it might involve the DWM woofer.) Also on display at The Flamingo was a $190k, three-driver, three-way floorstanding giant called the M1 and a line of electronics and cables, all designed by Mark Levinson the Man (the only person on Earth who is habitually thus identified), even though speakers, electronics, and cables were perplexingly brand-named Daniel Hertz (the Company?).

But it was a third, very expensive and elaborate system at The Flamingo that made my “highlight reel”: Perfect8 Technologies’ $375k The Force ribbon/cone line-source loudspeaker.

This is not the first time I’ve heard The Force at CES—or raved about it—but CES 2014 was certainly the best show yet for this remarkable speaker system. As you may recall, The Force mounts eight 7″ magnesium-cone drivers and a five-foot ribbon (with neodymium magnet) in line arrays on a six-and-a-half-foot-tall baffle of tempered glass (and gold). Three pairs of glass-enclosed, powered subwoofers, each with a pair of 12″ woofers working in a push-push configuration (and crossed over to the mains via an outboard active filter) complete the package. Perhaps not surprisingly (given my mind-boggling experience with the Focal Grande Utopias), The Forces were being driven by VAC’s audibly superior electronics. Very surprisingly The Forces were being sourced by my own reference phonograph, the Walker Proscenium Black Diamond V, which here made a way-too-rare appearance at a trade show.

Like the best mini-monitors (such as the Raidho C1.1/D1 or the Magico Q1), The Force system has the uncanny ability to utterly disappear as a sound source, the big difference being that The Force is not a tiny two-way with limited bass and dynamics, but a gigantic multiway with superb bass and dynamics. In my experience, only the Scaena system (when everything is just so and the room is to its liking) can pull off a similar trick in the mids and treble, disappearing completely and leaving the performers standing there as if in the open air of a studio or a concert hall. However, the Scaenas cannot do this trick reliably in the bass; The Forces seemingly can. The result is sheer sonic magic. On “L.A. Woman” I have never before heard Jim Morrison and the rest of The Doors sound so “there,” so un-reproduced, so seemingly alive—and I’ve heard this cut hundreds of times. Even the great Focals, and they were great, sounded more like “box speakers” than this astounding ribbon/cone system. Save for my reference C 4.1s (also ribbon/cone transducers) I’ve not heard anything like The Force for sheer realism, and the C 4.1s’ bass, though terrific, is boxier and more superabundant than that of The Forces. OTOH, I haven’t heard The Forces on a wide variety of music, so I’m not sure they are the Raidhos’ equals in thrills, transients, tone color, and track-by-track lifelikeness. Nonetheless, on The Doors and Keb’ Mo’ (which is all I had time to listen to), this was not just the best sound I heard at CES 2014; it was one of the best sounds I’ve heard. This is ironic given that the Focal Grande Utopia EMs were also one of the best sounds I’ve heard. Then again, for two systems that ring up a little south of a million bucks, I suppose this should have been the case.

My fourth highlight came from a speaker manufacturer who, for various reasons, temporarily disappeared from the United States market (although he has still been going great guns in Europe and Asia)—but is now back in the U.S. of A. IMO, Charles van Oosterum of Kharma is one of the supreme talents in loudspeaker design—a truly original and forward thinker who, among other things, was the first to offer nearly inert cabinets with elaborate substructures, the first to employ Accuton ceramic and diamond drivers, and now the first to offer sandwich drivers made from an entirely new generation of carbon fiber said to be stronger, lighter, and less resonant than any other material on the market (including other carbon fibers) with a new magnet system with higher flux and lower IM and THD than previously available magnetics. The Kharma dB11-s that Charles was showing at CES 2014, the top model in his so-called Elegance Line, is a four-driver, three-way floorstander in a handsome pomegranate-colored cabinet partly fashioned from what Kharma calls “Bullet-Proof Laminate.”

About a decade ago I used to use one of Charles’ speakers as my reference, but his new $54k dB11-s is a far cry from Kharmas of yore. In the past, the trouble with Charles’ speakers, in so far as things this superlatively engineered can be said to have “trouble,” was that they leaned toward the analytical side. Super-detailed, super-fast, to some listeners they seemed to gain their phenomenal speed and resolution at the price of naturally rich timbre (particularly in the bass and the all-important power range). In this regard, they were reminiscent of certain early Magico loudspeakers (or, more properly, vice versa).

However, with the switch to carbon-fiber drivers (and a very well-controlled beryllium tweeter), this new generation of Kharmas—the dB11-s, par excellence—has gained much, much richer tone color (particularly in the bass and power range) at no apparent cost in resolution of transient speed. The result is a speaker that reminds me of the big Raidhos I now use as references: a genuine powerhouse, with sledgehammer bass dynamics, incredible low-level detail, and simply gorgeous tone color (without much of the  bite in the treble that I still hear, depending on source, from all beryllium tweeters). Driven by Kharma’s own electronics, harnessed with Kharma’s cables, and sourced by dCS, this was a sound that would’ve been a slam-dunk Best of Show in years past, and would have this year as well were it not for the Focal Grandes and the Perfect8 Forces. As it stands, the dB11-s is the best Kharma I’ve heard at a trade show—and at its price (compared to the six-figure competition), one of the great speaker bargains in the ultra-high-end.

For my final “highlight” I am torn among a number of superb exhibits (like RMAF 2013, CES 2014 was a very good sounding show), such as the $40k Cessaro Chopin two-way front-loaded horn loudspeaker (which were as void of horn colorations and as “of a piece” as any horn speaker I’ve heard); the $90k Lansche 5.1 (which, were I to give an award for “most improved loudspeaker”—and I might—would certainly win); Crystal Cable’s ca. $15k “Concept” two-way and integrated amp (which, in combination with Crystal cabling, were the most promising intros at the show, with tremendous color and bass for two-ways, as well as the mini-monitor’s usual high resolution and magical disappearing act); YG Acoustics’ superb new $45k Hailey three-driver three-way (which, a little compression on hard transients at very loud levels aside, were in the running for Best of Show—the sound was that good on “L.A. Woman” and other cuts); the Vandersteen Model Seven driven by Vandersteen’s new amplifier (which—despite a little leanness in the power range—had a newfound top-to-bottom coherence and sensational transients, coupled with the Seven’s usual excellent definition and extension in the low-to-mid bass); the three-way, four-driver TAD Reference Ones (which—with their superb beryllium coincident mid/tweets and twin tri-laminate woofers—arguably have the most seamless balance of any large cone loudspeaker and which also have sensational dynamic linearity and superb bass); the warm, lovely-sounding, candle-in-the-wind-shaped $180k Angel Sound S8s; the rich, robust $31.5k Joseph Audio Pearl 3; the incredibly finely detailed $100k Zellaton References (which, despite a little lightness in the bottom octaves, managed to dig out more detail from records I know well than virtually anything else at CES); the new $7k Raidho X-1 two-way mini-monitor (which has to be the best buy I heard at CES, providing most of the incredible speed, resolution, and color of its bigger brothers, the D1 and C1.1, at a comparative bargain price); the $30k Vienna Acoustics The Music (which combines kick-ass bass and excellent tone color); the $48k Wilson Alexias driven by outstanding VTL electronics (simply phenomenal on pedal point on a digital recording of organ music played by Duruflé); etc.; etc.

That I finally settled on the $22.6k Magico S3 three-way floorstander is as much an acknowledgement of Magico’s omnipresence at CES (or MES) as it is of the excellent sound of Alon Wolf and Yair Tamman’s latest creation. It seems to me that Magico is currently in the process of changing its sonic image. Famous for their transparency, resolution, and speed, Magico’s early efforts (like those of Kharma) were also, arguably, a bit on the analytical side. For some listeners (like me) this was a plus. For others, the speakers were simply too lean in tone color and too tough to drive in the bass to be fully satisfying.

With the introduction of the Q7 and Magico’s more affordable “S Series” oval, aluminum-bodied speakers, the Magico paradigm has begun to change. Its new speakers, the Q7 in particular, have a warmer overall balance, bespeaking richer, denser, more natural color in the power range (which is, IMO, one of the chief keys to a loudspeaker’s appeal). Because of its monocoque enclosure (the S3 is the only S Series speaker with a box that is made as a single unit, rather than bolted-together from curvilinear parts), its newly developed, rounded sub-chamber for the midrange driver, and the superb Vitus electronics, Synergistic Research Galileo LE cabling, and dCS front end with which it was paired in the Magico room, the S3 actually took this kinder, gentler Magico balance a step further, without losing much of Magico’s trademark low-level resolution or transient speed. Despite being housed in a small room, the S3s were gorgeous-sounding on guitar, piano, and voice, with just a slight hint of brightness on massed strings and winds. In other rooms Magicos fared equally well—the Q3 in the Synergistic Research room, the S5 in the Constellation Audio room, the S3s again in the Soulution room (where Soulution’s new $65k 711 stereo amp and $55k 725 preamp made my ears water and my hands shake with lust), among many others—but as the S3 in Magico’s own room was the speaker’s “official” introduction, it is the S3 in the Magico room that becomes my final CES 2014 highlight.

Those of you interested in seeing photos of all the speakers I heard at CES, go to http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p722365708.


By Jonathan Valin

I’ve been a creative writer for most of life. Throughout the 80s and 90s, I wrote eleven novels and many stories—some of which were nominated for (and won) prizes, one of which was made into a not-very-good movie by Paramount, and all of which are still available hardbound and via download on Amazon. At the same time I taught creative writing at a couple of universities and worked brief stints in Hollywood. It looked as if teaching and writing more novels, stories, reviews, and scripts was going to be my life. Then HP called me up out of the blue, and everything changed. I’ve told this story several times, but it’s worth repeating because the second half of my life hinged on it. I’d been an audiophile since I was in my mid-teens, and did all the things a young audiophile did back then, buying what I could afford (mainly on the used market), hanging with audiophile friends almost exclusively, and poring over J. Gordon Holt’s Stereophile and Harry Pearson’s Absolute Sound. Come the early 90s, I took a year and a half off from writing my next novel and, music lover that I was, researched and wrote a book (now out of print) about my favorite classical records on the RCA label. Somehow Harry found out about that book (The RCA Bible), got my phone number (which was unlisted, so to this day I don’t know how he unearthed it), and called. Since I’d been reading him since I was a kid, I was shocked. “I feel like I’m talking to God,” I told him. “No,” said he, in that deep rumbling voice of his, “God is talking to you.” I laughed, of course. But in a way it worked out to be true, since from almost that moment forward I’ve devoted my life to writing about audio and music—first for Harry at TAS, then for Fi (the magazine I founded alongside Wayne Garcia), and in the new millennium at TAS again, when HP hired me back after Fi folded. It’s been an odd and, for the most part, serendipitous career, in which things have simply come my way, like Harry’s phone call, without me planning for them. For better and worse I’ve just gone with them on instinct and my talent to spin words, which is as close to being musical as I come.

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