The 2013 Consumer Electronics Show: Neil Gader on Loudspeakers Under $20K
Revel’s Kevin Voecks with the Performa3 lineup
The high end has never been about making earth shattering leaps into the future. So while the folks at the Convention Center were all agog staring at the searing “more real than real” images of Samsung and LG 8K displays (actual programming to follow…someday), high end audio continued its perfectionist slow-dance of sweating the details, one pristine groove and bit after another. CES 2013 was a mid-week show that made it a more business friendly affair. That is in the sense that fewer looky-loos unaffiliated with the industry could play hookey during a work week thus clearing the way for the serious trade professionals to navigate the halls of the Venetian. But the vibe was upbeat with a bounty of new products. My beat this year was loudspeakers under $20,000, a big category, so without further adieu, here we go. Note, all prices indicate pairs.
Audience, (pictured above) the full-range driver specialists, has further refined its unique technology in the mini ClairAudient 1+1 ($1800) Boasting a newly sculpted angular front baffle to minimize diffraction effects its equipped with twin A3S full range drivers and dual passive radiators. Designed for intimate environs, it projected terrific mid range transparency, speed.
Cabasse, noted for it’s eccentric, coincident “eyeball “ loudspeakers proves that small can be beautiful with its new Stream3 a wireless networking 2.1-channel system. Capable of streaming a network music library using the Cabasse app or via Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices, this system represents a fast growing segment. Price: $1200.
Dali added the final jewel to the Epicon Series crown in the Epicon 8 ($20,000 pictured above). An imposing 3.5-way, five driver reflex design tips the scales at 100 lbs. Its robust construction consists of multiple glued layers of MDF that wrap around and anchor to a massive 63mm “backbone”–the last spec considerably heavier than even the Epicon 6 floorstander. The 6.5** midrange and each 8** woofer driver is separately chambered internally to optimize LF tuning.
One of Eggleston Works newest and most popular speakers, the three-way, bass reflex Nine floorstander ($18,000) is now the Nine Signature version (pictured above). Upgraded throughout, with a 150 lb curb weight, the key difference is an internal cabinet mod that sections off the dual midrange transducers for added efficiency and improved low-end response. Displaying with Rogue Audio electronics–the nifty new Sphinx integrated–and Synergistic cabling the SE offered a compelling combination of extension and transparency that makes it one of the sweetest Eggs I’ve heard in some time.
Focal has refreshed its now six year old Chorus 700V Series with the 700 Series. Featuring inverted dome tweeters and Polyglass drive units and available in three finishes the multi-channel capable line has eight models including surrounds and subwoofer. They were not being auditioned during the show but TAS’ experience with Chorus products has always been a very positive one so we have high hopes for the new line. Realistically priced from $495 for the 705 compact to $1695 for the four driver 726 floorstander.
Gallo Acoustics, the round sound, single driver specialists, paraded a new generation Micro (a 4** sphere at $239/each and the larger 5** A’Diva SE at $329/each. They feature improved low end , height recreation, imaging and dispersion. Sensitivity is rated slightly lower but it’s a reasonable trade off given the increased bass response.
Gato Audio from Denmark is a spanking new company by audiophile standards but its current lineup shows all the maturity and sophistication of some of the old hands. I was aware of its integrated amp and CD player (currently under evaluation by Wayne Garcia) but I hadn’t laid eyes or ears on its line of speakers, in this instance the 2.5 way FM-6 floorstander ($14,000) and equally alluring FM-2 compact ($8000). Both are bass reflex designs and sport similar solid aluminum ribbon accenting to the rear of the curved side panels. Drivers are high frequency ring radiator tweeters and mid-bass drivers with powerful neodymium magnets.
The latest GoldenEar Technology offering is the aggressively priced Triton Seven (pictured above). It combines a D’Appolito array of bass midrange drivers which bracket the identical High Velocity Folded Ribbon Driver (HVFR™), used in both the acclaimed Triton Two and Three. Like the two larger Tritons, the Seven incorporates dual side-mounted sub-bass radiators that are located on either side of the cabinet and near the floor for optimum coupling to the room. Sensitivity is a reasonable 89dB. Being driven by Pass Labs amps and an ARC front end was a big assist but near-full range output and authentic orchestral dynamics in this range are like gold dust. GoldenEar does it again. Available June 2013. $1400.
Magico has been firing on all cylinders since they began to CNC their own aluminum enclosures, and the debut of the S1 suggests they aren’t through yet. (pictured above) It’s price point $12,600 would have been unheard of just a few, short plywood-laminated years ago. The two-way columnar floorstander with its curved side panels most closely refers to the new S5. Bearing the same beryllium tweeter as the Q5, the S1’s bass response improves slightly over the compact Q1, although it’s a bit less sensitive in the bargain. I heard them in two distinct settings–in Magico’s large room driven by Constellation electronics and MIT cabling and in a quasi-near field setting with VAC’s Sigma 160i integrated and the Esoteric K-05 player. True to form and in either location, this is an articulate, highly transparent loudspeaker capable of dramatic intimacy, surprising output levels and dynamic nuance.
In the EAR room, my attention was (pictured below) drawn to the new two-way dual mid-bass driver. Marten Django L–a smaller variant of the XL. With specially designed dual bass units from SEAS and a ceramic tweeter from Accuton, the Djano L at $9000 is a new and unexpectedly lower price point for Marten speakers but as always the sound was classy and with EAR electronics and front end, fast, detailed, transparent.
Axiss Distribution, launched the two-way, flea-sized Aracraft, ALN100D. Built of an all 12mm thick aluminum extruded enclosure it’s hand assembled and features convex internal sidewalks, a CNC baffle for its compression tweeter driver. Diaphragms are an alum/mag alloy. At 17 lbs and a little over eight inches tall it’s a small wonder.
The Mini Aero (pictured above) are compact wireless active monitors from Australian Moos Audio and the product of a partnership with Danville signal processing and Scan Speak. The result is a high performance active two-way with full bandwidth wireless streaming. Technical highlights include the first ever audiophile-grade wireless transport, Scan-Speak Revelator drive units, quad mono differential Wolfson DACs with an entire DAC dedicated to each drive unit, SHARC floating point DSP, and audiophile-grade Hypex amplification. Put through its paces with demanding symphonic material, the Mini Aero would be impressive even if it wasn’t wireless. Assembled by Scan-Speak in Denmark. $2499
PMC, the proaudio monitor transmission line speaker specialists are introducing the Twenty Series, four models (passive as compared to the active pro line) that will soon replace the iSeries lineup. With two floorstanders and a pair of compacts they reflect some of the narrow baffle aesthetic of the Fact Series with other elements from the sun- setting iSeries. New drive units were co-developed with SEAS and prices range from $2600 & $3500 for the Twenty 21 & 22 compacts to $4000-$6000 for the larger Twenty 23 and 24.
Polk Audio TSx replaces the TSi in a three tower, two bookshelf lineup, that are aggressively priced between $500 and $1000 for the towers and $200-$300 for the compacts. With five models including the imposing TSx 550T ($1000) all offer good sensitivity, easy amplifier loads and inviting price points for nascent high enders.
The Revel Performa3, a nine speaker multi-channel lineup of stylish showstoppers when they debuted a year ago is just beginning to ship. I’m slated to receive review pairs of its F206 midsize three-way floorstander ($3500) and the M106 two-way compact ($2000) in the coming weeks. These completely redesigned models have big shoes to fill–Performa has been one of the best kept secrets in performance and value in high end audio–but from what I’ve heard these models are more than something special. Last year more TAS writers commented about the M106 that any other speaker in its class. Also the award for Most Intensive Pants Flapping demo should go to Revel’s latest flagship sub, the Rhythm 2 ($10,000) features an 18** woofer, (Yes, eighteen, that’s not a typo) 4** voice coil and a powerful DSP engine.
For the Sonus faber Venere line the word is walnut. With the newly introduced optional walnut veneers it returns to a more traditional Sf look. But don’t worry, glossy white and piano black finishes are still standard. Additionally Sf has now completed Venere with the introduction of the Model 2.0 ($1700), a larger version of the Model 1.5. and the Model 3.0 floorstander, ($4000 est). Both will be shipping at the end of Q1. REL has upgraded its 528 subwoofer with an SE version ($2750) that borrows heavily from the stately Gibralter G1, using it’s woofer driver and a beefier amplifier. Also on display was a prototype, flat profile, wall mountable REL. Further information to come.
Sony ES, (for Elevated Standard), demoed the SS-NA2ES $10,000, a floorstander derived from the innovation and lessons learned with the AR-1 and AR-2. This is the same mystery speaker with the horizontal three-tweeter array that snuck into RMAF last year for public feedback. Sony makes it clear this is no down market knick-knack either. It’s proudly made in the same facility as the flagship ARs in Japan. Construction is heavy birch ply. And it doesn’t arrive alone. the line includes the compact SS-NA5ES also equipped with the tri-tweeter array ($6000).
Hard on the heels of the new Thiel CS2.7 is the downsized CS1.7 ($5500 est & pictured above) It’s profile is classic Thiel, a two-way bass reflex with the thick, time-aligned front baffle and a nicely sculpted slotted port, 52Hz tuning and a Butterworth 4th order crossover. Driven by Bryston electronics the fabled Thiel coherence is evident but it was the robust, and smooth output in the large listening space that really impressed.
If any single company knows how to finish and present a loudspeaker with more élan than Totem Acoustics, I haven’t seen it. And so was the case with the refreshed Forest floorstander. Long a best seller in the Totem line the new Signature model ($6000) is refined further with even higher tolerances for its hand selected drivers, crossover components plus a new six-layer polycoat finish that applies greater rigidity in the same proportion that it adds luster. At the base of the front baffle is a new articulating footer that is adjustable for slanting back the baffle for precise time alignment. A speaker to reckon with in 2013.
T+A is associated with electronics in the US but the 35 year old company actually began as a loudspeaker manufacturer. They are reintroducing speakers to North America with the handsome, four speaker Criterion lineup. The two floorstanders feature transmission line enclosures and a waveguide tweeter, the model 210 launches at $13,000 and the smaller 310 prices out at $7500 depending on finish.
The long awaited Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Imperial Grand (pictured above) debuted in the company of Primare electronics, IsoTek conditioning products, a Spiral Groove table and Audioquest cabling. This VA model represents the first time the company’s innovative wide-band (approx. 150Hz to 20kHz) flat cone coincident (in a smaller version) has been installed in a model other than the flagship The Music, and at $10,000, a fraction of that loudspeaker’s cost. The narrow baffle enclosure is outwardly a thing of beauty to behold yet internally it’s highly sophisticated with a sealed upper enclosure, dual porting and individual tuning, both electrically and acoustically for the three Spider-Cone woofer drivers. The five driver array includes a super tweeter that fills in the upper harmonic range above 17kHz.
The Waterfall Audio Victoria Evo ($7000, pictured below) is an all glass and aluminum 40** tower. The enclosure’s high density and rigidity is coupled with unique acoustical damping behind each transducer to virtually element back-wave artifacts. Drivers are sourced from French manufacturer Atohm. A unique bottom mounted passive radiator can be tuned within the range of 40-50Hz with small brass weights of 7 and 27 grams. Driven by Aragon Electronics and Clarus Cable this speaker espouses an elegant, neutral sound seemingly free of cabinet resonance from the undamped enclosure.
Other Highlights and Updates
In the “Pinch me, I must be dreaming” department I encountered the Synergistic Research room with the Raidho C1.1 compact that colleague Jonathan Valin found so rewarding recently. Accompanied by Simaudio electronics and Synergistic’s Tranquility Bases and other Synergistic treatments I listened to a medley of Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Eva Cassidy and witnessed a vanishing act like few I’ve heard before. So completely had the little C1.1 exited the premises that all that was left was the music complete with the trappings of the record’s engineering–a resolving power comparable to experiencing hi-def video and spotting makeup irregularities, like the cheese cloth edges of a toupee or an actresses false eyelashes as the camera dollies in for a close-up. Wow.
Magnepan, produced a compelling demo with its 3.7 loudspeaker augmented by a pair of “stealth” DWM bass panels ($795/each) custom designed not only for subbass extension near room boundaries which they accomplished seamlessly, but also to integrate fashionably as furnishings like a side table or invisibly depending upon the whims of your decorator. A very satisfying modular approach.
In the Meridian room, helmer Bob Stuart demoed the new DSP7200 loudspeakers. At $38,000 this Active/DSP floorstander can do it all musically and Stuart seemed to relish the DJ role by plucking Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice (it’s alright) and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” from his set list for me to enjoy. This was some of best sound I’ve heard from Meridian in some time particularly by a large loudspeaker uncharacteristically placed with its back to the wall and the left channel proximate to a corner. Neutral, no dips or peaks. Stuart gently but firmly hammering home his point about the sophistication of Meridians’ latest DSP and Enhanced Boundary Correction technology. Well done, Bob.
Finally, in the Bryston room was, you might be thinking, an amplifer? Nope–it was two loudspeakers. Designed in collaboration with Axiom Audio they are the new Model T, an imposing, seven driver tower, and the Model T Mini, a three-way, stand mount loudspeakers and due to hit the market later this year. A Signature Series edition with an advanced external crossover for upgrading to a fully active status will also arrive around the same time. It will interesting to hear whether the same high performance sonics that Bryston imparts to its electronics carries through to its loudspeakers. Price: TBD.
Best Sound (for the lowest price) The new GoldenEar Triton Seven has made me a believer. Not that I ever doubted the savvy and smarts of its president, Sandy Gross but this near full spectrum floorstander put on a thunderous show with smooth highs, richly realized mids and punchy, dynamic lows. At $1400 and darn attractive too
Best Sound (cost no object) Since For this category, I’m only considering relatively new or very recently introduced systems, but it doesn’t stop me from giving a nod to a perennial front runner like the now mature mbl X-Tremes. Still the Raidho D-1 compact was superb as was the Constellation driven Magico Q7 and Soulution powered Magico S5. But timing and room setup is everything at CES and when a big band recording struck up in the TAD room where the Evolution One system was playing, my mouth fell open as the band and stage and hall seemed to materialize in front of my eyes. It was a moment of realty creation that I rarely encounter at a trade show.
Most Significant Product Introduction
Staying within my category, I think any elite company that can bring down it’s entry level price deserves some credit. The Magico S1 may not be cheap at $12,600 but it achieves a sticker price once considered unthinkable particularly when compared to its first pair of two-ways, the original Mini and the current Q1, both considerably more when they debuted.
Greatest Technological Breakthrough
Thinking it might come in handy next year, I was going to nominate the Digital Fork (really), a weight loss gadget-utensil suitable for calorie conscious audio writers. Seriously, though wireless/Bluetooth streaming may never match the direct connection of cables, its capability is improving quickly and could become a real prime-time player in the entry level ranks of the high end. From the inexpensive Blue Aura minis, the Moos Audio Mini Aero to the Dynaudio Xeo and Focal Speak-Air/Sub-Air wireless line and more to come.
Most Important Trend:
DACs and streamers of all shapes and sizes, are becoming fully integrated into our lifestyles and are even redefining the nomenclature of audio. A CD player has become a DAC with a transport and a preamp, a DAC/pre.