I approached CES (Venetian Towers) and T.H.E. Show (Alexis Park) 2009 with mixed emotions. First I was excited to meet friends again and share the energy of the show. I had researched exhibitors and made a “must hear” list for each venue. Second, I was in a dour mood due to seeing my piggybank decimated relentlessly during 2008. My personal quest for new speakers was going to be severely restricted. I had little tolerance for companies that charge based upon marketing skill and how much they think they can get away with. I had zero enthusiasm for $5K power cords and $40K boxes.

From the diminished traffic at both CES and T.H.E. Show, I knew many others were sharing my condition. Low traffic on the first day was a mixed blessing. Fewer attendees made my job easier but they also robbed me of the energy that critical mass generates. Traffic (and energy) picked up significantly on Friday and Saturday. A quick comparison of the 2008 and 2009 Venetian CES directory showed a slight reduction in exhibitors on Level 2 but an expansion to two wings on floor 31 in the Towers from zero exhibits in 2008. So unofficially it seemed like there were more exhibitors this year. I had to do some seriously wicked speed dating to finish room visits in four days.

In the Venetian I noticed numerous disappointing rooms including those of well respected, established companies. Many rooms had a noisy glare and were just plain irritating. I would have attributed it to a power issue but many rooms had some form of power conditioning and I did notice several new kids on the block who had surprisingly good sounding rooms that put the big guys to shame. Although my mood had improved to full-out, kid-in-a-candy-store mode, the disparities in room performances and my depleted finances quickly shaped a show report theme for me

This year I won’t be reporting on the latest, (supposedly) greatest from company X. There won’t be any shiny bobbles or glam-photos of exotic designs unless they first meet other criteria. This year I focused on affordability and value. But those were not my primary criteria. Before a room could be considered for my report it had to make me smile. Yes, it had to move my feet and my heart. If a room was not musical, affordability did not matter and value was questionable at best.

With that preamble, I offer you my equipment/room selections for 2009. They are presented in no special order. Since affordability does not mean the same thing to everyone some rooms may seem expensive but I still think they represent value. Remember that my primary criterion was, and always should be, performance.

Readers who are familiar with my speakers (modified Apogee Mini Grands) and recent reviews (Spectron monoblock amplifiers) may find some of my selections surprising. I know I did —initially. But that can be explained in that I kept an open mind and let my heart lead me. The less expensive selections certainly don’t provide ultimate neutrality or equal the best there is for performance across the entire audio spectrum but they do offer an eminently enjoyable musical experience. I certainly enjoyed the music in those rooms and hope you will enjoy reading about them. Keep in mind that show conditions are challenging and my evaluations are limited in scope. Having recently returned from the Twilight Zone called CES; I humbly offer these for your consideration.


Divergent Technologies/Lightspeed Audio (Alexis Park 1908)

 

Reference 3A believes in building loudspeakers with minimal crossovers but high quality parts. The Grand Veena loudspeaker ($8000-10,000 depending on finish) has just one Mundorf Supreme silver/oil capacitor on the main tweeter and one Mundorf Supreme silver/oil capacitor and ribbon coil inductor on the low frequency driver. The main driver and super tweeter are directly coupled. There is a Bybee filter on each binding posts so all drivers share the benefits.

The 3As were very enjoyable paired with Antique Sound Labs AQ1006 SET monoblock amplifiers ($3500/pair), an EMM Labs CDSA CD player and a prototype preamplifier from Michael Chang of Chang Lightspeed Audio. Power conditioning was a Lightspeed CLS 715 with hyper-driver Technology ($1500).

Sonist Loudspeakers/deHavilland Electric Amplifier Company (Alexis Park 1403)

 

The Sonist Concerto 3 loudspeaker ($3495) is designed to work well with low-powered SET amplifiers. Its minimalist crossover consists of two parts—a Goertz Alpha Core copper-foil inductor on the woofer and one Auricap capacitor on the time-aligned ribbon tweeter. Wave guides are an integral part of the 1.75” thick, solid poplar front baffles.

This excellent sounding room was powered by a deHavilland Mercury III vacuum tube linestage preamplifier ($4595 with remote) and KE-50A 40W KT88 tube monoblocks ($7495/pair).

Acoustic Technologies, LLC (Venetian 29-133)
 

 
Acoustic Technologies, LLC is a new company debuting at CES. Their coming out party featured their Classic speaker ($2450), a little speaker with a big sound. The Classic is a single-driver model with a directly coupled three-inch, high–efficiency titanium cone driver. The cabinet is designed to be an amplifier and resonator. I can testify that it works. Vocals sparkled and bass slam (drums) and definition (upright bass) were surprisingly good.

Off-axis listening was some of the best I have heard. During part of my audition one speaker was turned 90 degrees to the outside. Some focus was lost but the soundstage did not collapse and music was still very enjoyable. The speakers were positioned on the long wall in the upper level of the bi-level Venetian suite. I was encouraged to stand in the front corner of the lower level. The Classic filled the entire suite and even sounded good with my nose stuck in the corner.

I give these speakers a 6-ways friendly rating—affordable, foot print, forgiving placement, aesthetics, easy to drive, and, most important, performance. A cloth-covered version is also available as well as different veneers.

The Classic speakers were paired with an Ayon CD1 CD player ($4300), Pass Labs X1 preamplifier, and a Fist Watt F3 amplifier.

Musical Interpretations/Harmonic Technology (Venetian 30-316)

 

The Musical Interpretations loudspeaker was another single-driver model that impressed me. But this one is a big mother. The MI 15 at CES ($3500) boasts a 15” driver and 102dB efficiency. There are also baby bear (MI 12 @ $3200) and papa bear (MI 18 @ $4000) models available in five metallic automotive finishes.

The MI 15 produced excellent vocals, excellent dynamics, powerful bass (drums) and respectable definition (upright bass) when paired with Musical Interpretations electronics. In service were the MI 8233 Class A triode line preamplifier ($2500) and MI 2A3PP (10 Wpc) Class A push-pull monoblock amplifiers ($2500 each). The room source was a Bel Canto CD player. All cables were Harmonic Technology.