CES 2009: My Last CES?

Like most audiophiles, I typically return from an audio show giddy with excitement, my mind awash with images not of sugar plums but of speakers, cartridges, tubes and the like. But this year, on the journey back to New Jersey from Las Vegas, I found myself strangely subdued, keenly aware that the show was far less enjoyable than I had hoped. In part this was due to the venue. The last few CESís I attended were held at Alexis Park which was off the beaten path, and which offered a congenial, open-air environment. This yearís show, in The Venetian, was located right on The Strip, a mile-plus stretch of gawdiness, hawkers and blasting music, (over) populated with the dregs of humanity, behaving at their worst.



                                         Infamous taxi line outside The Venetian

Once within The Venetian, attendees had to walk through a smoke-filled casino, then wait on line for an elevator to get to the show floors which were themselves crowded and noisy, and not at all conducive to conversation. (T.H.E. Show was held at Alexis Park but sadly, the number of exhibitors was so low as to make it seem a ghost town.) While these factors certainly didnít add to my enjoyment, deep inside I knew that my ennui stemmed from something deeper, something central to my passion for audio.

During my three days at CES I listened to hundreds of different rooms. I talked to the designers, the distributors, the dealers, most of whom are sincere, decent hard-working individuals who are undoubtedly passionate about what they do. But the bottom line is, no more than a handful of the systems I heard ticked my fancy. Iíd like to say that this was a fluke but in truth it was not totally unexpected, as my dissatisfaction with ďmainstreamĒ audio has been building for the past few years.

So what was the cause of my dissatisfaction? It was not so much what the systems did, as what they didnít do - they bore little resemblance to live music.

While there are undoubtedly numerous sonic attributes necessary for reproduced music to sound like the real thing, the aspect most obviously deficient was energy. In simple terms, most of the systems lacked excitement. Even some of the large, very expensive speakers, including those from manufacturers whose products have graced the covers of the glossy audio magazines, didnít cut it for me. Though theyíre big and powerful, full-range (or nearly so), and have what is undoubtedly relatively flat frequency response, the dang things canít get out of the way of the music. Rather than being a conduit to the music, they are a roadblock. To be sure many of them are excellent transducers of sound, but they donít allow music to flow naturally, in a way that allows for an emotional connection. It is probably not a coincidence that these loudspeakers are of low efficiency/sensitivity, and it is similarly not a coincidence that the systems I did enjoy at CES were of high(er) efficiency, but that is a discussion for another day.

Adding fuel to the fire was the price of the gear. For the record, I am not a prude when it comes to the cost of audio gear; my own gear is far from inexpensive, and I appreciate fully that the design and manufacture of quality audio gear is not cheap. But the cost of some of the gear was obscene. For example, I heard a pair of speakers manufactured in Europe which retail for $20,000. That may not seem all that expensive until you factor in that they sounded as if they were covered by a blanket. I heard a pair of speakers encased in glass which retailed for (if memory serves) somewhere in the neighborhood of $60,000; while they didnít sound bad, I didnít find anything especially noteworthy about their sound. A full dCS digital rack, while admittedly quite good (for digital, that is), costs somewhere around $80,000. Another system was being hawked as selling for $300,000. Again, not at all bad sounding but for that price, it should make me believe I was hearing live music....and I didnít, not even for an instant. With the economy in the crapper, and high-end trying to stay alive in the face of home theater and MP3s, these prices will be the final nail in the coffin.


Fortunately, there were a few systems I did enjoy. The Rethm Saadhanaís use a Lowther which is run full range, supplemented in the lower octaves by a self-powered woofer. As was the case at RMAF 2008, the sound was punchy, dynamic and communicative. Designer Jacob Georgeís years of tweaking paid off, as I feel the Saadhana's are now where they need to be. One of the better speakers in the $10K range I have heard.


Another RMAF repeat favorite was the Maxxhorn with Feastrex driver. This single driver, back-loaded speaker delivers good dynamics, fantastic coherence, and a smooth and detailed presentation. Pricey at about $28,000, but very enjoyable to listen to.

A perennial favorite of mine is the Audio Note (UK) room, and this year was no exception. Their NOS DAC fed a top-of-the-line amplification, which powered their two way AN/E loudspeakers. The system doesnít excel in any one particular trait; rather, it shines by virtue of being so darn easy to listen to. Two pleasant discoveries were the Acoustic Technologies Classic Series loudspeaker, and the Musical Interpretations MI 15. The former, with a retail price of only $2,450, uses a single 3Ē titanium cone speaker in a small footprint, lightweight cabinet. They of course have no cross-over, and displayed astounding dispersion, sounding good from virtually any position in the room. Paired with Pass amplification and an Ayon CD player, they were coherent, had good presence and surprisingly good bass, given the obvious limitations of the driver size. All-in-all, an excellent addition to the all-too small world of commercially available single-driver speakers.


The Musical Interpretations are a high efficiency loudspeaker with a 15Ē driver handling most of the frequency range, supplemented above by a co-axially mounted tweeter. Though a bit strident on top, they were dynamic and powerful.

Another room I enjoyed was DeVore Fidelity/Nagra. John Devore premiered his new Gibbon 3XL loudspeaker (approx. $3,700/pair) with matching stands. The sound was what I have come to expect from DeVore speakers: energetic, easy to listen to, detailed but without harshness, and with outstanding bass for a speaker of its size.

The most fascinating demonstration was that by Magnepan. As many of you have undoubtedly heard, Magnepan hid their new speaker system behind curtains, revealing them only after the demonstration had concluded. 


I dare say most everyoneís amazement, the system consisted of two tiny speakers  - perhaps a foot or so in height, sitting on a table top  - and a ribbon woofer sitting on the floor. The sound was spacious, detailed and energetic. Magnepans have always provided incredible value but with a retail price of only few thousand dollars, this new system redefines the price/performance ratio.

It is never easy to evaluate amplifiers in the context of unfamiliar speakers. That said, the Wilson Maxxís sounded better driven by the Lamm ML3ís than I have ever heard them. Indeed, as a friend remarked a few years ago, systems with Lamm amplifiers invariably sound good, suggesting that the amplifiers must be doing something right. Crazy expensive, but at least they deliver the goods.

Although I much prefer analogue to digital, I was pleased to learn that music upsampled to 192 kHz, and especially that encoded at this sampling rate, seems to be considerably better than plain vanilla 44.1 kHz. Amongst the rooms I sampled (pun intended) were TAD, dCS, and Blue Smoke music, all three of which had amongst the best digital I have heard. With regard to music servers, I heard a lot of hoopla about sonic differences between various compression formats, and between different programs used for playback. An intriguing topic to be sure, and one I look forward to learning more about.

To end on a positive note, the one saving grace at CES was the people. As in previous years, it was a delight to see old friends, make new ones, and enjoy our twin hobbies, music and audiophilia.


























































Luminous Audio