Event – CES ’99 Las Vegas Show Highlights

Event – CES ’99 Las Vegas Show Highlights
Note: This report reprinted from both the Atlanta Audio Society WEB/Journal and The Audiophile Voice Magazine.
Chuck Bruce
14 April 1999

Despite the continuing concern about the future of high-end, 2-channel audio and economic downturns in Asian sectors, there was a host of new electronics and loudspeakers on hand at the Alexis Park, St. Tropez. and a few forays into the wilds of the main convention center revealed some truly astonishing HDTV, DLP, LCD and Plasma TV displays. Herein I share a few of my favorites that both caught the eye and ear with ease.

Verity Audio’s – Parsifal Encore and Fidelio loudspeakers were among the best presenters of PCM 24/96 DVD-Audio I experienced in a suite that also featured a suite of dCS Ltd. gear, the software-based Purcell 972 192 ks/s D-D upconverter and the Elgar 954 D-to-D & 954 D-to-A from the UK, ticketed at $12 and $5 kilobucks respectively. Power amplification was by a new Cary 300C 40wpc triode amp. offered at $5,995. Regardless of how big the ticket was to ride this train, the presentation of Classic record’s Rachmaninoff, Symphonic Dances/Vocalise, (Dallas Symp.), DAD 1004, was second to none. The performance emerged as an immensely engaging and involving recreation of these stellar works and conducting by Maestro Johanos. With a 24/96 s/n ratio of 144dB, a dynamic show stopper. The Verity Encore’s retail from $12.5-to-$14.5 kilobucks depending on finish. They feature even more of the quality parts and construction than the original Parsifal, that was a top performer in it’s own right. The Fidelo, a scaled down, three-way, dynamic-driver version of the Parsifal is stated to retail for $6,800. And a stand mount, 2-way Encore may be enjoyed Encore for $5,650. These should give Watt Puppies a run for their money in this specialty monitor class. Regardless of the big tickets here, this was one fine showcase of music making.

Much acclaimed Nagra gear was also utilized in the joint dCS/Nagra suite at Alexis Park, including the PL-P preamp; VPA, 50-wpc, Push-Pull, 845 tube-based power amp, and MPA MOS-FET, 250-wpc power amp. Both WATT Puppy and Verity’s Parsifal loudspeakers were appreciated in these suites. Conferring with the very personable, Ken Hosp of Verity, Derek Fuller and Robert Kelly of dCS, Steve Lee of Nagra and Gary Warzin of Audiophile Systems, was indeed loads of fun. Finding that their hearts lie where they should – in the music- is truly most reassuring. A many great tunes were appreciated in these suites including Robert Shaw’s (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus-Telarc CD 80479) stunning new Grammy winning (his 16th. after his untimely passing on January 25, 1999 at age 82) CD of works by Samuel Barber, Bela Bartok and Ralph Vaughan William’s expansive Dona nobis pacem. Upconverted to 192 ks/s by dCS, it is a fitting tribute to Maestro Shaw and his long, remarkable and productive career.

Now the technological flip side – Sony/Philips Direct Stream Digital (DSD) Super Audio CD (SACD). As good as straight-ahead 24/96 linear PCM may be off existing DVD tracks, the financial, marketing, engineering and manufacturing savvy of this combine may give folks with an alternate encoding scheme a run for their money. Good doses of marketing savvy and sales reality are in order here, since a whole new generation of DSD Super Audio players must penetrate the marketplace and be cost competitive with existing DVD-Audio players, these now widely available for a mere $500-to-$750. Still, the Sony-Philips combine may just win the day with this high-density audio carrier format offering back-compatibility, provided consumers are not further confussed by video-oriented DVD, DVD-Audio and all the other variants (consumers have long memories about the Beta -vs-VHS wars).

This two layer hybrid disc includes a relatively standard SBM (Super Bit Mapping) CD layer, plus a high-density (HD) layer carrying either ordinary two-channel stereo or up to 6 discrete channels of DSD Super Audio. No surround format has been selected, but HD options also include text, graphics and associated video data. Original program material is recorded in a super one-bit stream of DSD with a resultant 2.824-MHz wide output carrier for the high-density layer. All while boasting a bandwidth of d.c. to 100 kHz and a 120dB S/N ratio. The “down converted” normal density layer contains existing compatible SBM CD tracks for playback on conventional CD players, thus there is backward compatibility with current 44.1 CD’s. Both layers may contain the same program. New Super Audio Players can read both the SBM CD and HD tracks with dual-receiver, dual-intensity lasers. Both layers are read from the same side through the transparent media. And there is special watermarking to prevent pirating.

The Sony/Philips Super Audio carrier is definitely leading edge and a manufacturing wonder, offering audiophiles and archivists an alternative medium with terrific performance. The two laser pick up consumer players should be available in the Japanese marketplace by the spring of this year, and in the fall for US consumers. No prices are quoted for the media or the players, yet I think they had better be at loss-leader levels with ample program material available (currently only show demo’s are available), if the system is to succeed. This is necessary for volume sales and acceptance after zillions of $$$ in development and manufacturing to be recouped. If the Sony-Philips group has the patience and financial endurance to hang in for the long haul, they may just have something here. ‘Cause they have no shortage of technical smarts, distribution muscle, and-perhaps best of all – access to original recording masters and other prerecorded material in-house that’s waiting to be encoded into HD.

Credit to Sony/Philips market influence, the fact that there are more than just a few well known manufacturers (some well-known High-End) are lining up for licensing. Similarily, a number of established studios are producing experimental recordings with pro gear such as the acclaimed GENEX of the UK. More “production” program material is expected at the upcoming May Hi-Fi ’99 in Chicago.

What about the Super Audio/High-Density layer sound? At minimum, it is on a par with current 24/96 linear PCM recordings to these ears, if it does not exceed them. The most memorable demo was in the Sony suite at Ballys where their own floor standing dynamic driver towers were paired with Nelson Pass’s gutsy amplification. The presentation was open, airy, dynamic, yet relaxed in nature, possessing stunning imaging and without a hint of digital artifacts we’re all too familiar. Sounded like high-speed, big format master tape, a pure analog-like sound and then some. This may just be the future in multi-dimensional, flexible format carrier, and I doubt the Sony/Philips guys will blink first. Stay tuned…

One of the most capable and flexible subwoofers heard was David Marshal’s SW12. This is Aerial Acoustics entry into the powered subwoofer wars with a robust 12.5″ driver and is self powered by a 400w amp. Creative frequency contouring control is via the analog domain -vs-DSP as is seen in some other lines. The flexible analog connection options and control here seems to work like a champ. Giving the famed Aerial 10T and other companion models that extra low bass power, offering a real kick to those who like their music to flap their pants… This robust new unit is projected to retail for around $4,100 with IR remote and has quality fit and finish to match.

Another interesting product was Magnum Dynalab’s new 100 wpc receiver with remote. A full featured pre and power amp with their acclaimed tuner circuitry, offers one-box hi-fi and FM tuner lovers a new option. Featuring quality Canadian construction, the model MD 208 is planned to retail for around $2,275.

Competing effectively in the mid-ticket, high-end lines and offering above average performance for the price, I’m reminded of the Clements – Reference 7, with updated design ribbon tweeter. And by the Revel Proforma, another notable 3-way dynamic, floor stander well worth an extended audition. All offered in the $2.5k -$4k range, beautifully crafted, finished and offering much of the performance of the manufacturer’s more costly models. These new offerings were attracting listeners to sit a spell with a fist of reference CD’s or LP’s to appreciate at these price points. It is unfortunate to note that Von Schweikert’s new model 3.5 floor standing, three way tower was an able competitor here too, that is until the company’s untimely demise not long after the show.

High-efficiency folded-horn fanatics should give the show prize to Acoustical Design’s TLG AD Series-1 loudspeaker. This for offering 2500 lbs. of massive black finish wood CNC laser machined wonderment. A sci-fi realization occupying nearly 10′ of lateral floor space. Said to consume only 1 watt of Cary Audio’s CAD 300 SE tube power, the listening levels here were more than adequate for the confined Alexis Park space. Easily backing astonished listeners onto the walkway. Kudo’s to the builders for the sheer energy to lovingly construct such a behemoth, surely requiring months of effort and great expense. These labors reflected at a ticket of $75,000. The TLG’s should at least catch the eye of Hollywood Sci-Fi Cinematographer’s, if not the ears of, single-ended, fat-budget, big-horn zealots. No Viagraä needed here…

Pairs of Joule-Electra’s Marquis, 6C33C based tube OTL power amps, ($8,000+ per. pair) were mesmerizing hordes of listeners while paired with Merlin’s superb VSM-SE towers offered at $7,000 per. pair. Sourced via Resolution Audio’s CD 50 player and employing a special bass equalization unit purpose designed by JPS Labs for the VSM’s, this ensemble added another layer of realism and listener involvement. The synergy here was simply astonishing, especially with legendary Stan Ricker’s 3/4 speed mastered LP test pressings. Listeners were held agape by the vicarious transport to a variety of recording venues and deep into the heart of the music and the musician’s artistry. Multiple visits were required here to drink it all in…

Margules tube electronics of Mexico were offering silky smooth presentations with equally impressive A1.2 tower loudspeakers, $4,390. This ensemble representing some of the easiest listening and delicate inner detail at the show. The Chz KT88 matched pairs were really cooking here with the U280SC which is a switchable Triode (30 wpc)/Ultralinear (60 wpc) stereo power amps $3,280, and a companion Sf220r tube preamp from Mexico, $2,590. Margules also offers a powered, single ended, outboard (DAE-24) “Magenta” Analog Digital Enhancer added to the signal chain that from personal experience tames or reduces stridency in digital signals, especially if noisy or grainy. The DAE is priced at $175, and appears a cost effective option to address common digital afflictions, one of the more cost-effective offerings at this generally big-ticket show.

Melos was paired with the oft acclaimed PipeDreams loudspeakers. On my day it was the Model 32, featuring 32 tweeters and 15 carbon fiber midrange drivers in a man sized line source tower. Indeed impressive and providing some of the best imaging heard, paired with PipeDreams subwoofers, these are kick butt masters. Another wonder in this room was the much anticipated Melos tube, DVT 24/96 player, offering windows into the music that indeed only Goosebumps can appreciate.

Western Electric was making a good showing with a bevy of Gotham Audio tube gear and ArciTec Athena 2-way, floor standing dynamic loudspeakers (Denmark) encased in non-resonant aluminum tubes. Playing vintage Sinatra, Beach Boys, Stan Getz and Ella to appreciative crowds, company President Charles Whitener and Marketing VP Max Traeger have plans underway to offer more than just long warranty original spec. WE 300B triodes. In the wings are new manufacture, original spec. Gold Lion KT88 & 89’s tubes from the retooled, joint-venture factory in the UK. Within this year, WE’s domestic operations are expected to produce the famed 308B commercial triode, rated at 250 watts and a 1500 plate voltage. These knee-high wonders should launch a whole new string of high-power, purist tube amps. (WE may even launch their own amps under the famed WE Masthead). Cable and original spec. compression drivers for high-efficiency horns are said to be on the way later too. Based on the U.S. prime quality of existing WE offerings, customers are said to be awaiting in the wings.

MZX of California launched their Wraith line of patented, thin-diaphragm (a quater-inch or less thickness) low mass panel loudspeakers. Offering several models priced from $700-to-$3,400 including Home Theater, MZX is offering something for most everyone. The Wraith’s entrant into the panel market is interesting and shows great potential, with appealing first impression performance to match. Further auditions are entitled. Both wide and focused dispersion models are offered with audiophiles in mind. With a LF rolloff around 50 Hz, lower bass lovers will need a subwoofer.

Shoreline (Rainbow Electronics) was showcasing their scaled-down, and very capable Model 300 tubed power amp. Retailing for $5,995, she should be a contender in the expanding tube amp wars. Past show attendees may remember the chest freezer size Shoreline ‘800’ amps that dimmed lights for blocks around on low bass kicks. The ‘300’ features “Star Nodal”, point-to-point Teflon wiring and first rate build quality. An equally impressive PC-4 tube preamp offered at $4,995 was also demonstrated to excellent effect with Joseph Audio RM 25si loudspeakers and VPI Aires turntable. A lot of synergy exhibited in this system deserving further attention.

VAC is making a notable entrant into the integrated amp field with their aesthetically pleasing Avatar. Rated at 60 wpc, switchable Triode/Ultra linear, with matched pairs of EL-34 output tubes operated push-pull, and MM phono. The unit exhibits the same build quality and attention to detail of more costly VAC lines (and follows experience gained during Marantz Classic no-flaws production runs). It also offers a Home Theater direct operation mode. A MC module and remote are options. A welcome relief to emerging audiophiles or those desiring to reduce the chassis count in their A/V rooms. Kudo’s to the Kevin Hayes design team, offered at $3,490 it looks and sounds like a winner.

Silverline’s impressive entrant at the show was the Grandeur, a big multi-way, multi sub-cabinet, dynamic driver floor stander that was a musical room filler and then some. Powered by a pair of KR VT800 (left) single ended (80 WRMS) power amps, the Grandeur’s offered some of the best big speaker performance gracing these ears this time out. Of course retailing for $34,995 one would expect something special from noted designer Alan Yun of CA. Mr. Yun also offers the SR-12, a modest size, stand mount 2-way that for $695 offers a lot of performance for budget minded audiophiles.

In closing, complaints abound about show listening rooms and are often justified. Yet, are our own listening rooms so perfect? If you have one, please send us the details. Show attendees just have to listen around the anomalies, and pay attention to what’s good and really matters. That is; the “core values” of superior music reproduction. There’s just to much to see, learn, people to meet to long mope over some lousy listening rooms, cause they all ain’t bad, and the show is just too much fun.

Happy tunes.

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