May 1, 2009

The Jimmy Awards for CES 2009

My 2009 Consumer Electronics Show was a ragged outing. First, a flight I’d booked six months in advance was canceled, a victim of declining tourism. The next day, while my mates were already enjoying the CES and I was still queuing for departure, an earthquake struck near the airport. Unable to place a call home, I worried during the flight about friends and property.

Except for the joy of seeing my SoundStage! Network colleagues, little at CES 2009 lifted my spirits. Technologies were stagnant. Manufacturers who innovated last year broke no new ground this year. A distressing number of high-end companies have capitulated to the Apple iPod. Although good sound was everywhere, great sound was sorely lacking. Despite my already foreshortened visit, I couldn’t wait for the Show to end.

Still, out of the shambles several exhibits emerged victorious. Compared to last year’s peak of enthusiasm, the number of 2009 Jimmy Award winners is far fewer. Also, I was less attentive to partnering components this time around. Many rooms included borrowed products whose model numbers and prices had slipped the memory of the exhibit’s main sponsor. Cable details, in particular, were missing in action. Unlike in years past, I lacked the heart to make such information an issue. And now for the cable-shy Jimmy Awards . . .

China makes, the world takes

Loudspeakers from many different manufacturers now sport a similar look: a narrow box whose side panels curve toward the rear. Perhaps the cabinets are all manufactured by the same Chinese company that sources the Volent Paragon VL-3, a compact but costly ($9600/pair; all prices in USD unless otherwise noted) rendition of this "prow out of water." The exquisite walnut-burl finish reminded me of a Jaguar sedan’s console, but fortunately, the speaker’s beauty is more than skin-deep. The word that characterizes the Paragon VL3’s sound is stately. Its frequency response ranges from 28Hz -- a miraculous reach for such a "normal" loudspeaker -- to a bat-defying 100kHz! Remember when the buzz phrase was digital-ready? Whatever the proximate bandwidth breakthrough is, the VL-3 is already well-girded. Assuming the company will actually produce the beta model displayed at CES, the Volent Paragon VL-3 wins a Jimmy Award for being Next-Ready.

I first stumbled into a King Audio room four years ago, at the Hilton. To my ear, the door-width electrostatic panels then being demonstrated were bass-shy, reticent, and ungainly, but had an airy midrange that bore promise. A few years later, King Audio won its first Jimmy with full-range ’stats that surpassed my memory of the MartinLogan CLS. This year, King Audio excelled with their four-piece King system, which comprises narrow electrostatic towers with truncated outboard subwoofers. The dynamic capability was unlike anything I’d ever heard from ’stats. Priced at a comparatively ludicrous $8000/pair, the King system reminded me of the megabuck Infinity-Genesis four-piece systems of yore. For Best Value in Panel Loudspeakers, the King Audio King takes home a Jimmy Award.

King Audio

Taiwan still rules

A few years ago, Usher Audio of Taiwan captured the Best of Show Jimmy by displaying a wall-to-wall sampling of handsome, nicely priced loudspeakers. In 2009, the company shrewdly focused on a couple of fill-in additions to their high-line Dancer series, of beryllium-tweeter fame. Surprisingly, the new mini-towers were set up in cavernous meeting rooms in the Venetian, where even mammoth systems were swamped by reverb and ceiling bounce. Yet the Ushers seemed immune to such swirl. Perhaps positioning the speakers a few feet from the long wall, and the chairs close to the speakers for nearfield listening, solved the problem. With Usher’s own solid-state electronics providing the signal, the sound of the dual-driver Mini One ($3850/pair) was detailed, dimensional, and tonally of a fabric, reminding me that two-way loudspeakers sound smoother than three-ways of equal price. Nevertheless, since the price of the larger, three-driver Mini Two dropped by 16% during the Show, I think it represents the better value at the new price of $4850/pair. For the Best Mini-Tower at the CES, a Jimmy Award goes to the Usher Audio Mini Two.

Canada is the real America

Despite Usher’s brave showing, the Best Bargain in Mini-Towers was the impeccably finished array in the Focus Audio room. The Classic series, in genuine rosewood veneer, pleases a jaded eye, and the stately sound caresses a jangled ear. The speakers are built with a 2"-thick front baffle -- a costly way to raise the timbre -- Danish-made drivers (also not cheap), and an ear-tweaked crossover filled with tricked-out components. Representative of the line is the FC 7. This biwirable two-way comes with a 7" Nomex woofer and 1" ring-radiator tweeter. In Canada, from whence Focus sallies forth, the list price is an astonishingly low $1640/pair ($1400 USD). The top model, the FC 9, uses two 7" woofers and lists for around $1800/pair. For hand-built, high-end loudspeakers manufactured and tweaked in North America to sell for so little is extremely meritorious. Under present economic conditions, the introduction of the FC series is most welcome, but I’d give the Focus Audio Classic Series a Jimmy Award even in the best of times.

Focus Audio

Silicon Valley Is the Next Minneapolis

Jaton Corporation designs hi-fi gear in the back room of a billion-dollar video-card business in Milpitas, in California’s San Fernando Valley. If their 2009 CES exhibit is an indication, the audio skunkworks will soon command a room with a view at Jaton HQ. The company introduced a new loudspeaker and a prototype class-A stereo amplifier to round out the complement of their established Operetta multichannel and stereo amps. The A&V-803 loudspeaker (three-way, $6600/pair) caught my ear with its verisimilitude. In promising rooms, I asked sponsors to play my CD of solo piano music, which tests for truth of timbre. Only a handful of speakers reproduced its requisite sonority, and the A&V-803 was one of them. Image-wise, the ribbon tweeters’ wide dispersion allowed me to enjoy a precise center image while sitting well off axis. The A&V-803 comes with an ingenious decoupling system of wooden spikes to peg the bottom of the speaker into a matching base. The glossy hardwood finish appealed to my long-held fetish for wooden gewgaws as sonic enhancers. The Jaton A&V-803 wins a Jimmy Award for Best New Purist Loudspeaker Design.


Another intriguing company from Milpitas is Win Analog, whose tube gear sets new standards for ergonomic creativity. The components’ squat, sumo-wrestler stance inspires the word solidity. Exotic tubes have eye appeal, and Win uses the seldom-seen 833 triode in a direct-coupled, capacitor-free audio circuit designed to "preserve the low-level resolution." The WA833A monaural amplifier ($28,000/pair) produces 65W of single-ended power, more than enough to drive a pair of Florence Audio’s Poloena 11 speakers ($9000/pair) to loud but pristinely clean levels. WA’s striking chassis metal is milled from 3/8"-thick aluminum that would make a Cessna proud. In the matching LS845A preamplifier ($15,000), two 845 triodes handle small-signal duties with ease. CES gave Win Analog an award for Best Engineering and Design for 2009. Add a Jimmy Award for Most Tempting New Design to the list, and Win Analog should be set for a sterling future.

Win Analog's WA833A

Urban jungle survivor

In distributor Acquisitum Magnum’s room, I renewed an acquaintance with Dr. Eunice Kron, whose late husband, Riccardo Kron, founded a company of seminal tube design that Eunice has nurtured into healthy adulthood. KR Audio’s Kronzilla DX monoblocks ($25,000/pair) are famous for using the mighty 1610 triode, the largest audio tube on the planet. Here, Kronzilla teamed up with several fascinating products. First, the MPS-5 CD player ($15,000) from Playback Designs (what a great name!) uses a proprietary technology called the Frequency Arrival System to "completely eliminate jitter" from any transport or archival source, such as a PC. Presumably, the lack of jitter contributed to the overall clarity of the sound. The Purist preamp from Germany ($10,000) and Kubala-Sosna cables (expensive) further contributed to an international pattern centered on the most noteworthy product of all, the Audio Epilog Cocoa 2 loudspeaker ($8000/pair). The Cocoa 2 is designed and hand-crafted in Croatia, a country more famous for basketball players than hi-fi manufacturers. It is also near enough to Balkan unrest to give one’s imagination pause. Audio Epilog’s company literature contains this poignant passage:

Producing such a sophisticated loudspeaker demands total dedication . . . to the "spirit" of the music for which these products are made. That was the main reason for moving Audio Epilog production . . . to Zagorie, one of the last peaceful parts of Croatia, totally isolated in nature far away from the urban jungles.

For capturing the essence of creative solitude in what must be a maddening social climate, a Jimmy Award goes to Croatia’s Audio Epilog Cocoa 2.

iPod enhancement device

If I were moving up to a stereo system from an iPod and headphones and had the money, I would buy the new Aura note Ver.2 ($2400), from South Korea’s April Music. Somehow I missed Ver.1, but no matter. Taking "customers’ suggestions seriously," April Music added two pairs of auxiliary analog outputs and a dedicated subwoofer output to enhance this one-box solution for iPod convenience. By combining a 50Wpc integrated amplifier with CD player, AM/FM tuner, inboard DAC, and dual USB connectivity for PC involvement, the Aura aims to provide satisfying audio/video playback from Blu-ray/DVD players, cable boxes, and iPods in a two-channel system. A brief listen convinced me that the shiny silver Aura note Ver.2 does indeed provide "big performance in limited space." For helping to bridge the narrowing gap between the iPod and high fidelity, the April Music Aura note Ver.2 deserves a Jimmy.

Aura's Note

Techno award

Digital amplification is about to take control. Since assuming Tripath’s lead a few years ago, Bang & Olufsen’s plug’n’play ICEpower technology has become the popular high-end design solution. As Bel Canto’s new amplifiers attest, ICEpower’s latest modules have virtually eliminated inconsistencies of timbre -- class-D does work. Now, one may ask: Where is the competition that should be breathing down B&O’s neck? Beyond NuForce and Spectron, proprietary digital amplifier designs are hard to enumerate.

Consumer cost is at stake here. By my reckoning, a digital amplifier should wholesale for chassis cost plus audio board, power supply, and labor. Since some ICEpower-based monoblocks sell for $10,000 -- a death-defying leap of faith -- B&O must enjoy monopoly pricing. Can no one curb their appetite?

International Rectifier claims to have come to the rescue of the penny-wise audiophile. Their class-D IRAUDAMP7 chipset consists of a driver IC with pulse-width modulation and protection circuitry. MOSFET transistors (the best-sounding, in my opinion) are "optimized for THD, EMI and efficiency." The palm-sized amplifier board specifies output power of 250Wx2 and distortion of 0.005% THD+M at 60W into 8 ohms. The board itself costs only hundreds of pennies to build. A fully kitted plug’n’play module might profitably sell for as low as $30. Add a slick $100 chassis, an AC supply or, better, a battery power supply, and voilą! -- a powerhouse of clean sound for well under a grand at retail. To encourage manufacturers to test this technology, I single out the International Rectifier IRAUDAMP7 class-D audio chipset for a Best Bang for the Buck Award.

Speaking of tubes . . .

At the urging of my SoundStage! Network pals, I gave a listen to the new EgglestonWorks Dianne loudspeakers ($2500/pair). These svelte, two-way budget babies did indeed focus my ears and eyes. However, what my viscera homed in on was the tube gear driving them. The Rogue Audio Apollo monoblocks tip the scale at 250W per side. Normally, such outlandish glass power costs a king’s ransom to implement, but at $10,000/pair, the Apollos constitute a mesmerizing hi-fi opportunity. On the other hand, Rogue’s matching Hera preamplifier bolts together for a slightly daunting $7500. Recent tube preamps from the mighty house of Audio Research sell for under $6k, raising the question of whether the price per pound of Rogue’s goddess pencils out a bit high. Nevertheless, if I bought the Apollos, I’d have to purchase a Hera. In my experience, mixing amplifier and preamplifier brands is seldom optimal. If I used full-range speakers in a deep room, a Rogue system would allow me to experience orchestral recordings with effortless tube power. What a thrill! In fact, my preferred method of system building is to splurge on amplification and, if need be, scrimp on speakers -- for me, invariably more gratifying than the other way around. Consequently, the Best High-Powered Tube Amplifier Jimmy Award goes to the Rogue Audio Apollo, with the Hera line stage an indispensable add-on.

The King is dead; long live the King!

The only five-star component I have ever known is the Audio Research Reference CD7 CD player. For several years I touted it to anyone seeking to improve an already great system. When the newly developed Reference CD8 ($10,000) was announced in November, I shuddered at the notion of a six-star rating. Hours before the CES, I spent time with a CD7 modified using Audio Research’s factory kit. By replacing two 6H30 small-signal tubes in the power supply with a single 6550 power tube, the mod takes the CD7 about halfway to CD8 level. Off a brief listen, I’d say the subterranean bass texture and tunefulness of the modified CD7 induces a "wow" factor that the original design lacked. Since bass makes space, the modified unit’s soundstage scales wider and deeper. Considering only the lows, the CD7’s five-star rating was definitely in jeopardy. (Anyone lucky enough to own a CD7 must install the factory upgrade kit, period.)

Thus, the question on entering the Audio Research exhibit at CES 2009 was whether I would appreciate the CD8’s new D/A converters, which accompany the power-supply improvement. I have no answer. How does one separate the contribution of a CD player from that of a legendary preamp, ARC’s Reference 3 ($10,000), and a powerful tube amplifier, ARC’s VS115 ($6500, 120Wpc), whose open architecture stacks the visual deck? I do suspect that using the old CD7 would have notably simplified the presentation. With the CD8 on hand, a pair of Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia II speakers limned a raspy-voiced singer about 6’ tall in the center of the room. Startling was the word that leaped to mind. For threatening to become the only six-star component of which I am aware, the Audio Research Reference CD8 merits a Jimmy Award.


Most desirable integrated amplifier

Two big, buxom, tubed integrated amplifiers caught my fancy at CES, both originating from the Italian city of Vicenza. The revised Viva Solista with upgraded transformer (single-ended, 22Wpc, $12,000) looked and sounded impeccable. However, Mastersound’s big push-pull Reference Evolution 845 amplifier (50Wpc, $12,800) is more powerful, looks even snazzier, and played with as much brio as the Viva. For a hugely satisfying CD-only system, I would lash together a Mastersound Reference Evolution 845, a pair of Jaton A&V-803 loudspeakers, and an Audio Research Reference CD8 CD player, at a total cost sans cables of $29,300. In fact, I may enjoy a similar system in my home, provided I can resolve the troublesome money issue.

The virtual battery

This is a season for power supplies. In one of two Bel Canto Design rooms, Joseph Audio’s magnificent Pearl loudspeakers ($28,000/pair) attested to the stunning decoding capability of Bel Canto’s electronics using BC’s new Virtual Battery Supply regulated outboard power supply ($1995). The VBS stores and converts power at the wall outlet into a clean, stable, on-demand motivator of digital electronics, including Bel Canto’s own CD-2 transport ($3000) and e.One Dac3 ($2500). The sound of the system, including the new e.One REF500 monoblocks ($3600/pair), was of the Pearl on genteelly controlled steroids. In hopes that John Stronczer’s latest great idea will inspire other manufacturers to breathe new life into old components, the Bel Canto Design VBS garners a JA.

Bel Canto Design and Joseph Audio

Lifetime Achievement Award

When I started out as a hi-fi hobbyist, I traded loudspeakers about once a month. When I finally bought a pair of Vandersteen 2Bs, I lost the urge to upgrade for several years. With a stable set of phase-correct speakers on hand, I began to learn how to listen and evaluate components. Consequently, my life has been the richer for having owned a pair of ’Steens. Thousands of others can say the same.

Although I am long gone from the Vandersteen fold, I regard as mandatory a visit to the Vandersteen Audio room at any CES. Phase-correct speakers provide easy-to-locate imaging and dimensionality that restores one’s show-confused bearings.

This year, I was crushed to see a "populist" designer such as Richard Vandersteen cross over into the land of green giants. His shiny, Ferrari-red Model Seven has a sticker price of $45,000/pair, an amount I consider mad money. Given that its constituent parts are top-shelf and that Mr. V himself hand-winds the bobbins in the midrange drivers, these heavyweight speakers may actually be a good deal. The price does drive home the notion that high-end audio has finally become a hobby for everyone, especially the rich and famous.

On the other hand, one sees a certain justice in Vandersteen’s fling at bling. Unlike certain CES newcomers who start out showing twenty-grand designs, Vandersteen has spent a lifetime satisfying the needs of middle-income audiophiles with modestly priced products. By dint of that achievement, his best work justifies a hefty sum.

Because I am uncertain how many CESes I have left in me, I would like to take this opportunity to pay homage to someone who has set standards of quality and integrity over a span of four decades. To Richard Vandersteen, a Jimmy Award for keeping the phase all these years.

Richard and Eneke Vandersteen

Price-no-object is less than $200k

If I could afford to spend $45,000 on loudspeakers, I would buy Rockport Technologies’ Darth Vader-esque Aquilas, which sounded much better at CES than had a different pair of Rockports in New York City four years ago. I suspect the Aquilas enjoyed the improvement in frequency response $150,000 worth of electronics can supply: Ypsilon SET-100 gas-heater-sized amplifier slabs ($75,000) and PST-100 preamplifier ($40,000). Playback was via Blue Smoke Entertainment System’s Black Box hard-drive reclocking system ($8000) fed through MSB Technologies’ DACIII ($17,500) with Signature 32x digital filter and Signature DACs. Music in the Rockport room had an aura of high drama, reminding me of the prize-winning Magico demonstration of a year ago. Later in the Show, I did hear a pair of loudspeakers that I liked even better. However, I could never see myself spending 100 grand on a pair of speakers -- an amplifier, maybe, but not speakers. The Rockport Technologies Aquila wins a Jimmy Award for the Best Price-No-Object System at the 2009 CES.

Rockport Technologies and Ypsilon

Best soundstage

Last year I got into a minor dust-up with the owner of Sunny Cable Technology and left the room in a huff, vowing never to return. Silly me. If I hadn’t wised up this year, I’d have missed a most memorable soundstage reproduction. The Sunny Cable H2W10 is described as a two-way even though it uses a 10" bass-reflex woofer, a 9.5" horn-loaded midrange cone, and a 3.5" high-frequency compression driver. Its sensitivity is a credible 91dB, with power handling up to 300W playing music. The tonality of the speaker eluded me. Did it honk in the midrange, or was that simply a projection of my own expectation on seeing the horn midrange? Before I could decide, I was overwhelmed by the visual aspects of the demonstration. The speakers were set up 9’ apart, about three-sevenths of the way into a very large room. I was in the sweet spot, five-sevenths of the way back. When the orchestra began to play, the outlines of actual-sized instruments "appeared" way back there. The effect was so beguiling that I giggled in glee. For me, high-end audio has much to do with suggesting life-sized instruments in real spaces, and up to this point, no loudspeaker in my experience has done a better job of meeting that criterion than the H2W10. For providing the Most Joyful Listening Experience at the CES 2009, I am sending a Jimmy Award to the owner of Sunny Cable Technology, along with a note of apology.

Sunny Cable Technology

Best stereo performance at the CES

A few years ago, Anthony Gallo Acoustics brought a full-range implementation of their Round Sound loudspeaker technology to CES. The Reference 3 sandwiched a vertical planar tweeter between spherically housed midrange drivers sitting atop a dual-voice-coil woofer. I liked the speakers so much I bought a pair. For the money, they were amazing. However, they had two limitations that hectored me into selling them: 1) they self-protected in silence on sustained loud passages, and 2) they imaged too low, causing me to "look down" at the performers.

In 2009, Gallo was back with a new edition, the Reference 3.5 ($5500/pair). Complementing the Round Sounds were Spectron monoblocks ($20,000/pair), a Resolution Audio CD player ($5000), and Stereovox cables. At twice the price of the Reference 3, the Reference 3.5 is about ten times as good. (I exaggerate moderately.) Gallo himself led me on a musical tour that proved the pudding. First, the speakers played at three-figure decibels for a frighteningly long time without strain or distortion. Second, the image height was as tall as the music required. Third, the soundstage was almost as broad and deep as that of the Sunny Cable Technology H2W10 speakers -- but the Gallos’ tone, as I heard it, was better. What was there not to like? Nothing! In an era when state-of-the art loudspeakers can top $100,000/pair, the Gallo Reference 3.5 is a speaker of true reference quality that even a pensionado can own. Yet it delivers as much as, if not more than, models costing twenty or thirty times as much. For the Best Stereo Demonstration at the CES, the Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3.5 takes home a Jimmy.

Anthony Gallo Acoustics

Best of Show

Racing around that first day at CES, I tried to cover too much ground, and by mid-afternoon was hungry, thirsty, and beat. Shuffling into Paradigm Electronics’ audio/video exhibit, I was unprepared to be impressed. The first DVD demo track was of a blues group in concert, and the low-frequency underpinning was as close to live music as I have ever heard. I began to revive. And then it happened. There, up on the wide screen, a homeless person surrounded by living statues leered into the camera. The tableau’s surreal colors and odd juxtapositions created an eerie tension. Suddenly, the homeless guy broke into spasmodic chant: "Here come old Flattop, he come goovin’ up slowly . . ."

My head spun around and fell on the floor. The derelict was Joe Cocker! Like a small child, I found my disbelief suddenly suspended. Subsumed by the onscreen action, I completely lost a sense of my own presence at a theatrical event. This was home theater at its apex. By the time the segment was over, I finally knew why multichannel audio/video has replaced stereo audio as the home-entertainment medium. One’s sense of wonder is heightened when both eye and ear are involved. This point was reinforced when I returned home. There I played, on a very nice stereo system, the CD track of the same performance I’d experienced at Paradigm’s demo: the DVD of Julie Taymor’s film Across the Universe. Joe Cocker sounded anemic. I turned off the music halfway through -- no comparison.

A secret to Paradigm’s success was the low-frequency capability evident in action as well as music scenes. I did not hear bass so much as sensed its menace. The secret lay in the proprietary room-correction circuitry included in Paradigm’s Anthem Statement D2v preamp-processor, which kept prodigious low notes from swamping the room.

Anthem's Statement D2v

It turns out that the cost of being transported outside one’s skin is not outrageous. In fact, the Paradigm setup competes favorably in cost with a champion stereo system. The new Anthem Screen Innovation Diamond screen and LTX 500 LCOS video projector (50,000:1 contrast ratio!) will sell together for around $11k. Loudspeakers from Paradigm’s second-best range included Studio 100 fronts, a Studio CC690 center, Studio ADP surrounds, and two Studio Sub15 subwoofers. Add a pair of UltraCube 12 subs to "balance" the room, and the entire 7.4-channel system sums to a reasonable $15,300. Although Paradigm did bring their top-of-the-line D2v ($7500), the company modestly chose Anthem’s second-best A5 multichannel amplifier ($3200) and A2 stereo amp ($1800). (I imagine the hotel outlets couldn’t provide enough juice for the bigger P-series amplifiers). Source hardware consisted of a Sony Blu-ray player and an Oppo universal player. At $29,960, the all-in cost resembles that of a great all-tube stereo system with a pair of "decent" loudspeakers. If I had the loose change and a spare room, I’d pick the Paradigm-Anthem home-entertainment package over any system I heard at the 2009 or any other CES. For astounding me more than any system of recent memory, the Paradigm Electronics demonstration system easily wins the Jimmy Award for Best of Show.

. . . Jim Saxon


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