STEREOMOJO SPECIAL DUAL REPORT
Our Best of Show Awards are based on several criterion. First, the awards are granted to those products we actually heard and saw at either CES or T.H.E Show. There were many products on display but not actually playing, so they would not be eligible. In addition, because there were so many products spread out over so many different locations, it was impossible to see and hear everything, so there may be other very deserving components we did not evaluate. Second, many are based on perceived value with price, design, uniqueness and build quality as major factors. Others do not take price so much into consideration, but are based on pure sonic performance. We also mainly focused (but not exclusively) on products that were new or recently released rather than products that have been on the market for some time, even though they may be superior to those that were newer. Last, we reiterate that evaluating stereo equipment under show conditions is futile at best. One system that sounded great in one room may actually sound not as good in another. one thing we know for sure - everything we have heard over the years at shows always sounds different in our homes and in our systems.
Still, there were certain products that even when all the above factors are taken into consideration, seemed to stand out in one way or the other. Those are the products upon which our awards are bestowed.
Of course, award status does not constitute a recommendation for purchase or not. These are not full reviews and should not be considered as reviews at all.
Best Small Speaker Value
Alan Yun of Silverline Audio has for years excelled at getting enormous and musical sound from very small bookshelf speakers. One issue at the shows was that most exhibitors were no demoing their smallest speakers but rather their largest, most expensive models. Even though Silverline now makes several much larger and more expensive, Alan was playing the diminutive Minuets (see arrow) when we walked in.
We confess, at first we were sure he was playing the big Bolero's, but then someone else asked which speakers they were listening to and Alan grinned while pointing to the tiny boxes, "Everybody asks that. The small ones are playing now!". We were glad we didn't ask! The visitor continued, "The small ones? No way! Then where's the subwoofer?"
"No subwoofer, only small speakers", Alan smiled.
Still looking very sceptical, the man queried, "How much then? What's the price?"
"Six hundred dollars", was the reply, smiling even though this same scenario had played out hundreds of times before.
"A piece?", he asked incredulously.
"No...per pair. $600 per pair".
We have had this same reaction before ourselves because, contrary to our above guidelines, the Minuet is not a new model. It's been out for several years, but the pair was so compelling and convincing, even on large scale, very dynamic works, and the price was equally tiny that we simply had no choice but to name it Best Small Speaker Value.
BEST MEDIUM SIZE SPEAKER VALUE
It turns out that our Best Overall New Product Value is a mid-sized speaker, so we'll save that for later. There were two other speakers in two different price ranges that were outstanding values.
The Coincident Super Victory
Things get tougher here, but the word value is the overriding consideration. These could be large stand mount types or medium floorstanders. Once again, we are constrained by those we actually heard. There were wonderful speakers by Wharfdale, Paradigm and Dynaudio to name just a few. The new Sonist Recital 3 certainly turned our heads and ears.
At $9499 US / pr., the Coincident Super Victory outperforms most other speakers in terms of pure musicality. We reviewed them and gave them several awards, very rare for Stereomojo. Hearing them again at the show truly justified our praise. Listening to these, especially with good tube amplification, is like listening to music wafting from heaven itself - played through these speakers, of course. They were one of the few floorstanding speakers that worked perfectly in one of our very small (10x12) listening rooms, yet were also fine in larger rooms as long as they're not too big. Very amp friendly - we drove them well with as little as 5 wpc. Never grating, easy to listen to for hours, which we did many times. Perfectly balanced with qualities seldom seen or heard in any speaker. They are just extremely satisfying and immersive and bring the music to you instead of you having to listen to them.
The other speaker we choose however is not from a company usually associated with the high end and very different from the Super Victory. This company is big in the inexpensive surround sound packages of small speakers.
It is a small floorstander that costs a measly $1,999/pair. While they do not have the sheer, pure musicality and refinement of the Coincidents, for what they are and what they do they represent a good value for those who can't afford a more expensive speaker. A good speakers for those more into music with big bass content, yet they aren't the typical boomers you find at Best Buy and such. A good entry level speakers for the younger crowd perhaps or an alternative to B&W's, Klipsh or like priced JBL's.
The unique (they say) patent-pending H-PAS system (Hybrid Pressure Acceleration System), combines elements of several speaker technologies: bass reflex, inverse horn, and transmission line. Using a unique cabinet design, these technologies are cascaded one to another to pressurize and accelerate low frequencies. In addition, the signals travel through a passive resonance/harmonic distortion line filter to further clarify the sound. H-PAS does not require the use of special drivers, any kind of on-board electronics or outboard equalization -- it is a purely passive system, completely compatible with all amplifiers and AV receivers. As a result, the H-PAS design delivers extended deep bass, with high output levels, and exceptionally low harmonic distortion.
The speaker utilizes two 5 1/4-inch drivers in an enclosure of approximately 1.6 cubic feet to produce bass that extends to 29 Hz (-3dB) at Sound Pressure Levels that exceed 107dB. Bass harmonic distortion is under 3 percent. They claim that comparable performance in a conventionally designed loudspeaker system would require bass drivers of at least triple the size in an enclosure at least twice as large.
The new speaker also uses a 1-inch Low-Resonance tweeter that affords a lower crossover frequency (2000 Hz) than is normal in a two-way system. The result is exceptionally wide dispersion through the midrange without the upper-midrange “beaming” normally exhibited by woofers in a two-way speaker.
All the crossover components are of the very highest quality, and adhere to strict 1 percent value tolerances, to assure the best sound possible. A remarkably innovative cabinet bracing architecture, called CDFF™ (Cross Design Free Flow), lends the cabinet great rigidity and inertness, without restricting the critical internal airflow that is so important to the H-PAS’s remarkable bass response. This new bracing configuration was the result of Atlantic’s advanced computerized cabinet vibration analysis coupled with critical listening tests.
The speaker we're talking about is the Atlantic Technology AT-1 with H-PAS.
Surprised? We are, too. It didn't hurt that they were being powered by Parasound amps, but they were very dynamic with an outstanding soundstage with gobs of real, textured deep bass and a pretty transparent mid and high end. they metalflake piano black cabinets were pretty cool, too. Surprising sound from an even more surprising source.
BEST LARGE SPEAKER VALUE
There were many large speakers playing in almost every room. Most of them also had very large prices, several into the 6 figures. We were very impressed with the new EPOS Encore 50 Speakers at $8,000 per pair, a true value we think. But they were more medium sized compared to what we saw in terms of BIG speakers.
One model did stand out however, and they are BIG. The Legacy Whispers at around $16,000 were huge looking and huge sounding - they are due to arrive at Stereomojo any day now for review. The Teresonic's were gorgeous looking and sounding as well, particularly for a single horn design at around $10k.
At over six feet tall and 650 pounds the Hansen Grand Masters were a bit odd looking with comments like "ketchup bottle" and "ceramic ET" abounding. They would cost you $263,000/pr to phone home. They were also driven by about $500,000 worth of electronics. Not a great value, but interesting don't you think?
Considering the monumental prices we saw even for speakers much smaller, it was hard not be impressed with these:
Tyler Audio Decade 10 for $13,500 a pair.
Even in a smallish room with minimal sound sound damping, the Decade 10's for formidable yet delicate and detailed with some really kickbutt dynamics and authority. Even with the big pair of woofs on top, there was no sense of "bass in your face". No, it was everywhere, including your gut and seat of the pants. While we can't say they were most refined of all the bigdogs, the sheer sense of musical bliss was overwhelming and satisfying. And they weren't being driving by half-a-million bucks worth of gear, either.
At over 6 feet tall, the drivers are custom built to Ty Lasher's specifications to the highest standards. The woofers and mid ranges have paper cones, aluminum phase plugs, one piece magnesium frames, copper pole pieces and voice coil leads for the best sound quality. The tweeters are a 1" soft dome using a high quality motor structure with an aluminum faceplate. The tweeters are available in black or copper colors.
The crossovers are custom designed by our friend Danny Ritchie of GR Research. He room measures and tests every design for the smoothest frequency response. High quality parts are used throughout the crossover design. The Decade line comes with magnetic grills and your choice of either single or bi-wire posts. You also have over 80 different finishes to choose from. Standard finishes include cherry, oak, black oak, maple, walnut and ribbon mahogany. All other finishes are priced accordingly. Ty sells direct and even offers a 20 day money back guarantee. Try that with Hansen, MBL or Perfect8.
We think if Ty were playing one of his many smaller designs, they would be in the running, too. In our value category, these are very hard to beat.
BEST VALUE TUBE INTEGRATED
A conservative 40 watts per channel, includes a se per ate phono stage AND even has a built-in DAC for...are you ready?...$1,950! It's the brand new Grant Audio W30GT. This one is so new that Ian Grant hasn't even finished tweaking the sound yet...it's not even on their website. It's sound was more like a much more expensive VTL, it even looks a little like one.
Sweet, liquid midrange with plenty of bass punch and definition and extended highs. If you upgraded to Grant's Black Bottle tubes, the sound would be even better, we bet. This is just an outstanding buy and maybe one of the best values of anything at the show. We can't wait to get one to review for you.
BEST VALUE SOLID STATE INTEGRATED
THE CREEK AUDIO EVOLUTION 5350
At only $1,795 the Evolution 5350 integrated amplifier has been designed to fill the gap left by the Classic range, between the entry level Evolution 2 and the top of the range Destiny. It has borrowed technology from both the Evolution 2 and Classic 5350SE and is styled to match the EVOLUTION 2 CD Player and EVOLUTION Tuner.
The British Creek Audio has developed a completely new high current bi-polar power amplifier (We know a guy who is bi-polar...not a good thing....) to enable it to drive low impedance loudspeakers with modern dynamic music from high resolution sources. This has required a radical approach to enable it to be fitted into a slim-line case.
Each power amp is now built as a module, using a high proportion of Surface-Mount components, on a double sided PCB, bolted to a massive 18 fin heatsink. This means both channels are identical and can be fitted and removed easily for servicing if required. The power amp topology includes a cascaded differential voltage amplifier and MOS-FET current drive stage feeding a double Darlington output stage with four high-current bi-polar transistors to produce a very powerful amplifier capable of driving the most demanding of loads, with high resolution and accuracy. DC stability is maintained by a servo amplifier that rejects DC and allows the amplifier to be coupled directly without capacitors.
In a further development of the Evolution 5350 integrated amplifier's pre-amplifier section, 5 inputs are selectable by high current gold plated relays and switchable access to the power amp allows the Evolution 5350 to be driven directly by the front channels of a 5.1 AV receiver. The standard Creek plug-in Phono pre-amp is also featured. A high-grade PGA2320 digitally controlled analogue volume control circuit together with OPA604 Op-Amps are used to provide a pre-amp with higher overload margin and lower distortion.
To enable 2 x 200 Watts into 4 Ohms (120 into 8) to be produced from a small case, Creek has developed a massive power supply using a high grade 350 Watt toroidal mains transformer that powers left and right power amp channels separately, plus pre-amp and digital circuits.
To keep the power amps operating safely, they are monitored by discrete transistor circuitry to protect against over-current demand, short circuits, over-temperature and DC offsets. Relays mute the input and separate the loudspeaker outputs in case of faults.
The Evolution 5350 is operated from the front panel by rotary digital controls for input selection and volume control plus push buttons for Tape and Speaker selection, Mute and Power On/Off. The EVOLUTION 5350 can be operated by the standard EVOLUTION remote control handset, which operates EVO amplifiers and CD player.
Gold plated input and output sockets have been chosen to provide a good connection and appearance for a product at its price point. Loudspeakers are connected by up to 2 sets of high current gold plated binding posts, with plastic touch-proof covers. The amplifier also has a headphone socket; something which is becoming an increasingly rare feature in modern amplifiers.
A large vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) on the front panel indicates the state of the amplifier. Input selection, volume position and loudspeaker connection is displayed though a blue filter. The brightness level can be altered from the remote control handset.
Mains is supplied via a fused, 3 pin IEC chassis plug, mains voltage selector and 2 pole high current switch on the front panel. A high quality power cord is supplied with suitable mains plug for the country of use.
BEST VALUE AMPLIFIER/DAC WITH iPOD DOCK
David Soloman with the new Decco 2
It seemed like everything, even very high-end names, including some sort of iPod dock. There was a plethora of such products at CES in 2010 - a growing trend for sure - but this one clearly is the sonic leader. The Peachtree Audio IDecco (not pictured but it looks just like the Decco 2 with an added iPod dock) is the world’s 1st tube hybrid integrated amp with “Pure Digital” iPod Dock* and ESS Sabre DAC. It sells (a lot) for an amazing $799.
The iDecco is actually FIVE products in one…
1. “Pure Digital” iPod Dock *
2. Integrated Amplifier
3. Class A Tube Preamplifier
4. Stand-Alone Multi-Input DAC
5. Class A Headphone Amplifier
The iDecco also has component video out so you can use your iPod as a “New Millennium VCR” and watch movies, TV shows and podcasts on a flat panel TV or monitor. So make that SIX products!
Virtually all iPod docks today have “analog outputs”, forcing you to use the iPod’s internal power supply, DAC and output section. Not so good audio. The iDecco instead uses the “Pure Digital” 1’s & 0’s from your iPod directly (much like the Wadia) into their Super DAC with 11 regulated power supplies.
We have reviewed the Peachtree Decco and have the Nova in house right now on review. Peachtree makes some smokin' products.
Believing that the best amplifier combination is a tube preamp and a solid state power amp, the iDecco combines those with unbelievably good DAC and a separate Class A headphone amp that's probably worth the price of the whole unit by itself. Combine this with some good easy-to-drive speakers and you'll have a true high-end system that will makes you (and your wife) happy for years.
$799 for all that? Killer.
The new Decco 2 goes without the Ipod dock, but upgrades the DAC to an ESS 9006 Sabre DAC for digital processing for $999
BEST VALUE POWER AMPLIFIER
Audio Research DS450
We know. A Best Value product for nearly eight grand? We've gone from a $799 product to one at $7,995. Still, we think it's justified. Besides, there aren't a lot of separate power amplifiers for $799. In addition, this amp could be the best power amp at the show period.
As we noted earlier, ARC started with a clean slate and completely re-engineered Class D technology, coming up with their own processor. Oh yeah, it also puts out 410 watts per side into 8 ohms. Those 410 watts or so stable that they can drive speakers with horrendous loads well below 2 ohms. Many, many very expensive amps would fry trying that. While it has all the speed and oomph of a Class D amp, it does not have have such Class D artifacts as a dry top end and sometimes a rather antiseptic character. In addition, Class d amps put out ferocious amounts of RF that may be unhealthy as well as messing up other RF based items in your home such as tuners. Or other components in your system. "You can put this next to an AM radio and here no interference at all", we were told. Try that with any other Class D product.
We'd love to hear this with a Coincident Statement tube preamp in front of it. Wow...
Which leads us to...
Best Value Preamp
COINCIDENT STATEMENT PREAMP
Statement Power Supply
On our review of this preamp, our publisher said, "The Coincident Statement Linestage at $4,995, given its ultra-high level of performance, is a true bargain for those looking for the ultimate in amplifier preamplification. Its transparency and the vitality of its sound ranks it among the very best at any price. Its quality and classy good looks belies its price and could certainly be the last preamp you would ever buy. If you have a high quality system but feel an upgraded preamp is what your system lacks and are looking for something around this price range or even considerably more, you should definitely give this a listen".
That's about as close to an all-out rave as Stereomojo gets. Our experience in Vegas only reinforces that opinion. In fact, the newer version Israel Blume played for us sounds even better than the early model we reviewed, mainly because of the new tube damping isolation system he installed that eliminates its sensitivity to air-borne feedback. we don't know of another two-box (separate power supply) preamp anywhere near this price, and certainly not with the glamorous polished stainless steel casing you see here. Yes, even at $4,995 this is a screaming value.
Best Value Turntable
Sadly, there was not a lot of new turntables being played in Vegas, mainly because computer audio in one form or the other is so prevalent. Everyone is making a DAC now and wanted to show it off. The era of the regular CD player is coming to a close. We only saw one high-end new SACD player and that was from Cary. While there were many lower priced turntables on display, most rooms were spinning LP's on their top models. It's worth pointing out that attendees at CES are from all over the world, not just the US. Asian audiophiles are still buying the expensive stuff and there were a lot of Asians there.
The one brand new table that stood out was this one:
The Clearaudio Concept Turntable
Complete with a frictionless magnetic bearing, arm and Aurum Classic Mk II Wood cartridge, all completely set up and aligned at the factory for only $1,500 has to be a bargain. And we were actually able to listen to it. We confess it was pretty hard to distinguish just how good the table was, it certainly did not sound bad and sounded better than much of the cheaper digital stuff we heard. (no, the remote control in the picture doesn't work the turntable...) Apparently the buying public likes it too because Garth Leerer, head of US Distributor of Clearaudio Musical Surroundings, told us it was already backordered. "They can't make enough of them fast enough". He did say he'd get us one for review when customer orders were filled. Thanks Garth!
BEST VALUE CD PLAYER
While it's not quite as stunning as the extraordinary Ayon CD-2, at about half the price and with the added Ipod dock, it delivers about 75% of the CD-2 wonderful character for $2,800.
You don't get the excellent preamp out that the CD-2 features, but if you already have a good pre, this is a great buy.
BEST VALUE MUSIC SERVER
As we just said, all things digital were all over the place. New model music servers were rushed to the show, some before they were even completely production ready. everybody it seems is getting on the music server bandwangon. Because he has been reviewing one of those newer music machines, our publisher carefully scrutinized as many such devices as he could. He concluded that the model he has is clearly the easiest to use and still one of the most powerful in terms of music libraryness. (we love to make up words) Also, at it's price of $4.500 with all the features, 15" touchscreen and big hard disk included (500 gigs), it is still the best bang-for-the-buck model out there.
"I showed Linda how to use this in about 5 minutes", Darby says. "It's so simple to operate. No typing, just use the touchscreen to access your whole music library instantaneously. Now the first thing she does when she comes on is play music. She loves it and so will a lot of wives who otherwise avoid anything to do with home stereos. She can stand in the kitchen and add songs with her Iphone". Put in a CD, the thing automatically goes out to the net and retrieves all there is about the recordings, even reviews. Big album art, track names...the works. Just drag the album cover over to the playlist area and it plays it. Or you can drag individual tracks from any album and build playlists like that. Once you built a playlist you really like, touch an icon on the screen and it burns it to CD for you. It's effortless. "The biggest thing", says Darby, "is that you end up playing music you never would otherwise. Every track is right at your fingers, sorted any way you want to make finding tunes a snap. You can tell the thing what moods you are in and it will go through all your albums and tack individual tracks from different albums that match your mood and put them in a playlist for you. Just touch play". With the Q105, you can even have two different playlists playing in two different areas of the house at the same time. It's a wireless wizard. And if you're wondering, it is much more powerful and easy to use than Itunes. Oh yeah, it sounds great, too.
The following product awards are for "Best of Show". These awards are based more on total sound quality, appearance and performance with much less emphasis on price or overall value, but at Stereomojo, value can never be totally eliminated in our thinking. We also gave more weight to those products debuting at the shows., since the word "new" is part of the equation. You will notice that we are not handing out these important awards for every category. When you get into very high-priced equipment, it is impossible to determine, say, the best overall preamp, when it's in a system with other amps, speakers and players. We think singling out those type of products, particularly since most of the products PLAYING at the show were ultra expensive, is simply an exercise in industry politics or worse. We don't play those games, so the Best of Show honors are just that, products that were clearly the best in their respective categories.
BEST NEW SPEAKER
This selection was pretty easy. Even though we put less emphasis on value, the value here is so overwhelming that it cannot be ignored. The new Magnapan 1.7 speakers blew away many much more costly box speakers
in terms of midrange clarity and purity that it's almost funny. Utter transparency. Fast. We're not saying it was the best sounding overall new speaker, those are found in our BEST SOUND AT SHOW SYSTEM, which we are saving for last. But for it's miserly $1,995 (just $100 more than the old 1.6 it replaces), it is a screaming bargain, obvious even under show conditions. The wider sweet spot alone is worth more than the extra hundred bucks.
BEST NEW SOLID STATE INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER
It looks a little old-school but still thoroughly modern. It sounds so un-solid state that it's scary, but delivers on all the good things about non-tube amps. More power that it's conservative 110 watts at 8 ohms. Leaps tall buildings in a single bound. It includes balanced circuits as well as an excellent phono input for both MC and MM cartridges. $7,000. We'll have one for review in about 2 weeks, we're promised.
BEST SOUND AT SHOW
There's no denying that this is an expensive system. We almost passed it by altogether. It was the last room we ventured into just a few minutes before the show officially closed.
We had heard DarTzeel components before. We knew they were megabuck icons, not something we'd ever review. And we'd certainly never heard of Evolution Speakers. Probably just another overpriced speaker system. A couple of ceramic drivers and nice enough lacquered cabinets, but nothing special compared to all the monstrosities we'd seen that weekend and at countless shows before. Not surprisingly, this system was heard at The Home Entertainment Show, not CES. Things just seem to be better at THE Show. Only real hardcore music and audio loves venture there, not the teaming hoards the populate the massive Consumer show,
The moment we entered the room though, we knew there was something special going on. The room was crowded with several people standing outside the door, peering in as if something cool was happening. When they saw our Stereomojo badges, they eventually ushered Darby to the center chair.
Usually when you go into a megabuck room such as this ( Kondo in particular), you'd think you were at the last green at the Master's Tournament waiting for the final putt. There's a hushed reverence. Eerie. Not here. Everyone was so relaxed and jovial, like they had all just smoked some very happy weed. The room's hosts were playing a selection from Reference Recording's "Tutti" disk, one we know very well. Though we had heard that track thousands of times before, we had never heard it like THIS!
We're not even going to try to describe the sound. All we can say is that this was not just the best sound at this show, it was the best sound at ANY show we've EVER heard. In fact, we can state that it's the best stereo reproduction we have ever heard...period. And that friends, is saying a lot.
Yes, the DarTzeel amps ( NHB-458 monoblocks, whose 1000Wpc cost $135,000, but that's a pair - not each...ahem), and preamp (NHB-18 NS - $29,000 - but it includes a phono stage...gasp) together cost around $300,000. Cables by Evolution as well and all the other ancillary gear probably added quite a bit more. The Playback Systems MPS-5 Reference SACD/CD costs another $15,000.
However, the Evolution Acoustics model MMtwo speakers were not anywhere close to those numbers, or close to any of the megalithic (we made that one up, too) speakers we saw. The Evolutions weigh 375 pounds (!) and sell for only $35,000 per pair. The "only" is in contrast to all the other six-figure speakers at the show.
They are 53" tall, 18'" wide and 30" deep. The tweeter is a 5 inch aluminum ribbon between two 7" ceramic midranges and one 15" treated paper cone for the woofer. Frequency response, according to the literature,
is 10Hz-40kHz and that's +/- 3 dB.
At -6 dB. they go all the way down to an unheard of 7 Hz. They claim that impedance is 7 ohms and only deviates by +/- 2 ohms, so no wide swings. Sensitivity is a very high 93 dB. They are phase and time aligned. Woofers and tweeters are user adjustable. An internal amplifier for the low end is rated at 600 watts RMS. Max power handling is 400 watts. Minimum watts, they say, is 5 watts. Hard to believe. But if those watts are only driving the 93 dB sensitive mids and tweeters, maybe so.
As big as those speakers were and crammed into a small room, when the music started they utterly disappeared. Linda said they sounded just as good to her and she was seated next to the left wall, way off axis. For the first and only time at this year's show, we listened to the entire Stereomojo Ultimate Evaluation Disk. As every track played, we were mesmerized. We have heard each of those tracks thousands of times, but in this room it was if we'd heard them for the first time. No, there wasn't any new sounds or noises we've never heard before, but what we did hear was simply....Wow! And it was not the amount of sound we heard, they weren't blaring, it was utter realism of the voices and music. Herve Delatraz of DarTzeel commented on what a great demo disk it was. The music wafting from that system was better than most live concerts. Publisher James Darby was heard to say to Evolution designer Jonathan Tinn, "This is the only system I would PAY to hear".
Usually we go home and cogitate on our Best of Show Awards, but this experience was so compelling that we told Jonathan Tinn that he and DarTzeel had just won our overall Best Sound at Show Award for 2010. Above was his reaction.
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