CES 2015 • No Palace Required: Manageable Systems

by Paul Bolin | January 31, 2015

TL has been demoing consistently excellent systems for as long as I have been going to CES, and this year continued the streak. Their system featured a Spiral Groove SG1.1 turntable with its companion Centroid 'arm ($31,000 total) with Lyra's Etna cartridge ($6995) and dCS's Vivaldi transport and DAC ($75,000 total) fronting VTL's TP-6.5 Signature phono preamp ($12,500 with MC step-up transformer), TL-6.5 II line stage ($15,000), and S-400 II Reference stereo amplifier ($33,500, 350Wpc), which drove Wilson Audio Sasha W/P 2 speakers ($30,900/pair). Interconnects and speaker cables were Transparent Opus MM, while Nordost supplied the power cords and distribution components.

On hand were two freshly introduced line stages, the one-box TL-6.5 Series II Signature used in the system and, on static display, the new TL-2.5i, which is available as a pure line stage for $3000 or with an internal MM/MC phono stage for $4000. Having heard VTL's thoroughly wonderful TP-2.5 phono stage, which has all the fine characteristics, if not quite the level of scale and ultimate refinement, as the TP-6.5 with its internal step-up transformer, I cannot but think the TL-2.5i will substantially outperform its price point and bring the trademark VTL musical truthfulness to a much wider range of listeners. The TL-6.5 II was alternated in the main system with the TL-7.5 III, and on a back-to-back comparison of the two with the same LP, I could not tell them apart. Surely extensive listening in carefully controlled circumstances would reveal something to differentiate the two line stages, but it can be safely said that the TL-6.5 II has every bit of the sonic pedigree of its big sibling.

I am no stranger to the combination of VTL electronics on Wilson Sashas, albeit first-generation Sashas, and this was a familiar sound: full-blooded tonal saturation, lightning dynamic swings, and all the detail to be found on the recording knitted seamlessly together. To put it simply, this was as musically involving and easy-to-live-with sound as can be found. A recording of Dvorak's Dumky trio made by Wilson's Peter McGrath had bloom and natural warmth in spades. Perfectly lovely.

Colorado's Aaudio Imports always finds interesting components and showed a very appealing system consisting of the Thales TT Compact turntable and Simplicity II 'arm ($13,200 and $9200, respectively) carrying an Ikeda KAI MC cartridge ($8500), Ypsilon's MC26L step-up transformer ($6200), VPS-100 tube phono stage ($26,000) and Phaethon hybrid integrated amplifier ($24,800, 110Wpc). Thales (phono) and Stage III cabling, HB Cable Designs Power Slave Marble distributor ($9900), Finite Elemente Pagoda racking ($8970) and Lansche No. 3.1 speakers ($36,000/pair), which feature plasma ion tweeters, completed the system. The sound on a number of jazz cuts was revealing but nicely laid-back. This was a system that allowed one to relax into the music rather than having it catapulted at one's ears.

Constellation Audio showed a new range of gear called Inspiration, including the 1.0 line stage ($9000) and Mono 1.0 amplifiers ($20,000/pair, 400 watts each) driven by their established Cygnus Media Player server ($32,000). Wireworld supplied the cabling, Harmonic Resolution Systems the racking, Stillpoints the room treatments, Shunyata the power conditioning and Wilson Audio the Sasha W/P 2 speakers ($34,000 in optional custom finish).

In the press of time I was only able to sit and listen here once, but Zero 7's "Destiny" from Simple Things was delicate, floaty yet grounded and just as lush as it should sound. The voices of Sia Furler and Sophie Barker were wonderfully rendered, and the bed of analog keyboards underlying the arrangement was very well sorted, solidly placed and analog-warm.

Synergistic Research took the wraps off their new Atmosphere series of cables ($2495 for first meter of interconnects, $4995 for an eight-foot pair of speaker cables) and a pair of very interesting devices called the Atmosphere RF Field Generator ($2250) and Atmosphere Tuning Module ($495). These purely passive components, when installed between the speakers and controlled by an app on a tablet, allow the RF in a room to be manipulated in ways that cause dramatic changes in the sound of the system. Frequency balance, spatial perspective, apparent room size -- all are adjustable within a broad range of parameters, and additional tuning modules allow for even more options.

While it must be admitted that Ted Denney has pulled off a very impressive feat in developing the Atmosphere products, it seems to me to open a can of worms, if not a Pandora's box, best left unopened. In conservative hands it may well be a cool and even useful device, but it is a dead certainty that some people will become rapidly addicted to monkeying around with all the variations it makes possible just for the sake of monkeying around with them. I prefer not to tinker with a system that is set up properly and performing at its ultimate, letting the music, and the components, speak for themselves, and the Atmosphere gives me a mild case of the willies. What the McIntosh/Magico system in Ted's room actually sounded like was rendered something of a mystery by the ongoing demonstration of the Atmosphere products. It seemed to be quite good, but as soon as I started to become accustomed to it we were off to some other sound/venue/presentation courtesy of the Atmosphere. Still, some will find the options it offers irresistible, and it may be the acme of audiophilia nervosa gadgetry, but for me, no, thank you.

YG Acoustics has introduced stunningly fine-sounding new loudspeakers at the last two shows, the epic Sonja in 2013 and the smaller but wonderful Hailey in 2014, and continued on their winning roll this year with the new, and surprisingly diminutive, Carmel 2 ($24,300/pair). In a system consisting of the very special Kronos turntable with André Terio's Black Beauty carbon-fiber tonearm (approximately $43,500 total), an Air Tight PC-1 Supreme cartridge ($11,000), Audionet PAM G2 phono stage with EPX power supply ($20,200), dCS Vivaldi transport, DAC and clock ($85,000) D'Agostino Momentum preamp ($32,000) and mono power amps ($55,000/pair), TAOC Audio racking (approximately $3000) and Kubala-Sosna Elation cabling ($85,000 total), the petite but solid Carmel 2 proved to be a speaker that punches well above its weight in terms of bass extension (believably spec'd at going into the mid-30Hz range). While it could not effortlessly fill the same large room the Hailey and Sonja did in the two previous years, it really isn't intended to do so, but it is a small speaker that packs all of the resolution, liveliness and musicality of its far bigger sisters. It is thoroughly of a piece, in terms of sonic character, with Hailey and Sonja, which is a very good thing indeed.

Zanden's room presented something of a paradox. All of my past experiences with Zanden systems have been exceedingly enjoyable, but here the DIASOULi speakers (price not yet determined) from Japan baffled me. And it isn't as though they weren't fronted by serious sonic excellence. The system in front of them consisted of a Grand Prix Audio Monaco 1.5 carbon-fiber turntable ($23,500) with a Tri-Planar VII 10" 'arm ($6200) and Air Tight PC-1S cartridge ($8500) with Zanden's own Model 120 solid-state phono stage ($7500), 3100 transformer-coupled line stage ($12,500) and 100Wpc 3120 power amp ($20,900), every piece of which I have heard sound gorgeous in other Zanden systems. Grand Prix Woodcote racking and amp stands and custom Zanden cables topped off the system.

When I played Janos Starker's Bach suites for solo cello I was very pleased. There was air and space around Starker's superbly recorded cello, a fine, pure ambience, and all was right with the world. Moving on to the title track of Under A Violet Moon everything fell inexplicably apart. The sound was far too polite on this vigorous and energetic music, the handclaps at the end of the song sounded papery and the bass was largely missing in action, Soundstaging, however, remained excellent, as it did with the Above and Beyond remix of Ayumi Hamasaki's "M." There was wonderful layering of sounds within the big, well-defined stage, but there was also a sense of dynamic flatness and, for lack of a better term, a lack of forward momentum on this driving dance track. I walked away thoroughly puzzled. Zanden electronics do not sound like this.

Raidho was joined by two new companies also co-helmed by Raidho's Michael Borreson and Lars Kristensen: Aavik Acoustics and Ansuz Acoustics. Raidho introduced the X3 ($30,000/pair) the company's latest floorstanding loudspeaker, in the company of the Aavik U-300 full-function integrated amp/DAC ($30,000, 300Wpc, 24-bit/192kHz resolution and an MC phono stage) and Ansuz top-line D-level cabling. A dCS Puccini transport was on hand solely to send digits to the Aavik.

The Aavik is a piece of extremely handsome and original industrial design and impressive technology. It is perhaps the most interesting and compelling all-in-one component I have seen to date and uses switching power supplies, but do not let this lead you to jump to conclusions. The Aavik, paired with the X3, delivered very fine sound, and the X3 had all of the positives I associate with Raidho speakers -- well-balanced sound with excellent dynamics, outstanding speed, exemplary transparency and soundstaging topped off with far more, and better, deep bass than would be expected from such slim floorstanders, thanks in part to the side-mounted 8" woofer, ceramic-coned as are all the drivers, save for Raidho's superb ribbon tweeter. Slam was not sacrificed here, nor was refinement, and Raidho continues to go from strength to strength. Borreson is, in my opinion, one of the most compelling and interesting speaker designers in all of high-end audio.

Importer On A Higher Note, over which presides the genial Philip O'Hanlon, a man with impeccable and seemingly universal taste in music, had two rooms, the larger of which showed off the capabilities of a fine system featuring Luxman's exceedingly cool, retro PD-171 turntable and integral tonearm ($6400) with a Soundsmith Hyperion moving-iron cartridge ($7500), the Mola Mola Makua preamplifier ($13,400, optional internal phono stage adding $2500, internal DAC's price not determined) and Kaluga mono power amps ($18,000/pair, 400 watts each), Vivid Audio's Giya G3 speakers ($40,000/pair) and Shunyata cabling and power conditioning/distribution. Digital was sourced from O'Hanlon's laptop.

When I first stopped by, Philip was playing a marvelous version of Illinois Jacquet's "Birthday Party Blues" from the Groove Note 45rpm LP.  I listened casually for a couple of minutes and was slowly but surely drawn in to giving the music my full and undivided attention. This happened with everything I subsequently heard through this system. Nothing jumped out, but the basic rightness of music through it inevitably took the day. The word captivating comes to mind.

The Mola Mola gear is loaded with innovative features. For example, the Makua's optional phono stage includes EQ settings that "cover practically all known cutting curves ever used, including most 78rpm curves" and the phono section can be assigned to any one of the Makua's five inputs. Furthermore, designer Bruno Putzeys has made class-D amplification sound like no one else has, with the possible exception of Aavik.

Bel Canto and Joseph Audio repeated last year's very successful pairing, but this time Jeff Joseph brought his Perspective loudspeaker ($14,000/pair) rather than the larger Pearls, to let Bel Canto's elegant Black-series gear shine. The Black Asynchronous Stream Controller DAC/line stage ($20,000) and Power Stream mono amplifiers ($30,000/pair, 400 watts each) are quite unlike any other components with which I am familiar. The ASC has nine digital inputs and one analog input; as I understand it the ASC digitizes an analog signal connected to it and is able to manage more or less every digital format, including Ethernet and UPnP/DLNA streaming up to 24 bits/384kHz PCM and DSD, then transmits it to the PowerStreams via cables carrying not an electrical signal but, via Light Link cables, only photons. Quantum physics come to high-end audio! The PowerStreams then reconstruct an analog signal, using proprietary technology, amplify it and send it on to the loudspeakers. Cardas Clear Beyond cabling completed this well-thought-out system.

Once again the sound was the sort that asked you to sit and stay a while, with no one thing standing out but all things in a well-tailored and very pleasing balance. The Perspectives, like a number of other fine speakers this year, played deceptively deep and tightly controlled bass that one still does not expect to hear coming from smallish cabinets holding modestly sized drivers; the evidence of hearing cannot be denied, however. Jeff played the classic Peggy Lee version of "Fever" and I was completely involved in the performance. The upright bass had substance and body, and Lee's cool, sultry voice floated out into the room most convincingly.

True high-end sound is now to be found in systems that can be set up without dominating an entire room and used in places other than in dedicated hi-fi man caves -- ya know, real-world rooms where non-audiophile people (many of whom really like music) actually live rather than our single-purpose listening bunkers, and a grand thing this is.

On a Higher Note's second room featured another one of those smallish systems that had such a strong presence at the show. Consisting of Luxman's D-06u CD/SACD player ($9900, featuring USB input, two DSD inputs and up to 32-bit/384kHz resolution), lovely new C-700u line stage ($9900) and matching M-700u power amp ($9000, 120Wpc) driving Vivid Audio's V1.5 two-way, stand-integral speakers ($8000/pair), all tied together with Shunyata wiring. Playing music, including an air check of Boz Scaggs' "Lowdown," Springsteen's "Mansion on the Hill," Ruth Moody's cover of The Boss's "Dancing in the Dark" and a brain-busting Oscar Peterson/Dizzy Gillespie pass-the-hot-potato duet on the classic "Caravan," I sat happily bobbing my head and tapping my foot in time, thoroughly in tune with the music.

On A Higher Note is also the American distributor for Britain's fascinating Eclipse speakers. I was more than a bit nonplussed when I entered the Eclipse room only to be confronted with basketball-sized enclosures -- they're actually egg-shaped when viewed from the side -- with a visible driver mounted within, sitting atop integral stands which allow the enclosures to be precisely angled. The eyeball-like objects staring me down were the Eclipse TD7 12z Mk 2 speakers ($10,600/pair). The speakers have attracted much attention in the UK, in Japan, and in the pro-audio world, as testimonials from noteworthy recording engineers (including Jim Anderson, best known to audiophiles as the engineer of several superb-sounding Patricia Barber recordings) make clear, so despite the odd appearance, there had to be something worth hearing here, and indeed there was.

When the Eclipses spoke via a Primare digital player and integrated amplifier connected with Chord Company cabling, I was even more disoriented. There was a very nicely delineated, three-dimensional soundfield in front of me filled with precise, solid images that had no apparent source whatsoever. And where was that bass coming from? The answer to that question was the TD 725SW Mk 2 powered subwoofer ($6400, with 500-watt internal amplifier). I cannot remember ever being this disoriented by such a total disconnect between the equipment and the size and shape of the soundfield. Sia Furler and Sophie Barker sounded delectable on Zero 7's "Destiny," the speakers had speed to burn, handling all manner of transients with ease, and when O'Hanlon dialed up Tower of Power's "Diggin' On James Brown," the Eclipse approach proved its worth by boogying righteously on big-scale, powerful music.

I could go on at length about the High Resolution Technologies Stage system, which Roy Gregory wrote about and upon which I cannot improve. Let me say that, augmented with a Stabi S turntable and power supply ($3615), Stogi S 12 VTA 'arm with Crystal Cable internal wire ($3150) and CAR-40 MC cartridge ($2900) all from Kuzma, a four-year-old REL B-2 subwoofer ($2195), sanely priced Furutech wiring and e-TP80 power conditioner ($799), the Stage sang. I commented to Scot Markwell of Elite A/V Distribution that I could sit and listen to this all afternoon long and be perfectly happy. This was a completely inexplicable amount of musical satisfaction for the money and will fit neatly in even a studio apartment. It was no less enticing with digital sources, lest anyone think I was seduced by analog, as I often am. Crazy fun and absolutely unimaginable even five years ago. Roy was and is completely right about this little gem.

In addition to the no-holds-or-dollars-barred big system described above, VAC, Brinkmann, dCS and Dynaudio pulled together a much smaller, though barely less sonically captivating, system set up in an anteroom of their suite. Consisting of the Brinkmann Bardo turntable equipped with 10.5 'arm ($6300), RöNt tubed power supply ($4300) and Pi cartridge ($2700) and dCS's Puccini CD/SACD player/DAC ($18,999) with its companion U-Clock ($5499) as sources, VAC's new Sigma 160 SE integrated amplifier ($17,700 as shown with MC phono input, $1450 extra for the striking metal/glass tube cage, 85Wpc), Dynaudio C2 Platinum speakers ($17,000/pair) and Shunyata's latest Anaconda cabling, the sound was deliciously detailed, supple and enticing despite being literally set up on a thrift-store stand. This was a true high-end, nearly ultra-high-end, system with all the resolution, dynamics, subtlety and power that one expects from perfectionist audio and would fit into any but the smallest of living rooms. Cheap, no, but eminently livable in terms of space. The Dynaudios' classic Scandinavian good looks do nothing to hurt their case. As Foghorn Leghorn once opined, "This was more fun than a barrel of half-witted monkeys" and sounded one hell of a lot better.

Magnepan and Conrad-Johnson combined for what may have been the most sheer fun per dollar at the entire show, even considering the HRS Stage system. C-J's ET3 SE line stage ($4500 in SE version, as shown, $3800 for the base version) and MF-2275 SE amp ($3850 for base version, $6150 for the SE, with Vishay resistors and other significant parts upgrades, 135Wpc) were paired with Magnepan's .7 speakers ($1400) and one of their amazing little DWM Bass Panels ($800, and that's what they're called; we Minnesotans are pretty plain-spoken people). The source was a C-J HP3 digital-to-analog converter ($3000, discontinued) connected to a computer.

The .7s were as neutral and musical as could be and flung a wonderfully spacious soundstage into the room. The Bass Panels are not large, but they certainly add a striking degree of spatial enhancement and low-frequency underpinning to the .7s, which, like all Magnepans past and present, excel at presenting full-sized images, an airy openness and exceptional speed.

As mentioned in the first part of my report, Nola brought something more than the mighty Concert Grand Reference Gold speakers. CES saw the debut of its much smaller stablemate, the Studio Grand Reference Gold ($19,800/pair). The Studio Grand Reference Gold features one each of the Concert Grand's mid-woofers, midrange drivers and the same supertweeter in a brilliantly well-finished "piano cherry" cabinet that takes up just a whit more than one square foot of floor space.

Driven by the same single rack's worth of Audio Research electronics and Nordost wiring as previously described with the Concert Grand, the impact of this speaker was just as ear-opening. On a range of jazz recordings the Studio Grand delivered the same lively, natural sound of the Concert Grand, only on a somewhat smaller scale. Carl Marchisotto introduced the immense-sounding recording of John Rutter's "Oh Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace" by saying that no one could reasonably expect such a small speaker to convincingly render such a large-scale piece of music, which the Studio Grand promptly did to a degree it had no business doing. The depth of field on the large choir was beautifully captured, voices sounded organic and unforced, and primary difference was, unsurprisingly, the lowest bass. What made me scratch my head was how that 4 1/2" woofer managed to deliver low bass in sufficient quantity and of sufficient quality to begin to underpin the piece with such solidity and spaciousness. Truly a quart in a pint pot and enough to send me away wondering just how Marchisotto has managed to bend the unforgiving laws of physics.

Crystal Cable brought their glorious little Minissimo loudspeakers ($15,000/pair, reviewed by Roy Gregory) and Cube amplification module ($18,000, 100Wpc), which features three XLR and three RCA inputs and incorporates sister company Siltech's Light Drive and SAGA technologies. It also features the Cube Controller, which is not just a remote but a full-function two-way control interface that reports back to the remote controller.

A Beethoven piano sonata was playing during much of my time in the room, and the piano is not an easy instrument to reproduce convincingly with small speakers. Not so the Minissimo, which is not surprising as Crystal Cable's Gabi Rijnveld was herself a concert pianist in an earlier stage of life and she is nothing if not a stickler for sonic detail. The Beethoven was surprisingly commanding, authoritative and involving despite coming from such small speakers, and The Cube is a deft and sophisticated piece of electronic engineering; a companion DAC module is apparently in the works as well. Crystal Cables' own cables naturally tied everything together. Another "I can't quite believe this big sound is coming out of these tiny components" room.

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