CES 2015 • Best of Show and Random Thoughts

by Paul Bolin | January 31, 2015

iven the embarrassment of sonic riches at this CES, selecting the best of show was uncommonly difficult. There were a dozen or more systems which would have merited the honor at any other audio show, including those from VTL, EgglestonWorks, Soulution, Nola's Concert Grand system, YG Acoustics, Usher, Mola Mola/Vivid and Raidho. Narrowing things down to a handful was not a miserable task given the circumstances.

The Vandersteen/Audio Research system was simply amazing. With a small-scale piece like the Simon and Garfunkel or a powerhouse piece of music like the Rimsky-Korsakov, and on anything in between, this system did it all and then some. Dynamics seemed boundless, and the sheer amount of wholly continuous information placed in front of the listener bordered on the mind-boggling. One of the best presentations that both Marc and I have ever heard at an audio show. I doff my hat to all involved.

The Absolare/Rockport/MSB system was in the same stratosphere as the Vandersteen/Audio Research system. This system simply breathed music. What Absolare has done with single-ended circuits has to be heard to be believed. Timbres, from the lowest bass to the highest and airiest top octave, had an almost wrenching and touchable intensity; microscopic dynamic and tonal variations had a verisimilitude that was not just attention-grabbing but an immersive experience. More of this, please. Much more.

The big VAC/Dynaudio system was also beyond musical reproach. Both the reach and the grasp of this system were extraordinary.

dCS, D'Agostino and (once again) Rockport Technologies combined to establish that digital is now as valid a source of musical joy as my beloved, defend-it-to-the-death analog LP. Yes, dCS's full Vivaldi stack costs nearly as much as a nicely equipped S-class Mercedes, but the results simply cannot be argued with. Though a couple of CESes have passed since its introduction, the Vivaldi components have stood the test of time, proven most of all by their presence in so many other manufacturers' systems. That is respect. Andy Payor's Rockport speakers do not get anything like the love and attention they deserve. I have yet to hear a Rockport speaker I would not put at the top of its class, and the Cygnus may be something even more special than the Avior. The Cygnus is one of that rarefied group of special speakers.

I have named Lamm systems as among the best I have heard at so many shows that it is beginning to be redundant, but the big Lamm/Tech DAS/emm labs/Verity system unmistakably earned its spot here, with the Lamm/Wilson system hot on its heels. There was nothing to rationally criticize, and Vladimir Lamm's claim to make "simply the world's best audio electronics" has been, as the Mythbusters put it, plausible from the day he opened his doors. As the old-time Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith once said, "If you can do it, it ain't bragging."

I also have to mention two physically small-footprint systems that charmed me well beyond the ordinary and deserve a highly honorable mention.

Magnepan and Conrad-Johnson deserve a ton of kudos for putting together a system which sang joyously and sacrificed remarkably little. That $2200 of speakers can present such a musically evocative and inviting illusion of the real thing speaks profoundly to how remarkably right Magnepan is doing things these days.

The smaller VAC/Dynaudio system was a complete delight. The sound was immediately involving and inviting, had a total footprint of about six or seven square feet and made me want to sit down, shut up and just forget about big, complex hi-fi for a while -- rather a long while, actually. A lovely audio system, period.

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Germany's Brinkmann was one of the big winners of the show. Their 'tables sounded consistently excellent in a number of very high-profile systems.

The increasing number of mini systems and reasonably sized components is more than a trend; it is the wave of the future and absolutely necessary if perfectionist audio is to survive. It is now easy to find lifestyle-friendly components that can fit into small spaces and do not require the dedication of an entire room to good sound. People love music, and it is up to manufacturers to provide them with gear that will make their listening experiences vastly better than with the mass-market dreck they are often listening to today.

Turntables are more common than ever before in my show-going experience. LP sales improve substantially each year; it's easy to see as the Zia Record Exchange stores in Las Vegas have bigger and more varied vinyl selections each year. While some of this is a hipster-driven trend, many who discover the merits of the vinyl album are going to develop a long-lasting loyalty to the medium.

On the flip side (ha!) of this is the increasing quality and used-friendliness of today's music servers and computer-based audio -- more good news for the future of quality sound.

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CES is still fun after all these years, and I do not give a buck what anyone says about its irrelevancy. This was a truly interesting show. Evolution is busily at work in the world of perfectionist audio and the developments are coming fast and thick -- bigger and smaller, savvier and smarter, tubes and solid state. Today's designers are finding ever-more innovative ways to bring the experience of music home in new, better, more convenient ways. This will continue to be a very enjoyable ride. Buy a ticket and enjoy the trip.

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