CES 2011: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

marty

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Apr 20, 2010
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#1
At first, I wasn't going to start a new post but rather, make comments found on other posts. However, I am finding it hard to respond to others who want to share their impressions of similar gear heard at CES, thus the number of individual blogs I am responding to, is snow-balling out of control. Hence, if you'll forgive some repetition, I've grouped everything thus far into one blog report.

The one and only Magneplanar 3.7w

First, and I might as well get this out of the way, the "best" speaker I heard was the $5500 Magneplanar 3.7s. They were simply stunning. Now, Wendell Diller pulled a few tricks out of his hat in choosing to demo them using Maggie 1.7s as rear channels as well as a Maggie Center channel on his multichannel source material, but that did not detract from what were all heard on the 3.7s. In fact, Wendell specifically played 2-channel material using only on the 3.7s for completeness sake. The sound was just superb. The usual accolades are appropriate; detailed, great imaging, excellent frequency response, low distortion etc. But for me, it was something that is often not mentioned, and that is their vibrancy. They had life. And that was very much the opposite of what is described below for the Lamm-Wilson room. Wendell played that old warhorse, 1812 overture and I nearly stained the seat looking for a subwoofer that wasn't there when those cannon shots were launched. Emotionally involving on every level. And, get this, although he was using Bryston 28s to drive the planars, he was using (I think) some ordinary Lexicon preamp and an inexpensive CD player for the front end, thus making me wonder why we have all been so successfully brain-washed to believe that it takes mega-expensive front ends to have a good sounding system. "Best" is of course a relative term. But if we include both performance and value, ascribing this word to the 3.7s is not difficult at all. A landmark loudspeaker for (almost) everyman indeed!


Lamm-Wilson "Travesty" System

Steve, you're not going to like this but I might as well say it. The Lamm exhibit at the Venetian was one of the most disappointing sound demonstrations of the entire CES. First, the prices you noted in your blog entry are not quite right. The total system price as posted in Room 307 was $667,164. I won't go into every detail but basics are
1) Critical Mass System $92,800
2) Lamm electronics $197,160
3) Wilson A-II $158,000
4) NeoDio CD/DAC $25,300
5) da Vinci table $109,204
6) Kubala Sosna Elation cabling $84,700

The sound was a conundrum. On one hand, it was lovely; beautiful in fact. It had definition, good frequency response, good imaging, and was low in distortion. However, there was one overwhelming problem. The music was LIFELESS. Absolutely uninvolving, sterile and lifeless. You could have knocked me over with a feather if you told me those words would ever come from me in describing what is arguably some of the greatest electronics I have ever heard (under different conditions of course). Sadly, I think my view was the common opinion of many listeners and reviewers we met in the hallways. I can't think of a better example of the absurdity of Hi end audio than this singular demo. This demo clearly refutes one common theorem of hi-end audio which is "more is better" when it comes to cost of gear. Wrong. And in this case, very, very wrong.

I don't want to beat up on Lamm and Wilson too harshly. The fact is, we saw examples of other audiophile products that were just as costly as many in the Lamm system. For each, I kept thinking, give me the KEF system and the cash difference except for one. Can you spell M-A-G-N-E-P-L-A-N-A-R?

By the way, I should probably mention that to give Vladimir the benefit of the doubt, The Venetian imposed the use of strict devices that the manufacturers had to use and plug into for AV power. Some demos actually caused the room lights to dim. But as you know, the Lamms don't draw that much current so I'm not inclined to say the AC power was the main reason for the flat sound. I'll tell you, if it was my room, I'd get rid of the ridiculous 92K amp and equipment stands and put the amps right on the floor and the preamp on a cardboard box to see if they would sound better. I'm pretty sure it couldn't sound worse, and at least I'd have an extra 92K in cash in my pocket!

Bottom line, we heard a 667K demo at the Lamm room that was a total disappointment because it was a very expensive lifeless system.

TAD Reference

Next up, I really enjoyed hearing the big TAD Reference speakers at the VTL room. I had not previously heard Andrew Jones' masterpiece speaker previously, but this set up was a jaw-dropper. I am certain the outstanding VTL electronics contributed significantly to the excellent sound (7.5III preamp; 450 III amp). The TADs are a masterpiece in their cohesiveness, musicality and overall tonal balance top to bottom. Bea Lam pulled out Shostakovich’s Symphony #8 performed live by the LSO, and the few of us that were in the room after hours sat in silence as the beautiful sound washed over us. As a complete "I am in the symphony hall" experience the TAD/VTL demo had the edge over the Magneplanar 3.7 demo, but then again, let's return to the over-riding theme of this years CES; namely, value. Put another way, today's modest cost high performance products are rapidly making the cost-no-object expensive equipment of yesteryear tougher and tougher to justify. Maggie 3.7s @$5500 vs. TAD Reference @70K is case in point.

Avalon Transcendents, KEF "T" Series, Focal (model?)

I heard some Avalon Transcendent's that I thought sounded particularly good (about 15K?). There was good, tight well-defined bass and well-integrated top end in a nice cabinet package. Classic Avalon.

But the big surprise of the show was the drop dead KEF 5.1 T Series system for 2K retail that knocked me out. In fact, it brought the experience of the Lamm Wilson room to stunning relief. The KEF room was bubbling with listeners who heard a mind-blowing 5.1 system driven by an Onkyo receiver that cost a grand total of $2K (less receiver). That's right, a $2K speaker system and for my money, it blew away the Lamm demo in musical vibrancy. Of course it was not nearly as refined and "audiophile-like" (whatever that means today). But it left me shaking my head at just how foolish we have become as audiophiles.

A new 3 section Focal monitor on stands for 27K a pair were outstanding. Apparently they were introduced at RMAF but I don't know the model. I can imagine that using them full range and augmenting them with a JL Audio Sub woofer would be very impressive indeed, especially as a direct competitor to the Wilson Sashas.

Amarra/ iTunes 11
Finally, one non-speaker comment: The software program Amarra was ubiquitous at the show. Meant to enhance the server-based output side of any iTunes library, I was ready to buy it until I heard that iTunes 11 will be announced shortly and that iTunes 11 will be hi-rez compatible. I'll probably take a wait and see approach on Amarra as a result of the impending iTunes 11 announcement.


Morel- Fat Lady
I was so looking forward to hearing the Fat Lady's at CES. I was vey disappointed. It is an average sounding speaker at best. Another Valin hype job not deserving of the hype. Specifically, there is a thinness in the 120-150 Hz range that made human voice, particularly Sinatra and the Kings Singers sound a bit too thin. It was simply not right. The mid range and top end however was quite good. Could this upper bass thinness have been a room interaction? Sure, but all I can report is what I heard. Really not impressive at all. And the Technical brain amp? Since the overall sound was not great, I can't comment on the amps alone as I don't know the rest of the system well enough to be able to dissect the sound to that degree.

Cables- Kubala-Sosna was everywhere

For what its worth, at CES there was one over-riding cable theme at least as I perceived things. Very simply, Kubala-Sosna cables were everywhere. And I defy anyone to say they heard a Kubala system that didn't sound at least good. Yes, there were a few Transparents and Nordost systems, but they were few and far between. It seemed that the Kubla Sosna's were taking over! Good sounding stuff indeed.

Amplifier- Devialet

I spent an hour at the Devialet demo at CES yesterday. Spectacular and a game changer is the best descriptor I can use to characterize my initial impressions. Used on a new 30K set of Focal 3 ways with Crystal speaker cable, the sound was among the best at the show. It is indeed strange, with a Class A driver stage with a Class D output stage. It delivers 240 W/channel and don’t ask me why but it claims "the lowest signal distortion on the market, the lowest output impedance, the best S/N, the lowest intermodulation" and a few other "bests". Built in phone stage, DAC, input selectivity, and future options for DSP speaker or room mods in a gorgeous "audio jewelry" package for 15K left a good impression on all listeners regardless of material. Sadly most people probably didn't get to hear it as it was off-site at the Mirage. I thought it was among the top highlights of the show, but most importantly, because the overwhelming story at this year's show was that affordability is the operative word. The old Hi-end, great music at astronomic costs, is now officially dead. There is so much good music at moderate prices that the paradigm shift is now complete. Can you spell M-A-G-N-E-P-L-A-N-A-R???
 
Apr 3, 2010
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Seattle, WA
#2
Thanks for posting your observations Marty. Even more thanks for posting the bit about KEF and Wilson earlier in the day which i checked in my taxi as I went to Venetian hotel. So guess what my first stop was? KEF and then onto Wilson/LAM. I have to say, I heard everything you heard. So I can clearly see your point of view. But I have tons more to add, including a very different conclusion :).

The large TAD system I heard in their own booth was very good. Quite powerful and dynamic. Alas, with the rest of untreated rooms at the show, it just couldn't get the top vote from me :).

I missed the Maggies altogether. Wish you had post this bit earlier (like a blind man, I need directions :) ). I went door to door but must have missed them somehow. It is fair to say that given the fact that 90% of the rooms had absolutely no sound treatment, planar type speakers wind up with significant advantage in these places, sans giant speakers toed in and close to the listener.
 

mauidan

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Aug 2, 2010
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#3
Finally, one non-speaker comment: The software program Amarra was ubiquitous at the show. Meant to enhance the server-based output side of any iTunes library, I was ready to buy it until I heard that iTunes 11 will be announced shortly and that iTunes 11 will be hi-rez compatible. I'll probably take a wait and see approach on Amarra as a result of the impending iTunes 11 announcement.
Marty-

I won't buy any playback software until you get a chance to try Audiofile Engineering's Fidelia Audio System (FAS), which is very close to being released. Unlike Amarra, they've been beta testing the software for the last year, incorporating requests from beta users as well as feedback from the staff at Audiofile Engineering (they have engineers on staff who have put satellites into space).

Back to CES, did you get a chance to hear the DCS set up in room 29-131 at the Venetian?

Dan
 
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marty

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Apr 20, 2010
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#4
Dan,
I did not get to hear the DCS in 29-131 at the Venetian. I did hear the DCS in some other rooms and they seemed to perform well, but my own bias is that DCS is not my cup of tea. I have always preferred the Meitner designs.
Marty
 

marty

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Apr 20, 2010
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Far Hills, NJ
#5
A private message asked for clarification on my view concerning the Lamm-Wilson system. The question was- how can I claim to be so unimpressed by the system I heard in CES, yet remain enthusiastically positive about Steve's system, which uses much of the same gear. The truth is that I don't know I can satisfactorily explain the obvious discrepancy. I would start by saying that although the preamp, amp and Speakers are the same in both systems, the systems are very much different. Steve employs a Playback design CD player whereas the CES system used a Neo-Dia CD transport and DAC. I am not familiar with these and have not heard them previously. Also, the CES system had some analogue gear that Steve's did not. Steve's system contained a tape source (all Tape Project software). Lastly there are also cable differences.The point is, the systems were are discussing are two distinct systems. I cannot explain why I was so unimpressed with the CES system, yet loved the sound using the same components that are mutually found in Steve's system. Compatability? Voltage source? Gremlins? Dunno, but different as night and day or so it seemed to me.
 

RBFC

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Apr 20, 2010
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#7
Steve has taken massive efforts to get his room optimized for the system. Perhaps that factor is the largest difference in the sound.

Lee
 

Ron Party

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Apr 30, 2010
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#8
Steve has taken massive efforts to get his room optimized for the system. Perhaps that factor is the largest difference in the sound.

Lee
Exactly. The differences between DACs and cables are minimal, if any, whereas the room makes all the difference in the world.
 

mauidan

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Aug 2, 2010
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#9
After reading Marty's comments about the "Lamm-Wilson "Travesty" System." I took another look at the CES 2011 picture of the Lamm room I found at audiofederation.com.

I know the stars of this room's show were the new Lamm monoblocks, but it seems to me that placing tube amps so far in front of speakers with so much low end output could negatively affect the performance. Plus all of the cables are lying directly on the rug.



Doc's system appears to have the amps well behind the speakers, out of harm’s way.



Dan
 

FrantzM

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Apr 20, 2010
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#10
Exactly. The differences between DACs and cables are minimal, if any, whereas the room makes all the difference in the world.
+ 1

I would however say that show conditions are not the best under which one can make a defineitive assessment ... Yet it remains that Steve's room is very well treated and that accounts to a lot of what one hears at his place plus the speakers of course ..
 

MylesBAstor

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Apr 20, 2010
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#11
+ 1

I would however say that show conditions are not the best under which one can make a defineitive assessment ... Yet it remains that Steve's room is very well treated and that accounts to a lot of what one hears at his place plus the speakers of course ..
Great then compare any $500 DAC and a Playback Design if all DACs sound the same--not.
 

MylesBAstor

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Apr 20, 2010
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Exactly. The differences between DACs and cables are minimal, if any, whereas the room makes all the difference in the world.
Great so then you're telling me that any $500 DAC and the Playback Design DACs basically sound the same. I'm speechless.
 

JackD201

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Apr 21, 2010
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#14
That's the way the ball bounces. Going all out has it's risks. Managing expectations is just as much an art as building the darned things.
 
Apr 3, 2010
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#15
As I noted earlier, I managed to read Marty's feedback before going to Venetian this morning so I mad the KEF and Wilson/LAM my first stops.

When I arrived at KEF, I had a double-take. Why? 'cause these are on-wall speakers. Here is the picture:



That said, they were pretty clever in what they were playing. It was dynamic, techno music in surround. The video was as bad as it could get but the sound was well done. It had a ton of snap. Alas, as is typical of these tiny back boxes (we are talking about a 1-2 inch box behind tiny drivers), there is no true bass. The little sub brings the thumping and there is emptiness until you hit the mids and highs. So the sound is bright which can result in one thinking there is a lot of resolution and clarity. But laws of physics don't bend like the movie Matrix :). Little drivers in little boxes tend to not have much response below 100-110 Hz and little subs don't fill the rest of the gap. Fun stuff to be sure. But let's not compare them to any system of sufficient size.

I then went to the Wilson/LAMM room in question. It was full room with many people there standing beyond the seating available. I grabbed an empty chair (the blue one) here:



And wouldn't you know it, the sound was lifeless as Marty mentioned. They were playing Opera music and the thing had no highs and no lows. It was also rather quiet. Yes, I detected some of the lushness I have heard in Steve's midrange performance. But it was quite faint with the rest of the experience not being too good at all.

All this time, there were a couple of guys occupying the love seat. You know the type. Sitting there looking serious and absolutely stiff as if deep in thought or appreciation. Kind of like seeing a guy at modern art museum starring at a blank canvas with you not knowing if he is pretending to understand it or not :D.

Anyway, just when I was going to give up on the whole thing, the two guys stood up. I quick ran over and sat in their spot. Oh wow. The transformation was quite massive. The highs came back. The resolution came back. And midrange became considerably more luscious. Best way I can explain the difference is if you took headphones and pulled their cups out 1 inch. That is how it sounded in the old seat.

Explanation of the effect seems pretty straightforward in my book:

1. The speakers are toed in hugely. This clearly makes for a narrow sweet spot. Where I was sitting before, was completely out of that zone. If I were them, I would not put all of those chairs there, pretending one can have a good experience there. Bookshelf speakers sound better than sitting so far off axis from the crosspoint of the two speakers.

2. There was zero room treatment. I don't care how expensive the speakers and the amps are. You need room treatment for good sound. Almost every good sound I heard was with treated rooms. Sitting in the sweet spot did allow one to hear less of the room but not in other spots.

3. No sub, not enough guts. Let's get real. You need a sledgehammer to move those giant drivers in the Wilsons. The LAMMs just don't have the power it takes to move them. As a result, there was zero bass presence. And dynamics suffered too. In one segment, the levels went up quite a bit but the sound also got brighter. That tells me the amps were distorting. Steve has subs to carry the weight and let the LAMMs do their thing above that. Not so here.

All in all, the experience in an absolute scale went from C- to B+. Clearly not the best at the show but also nowhere even remotely where the KEFs were.

OK, it is 2:30am and I need to get some sleep. Hopefully this stuff is coherent enough :).
 

jadis

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Apr 28, 2010
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#16
The one and only Magneplanar 3.7w

First, and I might as well get this out of the way, the "best" speaker I heard was the $5500 Magneplanar 3.7s. They were simply stunning. Now, Wendell Diller pulled a few tricks out of his hat in choosing to demo them using Maggie 1.7s as rear channels as well as a Maggie Center channel on his multichannel source material, but that did not detract from what were all heard on the 3.7s. In fact, Wendell specifically played 2-channel material using only on the 3.7s for completeness sake. The sound was just superb. The usual accolades are appropriate; detailed, great imaging, excellent frequency response, low distortion etc. But for me, it was something that is often not mentioned, and that is their vibrancy. They had life. And that was very much the opposite of what is described below for the Lamm-Wilson room. Wendell played that old warhorse, 1812 overture and I nearly stained the seat looking for a subwoofer that wasn't there when those cannon shots were launched. Emotionally involving on every level. And, get this, although he was using Bryston 28s to drive the planars, he was using (I think) some ordinary Lexicon preamp and an inexpensive CD player for the front end, thus making me wonder why we have all been so successfully brain-washed to believe that it takes mega-expensive front ends to have a good sounding system. "Best" is of course a relative term. But if we include both performance and value, ascribing this word to the 3.7s is not difficult at all. A landmark loudspeaker for (almost) everyman indeed!

Can you spell M-A-G-N-E-P-L-A-N-A-R???
Wow. After 14 years of living with my Maggie 2.7QR, a report like this would induce me to divorce them and wed the new 3.7s sooner than I imagined. LOL

Playing 1812 without subs shows how dynamic they are. I couldn't say that about my 2.7s really. But last week I had a very brief listen to the 1.7s in a local dealer's room in not so ideal conditions, and yet I the impression was very positive. Very clean, transparent as usual, and very dynamic, with cone woofer-like punch. And now this review. I might sleep late tonight. LOL
 
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Robert

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Nov 10, 2010
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#17
I wasn't at CES, but I would concur that the TAD Ref One speakers are excellent. It seems their reputations has been slow out of the gate, with some people perplexingly commenting on a brittle top end. This is not the case at all. These are big, fun, involving speakers.
 
May 30, 2010
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#18
I have posted this is another thread, but this is the right place for it.

High end systems at hifi-shows are similar to small children in restaurants - most of the time they should be seen not heard.

The sound quality of extreme quality gear at shows is a lottery - these systems need fine tuning and any detail can compromise the whole system, I had this feeling of lifeless sound with 99% of the demos in many shows - only sometimes one of them, using a particular track sounds like music. Sometimes they sound is very poor one day and next day it is completely different.

The distributors are faced with unknown acoustics and, due to trade terms, can not change their choice of ancillaries at show time. And sometimes a small change of power supply cables would be enough ...

We have this experience - going from nice sound to music is not an fast job.It is why when we want to improve we can not change just one part - the high end hobby is also living with metastability.

BTW, did some one go the "The Sonus Faber" demo? I heard them at our distributor place and it was really impressive.
 

marty

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Apr 20, 2010
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#19
All this time, there were a couple of guys occupying the love seat. You know the type. Sitting there looking serious and absolutely stiff as if deep in thought or appreciation. Kind of like seeing a guy at modern art museum starring at a blank canvas with you not knowing if he is pretending to understand it or not :.
Amir,
This is one of the best lines I have ever read about Hi End shows, and folks like us!!
I did sit in the sweet spot and I think we are mostly in agreement. As I said, it was good but not great and lifeless was the key for me. As far as the KEFs, lets remember what we were listening to- a $2K 5 channel speaker system. I agree with you completely.Was it as good at the $672K Wilson Lamms? Of course not. But which would you rather have at home. The former or the latter with $670K in your pocket. No contest for me. The thing about the KEFS is that we should realize we are audio snobs. Most of the folks that buy audio gear are not, and for 2K I think the KEF T system represents a breakthrough of sorts.
 

es347

VIP/Donor & WBF Founding Member
Apr 20, 2010
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#20
Amir said 1. The speakers are toed in hugely. This clearly makes for a narrow sweet spot.

Let me get this straight....a $650K+ system assembled to wow listeners in what appears to be a rather large room and it's set up to create a narrow sweet spot? Brilliant.
 

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