January 19, 2009

Post-CES Report

I've been back from CES for a week and doing two things that inevitably follow the annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas: trying to kick a wicked respiratory ailment that has plugged up my nose, chest and ears, and wading through the profusion of online show coverage. Covering the CES as we do it at the SoundStage! Network has made me jealous of the manner in which others in the press carry it off. Their reports show the time necessary for taking in the show, for camaraderie, for experiencing rather than just reporting. We've made it much harder on ourselves, determined to not only cover the show's breadth but do so with ample depth -- and post it all as quickly as we can. I literally spent more time during the CES in front of my computer than I did walking the halls of the Venetian and the other venues. By Sunday afternoon, as the show was closing down, I was ready to close down as well.

One byproduct of such a hectic pace is that any not every product and system worthy of coverage gets mentioned in our show report. So consider this article an editor's make-up call -- a second chance to expound on worthwhile bits of the show that we unfortunately haven't told you about already.

In this spirit, it seems appropriate to begin with my greatest regret from CES 2009. I walked by the Zanden Audio room a couple of times, and I even promised Eric Pheils, the good-natured US distributor of Zanden products, that I'd stop back to listen. And I meant it -- I looked forward to hearing top-shelf Zanden tube products, including the Model 9600 mono amps that I just reviewed, driving Cessaro horn-loaded speakers. This combination was memorable from last year's CES, and I'm still kicking myself for not getting to listen this year.

Kazutoshi Yamada, who designs all Zanden Audio products, poses with a rack of his electronics and Cessaro speakers.

The most disappointing demo was the one that featured the new Magico M5, which was both a ShowStopper in our coverage and part of a Standout Demo. Oh, the sound wasn't disappointing at all. The big M5s were fast into and out of each note, sounding detailed from the highest treble to the lowest bass. What was disappointing was Magico's use of a one-of-a-kind music server and no CD player or other device that would allow the playback of outside music -- like the CD-R I made expressly for CES. Thus, I couldn't quite tell how good this system was because I couldn't hear my music on it. I heard one cut from the music server that was from a CD I knew, but it wasn't enough to make a definitive assessment, at least for me.

The most coveted upgraded products I came across were from Shunyata Research. We covered the Hydra V-Ray Version II ($4995) in our show report, but the new CX line of power cords caught and held my attention because a discontinued cord has been reintroduced. Shunyata removed the King Cobra from its line a number of years ago, but the new King Cobra CX ($3495) features 600 separate cryogenically treated conductors in Shunyata's dual-counter-rotating Helix geometry. There are also Anaconda CX ($1995), Python CX ($1095), Viper CX ($695) and Sidewinder CX ($495) cords, which differ in the number of conductors but all use the Helix geometry and cryogenic treatment.

Two of Shunyata Research's new CX power cords.

The most fascinating product I came across was the Soundsmith Strain Gauge Mk II phono-cartridge system. Why "system"? Because the cartridge comes with one of seven different Soundsmith phono preamps (which can include line-stage functionality) and has user-replaceable styli with different profiles. What makes the Strain Gauge "fascinating" is that it operates on a unique principle. Instead of a motor system that uses moving mass to generate voltage, the Strain Gauge has two silicon beams that sense the cantilever's position in the groove. Soundsmith claims that this leads to "intimate contact with the record groove's walls." The preamp has just one gain stage, and the higher-cost models include indicators that help in optimizing the cartridge's performance. The price varies -- from $7500 to $15,000 -- depending on the preamp you choose and its features.

Finally, I come to the best sound I heard at the CES, THE Show or anywhere in Las Vegas, and my pick will probably come as no surprise to those who read my reviews and know the equipment I admire -- and use. After he arrived in Las Vegas, Vladimir Lamm found out that he was bumped from the demo room he booked months before. But that didn't deter him, or the gang from Wilson Audio, who set up a pair of MAXX Series 3 speakers in the new room, which had a completely different layout. A smallish alcove was the only suitable space for the speakers and Lamm ML3 Signature amps. Other products in use were a Lamm L2 preamp and LP2 Deluxe phono stage, a NeoDio NR Two CD transport and NR Two digital-to-analog converter, and a Clearaudio Innovation turntable with the company's Universal tonearm and Titanium cartridge. Cables were from Kubala-Sosna's Emotion line, with Critical Mass equipment racks and platforms providing support for the electronics.

Best of Show: Lamm ML3 Signature amps and Wilson Audio MAXX 3 speakers.

This system had it all, although you had to get the sound of so many other systems out of your ears to appreciate it fully. There was the acute resolution for which Wilson Audio speakers are known, along with tonal purity, low-end drive, and a vivid presence throughout the midrange and into the bass. While other systems reproduced, this one engaged and enthralled. I played a number of cuts from my CD-R here. I would have liked to listen to the entire disc.

I have the same speakers and amplifiers in my listening room right now, though they'll do me no good until I get some antibiotics to clear up my hearing. Here's an early wish for a sickness-free -- and less frenzied -- CES 2010.

...Marc Mickelson