CES 2005 Initial impressions...

Just got back from a day at CES, being that I live in Las Vegas this is the second year I have gone. Last year I really didn't know where to go or what to do, this year I had a few targets that I missed out on last year. Following are merely my impressions of some of the rooms, many based on a 2 or 3 song audition so they are not reviews just a general overview. Here are a few rooms and my impressions:

Wow....this was one expensive setup with their flagship lineup, probably several hundred thousand in gear though I am not very familiar with it. Sounded great though they were playing classical strings when I was there at low volume, not exactly what you look for to maximize a huge line array, but awesome soundstage and very musical.

Esoteric had a whole slew of new disc spinners as well as preamp and amp combos on display. They were playing through Dynaudio Evidence speakers, very accurate and precise, first time I have heard these speakers, impressive but maybe lacking a bit of organic feel. Precise to a fault?

Music Hall-
I know they wanted to show their products together, but who the hell puts their new $6000 Shanling Scd-300 with a Music Hall Integrated and $700 Epos speakers? Not the best sounding rig even of the budget bunch. The player is pretty cool though in a sci-fi way. Aesthetically it matches modern solid state gear despite the visible tubes, wish I could comment more on the sound.

They were playing their new floorstanders, not sure which model, Celius I think. This combo was the same as last year, very forward and somewhat colored in the upper mids, but put on anything with a saxophone or clarinet and they are magic, like nothing else I have heard on reed instruments. Cairn showed their new Fog3 which looks much the same, not sure of the mechanical differences but look for it soon.

April Music-
OK, so I am like everybody else, I assumed Korean audio could not be good, but man this was a great sounding room. Their Stello CD transport along with their DAC/Pre and monoblocks made very convincing music for the price. The speakers I was not familiar with, I believe they were one of their brands as well. The system had a nice even sound and extracted lots of detail without harshness, and seemed to be very honest with vocals in particular. This was one of the best "affordable" rooms I heard.

They had their Megalines hooked to all sorts of stuff I didn't get to investigate, man they are some amazing speakers, especially when they turned the level up. Very composed and seamless for such a big multi driver speaker in a small room.

Kharma/Lamm/Kubala Sosna-
How do you convince people your cables sound great? Hitch them to this rig. Not sure what contribution they made, but again this year I was amazed at the soundstage and detail of the Kharma 3.2's. The room also had the Kharma sub this year which blended very well as it did not seem slow or detract from the imaging at all. This for me is the best I heard all day, though I can never afford it. I usually prefer a little more warmth but these speakers are so engaging I can't help but like them.

Von Schweikert -
Their VR4jr's sounded phenomenal with a simple system, and the unveiled the VR4sr's that were paired with a VAC pre, Spectron amp, and Oracle CDP and sounded superb. Even in the tiny room they were in they threw a convincing stage and had a well sorted bass despite close placement to walls. The sr's definitely had more low level detail than the jr's as well as deeper and tighter bass, however for $8000 they better. Overall there was a family resemblance that was striking despite the price difference.

Sim Audio-
Didn't listen much here as it was very crowded, but had to mention their gorgeous new series of products coming out. They had what looked to be a universal player with top loading like the Eclipse. I love their products and wish that I had more info, but too many people in there to ask any questions.

Bel Canto-
Superb resolution with their Universal player, pre, and digital amps through what I believe were TAD speakers? System that seems to be contradictory, as it was both highly detailed and transparent and highly musical. They really have some nice products.

Acoustic Energy-
I listened to their lower priced Aelite home theater speakers for a while as they were playing a concert DVD of Peter Gabriel who I love. I admit it was not reference grade, but for the price of the speakers and an Arcam reciever driving full 7 channel surround, it seemed a bargain as it had crisp detail and effects, and did not strain much on loud passages. Seems a system you could live with on a budget and be happy as a clam, did not sound like most HT systems do, no boom-crash-smash, just relaxed and musical with good staging.

I listened to their ESLs which are not really my cup of tea but can still be a very interesting listen. Their midrange is very impressive, I just miss the impact of cone drivers too much, and paired with Quad electronics the top was a little soft and the bottom a little light. They also had a home theater with their full L series on display. The finishes are gorgeous, though the sub level was too high and it ruined the sound somewhat, overall for inexpensive speakers these were even more refined than the Acoustic Energy system if not as dynamic and bold.

Audio Physic-
They had their new Caldera on display, stragely shaped cabinets that look non-symetrical from some angles. Sound was good but definitely forward and a little shouty. They had all solid state gear of an origin I didn't recognize, it was all laid on the floor?? no rack, so it was very hard to see what it was, but did not look very esoteric from a distance, just small square silver boxes. This system is not really my cup of tea either, I don't think I could live with it for long though it is very detailed and precise.

Well, this is about all for now, I may return tomorrow and revisit some of my favorites and have a more detailed report, that is if I feel like walking after trekking all over the main halls looking at everything from Bluetooth phones to Home Theater screens all day today.

Thank you for your overview on the above. Any chance you make it back to the show and locate the MBL Gear I sure would like to hear about it.
Thanks for your input,
Thanks Sam
Thank you for the excellent report. With the detailed coverage, it was almost like being there.
Thanks Sam for the great report. I have gone three of the last four years. I really didn't want fight the people and the parking. The wife is standing behind me and told me remind everyone that the rooms are small, dark and some of those guy's need to shower, they smell!

Nice reporting Sam.
A few more details...

I may go back to THE show tomorrow afternoon if I can play hooky from work, but I did not get a chance to stop back by today.

Allan, you are right, many of the people at Alexis Park seem to shower once before CES and then after, and also many of them tend to walk with no regard to others, talk loudly during songs then hush others when they are trying to listen, and generally seem odd and unfriendly. There are even some weird cliques out there running around which I noticed were the same as last year, easy to recognize them from photos on the web etc. Makes me a bit more skeptical about reviewers and dealers opinions on products for sure seeing them fraternizing in this way.

As always there are also some great people, many were very helpful and even some smelled good. The Von Schweikert crew, Lamm/Kharma/Kubala crew, and the ASL/Arcam/AE crews were all very friendly which had the effect of longer and more relaxed auditions and possibly a better understanding of their products. I won't mention the worst rooms for fear of flames on here, but you can garner some of them from my list above.

As a sidenote, I did not get to the MBL room this year, but last year they had their Radialstralers (sp?) displayed, and they did seem to have a very different sound from other speakers, even more "boxless" than Maggies or the like. If you have the kind of dime needed for these I think you would probably like something quite distinctive anyhow, their gear is beautiful as is the Burmester stuff. Speaking of pretty stuff too, how about a matched set of Meridian components and speakers in a high gloss Ferrari red? These were among my visual favorites as well though in the main hall there was no listening available, probably for the best.

Thanks for the comments. The MBL had a very interesting sound. Disregarding price, they do have impressive looks that may or may not suit everyone. The sound is interesting in that it changes very little with position. It was quite open with good soundstage. I thought it extended well above the speaker, with good height and depth, my friend disagreed. It is reasonably accurate. It lacks some of the emotional impact of other systems (commonly associated with tubes/horns). Unfortunately when we were listening someone was playing a test disc but skipping from track to track after only a few seconds and it was not music I was familiar with but more audiophile testing type of fair (not that they shouldn't be allowed to do that in fact its nice that they would let people do those sorts of tests). It was much more to my liking than the burmeister room across the way - but thats simply my opinion and of no real merit. I won't be buying either soon (I have dreams of retiring at some point in the next 20 years).

Dave, the MBL 101Es ($45,900) really grabbed me. They had the dynamics from top to bottom that I have been searching for as well as 3-D imaging and a full bodied sound that kept me returning for more. Reed instruments and cymbals came through as real as I have heard anywhere. The kick drum would slam me in the chest and a second later the snare drum would sound like, well, a snare drum. These speakers sounded great at low and high volumes. I heard no loss of articulation or musicality when turned down to about 65 to 70db.
Details were there but not to the point of becoming an irritation after a long listening session,(I was in the MBL room about five hours total in three days including a quite, private session Saturday evening). There was however, a bite or "edge" to the upper range that I did not care for and the bass seemed out of time with the rest of the music on occasions.
I then inquired about the new 111Es ($24,600) sitting off to the side. Later that afternoon the 111Es were hooked up and the bass timing issue was gone. I liked the 111Es better than the 101Es, at least in that room which was about 24' by 24'with a closet jutting into one corner. You could stand almost anywhere in the room and get a decent sound stage. The overall balance and sound in that room was smoother than with the 101Es, yet just as dynamic. Leading edge of piano and guitar notes were magic. Bloom and decay of piano notes was very realistic. I missed nothing soundwise with the 111Es over the 101Es. I will bet that these speakers will reveal every thing ahead of them, good or bad to the nth degree.
The 111Es and new 116s ($17,900) have the newest bass module design. (I understand the 101Es will be getting the new bass module next) While the 101s used a bass driver facing the floor, the new 111Es use two 12 inch bass drivers per module, one on each side facing away from the listener. VERY nice intergration of prodigious amounts of well controlled bass with the mids and highs. The upper "edge" was still there with the 111Es however, and I mentioned this to Jurgen Reis, chief engineer of MBL. He feels that without this extra edge, the speakers would not get the attention of some show goers. Jurgen removed the four pennies (German ingenuity?) per cabinet used for the show to isolate the radialstrahlers' brass spikes from the bass modules' brass cups. (the speakers are two seperate modules, bass and radialstrahler/mid) Then he removed the metal screens from the radialstrahlers and WOW, the upper range was as smooth as its piano black finish.
To these ears, the best sound in Vegas.
Yes, they take a huge amount of power and they look like Boris Karloff would need them back in his laboratory for some fictional science experiment, but they pulled me into the music like no other speaker has since hearing some horns for the first time in the seventys.
I will say that I also liked, alot, the VR9/darTZeel combo, the TAD room, the VR4SR Von Schweikerts as well as the Merlin/CAT room's sound. The Harbeth and Caravelle (Star Sound) monitors also were very nice. I was expecting more life from the Kharma rooms but did not hear anything exciting and who needs a sub in the middle of their room the size of a MiniCooper?
I never thought there would be a snowball's chance in hell that I would be replacing the Merlins. Friday it snowed in Las Vegas.

Cheers, Steve
Thanks for the report and your time Sam.
Wow, what a great report on the MBLs.
Interesting comments on the Audio Physic Caldera. They were actually one of my favorites at the show. They were being run with all new Audio Physic electronics (pre-amp and digital mono amps via the baby Burmester CD player). The importer said they were brand new speakers and were literally breaking in at the show. I would imagine they would really sing once fully broken in and with some better amplifiers.

The MBL room was doing some big bass while I was in there, really big good bass. Not sure which model, second from the top maybe with the opposing woofers. Unfortunately I was not able to tell much else. I had heard good things about the room from others though. And those amps, lordy were those huge!!

Tact room easily had the most impressive technology in my opinion. Their new BOZ power distributor and fully digital and apparently infinitely adjustable modular amps (you can run up to 16 stacked 200W amps off the one power distributor!!) were unfortunately ridiculously over driving the monitors when I was there. Sound was still clean though.

The Joule Electra/Vandy 5 room was great, again one of my favorites. That room did nearly everything right.

You want vocals? The WAVAC /Venture room nailed Sinatra like I have never heard before. To bad the baby WAVAC amp was $19k and the Venture speakers something like $60k for their second from the top model. Being driven by the WAVAC pre-amp and I forget the source. Scary good vocals apparently cost. Oh and the finish/wood on the Venture speakers was simply stunning.

The TAD / Pass room was also one of my favorites producing a very clean, uncolored and natural sound. That was one of the few rooms/systems that conveyed a soundstage DEPTH. Probably should have spent more time in there but all those PASS amps had the room pretty warm!

The Halcro / Wilson room was a surprise. Never heard either before but for some reason I was prepared for a sterile sound. Not so, it was actually very good sound. The only criticism I can think of is that it may not be involving enough for very long listening. The room suffered from a wicked mid bass hump unfortunately that masked some detail. Vinyl would probably breath a little life into that system and it would be killer.

Surprisingly some rooms with some very well known and popular gear was, well, underwhelming. Of course I will protect the innocent and keep the rooms/systems to myself since they are simply my opinions after all. Don’t believe the hype, use your own ears and keep an open mind guys.

The big VR9s with the darTZeels were to me best at the show. In a rather lengthy private listening session with friends I got to hear the new darTZeel pre-amp prototype. That system without the pre-amp was already the best at show in my opinion. With the pre-amp in the system it was laughably better. I will take a fairly safe guess and say it shocked just about everyone else in the room as well. Nearly all of us sat there mesmerized by the music as it played. What makes things even better is that Herve and Serge of darTZeel are two of the nicest guys you will meet in high end audio. They are onto something really good in their "machines" as they would say. Their amp, and now pre-amp, are some of the truly special products in high end.

I’ll try and post some more to the threads as I see them come up and share more of what I heard. I’ve got lots more to share just would take too long to type is all.

Excellent report, Sam!

Thank you!!!
Thanks Sam from rainy Northern CA.
I wonder what is the cabling of the Von Schweikert used in the show. Anyone knows?
VSA was using Jena Labs cables. And yes, Dan, the DarTZeel pre-amp was a real stunner.
For speakers I was impressed with the Intuitive Design Summit, The Rethems, and the Mangers in the Overkill room. These rooms I could stay in for some time without wanting to leave.
For electronics I liked the Rowland-Wadia room which used the Kubala-Sosna cables.
Another good sounding room was the APL-HiFi room using Manley Snapper amps with ESP speakers.