My Best of CES

Great Sounding Rooms In No Particular Order

Merlin/Joule/AudioAero/Cardas/VPI –Perhaps I’m biased being a Merlin owner, but the sound always impresses and Bobby’s graciousness seems to have no bounds. I was looking forward to hearing this room, as I’ve never until now heard the Merlins with the Joule VZN-100 monoblocks. Compared to the same components driven by CAT electronics at CES 2005, this years’ combo was more refined, with fuller images and more natural tonality. Perhaps a bit less macrodynamic vs. the CAT, but more to my own listening preferences. After listening to many “mega-buck” systems, I couldn’t help but be pleased to return to the sound of the Merlins and confirm my belief that it represents one of the best examples of a component that rides the inflection point where increased price gives back little in better performance. I can see all the other components in my system continue to be upgraded, with the Merlin being the one constant. The new Super-BAM adds slam and impact that was making an impression on the listeners I encountered in the room. It was nice to hear the Merlins & Joule in a more average sized room that resembles what most of us have at home. For me, this room is what home audio is all about.

Ridley Audio
Never heard of this outfit, who will begin selling in the US later this year at very high prices(e.g. $80k speakers). The proprietor was showing his handcrafted components that included 7ft tall speakers, with 250w mono amps built in, phono stage and line stage, all by Ridley. All the components were made using a patented process that heats metal components to 300 degrees Celsius prior to manfacture. Sort of, the “Anti-Cryo”. I can’t speak to the merits of that concept, but the sound was astounding. A London FFSS pressing of Fruhbeck De Burgos conducting Albeniz’ Suite Espanola gave me goosebumps. That piece immediately jumped to the top of my vinyl wish list.

Quest For Sound: Consonance integrated/Consonance turntable/Allaerts Cartridge/FJ speakers
In Quests room I heard an Allaerts cartridge on a small plinthed Consonace turntable, driving their modest looking integrated amp and small FJfloorstanding speakers incorporating drivers that faced up to the sky. I got the impression that it was budget gear, but the rhythmic, natural sound was anything but budget. It reminded me of a modern take on the Linn & Naim systems that dominated the 80s.

With their SET monoblocks using the unusual GM-70 tube and a Redpoint turntable, they generated great sound thru an interesting loudspeaker from Sound Fusion. Perhaps the GM-70 tube will appear in more designs in the near future? This was one of the few SET-driven rooms that made a positive impression on me this year.

Analysis Audio/ASL/RaySamuels/HGA
The Apogee-like Omega ribbons driven by a VPI SuperScoutMaster, Emmeline phono stage, ASL Hurricanes monoblocks made a strong impression., Anybody looking for a planar/ribbon type speaker would benefit from a listen to these. The tiny Ray Samuels phono stage had me thinking.

Wavac/Continuum/Peak Consult
This was a room that I enjoyed last year. Again, it didn’t disappoint sonically. Not that it made me want to spend $300k on a system. The giant reproduction of the current Stereophile cover photo of the Continuum turntable “World’s Best?” made a bold, statement. Last year, I had a long, quiet demo. This year the room was packed. Wavac and Continuum also showed with Venture speakers next door at T.H.E. Show. The crowd and reaction to this room really exemplify the power of the press, and what a great review will do for interest in a component. Kinda scary how all that power is concentrated in the hands of so few. Yeah for the internet!
Happy listening to all,
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Very nice write up. I need to get an opportunity to listen again to the Analysis Audio loudspeaker. The only time I have listened to them was last May in NYC. At that time they were mated to different gear (provenance I don't recall), but my only impression then was thin bass. But knowing your ears and listening priorities, I need to hear them again.

I absolutely love the Continuum rack that the turntable itself sits on. But 25K just for the rack?! Given the .65 exchange rate between the Aussie dollar and the Sammy dollar, I shudder to think what the Continuum combo would cost if it were 1 to 1. People seem to love the performace of the arm/table, I can't get my head around the looks of the Cobra tonearm. I recall my childhood and my father playing his jazz stuff on a Hallcrafters console stereo. The TT had an arm that was reddish/brown and was of the same design and shape of the Continuum Cobra. It was made of a Bakelite substance and was even called "Cobra".

Anyway, I liked your writeup of the best you heard. Did you by chance hit the Soundlab room?
Excellent show report, Spencer. Bravo!

I'm always happy to see when someone shares their impression of the sound that they come across. Things are even better when the writeup is impressive, as yours is. Seemed like Bobby has the whole show thing down to a science. In the times I have seen him, I was always struck with what you described. I liked the Joule amplification as well, but was particularly interested in the Spanish (forgot the name - SORRY) EL34 based integrated that he claimed provided 90 - 95% of the sound for 25% of the price. Looked like a scaled down version of my DA60, and I was most curious to know if it was being featured at CES. Your point on Merlin lying right at the inflection point of diminishing returns is most apropos. You don't really get much better, maybe a little more at the bottom (not that there is much more music there), and maybe different, but not really better.

Should have really been there, as the Stereophile Show is on the Left Coast this year, but that's water over the dam at this point.
Hi Spencer,
Thanks for the show report. I have the FJ Om's, which I got from Steve, and couldn't agree with you more. Driven by a Sophia Electric KT88 they just fill the room with music which is so natural.
Take care,

The integrated amp is the ARS Sonum Filarmonia.
Slipknot--I'll e-mail you separately, but one of our next NJAS meetings is planned to be another listen to the Analysis Plus speakers at Mike Kalilis' home in Mountainside (he's the US importer).
David is correct. It is the ARS Sonum. From what
I've heard, it is a killer piece in its price range, it uses a EL34L special version of the EL34, proprietary transformers and silver-in-oil caps. Looks beautiful. Bobby said that they are selling as fast as they are being made, and he didn't have one on display. A friend of mine is thinking about getting this to drive his TSM-MXs, so it would have been nice to hear at the show.
Doubt this piece will steal any Joule Electra customers, but for high performance at $3500, it might be tough to beat with Merlins or any other speaker that's moderately easy to drive. Cheers,
Specer,what did you think of the South African Vivid speakers ?
Vivid K1's with Pathos and Aesthetix.Vivid B1's also at the show,but cant remember with which frontend and amps...
hi spencer,
was great to see you there and a total pleasure for us all to speak with you. the show was interesting for us as we went back to the room we had for four years and the last time we used the same joule gear and the cardas. it was interesting to see how far we had come in the three years that had passed.
you obviously had a safe trip home, great to see you again.
bobby at merlin
In the Aesthetix room, I heard the Rhea phonostage, Clearaudio megabucks table, Vivid speakers(not sure which model) and the amps were new ones from Aesthetix, I believe. I've never been a fan of the Clearaudio turntables, and haven't heard much of the other gear there. Hoped to get a handle on the Rhea's performance, (I hear an Io Signature at Rushton's house regularly, and love the sound he gets with it) but didn't learn much.
Visually, the Vivids were very futuristic looking, but not my cup of tea. Somebody will love them.

BobbyP, great to see you, too. Your room rocked! I've never seen so many manufacturers come to someone elses room. Hopefully next year you can demo the Ars Sonum integrated, as many of us would like to hear it, perhaps with the TSM-MX. Cheers,
Russ, can you also e - mail me, please. Want to renew my lapsed membership, and this meeting seems to be a good opportunity to do so.

I also want to say I met the ARS designer last year, and he seemed to be a terrific human being. Unlike most of the people you meet at these shows, he was tremendously approachable, easy going, down to earth, and modest. You usually get a condescending, "My stuff is the BEST, blah, blah, blah..." He was the antithesis of this. But, perhaps that is a cultural thing... The kind of person you hope becomes successful, and want to buy from. Hope someone, such as Bobby, identifies him by name, as I should address him properly.
his name is ricardo hernandez and he is a terrific gentleman. very proud to call him my friend and associate in the making of a special little amp that we sell here in north america.
a kind and considerate man he is and a joy to spend time with. spanish people are very emotional and down to earth.
his work reflects his passion for music.
bobby at merlin
Bobby, thank you for refreshing my very poor memory in terms of Ricardo. I am very much pulling for the success of you both.

The amp strongly reminded me of my Jadis DA30/DA60 - beautiful in the chrome/gold casework, and I'm sure like my amplifiers, it is surely a real shocker from a sonic perspective. The DA60 is now in my wife's system, and I predict it to be a lifetime purchase. I've not heard this ARS integrated, but am much looking forward to it, knowing you, it is surely a winner. Amazing what these Europeans are able to produce from such equipment. If anything, I think these products get overlooked, but I can assure you from first hand experience, they are truly about as good as things get.

Best regards,