High-End Loudspeakers

CES '08

My beat was loudspeakers above $12,000. Do you have any idea how many loudspeakers above $12,000 were shown at CES 2008?

I do. Practically every room on the 29th, 30th, 34th, and 35th floor of the Venetian hotel—which is to say, every room in the CES’ primary high-end-audio exhibition area—had a pair or two playing merrily away in the spots where minibars stocked with four-dollar cans of Coke and fifteen-dollar nips of Scotch once stood. Not to mention the half-dozen or so $12k+ speakers in the Venetian’s ground-floor Meeting Rooms or the scores offsite at the Mirage, the MGM Grand, the Alexis Park Hotel, the St Tropez Resort, etc. I did my best to cover the field, but I failed miserably. My apologies to all those companies I missed. I tried—believe me.

As usual, I brought my own music to CES. This year, my selections included folk (Joan Baez in Concert and Joan Baez Volume 2, both on LP), acoustic blues (Came So Far, on CD), soft rock (live versions of Marc Cohn’s “Ghost Train” and “Perfect Love” and Babyface’s cover of “Fire and Rain,” both on CD, and Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” on LP), chamber music (Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata with Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg and Sandra Rivers, Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with Heifetz and Brooks Smith, Mr. John Cage’s Prepared Piano, and Reiner Bredemeyer’s “Schlagstück 5,” all on LP), vocal music (Mario Lanza Live in London, on CD), and orchestral music (Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, on LP).

I begin on the 29th floor of the Venetian, where the first room I visited happened to house Scaena 3.2 ribbon/conehybrid line-source loudspeakers ($45k)—the littler brother of those barber-pole-like speaker that HP reviewed in Issue 180. Driven by BAT electronics, these Scaenas showed considerably better than they did at RMAF. A bit dry and hollow, because of what sounded like (possibly room-induced) suckout in the upper bass/lower midrange, the 3.2s did an otherwise fine job of reproducing Marc Cohn’s “Ghost Train,” though his fretwork wasn’t as clear as it is when I listen to this cut at home and the whole presentation had a curious midrangey emphasis. Still, this was a big step forward for Scaena in show sound-quality compared to Denver.

Next door was the handsome, floor-standing Merlin VSM Mxe two-way loudspeaker ($45k) driven by Joule electronics. Once again, the sound was a little hollow in the Merlin room and a touch forward, making Captain Luke’s rumbling basso on “Rainy Night in Georgia” (from Came So Far) sound more spotlit than it actually is. Both he and his guitar were quite articulate, however, and freed up from the enclosures. The Merlins also reproduced the gravel in Guitar Gabriel’s voice on “Keys to the Highway” (also from Came So Far) distinctively, and had particularly beautiful tone color on his guitar.

This year Alon Wolf ’s stand-mounted two-way Magico Mini II ($29.6k) made its CES debut (the speaker was on static display last year), driven by Pathos electronics in the Musical Surroundings room. Despite being a bit underpowered by the Pathos gear, which is notably warmer, darker, and more “tubey” than the ARC gear I favor, the Mini II did nothing to harm its reputation as one of the world’s supremely great loudspeakers.

On the Marc Cohn, Captain Luke, and Guitar Gabriel cuts (and every other CD or LP I threw at it,), it was superb, boasting the kind of astonishingly lifelike fine detail, density of timbre, bass, imaging, and staging I’m used to hearing at home, with any differences in dynamics and overall tonal balance attributable to the difference in source and electronics. Clearly, this was one of the very Best Sounds at CES.

I liked the Ambience Reference 1600 ribbon/cone hybrids ($12k) at this year’s RMAF, and I liked them again at CES. They reproduced the difficult Mario Lanza track “Il Lamento di Federico” with a light, transparent balance and no break-up on fortissimos. The speaker may have a bit of cone coloration in the lower midband (where the woofer crosses over to the ribbon, around 400Hz), and it was hard to tell about its imaging because of the very nearfield setup (you actually had to stand across from it to listen). Nonetheless, the Ambience 1600 is an excellent speaker—reminiscent of the superb Symposium Acoustics Panorama, which is also a ribbon/cone hybrid.

On the 29th floor, I also heard, for the first time, the big Quad Reference ESL-2905 ’stat ($13,800). The largest and most full-range Quad ever, with eight electrostatic panels fitted into a rigid extrudedaluminum- and-stainless-steel support structure, it was exceptional—pure, focused, with gorgeous timbre on voice and piano on the Lanza disc (and everything else), and particularly fine performance at lower volumes. Driven by Quad’s new II-eighty “valve” amps, the 2905 was another strong contender for Best of Show.


Anonymous -- Mon, 12/01/2008 - 11:08


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