In contrast, the Gershman Black Swan ($36k) with Lamm amplification, while a bit darkish in balance, was one of the Best Sounds of the Show, with superb bass (superb everything, actually, from top to bottom). It isn’t news anymore, but this is one terrific loudspeaker. Hansen Audio demonstrated a new version of The Prince ($39k), a three-way employing proprietary cabinet and driver technologies. Driven by CAT electronics and a Red Point Model D turntable fitted with the $15k Koetsu Coralstone cartridge, The Prince V2 delivered excellent dynamics and a huge soundstage The four-way, floorstanding Von Schweikert R-5 ($26k) with quasi-transmission-line loading of the bass drivers showed exceptionally well, thanks, I think, to Audio Space’s wonderful (Product of the Year Award-winning) Reference Two preamp and new Reference Three amps. These electronics literally transformed the previously unimpressive R-5, adding wonderfully realistic clarity and detail to Marc Cohn’s voice on “Ghost Train”—so much detail that you could almost hear the spit in his mouth. Same with Guitar Gabriel on “Keys to the Highway” and Captain Luke on “Rainy Night in Georgia.” The utterly unstrained, non-electronic transparency of these Audio Space products from Peter Lau is phenomenal. Clearly, one of the very Best Sounds at CES.
The Manger 109-AG ($25k) is a handsome stand-mounted two-way equipped with the Manger bending-wave transducer (which is rather like a spherical planar) operating from 140Hz– 35kHz, and a Scan Speak 8" bass driver below 140Hz. Fed by Metronome’s Calista transport and C3A DAC, the 109-AG made Marc Cohn’s touching “Perfect Love” sound nearly perfect, with superb imaging size and height, very fine detail, and lovely timbre. The sound was liquid, without much power in the bass but with decent balance, nonetheless.
The Cessaro Alpha 1 ($60k) was an imposing three-way horn loudspeaker with a TAD compression tweeter, a 2" TAD midrange loaded by a spherical horn, and a backloaded 16" TAD woofer. Electronics were from Zanden, which left their lovely imprint on the Alpha 1, making it sound very low in horn coloration, smooth, spacious, and not aggressively detailed but not missing anything important, either. On “Schlagstück 5” the Alpha 1 demonstrated absolutely incredible transient response in the treble (and everywhere else)—the best transient response I’ve ever heard on cymbals and bells. It was superb again on the gamelan-like prepared piano in Mr. John Cage’s Prepared Piano. Had it not been for a slightly shelved up response in the upper mids, this would have been my undisputed choice for Best Sound of CES 2008. If Cessaro can add a little more density of color to the upper bass and lower mids, it will have a world-beater here. As it stands, the Alpha 1 did something no other speaker did at CES—it showed me a new level of resolution and realism.
I was considerably less impressed with the three-way floorstanding Venture Reference 3 Signature ($135k), with four woofers and an AMT tweeter, which sounded just okay driven by Venture’s electronics and a Weiss DAC and transport. The Acapella High Violin Mk IV ($59k), however, was a different story. This beautiful three-way with horn-loaded plasma tweeter, spherical-horn-loaded midrange, and two 11" woofers in an isobaric enclosure, made a beautiful sound—very smooth, liquid mids and dark, sweet, liquid highs. The bass was also quite dense in color and nuance, though it overloaded the room a bit on one side. The High Violin might not have been the most dead-neutral sound at CES but, driven by Einstein electronics, it was certainly among the most musical.
We now leave the 30th floor and leap to the 34th, where the Wilson Audio MAXX 2s ($45k) made their best showing since I heard them driven by ARC electronics several years ago, thanks to Vladmir Lamm’s fabulous new four-chassis ML- 3 monoblock amplifiers (priced at a cool $139,290) and TW Acustic’s supremely musical AC-3 turntable (reviewed by me in Issue 180). This marvelous system reproduced the Prokofiev First Violin Sonata with superb definition, timbre, bass, and soundstage depth, combining incredible “sustain” on pedaled piano notes with incredible control and detail in the fiddle. That said, there was a slight, persistent spot of added brightness in the upper mids and lower treble followed by a slight roll-off in the top treble—a profile I associate with Wilson’s tweeter. Still and all, this was a great stereo system (and a great debut for Vladimir’s amp). Clearly, another top contender for Best of Show. And so was the three-way/four-driver Avalon Indra ($20k), which reproduced Cohn’s “Ghost Train” (and other select cuts) with exceptional openness and astonishingly good, powerful, and detailed deep bass (from two 7" Nomex/Kevlar woofers). Though a bit smaller than life in imaging, this speaker disappeared more completely as a sound source than anything I’d heard up until that point (save for the Mini IIs and V3s). Another top contender for Best of Show.