Steely Dan UHQR Series

By: Michael Fremer

September 28th, 2022

Category:

Hi-Fi Shows

Originally Seen In:

Magazine

The 1994 Winter CES Show

Have a Look Back Almost 30 years to the 1994 CES

This report was originally written in 1994 for The Absolute Sound and never published there. Please keep the date in mind as you read it!

–Ed.

Everything was out of joint this year (though not out of joints – judging by the odors emanating from some parked cars around the Sahara bi-level), from the unusually cold wet weather – it rained almost every day – to the thoroughly bizarre product mix at The Saharaʼs bi-level complex High End audio exhibits. Who would have dared guess just a few years ago that the stars burning most brightly in 1995 would be tubes and analogue? Only in my wildest audiophile dreams I assure you.

Yes, a few years ago it was fashionable to say – and true of course – that there are more manufacturers of tube electronics in the United States today than there were during the 1950s. But this year it seemed like there are more manufacturers of tube electronics than solid state! Thatʼs probably not true, but it’s the distinct impression left in the aftermath of this show ¬– clearly, for better or worse, a turning point in the history of High End audio.

A few years ago I titled a show report “The Death Of Mid-fi”. As far as I could tell, that market was saturated with Japanese mid-fi – sold to an audience which bought into the “it all sounds the same” game. With the market full and with no built in incentive to upgrade, there was only one way to go: no place, or upscale, to High End. So I thought.

I hadnʼt considered the then nascent home theater phenomenon – a consumer movement so strong, so profound, it has blown the roof off the industry. That was evident last year with the Mirage hotel becoming the center of the specialty audio action. By comparison the once busy Sahara bi-level seemed empty and forlorn. While high performance multichannel audio/video systems were capturing the imaginations of consumers in all strata of the marketplace, the “High End” seemed to be drifting in a morass of lowered digital expectations and mundane solid state electronics. The fun hobbyist aspect of audio seemed to have been squeezed out.

Conventional wisdom held that lower prices, simpler gear and convenience features like remote control were the tickets to survival in the high end audio marketplace. Vinyl was mostly gone, kids were into CDs and computers, tubes had their handful of older fanciers and that was that.

This year the dust from the home theater explosion has finally settled – leaving a far different, almost unrecognizable audio landscape in its wake. There has been a fundamental, industry-wide realignment of products, producers and dealers. Survival and growth for some has meant repositioning into the multi-channel video marketplace.

In all the years Iʼve been reading about and covering the C.E.S., Iʼve yet to see the dynamics of the event adequately presented to readers of this and the other consumer audio publications. I wonder if you understand exactly what takes place at these “shows”? Its not about fun and games for anyone save we journalists – the only passive participants.

You think you face a difficult and daunting task when you visit your local dealer? Then put yourself in his/her place visiting C.E.S.

Youʼve come to Vegas on a million dollar shopping spree: walking room to room with your deepest pockets exposed, attempting to pick and choose among the hundreds of products on display and for sale. But instead of buying one VAC amp or Vimak D/A processor, you must commit to taking on the line, to buying dozens of products from the companies with whom you choose to do business.

For the manufacturers it’s an equally nerve racking experience: youʼve come to Vegas at great expense, to show and hopefully sell your new line of amps, speakers or whatever it is you manufacture. Youʼve rented a room from the EIA/CES for a few thousand dollars, produced brochures, schlepped product, set up a system in a converted hotel room, and in four intense days you either make or break your next year in business. And you have to make your sonic statement sucking juice from the same polluted electrical fountain as a hundred other manufacturers!

What has happened to the industry over the past year is a clarification of battle lines: there is a new maturity among established companies and retailers, and there is a fresh ground swell of idealism both in manufacturing and retailing from a new set of players.

The catalyst for all this change? Home theater of course. The established retailers – the upper mid-fiers like Harveyʼs in the NY Metropolitan area and the established manufacturers, have embraced multi-channel audio/video like a long lost rich aunt, shoving audio out of the spotlight. Most act as if analogue no longer exists.

So The Mirage Hotel “Home Theater” part of the show is where companies like PS Audio (which recently bought Threshold), Adcom, Rotel, McIntosh, Madrigal, AMC, Boston Acoustics, B&W, California Audio Labs, XLO, Carver, Counterpoint, Dahlquist, Energy, Infinity Systems, Monitor Audio, KEF, Kinergetics, Linaeum, Luxman, Mirage, Mission, Polk, and Snell (actually Snell used to show at “the zoo”) have located or relocated (Inexplicably, Celestion actually showed at “the zoo”). Look at the lineup. Do you get the picture?

At one time McIntosh epitomized the finest in American audio. With the advent of solid state, Mac broke big but forsook its “high end” sonic roots, for the “carriage trade”ʻs love of gadgetry. Recently it’s tried to find its way back home.

Madrigal has followed the same inevitable path towards growth and market success, using “home theater” as the jumping off point where McIntosh used the advent of “solid state”. No one doubts Mark Levinson the company still manufactures state of the art gear, but for how long can the parent company justify the investment of large sums of money to remain at the cutting edge given the potential sales volume versus that of Proceed “THX approved” home theater gear? It doesnʼt take long for a company to bite the hand that tweaks it. Look at Infinity and you can track a similar line of commercial success at the expense of commitment to cutting edge products.

Face it: while many of these companies are still active players in high end home audio, for some of them the Sahara is “slumminʼ it”. Showing at The Mirage is a way up and out of the milieu of the tinkerers and tweaks – the tube heads and the analogue geeks.

If you want to know who XLO chief Roger Skoffʼs role model is, look no further than Monster Cableʼs Noel Lee. Skoff didnʼt display at The Sahara, nor did I notice his expensive and quite fine Signature cable featured in any rooms. Instead he set up shop at The Mirage with a mind boggling lineup of medium priced audio/video cable products. While walking through “the zoo” I passed a display of cheap outdoor loudspeakers fabricated to look like rocks. At the base of the plastic flora and fauna was a card which read “wired with XLO cable”. Go figure.

I know Jim Thiel and Kathy Gornick see home theater as a winning way to sell loudspeakers, so does Martin-Logan’s Gayle Sanders, and so do their dealers, but those folks, unwilling to cut their roots, stuck it out at The Sahara. Martin-Logan, EAD and others even demonstrated multichannel audio/video systems there.

Home Theater can be High End, and it is in the interest of the industry to manufacture products for the market, but listening to music is not the same as watching it and a true High End music system is not, in my opinion an ideal building block for a home theater system.

To survive, the High End as most of us identify it, has to differentiate itself from mid-fi and home theater. If it becomes a two-channel version of home theater minus the video screen, it’s finished. Easy for me to say sitting on the sidelines. Much more difficult, for those who must put their money where my mouth is. Yet thatʼs exactly what dozens of entrepreneurs and dreamers have done and it made for an exhilarating and wonder filled show.

So, the Sahara this year was filled with exotic tube gear, turntables and vinyl LPs. Is going back to the old technology suicide or salvation ? High End audio faces a Clintonian conundrum: in light of the home theater juggernaut (the Newtian victory), to become a pale imitation is to lose its identity and get swallowed up. To fight it with retro-tech is to risk total destruction.

Thatʼs the risk the High End has taken. The majors wonʼt give us LPs ? Weʼll make them ourselves. The big companies wonʼt supply us with tubes? Weʼll source them ourselves. In fact, even the big companies are hip to the tube renaissance. Western Electric – a division of AT&T announced the famous 300B triode was going back into production (Western Electric ceased production in 1988). Meanwhile Cetron a division of Richardson Electronics in Illinois still makes 300Bs as does a facility in Czechoslovakia and the Russians are considering producing them as well. But thereʼs something about the Western Electric name…

One Charles G. Whitener Jr. President of Westrex Corporation in Atlanta was making the rounds at the show handing out the 300B spec sheet (copyright 1994 AT&T). According to industry insiders with whom I spoke, the investors in this production facility are not connected with AT&T and Whitener is just one guy who bought the rights to the Westrex name, but the tubes will be made at its previous facility. A small run is expected by mid February, with a full 10,000 production run sometime in June.

I ran a seminar on the first day of the show entitled “Whatʼs Hot for 1995”. When panelist Ken Kessler, representing Audio magazine, mentioned the reintroduction of the 300B, David Rich, Peter Aczelʼs Igor jumped up and shouted “Thatʼs a lie ! I work for AT&T and they are doing no such thing !” He then went into a heated, hysterical monologue about how itʼs precisely that kind of lie that sends educated professionals running from “our” stores when everyone knows solid state amplification is superior to tubes. Unfortunately, I donʼt have the transcript in hand as I write this, but Richʼs outburst was hilarious both for its petulant, frustrated tone, and for its being totally incorrect.

Audible Illusions was showing its new Modulus L-1 line stage and headphone amplifier, which will eventually be available with a built in D/A converter. The acclaimed full feature Modulus 3 pre-amp has been updated (to the 3A, available in the Spring) and the company also showed the new M-150 monoblock amps. As usual Elliot Kallen was playing real music and getting great sound using the new Pro Ac Response 3.5 towers and a VPI TNT turntable.

JoLida, Inc. a new company on the high end scene was showing a line of inexpensive integrated tube products including the 60wpc Model SJ 502A integrated amp which uses four KT88s or 6550s and two 6DJ8s and two 12AT7s and sells for under $950.

SIS Electronics, Inc. showed Korean made electronics including the No. 66 Class A 50 watts per channel stereo vacuum tube amp which features both balanced and unbalanced inputs. Tube complement includes 4 6550s with KT 88s or EL 34s available, plus 2 12AU7s and 2 12BH7s. Retail price: $1590.

Golden String Inc. had good news for some of you: “smaller is better” it said in introducing a really neat looking line of miniature tube amps and pre-amps made in Hong Kong by Sound Tech. The

diminutive units come in a variety of colors including mustard yellow and baby blue. The monoblock amps which feature a single pair of EL34s retail for $995 a pair. The pre-amp is $850. Though small, these units hardly look like toys, and the company was handing out literature extolling the virtues of the ampsʼ transformers which showed excellent frequency, square wave and phase response.

Another relatively new company on the tube scene, Joule Electra showed two innovative and ridiculously low priced line amps: the LA-75 (about $1400) and the LA-100 (about $2500- $3000 depending on cosmetics and/or remote control option). The LA-75 features Holco resistors, MIT caps, Cardas wire and jacks plus a Nobel volume pot and many other circuit and construction innovations. Affordable High End ? Absolutely.

The sound in the Merlin speaker room, driven by Joule Electra electronics and a VPI TNT/Graham combo was among the best at the show – but Merlin always has good sound.

Sound Valves, the Ohio based company which bought the stock of the old Dynaco some years back, is now manufacturing a new line of tube electronics (including kits) spearheaded by a design team headed by Harry Klaus, former VP of engineering at Hafler and former Project Engineer at the original Dynaco. The line includes the VTP-100B tube pre-amp with phono ($599), the VTP 101B with mm/mc phono ($699), the M40B mono tube amp ($399 kit and $549 built), the VTA 70B 35/35 stereo amp ($699 kit, $849 built), and the M60C 60 watt mono tube amp ($1299 assembled in chrome finish). Yes !!!! Affordable tube gear for all !!!!

Quicksilver Audio added a few new products to its line of tube amps and pre-amps including the Quicksilver Line Stage pre-amp – a dual mono design which features a 500 volt power supply and a 41 detent precision Alps attenuator ($975).

N.E.W. of Rancho Santa Fe, CA showed some truly unique and reasonably priced products including the DCP-33 ( $2298) an all tube pre-amp which runs off a battery pack/base. The unit is a pure Class A single ended triode design, point to point wired, with 17 volt maximum output. It features Vishay resistors, Kimber cable, and Wonder Caps. Also available: the P-3, a less expensive ($1298) AC powered unit, and the LP-3 ($498) tube phono section.

Atma-Sphere introduced the MLS-1 ($3800) all tube line stage a direct coupled, balanced differential circuit design featuring zero feedback. Atma-Sphere claims the unit can drive interconnects up to 200 feet long without sonic degradation. Atma-Sphereʼs Ralph Karsten told me heʼd just finished setting up a totally tweaked out lacquer cutting facility using a Westrex head, and all transformerless electronics.

Another new American company, Balanced Audio Technology presented the VK-5, a stunning looking preamplifier featuring fully balanced circuit topology. The ten tube design has zero feedback, dual mono construction, tube current and voltage regulation and an ultra simple signal path which features a one Vishay resistor volume control circuit, and one custom oil filled encapsulated capacitor on the route to the amplifier.

The VK-5 features 3 outputs and five inputs – all via XLR connectors. This is a stunning looking product priced at only $3995.00. Designer Victor Khomenko is a Soviet émigré who was trained at the St. Petersburg Polytechnical institute. Heʼs currently employed by Hewlett-Packard and once worked at the Svetlana tube factory in St. Petersburg.

Fourier Components based in Des Peres MO showed its Sans Pareil Mark III ($3895) and Mark III + ($4,470) monoblock OTL pentode tube amps which put out 250 and 190 watts respectively into 8 ohms.

Air Tight (manufactured in Japan and distributed in the US by AXISS of Gardenia, CA) introduced the ATM-4 power amplifier ($ 4,795) which uses Russian made 6L6-GC beam output tubes (similar to those used in the old McIntosh MC-240 amps). The ATM-4 puts out 24 wpc or 40 bridged to mono. All wiring is point to point and the unit features a push-pull balance adjustment meter.

Another 6L6 based amp, the Baron Reference Amp, from MESA Engineering of Petaluma CA was on display. The dual mono design is switchable between pentode and triode operation, features illuminated VU meters for output and bias adjustment, polypropylene caps, ceramic tube sockets with silver plated contacts and more.

Marigo Audio Lab introduced a complete line of handmade French tube electronics – Audio Matiére including the Majuscule ($3975) a 30 wpc amp, and the Majuscule integrated tube amp ($4975) complete with passive line stage. Also in the lineup: two 60 watt stereo tube amps ($8675 and $8875), two tube pre-amps the PA1 and Paraphrase ($4975 each) and soon to come, monoblocks, tube CD players, D/A converters and MM/MC phono step up.

Can you believe all this tube stuff ? But wait ! Thereʼs more ! KSS Audio Engineering of Philadelphia PA showed yet another OTL series of amps direct coupled from input to output which the company claims are flat down to DC. The line includes the KSS 200S (100 wpc $4995), the KSS 480MB (230 watts $9495), two pre-amps ($3995 and $5495) and a phono stage ($1995).

The humungous award went to Rainbow Electronics (Sacramento CA) for its Shoreline 800, a monoblock behemoth putting out over 800 watts RMS using just 4 tubes (AM transmitter devices). How much ? If you have to ask, you canʼt touch. OK, $100,000 a pair. I sat with John Marks of John Marks Records and he thought the sound of his Rosen Plays Bach CD was “...everything Iʼd hoped it would be when I produced it”.

Industry veteran Conrad-Johnson introduced the MV55 a 50wpc entry level tube power amplifier ($1995) featuring EL34 output tubes. CJ also showed two new solid state products: the PFR Remote Control Preamplifier ($2395) and the EF1 phono Equalization Preamplifier ($1595).

Over at The Golden Nugget, Audio Research showed many new tube and solid state products including a “Spacial” (their spelling, not mine) non Dolby ProLogic surround sound processor, a Reference series of mono and stereo amplifiers, preamps, and phono stages. The Minnesota based company also showed a transport, and a new D/A converter.

The irrepressible David Manley introduced his latest effort, the Manley 880/400 watt monoblock amp which puts out 880 watts tetrode operation and 400 watts triode and features his “Magic” (Multiple Arrayed Geometric Coupling) output transformer technology. Sounded quite fine.

Cary Audio Designʼs foray into exotic single ended circuitry continues, with the CAD-301SE ($4995) a 14 wpc pure Class A single ended stereo amplifier or 28 watt monoblock. A pair in “vertical bi-amp” mode driving a pair of Audio Vector Model 6 speakers sounded gorgeous. Cary liked the Danish speakers so much, (like Remingtonʼs Victor Kiam), it bought the company and set up a speaker manufacturing facility in the USA. Also new is the PH-301 moving coil/moving magnet phono preamplifier ($1495) and the SLP 74 line stage plus single ended vacuum tube headphone amp. A $400 plug in MM phono stage is available for the unit.

The best sound at the show that I heard was in the Sonic Frontiers room where the company was driving a pair of Genesis 2.5s with its new large 211 based monoblock prototypes which will cost from between $20-25,000 dollars a pair. The VPI TNT IV/Graham 1.5t/ClearAudio front end was making some incredibly sweet, dimensional music.

McIntosh, having struck gold with its reintroduction of the classic MC 275 amplifier has reintroduced the C-28 tube pre-amp.

Other manufacturers showing tube gear at the show included VAC, Melos, (showing the SHA-1 gold pre-amp with Porzilli Pho-tentiometer ), Convergent Audio Technologies, Yakov Aronov, Copland (distributed by Sumiko), VTL, Audio Note (showing the GAKU ON parallel single ended 211 based silver wire wound output transformer amps for $252,000 a pair), Jadis, Wavestream Kinetics (its spectacular Triode V-8 power amp), Cadenza Audio (tube line stage), Unison (from Italy), Nestorovic Labs, Sonique, Music Labs, First Sound, Bel Canto (showing the Orfeo, an 845 tube based single ended triode amp), Audio Prism, Solo (a gorgeous single ended 40w/40w pentode amp for under 1K!) and Encore Electronics (the DL 2010.2 pre-amp). Otherwise, tubes were a dead issue at the show.

According to a number of solid-state manufacturers with whom I spoke, the supply problems that affected tube designers a few years ago are now hitting them: namely semiconductor manufacturers are discontinuing production on favorite discrete solid state devices. Incredibly, this has led to the hoarding of NOS (new old stock) solid state devices. Shortages and back orders have crippled or slowed down production at some companies. One designer told me that the semiconductor catalogues have shrunk dramatically over the past few years as production shifts out of discrete components and into ICs. At the same time, tubes are becoming more readily available. Amazing !

Meanwhile a slightly revised Ayre Acoustics amp sounds like one of the best designs of the last few years. Also impressive, Nelson Passʼ Aleph 1 amp, the White Audio Labs A100 ($3199), and a line of solid state gear from Australia from ME. White also showed a neat three channel amp for home theater.

Jeff Rowland was showing a magnificent looking new DC powered pre-amp with a removable face plate which becomes the remote unit. The new, fully balanced Coherence runs up to fifteen hours on batteries. Estimated price: $12,000. Maybe Radio Shack will come up with a battery pack mod?

Axiss Distribution showed the most extensive lineup of Accuphase electronics Iʼve seen at C.E.S. in many years including amps, pre-amps, D/A converters, phono sections, active crossovers and a tuner. Prices are high (how about $16,495 for a pre-amp, $15,695 each for class A 100 watt monoblocks), but build and parts quality appear to be superb and the design and finish are spectacular.

Yes, the Accuphase line is attractive – in a massive seventies-ish sort of way, but the two most striking looking solid state designs at the show were from Monrio – an Italian-built series of amps, pre-amps, plus a two piece phono section – and the Danish Bow Technologies (designed by Bo Christensen of Primare fame) which showed a magnificent looking integrated amp (the ZZ-One) and a CD transport (the ZZ-two).

McCormack has a new line of “micro” components, some engineered by former Classé designer Dave Reich. McCormack also showed a new line of amps, pre-amps and a phono stage.

A new Canadian company, Esper Signals was showing a small, but powerful Class D amplifier which will soon go into production. Carver showed the new Lightstar amps. Other companies presenting interesting solid state stuff: Chord, Michael Yee Audio (which has a value packed line of affordable high end electronics including pre-amp, phono section and amplifiers), Conrad Johnson, Spectral, Audio Alchemy, (clearly one of the most innovative and cost effective American High End manufacturers) and Classe which showed a completely revised line of electronics including a D/A converter and a surround sound processor. If the solid state section of this report sounds somewhat anti-climactic – so was most of the transistor technology on display at the show (what little of it there was!).

Either big news or a big yawn depending on with whom you spoke, this was the first show where attendees could hear HDCD encoded disks decoded on commercially available processors from EAD (DSP-9000 Mk 3), Pink Triangle, Sonic Frontiers, Resolution Audio, and Spectral among others.

Hereʼs the problem: the only HDCD encoded discs currently available are from Reference Recordings. Keith Johnson, one of the developers of HDCD, is also Referenceʼs engineer. In other words at this point, HDCD is essentially a marketing tool for Reference. While some Reference discs are outstanding sonically and musically how many of you are going to go for this new technology simply to play back Reference recordings?

There is only one HDCD encoder in the world as of now, and guess who has it? Keith Johnson of course. Bob Ludwig tried to get one to encode the Rosen Plays Bach CD he was mastering for John Marks Records, but couldnʼt. He ended up using the Apogee UV-22 and heʼs convinced itʼs all heʼll ever need at this point in time.

Rumors that Warner Brothers will release six HDCD encoded Neil Young discs in the spring circulated at the show so now I can write that I knew of this development over a year ago. Now THAT should be interesting (if itʼs true).

If Pacific Microsonics doesnʼt get its HDCD encoder act together and soon, (and even if it does) it could be outflanked by two new and potentially superb digital formats announced both by Sony/Philips and Toshiba/Time Warner, for the production of DVD-digital video discs. DVD will be a new CD sized video format which will put over 136 minutes of digital audio/video onto either a single one sided disc, or a two sided disc (the Toshiba version) using MPEG-2 digital compression.

Before you get all worked up about digital compression, consider this: according to video experts including Joe Kane, if properly implemented, this formatʼs picture quality could surpass the 12 inch analogue video laserdiscs we have today. Pressing cost will be comparable to todayʼs CDs – in other words: dirt cheap. But more importantly, the digital room on this new disc format would allow uncompressed, full 20 bit 44.1K -or 96K for that matter – sampled digital audio. And from the first reports I received, the new players would also be compatible with current CD technology (you could play todayʼs CDs on the new player, but not vice-versa). Now THATʼs news!

And keep in mind this format is not aimed at audiophiles or videophiles, but at the mass market – meaning that the average Joe will then be able to experience true high resolution digital audio as a bonus byproduct. How long will it take him/her to realize that 16 bit 44.1K CD sound is far from “perfect”? Maybe 30 seconds.

Significant and stunning new designs were on display at this yearʼs show – and despite the usual poor show conditions, many of them sounded magnificent. Pro-Ac demoed its Response 3.5 towers, with Audio Research gear and achieved some of the best sound at the show.

Selling $20,000 turntables isnʼt an everyday event for Rockport Technologies, so Andy Payor has designed two loudspeakers. The ones he brought to the show- the lower priced model ($16,500) – sounded quite fine – but then with the Capella turntable as a front end, thatʼs not surprising.

Aerial Acoustics has upgraded its Model 10T with a new tweeter and a few other changes. Based on the sound in its suite (among the best at the show), Iʼd say the 10T is now the speaker to beat in the $4500 price range. Truly a bargain priced full range product.

The Genesis Model Vs which look a mighty lot like WATT Puppies is a significant addition to the Genesis line for those with small rooms and big bank accounts (about $12,500) but the day I heard them Arnie Nudell had the servo bass amps up WAY too loud. The sound was artificial hi-fi at its boom-tizz worst. He was also playing a Reference marching band recording I never want to hear again. When it was over I blurted out “How many of you would actually sit in the privacy of your own home and play that disc? Show of hands!”. Unbeknownst to me Tam Henderson was sitting directly behind me!

Thielʼs new CS7 is the best sounding speaker Jim Thiel has ever produced, in my opinion. The full range four way system was open, relaxed and offered superb staging and imaging reproducing LPs played on an Immedia RPM-2/Lyra Clavis DC combo powered by Audio Research gear. Jim sat through the Yeastie Girlʼs “Suck” CD which I whipped out for sonic desert. Thanks Jim. Among the best sound at the show.

All of the good speaker news was not expensive. Carl Marchisottoʼs new Alon Petite mini-monitor was one of the best sounding products at the show regardless of price (under $1000.00 a pair). The two 6x15x8 speakers made beautiful music ʻjes plain sitting on the hotel room dresser. Bass response was so good, I thought the Petites were crossed over to the dresser at about 80Hz.

And in a complete departure from its usual designs, Apogee Acoustics showed off a hybrid ribbon/cone box speaker – the “Ribbon Monitor” priced at $1000.00. When Lewis was finished, Jason Bloom played CDs: this is another winning budget design – a first rate performer regardless of price. The all new ribbon tweeter is a breakthrough in my opinion.

Another budget design that impressed mightily was the Energy C-2 a small black box, two way design – part of the companyʼs Connoisseur Series (it uses the same Veritas 2.8 tweeter as the more expensive models). At $550 a pair, this speaker, which goes down into the upper 30s is a virtual full range steal – it gets my vote for “best buy” of the show. Designer John Tchilinguirian is one the most talented young speaker designers working today.

Somewhat more expensive, but an equal “best buy” at its price point ($3500) is Metaphor Acoustics Designʼs Model 2 full range speaker. Driven by both the VAC 140 and Ayre amps and DPA digital gear, the Model 2s also get my nomination for “best sound at show”. This is one speaker that told me under show conditions that I could live happily ever after with it, no questions asked – and I just might.

At the other end of the price scale was Graham Engineeringʼs System 1 loudspeaker – a massive three way design from Bob Graham, designer of the 1.5t pick up arm. Based on what I heard, Graham is an equally talented speaker designer. The System 1ʼs performance was full range (from below 30 in room ), dynamic and effortless. It was one of the biggest full range speakers Iʼve heard that disappears with ease. Sonically that is. Visually I found the system kind of lumpy and homely.

The unit at the show was finished in a pearlescent polyurethane hand rubbed clear coat similar to what youʼd find on a Lexus 500. Chrome rings on the front mounted dual exhaust ports added to the automobile motif. Donʼt get me wrong: if I had $13,000- $15,000 (Graham hasnʼt fixed the price yet) to spend on speakers these would be on my short list.

Another speaker that impressed was the Avalon Acoustics Radian ($10,500) driven by Spectral electronics in Spectralʼs room – also in the running for best sound at the show. The Radianʼs response was robust and smooth from top to bottom with just a hint of “whiteness” which I associate with Spectral gear. Hell, after a showʼs worth of tubes any solid state is going to sound that way.

And the envelope for the most bizarre looking speaker at the show ? The Gallo Acoustics Nucleus – a beach ball sized (12 inches) polyethylene sphere with a front mounted 6.5 inch long throw Dynaudio woofer and a top mounted CDT (cylindrical diaphragm transducer) tweeter. The thing looks like an eyeball with a small top hat or a cartoon bomb.

But as with the Graham, forget the looks, this is a truly unique, crossoverless design. The tweeter consists of a variable density polyethylene core surrounded by a silver impregnated Kynar® membrane which approximates the behavior of the proverbial perfect transducer. It offers 330 degrees of horizontal dispersion with no deviation of its on axis response. You donʼt need measuring devices to know that fact- you just have to listen. The tweeter behaves as a pure capacitor – thus no crossover is needed, the tweeter blocks the signal below 3KHz.

Over at the MBL rooms along with the famous MBL 101 “pods from space” speakers ($29,000) was a new omni design, the MBL 111s. “Bargain priced” at $17,800 the 111s look like something Robert Goddard designed to jump start the space program – only nicer. And the sound was to my ears almost as impressive as that of its bigger more expensive brother. The four way design features a cone woofer, a cone midbass driver and radial upper midrange and tweeter units.

Eggleston Works, the company best known for its “speaker in an end table” line, introduced an ambitious $12,575 giant which looks nothing like a piece of furniture – but is built using sophisticated construction and driver loading techniques. It looks more like an architectural model of a skyscraper actually. Certainly a serious design worthy of further exploration.

Martin-Loganʼs new SL3 (about $3000) electrostatic hybrid is a complete reworking of the Sequel – so much so that M-L decided a new name was in order. The diminutive SL3 stands 5ʼ4” and takes up only 1.5 square feet of floor space. The speaker is rated at 89dB efficiency and features a stable impedance curve (nominally 4 ohms) which should make it easy to power. Driven by Audio Research gear, the SL3ʼs woofer/panel integration was pretty much seamless but I was troubled by a characteristic “glassy” sound in the upper midrange. The sound wasnʼt aided by the back wave reflecting off a sliding glass door. Given what the Aerius can do, I suspect this new M-L is a worthy successor to the Sequel.

Another electrostatic manufacturer, Electrostatic Research – a California firm showed three hybrid designs which resembled M-L products. On the day I was in the room the Model II ($3295) was in the system and I found the sound thin, pinched and edgy with not much in the way of a coherent soundstage.

SOTA has been importing the Dutch made Audiostatic line of electrostatic loudspeakers for a number of years now. Theyʼve never sounded right to my ears- until this year. The new models the ESH-50 ($2195 pr) and the ESH-100 ($2995) are hybrid designs featuring cone woofers. The sound was smoother, and more extended than before – free of the lumpy, edgy sound Iʼd come to associate with Audiostaticʼs products.

Bright Star Audio demoed the new Altair Reference “dynamic dipole” Speaker ($6000) which features ceramic coated midranges, tweeters and woofers and a rear facing ribbon tweeter. Crossover connections are point to point and silver soldered. TARA Labs Space and Time wiring is used throughout. The cabinet walls of the 87 pound are hollow. Once you position them, you pour sand in and it becomes a non-resonant 170 pound structure. Sounded promising.

Other exhibitors showing products worthy of consideration: Swans Speaker Systems (including the Cygnus [$5995] and Baton [$2075]. All of the Swans speaker systems are high sensitivity designs (90dB-93dB), making them ideal for use with single ended triode amps), Audio Artistry (The Dvorak), Hales Design Group (an entirely new lineup [$1995-$5800] from L. Paul Hales – and a new company), Spendor (a new Master Series of floor standing speakers), Green Mountain Audio, Michael Green Designs, Shahinian, Sound Dynamics, Magnepan (showing a new planar center channel to go with its excellent MG-10R home theater speakers), Chateau Research, JM Labs Joseph Audio, Linnaeum (a revised model 9), NSM, and Dunleavy.

Most intriguing room at show: Yamamura Systems. Okay, Iʼm a fan and fans can be notoriously starstruck, but the sound in the Yamamura Systems room was something special – out of the ordinary. Be Yamamura, designer of the A.R.T. and Yamamura line of cables and accessories is a true renaissance man, creating a unique line of amplifiers, speakers, D/A converters, a turntable-you name it. As the brochure states, his work is done “...free of the limitations normally imposed by commercial realism”.

Yamamura demoed one of his complete systems featuring his own amps, pre-amp, D/A converter and small single driver speakers on stands with separate subwoofers. Price is up there – the amps are about $10,000 for example. Some of Yamamuraʼs speaker designs feature cork horns and other exotic materials. And the products – especially the electronics – look like works of art.

The performance from the small, 4 inch driver speakers lacked dynamics and frequency extension, and the subs were not particularly punchy, but what was there, exhibited a purity, clarity and truthfulness I heard nowhere else at the show. I could have sat there all day – even though there were severe limitations to the sound – so right was what was there. Be Yamamura is one designer to watch (and listen to) over the next few years.

Lots of it at the show including an intriguing British made turntable from Wilson-Benesch – the A.C.T. 1 ($3295-$3695 depending on finish) and two tapered carbon fiber pick-up arms the A.C.T. 1 and 2 ($ 2295 and $2695). While the table superficially resembles a Linn, it is a totally unique design best described in a full review. Ditto the arms- which feature unique triple bearing pivots. These products had analogue lovers salivating. WB also showed an intriguing line of loudspeakers.

SOTA introduced a new top of the line “open architecture” turntable the Millennia ($6400) which includes many features found on the COSMOS including vacuum hold down, four point suspended suspension, “electronic flywheel” etc. A laser beam is used to align the outboard motor. SOTA also launched a new budget table – the Moonbeam complete with arm and dustcover ($379). The unit features belt drive via a low noise 24 pole A/C synchronous motor. The unit can be preordered with cartridge. SOTA also showed a vacuum operated record cleaning machine which bore a close resemblance to the VPI HW 16.5., though it appears to have some intriguing new features such as a water tight interior, waterproof polymer platter, and a Vari-Port (TM) pick up tube which it is said provides uniform vacuum pressure across the tube. The unit also includes a fluid dispenser and an easily emptied waste fluid tank-including an externally mounted level indicator.

Townshend Audioʼs fine line of turntables was on display as was a prototype servo controlled pivoted arm with zero tracking error. Soon to come – the Rock Reference table. All Townshend designs feature fluid damping applied at the headshell.

Rockport Technologies was showing the Capella turntable and the new Capella linear tracking air bearing arm now available as a separate product ($4500). I mounted one on my TNT MK III and bought it the same day. The combo doesnʼt equal the Capella, but it comes awfully close for about half the price. Is the Capella arm twice as good as the Graham (it cost about twice as much)? No. But its soooo focused and authoritative. Graham meanwhile has a new ceramic wand for his arm which I hope to audition.

Manley showed the Zarathustra turntable/arm combination, but I didnʼt hear it Sprach when I was in the room. The Kuzma Reference/Spotheim SPJ combo in the Cardas room made sweet music. Nothing new from VPI (the TNT was clearly the demo table of choice at the show), or BASIS (rumor has it A.J. Conti is concentrating on building an industrial strength Cappuccino machine-honest!).

There was plenty of news in peripheral analogue gear including an incredibly good MM/MC phono stage from Audio Alchemy ($249). The unit features adjustable gain (over 60dB-enough for any cartridge) and loading. Iʼm listening to it as I write this and aside from a bit of noise, its performance is very smooth and detailed without the kind of grain and edge one expects in a budget product like this. As designer Peter Madnick told me “It’s no Vendetta Research (heʼs right about that!), but I took everything I learned from John Curl and put it in here”.

Golden Aero showed the dB 45 an $800 solid state phono stage that impressed VPIʼs Harry Weisfeld (I didnʼt get a chance to hear it).

Roy Hall was extolling the virtues of the Creek OBH-8 moving magnet phono stage ($200) while plying guests with fine “single ended” scotch whiskey.

At the other end of the price continuum, Gryphon introduced an $8500 phono section.

Little news from the cartridge front: Sumiko introduced the SHO moving coil – a high output “reference quality” product ($1500). Blue Oasis introduced a new $4000 cartridge. Otherwise youʼve got your Scan-Tech Lyras and variations (AudioQuest, Spectral), your Clearaudios, your Dynavectors, your Van denHuls, your Benzes, your AudioTechnicas – and you know the rest.

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