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High-End Audio Makes the CES Scene

According to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the organization that runs the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), 140,000 people attended this year’s annual confab in Las Vegas, NV. In past years, attendance has typically hovered around 100,000. But with the shrinkage of the normally even larger computer show, COMDEX, in 2003, followed by its cancellation this past November, the Intels, IBMs, Apples, Hewlett Packards, and other assorted bits-and-bytes vendors, and their customers, descended on CES with a vengeance.

All 140,000 show attendees appeared to be lined up outside the Las Vegas Convention Center before the doors opened on the first day, like contestants in some humongous Where’s Waldo game show. And every one of the thousands of exhibitors aspired to be Waldo—the company all visitors were eager to find. If they did, the lucky manufacturer’s order books would be full, customers would be lining up for their products, and a successful 2005 would be assured.

So who was Waldo at this year’s show? Despite every exhibitor’s dreams, it’s never just one company. And one observer’s buzz is another’s yawn. The mass media was obsessed with finding this year’s hot gadget. The computer press was obsessed with finding this year’s tweaky gadget. And we in the high-end audio/video press were, as always, merely obsessed.

I reported on many of the items that generated a CES buzz in my on-the-scene reports from day 1, day 2, day 3, and day 4 during the show. But we didn’t thoroughly cover the goings on at the Alexis Park hotel, the official show venue for specialty audio, or the adjoining St. Tropez, the site of yet more exotic audio exhibits at T.H.E. (The Home Entertainment) Show (an unofficial but longstanding event) in those reports, so I’ll cover those venues here.

Surround sound isn’t featured much in the rooms at the Alexis Park or St. Tropez; while 2-channel high-end remains a niche, it’s still a strong one. But at least two well-known companies launched new electronics aimed at the surround market. Arcam had the new AVP700 preamp-processor and P1000 power amp. The AVP700 ($2200) features HDMI switching (a still-rare feature, particularly in pre-pros), while the P1000 ($2300) provides seven-channels of 135Wpc amplification. Look for them both in May.

Conrad-Johnson, not previously famous for much activity in the multichannel game, is working on three new products for that market. The MET1 is a tube-based, analog-only (no surround decoding) six-channel analog preamp ($8000, March). The AVP1 is a hybrid (tube and solid state) universal disc player ($8500, late summer or early fall). And the MET150 ($8500, summer) is a 5-channel, hybrid amplifier (tube input stages, solid-state outputs).

Hsu Research has a gaggle of new subwoofers in the works. Most exciting for those of us who like to plumb the depths is a new VTF-HO line, with replacements for the VTF-2 and VTF-3. A 4-inch-diameter port was designed for the new VTF-2 HO and VTF-3 HO. A larger port allows more extreme low-frequency output, but it also requires a larger box and a curved duct. A Hsu patented design reduces the port noise such an arrangement would otherwise generate. With its 1000-watt amp and a price forecast to be under $1000, you have the usual high-value subwoofer Hsu is famous for. The company also showed a new V-SLIM subwoofer with a narrow, curved cabinet, a 6x9-inch driver, and a $399 price, as well as a new Mk 2 version of the Ventriloquist surround-speaker package with a more slender center channel. There’s also a new, tiny surround speaker (the V2CH-S Array) that reproduces two surround channels from a single enclosure; it should also be available soon.

Impressive things were also happening in the Genesis Advanced Technologies room. The company was featuring its big G201 speakers with their ribbon dipoles and separate, 4-driver woofer towers (one per side). The 2-channel demo sounded as good as a $48,000/pair set of speakers should (but doesn’t always). And elsewhere in the room was a multichannel system using five of the company’s new 7.1c speakers ($1975 each) and four Genesis subwoofers. We have requested a review set.

TAD Home Audio demonstrated its flagship Model 1 speaker in a multichannel setup together with its Center Channel and Compact Monitor speakers. They also demonstrated a pair of Compact Monitors by themselves, and even this smaller model produced a remarkably cohesive, dynamic, gripping sound. We’re eager to review a quartet of these 2-driver, 3-way speakers (the midrange and tweeter are coaxially mounted) with a Center Channel, but it may be an extended wait. TAD has completed the engineering on the Compact Monitor (price not yet available), but their production facilities are currently maxed out building the $45,000/pair Model 1!

Three additional speakers caught my attention. Two were being demonstrated in 2-channel systems, but my notes in both cases strongly suggested they are review-worthy: The Von Schweikert VR-4Jr ($3500/pair) and the Chario Ursa Major ($8000/pair). Chario makes a suitable center channel for the Ursa Major. The Von Schweikert is hardly cheap, but it's reasonable enough in price—and short enough in height—to suggest the use of three across the front. The third speaker was a new 20.1 center channel from Magnepan. Still under development (price TBD), it is designed for use with the company’s MG3.6 or MG20.1 holding down the left and right fronts.

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