Analog Corner #33

One of Mikey's best sounds at CES: the Hales Transcendence 5 speakers powered by Balanced Audio Technology amplification. All photos by John Atkinson

(Originally published in Stereophile, April 12th, 1998)

Call it a convention, call it a trade exhibition, call it CES, call it "Bernie''—no matter how you laser-slice it, it's a show. And for a show to succeed, it needs an audience. For an audience to show up, it needs stars, it needs a good book, and it needs some decent tunes or compelling drama.

The Consumer Electronics Show used to have all of those things in such profusion it could mount two productions a year—one in Chicago, one in Las Vegas. But as the '90s wound up, the star power wound down: there were no new bright lights—no new big-screen TV, no VCR, no camcorder or compact disc to attract the hordes. The hordes dutifully dwindled—especially in Chicago, where you could easily measure attendance by how long it took the McCormick Center parking lot to fill. In the early '80s, if you didn't get there by 8am you were turned away; toward the sorry-assed end you could waltz in anytime and park indoors, close to the entrance. The outside lot, once gorged with cars, became a lonely expanse of sizzling concrete. The show closed; the audience had moved on.

But there was always Las Vegas! Surely the crowds would keep coming to Vegas—America's premier convention city. There were new "stars" on the horizon to help ensure the show's continued success, including DSS small-dish satellite technology, DVD, and HDTV, all under the comforting and easy-to-conceptualize "home theater" umbrella. Yet over the past few years even Vegas, it seems, has seen attendance shrink. It's more difficult to tell: there's no central parking lot from which to take a pulse, and the Show is more spread out. But clearly, over the past few years the sinking feeling that gripped the Loop show began to consume the Las Vegas CES. Unless there was change, this show, too, would be threatened—even as Comdex, the giant computer show, grew.

So this year's model came with some high-profile celebrity speakers: Bill Gates, Barry Diller, Steve Forbes, and Scott McNealy (CEO of Sun Microsystems), and a high-profile product: HDTV. There was a high-profile logo and slogan: "Touch Tomorrow." And the show's host, CEMA, the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers' Association ("A sector of EIA''), did an impressive job of organizing everything into the most focused, comprehensive, information-packed, and user-friendly show guide ever—a full-sized telephone book of a document on hard copy and CD-ROM that for the first time explains CEMA, its organization, and its mission.

It's a digital year!
CEMA's audited attendance figure was 91,614 (Footnote 1), down a little from the 1997 Show's 95,725, but from what I could gather, the number of visitors at all the CES venues appeared to be down. The first day, the Alexis Park Resort Hotel, where specialty audio was sequestered, was a ghost town, but that was hardly surprising: the "High End" we all know and love has been gradually marginalized over the past decade, and no one seems willing to do much about it.

The next three days saw attendance climb to the point where the Alexis walkways were almost crowded, but take it from me: with a few exceptions I'll get to in a minute, the specialty audio part of CES was about as exciting as watching corn grow.

I heard the same thing from some of the home-theater exhibitors at the Las Vegas Hilton Convention Center. It was reported to me that the mood of the crowd was listless—even though exhibitors had HDTV and DVD, DTS, DSS, and Dolby Digital to trumpet. And this is, as CEMA claimed, "...a digital year."

Why did the Show fail to generate heat? I'll get to high-end and analog at the show shortly, but first note that, of the "star" speakers, two were computer geeks, one of them the Antichrist of computerdom. If CEMA goes for the computer/consumer electronics "convergence" the computer guys want, COMDEX wins, CES loses, and—better believe it—we audiophiles lose. After all, their idea of "music" is a jitter-rich, RF-polluted, 16-bit sound card and a pair of powered plastic mini-speakers. I couldn't find it in the guide, but apparently some of the forward thinkers in the computer/audio convergence field saw fit to hire a Stereo Review writer to bring them into "high-end" audio. That's how off the chart they are.

What a joke. Stereo Review and its ilk have spent the past 20 years trying to kill off the mainstream audio industry in America with their "it all sounds the same" message. In Britain, modestly priced two-channel audio is still an exciting, viable market—and a stepping stone to the "high end." Here the link has been cut, audio stores are dying, and the crowded computer stores look like the audio stores of the early '70s—they're on a roll, and everyone wants the latest upgrade.

No one in the computer industry is stupid and/or ignorant enough to say "you have enough memory, you have enough speed, all computers are the same." When the convergence the computer industry seeks occurs and entertainment really starts flowing through the Internet, consumers will put their audio money there, not into some tweaky equivalent of grandpa's console radio. Of course, the sound will be excremental, but by then it will be too late for the "high end."

CEMA tried to play the HDTV card this year. Big mistake, in my opinion—that's next year's news. This year, all we got were a couple of impressive-looking demos like the one I saw at Toshiba: an incredible display of what football will look like...someday. This day, it took a wall of noisy, complex video gear to provide the picture.

This year's home-theater news was really last year's news: Dolby Digital, DTS, and DVD, all of which are, at this point, for "tweakers," not Joe Sixpack. Joe gets DSS (read: football). What does Dolby Digital mean to him? Not much.

When consumers see HDTV they'll get the picture, but the price and the limited programming will make the transition long and painful. Meanwhile, big-screen TV sales—low-profit-margin items to begin with—have ground to a halt, with consumers afraid to invest in what they think will soon be obsolete technology. It's the worst of all worlds for the television industry. No wonder the home-theater crowd was listless.

What about analog?
As usual this CES saw many manufacturers "outboard" at various Las Vegas hotels, but the most organized of these, Ken Mavrick's "dissident" International High End Show, split between the Debbie Reynolds and Howard Johnson hotels, had me hanging my head. First of all, I didn't even know the IHES was being held this year. And if I didn't, whom did they tell?

Eventually the IHES handed out an "official directory" at the Alexis Park, but after reading it I bet many recipients didn't take it seriously enough to attend. Particularly hilarious were the instructions on "How to Maximize Your Show Agenda'': "Because there are five main venues, you should allow one day for each. One day for Debbie Reynolds, one day for Howard Johnson, one day [each] for Golden Nugget and the LV Convention Center, and one day for Alexis Park. Due to the El Nio [sic] storms, you may have to change the Alexis Park day as it is an outdoor venue." Why not come right out and say it: The Alexis Park is contaminated by nuclear waste and shouldn't be visited at all?

What's happened is, for the most part, the High End has gotten tweakier, more exotic, and more expensive. The companies making affordable gear have sought shelter in the bosom of home theater, pitching their tents at the Convention Center. There were exceptions, of course...

As usual, Music Hall showed off affordable Creek/Epos systems and a $299 turntable complete with factory-mounted Goldring Elan cartridge. And guess what? The sound from that modest system was among the best I heard at the Show. The two-speed belt-drive MMF-2 'table, made in the Czech Republic (at the same factory from which Sumiko sources its Project series), features an alloy platter running on a stainless-steel-and-bronze bearing assembly with a Teflon base. The arm allows for both VTA and azimuth adjustment. Now there's no excuse for not adding analog to your system, and I bet it sounds better than any digital rig in the ways that analog fundamentally beats digital. The $80 Ringmat, which Hall also imports and distributes, made an impressive sonic improvement, particularly in the bass.

Creek's two-speed belt-drive MMF-2 'table is made in the Czech Republic and will sell for just $299.

There were other attempts at affordable analog, including Pink Triangle's suave-looking Tarantella ($1095 without arm), an electronically regulated, DC motor–driven, two-speed 'table with a surprisingly sophisticated suspension that offers vertical but (purposefully) not lateral isolation. The bearing, of the inverted, polished-ball variety, puts the acrylic platter's center of gravity below the bearing point for added stability. The Tarantella with Rega's outstanding RB300 tonearm will set you back $1495. According to designer Arthur Khoubesserian, the 'table also does well with Naim's ARO arm.

Pink Triangle is distributed in the US by Pro Audio Limited, which also distributes Wilson Benesch products, including the intriguing-looking new "budget''-priced Circle turntable. This uses ultrastiff carbon-fiber rods as part of a unique bearing suspension system. The bearing itself is an impressive-looking, high-tolerance, phosphor-bronze sleeve with a tool-steel spindle. The acrylic-plattered Circle with Rega RB300 sells for $1995; with WB's new a.c.t. 0.5 carbon-fiber arm (a handsome-looking combo that we'll soon review), it will set you back $2995. Add the Ply cartridge, WB's version of the Benz Glider, and you have the Full Circle ($3895) ready to play. Also on display: the new Analog One 300µV moving-coil cartridge ($3800), which Jonathan Scull reviewed in the February issue of Stereophile.

Over at the home theater exhibits I found a new turntable: Rotel's RP-955, a non–Rega-sourced two-speed, belt-drive unit featuring a heavy metal chassis and die-cast platter—$599 with pre-mounted Audio-Technica cartridge.

Basis' A.J. Conti, who builds "high-end" cappuccino machines in his spare time and who seemed to be running on high-octane caffeine when I encountered him, proudly showed me his new model 1400 budget 'table, which sells for...guess what? Right: $1400, complete with Rega RB250 arm (which Basis modifies to allow VTA adjustment). The 1400 features an acrylic platter driven by an outboard motor (the same as used on Basis' $5500 'table), a three-point suspension, and bearing finish and thrust-plate surfaces that are identical to those found on every Basis turntable, including the $10,000 Debut Gold. Machining quality is the same as on the most expensive 'tables, with platter runoff accurate to 0.0005". The 1400 is upgradeable in steps to the full-blown 2800; by the time you're finished, you haven't spent any more than had you started with the 2800. Basis, distributed by Musical Surroundings, was a strong presence at the Show, with turntables in almost a dozen rooms.

Even Rockport's Andy Payor has entered the "budget" (for him) turntable sweepstakes, with the superbly constructed Capella 2, a fully upgradeable $7500 basic 'table (no arm) featuring a nonairbearing platter, no vacuum holddown, and no suspension. Add the airbearing platter, vacuum holddown, and air makeup unit, and the price doubles to ca $15,000. The active pneumatic suspension adds $5750. Finish it off with the upgraded Rockport airbearing arm ($6750) and the total price floats to $28,500 ("or thereabouts," says Mr. Payor). As in all Rockport products, the Capella 2's build quality is as good as it gets in the High End—or anyplace else, for that matter. Rockport's top-o'-the-line Sirius 2 will set you back about twice as much...

Also present and accounted for was Lloyd Walker with his Proscenium Gold Signature airbearing tonearm/radial load air-pressurized platter-bearing 'table. This kind of platter bearing is not a true air bearing, since the axial load (vertical) makes mechanical contact. Despite his turntable being literally handmade, Walker is a mechanical engineer; it shows in the quality of his work and the attention he pays to every last detail. Beautiful to look at in a retro way, the brass/piano-black-lacquered 'table with outboard motor and large but dead-quiet air-compressor unit, sounded superb fitted with a Clearaudio Insider cartridge.

Making fine music in the Ensemble room, the Ecco integrated amplifier.

The Proscenium is based on Bruce Thigpen's Maplenoll/Eminent Technology design, which features a stationary airbearing and a moveable spindle. Fortunately, Walker's arm includes a silicone damping trough to deal with the high horizontal mass. With a 100-lb plinth and 70-lb lead platter that he insists will not "cold flow," Walker throws a great deal of mass at the problems associated with vinyl playback, and wins.

Last year Walker offered me a review sample, but I hesitated to report on a new, limited-production, handmade, and very complex product. Walker told me he's sold over 30 'tables and not had one failure. The Walker 'table doesn't offer the refinement and grace of Payor's Rockport products, nor does it offer a true airbearing platter, vacuum holddown, or air suspension, but it costs "only" between $11,000 and $15,000 (there are a few options), while offering a level of sonic performance that puts it near the top, in my listening experience.

While not officially exhibiting, VPI had sprinkled turntables throughout the Show, as had Immedia (the RPM-2). Also present: Project by Sumiko, Kuzma, Oracle, and Judy Spotheim's spectacular-looking La Luce, which Cardas Audio now distributes.

The message: Analog is back, it's here to stay, it's an accepted part of the audiophile mix, and it still sounds much better than digital!

Helping the Walker 'table sound so fine was the American Hybrid Technology Non Signature MM/MC phono stage ($5750), which incorporates ultra-high-quality parts, including "nude" 0.05%–tolerance Vishay resistors and Teflon caps in a single direct-coupled, noninverting amplification stage. DC offset must be user-nulled, but that's easily done. AHT also makes the AHTP DM model ($3500). Both feature adjustable loading and enough gain for any cartridge currently available. Designer Dan Fanny scored points with moi by not boasting that his phono stage "blows away" everything else and is the best in the world. Reviewers don't like to be so pressed.

At the other end of the price spectrum was the really interesting and promising-looking Entec Black Cube (ca $700), now imported by Holography Importers and Distributors of North Dartmouth, Massachusetts. The Black Cube features double-sided printed circuit boards in both the amplification/passive RIAA circuit and outboard regulated power supply, and surprisingly high-quality parts for its price. With 61dB of gain in MC mode, low noise specs, and adjustable loading, the Cube sounds like an extremely attractive product we hope to audition for you soon. (This Entec is not the Monster Cable line, previously owned by Demian Martin and Gerry Crosby, but a German one; I don't know how they're going to work out the trademark problem.)

If you're really strapped for cash, NAD introduced the PP-1 MM phono section featuring an outboard power supply, a resistive/capacitive (47k/220pF) input, and hard-wired, shielded, low-capacitance, gold-plated cables. Plug that Music Hall 'table right in, and for $430 you're analog-ready! Or use NAD's own Rega-based 533 ($449).

Parasound told me that John Curl is about ready to "sign off" on his new, fully balanced P/JC 2000 MM/MC phono section ($1500), meaning that it will soon be available at a dealer near you. I also saw the cool-looking, all-tubed Thor Audio TA-3000 MM/MC phono section ($5990), which offers 60dB of gain using four 12AX7s and two 12AT7s. The Thor offers selectable loading and capacitance, soft-start power supply for increased tube life, and the all-important "mono" switch.

ProAc's new $14,000/pair Response Five loudspeaker sounded great with Audio Research amplification and digital front-end.

There were FET/tube hybrid phono sections from Herron Audio (VTPH-1), Sonic Frontiers (The Phono 1), and Wavelength (The Cotangent, $1000), and a new solid-state one from Ensemble (Fonovivo, $2500). Wavelength also introduced an upgrade of its battery-powered (rechargeable Nicads) Tangent phono section, which couples a step-up transformer with a tubed RIAA/MM stage ($3000).

Audio Research demoed a new, upgraded version of its well-received PH3 phono section, the PH3SE ($2495). Standard PH3s will continue to be available for $1500. Current and future PH3 owners will be able to upgrade to the SE version for slightly more than the difference in price between the two versions. And, of course, "veteran" phono stages like the Pass Labs Aleph Ono, the BAT VK-5 and VK-10, and the FM Acoustics 122 and 222, were also in use.

Cartridges & accessories
More useful to a reviewer than a consumer—though there are those who must have everything, no matter what—is Thor Audio's phono-section break-in box, the Phono-Burn ($399). It outputs an appropriately low-level, RIAA-inverted signal, sourced by a supplied CD, for fast and proper phono-section break-in. I'm hoping to try one soon—I need it!

Musical Surroundings introduced Graham Engineering's new Nightingale integrated armwand/cartridge, featuring a transducer built to Bob Graham's specs by Immutable Music, makers of Transfiguration cartridges. The cartridge body is pre-aligned and rigidly bonded to the headshell, so there are no mounting screws, and the wiring is soldered directly to the cartridge generator pins (don't try that at home!), which eliminates the cartridge clips. This was the first CES in many years to feature a full line of Koetsu cartridges, now also distributed by Musical Surroundings.

TMH Audio familiarized me with the Miyabi low-output (250µV) MC cartridge it imports. The Miyabi uses Alnico magnets, "six-nines" copper windings, and a PA Ogura Line Contact stylus ($3995). Lauerman Audio, which imports Rega to America, has also begun importing two EMT cartridges: the TU2 ($1000 medium output) and the TU2 S (low output, $2000) from Germany. Scan-Tech, makers of the Lyra cartridges distributed by Immedia, is in the midst of an update of its popular Lydian MC cartridge. And DJ Kasser showed me two accessories for VPI turntables: a carbon-fiber record clamp and a two-piece clamping carbon-fiber armboard.

Judy Spotheim's spectacular-looking La Luce turntable was making good sounds in the Joseph Audio room, fitted with a Cardas Heart cartridge.

Finally, I spent half an hour with mechanical engineer Wally Malewicz (see "Analog Corner," November '97), who introduced me to some of the neatest analog setup tools to spin 'round the turntable in a long time, including: a VTA setup tool ($29.95) that takes the guesswork out of setting the arm precisely parallel to the record (a good, repeatable reference point); the Wallyskater, which allows you to set anti-skating without a test record or oscilloscope ($39.95); and the Wallybalance, an inexpensive stylus pressure gauge Malewicz says is accurate to 0.05gm.

But more important, Malewicz showed me how to set azimuth for minimum crosstalk with just a digital voltmeter and any number of commonly available test records. And, on the plane to Vegas, he came up with a way to determine the percentage of speed accuracy of your 'table with just a stopwatch. Next month's column will be devoted to explaining all of the great free setup tricks Wally showed me, and to reviewing his inexpensive setup gizmos. Software? There were no big vinyl surprises this year on the level of the RCA or Mercury reissue announcements, but Classic Records did hold a press conference to announce a new single-sided 45rpm LP release program. Every other month, Classic will issue ultra-limited-edition 45rpm versions of some of its most popular reissues. Many reviewers have been enjoying test pressings of these for a few years now; when they become available, make sure you get your favorites. When you hear them, you'll know why!

Analogue Productions was selling its superb Thelonious Monk box, along with many other titles, but the software news at this show, even from Classic, was not about analog.

The big story was the new 24-bit/96kHz-sampled two-channel music DVDs created—on their own initiative—by a consortium of high-end hardware and software manufacturers including Classic, Muse, Chesky, Ayre, and Resolution. I know this is someone else's beat, so I'll just say that, while I admire the initiative, and while the sound I heard was absolutely amazing, and perhaps as close to if not closer to the master tape than the best LPs, the odds of there ever being sufficient software to make the format viable and worth investing in are really slim. Sony and Philips have their own ideas about "super CD," and unless it's back-compatible with "normal" CD players, retailers aren't going to touch it—which means the format is limited to what the High End can license for itself. A noble idea, but... Finally I had the flu, my head was stuffed, and my hearing was compromised, but I have to single out a few rooms for great sound: Balanced Audio Technology driving new Hales speakers, the Creek/Epos/MMF turntable system, the Walker Audio/AHT/Clearaudio Insider/Lamm amplifier/Von Schweikert Model 6 speakers combo, the Revel/Proceed/Mark Levinson home theater demo, the new ProAc Response 5s driven by Audio Research gear, the new enclosed Gallo speakers, and the Alón Circe/Millennium preamp/Cary 805 combo (I forget the digital source).

If I didn't get a chance to visit you, or I missed you, or I spaced out...I apologize. Over and out.

Footnote 1: CEMA's breakdown is interesting: 28,372 exhibitors; 45,458 buyers and distributors; 3261 nonexhibiting manufacturers (whom I assume were "outboarding" at Las Vegas hotels, but still needed to register to visit the Show); 2446 manufacturer representatives; 2379 guests; 2212 consultants and financial analysts; 1307 engineers; 967 "developers"; and 2654 editorial press.—JA

RHenley's picture

It's been a while since I've last checked out vintage items that I could add up to my collection but I rarely find items in such good quality. - YOR Health

adamet's picture

Older components are often aesthetically and structurally better than their modern counterparts; the metal and wood used in vintage stereo components generally outlast modern plastics and look better. - Adam Gottbetter