Analog Corner #45

Mikey narrolwy escapes jury duty and heads for CES in Las Vegas. The year is 1999.

(Originally published in Stereophile, April 12th, 1999)

"Timing is everything."

Whoever came up with that gem had it right. The timing of the International Consumer Electronics Show, for instance: right after the Christmas/New Year holiday. I don't know anyone toiling in this industry who is actually eager to trudge off to Vegas a few days after two weeks of concentrated boozing, face-stuffing, and general holiday lethargy.

Timing. Hey! How about those connecting flights through blizzard-bound Chicago? I sat in a deserted airport for four hours, finally arriving in Las Vegas at 3:30am (which was 6:30am Fremer time). Great way to start the five most intense days of any consumer-electronics writer's year.

Timing? I almost wasn't allowed to attend this year's Show. I got called for jury duty, and my "hardship excuse" was rejected. So the day before I was scheduled to fly out, I found myself in a jury-pool room with about 300 other citizens waiting to see if my name would be called. If not, I'd be free to go. At 3pm, our keeper informed us that, in all likelihood, we'd be dismissed in half an hour—it was a slow litigation day.

Timing. At 3:15 a judge requested a 50-person jury pool. Number two on the list? "Mr....Freeemer?" Yes! So at 4pm I found myself in a movie set of a wood-paneled courtroom, sitting in the jury box waiting to be questioned about my attitudes on the drug war. Instead of CES, I'd spend my week playing one angry man, fact-finding a cocaine bust. What to do? I started sniffling and wiping my nose. It didn't work.

Timing? Before I could be questioned, and before I could give a drug-war answer that would have the prosecutor kicking my butt directly to Vegas (if not searching my car), the judge decided to adjourn for the day. He ordered us to be in our seats the next morning at 8:30.

"Yo! Your Honor!" I shouted.

"What is it?" he asked with typical judicial skepticism.

"I was told I'd be able to plead my hardship case before you if I was called today. I have a plane ticket here for tomorrow to the Consumer Electronics Show, purchased in October. I'm a Senior Contributing Editor to this magazine [holding up ticket and Stereophile], and I have a week's worth of press conferences and appointments. I'd be happy to sit on a jury any week but this one!"

It was a nail-biter. After weighing the evidence (my plane ticket, my name on the masthead), His Honor excused me.

Timing. I write this in the midst of a right-wing coup d'etat! But let the Show go on!

Timing. In last year's CES report (April 1998) I wrote, "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."

Right I was! This year we had the live, over-the-air broadcast of the Jets game on the last day of the Show, making HDTV real.

Over the past few years, the day before the official start of the Show has become an intense string of morning-till-evening press events orchestrated by the major manufacturers, who cooperate with one another by providing buses from one event to the next. I attended, and, more than ever before, the digital handwriting is on the wall: virtually all home entertainment and information services will soon be distributed digitally. The same wire or fiber cable will be a conduit for everything.

Amazingly, rather than being bothered by this, rather than feeling that our little analog obsession is being marginalized to the point of extinction, I felt energized. Why? HDTV is real, is being broadcast and looks incredible. If you watch television and/or movies, you'll want it. I got a CEMA press release today announcing that 13,176 digital televisions (not necessarily HDTVs) have already been sold. For now, I suspect that most, if not all, of these are the large, expensive 16:9 HDTV models.

But what really got me excited was a Panasonic press conference I attended where it was announced that Warner-Elektra-Atlantic, along with the entire Universal Music Group (A&M, Mercury, Verve, Island, Geffen, MCA, GRP, Motown, Philips Classical, etc.) were joining the 24-bit/96kHz digital audio movement pioneered by Chesky Records and Classic Records. We will get high-resolution digital—the kind most analog lovers will enjoy...if maybe not as much as their LPs. When?

Timing. There are still some compatibility issues to be worked out, and the majors will probably wait until the population of DVD players has increased before launching titles. A Warner Bros. spokesperson told me that, in WB's consumer focus-group studies, only about 10% of attendees appreciated the sonic improvement over 16-bit/44.1kHz digital—but when the demo was switched to multichannel sound, almost everyone wanted it. That tiny percentage of discerning ears may be misleading: we don't know the listening conditions or the equipment used. In any case, if we can get a 24/96 PCM two-channel mix, who cares if the disc also carries a silly, garish, multichannel one? (Dare we hope for a subtle, tasteful one?)

How much fun do you think it was sitting in the audience with "16/44.1 is perfect" apologists like erstwhile Chicago Tribune consumer electronics writer Rich Warren, and Ken Pohlmann of Stereo Review's Sound & Vision, and hearing mainstream corporate spokespeople talking about better-than-CD sound? Relief? It felt like taking a dump after ten years of constipation. At one point Warren stood up to incredulously address one of the presenters: "Ten years ago you stood here and told us that CD sound was essentially perfect. And now you're saying it's not?" Pohlmann was gracious after the meeting, covering by saying that he looked forward to the new format's multichannel capabilities.

Whither the Sony/Philips Super Audio CD, which some say sounds better, and whose CD-compatible 16/44.1 layer negates the need for dual inventory (a big selling point with retailers, believe me)? They'll have to line up all the remaining labels to get anywhere. A Philips record label employee told me the Universal Music Group's announcement came as a big surprise.

Timing. Perhaps someone at Philips can explain why, as it struggled to develop a new format and bring it to market, the company sold off its share of the PolyGram music division (A&M, Island, Verve, Mercury, London, Philips, DG, et al). How dumb a move was that?

In the Dark at Alexis Park
With all the convention-center excitement—this was, for me, the most exciting, sea-change of a CES since the introduction of home video—heading over to the high-end exhibits was...shall we say, "anticlimactic''? The Alexis Park hotel does a good job of spreading out the crowd to the point where the word "desolate" comes to mind. Next door's independently run (and thus much less expensive) T.H.E. Show (The Home Entertainment Show) at the San Tropez diluted the crowd even more. The days of elevator bottlenecking and pushing and shoving at the Sahara's North Tower are long gone, as is the sense that anything of serious consequence would be on display—despite 24/96.

Timing. As of today, there isn't enough software for most audiophiles to consider shelling out big bucks for transports and processors, though upsampling 16/44 is said to really improve CD sound, much as line-quadrupling NTSC on HDTVs can produce impressive video.

Timing. The audio and video industries face a serious threat to short-term economic health. The big television manufacturers worry that, with the DTV market not yet ripe but close enough to be visible on the horizon, sales of analog TVs will grind to a halt, as consumers wait it out before buying DTV and HDTV. Not selling anything is not a welcome prospect for the big boys.

In our neck of the woods, manufacturers of digital transports and processors face the same grind, with audiophiles waiting it out until the software selection improves and the few last compatibility issues are dealt with.

Analog spins on
No such problems in the analog world. There are billions of pieces of software, including much that's new and exciting. While hardware innovations aren't plentiful, there was enough at the Show to create a sense of forward motion. Vinyl is an acceptable part of the high-end mix, and many manufacturers were using it to show off their amplifiers and speakers. Even digital specialist Wadia had a turntable in its display.

During my home-theater wanderings at the Hilton convention center, I came upon Sumiko's rather ambitious display, which included a prominently placed static exhibition of turntables featuring the new and rather handsome Pro-Ject 2.9 ($695) and Perspektive ($995) models. The former includes a cherrywood-finish plinth, a heavy cast platter and damped acrylic mat, and the substantial arm used on the now-discontinued 6.9. The Perspektive, an update of the 6.9, is said to feature a new and substantially improved floating suspension, an upgraded plinth, and separate, isolated motor modules for each speed. Changing motors takes but a few seconds. Sumiko and the Czech company that manufactures the unit claim that dual pulleys represent a performance compromise.

Also on display were the two SME 'tables Sumiko imports: the 30 Mk.2, which goes for a breathtaking $23,000 without arm, and the 20 Mk.2, which is a more reasonable $10,000 with SME 309 arm and phono interface box. Turntables in the home-theater exhibition must have been a real crowd-stopper. I also ran my hands over Sonus Faber's stunning-looking Amati Homage loudspeaker, which my new, large listening room can accommodate easily. (Hint.)

Before leaving the convention center I headed over to the Allsop exhibit to see if, God forbid, they had the Orbitrac on display. Nope. They're ashamed to admit they make a product for the old technology, but they're happy to tell you that, with no dealers and no advertising, more than 10,000 have been sold. Imagine if they let the cat out of the bag. "Can't get dealers to stock it," a representative told me. I did see one way-cool new Allsop product you'll want: a replacement for those dumb red straws you get with WD-40 and other aerosol products. It's a set of high-tech plastic nozzles in various shapes and sizes that will make the spraying of contact cleaners, and other products we use regularly, far more efficacious. Look for it in a blister pack near you soon.

Back at the Alexis Park, my job description consisted of peeking into a room, looking for turntables, phono sections, and accessories, and saying "Goodbye" if I saw none. That's because some analog manufacturers were "piggybacking''—supplying turntables to rooms paid for by manufacturers of other equipment.

Still, there were some obvious stops. At the Thorens room, along with the company's wide, familiar range of disc-spinning products (including the TD 295, currently under review), I found the Ambience, a new, ambitious design priced at $9000, including a massive power supply and SME 309 arm.

Over at the Clearaudio room, I buried the hatchet with importer Joe DePhillips and took a better look at the new $12,000 Master Reference turntable/arm, which features a more massive, upgraded version of the Souther arm (it includes a thick bar of vibration-damping lead/antimony alloy on the quartz rail track) mounted on the three-motor 'table I'd seen at the Heathrow Show last fall. Believe it or not, Mikey doesn't like making or keeping enemies, so the stop was more than pleasant. But are three motors three times better than one? Or three times worse...?

J.A. Michell Engineering debuted the handsome new Gyro SE imported here by Artech. The lower cost version of the GyroDec does away with the plexi base and dustcover, which lowers the cost by $400 to $1595. Sound is said to be identical to the more expensive GyroDec. New features include complete motor isolation and improved, easier to adjust suspension. The price includes a custom cut armboard of your choice. The basic power supply includes a new toroidal transformer and there is an extra cost optional power supply.

There's always plenty of analog at the Musical Surroundings room, and my visit didn't disappoint. A.J. Conti showed me the new clear acrylic bases he's fashioned for the 2000 series of Basis turntables, per customer and dealer requests following last year's introduction of the clear-plinthed 1400 series. Also on display: the Basis Debut Gold Vacuum Mk.II, which we'll soon get for review.

Musical Surroundings' Garth Leerer also told me he had a review sample of the new Transfiguration Temper Supreme waiting for me when I'm ready—which will be soon. An update of the Temper (which I reviewed in the July 1996 Stereophile), the Supreme is based on a collaboration between Bob Graham and the designer, Immutable Music's Seiji Yoshioka, who recently forwarded me a packet of very useful information about the cartridge and the less expensive Transfiguration Spirit.

Musical Surroundings also distributes Bob Graham's tonearms. Bob was on hand to show me the Nightingale, an integral Graham armwand/cartridge and the result of another collaboration between Graham and Immutable's Yoshioka. The advantage of an integral, hardwired cartridge/armwand should be obvious. Graham told me the integrally shielded combo, now available, sells for $3900. An additional $900 will get you a specially designed step-up transformer with integral cable that doubles the output from 0.25mV to 0.5mV. Another cartridge we can't wait to audition...and there's no fussy overhang to mess with!

On with T.H.E. Show
Before finishing up at the Alexis Park, I decided to visit T.H.E. Show, next door at the San Tropez. Compared to the dismal Debbie Reynolds digs and amateur signage at last year's alterna-site, T.H.E. Show rivaled the real deal for professional presentation. And for some reason (cleaner electricity?), the sound in the T.H.E. rooms seemed consistently better than at the Alexis Park.

I found importer Steve Lauerman demonstrating the new Rega 25 (reviewed last month in this column) along with the top-of-the-line Planar 9. Rockport Technologies' Andy Payor was holding court in a nearby suite, giving analog devotees an opportunity to hear his top-of-the-line Sirius III turntable, which sells for a cool $55,000, give or take a few paychecks. But as my goal was to hit every analog venue first, then return to the choicer sites for prolonged listening, I heard only one tune in Payor's room before moving on. Nevertheless, the sound was incredibly focused, resolved, and rich through Rockport loudspeakers—also priced where few pocketbooks dare go.

Moving down the hall to the Immedia suite, I found two of the biggest pieces of analog news at the show, one of which was a brand-new top-of-the-line Immedia turntable from Allen Perkins, who, after a friendly hug, said to me, "Stay away—I've got a vicious bug."

Timing. As he demonstrated the striking-looking 'table for me, I swear I felt a tickle—as if the germ had leapt into my throat and was already on the attack. The new plinthless 'table, as yet unnamed, features a heavy, thick, multilayer platter of stainless steel topped by layers of phenolic, one of vinyl, and finally, one of surface graphite. The bearing/platter assembly sits on a tripod, the feet of which rest on ceramic interfaces. The motor is outboard, with the analog sinewave generator and speed-control circuitry integral. But unlike the older RPM 2, the new 'table's transformer is separately housed, so it can be placed where hum induction will not be a problem.

The heavy, stainless-steel arm mount, filled with lead shot, is, like the motor, freestanding. A supplied gauge is used to precisely locate the arm anywhere around the platter. With this system, changing arms takes but a few seconds, though additional arm mounts will not be cheap. Alternatively, Perkins told me, it might be possible to fabricate changeable top-mounting plates.

The 'table will be sold for "around $6000" supplied with a laminated tempered-glass platform. An option will be an air-flotation system similar to Immedia's Noiseblock. The air suspension is supplied by a small air tank which, when filled to 1200 lbs of pressure, lasts about three months and can be refilled in 10 minutes at a gas station, or by using a small $35 dollar compressor. Perkins may keep the original RPM2 in production for consumers who want a sleeker, more compact design and don't need to change arms.

An update of the RPM arm was on the new 'table, distinguished by: a new dual-counterweight/azimuth-adjustment system that allows for a wider range of cartridges; a new, easier-to-set-up, wiring harness strain relief; and new Yamamura internal and external wiring that Perkins says makes a major improvement in the arm's sound. One other change is the new system for attaching the antiskating string, which makes keeping the string parallel to the record surface when changing VTA much easier. The changes raise the price of the arm to $2850.

The other piece of big news sat adjacent to the 'table: Scan-Tech's long-awaited Connoisseur 3.0 preamplifier, a thorough update of Peter Mares' legendary 2.0—the most mesmerizing piece of analog audio gear I've ever heard. The new dual-mono preamp features five line-level inputs plus the phono section. Painstakingly hand-built by Jonathan Carr, the phono section features miniature, three-dimensional point-to-point wiring of impossible intricacy. Only 50 of the $45,000 units will ever be made, so get your order in early!

The Connoisseur 3.0's two separate power-amp$nsized (electrically and physically!) power supplies feature custom transformers and 12 nonelectrolytic, beer-can$nsized 190µF caps. Loading is not adjustable by the user—Carr feels the signal is too delicate at that point in the circuit to tolerate any kind of switching—but resistance can be set by the manufacturer when the preamp is shipped. Gain is a total of approximately 71dB. Good news: a more "affordable" follow-up is in the works.

The system—new 'table, RPM arm, Parnassus D.C.t cartridge, 3.0 preamp, and Danish Sirius solid-state amp (which Immedia is now importing), all driving a pair of new Audio Physic Libra speakers—gives the kind of detailed, fast, delicate sound I like. But I didn't stay long, hoping to come back the next day for more. Immedia's new budget RPM-1 turntable ($2500), which features removable armboards, was on display in rooms throughout the Show.

Herron Audio has been coming on strong over the past few years, building a loyal ownership base and getting some great reviews in the smaller magazines. I liked what I heard in Herron's room, which featured the VTPH-1 vacuum-tube phono preamp ($2750, moving-magnet; $3250, FET moving-coil), VTSP-1 vacuum-tube preamp ($3650), and prototypes of a new, cool-running solid-state monoblock amp.

In the Toffco room—the new Dynavector distributor—I got my first look at the new naked Dynavector Te Kaitora cartridge, which features a titanium mounting plate, solid boron cantilever, silver coil wire, and Ogura line-contact Pathfinder stylus. Te Kaitora is Maori for The Discoverer, and the cartridge is a collaboration between Dynavector Japan and Dynavector New Zealand. While visiting Dynavector's website (;Tdynavec/english/kaitora.html), I was shocked and more than pleasantly surprised to find that Dynavector's legendary and oh-so-sexy DV 507 tonearm is still available in very limited quantities.

I headed downtown to the Golden Nugget for Audio Research's annual press party, where I got my first look at and listen to the new Reference Phono section, which will cost between $6000 and $7000. The system—an Oracle Delphi/Triplanar Vi/van den Hul Frog combo, the new phono section, Reference One preamp, a pair of new Reference 300 monoblocks, and Wilson X-1/Grand SLAMM Mk.2s—produced some of the best sound I've heard from AR in that room. It was also the first year in recent memory with William Z. Johnson not in attendance. When the Reference is finally put into production, we'll press for a review sample of what will probably be AR's final "statement" on phono equalization and amplification.

Saturday morning I awoke to some incredibly hard-core insertion-style porno on my hotel-room television—something I guarantee you I did not order (though I didn't exactly run to turn it off). When it ended, the channel played a promo for the next feature, Simon Birch. Only in Las Vegas!

Timing. For the second year in a row, I awoke with the flu. This ruined any hope of critical listening. Saturday night, at Classic Records' release party for its new artist, Lorna Hunt, as we sat and awaited Hunt's entry, three people came up to me to say "Go home before you collapse." So I did (go home, that is, not collapse). Hunt's new album, All in One Day, is available on LP and 24/96 DAD.

I spent Sunday in a hotel bed, missing chances to audition not only the new Classic LP releases I'd gotten the previous evening, but the HDTV broadcast of the Jets game. Bummer...and very bad timing.

Finally, and perhaps most important, there was significant new vinyl at the Show. From Classic Records: a two-LP edition of Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club, plus Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain, Bruce's Born to Run (nongatefold!?), Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin, and the aforementioned Lorna Hunt's two-LP All in One Day. Classic also released The Jimi Hendrix Classic Singles Collection, a limited edition of a brilliantly packaged, 11-45rpm 7" boxed set. Get it or regret it!

From Groove Note, the Joe Harley$nproduced I Got the T-Bone Walker Blues, by Roy Gaines. From Vivante Productions (UK), a reissue of J.J. Cale's Naturally. And from a new reissue label, Apostrophe Productions, in an ultra-limited edition (1000 copies), Esperanza—a two-LP solo set by Michael Rother of Kraftwerk that includes many bonus tracks.

Best sound I heard at the Show (before the flu)? Number one was the Spectral room, featuring Keith Johnson's modified Avalon Eidolons (actively biamped with custom crossover), Spectral DMC 30 preamp, a pair of Spectral stereo DMA 150 amps sourced by Spectral's SBR 3000 transport and 2000 processor, all connected with new MIT interconnects. Absolutely thrilling and convincing. Also particularly impressive: the KR Enterprise amps driving Von Schweikert speakers and the Audio Research/Wilson setup.

Timing. Mine's up.