It was a menu of sonic dégustation, savouring systems from the luxurious rooms and suites of the Mirage and Venetian in Las Vegas to compile this tasty ‘Best Of’ menu. True, the freakish weather and deep freeze of the United States’ Midwest and Northeast resulted in more than 5000 flight cancellations around CES time, causing some diminished attendance but also therefore quicker and more efficient room-to-room navigation, longer listening sessions and deeper conversations with company reps and designers, at least for those that made it through.

As always at such shows, we came across some surprisingly average-sounding rooms, while other exhibitors managed to excel in every way. While this selection here is rudely limited to a difficult-to-determine ‘Top 5’, the Editor has this year at least allowed me the luxury of a list of those who just fell out of the five but nevertheless merit a most honourable mention.

So, let’s hear it for the very best of the audio exhibits at CES 2014…

altNUMBER ONE: Peter McGrath (pictured) has produced some of the very best classical and jazz recordings of the last three decades under his own Audiofon Records label (as well as Harmonia Mundi and others). In fact, one of my all-time favourite recordings, for its musical beauty and for its stunning sonic quality, is McGrath’s capturing of Earl Wilde in concert at Carnegie Hall. So truthfully is the piano captured in all its tonal complexity and dynamic splendour, and so beautiful is the performance by Wilde, that playing this recording on a good quality system can bring you almost to tears.

McGrath has also built a reputation for holding some of the best demos on behalf of Wilson Audio, for whom he now works as Sales Director. In the Wilson suite in the Mirage, the company was passively displaying the recently launched Duette 2 and the soon-to-be-available Mezzo 2 centre and Sasha W/P 2 speakers (the Sasha W/P 1 was also there for comparative purposes). There, after catching up with the Wilson Audio team, I was pulled aside by McGrath — “Would you like to hear some of my latest recordings?”

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Hell yeah! Down the corridor we went into a suite geared up with a full dCS Vivaldi four-box digital stack, VTL MB-185 monoblocs and Wilson’s own Alexia speakers all hooked up with Transparent Opus MM2.

“I’ve not experienced a better digital playback system than the dCS and I now use it myself in a two-box transport/DAC configuration,” affirmed McGrath. “It’s given me new insights into my recordings.”

And the system, as a whole, certainly gave me new insights into what’s possible in high-end audio. McGrath’s music, replayed directly from his digital recorder and number-crunched via the dCS stack and onto the amplification and speaker combo, provided the most realistic piano reproduction this jaded reporter has ever heard. Complemented by the staggeringly virtuosic and impossible maturity of young pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, the instrument was as tonally pure, in-the-room present and overwhelmingly dynamic as, I believe, is currently possible in audio reproduction. Goose bumps were on full-time alert here. This treat of a presentation by Peter McGrath was not only the best of CES 2014 but, personally and by a wide margin, a new audio and musical benchmark.  

 

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NUMBER TWO: Well-designed large speakers will always provide scale and dynamic fireworks. One of the very best-engineered examples is the Focal Grande Utopia EM. But their scale and dynamics aside, we have in the past heard them sounding ploddingly slow and heavy in the bass while exhibiting some etch in the high frequencies — albeit always with an engaging mid-band. Recognising the tremendous potential of these thorough designs, I always accounted this performance to unsympathetic room acoustics and/or accompanying electronics.

altGoing into the Axiss Audio, VAC and Critical Mass Room saw me once again auditioning the mighty Grande Utopia EM, and — wonderfully — these previous listening experiences were totally corrected. Here the sound was captivatingly beautiful. Small ensembles sounded appropriately proportioned, while an orchestral piece exhibited the scale, power and spatial cues that closely resembled the live event. The bass heaviness was here replaced with a lively, bouncy low register that was also fast and nuanced; highs were extended, delicate and conveyed a sense of ‘air’. There was a ‘rightness’ and ease to the sound that had me staying there for an extended session.

So this was decided as the second best sound of the show, in addition to an important lesson in synergistic association. In a favourable acoustic space and mated with Soulution digital and Transrotor analogue sources and the extraordinary VAC Statement Series preamplifier and monobloc amplifiers (with solid grounding provided by Critical Mass isolation components), the Focal Grande Utopia EM was transformed, and able to reveal its true qualities.

This was truly exceptional Show sound.     

 

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altNUMBER THREE: CES was the world premiere of a flagship speaker from Italian manufacturer Rosso Fiorentino, presented by its American distributor Avatar Acoustics and its amiable proprietor Darren Censullo (left in the picture). The imposing Florentia, which will retail in the US for $99,995, was skilfully tuned in to the relatively small room by Censullo and Rosso Fiorentino’s founder/head designer Francesco Rubenni (right).

Avatar Acoustics was also premiering the new Graaf GM400 solid-state amplifier (doing the driving duties and retailing for US$24,995), Abbingdon Music Research (AMR)’s new updated DP-777 DAC (with AMR’s CD-77.1 as transport) and a music server from MainFrame called the Music Processor (US$4995).

Darren Censullo is almost a celebrity in the US audio scene; he and I go back some way (including experience of his American boutique beer connoisseurship), so after a vigorous rib-cage compressing greeting, Censullo sat me down and enthusiastically ran me through some of the technologies in the Florentia speaker.

On-board, per side, are twin 12-inch active bass drivers each powered via a 750W amplifier, a 10-inch acoustic suspension mid-bass driver and, in an open baffle enclosure, dual 6.5-inch mids, a one-inch tweeter and a ribbon ‘ultra sonic generator’ super-tweeter.

I also took the time to inspect the enclosures of the Florentia and was mightily impressed at the level of fit and finish. Each of the three separate enclosures’ side panels are immaculately-finished in stained glass, with the baffle in black anodised aluminium.

With all that bass driver and ultra high-powered amplification on board, and performing within the confines of what is ultimately a small room (if massive by hotel room standards), I was expecting a veritable bass mess. What I heard instead was a superbly fluid sound with stunning bass power that was controlled and fast. The tonal textures and transparency this system conveyed was outstanding. Also to my surprise, considering the relatively wide and hard-surfaced baffles, was the accuracy on offer in terms of image placement and stage depth.

In fact, while writing this piece and leafing through my notepad, I read the notes and smile. Underlined and in forceful style were the words “music, music, music”. After spending some time in the Avatar Acoustics room, it must be said, those words really rang true. Music… yes indeed.

 

altNUMBER FOUR: If you were to compile a list of the top five, say, high-end speaker brands that are the contemporary darlings ‘du jour’ Magico would have to figure towards the very top. This brand has not put a foot wrong, and each model released garners a stream of glowing reviews from press and consumers alike. New for launch at CES were the S3 speakers (US$22,600), which plug the gap in the ‘S’ Series range (little sister to the über Q range) between the outstanding S1 and S5 speakers. The S3 uses its siblings’ beryllium tweeter and ‘nano-tech’ mid drivers while featuring new twin eight-inch hybrid bass drivers.

My experience with Magico at shows has been rather hit and miss. A couple of the Q series models have sounded somewhat average (even though capable of superb sound), while the flagship Q7 sounded sublime at CES 2012 and the entry-point S1 extremely impressive at the Aussie distributor Absolute Hi End’s showrooms.

At CES 2014, a cornucopia of high-end ancillaries from dCS, Aurender and Vitus assisted the S3 in sounding full-bodied and solid in the bass, also conveying realistic ambience and impressively layered imaging. Dynamic contrast was notable, while the beryllium tweeters’ rendering of detail was exquisite, and their reach very extended.

This time around, with the new S3, Magico impressed. A well-deserved fourth place.

 

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NUMBER FIVE: Some audio enthusiasts say that a simple well-designed two-way speaker can have a coherency and imaging precision that can be elusive for larger designs. The Brodmann Acoustics room lent heavy credence to such a notion.

The FS speakers made quite the splash at our own Melbourne Audio Show in October, where they were one of the highlights. Here, they impressed even more, powered via enticing and wonderfully synergistic Thrax electronics for a sound that was enveloping and supremely delicate. The speakers conveyed an openness, an ease and flow to the music that was quite captivating, especially with orchestral works. Towards the end of the Show on the fourth day I returned for a second, quite extended, audition and wallowed in this system’s stunning performance. Kudos too to Brodmann Acoustics’ Bernd Gruhn and his well-chosen classical pieces which are, no doubt, most suitable to these very refined loudspeakers. Edgar Kramer

 

OTHER EXCEPTIONAL ROOMS...

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Naim Audio: New SOTA amplification with total control and profound detail retrieval.

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Kharma Acoustics: New DB-11S with killer finish and powerful sound.

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Crystal Cable: Stunning little speakers powered via ‘The Cube’ prototype electronics.

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MBL: Spacious and wonderfully precise.

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Magnepan:  Behind-curtain mystery sound that mesmerised!

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Perfect 8: See-through glass speakers with a massive soundfield (Goran Rydqvist pictured).