I am not sure if I went to CES 2012 in order to go to Vegas or if it was the other way around. Both Vegas and CES seem to get along well, and the name of the game for both could certainly be ‘go big or go home’. And while I didn’t even go to the actual electronics part of CES, this over the top ‘showy’ theme was quite prominent in my mind while browsing the halls of the Venetian. But it was what was behind the curtain and just beyond the $40,000 speaker cable that was truly on show for me; the music. There was something unique I discovered this time that I am really excited about. At the same time, I don’t know that I can put my finger on it. I’ll try, and give a taste for what my experience was during my single day (not enough time) there.
What I noticed first and foremost is that at this point in the game, what I’m doing at home with my system is getting pretty darn close to what these big companies are doing in their rooms. That made me feel quite happy. Put another way, the point of diminishing returns is something that I am beginning to stumble across; for that extra bit of air or bass or soundstage depth you have to pay big, much bigger than the initial expense I’ve paid to get in the door. For example, my favorite room cost well into the six figures. Actually all of the systems that I felt were outstanding and vastly superior to my rig at home were, if not six figures, close to it. And of course this is a matter of taste, but also a matter of physics and watts and unabashed engineering that really does amount to something special. On this category of scale, I noticed a second tier of audiophile performance that seemed to cap at about $60,000, which gave a noticeably better performance than what I’m used to but that was still inferior to the big statement systems. The gradation of performance really seemed to fall into three categories then, which I found surprising and yet palpable when entering virtually every demonstration. Of course this is not an exact science, but it did make me quite curious. What exactly does push the entire system from good to better to best? Well, in any case, the prices were commensurate with my experience.
Sonus Faber had some gargantuan speaker I believe is called ‘Aida’. This was one of my favorite sounds of the entire show. A Tchaikovsky piece was being played on it, one of his cello concertos, and the sound was so incredible I simply couldn’t leave until it was over. I mean I couldn’t leave until the fifth song after that piece was over. The thing that shocked me most was the clarity and depth of each instrument that these speakers were able to express. Not only was I able to see the orchestra laid out in front of me on a solid soundstage, but the cello was sized just like a cello, and a violin accordingly. This scale is something I had never experienced quite like this, with exception to my experience with Magico’s latest giant Q. So part of the lesson here is that there is no substitute for a giant speaker. I guess I knew this but Sonus Faber gave me quite the reminder. But it’s more than just brute force and sheer mass that made the scale so perfectly balanced. This is one of my cues for what makes a speaker fall on the top tier of my scale: I believe it’s the attention to detail, the obsessiveness that cost-no-object designs bring to the table that really do amount to something better and not just something different. It’s like dining at Urasawa as compared to the neibourhood sushi joint, or even the very nice Nobu for that matter; the attention to detail and precision and all the extra elements that are considered (and they come at a steep price) all come together into an experience that is more magical than methodical. And while I believe in the scientific method, and that magic is essentially scientific, science doesn’t yet fully ‘get’ magic. So there is still an element of mystery and a charm that I appreciate from these designs in speakers that are full of passion and devotion to the art of sound. They do sound better, and they are worth big bucks.
For me, only a few other designs really invoked this kind of reaction for me, and as I mentioned, they are all generally up above $100,000. MBL of Germany did this in a way that was just insane. Magico did it in a way that was incredibly neutral and revealing like nothing I’ve heard. But then there was a subset of systems that were between those and what I hear every day at home; there was the BMW and Mercedes to MBL’s Benteley or Rolls Royce. This middle-of-the-road category I found dominated the show. Makes sense. Below it is Toyota and Hyundai and though they offered some surprises, generally they didn’t offer much more than what I have. On a side note, the ‘brand’ theme also made me a bit nervous/curious, but that’s another blog. And also I became a bit perplexed about the boutique brands, but nothing there ever got my full attention. So the bottom line for me was that my next upgrade would require at least $30,000 to really show me a significant increase in what I get from my system. Ironically, this is the price of a BMW or Mercedes’ low-end car.
Among these mid-priced Hi-Fi rooms I found Vandersteen to be the most charming, and often for even less money than I would expect. I always liked the Vandersteen experience, and this show was a great reminder of it. Richard was and always has been there in his room, proud of what he has done. And honestly, in my opinion, his model 7s are the most visually striking and perfectly designed speaker at the entire show to boot. I absolutely love their design and sound and at this time am pretty confident in saying that it is what I would buy next given the cash. It’s shape and sound is not too big, not too small, and the design is beautiful which can’t be said of his model 3 and equivalent. Though while the price of the 7 straddles the top tier, it’s attainable enough. There were more than a few rooms featuring Vandersteen, one of which was the 7, and two others were the new Treo, and the venerable Quattro. Apparently the Treo is basically the same as the Quattro but with the powered subwoofer being swapped for a passive unit. Interesting, and it certainly cut the cost. Both of them sounded phenomenal. The musicality of these speakers is what drew me to them the most. The listening experience was engaging in a way that few others were; I was able to just sit and be pulled into the experience song after song. This is what it’s all about. The speakers spoke with one voice, nothing was too overemphasized nothing was understated. The timbre and tonality of instruments was appropriate and never felt artificial. It may have something to do with the phase-correctideness of his designs, which makes a lot of sense when I think about it. But overall it was the Vandersteen that I loved more than any, for the price, and will consider saving for when I make enough money to consider saving for. They are a near perfect conduit to music.
I’ve focused mostly on speakers at this point, as they seem in my experience to impart the most significant difference in the overall sound of a room. It is difficult to then be able to distinguish the associated equipment without a greater familiarity with the room and the speakers and the equipment. In other words, I really only feel like I got a taste of what was there at the show, just enough to give me a vague sense of what each system was capable of and what its flavor was. Most of my impressions are probably not up to snuff in order to go much deeper here. However it has sparked my interest in going deeper in other ways and fortunately I am in Los Angeles where there are many resources to do so. I met many very wonderful people at the show as well who all share the passion I have alluded to for uncompromising sound and music. At its heart, this pursuit and passion is what my life is all about, sharing and enjoying it. This was a very good reminder of just how far we have come and yet how we will never finish trying to go further. I am thankful for this, and cannot wait for the next phase of my journey with it.
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