CES 2013: Analogue Audio - Part 1 (Hi-Fi+)

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CES 2013: Analogue Audio - Part 1 (Hi-Fi+)

Many listeners assumed that ours is the era of digital audio and yet it seems that more people than ever  (at least in recent decades) are enjoying LP playback than ever before. As evidence of this, we have only to look at the plethora of new analogue audio (that is, vinyl playback) products seen at CES 2013.

This is Part 1 of a two-part Hi-Fi+ report on analogue audio components seen at CES 2013. You can access Part 2 of the report from our home page.
 

Air Tight

Key Product: PC1S moving coil phono cartridge ($8500)

For CES, Air Tight introduced a new, improved version of its next to the top-of-the-range PC1S moving coil phono cartridge, which is said to come surprisingly close to the sonic qualities of the firm’s critically acclaimed flagship PC1 Supreme.
 

Audio Note/Kondo

Key Product: Ginga turntable ($110,000 - $120,000)

In the world of ultra-exotic, artisan-grade turntables, few are more ambitious than the beautiful and massive Audio Note/Kondo Ginga. According to a company spokesman, the Ginga is exceedingly difficult to manufacture to Audio Note’s exacting standards, so that product availability is extremely limited. But, for a lucky few, the table perhaps represents an heirloom-grade investment.
 

Avid

Key Products:

  • Ingenium turntable ($2000 - $2300)
  • Pulsare II phono stage ($7000)
  • Pellere phono stage ($4500)
     

The Ingenium is the turntable many would-be Avid buyers have yearned for—a model that, while not quite an “entry-level” model in the usual sense, is nevertheless the lowest-priced Avid model and one that, importantly, retains many of the key design/construction details from Avid’s Diva II. Specifically, the Ingenium incorporates the Diva II’s sapphire bearing and platter assembly, yet is still quite reasonably priced. You can order the Ingenium as a basic ‘table or have it fitted with a 9-inch carbon fibre tonearm, but Avid also offers the Ingenium with other fitting for both 9-inch and 12-inch SME tonearms. Interesting, the Ingenium can easily be configured to support two tonearms with option for two 9-inchers or one 9-inch and one 12-inch arm.

Also on display were two phonostages: Avid’s flagship, Pulsare II phono stage or the upper/mid-level Pellere phono stages. Both are two-chassis designs with separate, dedicated power supply units and both provide passive RIAA circuits with Neumann HF correction. According to Avid, one key goal for both phono stages is to convey a feeling of “never running out of steam.”
 

Basis

Key Product: Superarm 9 ($14,000)

Many analogue enthusiast's rightly regard Basis Audio's Vector 4 tonearm as one of the finest available, but for CES A.J. Conte and team rolled out a new statement-class arm, called the Superarm 9, that incorporates everything Basis has learned over years to turntable and tonearm manufacturing and that is, quite simply, the very best tonearm Basis knows how to make. It's expensive, exotic, and gorgeous to behold; we can't wait to hear one in action.
 

BMC

Key Product: MCCi phono stage ($3790)

Schedule pressures meant I wasn’t really able to give the BMC MCCi phono stage a proper audition, but if the unit sounds as good as it looks (see our photo, which shows interior construction) it should sound very good indeed. US importer Brian Ackerman of Aaudio Imports told me he considers the MCCi one of the highest value analogue audio products he’s seen/heard to date.
 

Bergmann

Key Product: Magne air-bearing turntable with air-bearing-equipped linear tracking tonearm ($13,000)

On demonstration in one of the Aaudio rooms was the gorgeous and (relatively) affordable Bergmann Magne turntable, which sports both an air-bearing-equipped platter and a linear-tracking, air-bearing tonearm. For those who have always wanted to take the plunge into the world of radial-tracking straight-line tonearms (and I’ll admit I fall in that camp), this elegant Danish ‘table/arm package may be just the way to get started.
 

Clearaudio

Key Product:

  • Performance DC turntable with Verify tonearm ($3000)
  • Master Innovation magnetic drive turntable ($25,000, or $30,000 with 9-inch Universal tonearm)
  • Ebony V2-series Performer moving magnet phono cartridge ($400)
  • Ebony V2-series Artist moving magnet phono cartridge ($600)
  • Ebony V2-series Virtuoso moving magnet phono cartridge ($900)
  • Ebony V2-series Maestro moving magnet phono cartridge ($1200)

Clearaudio’s new offerings for CES consisted of two turntable/tonearm packages, one found at the mid-priced end of the spectrum and the other pushing toward the top-tier. The mid-priced ‘table is the Performance DC, which features a CMB magnetic bearing and a carbon fibre Verify tonearm. The intent is for the Performance DC to slot into the price gap between the entry-level Clearaudio Concept turntable and the upscale Ovation turntable, but with overall performance that—if anything—shades more toward the Ovation (making the Performance DC a quite good deal).

Moving more toward the upper end of the price/performance continuum is the new Master Innovation turntable, which can be purchased as a standalone product or fitted with one of Clearudio’s Universal tonearms. The single feature of the Master Innovation most likely to capture audio enthusiasts’ imaginations is the ‘tables distinctive magnetic drive system. With this system, the table is essentially fitted with two platters and two main bearing assemblies; the record, naturally, is played on the top platter while the motor drive mechanism is connected only to the lower platter. But here’s the fascinating part; there is no direct, mechanical connection between the upper and lower platters. Instead, both platters are fitted with attraction-magnets, so that when the lower platter turns, the upper platter is attracted to the lower and spins along at the same speed. The neat part, though, is that there is just enough “slip” between the upper and lower platters that any motor-induced micro-vibrations or minute speed fluctuations in the bottom platter will not be transferred to the top platter at all. Current owners of Clearaudio Innovation-series ‘tables may also want to note that their ‘tables can be upgraded to Master Innovation status should they so desire.

Finally, Clearaudio announced the release of four new Ebony V2-series moving magnet phone cartridges. We represented these here with a photo of the Ebony V2 announcement banner since, as a Clearaudio spokesman pointed out, the Ebony V2 models all look virtually identical from the outside.
 

Creek Audio

Key Product: Wyndsor phono stage preamplifier ($2495)

CES marked what we believe is the US debut of Creek’s most ambitious phono stage to date; namely, the Wyndsor phono stage shown here. The Wyndsor is a two-chassis design with a dedicated outboard power supply module. The main Windsor unit provides extensive adjustment for gain and for resistive and capacitive loading for phono cartridges.
 

Graham

Key Product: Graham Phantom II Supreme tonearm ($5750)

Graham unipivot tonearms were in seen and heard in a number of demonstration suites at CES, which to me has always seemed one of the highest forms of praise any piece of audio equipment might receive (you know you’ve made something good if your industry colleagues use your product as vehicle for demonstrating their own). But the highest form of the Graham arm offered to date is the Phantom II Supreme shown here. It’s truly a work of art.
 

Grand Prix Audio

Key Product: Monaco 1.5 turntable ($23,800 or $27,500 with Tri-Planar tonearm)

Grand Prix audio specializes (much as does the British firm Wilson-Benesch) in creative applications of carbon fibre composite technologies in audio components. Accordingly, Grand Prix was showing its Monaco 1.5 direct-drive turntable, whose frame and other key structural components are made of carbon fibre, along with a Tri-Planar tonearm. The entire assembly, in turn, rested upon a rack whose shelves were also made by Grand Prix audio and were formed of slabs of—what else?—carbon fibre. The ‘table sounded remarkably quiet and, in a very desirable way, free from even trace amounts of colouration.  In many cases the Monaco 1.5 is sold as a standalone turntable, but under a special arrangement with Tri-Planar the Grand Prix folks can also provide their ‘table pre-fitted with a Tri-Planar tonearm.
 

JR/Transrotor

Key Products:

  • Rossini turntable ($3500, bundled with Jelco 750 tonearm and Shelter 201 phono cartridge)
  • Zet 3 (New Version) turntable ($7500 in custom white finish with TMD magnetic drive bearing upgrade)
  • Fat Bob turntable ($7500 - $8000 with TMD magnetic drive bearing upgrade)
  • Rondino turntable ($14,000 with FMD free magnetic drive system)
  • Rondino Gold turntable ($28,000 in custom white finish with heavily gold-plated metal work and FMD free magnetic drive system)

Earlier in this report I mentioned that Clearaudio has a new magnetic drive turntable, but when I visited the Axiss Audio/Transrotor room I learned, through Transrotor’s Dirk Räke, that his firm offers not one but several turntable models fitted with magnetic drive systems.

Räke explained that at present Transrotor offers two basic magnetic drive systems, one involving the firm’s TMD magnetic drive bearing assembly and the other using the FMD free magnetic drive system (typically used only in Transrotor’s upper-tier models). 



In the TMD system, the turntable platter rests upon a fairly conventional-looking sub-platter/bearing assembly, but with a twist. The top portion of the sub-platter is physically decoupled from the lower section, so that the only coupling between them is a shared bearing hub and a set of upper and lower attraction-magnets fitted in both halves of the sub-platter. The idea, then, is for the motor to drive the lower sub-platter, which in turn magnetically couples to the upper sub-platter to cause the platter to spin. As in other magnetic drive systems, the key concept is to “trap” motor vibration and small speed variations in the lower sub-platter and to do so without passing them along to upper sub-platter, the platter, or the record itself. The TMD magnetic drive bearing system is offered as an option in both the Transrotor Zet III (New Version) and Fat Bob turntables.

Upper end Transrotors such as the Rondino Noir or Rondino Gold come equipped with the even more sophisticated FMD system. The FMD system is conceptually similar to the TMD system, but with one important improvement: there is absolutely no physical interaction between the upper and lower platters (not even a shared bearing hub as in the TMD system), so that isolation between the driven platter and the record-bearing platter is even more complete.

As you’ll see from the attached photos, Transrotor ‘tables are not only cleverly designed and engineered; they are also prime examples of the art and science of precision machining and assembly at their finest.

One more item: Transrotor also announced at CES an upcoming new entry-level model called the Rossini, which will be sold as part of a bundle along with a Jelco 750 tonearm and a Shelter 201 phono cartridge for about $3500 US.
 

Kronos

Key Product: Kronos turntable ($32,000)

The gorgeous but also iconoclastic Kronos turntable is manufactured in the province of Quebec in Canada and I found it to be one of the most impressive turntables I saw or heard at CES. Why do I call the Kronos an iconoclastic design? Well, for starters, it features—get this—dual counter-rotating platters (which, trust us on this one, is a very strange site to see in operation). The Kronos provides a full, well-damped suspension system and thus bucks the trend of building huge, heavy turntables that rely solely on brute-force mass isolation for vibration control.

Why counter-rotating platters? Designer Louis Desjardins explains that single-platter turntable can, in his view, be likened to helicopters that are missing their all-important tail rotors. Thus, as the platter (or by analogy, the helicopter rotor) spins it tends, says Desjardins, to apply vibration energy and counter-rotational forces into the turntable frame. In fact, Desjardins argues that one of the reasons suspension-less, mass-isolated turntables have become so prevalent is to attempt to deal with those vibration/rotational forces.

For Desjardins, however, the better solution is to provide dual platters of equal size and mass, with one platter rotating the opposite direction from its twin so as to cancel out vibration/rotational forces, thus—in theory—making the entire turntable platform quieter and more stable. One upshot of this improve stability is that the table can be, and is, fitted with a proper suspension system, making the ‘table quieter still.

I don’t have enough of a physics background to evaluate Desjardins’ design claims in detail, but I do know the Kronos ‘tables, which were used in both the Scaena and Lamm demonstration rooms, sounded awfully good: quiet, stable, self-assured, and musically “right” (in particular, the Kronos in the Lamm room sounded terrific). This is a design I hope Hi-Fi+ will evaluate in greater depth in the future.
 

Kuzma

Key Product: Stabi M turntable ($16,500, also available with Kuzma 4-Point tone arm for $22,300)

At CES, I had the opportunity (and privilege) to learn about the new Kuzma Stabi M turntable from the designer, Franc Kuzma, himself. As you can see from the attached photos the Stabi M looks pretty conventional from the outside,  but as is so often the case with Kuzma designs the genius is in the execution.

The Stabi M features a multi-layer platter made of two 40mm-thick aluminum slabs with a layer of acrylic material sandwiched in between. The platter’s weight is carried by an inverted-shaft/ruby ball bearing, with both the platter/bearing assembly and the arm-board supported by a massive aluminum sub-chassis.  The sub-chassis, in turn, is suspended from an also massive aluminum top plate by four elastic dampers.

The Stabi M is fitted with a DC motor and comes with an outboard power supply/speed-control module. Interesting, the deceptively large ‘table is big enough that it can easily fit 12-inch tonearms, if desired. In a conversation at CES, Kuzma mentioned that getting the design of the Stabi M just right had taken a great deal of time, so that Kuzma said the Stabi M actually took longer to complete than any other turntable he has created to date.art.
 

Lamm

Key Product: LP-1 Signature dual-mono phono stage with dual LP1-PS Signature power supply modules

One of the most ambitious and costly phono stage preamplifiers to be seen at CES was the three-chassis Lamm LP-1 Signature, which features not one but two outboard dual monaural LP1-PS power supplies.


 

McIntosh

Key Product: McIntosh MT5 turntable (Price TBD; ~$6500)

For some time now McIntosh has offered its MT10 turntable/tonearm combination, but many prospective customers have asked if the firm might offer a somewhat lower cost analogue package. The Binghamton, NY, USA-based firm has responded with its new MT5 turntable/tone arm, which was shown in pre-production prototype form at CES. McIntosh reps were reluctant to quote specific prices, but based on conversations at the show we gather the ‘table/arm will sell in the mid-$6000 range, give or take a bit. (Our thought: You’ve just got to love those glow-in-the-dark, McIntosh blue/green platter illumination lights.). Talk about a great “night lite”…

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