CES 2013: Analogue Audio - Part 2 (Hi-Fi+)

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CES 2013: Analogue Audio - Part 2 (Hi-Fi+)

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


 

Music Hall

Key Products:
 

  • MMF-11.1 turntable/tonearm ($4500)
  • Ikura turntable/tonearm ($1000)
  • WCS-2 record cleaning machine ($750)

Music Hall has for many years been an ambassador for (relatively) affordable analogue audio in the US and is also a firm that plays a key role in introducing Yankee music lovers to British audio products from firms such as Creek and Epos. But by longstanding tradition, Music Hall has always offer a range of turntable and tonearm packages under its own brand name and at CES 2013 expanded that range with both a new top model, the MMF-11.1, and a new mid-priced model, the Ikura.

The MMF-11.1 features a “quadruple plinth” design where the top three layers of the plinth are isolated via Sorbothane while the lowest layer of the plinth, which acts as a vibration sink for the to three layers, is now fitted with costly vibration-absorbing feet. The table comes fitted with a Pro-Ject-sourced carbon fibre tonearm equipped with Swiss ABEC 7 bearings.

The Ikura represents, among other things, an attempt to move beyond the basic rectilinear slab-and-a-platter design aesthetics commonly found on mid-price ‘tables. Music Hall founder Roy Hall worked closely with a gifted industrial designer to come up with a plinth shape at once evocative and yet tastefully restrained.

Mr. Hall, who enjoys something of the reputation of a “high-end audio bad boy,” informed Hi-Fi+ that he is very proud of his stoutly made WCS-2 record cleaning machine, and then asked (with a gleeful glint in his eye) if we what “WCS” stood for. We indicated we had no idea what the acronym might mean, to which replied, “It means this machine washes, cleans, and… sucks.” Ahh, that about sums it up.


 

Musical Surroundings

Key Product: Nova II phono stage ($1000)

Musical Surroundings showed a new version of its Nova phono stage that is called the Nova II. Details on the Nova II were scarce, but we gather that it slots into the product range somewhere between the firm’s entry level Phonomena II phono stage and upper end models such as the Super Nova Phono Preamplifier.


 

Parasound

Key Product: zPhono USB phono stage ($350)

Though not, strictly speaking, a brand new product, Parasound’s newest analogue component is the inexpensive and versatile zPhone USB phono stage. The key concept behind the zPhono, which is a compact, half-rack-width component, is that it can serve either as an MM/MC-compatible phono stage preamplifier or as a phono-to-USB converter. Interestingly, the zPhono allows users to store digitized analog files either with or without RIAA equalization applied. A company spokesman explained that this feature may be particularly desirable for listeners who prefer to use outboard, computer-based RIAA filtering systems such as the


 

Primare

Key Product: Primare phono stage ($1100)

Primare’s new phono stage was on demonstration with the Spiral Groove SG2 turntable/tonearm and Vienna Acoustics loudspeakers. Based on a too brief listen, we thought the Primare had a clean, neutral, and (in a good way) self-effacing presentation: a very nice piece of kit for the money.


 

Pro-Ject

Key Product:
 

  • Essential Mk2 turntable and tonearm ($299)
  • Expression Classic III turntable and tonearm ($700)
  • Signature 10 turntable and tonearm (pricing TBD; ~$7000 - $8000)
  • Phono Box RS phono stage ($1000)

Apart from headphone and desktop audio components (covered elsewhere in our Hi-Fi+ CES 2013 show report series), Pro-Ject unveiled three new turntables—one entry-level, one mid-level, and one upscale—plus a highly versatile and well-priced phono stage.

At the entry-level end of the spectrum is the new Essential Mk2 turntable and arm, while in the mid-price band there is the updated Expression Classic III. However, performance-minded enthusiasts with more expansive budgets will surely be drawn to the upscale Signature 10 turntable and tonearm, with pricing yet to be determined but likely to fall in the range of $7000 - $8000 US.

Last but not least, the Pro-Ject Phono Box RS offered what struck us as an awful lot of versatility for the money. If you look closely at the accompanying photo, you’ll see that the RS not only provides multiple switch-selectable master gain settings, but also provides a continuously variable load impedance control that allows users to dial in adjustment in real-time during playback until they find the just-right setting that will help the sound of the analogue systems to “gel.”


 

Rega

Key Products:
 

  • RP8 turntable/tonearm ($2995, or $3995 bundled with Rega’s Apheta moving coil cartridge)
  • Reference Ios phono stage ($3000)

As many Hi-Fi+ readers already know full well, the vaunted turntable/tonearm maker Rega has been in the midst of analogue changeover, update the firm’s well-respected P-models to created new generation RP-series ‘tables. The latest model to receive this treatment is the new RP8, which represents a fairly radical departure from the outgoing P8.

What makes the RP8 so “radical?” Perhaps the most striking change is an all-new skeletal plinth system where the plinth is irregularly shaped (not rectangular) and is made of a light, stiff, multilayer foam and stressed skin material said to dissipate vibration energy extremely quickly. Next, the RP8 is fitted with an impressive new RB-808 tonearm, and comes equipped with a three-layer laminated glass platter. The result, said one Rega spokesman, is a ‘table and arm combination that is said to outperform the P9 (no, that’s not a typo), yet costs much less. Interestingly, Rega is also offering a specially priced bundle where buyer’s can acquire and RP8 plus the firm’s top-of-the line Apheta moving coils cartridge for just under $4000 US.

Note that, as a concession to Rega traditionalists, the RP8 ships with a rectangular outer plinth into which the irregular “skeletal” plinth can be inserted, thus giving the turntable a more traditional look and feel, while also providing an attachment point for the RP8’s included dust cover. However, more than one performance-minded Rega aficionado claimed the RP8 might actually sound better when the outer plinth is simply left off (as shown in the photos, here).

What is driving all this change and innovation at Rega? According to company sources, many of the design ideas now unfolding in new RP-series models have trickled down from a behind-the-scenes Rega development project aimed at creating a blue-sky, cost-no-object, ultra-high-performance turntable and tonearm. It is not 100% clear when or even if this über-table, which goes by the working title Naiad, will ever be brought to market, but the key point is that concepts created as part of the Naiad R&D project are already working their way into production Rega models that normal mortals can afford. 

Finally, to complement the new RP8/Apheta combo, Rega was using its Reference Ios phono stage, which sounded quite good and is said to be able to tap the full performance potential of the Apheta cartridge.


 

Scheu Analog

Key Product:
 

  • Das Laufwerk 1 turntable ($8150)
  • 12-inch Tacco tonearm ($4995)

On demonstration in the YG Acoustics room was Scheu Analog’s Das Laufwerk 1 turntable and the (relatively new) 12-inch version of the Tacco unipivot tonearm, which features a ruby/sapphire bearing and a wooden arm wand (made either of thuja cedar or amboina pine). Other key parts of the arm, such as the arm base, bearing housing, and counterweight are made of tungsten.

It was interesting to note that the Tacco, which for many years was available only in a 9-inch version, has now become available in a 12-inch model (many other tonearm makers, including Graham, Tri-Planar, and VPI are also taking or have already taken this significant step). This suggests that, for Scheu Analog and others, the reduced tracing distortion benefits of longer-format arms are now more fully appreciated than before.ifier.


 

Spiral Groove

Key Product: SG2 turntable and tonearm ($21,000)

Spiral Groove’s new SG2 turntable and tonearm are quite beautiful, but in a quiet, elegant, and understated way. But the sound this analogue platform produces is neither shy nor retiring, but rather clear, neutral, and forthright without seeming overbearing in any way.

Part of the genius of the Spiral Groove package involves the clever (and, we believe, patented) under-slung counterweight system used in the SG2 tonearm (see photos). With this system, you can dial in pretty much whatever amount of tracking force you need, yet the bulk of the mass of the counterweight remains positioned very close to the arm’s bearing axis. In practice, this means you can set tracking force wherever you wish, yet without significantly altering the polar moment of inertia of the arm—a very cool idea.ifier.


 

TechDAS

Key Product: TechDAS AirForce One air-bearing, vacuum hold-down turntable with Graham Phantom Elite tone arm ($83,500)

Every CES show brings products that represent tour-de-force-grade engineering efforts in their respective categories and in the analog realm one such effort would be the stunning TechDAS AirForce One turntable, which is imported to the US by none other than Robert “Bob” Graham of Graham Engineering/tonearm fame. The TechDAS is an air-bearing, vacuum hold-down turntable whose build quality reminded me of a cross between a fine Swiss watch and, well, a massive but also fine Swiss bank vault.

If you look back far enough, you would discover that TechDAS is descended from the gorgeous range of Micro Seiki direct drive turntables of yesteryear. But understand this: the TechDAS AirForce One is about as far removed from a vintage Micro Seiki as a BAE Eurofighter/Typhoon is from a WWI-era Sopwith Camel.ifier.


 

Tri-Planar

Key Product: Ultimate 12 tonearm ($9800)

Many analogue-minded audiophiles have appreciated (and coveted) the precision craftsmanship of Tri-Planar tonearms over the years, but for CES 2013 the firm rolled out a new 12-inch version of the classic Tri-Planar design, called the Ultimate 12. We’re eager to hear one in action.ifier.


 

Van Den Hul

Key Product: Frog Gold moving coil phono cartridge ($3650, or $2900 for the standard Frog)

Over time, top-tier moving coil phono cartridges have reached some pretty stratospheric prices, so that it is always refreshing to find models that, while certainly not cheap, at least make some effort to hold purchase prices within sensible limits.

One such cartridge is the new Frog Gold from Van Den Hul, which is essentially a hot-rodded version of the standard Frog that has been fitted with gold coil wires. The Frog Gold, mounted in a Well Tempered Versalex turntable and arm, sounded terrific in the DeVore Fidelity demonstration room, producing wide, deep, highly three-dimensional soundstages with plenty of detail. The very good news, though, is that the Frog Gold does all this without so much as a hint of the edgy, analytical sound that occasionally afflicts some of today’s upper-end moving coils—moving coils that arguably push sonic limits too far for their own good.ifier.


 

Well Tempered Labs

Key Product: Well Tempered Labs Versalex turntable and tonearm ($4400)

William Firebaugh has always shown a certain willingness to think outside the box and has, in the process, created an entire range of turntables perform far better than one might expect given their relatively modest prices (traditionally, Firebaugh has gravitated more toward clever, cost-effective solutions than toward “unobtanium-grade” designs). Now, Well Tempered has put into product the most ambitious Firebaugh turntable to date: namely, the Versalex turnable and arm combo.

As fitted with a Van Den Hul Frog Gold cartridge and shown in the DeVore Fidelity room, the Versalex managed to sing ever so sweetly with a minimum of hi-fi-esque artifacts. Indeed, the Versalex might well represent one of the greatest analogue bargains at this year’s CES.ifier.


 

Zanden

Key Product: Model 120 phono stage ($7500)

The Zanden team was showing the firm’s soon-to-be-launched Model 120 solid-state phono stage, which—please note—offers not one but five different switch-selectable RIAA equalization curves: one each for the standard RIAA curve, the Decca curve, the Columbia curve, the Teldec curve, and the EMI curve. No matter whose vinyl you are spinning at any given moment, odds are that Zanden’s Model 120 phono stage will offer an EQ curve appropriate for your application.  


 

ZYX

Key Product: ZYX Universe 2 moving coil phono cartridge ($8500)

One of the finest (most musically accurate and yet still soulful) phono cartridges I have heard at this or any other CES event was the new ZYX Universe II. The Universe 2 sounded terrific as played in a Graham tonearm mounted on a Kronos turntable, as shown in the Lamm demonstration room.

I asked US importer Mehran Farahmand of SORAsound what he thought set the Universe 2 apart from other top-tier cartridges, and his one-word answer seemed right on target: “Emotion.”

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