Chris Martens’ Best of CES 2017: Traditional Two-Channel Audio


Mark Levinson No. 515 turntable & tonearm

In a move many will think to be long overdue, Mark Levinson debuted its first-ever turntable and tonearm package, called the No. 515 and slated to sell for $10,000. The Levinson turntable/tonearm was developed in partnership with VPI Industries (makers of the critically-acclaimed Prime and Avenger turntables, to name just two of many), but the No. 515 offers a feature set somewhat different from VPI models that sell at comparable prices.

Specifically, the Levinson No. 515 features a heavily damped main chassis/plinth comprised of sandwiched slabs of vinyl-wrapped MDF and aluminium, which in turn is supported by damped feet that appear similar to those used on VPI’s Avenger-series turntables. No. 515 sports a 20-pound aluminium platter supported by an inverted bearing and that is driven by an isolation pod-mounted AC synchronous motor through a distinctive triple drive belt system. Perhaps the most striking difference between Levinson’s No. 515 and equivalent VPI models is that the Levinson table features a 3D-printed tonearm fitted with gimbal-type bearings (whereas the upper-end VPI’s typically incorporate unipivot arms).  The Levinson arm features an integral headshell, a stainless steel counterweight, and what Levinson describes as “discrete internal cartridge lead routing.”

To be candid, there was so much traffic and were so many concurrent conversations taking place in the Levinson room when I stopped by to visit that I was only able to see but not really audition the new Levinson vinyl spinner, but based on what I saw I’m eager to hear what this new analogue system can do.

MBL Noble N11, N31, and N15

Many audiophiles hold the German firm MBL and its vaunted omnidirectional loudspeakers in very high regard, but a challenge for any would-be MBL speaker owner is the admittedly thorny issue of how best to drive those speakers. Stated simply, when it comes to amplification MBL’s speakers tend to be demanding with a capital “D”! Naturally, MBL’s flagship range of Reference-line electronics are up to the task, but frankly those models tend to be physically massive and to carry correspondingly wallet-crushing price tags, so that’s what’s desired is a range of electronics that can make the top-flight MBL speakers sign, yet that are at least somewhat more compact and that sell for merely expensive (as opposed to ohmigosh-über-expensive) prices.

Enter MBL’s new Noble line electronics, comprising the N11 preamplifier ($14,600), N31 CD player/DAC ($15,400) and the N15 510-watt monoblock power amps ($17,800/ea.). Note that each MBL 101E MkII loudspeaker requires two N15s, so amplifier costs can add up quickly.

Having heard MBL’s 101E MkIIs driven by the firm’s over-the-top Reference-line electronics many times, I can honestly say the new Noble-line electronics give up very little in the way of performance vis-à-vis their larger and far more costly siblings. And that, I think, is the point. As you can see from the accompanying photograph, the Noble-line electronics can fit neatly on a conventional hi-fi shelf and look good doing so, whereas the Reference equipment is so big that your listening room might well wind up looking like a high-end audio ‘shrine’ (complete with ‘altars’ to the massive Reference power amps) and not a practical living space at all.

Well done, MBL.

Raidho D4.1 floorstanding loudspeakers, Aavik electronics & Ansuz cables/power products

One of my favourite demonstration systems at CES 2017 featured the very large Raidho D4.1 floorstanding speakers ($110,000/pair) as driven by the combination of an Aavik C-300 preamp/DAC/phonostage ($36,000) and P-300 power amplifier ($48,000), with the entire system wired with Ansuz cables and fed through an Ansuz Mainz power distribution box. (In case you are wondering, Raidho, Aavik, and Ansuz are—along with Scansonics—sibling brands from Denmark guided in large part by Lars Kristensen, Frits Dalmose, and designer extraordinaire Michael Borresen.)

In simple terms, the Raidho D4.1 is a (slightly) scaled back adaptation of the design of the firm’s very large flagship D-5.1 floorstanding loudspeaker; the D-4.1 features four 115mm diamond-coated bass drivers, two 100mm diamond midrange drivers, and one sealed ribbon tweeter. My thought is that in most rooms and for most musical tastes, the D-4.1 would meet or exceed most listeners’ desires for an ultra-capable full-range loudspeaker. As you would expect of a top-class offering, the D-4.1 provides excellent extension at both high and low frequency extremes, killer dynamics, exceedingly good resolution of low level details, and an all-round quality of musical expressiveness that just won’t quit.  But unlike so many top-class efforts, the D-4.1 doesn’t appear particularly finicky, nor does it have those faintly astringent, ‘medicinal’ qualities that afflict so many other top-end loudspeakers. On the contrary, the D-4.1 is endlessly beguiling and downright fun to listen to.

Making the speakers’ potential come alive were Aavik’s first-ever preamp/DAC/phonostage (the C-300) and its companion power amplifier (the P-300), which is billed as having a “unique 150-watt efficient Class A” output section that—as is often true of well-done Class A—sounds more powerful in actual use than its published output specifications would lead you to expect. Finally, tying everything together were Ansuz cables and an Ansuz very low-noise power distribution system.

I heard this system near the end of the show one day and I must say it stopped me in my tracks, made me forget all about trade show fatigue, and simply compelled me to be quiet and to savour the music. When the listening session drew to a close (gulp!) about an hour, I felt as if I could and would have kept right on listening had time permitted. In short, this system inspired what I can only call a serious case of audio lust. My only hope is that all of our readers will at some point get to enjoy music systems as satisfying and joyful as this one proved to be for me.

Revel Performa3 F208BE floorstanding loudspeakers

Many of us are familiar with Revel’s very good Performa3-series loudspeakers, so that it can be easy at first glance to overlook the firm’s visually similar Performa3 Be-series models, which were shown as proof-of-concept offerings at CES 2017. The Performa3 Be models on display were F208BE floorstanders (projected to sell at or below $10,000/pair) and the M106BE standmount monitors (projected to sell at or below $5,000/pair).

But here’s the thing: as you look and listen more closely, the Performa3 BE-series models are in fact substantially different from their standard Performa3 counterparts and in ways that dramatically enhance sound quality. Specifically, the BE models feature Beryllium tweeters loading into revised die-cast waveguides and also use DCC (Deep Ceramic Composite) midrange and woofer drivers.

As I listened to the F208E, it occurred to me that the speaker seemed able to channel an awful lot of the sonic goodness and nuance of the firm’s flagship Ultima2 Salon2 floorstanders, but for less than half the price. Who wouldn’t appreciate that price/performance equation?

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