TAS CEDIA 2012 Show Report: Audio Electronics & Sources - Part 1

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Audio Electronics by Cary Audio Nighthawk,
AudioQuest DragonFly USB,
Cambridge Audio 351A,
Cambridge Audio 351C,
Indy Audio Labs Acurus A2002,
Indy Audio Labs Aragon 8008
TAS CEDIA 2012 Show Report: Audio Electronics & Sources - Part 1

In search of new or recently released 2-channel gems, I attended CEDIA Expo 2012, which was held in Indianapolis, IN from September 6-8, and will be preparing a multi-part show report.

This is the third section of my report and it will begin coverage of new audio electronics, source components, and accessories seen at CEDIA.

Note: To make things easier for online readers, I’m covering manufacturers in alphabetical order. As always, my apologies to any manufacturers whose worthy products I fail to mention here. Enjoy.

Acurus/Aragon

Audiophiles of a certain age will recall that not so very long ago audio electronics from a firm known as Mondial Designs were very well regarded and coveted by many. Mondial products were sold under two related brands: Aragon and Acurus, companies whose products are still widely discussed online to this day. In 2001, however, Mondial was sold to Klipsch Group where, for a variety reasons, both the Aragon and Acurus brands languished. Now, I’m pleased to report Rick Santiago and Indy Audio Labs (a spin-off from Klipsch) have brought both Aragon and Acurus back in a big way.

At CEDIA, Aragon showed two gorgeous power amps: the 2 x 200-watt Aragon 8008 stereo power amp and the 1 x 500-watt Iridium monoblock amp, both priced at $3999/each. In keeping with past practice, both amps are said to be well suited for driving both standard and low (down to 2 Ohm) loads. The styling of both amps will be immediately familiar to Aragon fans of old, though the Iridium model, in particular, could be considered an update on the classic Aragon Palladium amp of days gone by. Santiago says that the amps preserve many of the same circuit topologies that made Aragon amps so desirable in the first place, but with contemporary parts upgrades and a handful of convenience features (such as remote performance monitoring and 12V controls) that should make the amps more appealing for custom installers.

Acurus showed a host of products at CEDIA, too, but most on display were oriented more toward high-performance home theater applications. Stereo enthusiasts will want to note, though, that beautifully made and sensibly priced 2-channel Acurus models will be entering the market very soon. A good case in point would be the 2 x 200-watt Acurus A2002 power amp, which will sell for $2499.

Audio Electronics by Cary Audio

Audio Electronics is a new line of high performance yet value priced high-end audio components created by the good folks at Cary Audio. The first Audio Electronics product to arrive on the scene was the recently released Nighthawk headphone amplifier ($1199, click here to read my Playback review of the Nighthawk), which was prominently displayed CEDIA. But at CEDIA the firm also took the opportunity to announce two new Audio Electronics models: the Constellation pure, Class A triode tube-powered preamp ($1395) and Hercules 2 x 30-watt ultra-linear tube-powered power amp ($1595). The components are simply but beautifully finished and are—judging by our experience with the Nighthawk headphone amp—exquisitely made (though in an understated rather than ostentatious way). We’re eager to hear them in action.

AudioQuest

Normally, show-goers might expect AudioQuest’s booth to be all about cables, cables, and more cables, but at CEDIA the centerpiece of the AQ display was the unspeakably cool new DragonFly USB DAC/headphone amp ($249), which is only about the size of a typical USB memory dongle. (NOTE: For subscribers to The Absolute Sound or for those who prefer to buy the magazine on newsstand, I strongly encourage checking out Editor-in-Chief Robert Harley’s review of the DragonFly in the current issue—Issue 225). But, for those who don’t have direct access to the magazine, let me sketch out the basics.

The DragonFly is a 96/24-capable, asynchronous USB DAC based on the very same ESS Sabre DAC chip found in many more costly disc players and other digital audio components. Moreover, it uses Streamlength Class 1 USB code licensed from none other than acknowledged USB audio guru Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio. The tiny device is entirely USB-powered and incorporates a quite respectable headphone amplifier (the AW team loaned me a sample at the show, and I’ve been listening to ‘phones through it ever since). But best of all, the DragonFly sounds both hearty and refined, is dirt simple to use, and sports numerous clever detail touches that I think users will come to love as they become familiar with the component.

One example: The DragonFly sports a small translucent dragonfly symbol that illuminates when the unit is powered up and that changes colors to denote the resolution levels of the digital audio files being played. Another example: The DragonFly includes a cool, 64-step digitally controlled built-in analog volume control that completely sidesteps problems with bit-truncation that typically arise with conventional digital volume controls. Thus, even though you control volume levels from the computer, you always get full resolution (i.e., no lost bits)—a very clever approach. We suspect AudioQuest will sell a gazillion of these things and for all the right reasons.

Cambridge Audio

While Cambridge has won acclaim for its upscale 800-series components, it is important to remember that the company traditionally has been strong in the area of true entry-level components. A perfect case in point would be the firm’s new 351A stereo integrated amplifier ($599), which puts out 2 x 45-watts, sports a beefy power supply based on an oversized toroidal transformer, a low-noise ALPS volume control, and a built-in USB DAC based on a Burr Brown DAC. Complementing the 351A is a sister product, the 351C CD player ($599). The 351 C uses a Wolfson WM8728 DAC, provides what Cambridge terms “a highly accurate master clock oscillator and carefully designed impedance-matched clock buffering schemes, and—significantly—uses Cambridge’s signature S3 servo control for the disc drive. Both components should help to extend the firm’s reputation for building affordable sonic overachievers.

Cary Audio

Cary Audio is one of the several high-end audio electronics manufacturers who have recently chosen to build serious, performance-oriented headphone amplifiers. Cary took this decision, as have several others, in recognition of the fact that high-performance headphones constitute a vibrant and growing segment within the broader high-end audio universe. To enter the market in a powerful way, Cary has created two products: its recently-released Audio Electronics by Cary Nighthawk headphone amp ($1195) and the new-for-CEDIA Cary Audio HH-1 headphone amp ($1595). (Click here to read my recent Playback review of the Audio Electronics Nighthawk.).

Where the Nighthawk is a pure solid-state design, Cary’s upscale HH-1 is a pure Class A hybrid tube/solid-state amp where a tube front end is used to drive, a single-ended MOSFET current sourced output stage. Although I only had a brief chance to listen the HH-1, I think I can say with confidence that it takes significant sonic steps forward vis-à-vis the already excellent Nighthawk.

DSPeaker

Have you ever wished someone would build a serious, high-end oriented room EQ system that was easy to use and didn’t cost the proverbial arm and a leg? If so, then the Scandinavian firm DSPeaker has just what the doctor ordered in the form of its new Anti-Mode 2.0 Dual-Core room EQ system ($1099). The unit promises to be exceptionally versatile and easy to use, though the technology embedded within is frankly quite elaborate, as it provides a sophisticated implementation of the firm’s complex Anti-Mode 2.0 room EQ algorithm (click here for an in-depth discussion of the algorithm).

How good is the Anti-Mode 2.0 Dual Core? Let’s put it this way: TAS’ Dr. Robert E. Greene has already seen fit to give the product a coveted 2012 TAS Golden Ear Award (in Issue 225) and is, I believe, working on a full-review now. To grasp the draw of the product, it helps to know that DSPeaker claims the Anti Mode 2.0 Dual-Core provides “automatic room correction” and can “fix ANY stereo system in 5 minutes.”

Krell

Though many picture CEDIA as a “home theater”-centric show, Krell saw the event as a great venue for rolling out two powerful new 2-channel components: the Phantom III stereo preamp ($5500) and the S-550i stereo integrated amplifier ($5000).

The Phantom III is intended as a very high quality, minimalist preamp/headphone amplifier, where the headphone amp section of the component is driven directly from the main preamp circuitry. To broaden the Phantom III’s appeal, Krell plans to offer an optional 192/24-capable digital audio input module.

The S-550i, in turn, is intended as a conceptual “big brother” to the firm’s current 150 Wpc S-300i integrated. Accordingly, the S-550i will put out a stout 2 x 275-watts @ 8 Ohms or 2 x 550-watts @ 4 Ohms. For added versatility, the S-550i will feature a performance-oriented iPod dock as well as a Theater Throughput input.

Marantz

For CEDIA Marantz showed not one but two ambitious Reference-series 2-channel products: the SA-11S3 SACD/CD player and DAC ($2999), and the companion PM-11S3 integrated amplifier ($4999).

The beautiful SA-11S3 appears to be massively overbuilt (see photos), provides both single-ended and balanced outputs; incorporates coax, optical and USB digital audio inputs, and sports Marantz’ beefy SACDM-2 disc drive mechanism and copper clad chassis panels (for low noise).

The similarly constructed PM-11S3 delivers 100 Wpc at 8 Ohms or 220 Wpc at 4 Ohms, provides a bevy of single-ended inputs plus one set of balanced inputs, incorporates an MM/MC phono stage with “DC servo equalization”, uses Marantz’ signature HDAM (Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Module) technology and features no less than 40—count ’em—of the firm’s HDAM S3 modules.

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