The best sounds I didn't hear at CES...

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The best sounds I didn't hear at CES...

We talk. We gossip.

Those who walk the halls of the Venetian like some fat, ghoulish gaggle of overaged hall monitors spend the next few weeks talking to one another. We try to find out who did what to whom over a blackjack table, whether anyone became yet another plot line for an episode of CSI and, most importantly, what did and what didn't work. Gradually, over time, you develop a kind of bank of meta-criticism, a consensus about what sounded really good. Naturally, you also get the opinions of the agenda-led and the hearing-challenged, but you soon learn to filter these out. It's impossible for one person to visit every room at the show, unless they spend 30 seconds in each room as an exercise in box ticking, so sometimes we have to call upon consensus to pull in the better sounding rooms that we either missed or missed out on.

Often, this happens mid CES, with a reptile of journalists (there's no collective noun for journalists, but 'reptile' seems strangely appropriate) comparing notes in bars and over breakfasts, so that we can adjust our schedules according to what potential goodness others heard the day before. However, with a significant percentage of the Brit-hack contingent stuck on a snowy runway on London's Heathrow Airport, the note-comparison process happened later than expected. 

The rule of thumb here is if one person says good things about a room, store it away, if two people say good things about a room, consider it to have potential. If more than two people - especially if one of those people works for a rival brand in a moment of stark honesty - say good things about a room, you had damn well better report it.  

That's precisely what happened in the Crystal/Siltech room. I heard this at about two minutes after the show opened on the first day, because it happened to be the first room I visited (the trick to getting there early is to take the elevator to the floors below the exhibit and walk the last flight of stairs, putting you at the end of a corridor). Husband and wife team Edwin (Siltech) and Gabi Van Der Kley (Crystal) had just replaced a pair of Pathos amps with a VTL stereo power amp, as it was more appropriate for the setting. Gabi's slightly modified Arabesque loudspeakers were sounding good, but far short of the exceptional sound I've previously heard from these glass masterpieces. Edwin's exciting new Siltech C1 pre-amp using the last, best tube ever designed for preamp use (so rare that just 50 of these line level beauties will be made) was an unknown part of the chain, but I put the slightly 'meh' sound to not letting the equipment bed in for the weekend. It would be better when I came back later. Except that, in the tried and true tradition of CES, 'later' becomes 'damn it, I knew I forgot something'... six hours into the flight home.

It was back home in the UK when the calls and emails started coming in. "That glass speaker you put on the cover of Hi-Fi Plus sounds wonderful." said one guy. "I've heard it before, but never like that." says another. And another. Time to dig deeper, it seemed. So, I started asking around.

Turns out, there was more than a run-in involved. There was a change, that I hadn't heard. Those who heard the system before the change thought it good. Those who heard it post change thought it remarkable. The change was the new Devialet D-Premier amplifier, from France. When this was slotted in, replacing the Pathos and the VTL, the magic happened. The Devialet is a remarkably elegant looking 240W per channel integrated amplifier - imagine a 12' pizza box made by Tiffany & Co, with a control interface that Apple designers look at with envy and an overall styling that makes you look at Aston Martins and think 'garish'. And yet, for all its exterior style, it sports a set of measurements that make the state of the art look out of date. 

Suddenly, connections started forming in my head. I heard a prototype of the Devialet a few months ago at one of London's top audio dealers (yes, we still have more than one top audio dealer in London). It was mesmerizing, even in pre-production form... good enough to make me consider mugging a Frenchman. Fast, detailed, accurate, possessed of excellent dynamics and more, it was clear this might be the hot product of 2010. So, factor that amplifier into a system with the potential for realizing those attributes and it's little wonder the room was causing such a stir. A pity then that I was four floors away when it was doing that magic trick.

This wasn't the only room my spies told me I missed out on. KEF's Blade loudspeaker project (which so impressed us Euro types in Munich at High End '09) continued to impress once again this year - I just hope something good comes out of this 'concept car for the audio industry'. The LAMM electronics and Wilson MAXX 3 speakers apparently sounded consistently good (this is not a combination a Brit has any likelihood of hearing and it's a shame I missed out due to sheer weight of traffic in the room each time I wandered past) and the performance in the TAD room was said to have had a lot of potential too (in fairness, I heard this briefly and thought it very, very good, but those who spent more time with the system would want add another 'very' or two). ProAc's new Carbon Pro 8 received some positive feedback from the British contingent (funny that, Brits heaping praise on other Brits), especially as the new flagship (with its carbon-fiber cones and 'light as a human hair' ribbon tweeter) was being driven well by an Audio Research CD5 and a comparatively humble Audio Research VSi60 integrated amp. 

Finally, staying in flagship mode afforded the navel-gazing end of our truncated Brit Pack contingent a touch of idle philosophizing. Faced with a wealth of top end products, where is it best to spend all that money you don't have? In other words, which is most important... the likes of a Continuum Caliburn turntable at the head of things, or a more down-to-earth turntable driving a top phono stage like the Audio Research Reference 2 Phono? I know one guy (a journo from the gadget mags, and closet audiophile) who went back and forth between rooms several times trying to decide which is better (the Continuum room having an all-ARC amplifier setting, driving Wilson Sashas, while the ARC room had the same phono stage and preamp being fed by a Well-Tempered Amadeus GT), before deciding (naturally) that the best option would be to choose both. 

He then went home and listened to his records on his Rega P3.

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