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CES Scene: Loudspeakers $25,000 and above

CES Scene: Loudspeakers $25,000 and above

Whether it’s a sign of the top tier of the audiophile world going ‘off the boil’ or a reflection of wider changes taking place in the political world, but this year, the number of launches in the $25,000+ loudspeaker market was considerably curtailed. Our criteria in attending a show is very much “what’s new” and usually it’s possible to find dozens of brand new loudspeaker systems in audio’s upper atmosphere, but this year at CES it was more of a struggle. There were good loudspeakers on show that had been seen before, and many of those were worthy of note, but in terms of new launches in this sector, things seem quieter this year.

Normally, we try to find either a top ten or a ‘baker’s dozen’ of best new products in a particular class. This year, that simply couldn’t happen. Nevertheless, there were some premium model launches and announcements of super-high-end and high-end loudspeaker systems. So here is our 13 best new, and sometimes not-so-new top-end speakers at CES:

GamuT announced its special $139,000 Zodiac loudspeaker, so named because only twelve will be made per year, each one with a serial number that begins with an astrological star sign. Similar in look to the company’s top RS5 loudspeaker, the hand-built Zodiac features custom designed drive units hand selected for their phase properties, a new crossover network, extremely carefully designed and cost-no-object built cabinets, and comes complete with installation and on-site fine tuning by GamuT’s designer Benno Baun Meldgaard. Although the headline figures show a loudspeaker with a frequency response from 16Hz to 60kHz, the real result is a loudspeaker of extremely fine impulse response, time and phase alignment and dynamic range, even in a room far smaller than optimum for the loudspeaker itself.  

MartinLogan learned a lot from the development of the Neolith loudspeaker, and a lot of it went into the new MartinLogan Renaissance ESL 15A. Available from March with a US list price $25,000 per pair. Its ForceForward system allows fine-tuning for surprisingly bad room positions, such as close to the wall. MartinLogan has also incorporated Anthem’s room correction system, and the metal frame in which the stator panel rests makes the speaker one of the most effortlessly dynamic loudspeaker sounds you will hear from a thin panel.

Magico stayed away from the main Venetian complex and instead presented its upgraded $38,000 S5 and $16,500 S1 loudspeakers. These two new loudspeakers are more than just ‘updates’ on the existing models: everything (apart from the basic alumimium extrusion) is completely new on both designs, featuring the beryllium-coated diamond tweeters found in the awesome S7, graphene mid and bass drive units, redesigned crossovers and cross-bracing, even new curved top plates and – in the case of the S1 – plinths. At my time of visiting, the S5 was on passive display and the S1 was on demonstration, driven by valve amplification (from CAT), dispelling the myth that Magico only works with solid-state amplification. The $16,500 S1 capable of significantly more scale than its predecessor, too: it sounds larger, with a far deeper soundstage. Its bass is deeper too.

 

Even with its Platinum range, Monitor Audio is not known for its budget-busting loudspeaker designs, so the $29,000 PL500 II – flagship of the new Platinum II range – came as a bit of a shock. However, in a world where seven-driver, three way designs featuring custom-made drive units in a cabinet that stands as tall as a man can cost the spendy side of $100,000, a loudspeaker that sounds this good commands respect. Monitor Audio is one of the UK industry’s recent success stories, and judging by the PL500 II, that success will extend to the high end soon, too.

Like Magico, Raidho is undergoing a root-and-branch improvement to its D-Series loudspeakers. Having ‘history’ with the D-1, it was fairly clear the $23,000 D-1.1 was a markedly improved beast, thanks to a new motor design for the drive units, improved crossover, and a better-modelled internal airflow and porting. I’ve logged far fewer hours with the D-3, but the $65,000 D-3.1 sounded suitably awesome, too. Both were driven by the new Aavik pre/power combination and a host of Ansuz Acosutics tables, cables, juicers, risers, and (anti)resonators. Both speakers had that characteristic Raidho detail and dynamics, coupled with the kind of dynamic thwack that made ISAM by Amon Tobin sound just like Megatron assaulting a record store in an disconcertingly ‘real’ way (you had to be there).

This was the first time the $45,000 Sonus faber Il Cremonese floorstanders were shown to the wider public in America; having been only shown in October last year at the Festival Son et Image in Paris, and to a select audience of dealers and press at World of McIntosh’s swanky NYC venue. Named after the 18th Century Stradivarius violin of the same name and playing through a complete Audio Research system (also a part of the WoM group), the elegant five-sided Il Cremonese floorstander captivated people with its looks, but they stayed for the sound. A fine example of ‘trickle down’ technology from The Sonus Faber loudspeaker and the Lilium, this three-way, four speaker technology. The Il Cremonese manages to combine the musical refinement and elegance of previous S-f speakers with faster transients and excitement.

Vandersteen’s popular Model 5A floorstander has undergone something of an upgrade, in the shape of the new $30,000 Model 5A Carbon. The change – as you might expect, given the name – involves changing the front-firing 25mm tweeter and 100mm midrange to carbon-fibre designs; the 177mm Kevlar sandwich midbass and 300mm aluminium active bass units remain. Playing MQA tracks through Meridian and into Vandersteen’s own power amps (a Brinkmann analogue front end was also on call, but not playing at the time I visited), the sound was fast, deep, and authentic, all the while retaining the sumptuous qualities that make Vandersteen users some of the most loyal owners in audio.

Wilson Audio loudspeakers are often featured at CES, playing on the end of a number of systems both in the Venetian and the satellite shows. The company itself, however, uses the show to highlight upcoming products. Last year, Wilson showcased its upcoming top-of-the-range loudspeaker (currently still a work in progress). This year, the company showed its new Alexx, designed to replace the venerable MAXX 3. A new departure for Wilson, the new loudspeaker will be a four-way design, featuring ‘trickle up’ and ‘trickle down’ technologies from the Alexia below it (in the shape of the micrometer adjustment of the midrange and treble units), and above from the Alexandria and even the future flagship (the drive units derive from the WAMM development project). Shipping very soon, the loudspeaker will cost $109,000. Another notable prototype on show was the Paradigm Concept 4F (seen at the front of this feature), first heard at Munich.

 

There were also products that were not technically new per se, but were used in rooms highlighting new equipment, that were worthy of note. Among these, perhaps the most interesting was the strictly limited edition Kaiser Kawero! Classic loudspeaker in the Kondo room. Rewired using the top Kondo cable, the system was designed to showcase the new $100,000 G-1000 Kondo preamplifier designed to replace the M1000 MkII. This created one of the most effortless sounds at the show.

Similarly, B&O was showing off its $40,000 BeoLab 90 in timed seminars on the other side of the Venetian hotel. The active, DSP-driven multi-driver system launched in 2015 can be optimised for single user sweet spot listening, and the difficulty is getting 30 people to listen to a loudspeaker under its best possible conditions in a seminar means you get a little more than a minute in front of these behemoths, and have no choice over musical content, especially as most of the seminar was geared toward the launch of the new $2,785 BeoSound 35 sound bar. However, what was heard from the BeoLab 90 was very promising.

Crystal Cable’s Minissimo Diamond and Submissimo powered subwoofer (combined cost, $26,000) were first seen in Munich last year, but being driven with the completely revised Cube amplifier and using a combination of top Crystal and Siltech cable, made for a system that seriously belied its size. Most people see the Submissimo as some kind of plinth for the stand rather than a subwoofer and are therefore surprised at the prodigious bass seeming to belt out of these tiny standmounts. Correctly set (even experts tend to turn the bass up too high on any subwoofer) this system must be one of the ultimate ‘big sound, small speaker’ systems.

There was much chatter about the fine quality of the $225,000 Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand playing in the LAMM room (for good reason, it sounded very good indeed) but surprisingly few talked about the excellent little $11,000 Butterfly sub/sat system. Neither of these systems are new – although the F-Driver technology featured in the Midi Grand is one of Kharma’s most recent innovations – but both represented the top tier of what their respective technologies can achieve. In a way, although this sector is all about the more up-scale models, it’s this little Butterfly system – like the aforementioned Crystal – that represents a big part of the Way Forward for audio – if you can create great sounds in small packages (even if they are expensive small packages), those who don’t have sufficient man cave space can also get good audio.

Finally, there was also a prototype of the upgrade to the YG Sonja flagship loudspeaker in a private room, although we were given strict ‘no photography’ instructions. Effectively adding another virtually Sonja sized loudspeaker ‘chassis’ per side, the Sonja ‘XV’ upgrade replaces the middle module from the standard Sonja with a section containing three 178mm midrange drive units, and creating a second tower of three 250mm bass units. The price of the complete four-box Sonja XV is expected to cost somewhere around $270,000 and the upgrade for existing Sonja owners will be a no-loss upgrade for the differential between Sonja and XV models. Along with a ‘no photo’ policy, there is currently no formal launch date.

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