With the French Metronome player, my second favorite room didn't sport the kind of no-compromise digital front-end the Audiopax exhibit benefitted from but seduced Ivette and me with a very similar, full-body flavor of transportation to elsewhere. It's that very real, very personal destination which the opening page of our site celebrates as the real reason why our audiophile species refuses to go extinct despite the global meteor-hit crisis of Home Theater and surround sound. To reiterate, we're not merely talking good sound which many rooms got right -- proper grammar, proper enunciation, even Movable Feast Hemingway-style profundity of message -- but also the consummate delivery of a master reader/orator whose special emphasis on certain words, certain pauses weaves the spell and uncovers new meaning, hidden connections, greater context: The Alon by Acarian/DeHavilland/Ampex/Prana Wire room in the second-to-last building of the right block in the Alexis Park.

Designer Kara Chaffee (how many women do you know who are actively involved in High-End audio like Kathy Gornik of Thiel; much less design amplifiers, personally, and are bona fide engineers?) - Kara and partner George Kielczynski from the DeHavilland amplifier company have hit the proverbial gold mine with their 60-watt GM-70 based high-power single-ended amplifier. Just as during HE2003, teaming up with Carl Marchisotto's Alon Lotus SE dual-woofer three-ways and Joe Cohen's Prana cables proved the winning ticket. Alas, the special treat here was an Ampex 351-2 open-reel and a bevy of tapes Kara had amassed in a collector's frenzy shopping spree just prior to CES. And just as with our next room, these show-savvy exhibitors opted for an unconventional layout which was "mildly diagonal". It arrayed the system not at a sharp 45-degree slant but probably something closer to the vicinity of 21° as you can see above. It worked like a charm!

Displaying their new custom tube socket for the GM-70 power triode, I asked George to "look stupid" for a mug shot which prompted uproarious laughter from onlookers as our eager-to-please comedian went through a kaleidoscope of elastic funny faces. To top it off, George then performed a killer impression of a washed-up Las Vegas lounge lizard, lip-syncing to a Sinatra tape in his trench coat, dragging on an imaginary cigarette while lazily holding an invisible microphone. Who sez CES can't be fun? The major news for DeHavilland was a new 845-based stereo amplifier [$4,000, 25wpc, above right in pre-production livery] which will have to battle Art Audio's $3,995 Carissa for the champion's trophy in the affordable 845 SET arena.

DeHavilland always uses a lot of premium iron and chokes in their amplifiers. While their aesthetics aren't as debonair as those of the cosmetic design team around Joe Fratus, their no-nonsense construction and stellar sonics are truly first-rate. Not to put too fine a point on it, component synergy and room compatibility are deal makers or breakers especially at CES where the very temporariness and unforeseeable variables of the situation make real-world smarts more vital than ever. Once you've hit upon a copasetic recipe like DeHavilland has with Prana and Alon or Rethm, you'd be foolish to mess with success. Or, as wily Lloyd Walker loves to put it, the sure way to lose an erection is to fuck with it. Clearly, this room didn't. Grow wood, don't chop it down. My compliments to everyone involved.

Which brings us to the Rethm/Audion room where Indian designer Jacob George truly turned room setup on its head by placing the listening couch again the wall facing the door, placing his speakers half-way into the space to have incoming visitors walk through them to park their weary butts in the sweet spot, and then running both active rooms from the same front end in parallel. The true surprise here wasn't the first room with the big Rethm The Second but the adjacent small space with the new $2,500/pr Rethm The Fourth.

Rethms are the only Lowther designs which fully capitalize on the inherent promise of single-driver magic. The secret? Fuck with the drivers. Okay, I'll get off this tiring f-word now. After all, I'm not a Niyawker allowed to be coarse. But do check out Jacob's custom transducer modifications. What you won't see unless you popped out the drivers is the expanded polystyrene attachments on their magnets which create a pressure chamber inside the first section of the convoluted internal Rethm labyrinths and prevent reflections from leaking back through the diaphragm.
Because the Third and Second Rethms are currently chez nous for review, I won't elaborate further except to have you note the stark absence of any room tuning devices, plants or decoration in Jacob's exhibits. There were simply fantastic CD selections, a completely non-pushy attitude and music "in the zone". Incidentally, this didn't have me not notice the relative lack of high-frequency extension by which the Audion amps held back the speakers. Still, such minor audiophile critical notions didn't at all interfere with the real magic of immediacy, dynamics and unmitigated directness in this room. The Seconds could have used a larger space to truly strut their bass prowess of 40Hz extension, but the Fourth was perfectly matched to the smaller room. It needs to be on anyone's shortlist who is short on space and budget but huge on sound and music. And, I can already report that the Seconds are pulling the same disappearance stunt of zero electronic reminders in my personal listening space.

One particular strength of the no-xover single-driver approach as implemented in the well-balanced Rethms is phenomenally accurate string tone. Bowed and plucked strings have that rightness of attack and ring-out which is then coupled to superior micro detail that allows you to hear bow pressure, horse hair, raspiness coupled to silk, leading edge followed by harmonic bloom and decay that telegraphs real and in-the-room. The electronic used in these rooms were the Audion Premier 1.0 Anniversary Edition preamplifer [$3,395]; the Audion Level-6 Golden Dream 300B SCSE 25-watt monoblocks [$15,995/pair in the main room] and the 12-watt Audion Sterling EL34 SET MK2 stereo amp [$2,195 in small room].

Two further rooms in my strange little book of personal proclivities and biases that deserve marks, one for exceptional merit, one for aroused curiosity? Ted Lindblad's HighEndAudio exhibit and Hart Huschens' Audio Advancements. Hartmut's tiny space sported Graham Tricker's Tron tube electronics first launched at the 1998 Frankfurt show. On active display were the Meteor phono and line stage and the new 807 monos in push-pull mode. On the transducer front, a truly diminutive pair of $4,400 speakers called the Om from FJ [short for Für Johanna, not Elise] confounded all expectations. FJ is a joint venture between Willy Bauer of dps turntable fame (another product in this system, replete with Schröder arm and Allaerts cart) and Thomas Blumenhofer. The FJ line in toto consists of the Zwerg [$1,500/pr] rear-ported bookshelf, the $2,950/pr Musix sealed 2-way tower, the sealed Om with upfiring woofer and front-firing tweeter -- conceptually recalling Dick Olsher's Samadhi Ichiban and deliberately designed for close-wall placement as snuggly as 6 inches -- and the $6,000/pr Dude, all two-ways. Despite the very small room and counter intuitively crammed placement, this system with Copland CD player for digital imaged and depth'd like it shouldn't have under the circumstances, was sonically scaled to size to suit the room to a 't' and delivered a truly intimate take on freely gushing music. This FJ stuff bears serious watching!

The Tron electronics beg for a makeover from a skilled industrial designer in the looks departments, at least where the logo and silk screening are concerned, but Herr Huschens can always be trusted to find rare but worthy specimens in the jungle of audiophile imports - just think Earmax. Pricing on the Tron electronics remains TBA.

Down the hall meanwhile was German Grand Central for Duevel and Klimo, with Pluto's mighty 10A turntable from The Netherlands, plus an important smattering of Americana (Audio Logic 24 MXL tube DAC) and Japanese Zen minimalism (47Lab Flatfish transport).

I knew from John's and Jules' respective Duevel speaker reviews that their omnidirectional dispersion pattern would make for a different, less focused presentation than that which direct radiators deliver. Regardless of mental preparations, my ear/brain machine didn't manage to entirely transition into omni land during the admittedly brief 2-track short which wasn't enough to acclimate completely to their more diffuse presentation.

Regardless, there was something supremely airy, spacious and non-electronic about this 7-watt triode-driven room that, for lack of a less overgrazed word, must be dubbed relaxed and very natural. Curiously enough, this very same quality also caused a slightly distanced reaction in me. By comparison, I found the Audiopax/Zanden room more involving. Still, I got enough of an 'omni hit' to want to delve far more deeply into this brand than my pressed-for-time show presence allowed. Incidentally, our own Count Turoczi [or Les-is-more to his friends] is slated to do the honors on Marcus Duevel's top Jupiters once importer Ted can secure a review pair. Jules meanwhile's got the major reviewer Jones for the massive Pluto table and, audio gods willing, may actually get his hands on one for a 2004 write-up. And while greed's ruling, someone here at 6moons oughta do not lunch but Dusan Klimo's Beltane monoblocks. Monsieur Ted?

Two cool-factor discoveries at CES? Headroom's BitHead, a headphone amp/soundcard on-the-go gizmo with USB port to hitch to your computer, laptop or portable MP3/iPOD device; and Mobile Fidelity's new 24KT Gold Ultradisc CD-R blank media. Recordists alert - has the rule of the black Memorex just been usurped by this premium disc from the Sebastopol soundlab wizards?

As stated earlier, in transistor land, the Ayre, Ensemble and Vitus rooms were the most outstanding, while the affordable sector's most exciting new entries were the Canadian Audio Zone electronics covered by Paul Candy; the now full line of Eastern Electric MiniMax components, with their latest arrivals of amp and tube CD player hitting our shores just in time for CES; Tash Goka's unbelievably full-range tiny tot, the new Reference 3A Dulcet $1,696 bookshelf monitor; and Anthony Gallo's finalized new Gallo Reference speaker [$2,595/pr] which we previewed in our HE2003 show report and are now scheduled to review. Besides resolution, speed and gargantuan soundstage, these new Gallos had something that seemed to elude previous designs using this omni tweeter: Sweetness. And we're not talking tubes but Spectron digital amplification that went with it. Go figure!

We shall visit these and other rooms in my forthcoming alphabetical coverage. Apologies to those whose rooms I missed. It wasn't by design and bears no reflection on anything but too many goodies to cover in too little time.