Convergent Audio Technology/Merlin introduced the questionable concept of punishing dB levels and flagrant disregard for fellow exhibitors while also launching the more important novelty, the JL3 Triode Monoblocks. This amplifier itself offers 150/200 watts into 8/4 ohms in pure Class A; low feedback of 5dB; 55 lbs. output transformers; and a single 10-turn master bias control and built-in LCD for ease of use and adjustments. The only valve amp more forested with glass bottles at the show was Atma Sphere's colossal new statement monoblocks in the Gilmore Audio room. Our own Jules Coleman noted the same high SPL levels on numerous visits to this particular building of the Alexis Park, making our observations strong enough to warrant mentioning. Hopefully, these incidents just so happened to coincide with our presence in this corridor - it made enjoying neighboring exhibits really difficult.

If there were an award for most tastefully appointed room, Scott Tarter from CC-Audio, US distributor for P.S.C. cables and WHT speakers from Australia, would certainly have qualified in the top three.

Co-exhibiting with Art Audio [gleaming VPS-DM preamp above], this was another room with real speaker promise though WHT was exposed to the unfortunate "revenge of the forklift" when their newest Reference model found itself skewered to Shishekab during its trek from Down Under to the City of Lost Wages. This was doubly sad as Scott had indicated how the WHT designer, by virtue of a completely custom-designed, custom-fabricated new mid/bass driver, had managed to eliminate the crossover altogether, merely putting a resistor on the ribbon tweeter for protection. A fringe benefit of the reworked driver and absentee network is even higher sensitivity, now apparently somewhere between 95-97dB, details to be announced - another perfect-for-tubes contender I'd have loved to sample.

The pair on display was the standard version in Reference cosmetics [high-gloss lacquer, real leather and Australian Jarrah wood for the unusual scoop that provides a proprietary variant of quasi-horn rear-loading] which quickly sold to a Las Vegas show attendee. I've already alerted our man Down Under, Edgar Kramer, to get with both P.S.C. and WHT to report first-hand about these exciting goodies from the other hemisphere. There's something very novel going on with WHT, and our readers deserve to get the scoop --pun intended -- in full measure!

Meanwhile, heroics of an economic sort occurred in the Two Bald Guys' room where Eastern Electric's US partner Bill O'Connell introduced the new 8-watt MiniMax amplifier [$1,350] with 4AR4 rectifier and a quartet of 6BM8 output tubes; and the tubed MiniMax CD player with 6922 output tubes, Philips transport, HDCD compatibility, headphone socket tied directly to valved output stage and solid metal remote [$1,350]. Like the emerging Audio Zone line on the transistor side of the fence, this MiniMax lineup promises stellar value though by the time I found this room late on Sunday, yours truly was too shot and frazzled to pay much attention to sonics, preferring instead to ogle and ahh and spend a few minutes with the MiniMax man. But our Blue Moon Award experience with the preamp has me massively excited about getting to know its new stable mates.

One very trick and thoughtful feature of the new CD player are the externally accessible valves which allow on-the-fly experimentation. Add fit'n'finish completely off-the-charts in this price sector; an importer/partner who commits to 200 units at a time to hold the super-competitive pricing and properly support his emerging US dealer network - and Eastern Electric is one of the brands to keep a very close eye on. I've seen too many -- especially European -- companies so hungry for US penetration as to not take the proper time to secure a truly professional and skilful representative.

Hans-Manfred and Mark Strassner of HMS Elektronik learned this lesson the hard way and attended CES to personally secure new distribution for their fabulous cables in this market. Stay tuned. Other brands that are solidly established and buoyed on stellar European reputations continue to suffer from our shrinking network of reputable, successful domestic dealers. They are prone to signing the wrong representation who blow smoke up their kilts, paint grandiose pictures and promise the world while being woefully mispositioned, undercapitalized and inexperienced to truly live up to such scenarios Manufacturer alert: The US market no longer is what you might think it is or dream it should be. Perform due diligence about who represents you. The wrong move can potentially ruin your brand's perception for years to come. This is quite independent from the initial potential for a short-term order flood. Think long-term; or you might find that your carefully cultivated brand image becomes tainted by smooth operators in our hick colonies. I shall say no more but already have witnessed a few potentially ill-considered developments at this CES...

Stephen Dull, a fellow Audiopax/Avantgarde enthusiast with "Westside Music & Cinema" in Calgary/Canada, introduced himself as a friend of Ed Meitner's Canada-based EMM Labs. He kindly provided me with the following pricing information for the eagerly awaited new two-channel DCC2 Preamp/DAC [$9,995] and matching CDSD transport whose retail remains to be finalized but is expected to come in below $5,000, making the combo a $15K proposition. Spotted in the Tenor Audio room at the very end of the Alexis Park, something wasn't quite right with the sound. Considering Tenor's stellar track record at previous shows, it was likely a function of one or more of the countless show gremlins that plague every exhibitor each year. But to merely view these two new Meitner products in the flesh and finalized -- we reported they were in the pipeline at HE2003 -- was enough to get caffeine-free shakes and blur the hand-held camera images.

Urs Wagner of Swiss Ensemble brand hosted my second favorite solid-state sound, subscribing to a complete systems doctrine that includes all electronics, speakers, wiring and power delivery components. The most exciting development here were the finalized digital components, the Dirondo Player, Dirondo Drive and Dirondo Hi.DAC.

There's far more to these components than meets the eye. Facing the viewer, what Urs holds in his right hand is a 14-layer constrained-sandwich vibration sink which his transport section is mounted upon. Pressing different pairs of front panel buttons simultaneously gives access to embedded sub-menues that change dither settings, upsampling and other parameters.

Overall construction is tank-like, appearance a combination of Swiss watches and fine jewelry, with the sound -- as part of the system, naturally -- walking the fine balance between resolution and musicality, precision and feeling dimension. While the cards haven't been dealt yet, someone at 6moons will eventually do the honors here, with payoffs and other untoward favors encouraged in the meantime to secure this assignment from ye olde editor.

As my wife observed in her poignant "Letter to Steve M." -- who, incidentally, has already made multiple appearances in this show report -- many exhibitors may be ferocious studs in the laboratory and on the test bench (imagine the possibilities) but don't know shit from Shinola. when it comes to romancing the ear and soul with superior music, or -- what a concept -- talking to a woman visitor without defaulting into superior airs or tacit ill-ease. Not so the Wagners. Being Swiss-born and working the show as a husband-and-wife team, they exude the kind of class and sophistication that occasionally has me hanker for European culture.

Perhaps sensing these musings, I was gifted with Ensemble's "Sounds in natural perspective" compilation CD that more than gives the famed Burmester a run for its money, especially if your focus were Classical music from the fringes of the mainstream catalogue. I'm not sure whether these CDs are for sale -- if I had any European class remaining, I should perhaps check with Ensemble first before going on a limb -- but I'll take a chance here and recommend to one and all to approach these folks for a copy. The 20-or-so dollars to cover the disc and shipping would be well-spent indeed, and being introduced to immaculately chosen samples from Bohuslav Martinu to Halfdan Kjerulf would do wonders for our faltering domestic musical education.

If you're an audiophile at the end of his or her rope attempting to find cosmic harmony in the present mishmash of mismatched components, one-brand systems can be a God-sent. Neither Naim nor Linn are strong with speakers; Krell's transducers seem shamelessly overpriced; and 47Lab's tie-in with Sead's Essence speakers, by virtue of their 4-inch single-driver nature, may have limited appeal for certain folks While I'm liably overlooking somebody truly important here -- days of show reporting will do that to you -- Ensemble would be my personal first choice for an upscale one-brand solution that offers a truly winning combination of sonics, appearance and user-friendly features.