Rain in Las Vegas. Inclement weather is how the pools in the Bellagio explained their closure when we visited the hotel's Monet exhibit on loan from Boston's Museum of Art. Low temps even conspired for some real snow though the wet fat flakes lasted for a few mere minutes, visible through the windows of Mike Maloney's T.H.E. Show venue of the St. Tropez. Meanwhile, the Las Vegas ski area had an avalanche on show Sunday that buried one of the lifts. Freak weather across the country meant far more than usual delays of shipment deliveries. Many exhibitors like Overkill Audio did not receive their gear until literally 2:00AM before the show opened at 10:00AM. (Some suffered even later arrivals or, in the case of Tsuda-San's highly anticipated amplifier, none at all. Talk about a costly opportunity lost.)

But otherwise, it was business as usual - at least for this year. The new owner of the Alexis Park isn't too sure he'll host the traditional CES HighEnd exhibits for 2006. Unless CES organizers are willing to renegotiate for a higher percentage of the room fees going to the actual hosting venue, this might have been the last year for the Alexis Park. And the San Remo, our cheap sleeping digs, has changed ownership as well. It will go by Hooter's Resort & Casino next year. While all on-site restaurants will change theme and cuisine, our mainstay (the SaiZen sushi bar) will merely relocate to the pool area. A local news broadcast offered the figure of 140,000 as the number of attendees captured by the check-in procedures of the CES. This purportedly equated to $160,000 in ticket sales. Exhibitors in both the CES/Alexis Park and T.H.E. Show/St.Tropez reported foot traffic less dense than in years past. My personal impressions second their - this CES was not as well attended (unless the heavy crowds stayed in the Convention Center to escape the rain and cold). Still, HighEnd manufacturers reported higher-than-usual quality traffic - less heads but more genuine interest.

The most exciting evening for your reporter saw him and his better and prettier half inside the MGM Grand's new Cirque de Soleil show "Ka". It opened in November and was thus still offered as a preview of sorts. Questionnaires asked for audience feedback after the 90-minute show but as far as we were concerned, this was a fully mature event. We had thrilled to the Bellagio's "O" spectacle with the 10,000 gallon pool last year and promised ourselves to take in at least one Cirque this year. Ka is a complete knock-out, with a full linear story line set on a hydraulic stage inside a purpose-designed auditorium. The performance platform moves from horizontal to fully vertical and anywhere in-between.

The acrobats/performers remain active on this mobile set regardless of the impossible inclines. Within moments, all laws of gravity seem defied while acrobatics, martial arts, Myst/Michael Parkes-type costumes and fluidly morphing ambiance intermingle. You begin to believe that anything super-human is possible. It's a realm of magic that never fractures. Rather, the constantly changing perspective anchored by the position of the stage induces a massive altered state. In order to see people from above, you normally have to fly or be out of your body. When the stage goes fully vertical and fantastical creatures engage in aerial combat suspended from invisible wires, you indeed observe them from a bird's eye perspective, hence the mind-altering brain wave activities. At $95/ticket, we ain't talking cheap. But trust me - it's the best large one you'll ever spend in Sin City. When you think CES, think Cirque de Soleil. It now is available in four unique flavors: Zumanity (New York New York), Mystère (Treasure Island), O (Bellagio) and Ka (MGM Grand).

Most innovate nomenclature of the shows goes to Terry Cain's new Cain & Cain IM-BEN. It had Alan Kafton of PowerWing and Cable Cooker fame do a double take. "IM-BEN?" He was obviously confused. I interjected. "You're Alan, I am Ben." Now he got it. "No, you are Alan. I want." Actually, IM stands for "Imaging Matters" but I-am-Ben is how one properly refers to this now smaller than man-sized double horn around a single Fostex full-range driver. Price is $6,500/pr for the upscale acid-bleached Cherry finish. Terry ran his new model with Wavelength Audio electronics and stereo Bailey subwoofers to augment bass below 50Hz.

Art Audio's Joe Fratus gets an unofficial award for most-sighted tube amp designer. Many last-minute requests for amp loans one week prior to the CES had Fratus commit to bailing out a number of otherwise ampless rooms. The best-sounding ones (and among my favorites) were the two with Rethm. A PX-25 with Gill Audio DAC and preamp drove the Third Rethms with one JMlab subwoofer in Joe's own room wired nearly exclusively with Prana Wire (Joe owns the Thirds in his studio). Seamless blending, heightened immediacy, startling dynamics and a complete absence of the infamous "Lowther shout" were hallmarks of this exhibit [below left, with the right image the Ars Aures/Art Audio room fronted by Art Audio's new push/pull 845s].

In full-on dress code, three of the firm's amplifiers now offer the blue lighting and column footer option. This includes the Carissa Signature 845 SET, the new 845 p/p Quartet monos (50 watts) and the Adagio high-power 100-watt SET monos (300B version forthcoming). The light-show Art Audio amps were on duty in Christophe Cabasse's room which also housed the Mother Of All Subwoofers and The Grand Daddy Of All Turntables.

Meanwhile, another PX-25 drove revised Seconds in designer Jacob George's Rethm room, another winner of Sir John's Top Ten picks. Adjacent to the main room with his biggest speakers was his new bookshelf, the Fifth Rethm. It uses a small 6" Peerless-built full-range driver based on Jacob's own design. When asked how a diminutive Indian speaker design house managed to contract with monster-sized Peerless for a low-quantity run of a from-the-ground-up custom drivers, Jacob smiled. "Being Indian helped for once. The specific gents from Peerless I'm working with are Indian as well. When they found out from where I operate (Southern India), they changed their original no-can-do to an enthusiastic yes."

Jacob thus far had to rely on heavily modifying Lowthers. Now he's working on his very own 8-inch Rethm transducer that will incorporate everything he's learned since he began to design single-driver full-range loudspeakers. The new Second (a favorite and personal reference of maverick cable designer Serguei Timachev of Stealth) incorporates visible changes to the back-loaded line. Like its smaller sibling The Third and with the same electronics by Art Audio, it exhibited not even minor echoes of stridency which Lowthers are apt to display. Some visitors from The Absolute Sound finally discovered the brand this year and expressed both surprise and admiration for the organic and completely non-electronic sonic gushing on tap. While other rooms offered more bass weight and impact, none except for the Third Rethm room evidenced this particular mixture of immediacy and suspension of concern over audiophile matters. For me and Ivette, it was a very ravishing variation/flavor on aural realism and emotional seduction.

The new Fifth Rethm uses a 4'-6" folded rear horn with a single side-vented port. Driver options include Jacob's own custom Peerless or the 6" Supravox Ferrite. Sensitivity is 94dB/1w/1m, frequency response 80-20,000Hz. The stand is optional while available finishes include Mahogany with metallic grey, Beech with metallic silver and black satin with metallic black.

Of these and other rooms that stood out, many have been mentioned in previous show reports. This merely proves a few things: consistency in equipment performance and presenters' skill at setting up a room; consistency of personal taste that hasn't undergone substantial changes since last CES. If certain of the following mentions don't seem exactly news, they're still reminders of transferable excellence. These components and their designers always make music sing and produce good sound. This bodes well for expecting the same in one's own home.