My dad used to tell a story about four dry cleaning establishments that were located on the same city block. Naturally, the competition between them was fierce. Whatever one did, the next would try to top and so on. Well, one day Dry Cleaner No. 1 puts up a sign that reads "Best Dry Cleaning in Town". Not to be outdone, Dry Cleaner No. 2 puts up a sign that says, "Best Dry Cleaning in the State". Dry Cleaner No. 3 was having none of this so he put up a sign that read, "Best Dry Cleaning in the Country". Finally, Dry Cleaner No. 4 -- who was always a bit shrewder than his three competitors -- put up a sign that read, "Best Dry Cleaning on the Block".
And thus we come to the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show. Among the participants at the Annual Salute to Hyperbole were: a) a speaker company that advertises its product to be "The Best Loudspeaker in the World. Period"; b) a cable company -- yes, a frickin' cable company -- that proclaims the same thing about its interconnects (now there's a helluva tombstone: "Here Lays the Best Maker of Cable Ever ... A Life Well-Lived"); and c) about a half-dozen claimants to a similar shelf in life, as regards their "Can't Live Without" amplifiers.
You think I'm kidding? As Casey Stengel would say, "You can look it up."
Before I get to the exhibits modest enough to tolerate, you might need to know something about my audio perspective since I'm not one of the regular 6moons reviewers. My previous efforts here have been, basically, story-telling (if you're not familiar with those efforts, don't worry - I don't take it personally ... a dozen years in newspapers does that to you). And what is a newspaperman doing reviewing audio gear? Glad you asked: I was never able to hold a job (imagine that), so I also spent a dozen years in the audio business, most of it in the high-end.
What are my prejudices? Very few, sonically. I believe there are three basic areas of judgement that lead to one final all-meaning result: Did the stereo provide an emotional connection to the music? And those three areas? Soundstaging, dynamics and tone, the last being more subjective than the first two. My feeling is a stereo either images properly or it doesn't (with a sliding scale of capability) and dynamics are similarly objective. But tone, well, that's another matter.
I not only detest the idea that a manufacturer will tell me what tonality to like, I think they're idiots for trying. Yes, I've read all the reviews and advertisements comparing a product's tone to live music. My reaction? Other than acoustic musicians, there might be three dozen people in the world who can say so with authority. The rest is just dry cleaning.
But I can, like any reviewer, tell you what products produced a tone I liked - which has nothing to do with accuracy. For live music to be a reference point, I would need to have listened to more live music than recorded music. And I've missed that ratio by about 20,000 hours to one. Hell, a Vegas sports book wouldn't take that bet. But with a decent description of the tone I did hear, maybe you can determine if you might like it too. In other words, I'm not an engineer and I'm not a musician but I have two ears and I trust them. And on that note, my trip to Las Vegas, Nevada -- state motto "Whores and Poker!" -- begins.
This was my first CES in 17 years. Will it be another 17? No, I'll be dead first - unless somebody wants to carry my 280-pound ass around the Venetian. Long walks? Romance involves long walks. These were bloody marathons. That place needs moving walkways like nothing I've ever seen. Or perhaps some more gondolas. And in fact, this is germane because it prevented me from seeing even half the exhibits I wanted to see. So when I tell you what I liked, it was from the handful I was able to survive (as well as emotionally tolerate).
It was so bad, I spent my last night in Vegas in an ER, getting a pain shot for my surgically repaired knees, meaning I didn't get to take my wife to the Doo-Wop concert I really wanted to see. How many times are the Platters, Drifters, Coasters and me in the same place at the same time? Missing that pissed me off to no end. When the hospital resident saw the fluid on my knees, he had to ask about how they got that way. It's the same answer that makes my body something on which an orthopedic surgeon could retire: working in dad's paint store (start picking up paint cans when you're eight years old and tell me if your knees and back hurt 30 years later), high school football and parachuting out of plane 20-some-odd years ago (okay, that last one was stupid).
But I'll try to get the focus off me here. Maybe after all this complaining, I should first state what I liked most - and that's easy: the new Sonus Faber Elipsas, the younger brother of the famed Stradivari. These speakers were no simple ice cream cone. They were a triple dip of Breyer's all-natural strawberry cheesecake ice cream, melted just enough for your spoon to slice off the perfect bite.
The looks? Absolutely gorgeous. I'm sure there are production short cuts from the twice-the-price Stradivari but they aren't readily obvious. The Elipsas still have that unique violin shape and the horizontal rows of highly-polished veneer. I may buy for sound but I lust for looks and this is the rare product that solves both desires.
Back to the sound, this was melt-in-your-mouth tone. The tone was so good, it made the imagery a bit diffuse. And since I'm an imagery slut, this made my impressions that much more notable. I heard them in the Sumiko room powered by a stack of Primare separates and a turntable I really didn't care to identify. I was too busy melting into the couch. I thought I was going to have to get a divorce attorney, to get my wife to leave with me, although I would have happily stayed there for the rest of the show myself. Believe me, I know how ridiculous it can sound to hear that $20,000 speakers are a strong value. But I'll let the market do my talking. If these things aren't in back order shortly after the first batch reaches American shores, I'll dedicate an entire piece to how stupid I am (as opposed to just parts of my writeups).
Another room I liked came as a bit of a surprise to me: the Boulder room. Why would that be a surprise? Well, people who sell $40,000 preamps aren't usually my cuppa Joe from a mere affordability standpoint. I have nothing against people who can afford such gear other than jealousy, it's just that if the gear isn't great, then it's a disappointment.
But this year, Boulder introduced a more affordable line, which is to say it will only cost your first born instead of the entire extended family. Our guide through the new line was CFO Tom Colbert. Actually, he was too modest to refer to himself as a CFO; when I suggested the title based upon his job description, he responded, "Well, maybe if we were a bigger company, I'd be called a CFO. For now I'm just the chief bottle washer." Gotta like that.
Boulder's new 860 power amp (projected at about $8K) and 810 preamp (about $7K) made a Lindemann 820 SACD/CD player sing on a pair of Wilson Watt/Puppy 8s. The system had pinpoint imagery and extraordinary detail - so good I had to wonder if there was an extra guitar player behind the curtains.
The tone was a little clinical for my tastes but I believe that to be the 'reference' nature of the speakers, which were used by a variety of exhibitors because of their perfect size for hotel rooms. The new Boulder amps also come with an ergonomic remote seemingly sculpted from Kryptonite. It looks like it would make one helluva Billy club if you live in a bad neighborhood. The new Model 865 integrated was static at the time we were there but at a projected $10K, it could be someone's answer for getting that famous Boulder casework into their living room.
Okay, time to throw in a couple of disappointments if only to make my compliments meaningful. But first, the required show boiler plate: This was drive-by listening and not always in the sweet spot. Although the Venetian Towers was universally liked by the folks I spoke to (I missed the Alexis Park history; I actually go back to the Jockey Club days), it was still show conditions, meaning it may have taken until Day Four to get it right. And lastly, this is nothing more than my opinion, which many politicians will tell you is worthless (I'm just an old government-and-politics reporter - remind me to report on the difference between that and the audio press, which was, well, hilarious). All that said, two rooms I didn't like.
Disappointment No. 1: I don't know who set up the Esoteric room but I think they were deaf decorators. The bullet-proof equipment looked great but the speaker setup was atrocious. They put a pair of Watt Puppys six inches from the wall, flanking a wide display of Esoteric goods, on a long-wall setup. In addition, a base trap was put to the inside of each speaker, which made a hole in the wall-of-sound big enough for a floating crap game. I would think somebody from Wilson would have rescued their speakers, lest somebody think they actually sounded that bad.
Disappointment No. 2: This one hurts to state because I must be wrong. I have always considered Thiel speakers to be among the best available, but their new CS3.7s sounded harsh and bright. It wasn't the amps; they were using the same Ayre MX-Rs that sounded wonderful in several other rooms. It was a quick preview and again, not in the best seating area, but the brightness drove me out of the room. Of course, one man's brightness might be another man's detail. Maybe I need another listen (after which I'd be happy to report my show experience was incorrect) or this model doesn't hit the usual high Thiel standard. Color me wary.
Back to the positive: If Anthony Gallo doesn't sell his new high-end speakers as fast he can make them, then he's moving awfully slow. They are highly dynamic. No, hold it, that doesn't suffice. They were so dynamic, I can't imagine a higher signal-to-noise ratio from a pair of moving-coil speakers and I thought he ran the risk of being charged for new windows by Venetian security. I couldn't examine soundstaging because the sweet spot was being monopolized by classical music fans, which is always my cue to leave. But I'd be stunned if they didn't image extremely well, considering the small size of the drivers.
Or as I told Srajan after returning from Vegas: If I was a dealer again, I'd order one pair up and two back without breaking a sweat. (Side note to reviewers: My nomadic life, if nothing else, has allowed me to meet many people from all different walks of life. And to my knowledge, not one of these hundreds of people listen to classical music. So if you want to complain about the industry not reaching out to new customers, stop using classical music for 75 percent of your product evaluations. Just my one cent. Rant over.)
And one more kind note: I thought Louis Armstrong rose from the dead in the Lamm room. Holy Dolly, Batman, what presence, what reach-out-and-touch reality. It was stunning. Once again, Watt Puppy 8s were the reference speakers. And if they can sound better than they did with a pair of Lamm mono amps, then sign me up now. I'm sure there's something around this house I can sell (okay wiseguys, stop suggesting I sell my keyboard).
Leftover notes include some insights about the audio press, which is far more audio than press. The first thing I got when I arrived was a computer bag and a bunch of lunch chits. When I gave the bag to the first writers I saw, their eyes widened like saucers. Hell, I thought they just won American Idol. One of them was so flabbergasted he couldn't stop telling me about how he was the first press member to get a Blu-Ray bag. Ooh neato.
And nobody is buying me a free lunch so those passes went in the nearest trash can. I know press representatives, for the most part, travel to the show on their own dime just as I did. But that doesn't mean the appearance of journalistic impropriety shouldn't be maintained. I never accepted so much as a Rotary lunch on the political trail and I won't accept anything on this trail either. This was not simply a nice gesture on the part of CES officials. At best, it was an ignorant insult to my integrity; don't give me a damn thing except access and a place to work. That's all I ask (and all that should be given).
So was there anything about the trip totally positive? Yes. I forgot to mention that somewhere between the audio business and returning to newspapers, I worked six months as a craps dealer in Vegas. I pictured learning enough to work in Monaco and the south of France. What I got instead was some dive off the strip where every boss thought he was on The Sopranos.
Well, did I put that knowledge and experience to work? Hell yes. I got those suckers for every dime a $25 bettor can reasonably win. Heck, maybe I will go back next year...
Mike Rodman is a journalist and author who lives on the shores of Beaver Lake, in Northwest Arkansas. His book, "Beyond the Sea: A Life in Short Stories" is available at: http://www.mikerodman.com