Aided and abetted by personal ownership, my fondness for the Audiopax sound should come as no surprise. What was a surprise? The new Model 99 which combines two of my Model 88 monos in one single chassis. The new look hinges on aluminum casings which are sandblasted prior to anodizing and now unite the Model 88, Stereo 88 and Model 99 tube amplifiers and the revolutionary Model 5 solid-state preamp under one common Scandinavia-frost 'cool chic' aesthetic.

De Lima's US distributnik Walter Swanborn of Fidelis AV just signed up Lavardin of France to bring to our shores "a solid-state amp that tube mavens can embrace". Our man Edward Barker in the UK has owned a Lavardin Model IT ($4,595, 50/75w into 8/4-ohm 4-input integrated) for years and claims it does just what Walter says. Needless to add, taunted by such statements had your scribe put in sweaty dibs for a review sample. A slightly less powerful Model IS Reference ($2,995) will be available for domestic consumption as well.

Also importing Harbeth to the US, Walter has long since arm wrestled his UK vendor for a more contemporary narrow and tall appearance. Since this hallowed speaker brand sells just fine as is in all other countries (and there's actual a direct tie-in between the Harbeth house sound and their wide baffles and portly composure), there's been nary an impetus for the designers to implement drastic changes. After all, what does the American market really amount to in these days of Internet gauntlets for rock-bottom pricing? Still, Walter must have been one persistent resilient fella. In Las Vegas, I spotted a very un-Harbeth like slim-line tower prototype (estimated to come in around $10,000/pr). It's an experiment of sorts to see whether domestic punters will embrace the new look. If so, more "Americanized" Harbeth models will follow, likely much to the chagrin of our overseas friends. But then, expect the tried-and-true Harbeth models to remain unchanged and not mess up what clearly ain't broken. Ah, the endless dance of being everything to all customers...

Falling likewise into the tried'n'true category was the DeHavilland/Nola system that sounded once again excellent if perhaps not quite as full-bodied as the Art Audio/Third Rethm setup. Designer Kara Chaffee has the 22-degree diagonal layout down to a science and the ongoing association with Carl Marchisotto of Nola (formerly Alon) and Joe Cohen of Prana Wire is likewise based on solid prior successes. Of course, Kara's Ampex tape machine and master tapes never hurt if one pursues sonic excellence beyond even the best of turntables. Gaining an "unfair advantage" is merely good show-womanship. If you've got it, flaunt it. And Lady Kara's gotz it.

Despite using speakers with less than 5 days of usage on them, the Viva/Zingali room had this hallway berserker and his wife slow down. We spent far more time than anticipated. This was further compounded by the European sophistication of the Italian designer's brother who knew how to talk about things completely outside of audio when we decided to chat him up just because it felt so good to be in his room. The massive circular wooden contraption at the base of each speaker above isn't a driver at all but an adjustable phase plug. Question to US distributor Victor Goldstein of Fanfare: How can one operate as a credible distributor of fine audio these days without a dedicated website?

The by far most exciting loudspeaker discovery at CES based on brand novelty to the US and stupendous performance was the Vienna Loudspeaker Manufacturing firm of Wiener Lautsprecher Manufaktur now represented by Globe Audio Marketing of Audio Aero fame. Using a patent-pending HF driver about which nothing is divulged until the proper time, these passive or active speakers cast the proverbial wall of sound with expansive layering likely compliments of the excellent French tube electronics running them. The most powerful impression here was one of complete annihilation of the usual differential between left/center/right image density. Plainly put, this was one of my favorite systems if not the Big Kahuna.

This Austrian firm offers four speaker models whose pricing varies depending on exotic veneer finishes. Those include Maple, Cheery and Zebrano for standard pricing and a stunning Yew, Makassar and Rosewood for the surcharge pricing. The models are further distinguished by passive or active configurations that include outboard network modules. Three different subwoofers (12" to 18") and one center channel round out the line.

For a rough overview, think approximately $7K, $8K and $13K for the Lyra, Aura and Grand Viola passive models when purchased in the standard finishes. Active versions add at least $3000 for outboard networks which come in different iterations depending on whether a subwoofer will be added. Did I mention that sensitivities are 98dB? Tube lovers rejoice. The general appearance (sans tweeter) is reminiscent of the Living Voice Avatar OBX, fit'n'finish are true reference caliber and the only thing in question is the exact operational principle of the proprietary HF unit.

Jean-Paul Combelles and Jerome Andre of Audio Aero happily flocked around their stunning tubed Prestige SACD player for a photo op and then proceeded to tell me about the new line cosmetics that completely obliterate any complaints I had about the currently in-for-review Prima DAC.

Denied my eagerly anticipated bitching session -- just kidding! -- I must ruefully report that the new Prima line (including a new amp with subminiature tube/DMOS-FET hybrid circuitry) is a real looker. When I learned that the retail price of the revamped Prima DAC wouldn't change one iota, I was truly demolished. I already know very well what it sounds like. At its $5K price, I merely had minor reservations about the cosmetics. With our French friends now addressing these issues to perfection, the Prima DAC (identical to what's in the Capitole, including analog-domain remote volume and optional analog inputs) is a true sleeper about which I'll have far more to report shortly. Lastly, a major thumbs-up to erstwhile Canadian DJ Ken Wilson of Globe Audio who played music that'd be reviewed all over the moons if I just knew about it. Ken's taste is immaculate and I'll be exchanging emails now to expand my musical library and world music horizons.