Analog Corner #105

"Attention K-Mart shoppers! America is open for business." With the dollar sinking to record lows against foreign currencies and deficits rising to record highs, overseas buyers looking for bargains flocked to the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show in larger numbers than I've seen since I began attending the show in 1978. I have never seen the Alexis Park Hotel as crowded as it was on the show's first day. Usually, attendance is sparse the first two days as West Coast dealers stay away, preferring to tend to retail business. But this year Thursday was packed, and the following days even more so.

I couldn't tell if I was at CES or the United Nations. The devalued dollar is great news for foreign buyers and American manufacturers, but it's hard on importers of foreign-made hi-fi, and those who try to keep prices low by trimming their profit margins are being hit hardest. They have little cushion to soften rate fluctuations, and can't afford to regularly raise and lower prices to compensate.

Still, there was hardly a sad eye in the house, as business has picked up around the world. The mostly well-heeled buyers of exotic audio toys have more disposable income than ever. As for the rest, let them eat $30 DVD players. As John Atkinson wrote in last month's "As We See It," I walked around the show looking at the many brands and models of everything, asking myself, "Who the hell is buying all this stuff?" But I've seen the same brands at CES after CES over the years; clearly, someone is buying.

Unscientifically speaking, there was more analog at the 2004 CES than at any show since the late 1980s: more turntables, more tonearms, more cartridges, more phono preamps, and lots more records. I left the show positively giddy about the worldwide embrace of the old technology. The idea—almost unthinkable a few years ago—that playing LPs will persist well into the 21st century, embraced by a new generation of music lovers, is now more than merely thinkable. It's true. Now. Vinyl is back, and with a vengeance.

Over at the main convention center, Denon's Steven Baker showed me the company's new DP500M turntable ($700), featuring a 13" die-cast platter. "We've sold our entire 500-unit allotment," he said. Over at the always impressive-looking Sumiko exhibit, analog advocate and new daddy Jim Alexander showed me the new Blue Point Special Evolution 3 phono cartridge ($349), featuring lower compliance and mass (8.3gm) than its predecessor. The idea was to make it more "friendly" to a wider variety of tonearms. The top plate has been upgraded for greater rigidity, based on the work done designing Sumiko's outstanding Blackbird cartridge. Alexander also pointed out the new Pro-Ject 2 ($500), a neat-looking phono preamplifier based on the 12AX7 tube and featuring 59dB of gain—enough for most moving-coil cartridges. He also pointed out Primare's smart-looking R-20 preamplifier ($695), which a number of readers have told me to check out. I will.

Alexis Park Congestion
Most of the analog action was at the Alexis Park hotel, and offsite at the THE Show venues, the St. Tropez and San Remo. There was so much to see! Last summer, Dennis Had e-mailed some photos of Cary Audio's upcoming PH302 phono preamplifier, which features four 6SL7 tubes in passive RIAA configuration. Even the PH302's rectification is tube-based (5AR4s), which should keep tube rollers busy. Lundahl transformers are used in the moving-coil stage. I'm scheduled to get a review sample.

New phono preamps used to be merely sprinkled throughout any given CES. This year, it was a deluge. German electronics maker Audionet recently set up Audionet America to import and distribute their line here, including the neat-looking PAM phono preamplifier ($2900), which features single-ended inputs and both balanced and single-ended outputs. The gain is adjustable up to 69dB, with adjustable impedance. An optional outboard power supply, the EPS, is available for improved performance. The build quality of both looked extremely high.

Also from Germany was Clearaudio's new, impressive-looking Balanced Reference phono preamp ($4500), which is fully balanced in and out and is imported by Musical Surroundings. The ASR Basis Mini ($990), a smaller, AC-powered phono section from the company that manufactures the outstanding battery-powered Basis Exclusive phono preamp, is imported by Fanfare International. Yet another German-made phono preamp was Trigon's Vanguard ($475) with optional Volcano battery power supply ($475), now imported by Immedia.

Immedia also displayed the handsome new wood-cased Connoisseur 6.0P phono preamp (price "around $6000"), which uses some of the same technology incorporated in Connoisseur's far more expensive 3- and 4-series electronics. The 6.0P has 66dB gain, "continuously variable" input loading, and both "flux-busting" and inverted-phase inputs. The companion 6.0L line stage will be introduced soon. Meanwhile, designer Jonathan Carr of Lyra told me that the 4.0P phono and 4.0L line preamps I reviewed last year have been "completely redesigned" and renamed the 4.2P and 4.2L, respectively. Another audition is in the works.

Axiss Distribution is importing two new Japanese-built phono preamps from Sound: the PE50 ($500) and the PE100SE ($1000). Each can handle moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges. Although Dynavector wasn't at CES, they have a new MM/MC phono preamp, the P75 ($595). Thorens introduced their TD85 MM-008 MM phono preamp ($295); an MM/MC version ($395) is in the works.

At the esoteric end of the spectrum was Audio Consulting's Swiss-made Silver Rock phono preamp ($13,200), powered by a lead-acid battery. The minimalist design uses silver-coil MC step-up transformers and features RIAA equalization via resistors and silver-wire inductors, with no capacitors in the signal path.

Ayre Acoustics has joined the analog-enriched with the P-5X phono preamp ($2350), which Ayre says goes well beyond the phono board available for its K-1X and K-3X preamps—and those were plenty good. The P-5X is fully balanced in and out, with up to 70dB of gain in balanced mode. And Pass Labs announced a power-supply upgrade that's supposed to "greatly enhance" their X Ono's already superb performance.

Turntables and Tonearms
I was going to stop by just long enough to say hello to Thorens' American importer, Brian Anderson of Trian Electronics...but he had some new turntables to show me: the acrylic-plinthed TD2030 ($3195) and TD2010 ($2500). These handsome-looking "lifestyle" designs are meant as much for show as for playing. I'm sure the less expensive TD850, with its MDF-and-steel-sandwiched plinth ($1995 with tonearm) sounds more solid, but in some installations, looks count.

Avid's Conrad Mas showed me the new Avid Diva, an impressive-looking 'table machined of aluminum and stainless steel and featuring a three-point spring suspension, standalone motor, and sapphire main bearing. The Diva's platter is a composite of glass, MDF, and stainless steel. Armboards are easily switched out via a sliding three-rail arm-mount system that's claimed to make setup a snap and permits tonearms of different lengths to be used interchangeably. It's possible to have two tonearms mounted simultaneously, and the disc-clamping mechanism is the same as on Avid's more expensive 'tables. The Diva looks to be a superb design for a very reasonable $2500 (without tonearm). Mas announced the new Avid Reference tonearm ($4000), but didn't have one on hand to show me. He told me that the turntable business is outstanding—he's selling them in Mexico, Iran, and the Far East.

Although Bob Graham was not at the show, he did announce (to me, at least) the Graham Engineering Phantom, a brand new tonearm—not a modification of the 2.2—that should be for sale by the time you read this. The Phantom is said to incorporate patent-pending design elements, about which Graham was excited but mum.

Also brand-new at CES was A.J. Conti's Basis Work of Art turntable ($40,000). (No, the "A" in "A.J." does not stand for "Art," but for "Armando.") Conti was so protective of his new baby that he refused to allow any pictures to be taken! While the Work of Art was undeniably gorgeous, it appeared to include no new technology, looking instead like a more substantial reworking of Conti's Debut model, which itself was superbly built. The Work of Art includes a thicker acrylic plinth, a taller acrylic platter, and a dramatically cantilevered support system of machined aluminum for the hydraulic suspension. The Basis Vector tonearm, which I'm desperate to review, is included with the Work of Art; it's mounted directly on the plinth instead of on the interchangeable armboard used with the Debut.

I also spotted VPI's new Scoutmaster turntable ($2300). This substantially upgraded Scout features a double Scout plinth sandwiching a steel plate, an Aries 2 bearing and platter, a new 300rpm motor, and an integral JMW 9 tonearm. I have high hopes for the sound, and will soon receive a review sample. Also new at CES was Nottingham Audio's compact Dais, which has a massive cast platter. The Dais is available with the 12" Anna arm and electronic power supply ($9499), or armless (ca $6000).

Franco Kuzma's captured-air-bearing Airline tonearm (ca $7000) is finally finished and available, and it looks gorgeous. I'm sure Rockport's Andy Payor would agree—Kuzma has clearly been inspired by Payor's groundbreaking Rockport linear-tracking design, and probably uses the same machine-tool air bearing found in Payor's arm. Whether or not the Airline can do deep bass is the question I hope to answer when the review sample shows up. At a Classic Records press conference, Classic's Mike Hobson announced that his was taking over American distribution of all Kuzma turntables, tonearms, and cartridges from Muse Electronics.

In another takeover move, Stanalog's George Stanwick has purchased Well Tempered, and is to make and distribute Bill Firebaugh's unique turntable designs—not that Stanwick mentioned it when I ran into him at CES. I found out from speaker designer John DeVore, who had a Well Tempered Turntable in his excellent-sounding room at the outboarding THE Show. DeVore is one of the most talented young designers out there today—the sound from his new Silverback speaker ($11,000/pair) was astonishing, as I'm sure whoever is covering speakers will tell you.

Roy Hall introduced two new turntables: the Music Hall MMF-5SE, a special-edition MMF-5 featuring a plinth of genuine wood veneered in walnut, a Pro-Ject 9.1 arm (also used on the MMF-7), and a Goldring G1022 cartridge ($850); and the Goldring GR1 turntable, complete with Goldring Electra cartridge (ca $399, final price TBA). The GR1 appears to be an OEM version of a Rega P2 with some nice cosmetics and a free cartridge.

Audionote UK showed a prototype of their Turntable Three Reference turntable (ca $19,950 without arm)—just one of many new, high-priced 'tables at CES. Another was the Spotheim Elba with Lyla arm ($15,900), imported from the Netherlands by Cardas Audio and featuring more metal and less acrylic than Judy Spotheim's other 'tables. Expensive turntables from another Dutch manufacturer, Pluto Audio, are now being imported by HighEndAudio LCC. Their $60,000 analog rig consisted of the Pluto 10A Special stainless-steel turntable, which includes a diamond bearing, battery power supply, 12V motor and accessories, 2A tonearm, active Vibraplane base, and a stand. The 10A is not the most or the least expensive 'table in the Pluto line, which can be seen at Also from the Netherlands were Opera Audio and their Reference LP-1.0 turntable ($1899), which features an aluminum plinth, acrylic platter, outboard DC motor and power supply, monofilament drive, and an inverted bearing comprising a ceramic ball and a Teflon thrust plate.

The heavy-metal trend also appeared in the JR Trans-Rotor line, imported by Axiss Distribution. Though Trans-Rotor is best known for its extensive line of acrylic turntables, this year they showed the massive Fat Bob, made of polished aluminum, which features a +60-lb platter and a hydrodynamic bearing. At a very attractive price of $5500 without tonearm, Fat Bob looks like my kind of 'table. The Trans-Rotor Atlante ($3000) gives you a choice of platter: acrylic, acrylic-aluminum, or all-aluminum (add $600). You can add a second tonearm or up to three motors, and while this is popular in Germany, I think three motors making three times the noise is way stupid. The top Trans-Rotor 'table at the 2004 CES was the handsome Rock (I thought Townsend Audio owned that name; apparently not), an $8500 model featuring a massive base of shale and a heavy aluminum platter.

I'm not through with turntables yet, or even with turntables from Germany. T+A's new, belt-driven G 10 ($7000) comes with either the new SME M2 arm or the Rega OEM RB300 with Benz-sourced high-output MC cartridge and built-in phono preamp. It looked elegant and technologically sophisticated. Motor vibration is controlled using digital signal processing, and there are a host of other unique design features that are best discussed in a full review. Also from Germany, Clearaudio's Peter Suchy showed me the expanded range of Unify unipivot tonearms, now available in 9" ($1200), 12" ($1600), and 14" ($1800) models.

Italian-based Mel Audio Co. enticed potential importers with its full line of equipment, including the elegant-looking GO EL i (improved) turntable ($5465), featuring a plinth of 20mm-thick leaded crystal and a 44-lb platter made of metacrylate with lead inserts. Add $3500 for the Zeroha II unipivot tonearm. UK-based Roksan introduced a new, modestly priced turntable: the Radius 5, in clear Plexiglas, walnut, or maple for $1295, including tonearm; add $300 for Corus Black cartridge. Also new was the long-awaited, triple-plinthed TMS-2, with speed control and DS1.5 power supply ($10,995). Another UK 'table, and looking impressively built, was the Origin Sovereign with Conqueror arm. In the category of Ultra-Exotic Tonearms was Carlo Morsiani's C37, a one-piece unipivot design of lacquered beechwood ($6500, It was mounted on a Teres 265 turntable with wooden platter ($3800) and battery power option ($115).

Back in the USA, Dr. Andrew Collen, a surgeon with an itch to build a turntable, introduced the Precision VII, a $12,000 'table featuring a 45-lb brass base and a 3/4" brass armboard. The VII's acrylic platter and bearing system are from Teres. Another Teres-based 'table, still in the early stages of development but intriguing nonetheless, spun in the Glass Audio room. The Teres platter-bearing assembly, sitting in a massive carbon-fiber-composite plinth built by Black Diamond Racing's D.J. Kasser, features a battery-powered motor and Mylar tape drive.

I finally got to meet Kirk and Donna Bodinet, the analog true believers who bought SOTA during the big vinyl flush and are now riding the new analog wave with a refined SOTA line that includes the vacuum-platter Millennia ($7300). It looks far better finished than the one I reviewed during SOTA's previous incarnation.

There were many more turntables and arms at the 2004 CES—from Amazon, Eurolab, DPS, Acoustic Signature, Tri-Planar, RS Laboratory, and others—but none of them were new this year, though the Tri-Planar's machining quality has been further improved to "four zero" accuracy ($3900). Also spinning discs was the ELP laser turntable.

At CES 2004, vinyl playback in the dem rooms was the norm. That's amazing.

Cartridges, Accessories, Software, Good Sound
Lyra's Jonathan Carr showed me the new Lyra Dorian cartridge ($795), built using the same integrated motor design as the company's far more expensive models. The Dorian features a boron cantilever and microridge stylus, and should be a winner. Carr reminded me that owners of original blue Parnassus cartridges can return them to Lyra so the special magnets can be re-used to build the limited-edition Olympos, which can be special-ordered for $9800. With a returned Parnassus, the cost drops to $7500. I haven't heard this cartridge, but those who have tell me that it's absolutely stunning and worth every penny. Of course, such people are very wealthy.

Bob Clarke of Profundo, the Transfiguration importer, alerted me to the new entry-level Aria MC ($1250)—basically, a 0.4mV-output Spirit without the body. Axiss's Art Manzano showed me the new Phase-Tech P1 ($1800), a sandalwood-bodied MC cartridge from Japan. The P1 is built by a gentleman who supplies OEM digital subassemblies to JVC and Sony, but who had always dreamed of designing a cartridge. "Cartridge designers are like movie stars in Japan," Manzano told me, then raved about the P1's sound; I hope to soon get one to audition. He also showed me Air Tight's Eminence cartridge, built by "movie star" Mr. Matsudaira. It features 0.6mV output and uses a hollow aluminum cantilever with a press-fit stylus. Manzano then showed me the new Shelter 90X ($2700), which also outputs 0.6mV. Shelter has been getting quite a buzz lately. Turns out one of their less expensive models is identical to the Crown Jewel Special Edition I reviewed a few years ago.

One of the hottest (literally) accessories at the show was Air Tight's Disc Flattener (working name), a pants-presser for vinyl (ca $1700). Put a warped disc in, close the hatch, turn it on, and the Flattener slowly and carefully heats and flattens the vinyl. And according to Air Tight's Ron PopeilSan, "It really, really works!" This I gotta try! Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab has brought back the Geodisc, and Pro-Ject has a new, nicely made protractor for setting overhang. Analog sage Wally Malewicz delivered a series of much-needed setup seminars during CES, but I wasn't able to attend any of them.

Finally, there were the records. The egg is chasing the chicken and the chicken is chasing the egg—meaning that turntable sales are brisk, vinyl sales and new-vinyl production are strong, and there's no end in sight to the analog tornado. The Alexis Park ballroom was packed with vinyl and vinyl sellers, all of whom report that business is booming. Acoustic Sounds' Chad Kassem claims he's had his "best year ever," as he prepares to issue three new 45rpm titles to finish out his first 45rpm series. His second 25-LP series will include Thelonious Monk's Monk's Music in stereo. All 250 subscribers to the first, very expensive ($50/disc) 25-LP series are back for the second; some titles from the first series, including both Bill Evans live sets, are sold out. A few copies of Monk's Brilliant Corners remain—I urge you to get one. The upcoming Creedence Clearwater Revival LP boxed set, now almost finished, will include a bonus 12" 45rpm featuring "Bad Moon Rising" and "Proud Mary," in stereo for the first time.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab introduced 180gm vinyl editions of Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul, Aimee Mann's Lost In Space, and John Lennon's Imagine, and there was new vinyl from Cisco, S&P, GrooveNote, and probably others I may have missed.

Classic Records introduced its 200gm S-V-P edition of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Déjà Vu, claiming to have finally got hold of the original master tape after years of searching and/or begging its possessor to let them have it for a lacquer cut. The cover art, down to the textured jacket, is perfect. Classic also announced the opening of three "shops" on its website, a new and used vinyl store, an equipment store, and a site that will sell "official bootlegs" authorized by such artists as Peter Gabriel and The Who. There will also be a bricks-and-mortar record and equipment store in Los Angeles. Classic's Mike Hobson said the label will issue more new releases in 2004 than in any other year in its history. Along with the Kuzma line, will distribute EuroAudioTeam tubes and analog enthusiast Martina Schoener's new L'Art du Son record-cleaning fluid, which, Schoener claims, was formulated with the help of chemists, contains no isopropyl alcohol, and is environmentally friendly. It smells good too. Price is $45 for a concentrate that makes a gallon.

I sat down with Speakers Corner's Kai Seeman for an interview: "2003 was our best year ever," he told me. "I didn't expect it. If you asked me 10 years ago, I wouldn't have thought I'd be sitting here now saying this."

Best Sound
Running around looking for analog didn't leave me much time to actually sit down and listen—ridiculous, I know, but that's how it was. What did impress me, when I had the chance, were: the Ayre room with Avalon Eidolons; the Balanced Audio Technology room with smaller Avalons; the room shared by CTC, Parasound JC 1, Rockport Merak and Sheritan II; the DeVore speaker room; the Glass Audio room with the smaller DeVores; the Herron Audio and Alón rooms, both using Alón's new Proteus speakers; the Triangle (Magellan speakers) and Audio Analog room; the Aerial (20T) and Musical Fidelity (kW) room; and, as usual, the big Wilson Audio X-1 and Halcro bridged dm-68 amplifier setup, which was the best big system I've ever heard. There were other good-sounding rooms...but now I'm out of room.

Steve Goff's picture

Hey Michael, I’m in that picture standing behind Stan Klyne.