High-End Audio Still Breaking Ground

As witnessed at the CES, there are still experts making some sweet-sounding audio products.
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For many of its early years, the big Consumer Electronics Show was presented every spring in Chicago and featured the hottest high-tech, most-wanted toys of the day: hi-fi and stereo gear. So even though CES now takes place in Las Vegas every January, there is still a large portion of the show that features high-end audio reproduction and home theater.

These are items that, when combined correctly, reproduce music. Unlike modern-day video products like large, flat-screen TVs and next-generation disc players for which people are willing to spend to get the best, the audio industry is mostly about portability at any cost.

Who cares if it doesn't sound like real music, as long as buyers can can cram 10,000 tiny files into their pockets. Thanks


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. The day the iPod was introduced was the real "day the music died."

There are still expert craftsmen and engineers making breakthroughs in home audio systems, though. And a number of those small companies were showing off some pretty impressive gear at this year's confab.

Take, for instance the new flat-panel speakers from


. These Magneplanars are so new that they haven't officially been named yet. When I entered the Maggie demonstration suite, all I got to see was a white curtain in front of the new speakers. I sat down and listened to some of the best music reproduction I've ever heard. Especially in a hi-fi show setting, I imagined the speakers behind the curtain to be their new, flagship models: maybe 6 feet tall, with their super ribbon tweeters reproducing everything from voices to cymbals like I've never heard them before.

Magnepan's Magneplanars

Then, after the demo, they lifted the curtains. Everyone in the room was silent. It was a case of "Honey, I Shrunk the Maggies." These new speakers are merely 12 inches by 8.5 inches by 1 inch thick. They were sitting on shipping crates and code-named Mini Maggies. There were also planar (flat) woofers on the floor right behind them. The woofers are an integral part of the system (they have the necessary crossovers inside).

Magnepan boss Jim Winey and his staff is hard at work finalizing the product. If they can keep prices within reason (whatever that means these days), this could be one of the great speaker bargains of the 21st century -- especially in multiples for home theater installations.

DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 3XL Speakers

: Amazing sound from a small pair of stand-mounted speakers. Utilizing the tweeter unit from its top-of-the-line Silverback Reference speakers, and a new, 5-inch paper woofer all in a terrific-looking, solid bamboo enclosure (very green), John DeVore has created a wonderful sounding small speaker. They produced some of the best, musical sounds at the show. The 3XLs are handmade in DeVore's Brooklyn Navy Yard factory and will probably retail for $3,500-$3,700. Beautiful matching bamboo stands will be extra.

Vandersteen Audio Model 7 Speakers

: At the other end of the size scale are the brand new Model 7 flagship speakers from designer Richard Vandersteen. These are big, four-way speakers with two tweeters (alloy dome and carbon-fiber dome), 4.5-inch midrange and 7-inch woofer (both made from a carbon fiber and balsa wood sandwich), and 12-inch subwoofer (with its own, built-in, 400-watt amplifier). This is some speaker! Price: $45,000 the pair.

Quad amplifiers

: It's always big news when the classic British firm (with its modern-day Chinese factory) introduces a new line of electronics. Quad's Platinum Pre, Power and Integrated amps and new CD player all look and sound amazing. Especially on Quad's "little" 2805 speakers. It was a pleasure to sit and listen. Prices for the new gear will be approximately double the current 900 Series.

Not on display, but a hot topic at the show was word of the upcoming Quad II Classic Integrated Tube Amplifier. This beauty mates two, 25-watt Quad Classic monoblock amps, a preamp and a MM/MC phono section all on one compact chassis. The entire kit and caboodle was designed by tube guru Tim DeParavicini. Price will be in the $4,500 range. I've been promised one to try as soon as they reach our shores.

Harmon Kardon AVR 7550HD 7.2-Channel Audio/Video Receiver

: This item won the CES Best of Innovation Awards at this year's show. The unit is big but tastefully appointed. CES describes it as "incorporating a host of industry-leading features and technologies to deliver the ultimate in high-end A/V receiver performance, flexibility and ease of use." In real terms that means a 7.2 channel box with 110 watts per channel, HDMI 1.3, sports the new

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dual-digital processor and can upscale video to 1080. It's priced at $2,800.

Gary Krakow is TheStreet.com's senior technology correspondent.