As a long and puzzling existence nears an end, I realize that my life has been an ordeal of criticism more than a passage of joy. Instead of absorbing a moment’s pleasures, I have often asked whether the food is too bland, the drinks too watery, the girl I love too . . . whatever. As a result I have missed out on a robust enjoyment of life around me. In hi-fi matters, four decades of buying, analyzing, and selling off stereo equipment has not been a panacea for whatever ails me.
About a year ago, I decided to embrace the day with an open heart rather than observe it with critical eye. As a consequence, I now greet the commonplace with equanimity. My car horn, formerly a road-rage weapon, barely feels a weekly tap. Hi-fi systems that I and others own all sound reasonably captivating — honest. The Roving Critic has received a complete makeover. On most days, I actually say to myself, “I feel happy!”
This new openness went with me to the CES. Instead of parsing the sound of every system, I let the senses rule. Upon detecting artistry, I felt happy. If not, I felt impatient. In rooms with silent displays, I let the old bond trader in me sniff value for money. Most importantly, I did not let outrageous price tags arouse my animosity. I simply applied the Saxon Happiness Index (SHI) and all was well.
In certain quarters — for example, my home — the SHI has become the gold standard by which experiences are judged. The SHI takes its inspiration from social media, where beautiful girls ask viewers to rate their photos. On a scale of 1-100 (higher is better), a negative score is not even contemplated. In real life, however, our activities encompass a broad spectrum of pleasure and pain. A hot cup of Joe at 6:00 AM might be worth 40 SHI points; a glass of strychnine, minus 60. Giddier experiences, such as driving a Ferrari or falling off a cliff, would tend to push the scores further in either direction.
In adapting the SHI for use at the CES 2016, I am pleased to say the scores of only a few unfamiliar exhibitors went negative. All established manufacturers were at least better than zero. Moreover, a number of product displays made me Happy, others had me clapping (as in Happy-Happy) and a few elevated me to utter Euphoria. The following is a recap of those moments.
Euphoria (SHI range 91 to 100)
The Best Full-Range Loudspeaker at the Show was the Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand ($225,000/pair) so bountifully employed in the Lamm Industries room. Of course, the price is outrageous, but these awards are about happiness, not penny-pinching. Besides, I love the weird use of the French word “midi,” which I take to mean “midday” as in, “Honey, bring me my midday speakers.” Nevertheless, the Kharma EMG performs better than any box speaker I’ve ever heard. The openness and dimensionality rival that of Nola’s open-baffle bipolar designs. Center imaging is pinpoint like that of a minimonitor but tall and meaty. Apparently, the key to the EMG is the new Omega F-Driver, four of which grace the loudspeaker’s baffle. This dismisses iron from the magnet motor system, which raises the question, what’s a magnet without iron? Eliminating Eddy currents from the voice coil allows the driver to move freely in response to the signal, unhindered by a magnetic counterforce. The result is increased transient speed, lower distortion and less coloration. The result is a spectacular sense of realism. Driven by Lamm electronics, the Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand was like listening to no speaker at all.
In an unprecedented development, Lamm Industries swept the award cupboard bare. Their big room hosted the Best Full-Range Speaker (Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand) and launched the world premiere of the four-chassis Lamm LL1.1Signature line-level preamplifier ($45,390, including two separate power supplies). The LL1.1 debut couldn’t have been more impressive. Mated with Lamm’s award-winning LP1 Signature phono stage ($35,690 for three-box set) and driving the ML3 Signature single-ended triode 32-watt mono amplifiers ($139,490/pair), the new preamp was, despite the name, virtually without signature. The perfect answer to the question “How did it sound?” is “Couldn’t hear it.” The Best Preamp at the Show, by far, was the Lamm LL1.1 Signature.
Playback source in the big room was an out-of-production EMT turntable ($50,000) and SME 3012 tonearm ($3000) along with an in-production ZYX UNIverse Premium cartridge ($14,495). Toss in Kubala-Sosna cables valued at $130,000 and it’s easy to see why the total cost of Lamm’s big-room system pencils out at $733,880. (Note: Their small-room equipment tipped in at $658,106!) Was it worth it?
When I first entered the big room, a bit of boring, bombastic demo music, typical CES fare, was playing. I was contemplating lunch when I overheard Lamm’s guiding light, Vladimir Lamm, say (ironically), “Single-ended triode amplifiers can’t do bass.” This understatement perked my attention. We all know SET amps are underpowered at 30 watts or so max. How on earth did the “little” Lamms control such big speakers? That’s when I decided to stick around and learn something.
With unhurried fingers, Mr. Lamm removed a record from the sleeve and cued up the needle. It was opera, not my favorite genre, but the power of the music was overwhelming. It was like witnessing Fourth of July fireworks from an unsafe distance. I was transfixed. Repeating the cueing up ritual with another record, Mr. Lamm sensed it was time for a showstopper. The next selection was José Carreras’s “vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliaci. I’d never heard a tenor sound so real, so drenched in pathos. When the legend launched into the famous lyric “Laugh clown at your broken love, laugh at the grief that poisons your heart,” I became dismayed. My mind’s eye caught the image from The Untouchables where Robert DeNiro wipes away crocodile tears as Sean Connery is gunned down in his apartment. I was filled with anger, a need for revenge! Every hair on my hirsute body stood on end.
Now, that is how a stereo system should evoke emotion. Subsequent tracks had a more cerebral effect on me, but the damage had been done. Lamm Industries sews up the 2016 Jimmy Award for Best Sound at the Show.