I could tell you what I heard in Vegas - but then I'd have to kill you.

Instead I present my Vegas Style awards which I have chosen from all the audio products on display, old and new, at CES and T.H.E. Show. And this was a great year for design. I was impressed by the high standards set by even the smallest of manufacturers. For me, no more anonymous black boxes. Bring on HiFi that looks like art, that enhances the visual appeal of the room and doesn't beg to be hidden from view.

1. My Halle Berry top prize for "Beauty in Style" goes to the sensational VAC Phi range of vacuum tube amplifiers:
  • Phi Beta 110 Integrated Amplifier - $19,000
  • Phi 110/110 Stereo Amplifier - $9,500
  • Phi Kappa 32 Integrated Amplifier - $20,000 and
  • Phi 220 Monoblock Amplifier $9,500 each.

Hi-tech and tubes don't always go together - and I have never written about valve electronics before. Regardless, it wasn't lost on me that these marvels from the new VAC Phi range look like they belong in the Museum of Modern Art. They look even better in the flesh than the camera can capture. Move over B&O. If these amps sound half as good as they look, they may well be, as VAC claims, the best amps in the world! Kevin, I'd like to find out! The Phi 220 monoblocks and the Phi 110/110 stereo amplifiers, like their Phi Ultriode cousins, feature external power supplies; pi-filter dual-choke high voltage power; balanced inputs (with pin 1 lift switch); direct and isolated RCA inputs; zero global feedback; the iVAC data buss system; 12-volt triggers; output tube sentry & diagnostic system; ambient-light-responsive logo illumination; built in bias meter; triode switch - and so much more. The 220 and 110/110 are beam-power units designed around the KT88 and now in production.

The Phi Beta 110wpc integrated amplifier is, basically, a combination of VAC's finest preamplifier and stereo amplifier built into a unified chassis, albeit with an external power supply. All of the features of the Phi Master Control preamplifier and Phi 110/110 are present, including full remote control, MM/MC phono inputs (selectable from the front panel for users of two cartridges), dual-choke pi-filtered power supply, balanced inputs and outputs, output tube sentry. First shipment date is February 1, 2004.

For those who insist on the 300B filamentary triode in Class A push-pull configuration, VAC offer the Phi Kappa 32 integrated amplifier. It duplicates the Phi Beta in all respects except for the self-biased triode output circuit and 1 inch of additional height. The power supply has a switch to allow reduced voltage and power for use with 300B "mesh-plate" variants. First shipment date is February 1, 2004.

Congratulations to VAC President Kevin Hayes and his design team.

#2: Bel Canto Design spotlighted their universal disc player dubbed simply The PLayer [$8,900], and a significantly price-reduced version, the PLayer PL-1A which arrives without the DCDi Faroudja video enhancement circuitry and rings in at $5,490. Their new PRe2 stereo preamplifier [$2,690] is based on the PRe6 and available with an optional internal phono section [$800]. These components do not herald a new style but are the latest additions in as clean a line as I've ever seen.

#3: Over the course of 2004, Classé will introduce their new Delta range of electronics. This line is visually stunning, with pressure-shaped curved aluminum panels forming the front and sides of each unit and a large fluorescent display panel on each unit except on the power amps. I'm not allowed to show you any images at this time so you'll have to wait for the official rollout. But take my word for it - it'll be well worth the wait. The range will include a CD player, two universal players, a stereo preamp, two preamp-processors and several power amplifiers. The Delta components will present a significant challenge to Mark Levinson and Krell.

#4: Meridian's new G Series components very much appealed to me - they're simple, functional and elegant. I've always admired Allen Boothroyd's designs and have owned quite a number over the years. He didn't disappoint this time. The attention doesn't stop with the front view - take a look at the rear of the G68ADV Surround Controller [$8,995].

The G08 Upsampling CD Player can be yours for $3,995 and the G02 Balanced Control Unit will set you back $2,995. The full range runs to 12 models including the G91DH (an integrated DVD-A Player/Controller/Tuner at $6,995) and a system remote that can control all Meridian products as well as others. These guys must have been burning the candle from both ends. Mind you, it's been 10 years since the last Meridian series!

#5: No itinerary of high design would be complete without mentioning Sonus Faber. This time they outdid themselves with the wide but shallow Stradivarius Homage which clocks in at a few cents shy of $40,000/pr. I could easily comb my hair in the reflection of the deep lacquer finish - well, whatever hair I have left. This 3-way design in an elliptical enclosure features "2-pi radiation and a symbiotic tuning system". Each driver is loaded into a tunable cavity, open in the case of midrange and low-frequency drivers, sealed for the silk RingRadiator tweeter capable of a very broad bandwidth and wide dispersion. The 6-inch midrange was specially developed to exhibit the highest levels of dynamic linearity with low levels of coloration. Dual 10.25" aluminum/magnesium alloy woofers promise superior stiffness-to- weight ratio while the crossover points are at the nominal boundaries of the human vocal spectrum -ca. 300 and 4,000Hz. Great care was taken to develop a lacquering process that remains permeable by air and respectful to the nature of the wood as befits the vaunted Stradivarius name.

#6: Wavelength Audio showed a number of interesting designs: The Signature 45 amplifier [$25,000] uses 100% silver/cobalt instead of iron transformers and the wood of the chassis is really a new composite material. The Sine Preamplifier [$5,000], Cosine DAC [$3,500], Tangent Phono Preamp [$3,500] and Cosecant USB-DAC [$3,500] all showed remarkable finesse. Gordon Rankin claims that the Cosecant, due to the inherent error correction of using a CD-ROM transport with bidirectional USB cable, is capable of superior performance than conventional DACs, his own Cosine included. All you need is a cheap computer to drive it. Worth investigating!

#7: How about the Debut II from Pro-Ject, available for $249 in black, including an OM-5E cartridge, or in any of 9 designer colors for a skoch more. Since you apparently don't have to pay big bucks for high style, make mine green! Further up the range, the new Pro-Ject RM-6SB [$799] is no slouch either. It features an inverted ceramic platter bearing and clamp, an advanced tonearm and electronic speed box that allows for easy RPM changes. By volume, Pro-Ject is now said to be the world's leading manufacturer of turntables.

#8: Marantz was showing bona fide HighEnd gear with exquisite satin finishes. The ST-17 stereo tuner [$749] atop the SA14v2 Reference SACD player [$3,00], the MA-9S1 Reference mono amplifier [$7,500] and SC-7S1 stereo preamplifier [$7,500] presented the best-looking range of Japanese high-end separates for my eyes, closely followed by some prototypes from Denon (the DVD-1x Studio Reference Universal DVD transport and POA-1x Studio Reference 7-channel digital amplifier) and some ultra- expensive Esoteric components such as the X-01 SACD CD player.

#9: Audio Note UK introduced the new Three Reference turntable [$19,950] with a compact muscular look in a fine-sounding room. Three large 0.4 BHP Papst external flywheel motors generate rotational mass equivalent to 470kg despite the 1kg Lexan platter. The new Ongaku integrated amplifier with external AN copper-foil PIO caps was driving the E/SEC Silver Signature loudspeakers, which were placed right in the corners of the room but to good effect. These speakers incorporate an external crossover for the upper part of the range, and a new, higher-efficiency woofer which raises the sensitivity to 98dB. Peter Qvortrup surprised me by confiding how some of his product range is manufactured by good ol' Canadians just outside of Toronto. I must pay them a visit soon. Watch this space.

#10: Per Kristoffersen's Peak-Consult Empress ported 3-way speakers use a Scan-Speak tweeter and 4" and 8" midrange and bass drivers from Audiotechnology - sweet on the eyes and ears. I said I would concentrate on appearance only and not mention sound quality, but now I can't resist - for me, this room was the star of the show. The sound was warm and dynamic yet effortless at the same time. Not too shabby looking, either. I'd like to get my hands on these speakers for review soon.

The Peak-Consult line now enjoys updated crossovers, with all internal wiring upgraded to the fabulous Stereovox wire of Chris Sommovigo who has become the North American distributor for the Peak-Consult range. If there were an award for best-looking wire, then Stereovox with their XHADOW connectors would most certainly be in the running.

The full lineup of equipment in this top-sounding room was:

Peak-Consult Empress loudspeakers in Beechwood [$22,495/pr]
Peak-Consult Grande loudspeakers in Rosewood [$31,995/pr]
Lamm ML 1.1 monoblocks [$22,690/pr]
Lamm L2 Reference preamp [$13,690]
Classé Omega SACD-1 [$12,000]
Stereovox LSP-600 Loudspeaker Cable [3.0m: $8,150/pr]
Stereovox SEI-600 single-ended Interconnect [6.0m: $12,500/pr]
Stereovox BAL-600 balanced Interconnect [1.0m: $2,500/p])
Eighth Nerve "Response Controller" room tuning devices
Bright Star "IsoRock 3 Reference Platform"
Stillpoints isolation feet
Sanus rack and amp stands
Richard Gray's Power Company Substation
Starbucks Christmas Blend Coffee

And lemme tell ya, that coffee was damn good!

It was very tough whittling down the list of contenders to just ten winners, and I must admit that there were many exhibits which I missed in my four days of wandering. I hope I have given you a flavor of what's in store for product rollouts in 2004, and I want to offer my appreciation for all the designers who are clearly working very hard to square the circle and give you pleasure each time you caress the products of their imagination with your eyes and hands. Keep up the good work.