March 2009

CES Unseen

Beyond the glitz, gadgets and glamour of the Consumer Electronics Show lies something far better: the world’s largest high-end audio exhibition.

Practically everybody knows about the Consumer Electronics Show, which occurs every January in Las Vegas. Network news is packed morning and night with segments about the latest gadgets at CES. Celebrities appear by the dozens to check out the latest technologies. Thousands of journalists swarm around new TVs, cell phones, digital cameras and computers.

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PS Audio PerfectWave DAC
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Montegiro Lusso Turntable
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Koetsu Coralstone Platinum Phono Cartridge
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Esoteric E-03 Phono Preamp
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Simaudio Moon i3.3 Amplifier
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RBH 8300-SE/R Superspeaker
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Magico V2 Speakers

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Beyond the brouhaha at the Las Vegas Convention Center, though, there’s an entirely different side of CES that you’ll never see on The Today Show. The High-Performance Audio and Home Theater portion of CES takes over much of five floors in the main tower of the Venetian Hotel and many of the hotel’s meeting rooms. In 2009, the Venetian attracted more than 300 exhibitors. Combine that with another 90 or so exhibitors at the Home Entertainment Show, a competing exposition at the Alexis Park hotel, and you have what is surely the world’s largest display of high-end audio products.

Since TV’s talking heads neglected to show you the wonders of CES’s audio exhibits, we’ll give you a personal tour. We’ve picked a few favorites from the hundreds of specialty audio manufacturers quietly plying their trade a mile and a half from the meshugas at the Convention Center. (Actually, they didn’t ply their trade all that quietly.)

Starting at the Source

Technological innovation doesn’t come easily to audio these days, but CES did reveal one major, and most welcome, trend in the high-end. More and more manufacturers are now making it possible to interface their elite gear with decidedly non-elite computers and network-attached storage (NAS) drives.

Our favorite example of this trend was PS Audio’s $2,999 PerfectWave DAC digital-to-analog converter. Like other digital-to-analog converters, the PerfectWave DAC connects to CD players and other conventional audio sources. However, it also has an Ethernet connection that lets it play music from any computer or hard drive on your network, as long as the device is compatible with the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) standard. Suddenly, your high-end audio system becomes as versatile as your computer—but a lot better sounding, of course.

To complement the DAC, PS Audio offers the $2,999 PerfectWave Transport. The Transport stores audio from a CD in memory temporarily, then feeds the digital signals from the memory to the DAC. This extra step practically eliminates the timing errors (or “jitter”) that mar the sound of many CD players. The transport’s front display shows cover art and song/artist/album information, so when you play Mack the Knife: The Complete Ella in Berlin, she’ll be beaming out at you from the front panel.

Esoteric Audio brings computer compatibility to a much more … well, esoteric level in its new D-01VU monoblock digital-to-analog converter. The D-01VU includes a USB connector that can source digital music from a computer. In order to maximize sonic purity, each D-01VU outputs only a single channel of sound, so you need two for stereo. A pair costs $26,000—quite a contrast with the $350 Acer Aspire netbook computer Esoteric was using as a program source.

New Record (Players)

Vinyl records never lost their popularity among audiophiles, so it was no surprise to see several interesting new turntables at CES.

One of the most interesting new models was the Xtension, a new high-end model from Pro-Ject. Pro-Ject is best known for turntables in the $350 price range, so the Xtension’s $6,000 tag surely came as a shock to CES attendees. With its wooden deck, the Xtension looks like an updated version of Linn’s decades-old Sondek LP12, widely considered the first “good” turntable and still regarded by many as the best. The deck floats on four sets of opposing magnets, isolating the works from ground-borne vibration. Opposing magnets also help ease the load on the bearing under the 25-pound platter. A carbon-fiber tonearm is included.

German manufacturer Montegiro takes a totally different tack with its $31,527 Lusso turntable, which looks more like the spawn of Philippe Starck than the creation of an audio engineer. Alternating layers of black aluminum and acrylic create a stable, non-resonant platform. The turntable’s motor is suspended inside one of the support cones. Each of the other two cones holds a tonearm; a 10-inch carbon arm and a 9-inch SME tonearm come standard.

Koetsu’s new Coralstone Platinum phono cartridge embodies a more organic aesthetic: Its body is hand-carved from petrified coral. A platinum magnet and silver-plated wiring elevate the Coralstone’s sound. At $15,000, it is one of the most expensive phono cartridges ever created, and it is surely the most beautiful. What better treatment could you give that vinyl copy of A Love Supreme that you only dare to play once a year?

Esoteric’s E-03 phono preamp employs a less modern technology than its D-01VU digital-to-analog converter, but it’s no less refined. The E-03 amplifies and equalizes signals from a moving-magnet or moving-coil phono cartridge. The meticulously built component uses no integrated circuits, only discrete transistors. The projected price is $5,500, so don’t get any ideas about hooking this one up to your old Technics turntable.

Sonic Webslingers

You don’t have to spend an automotive price to pick up a cool new source device. In fact, the most versatile new audio source you can buy starts at a mere $199. It’s Internet radio, which has been available for years in computers but is just now making its way into traditional audio products. The advantage of Internet radio is selection: Manufacturers routinely tout their radios’ ability to tune in more than 15,000 stations. (Yep, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of jazz stations on that list. In fact, we bet you could find at least one playing a Bird tune right this minute.)

At least 10 manufacturers showed new Internet radios at CES. Products ranged from the $199 iLuv iNT170 clock radio to AudioControl’s $5,500 AVR-1 receiver. For now, the most common platform for Internet radio seems to be high-end table radios, such as the $599 Tivoli NetWorks and the $399 Tangent Audio Quattro. Both units deliver sound quality far better than you’d expect from a small table radio.

They Want to Take You Higher

Dolby and DTS demonstrated technologies designed to produce a more enveloping sonic sensation than you’ve ever heard before. The key is extra surround-sound speakers up around the ceiling. Dolby’s Pro Logic IIz and DTS’s Neo:X both use two extra speakers in the front; Neo:X adds two more in the rear. No special encoding is required, as both technologies synthesize the extra channels from any 5.1- or 7.1-channel soundtrack. Although the technologies seem primarily intended for use with video games, they also work with movies and music; we bet they’d add an especially realistic ambience to large-venue concert videos like Weather Report’s Live at Montreux Jazz Festival 1976 DVD. Dolby said Pro Logic IIz will be available in audio/video receivers starting this fall, but DTS announced no specific timetable for Neo:X.

The other technology generating a lot of buzz at CES was wireless. Technically speaking, though, the wireless equipment we heard generated no buzz—i.e., none of the crackles and interference that have plagued many past wireless audio systems. Chipmaker Focus Enhancements talked up its Summit wireless technology, which can be built into speakers and receivers. It automatically figures out which speaker is in which position (left, right, center, right surround, etc.) and calibrates itself for the best sound. What will you pay for the convenience of not having to run wires? According to a Focus Enhancements rep we spoke to, that’s up to the manufacturer, but it might add around $600 to the cost of a typical surround-sound system.

THX joined forces with wireless specialists Radiient to offer Roomcaster, a technology they hope will be built into a variety of gear in the coming years. However, Radiient sells a six-channel Roomcaster kit right now for $1,999, which can be used with any 5.1-channel surround-sound system.

Amp-al supply

Every CES features many new amplifiers and preamps. Many are exotic and pricey, but one of the amps that most excited us costs only $299. Tangent Audio’s Amp-30 is a tiny integrated amplifier intended primarily for use with iPods. The Amp-30 has a volume control on the front, and two audio inputs on the back. A USB jack provides power for your portable music player. All you add is an iPod and speakers. At 20 watts per channel, this isn’t the amp for cranking up Miles’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson, but it should sound just fine on My Funny Valentine.

If you need more volume, consider the Nova from Peachtree Audio. The $1,199 Nova combines a solid-state, 80-watts-per-channel amplifier with a vacuum-tube preamp and a digital-to-analog converter that a Peachtree rep told us was the equivalent of the world’s best. (Seems like a tall tale until you consider that the Nova uses the same ESS Sabre digital-to-analog chip found in some recent super-high-end CD players.) You can use the Nova’s standard digital audio inputs, its analog inputs or its USB input for computer audio.

Still not sated? Step up to Simaudio’s new Moon i3.3, a fully modern integrated amp with 100 watts of solid-state power. The i3.3 accepts just about any audio source you can think of. The $3,300 base unit comes with five analog inputs, including a front-mounted 3.5mm minijack that makes connecting an iPod or a laptop easy. From there, you can add an internal digital-to-analog converter for $400, an internal phono preamp for $300, and a balanced XLR input for $200.

Those seeking an even more elevated experience may find themselves drawn to the glowing tubes inside Vacuum Tube Logic’s $6,000 TL-5.5 Series II preamplifier. Like VTL’s other recent products, the TL-5.5 is designed to deliver the warmth of tube sound without the hassles. If a tube fails, the TL-5.5 will tell you which one it is, and it’ll automatically adjust itself for the new tube you put in.

Speakers by the Dozen

To our knowledge, no one counted the number of new speakers introduced at CES, but we estimate it was at least a zillion. We don’t have the space to show even a hundredth of them, so we just picked a few faves.

Zu Audio is the hippest new speaker brand in the business. The company’s young proprietors employ a single driver to handle everything from deep bass to the mid-treble, with a ribbon tweeter added to carry the highest harmonics. Many audiophiles insist that the simplicity of such designs conveys a musical veracity no conventional two-way or three-way speaker can match. The company’s latest creation is the $5,000-per-pair Essence. You can get the Essence in essentially any color you want, including the lemon yellow, avocado and cobalt blue finishes displayed at the show.

Totem Acoustic, a Quebec company known for its hand-built speakers and gorgeous wood finishes, went a similar route at CES with its Wind Design Series, an improved version of its top-of-the-line Wind speaker. It’s available in blue, red, black and silver-gray automotive finishes. At about $12,500, the Wind Design Series costs dearly, but it’s more affordable than many of the speakers at CES, and it delivered some of the best sound we heard at the show.

RBH, a Utah company best known for bulky superspeakers, dazzled us with the 8300-SE/R, a considerably less bulky and more practical superspeaker. With three 8-inch aluminum-cone woofers per side, the 8300-SE/R put out incredibly tight, powerful bass, just the ticket for Jimmy Garrison fanatics. The “R” version costs $450 more than the $7,999 standard SE, but features a superior tweeter and midrange driver.

The very last room we entered held perhaps the most anticipated new speaker at CES: the Magico V2, which at $18,000 per pair is the least expensive the company has created. The elegant industrial design and impeccable sound quality of Magico’s speakers have won the marque quite a few fans among well-heeled audiophiles. The V2’s woofers and tweeter mount in a cast aluminum baffle that is clamped in place from behind by heavy torsion rods. The rigid assembly delivered an astoundingly huge stereo soundstage and surprisingly intense bass given the modest woofer complement. What better way to conclude four days of audio ecstasy?

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