March 2010

CES: America’s Audio Playground

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas isn’t just about hot new TVs and cell phones—it’s packed with great new audio gear, too

Las Vegas’ annual Consumer Electronics Show enjoys a rep as the showcase for new gadgets like Google phones and 3-D TV, but it’s also the best place in the world to experience the latest in audio. Where else can you hear $100 iPod sound systems, $100,000 superspeakers and everything in between?

To find out what’s coming up in the world of home audio, I spent several days strolling the main show floor at the Las Vegas Convention Center and the high-end audio suites at the Venetian Hotel. As I walked, listened, chatted and ogled new speakers, I compiled a list of the products I think will catch the eyes and ears of JT readers. Whether you’re a jazz lover, an audiophile, a fan of cool new technologies or some combination of the three, you’ll find lots of products worth checking out as they hit the market this year.

SMART PHONES

Thanks to the popularity of the iPhone and the iPod, headphones have become one of the hottest categories in audio. I probably saw a couple hundred new headphones at CES—everything from those little earbuds that most people use with their MP3 players to big, studio-style “cans.” But for me, two headphones in particular stood out.

One can only speculate what Miles Davis would have thought about joining Lady Gaga as the inspiration for a Monster Cable headphone, but it seems a safe bet that he’d have liked the brazen look of Monster’s Miles Davis Tribute. The Tribute builds on the strengths of Monster’s acclaimed Turbine and Turbine Pro metal-bodied in-ear headphones. Monster includes its SuperTip earpieces, which employ a flexible material that does a great job of banishing external noise. The $499 package includes the official 50th-anniversary Kind of Blue box set and a headphone storage container that resembles a tiny trumpet case.

When the company that is arguably the best-known name in high-end speakers launches its first headphone, audiophiles are bound to pay attention. B&W’s new P5 sounds thoroughly modern, yet its classic leather and metal construction makes it look like something Rudy Van Gelder might have worn during the sessions for A Love Supreme. The P5 sounded superb playing Holly Cole’s rendition of “Alley Cat Song,” and at about $300 it’s priced surprisingly low for a B&W product. Because it’s an on-ear—rather than around-the-ear—design, it seemed a little uncomfortable to me, but you can try it out yourself in the Apple Store to see how it fits you.

SAYONARA, CDs
Based on what I found at CES, it seems even the notoriously conservative audiophile community is embracing the idea of streaming music over a network instead of playing it from CDs. Many audio manufacturers showed high-end streaming products designed specifically for audiophiles—and there were some cool mass-market streaming products, too.

Micromega’s new WM-10 AirStream represents an entirely new product category: the wireless audio router. The $1,595 WM-10 combines a Wi-Fi router with a high-end digital-to-analog converter. Through the wireless router, you can send the WM-10 music from any laptop running iTunes. From there, the sound goes to your audio system. Volume can be controlled either through the volume control on iTunes, or from an iPhone or iPod Touch. The unit can stream Internet radio through iTunes, too. Cuts from saxophonist Michel Portal’s Dockings sounded stunning; I’d have never guessed they were streamed from a $400 Samsung laptop.

On the opposite end of the streaming spectrum is the $349 Pure Sensio, which looks like Sun Ra’s idea of the perfect bedroom audio system. The egg-shaped unit has a speaker on each end with a touchscreen in the middle. The touchscreen gives you access to thousands of Internet radio stations, and to audio content stored on any computer or hard drive connected to your home network. Family members who just don’t get the Sensio’s new-media vibe can simply listen to its built-in FM radio.

MP3 AMPS UP

While speaker systems for iPods and other MP3 players may seem ubiquitous, CES proved it’s still possible to come up with creative new approaches in this product category.

Thanks to a company called Regen, you can now play jazz tunes all day, every day without upping your home’s energy consumption. The ReNu Audio Dock uses a detachable solar panel/battery pack that hangs in a window to charge. Slip the charged panel onto the back of the Dock, insert your iPhone or iPod, and you can listen to music for up to 60 hours without recharging—about the time it would take to listen to every Sonny Rollins album. In case you forget to charge the panel, Regen includes a backup AC power supply. The price of the Audio Dock is $249, and the solar panel/battery pack costs an extra $199.

There are loads of speaker systems that accommodate the iPhone, but precious few that can dock other smartphones. One welcome exception is the new Edifier iF500 Luna5 Encore, which includes a dock that works with Blackberry phones as well as iPhones and iPods. The orb-shaped unit contains a 5.5-inch woofer, two 4-inch midrange drivers and two 2.5-inch tweeters. The $299 unit also features a built-in FM radio and a useful digital display.

While the ReNu and the Edifier are undeniably cute, neither can give you high-quality stereo sound. But the Peachtree Audio Musicbox certainly can. The Musicbox system includes an integrated amplifier with an iPod/iPhone dock on top, plus two matching speakers with 3.5-inch drivers. Unlike almost all other iPod docks, the Musicbox extracts a pure digital signal from the iPod. It then sends it into a high-quality digital-to-analog converter, through a vacuum tube preamp circuit, and then into a solid-state amplifier. A USB jack and analog inputs are provided so you can connect a computer, a CD player and other sources. A brief listen convinced me that the Musicbox ranks among the world’s finest desktop audio systems—and, mind you, this was just a prototype. Look for the Musicbox to debut this summer at a price of around $1,000.

NEW HIGHS

Despite today’s less-than-robust economy, many audio companies used CES to premiere new cost-no-object flagship products. To me, the most exciting of these was the Magico Q5 speaker, a $54,000-per-pair masterpiece from a company known for extravagant designs. Each Q5 is built from more than 50 parts machined out of aluminum or brass. Even the thick panels that make up the enclosure are made from solid metal. A single Q5 weighs 387 pounds, and, according to Magico, a pair takes almost a week to assemble. The speaker’s extreme mass practically eliminates extraneous vibration, so all you hear are the three woofers, the midrange driver and the beryllium tweeter. At CES, the Q5’s portrayal of grand piano was the most convincing I have ever heard. Had I been carrying one of my Keith Jarrett solo piano CDs, I might have spent the whole day in Magico’s suite.

Even Billy Cobham’s kick drum couldn’t challenge the awesome might of Paradigm’s Signature SUB 2. The SUB 2 incorporates six 10-inch woofers powered by a digital amplifier rated to deliver 9,000 watts peak when the sub is connected to a 240-volt outlet. (It’ll work with a 120-volt outlet, too, but with less power.) Paradigm says the $7,499 SUB2 can play down to 7 hertz, which is far lower than any musical instrument can play, and even lower than Johnny Hartman could sing. The SUB1, a smaller version with 8-inch woofers and an amp rated at 3,400 watts peak, is available for $3,499.

Although Nagra is legendary for film-sound recording gear, the company has lately become a respected player in the high-end home audio biz. A suite at the Mirage Hotel featured a demonstration of the company’s new MSA, an $11,500 stereo amp that puts out 60 watts per channel. The front panel mirrors the look of Nagra’s recorders, with an old-fashioned analog level meter and a rugged rotary on/off switch. A huge top-mounted heat sink machined from a solid piece of aluminum keeps the MSA running cool.

Thinking of the Meridian 808.3 Signature Reference as merely a CD player is like thinking of Duke Ellington as merely a piano player. This $19,995 product is not only the top CD player from the company that pretty much invented the high-end CD player, it’s also a complete system control center and a conduit for the extraordinary Meridian-Sooloos music server. You can connect the 808.3 directly to two of Meridian’s digital active loudspeakers using Ethernet cables, eliminating the need for a preamp or separate amplifiers. Using an optional interface card, you can connect to the Meridian-Sooloos server in order to route music from the server directly into the 808.3. With playback of CDs, music stored on the server, and tunes from the online Rhapsody service sourced through the server, any jazz fan should find enough entertainment options for many years of listening.

MIC CHECK

Audiophiles who never left the Venetian missed one of the most interesting audio products of the 2010 CES. Way over in the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, tucked in among home automation and networking companies, I found the Blue Microphones Yeti, the first-ever THX-certified microphone. At a reasonable $149, the Yeti is priced for home use, yet its sophisticated three-capsule design allows it to operate in stereo, mono, cardioid and figure-eight modes. The Yeti features a gain control, a headphone output and a USB output for direct connection to a computer. Who knows? Maybe after hearing your favorite recordings through all that great audio gear, you’ll be inspired to make your own Kind of Blue.

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