Alan Sircom’s Best of CES - 2010 (Hi-Fi+)

Alan Sircom’s Best of CES - 2010 (Hi-Fi+)

Best Sound

Avalon’s new Time loudspeaker was making two very different sounds in two very different rooms. On the 34th floor of the Venetian towers, Avalon’s own room featured the speakers (amid a plethora of DaaD acoustic treatments and Polifermo Helmholtz Resonators) being fed by a dCS source and Jeff Rowland amplification. This was very good. However, I preferred the sound on the 29th, with the same speakers driven by a Zanden integrated CD player, the excellent Karan Acoustics preamp and mono power amplifiers, finite elemente stands and Cardas Clear cables. This last room was a rare thing, especially in a show setting… it sounded like music, not hi-fi.

Another ‘dead cert’ loudspeaker brand seemed to be Marten. As Robert said, these loudspeakers sounded consistently good, when played through a variety of different systems. Of the rooms using these speakers, I liked the new $20,000 Heritage Getz in both the Bladelius and especially the EAR rooms.

My seat of the pants way of determining good sound is how hard it is to wrench myself away from the sound, whether I’m in the room for 10 seconds or 10 minutes. Harbeth was turning in a consistently natural sound from its flagship M40.1 loudspeakers in the CES show and the curious Gradient Helsinki 1.5 were doing the same in THE Show. Both of these proved harder to drag myself away from than some speakers costing ten times as much. Similarly, the new Nola Metro Grand Reference (with its footprint of just one square foot) show much promise for the space-poor city-dwelling audiophile.

Finally, the stunning little Keso loudspeaker at THE Show is wonderful, and probably never going to receive the sort of praise it deserves. Designed in partnership with Japanese luthier Takamine, the tiny two-way acts as almost a point-source. If you can live without the last octave, it’s the nearest you’ll get to an electrostatic sound from a box loudspeaker. Trouble is, $20,000 is a lot to pay for a shoebox, no matter how good.

Greatest Bargain

Not just bargain of the year but one of the greatest audiophile bargains of all time, the HRT Music Streamer 2 is going to change the computer audio map forever. A 96kHz, 24 bit DAC with asynchronous USB input, the Streamer 2 goes spec for spec against excellent multi-thousand dollar DACs from Ayre, dCS and Wavelength… and does so at just $150! Its bigger brothers (Streamer 2 Plus and Streamer Pro) offer improved performance at slightly higher price points and the upcoming Streamer HD brings 192kHz sampling rates. Even on the briefest of auditions, it’s clear this really is a game-changer.

Greatest Technological Breakthrough

Jeff Kalt of Resolution Audio has spent the last year or two frantically researching the best way of getting the computer to talk to the hi-fi system. Like many, he’s convinced by the impact of USB (especially asynchronous USB) as a potential high-quality audio pathway, but wanted a method of connection that moved the noise-making computer out of the listening room. The result; the Pont Neuf USB-Ethernet bridge. Unlike most products of its kind, the Pont Neuf is designed from first principles to be an audio and audio only connection. That it visually matches and is a good foil for Resolution’s new Cantata series of products is no coincidence.

Most Important Trend

In almost every room, the companies were following one of three current audio vogues. There was the increased integration system in a box trend, the USB DAC trend and the rise of the separate phono stage. Examples of all three include the Naim UnitiQute, the Simaudio Moon 750D and the forthcoming Creek Wyndsor addressable phono stage.

Most Significant New Product or Company

That should read ‘companies’, because the dream team of Olive and Thiel look set to make a big splash in tomorrow’s audio systems. The Olive+Thiel HDMS package combines a modified version of Olive’s Model 4+ HD music server with Thiel’s SCS4D active standmount loudspeakers, which sport 24bit DACs and 200 watt amplifiers. The server uses two Ethernet cables to connect to the loudspeakers; this only works thanks to Thiel’s unique Zöet IP addressing system to eliminate latency and poor channel synchronization that hampers Ethernet connections to active speakers.

Most significant ‘newcomer’ products

The Specialty Audio section of the Consumer Electronics Show in the Venetian Towers, Las Vegas is filled with wonders. But many of these wonders preach to the choir; the JimJam 500 Mk 2 might offer 20% better performance than its predecessor, but that’s not much use to someone who has no idea what it does and what makes it better. So, this year, I concentrated on the sort of products that might make the specialty audio world look ‘cool’ to someone who has yet to find their audio feet:

Naim UnitiQute (all in one audio player) – This $1,995 music streaming, digital radio playing networked receiver combines the sort of great musical sound that made Naim famous with the kind of tomorrow-proof technology we all need. Plus, the shoebox sized device lives up to the ‘cute’ tag, although it needs to be in more colors than just black.

Peachtree iDecco – building on the success of previous Peachtree Audio products, the iDecco brings a built-in iPod dock to the party. However, the addition of Apple remote and some Airport Express components helps too! Peachtree were very successfully demonstrating how just one iPhone can control the actions of two iDeccos and one Nova with the greatest of ease, especially when fed by Apple’s own iTV systems.

Sonneteer Morpheus – With a similar interface to the Naim Qute, the Morpheus is an ambitious all-in-one wireless music system. Combining elegant styling with high performance sound, the $2,500 Morpheus was launched last year, but this year’s upgrade is a 3TB CD storage unit add on, and a near infinite range of color schemes for the anodized finish of this and the remote handset, makes it the quality alternative to B&O and Bose. Best of all, ripping discs to the storage unit is as easy as loading a CD; all the rest is done automatically.

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