CES 2013 In Retrospect: Audio Electronics (Hi-Fi+)

Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Integrated amplifiers,
Disc players,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
CES 2013 In Retrospect: Audio Electronics (Hi-Fi+)


Taking a considered view over the whole audio electronics showing at CES is no easy task. There were new products at all prices; some good, some not so good. There are also a host of perfectly good products that sadly fail to get a look-in simply because CES reports demand new and novel products each year. Coupled with a drive to make specialty audio stand a chance of not drowning in a rising tide of more immediately eye-catching consumer electronics devices, we run the risk of presenting audio devices as having an ever-shorter life cycle and that new means revolutionary.

In many cases, products improve from generation to generation, but the improvements are more incremental improvements, rather than giant leaps forward. However, this year’s CES was different. Yes, there were generational changes to existing products, but in the majority of new product launches, the new devices either filled in gaps in the brand’s portfolio or represented a significant new line to extend the brand into new territories.


Disc Players/DACs

New components from Audio Research, Cambridge Audio, and Electrocompaniet

Even the generational products were often bringing new concepts to the party. Take the Audio Research Reference CD9, for example – one of several new disc spinners seen at the show. This replacement for the Reference CD8, the new player is very much a bridge product, for those who have a collection of discs, and have a next-generation computer audio source. Featuring an array of digital inputs (including USB) as well as switchable filters and upsampling to 24bit, 192kHz, the CD9 is essentially a hybrid of a DAC8 and CD8 in one $12,999 box.

With new disc players also from Cambridge Audio ($1,299 the Azur 752BD), Electrocompaniet (EMP-3, $3,995), PrimaLuna (the ProLogue Premium, $3,999) and more, the downturn in CD sales in the West is clearly no barrier to continued development in disc-based replay. However, most of these disc spinners are multi-platform devices, capable of holding their own with CD and Blu-ray alike, and sport digital inputs for other sources, such as computers.

Alongside its new disc player, Electrcompaniet also showed its new Reference DAC, the $3,099 ECD-2. Fully upsampling to 24/192, it’s the company’s first USB-equipped device. Given Electrocompaniet’s continued drive for spinning discs, the ECD-2 perhaps best shows just how deep the penetration of computer audio has reached. Played through the “we’re finally shipping it” Nordic Tone loudspeakers, the system sounded as fine as always.


Integrated Amplifier/DACs

New components from Ayre, Burmester, Playback Designs, and Wadia Digital

The other great drive is filling parts of the product portfolio. Ayre is a perfect example of that. Following the RMAF room set and launch of the AX-5 integrated amplifier, Ayre has essentially stripped away the new integrated’s preamp stage and created a new VX-5 power amplifier. Sporting Ayre’s new Diamond output stage, the VX-5 is claimed to boost the power output to 175W per channel and is expected to cost $2,000 less than the integrated. Played through a 5-series system (DX-5 source, K-5xeMP preamp, L-5xe power conditioner) HRS stands, Cardas cables and Vivid Giya G3s, the sound of the system was clean, detailed and incredibly precise.

But there are also products that break new ground for a company. The most notable of these was the new Wadia Intuition 01. This all-in-one glossy clamshell combines 350W Class D amplifier with 32-bit, 384kHz DAC, leveraging the technology incorporated into Wadia’s CD and DACs, as well as the almost-forgotten Power DAC project. Expected mid year, and priced somewhere between $7,500-$8,500, this extremely cool looking device, with its white LED front display (in the manner of Resolution Audio and the upcoming Roksan Oxygene) and chrome finish, it’s hard not to draw parallels with the Devialet D-Premier, but the French brand was happy with the comparison: “Hey! We are a category now!” beamed Manuel de la Fuente of Devialet.

Playback Designs has also designed a high-end all-in-one, which it dubs an ‘Integrated Playback System’. The new IPS-3 could easily be mistaken for a 3-Series Playback device like the MPD-3 (perhaps not that surprising; there’s a lot of MPD-3 DAC in an MPD-3 chassis), but the other half is pure analog, adding a 130W Class A/B amplifier to the mix. A single box, capable of playing double-DSD replay. That will be $13,000, available later this year.

Not all were making sounds. A number of companies were showing products on static display only. These are potentially fascinating products, but not quite ready to be listened to. Among those Burmester broke new ground at the show, launching its new 101 integrated amplifier. Expected to cost less than $10,000, the 120W line integrated is the first integrated from the brand since the more expensive Rondo line. It will sport three XLR balanced inputs and two single-ended. It’s not quite the perfect match for the new 111 music server system (designed for the brand’s Top Line), but it potentially presages a new ‘entry-level’ (for Burmester, at least) range from the German great.


Preamplifiers, Phono Stages, Power Amps & Power Products

New components from AVMTEC, Ayon, Bully Sound, Conrad-Johnson, EAT, IsoTek, Vitus, VTL, and Zanden.

Perhaps the funkiest piece of audio electronics on display was the up-coming EAT E-glo, a tube phono stage with three double-triode tubes per side, infinitely adjustable cartridge loading and some very spiffy parts inside that reel-to-reel lookalike, $5,000 chassis. Jozefina of EAT also showed off her new tonearm, a chrome 12” version of a Graham, expected to cost $9,000.

Tube experts conrad-johnson were making some lovely sounds with the GAT/ARTsa amplifiers and HD3 digital converter, all played through a pair of Penaudio Sinfonetta loudspeakers, but the newcomers to the brand were on static display. The new $8,250 LP125sa power amplifier looks set to deliver 125W per channel into four ohms from four KT120 tubes per channel. This amplifier is set to have more of the ARTsa’s DNA coursing through its chassis wire than it has any right to have at the price. A special edition version is also planned, sporting custom CJD Teflon caps and Vishay metal-film resisitors, bringing the price to $10,000. Shown with the ET5 preamplifier, this seems like a natural and logical match to watch.

KT120s were proving to be the power tube du jour at CES, as Zanden Audio also used a pair per side in its new 100W $20,990 Model 8120 power amplifier. Alongside the new cube of power, Zanden also showed the still-in-prototype 3100 line preamplifier – which brings (shock! Horror!) remote control to the Zanden line and is expected to cost around $12,500, and its new 120 phono stage. Perhaps most radical of all for Zanden, the 120 is the first solid-state product from the brand, and is expected to cost $7,500. From a brand that can confidently add a zero to that price tag, that’s exciting stuff. Naturally, all manner of tone curves are possible.

Staying tubular, VTL showed its new S400 Series II and S200 stereo power amplifiers ($33,500 and $10,000 respectively). I heard the latter mostly, playing through a Spiral Groove turntable and arm, a Dynavector cartridge and $30,000 worth of VTL Reference preamplification, into a pair of the outstanding new Rockport Avior (at $29,000 per pair). This was one of the best sounds of the show, even if the bigger tube amps gave some more oomph.

Our resident British power mroduct maker, Keith Martin of IsoTeck, is determined to take America by storm. Keith was demonstrating IsoTek's the Premier power cord and Polaris distribution block (translation: power bar/power strip), essentially taking a good Primare system (sporting Primare's new DAC30 converter) with a pair of Vienna acoustics loudspeakers and significantly improving the sound quality in the process, fo about $1,000 worth of power products. We British already know just how good IsoTek products can be, but Keith Martin was also showing the new budget Discovery EVO3 range of power cords, conditioners and more.

Always one of the coolest demonstrations of hot-running tubes, Ayon’s demonstration featured not one but four systems in one, many of which were featuring new or new-to-the-US devices. Among the crowd, the standout products were the $17,500 S-5 UPnP network player and the $12,500 Triton III integrated amplifier. Sadly, this was almost impossible to evaluate, because the ‘room’ at THE Show was more of a large, glorified cardboard box, but they looked great!

The other big bonus this year was it was the year that the Class D amplifier seemed to be realising its potential. April Music’s Stello brand showed in part what Class D can do, with its $6,500 Ai700 integrated amplifier. Powered by the fine $3,200 Eximus DP1 and capable of easily driving a set of Marten Coltrane soprano loudspeakers without fuss, the comparatively new 500W ICE Power integrated impressed many.

But the true Class D star was in the exceptional Brinkmann/TriPlanar/Mola-Mola/Vivid system (with Kubala-Sosna cables) in Philip O’Hanlon’s On A Higher Note room. This was in part to showcase the new 12” TriPlanar arm, but also to show how Class D design can sound good, when it comes in the small, but beautifully formed guise of Mola-Mola. It’s hard to assess which part of a system is making it sound good when you only have a passing acquaintance with one or two elements of that system, but the fact remains that the system sounded all-round first rate, and puts the whole “’D’ for ‘dreadful’” reaction to Class D to the sword.

By the breath-taking standards of the über-high-end, this system was cheap (as in, with a $10,000 sticker for the Mola-Mola base-model preamp, $15,000 per pair for the Mola-Mola power amps and $40,000 for the Giya G3, the whole system was cheaper than a Ferrari) but had a sound that more than justifies its inclusion in among the best of the best. This is an untested force; the Hypex Class D based amplifiers do deliver 400W at practically no distortion, but come in a small, comparatively light box for the money… and such devices have traditionally struggled against opposition that physically offers more, even if the bigger boxes deliver less.

Amplifiers now seem to engender father and son brands. Literally – while Dan d’Agostino is making waves with his new range, his son Bret’s new Bully Sound Company brand is a chip off the old block, the first product out of the stable being the 60 watt pure Class A stereo power amplifier called the BSC 60, for $7,950. Meanwhile Hans-Ole Vitus was in one room in the Venetian, showing his new $13,000 RD-100 DAC/Pre, while his son Alexander was displaying his new and very natty $8,000 Alluxity Pre ONE preamp and $11,000 Alluxity Power ONE power amp from his new AVMTEC brand.


DACs, Music Servers & Network Streaming Devices

New products from Arcam, Chord, Krell, Meridian Audio, Naim Audio, T+A, and QAT.

It wasn’t all high prices, and this is one of the places we British can fly the flag. Arcam in particular has perhaps recognised the changes in the market most instinctually, with three of its new DAC products. The new $350 Sonlink DAC from the brand is designed to be a perfect visual match for the hugely popular Sonos ZP90 (it’s basically an rLink DAC in a Sonos box), but the launched at the show were the irDAC and airDAC replacements to the company’s popular rDAC. Improving on the existing model, these bring remote controllable D33-style performance and Airplay respectively to the Arcam DAC platform and finally rBlink adds Bluetooth connectivity to the digital platform. US prices were unclear (recorder picked up more of the conversation next to us) but the UK prices are in the £400 mark.

The two trends of the show for me were the wider understanding of the importance of streamed music. The hot trend was to use some kind of DLNA solution into the mix. QAT’s MS5 music server wasn’t just popular with the Hi-Fi+ set, it won a CEA Best of Innovation 2013 award, one of the few in the specialty audio sector. The company’s upcoming product – also in its Radiance series follows the innovative MS5 by eschewing a disc transport.

Meanwhile Krell Industries’ new Connect is a UPnP/DLNA-enabled streaming device, available for $2,500 as a standalone add on for an existing system, and $3,500 with on-board DAC. The company also launched an AV processor.

Streaming is nothing new to some European and UK brands, and Bladelius, Linn, Meridian and Meridian are all front-runners in this exciting new technology. Interestingly, the brand with the largest range of streaming products – Naim Audio – took the opportunity to announce its new $2,395 DAC V1 and matching $1,295 NAP 100 power amp. The DAC has a built-in preamp and headphone socket but no streaming capability, but can process up to 24 bit, 384kHz or 32bit, 192kHz. Meridian Audio meanwhile showed updates to its 808 disc player and 818 audio core device (it should also be noted that the word ‘Sooloos’ has been quietly dropped and in favour of a more integrated Meridian Digital Media Systems). Chord Electronics was also showing its first streaming device, the $13,000 DSX1000. This was seen in advanced prototype form in Munich 2012, but the product in all its glory was on display. T+A also dived into the UPnP pool with its new MP 3000 HV multi-source player.


...and some with Everything New

New components from Kharma

Finally Kharma. Perhaps best known for its loudspeaker range, the company went hell-for-leather at THE Show and launched practically everything new. New amps, cables, supports, loudspeakers, power products… the works. Aside from a dCS Vivaldi, it was an all-Kharma room. It sounded pretty good too!

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