There are no right ways for reporters to divide up a show like CES. There are only variations on the theme of ‘wrong’. Everyone needs a specific ‘beat’, but whether you divide the show by product category (“your job is find all the new loudspeakers under $10,000”) or by geography (“bring us all the stories from the South Hall!”), a complete profile of all the things on show is both impossible and ultimately uncalled for. However much we try.
This year, we took the ‘geographical’ route. Hi-Fi+ newcomer Syd Schips was given something of an ordeal by fire, covering the hundred or so rooms of the 29th floor of the Venetian Tower, Publisher Chris Martens was given the 30th floor of the Venetian, and the headphone makers in the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, and I covered the 31st, 34th, and 35th floors of the Venetian, as well as off-show expos at the Mirage hotel opposite and at the Hard Rock hotel that was hosting a large Harman event some $20 worth of cab ride away.
In theory, I’d given myself the easiest beat of the three; the large suites at the top of the Venetian and Mirage hotels mean fewer exhibitors per floor. But, from experience, the super-high-end manufacturers, many of whom think their products demand more attention than the rest of the audio world, frequent these larger suites. So, where you can figure getting in and out of a room inside of a few minutes on the 29th floor, anything less than 15 minutes in the company of these companies is considered rude. In fairness, when discussing a $60,000 DAC or a $500,000 loudspeaker with the manufacturer, you would expect the manufacturer to have a tale to tell, and a roll-call of technology to discuss. But, such is the demand for weaving a tale around a product that, by the end of the first day, where my colleagues had covered perhaps 25 or 30 rooms, I had barely managed eight.
There were two interesting things that came out of these rooms, however. Where many of the brands on the 29th, 30th, and 31st floors were streaming Tidal, these upper floors with product prices to match were relying more on LP, CD, or SACD. Also, this year saw a coordinated move by a number of European and Asian high-end audio distributors to stay away from the Las Vegas, in the hope of moving business to local shows at Munich and Hong Kong. This left the show attended by the US agents, who brought a touch of much-needed pragmatism to the Venetian Towers.
So perhaps it was a good thing that the ‘million dollar system’ planned in the Lamm Industries room (featuring TechDAS and Graham vinyl and EMM Labs digital sources, Sanus racks, almost $140,000 worth of Kubala-Sosna Elation cables) topped out at a ‘mere’ $706,000. This was because the new Verity Audio Monsalvat loudspeakers had to be replaced with the previous Verity flagship, the Lohengrin IIS.
Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that if you are reporting on a room with a $180,000 amplifier, you end up writing about a $180,000 amplifier. But where the reaction to such things has typically been ‘fawning’ from the industry, this year it seemed a little more ‘realistic’. However, low cost doesn’t tend to feature much in the upper suites of the Venetian, partly because they have big rooms to fill.
While this year the sound from most of the rooms wasn’t exactly ‘disappointing’, neither was it, er, ‘appointing’. I fully understand of the limitations of a demonstration in a hotel room; no matter how luxurious the hotel, it’s not a domestic environment, the ceilings are typically lower, and you are sharing the AC with hundreds of other rooms, many of which will also have audio systems playing. That can take the edge off many a good system. Nevertheless, if you have equipment that sprawls across the a large suite, which costs as much as a very desirable condo in the area, and comes with a relatively high degree of attitude from its attendants and acolytes, it should also sound something close to awesome. And this year, for the most part, ‘awesome’ was not on the map. There were a few notable exceptions of course...
Astell & Kern
Best known for its high-end portable players, Astell & Kern’s latest product is the AK500N ‘MQS’ (Master Quality Sound) network audio player is intended as a home audio hub. The distinctive looking box (it’s front is styled very much like a mountain) can be configured as the user chooses, thanks to a detailed menu system on the large pop-up LCD screen. You can rip, stream, store, access… the full works. There’s even a volume control for those wanting to use the AK500N as a source, and prototype amps were playing in the main system.
A prototype of this clever music player was shown in Munich, but the real deal seems a more sophisticated design as befits the A&K range. Price varies depending on configuration (specifically whether you opt for 1TB, 2TB, or 4TB of SSD storage on board), but “around $10,000” seems the typical figure.
Astell & Kern was also showing off its hook-up with legendary jazz label Blue Note. To mark its 75th anniversary, Blue Note Records released 75 of its best-loved albums in high-resolution ‘MQA’ format in a sumptuous package, alongside a special Blue Note edition AK240 player with all 75 albums pre-loaded. The collection – spanning Thelonious Monk’s first sessions with the label in 1947 to recent GRAMMY winning Liquid Spirit by Gregory Porter – is supplied in a unique display stand for the 75 SD cards in their slip-cases, and comes supplied with a collectable book by Richard Havers showcasing the label, the albums and the artwork. Albums, display stand, book, and player are sold as a complete, limited edition package, for $6,000.
As discussed by Chris Martens in his headphone blog, Ayre Acoustics was showing late prototypes of its new Codex headphone amplifier/DAC, with balanced and single-ended headphone and line outputs, and USB and Toslink digital inputs. With an ESS Sabre DAC, a discrete zero-feedback circuit, and an ability to support up to 32/384 and DSD128, the $1,500 Codex holds a great deal of promise. Lessons learned from the QB-9, Pono, or all of the above? Time will tell, however Ayre also suggested Codex is likely just the first product in a new, modular range, designed for the desktop generation.
Ayre has also taken the developments seen last year in its first ‘Twenty’ models, and applied them to the integrated, preamp, and power amplifiers in the company’s core 5-Series models. The $8,950 KX-5 Twenty preamplifier now sports the company’s ‘AyreLock’ power supply, the $9,950 VX-5 Twenty feature’s Ayre’s ‘Double Diamond’ output stage, and the $12,950 AX-5 integrated amplifier benefits from both developments.
As a reflection of the changes in the market, Ayre has also quietly dropped the C-5xe, leaving just the CX-7emp CD player as the only disc spinner in its portfolio. However, as Ayre is looking into the development of new devices across its ranges, a separate disc playing transport and DAC system is looking extremely likely.
Boulder Amplifiers Inc
As befits a brand with ‘Amplifiers’ in its title, this year Boulder showcased its new… high-end DAC. In fact, the words ‘high-end DAC’ seem a little dismissive of the 2120. This five-chassis in one, Ethernet interconnected, digital replay device bristles with state of the art technology in its digital and analogue sections. It will handle AES/EBU, Ethernet, HDMI, S/PDIF, and USB digital sources, and is fully UPnP, DLNA, and Open Home compliant, acting as media renderer and control point. It can process these sources at up to 32-bit, 384kHz and streaming to double DSD performance. Boulder has written its own DSP and control point software to work on its 1GHz ARM processor.
The company claims to have reduced jitter to femtosecond levels, includes differential clock distribution across its 10GHz comms systems (apparently; my chicken scratch notes at the time could be read as “different click diffraction for loggy cosmonauts”… there was a lot to take in), and the same gain stages taken from the company’s vast 3000 series amplifiers in its monoblock output stages. The large front panel display is both impressive, and indicative of Boulder amplifiers to come, as it’s a separately powered ‘engine’ connected to the 2120’s main control section via Ethernet… and the same idea could be ported to next-generation preamps with ease.
All of which means it doesn’t come cheap; a guide price of ‘around $60,000’ and a launch date expected around Spring this year were both discussed.