In this, our final round-up of all things audio in Las Vegas this year, we decided to combine the best of turntable with the most impressive digital sources launched at CES. The choice of terminology in that last sentence is different to the headline and that change is deliberate here - in the past, ‘analogue’ was a cover-all to include any non-digital source: the tape machine was the first to go (although open reel players still appear at shows, they are refurbished models), but this year there were no new analogue tuners, either: FM radio is still popular in some circles, but its popularity is waning sufficiently that we can go a few years without a single FM tuner launch. Meanwhile, the popularity of all things vinyl continues to rise: as we were at the show, amazon.com announced that its biggest sellers in the technology sector were a turntable and instant film - two items once thought ‘dead’.
Digital, on the other hand, is diversifying rapidly. The number of new disc players is in fairly steep decline, yet new ways to access digital music are increasing on an almost daily basis. CES saw a groundswell of manufacturers including the MQA standard on new and revised digital players, and both streaming and computer/DAC systems proliferate, at prices and sizes to fit almost all pockets. And for once, the audio industry seems prepared not to run away with itself, leaving owners wondering about the relevance of the products in the real world: unlike the never-ending DSD arms race, with brands competing for ever-higher speed processing irrespective of the availability of music to play at those rates, those hitching themselves to the MQA wagon are doing so on the basis of upcoming announcements from the music ‘majors’. Time will tell which formats find favour with listeners, but there is an increasingly strong vibe of ‘it’s all good’ from digital audio makers, adding yet another string to the bow of a DAC or a streamer.
A full round-up of all the new sources at CES would make for long and excruciatingly uninteresting reading. Instead here are our edited highlights:
Arcam’s popular irDAC has been one of the cheapest ways to get high performance digital music into the home, but it has looked somewhat limited of late due to its lack of DSD decoding. In response, the company announced the £495 irDAC II. The new ESS Sabre-DAC based design now delivers signals up to 24/192 and DSD128, but also includes full AptX Bluetooth wireless streaming, and a new headphone stage, drawn from the company’s A49 flagship amplifier.
Better known as a cable company, AudioQuest’s range of ‘digital critters’ will see a significant expansion in 2016. The company announced the popular DragonFly 1.2 DAC now spawns two variants; the $99 DragonFly Black (basically an original DragonFly with reduced power consumption allowing it to work with iDevices, and a lower price tag) and the new DragonFly Red. This latter is a $199 version with a 64-bit digital volume control compared to the base model’s analogue design, and sports a better class of DAC from ESS. These are joined by the $199 Beetle desktop DAC, which has been seen before in prototype form. This adds greater input flexibility and a plug-in linear power supply. Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio is considered one of the shining stars of the digital audio domain, his design input runs deep in these three converters.
Bryston announced the $3,995 BDA-3 DAC toward the end of 2015, and this was the first time the product - alongside a RoonReady version of the company’s BDP-2 - was shown to the wider public. The new DAC not only uses Bryston’s reputation for building power supplies to the party, it also includes a host of HDMI connections. Thus far, HDMI’s use has been strictly limited in audio circles, but with companies like Apple dropping connections like optical from the latest Apple TV, the use of HDMI may begin to appear in the audio chain. With all the talk about Bryston’s new amplifiers - and the company’s ability to build a new generation DAC into almost exactly the same case seen in previous Bryston models - it would be easy for this DAC to pass unnoticed.