This is Part 4 of a four-part report on High-Performance Audio at CEDIA 2011, which highlights new products from: Pioneer, Polk Audio, Pro-Ject, PSB, Rotel, Soundmatters, TAD (Technical Audio Devices), Totem Acoustic, Wadia Digital, Wharfedale, Wisdom Audio, and Yamaha.
Part 1 covers new products from: AKG, Anthem, Atlantic Technology, AudioQuest, Audio Research Corporation, Bryston, Canton, Cambridge Audio and Cary Audio. CLICK HERE to read Part 1.
Part 2 covers new products from: Definitive Technology, Focal, GoldenEar Technology, Harman/Kardon, Integra, JBL Synthesis, KEF, Klipsch, Labgruppen, and Lexicon. CLICK HERE to read Part 2.
Part 3 covers new products from: Linn, Mark Levinson, MartinLogan, Monitor Audio, NAD, Onkyo, Paradigm, and Paradigm Shift. CLICK HERE to read Part 3.
Also check out David-Birch Jones’ mostly video-oriented CEDIA 2011—Highlights, which highlights new products and technologies from Sony, JVC, Pioneer Elite, THX/LG, Panasonic Business Solutions, Sim2, Screen Innovations, Epson, Runco, and Lexicon. CLICK HERE to read CEDIA 2011—Highlights.
High Performance Audio, CEDIA 2011—Part 4
A major part of Pioneer’s show presence focused on the return of Pioneer flat panel TVs, as covered in my colleague David Birch-Jones’ “CEDIA 2011—Highlights” report, but there were many significant audio developments as well.
Key points of emphasis for audio enthusiasts were the release of a new family of Pioneer Elite-series AVRs, plus an expanded range of Music TAP-series components. For purposes of this report, though, we’ll focus on the AVRs.
A Pioneer spokesman gave me a walk-through for the Elite AVR line, which is comprised of seven models: the VSX-40 ($450, and the lowest priced Elite receiver to date), the VSX-50 ($600), the VSX-51 ($700), the VSX-52 ($900), the VSX-53 ($1100), the SC-55 ($1600), and the SC-57 ($2000).
The top two AVRs are 9.1-channel units driven by what Pioneer terms “class D3” (that is, third-generation class D) power amplifiers. Pioneer takes particular pride in these models, arguing that its current implementation of class D technology has overcome past sonic objections (by delivering a smoother, more natural and full-bodied sound), while preserving the expected benefits of efficiency, cool operation, and excellent damping factor for better bass control. As Pioneer’s spokesman put it, “we feel these are the most powerful AVRs on the market (in real world terms).”
Common connectivity benefits shared by all Elite receivers from the VX-50 on up include: Ethernet connectivity, AirPlay support, Pioneer’s free Air Jam App, DLNA 1.5 certification, Bluetooth audio streaming, vTuner support, “Made for iPad, iPhone, and iPad” certification, and Pioneer’s iControl AV2 App.
The centerpiece of the Polk display, at least for performance-minded audio enthusiasts, involved the firm’s previous announced and now fully released flagship LSiM loudspeaker family.
The LSiM range has been completely redesigned, from the ground, with most LSIM models (except the surround speaker) featuring what Polk terms the “Sonic Engine”—a 3.25” midrange driver and a ring-radiator tweeter. Driver cones are made of very light but also very stiff “aerated polypropylene foam” with rigid skins on their front and back sides. Careful attention has been paid to the motor structures, too, with an eye toward allowing larger driver excursions while still affording excellent control. By using the Sonic Engine across all models in the range, Polk is able to ensure a high level of consistency in model-to-model voicing. Other noteworthy design touches include heavily braced enclosure with not parallel internal surfaces, and Polk’s proprietary PowerPort bass venting system.
The line consists of two floorstanding towers (the LSIM707, $3999.90/pair; and the LSiM705 ($2999.90/pair), a bookshelf monitor (the LSiM703, $1499.90/pair), two center-channel speakers (the LSiM706c, $1199.95/each; and the LSiM704c, $749.95/each), and a surround/rear-channel speaker (the LSiM702F/X, $1499.95/pair).
Pro-Ject products are, as many of our readers know, distributed by Sumiko Audio, which has recently been acquired by the high-end audio-oriented holding company Fine Sounds. Accordingly Proj-Ject was exhibiting as one of the constituent brands represented within the Fine Sounds booth at CEDIA—a booth that incorporated all manner of high-end audio goodies and toys.
For CEDIA, Pro-Ject showed two new digital audio products, the first of which is the Stream Box SE digital media streamer. The Stream Box SE can accept digital audio files from USB memory sticks and USB hard drives, but can also stream content from uPnP or DLNA servers. The device is Bluetooth compatible and can handle “virtually every digital audio format.” In the FLAC mode, the Stream Box is capable of handling files with up to 24-bit resolution and data rates up to 196kHz. The Stream Box also has Internet radio capabilities. Projected prices: about $1000. Availability: 90 days.
Next, Pro-Ject showed its very tiny Media Box—a miniature media player that accepts SD cards and USB sticks, but is limited to basic MP3 files. The Media Box, by the way, is not much larger than a deck of playing cards and is designed to interface with stereo systems via either digital or stereo analog connections. One intended application would be commercial audio applications where the Media Box plus attendant storage device could be used as a simple means of providing an uninterrupted stream of music in, say, restaurants or boutiques. Price: “under $500.” Availability: 90 days.
Significantly, the main product introduced by PSB Speakers at CEDIA wasn’t a loudspeaker; it was a fascinating new headphone called the M4U 2, with a projected price of $400.
Apart from its svelte and elegant-looking industrial design, several other aspects of the M4U 2 are noteworthy. First and foremost, designer Paul Barton pointed out that concepts for voicing the M4U 2 were born out of extensive research into human hearing (and specifically the effects of the outer ear on human hearing) as conducted at the famous NRC acoustics lab in Ottawa, Canada. Barton—who was and is involved in research as well as product design—had direct access to the NRC research data and used what he learned to plot out optimal response curves for the M4U 2. The result, then, is a headphone whose overall tonal balance seems uncannily natural and lifelike.
But Barton’s research didn’t stop with frequency response curves, because he also looked into ergonomic issues (reasoning that comfort—in addition to sound quality—is one of the keys to listener satisfaction). Accordingly, the ear cups of the M4u 2 are oblong, not round as in many designs, and are attached in so-called “gyro-suspended” mounts, which allow the ear cups to swivel freely to achieve an ideal fit. Going even further, Barton designed the M4u 2’s earpads so that they are thicker tin the rear than in the front, so as to accommodate the typical shape of most human heads. Finally, Barton devised a system where the M4U 2’s detachable signal cable can be plugged into connection sockets provided on both the left and right ear cup housings, so that the user can route the cables on whichever side feels more comfortable in a given setting.
The M4U 2 is a self-powered headphone with active noise-cancellation circuitry, yet with an important twist. Unlike any other noise-canceller I have encountered, the M4U 2 allows users to turn on the amplifier section while independently being able to switch the noise cancellation circuit on or off. Thus, users can enjoy the M4U 2 in passive mode (no amp, no noise cancellation), active mode (amp on, noise cancellation off), or noise cancellation mode (amp on and noise cancellation on). This is a brilliant design touch that should appeal to listeners who like the idea of a headphone that does not need an outboard amp, yet who believe—down deep—that noise cancellation almost invariably undercuts sonic clarity and transparency. In short, the M4U 2 is a true “have it your way” design, which I suspect will be a great success in the marketplace.
Rotel’s primary new product for CEDIA was its new RSP-1572 Preamp/Processor, which replaces the older 1570 model, yet maintains the same retail price: $2199. The RSP-1572 offers 6 HDMI inputs plus 2 HDMI outputs, a front panel-mounted USB input, and provides 10-band parametric EQ with adjustable “Q”. Availability: End of September, 2011.
Lee Adams of Soundmatters what showing his firm’s upcoming Foxl 2 Platinum portable stereo loudspeaker system—a pocket-sized, self-powered, 2-channel speaker system that is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, yet that offers surprisingly good sound quality when heard at close range (as on a desktop or when worn on a lanyard draped around the user’s neck). The Foxl 2 incorporates Bluetooth technology and speakerphone capabilities.
The Platinum model includes two upgrades over the original Foxl speaker; first, it comes with an AudioQuest Evergreen connection cable, and it also has a new APTX Bluetooth CODEC said to deliver “CD-quality sound from Bluetooth.”
Price: $229. Availability, Fall 2011.
TAD (Technical Audio Devices)
Most audiophiles associate the name TAD with designer Andrew Jones’ brilliant, beryllium-driver-equipped loudspeakers, which have been favorably reviewed by The Absolute Sound. At CEDIA, though, I got a chance to catch up with Jones for guided tour of a new less significant segment of the TAD product line: namely, the firm’s incredibly beautiful, exotic, and expensive “Statement-class” electronics and source components. The concept, plainly, is for TAD to be able to supply not just speakers but an entire “source-to-sound” audio chain, where all the components on offer are expected to live up to the standard established by TAD’s speakers—which, as those who have heard TAD speakers in action can attest, is saying quite a mouthful
On display in the Pioneer booth (Pioneer is TAD’s parent company), TAD showed a mixed collection of three of its new ultra high-end components, including the absolutely massive D600 SACD/CD player (~$30,000), the C2000 DAC/preamplifier, and the M4300 4-channel (stereo biamping-ready) power amplifier (~$23000).
Conceptually, TAD’s electronics and source component range will be loosely divided into an out-and-out “Reference” range consisting of the D600 Reference SACD/CD player, the C600 Reference linestage preamp~ $35,000-$36,000), and the M600 Reference monoblock power amplifier (~$31,000/each, and weighing in at a whopping 198.4 lbs./each!). Directly below those Reference models (but not very far “below” at all) will come three more “Compact” models: the C2000 preamp/DAC (~$23,000-$24,000), the M4300 4-channel amp (~$22,000-$23,000), and the very similar M2500 stereo power amplifier (~$ 20,000). Interestingly, the M4300 and M2500 will both use highly advanced class D circuit topologies.
Jones emphasized that the three “Compact” TAD components are in no way to be construed as sonic “second-class citizens;” on the contrary, they are built to exactly the same construction standards as the big Reference models. The factors that differentiate the Compact models from the Reference units, however, are their somewhat smaller dimensions (where “smaller” is a relative term), their greater simplified set-up requirements (because fewer chassis are involved), and especially the computer audio-friendly configuration of the C2000 DAC/preamp.
To go along with these Compact TAD electronics components, Jones said, the firm soon intends to release a new “entry-level” (again, a relative term) slim-line tower-type speaker to be called the E1, while will sell for about $27,000/pair. The E1 will be roughly the size and shape of Pioneer’s Jones-designed EX-series floorstanders, but will in every way be a full-fledged TAD speaker, complete with exotic drive units, etc.
The centerpiece for the Totem Acoustic CEDIA display involved the firm’s exotic new Element-series speakers—a product line that includes two floorstanders (the Metal, $13000/pair; and the Earth, $9000/pair), a stand-mount monitor (the Fire, $6000/pair), a center channel (the Wood, $4500/each), and a subwoofer (the Water, ~ $6000).
Interestingly, the inspiration of the Element-series speakers came not so much from Totem’s traditional hi-fi speakers, but rather from the firm’s technically innovative and sonically impressive Tribe-series on-wall home theater speakers. What set the Tribe and Element speakers apart from most others is their use of Totem’s proprietary Torrent driver technology. Torrent drivers look almost like imaginary “mil-Spec” loudspeaker drive units, with radically overbuilt motor structures that give drivers much broader than usual frequency response, allowing a fundamentally crossover-less design. In essence, the Element models take the basic Torrent concept as implemented in the Tribe speakers, and scale it up for a result that is really something special to behold.
The famous digital audio firm Wadia Digital is another of the high-end companies now owned by Fine Sounds, and so Wadia presented its new models from within the expansive Fine Sounds display.
A major point of focus for Wadia of late has been a range of compact components designed for use in computer audio and/or Apple-centric audio systems. In fact, Wadia’s i-series components share a common compact footprint (meaning the components can be mixed and matched, and stacked upon one another, if so desired) and are—at least by the standards of Wadia’s cost-no-object top-tier models—very reasonably priced.
At CEDIA, a significant portion of Wadia’s display featured the model 151i PowerDAC Mini (a combination DAC/integrated amplifier), the model 171i Transport (a digital dock compatible with Apple iDevices), and the all-new 121 Decoding Computer, which debuted at CEDIA.
Many readers may know of the original Wadia 170i Transport, but may not yet know how the new 171i Transport is different from and better than the original. The 171i , unlike the original 170i, adds iPhone and iPad connectivity, plus a better power supply, and a better clock. Price: $750.
The 121 Decoding Computer can serve in several different roles because it can function as a versatile high-resolution DAC, or as preamp/headphone amplifier for systems with all-digital source components. On the input side, the 121i includes AES/EBU, S/PDIF, Toslink, and USB B digital audio inputs with resolution of up to 24-bits/192 kHz for all inputs. Internally, the 121 uses Wadia’s proprietary Digimaster algorithm to provide 24-bit/1.4Mhz upsampling.
On the output side, the 121 provides both balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) stereo analog output. Both sets of analog outputs can be driven simultaneously, and are controlled by Wadia’s DirectConnect 32-bit digital volume control. In turn, a front panel-mounted headphone jack tis driven by a proprietary Wadia SwiftCurrent output stage and serviced by its own headphone-dedicated DAC channels. In short, the headphone amp section of this component is by no means an afterthought; it’s the real deal.
Projected price: $1299. Availability: Q4, 2011.
Wharfedale claims to produce “Britain’s most famous loudspeakers,” and for CEDIA the firm rolled out a new flagship range of speakers collectively know as the Jade-series. Over the years, Wharfedale has earned a reputation for pushing the performance envelope on one hand, while at the same time finding ways deliver ever-higher levels of value for money. The new Jade range fits “high performance/high value” paradigm to a “T.”
The Jade family consists of two floorstanders (the Jade 7, $4200/pair; and Jade 5, $3200/pair), two stand-mount monitors (the Jade 3, $1500/pair; and Jade 1, $1200/pair), two center-channel speakers (the Jade-C2 and Jade C1), and a dedicated surround speaker (the Jade SR). At present there is no Jade-labeled subwoofer in the lineup, though it is conceivable that there might be one later on.
Common technical features shared by all models in the family include enclosures made of an advanced material called Crystalam, which is a “thermo elastic polymer woven with wooden fibers" said to provide both high levels of rigidity and of internal damping. In particular, Wharfedale claims the Crystalam cabinets effectively prevent back-wave energy from drivers from escaping through the sidewalls of the enclosures.
Interestingly, all of the Jade models share a common tweeter/midrange module comprised of a 1” aluminum dome tweeter and a 3” midrange cone made of a material called Accufibre. This same material is also used for all of the mid/bass and woofer drivers featured in various models within the range. According to Wharfedale, Accufibre is an advanced material that “marries the responsiveness of class and carbon fibre materials with a self-damping woven matrix.” The result is said to be a group of drivers that “behave closer to the theoretical (ideal of an) acoustic ‘piston’ with the high ‘Q’ resonances experienced by formed metal drivers.”
Watch for an upcoming Jade surround system review in Playback/The Perfect Vision.
One other noteworthy detail revealed at CEDIA is the Sound Import, the US distributor for Wharfedale, had merged with Taiga LLC, the US distributor for Quad. The new business entity will be called Taiga Sound Import and will enable Wharfedale and Quad sales forces to team up for greater reach and better customer service.
Wisdom Audio chose CEDIA as its venue of choice for rolling out its new cost-no-object, “Statement-class” LS4 on-wall planar magnetic speaker, which will sell for about $40,000/each. If the phrases “Statement-class” and “on-wall speaker” seem not to go together, let me mention that the LS4 is in all seriousness Wisdom’s no-holds-barred attempt at a state-of-the-art loudspeaker that just happens to be presented in an on-wall format.
The LS4 is a large, very high efficiency (sensitivity is rated at 100 dB), planar magnetic line array-type speaker that requires bi-amplification and is designed to be used in conjunction with the firm’s gigantic, ultra high output STS subwoofer (which is, no joke, about the size of large steamer trunk). To control the system, you’ll also need Wisdom’s SC-1 system controller, which serves as both an electronic crossover and room/speaker EQ system that is based on a custom-tailored version of the Audyssey room EQ system.
Wisdom spokesman Mark Glazier said the LS4 system is even more capable than his firm’s spectacular Sage system, which—coming from anyone else—would be an audacious claim (because the “smaller” Sage system sounds terrific in its own right). But once I saw the very light and very high sensitivity planar magnetic drivers Wisdom has created for the LS4, I began to see how Glazier’s performance claims could make sense. This is a system that bears watching and, of course, listening.
Yamaha’s show presence focused on the release of the firm’s five new Aventage-series (“AV Entertainment for the New Age”) AV receivers. Aventage models include the RX-A3010 ($1999.95), RX-A2010 ($1599.95), RX-A1010 ($1099.95), RX-A810 ($849.95) and RX-A710 ($649.95).
Every model in the range is network-enabled and carries both DLNA 1.5 and Windows 7 compatibility certification. The higher you climb in the range, however, the larger the power output capabilities and features sets become. The top tier RX-A3010, for example, is a 9.2-channel receiver that puts out an impressive 165 watts/channel, that supports elaborate room/speaker EQ functions, offers a broad suite of Internet content access options, and is full of both audiophile-oriented and convenience minded design touches.
For example, the RX-A3010 sports a double-layer chassis bottom, H-shaped internal reinforcing beams, and a critically positioned 5th foot to help fight mechanical vibration/resonance. Similar, the 3010 is fitted with a beefy and also critically positioned power supply and enjoys ultra low-jitter digital audio circuitry with very high quality DACs. Even small details are attended to, such a the practice of using cable-harness zip ties that are tied directly to ground to help minimize noise.
On the convenience end of the spectrum, Yamaha offers a remarkably flexible yet still easy to use A/V Controller App for Apple iDevices, with an Android version coming later this fall. Yamaha say that when Aventage models are connected to PCs via local network, users will enjoy the ability to control the receivers from the Web in a variety of popular browser environments such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari.
Though not an "audio component" in the usual sense of the word, one of the coolest music-minded demonstrations in the Yamaha booth featured the firm's fascinating RemoteLive system. With this system, performers can play Yamaha pianos fitted with MIDI detectors in one location, while MIDI data is sent to MIDI-equipped, servo-controlled Yamaha pianos in remote locations (typically accompanied by video feeds from those original concert venues). At the remote locations, listeners hear the servo-controlled Yamaha pianos seemingly "play themselves"--complete with all the attack, decay, sustain, and expression elements of the original performance. It's a wonderful system for expanding the reach of live concerts, though it is a bit eerie to see the piano giving a spirited performance entirely on its own, with no human pianist in sight.