This is Part 1 of a two-part blog. Click here for Part 2.
What’s a headphone company doing in a report on home theater audio? Read on to find out. One of the coolest products I saw at CES was the Headzone 5.1-channel processor/headphone amplifier ($1595) from the German firm Beyerdynamic (which would, left to its own devices, prefer that we not capitalize its name). True, $1595 is a lot of money (more than many people would choose to spend on an A/V receiver), but what you need to understand is that the Headzone, when coupled with a pair of high-quality/high-end headphones, is able to create a truly believable surround-sound experience that in all seriousness rivals results you might achieve with conventional surround systems priced in the high four-figure on up to the mid-five-figure price range. The “special sauce,” here, is that Beyerdynamic has very carefully research HRTF (head related transfer function) characteristics as experienced by listeners in surround-sound environments, and then programmed them into the Headzone. What’s more, the Headzone allows the listener to control certain aspects of the apparent listening environment (for example, the apparent size and resonant or "ambience" characteristics of the listening) room via front panel control knobs. Whether you choose a Headzone for the sheer sound quality it affords (assuming you use it with appropriately high-performance headphones), or you choose it as a means of enjoying action movies late at night—and without irritating loved ones or neighbors, it’s a very clever product that has potential to change our home theater listening habits.
For CES, the venerable New England-based speaker maker Boston Acoustics harked back to its roots* to introduce an all-new A-series family of speakers, whose elements can be combined to create fine surround systems.
* Back in the day, some of Boston’s earliest and best-loved speakers were also A-series models, so the “A” moniker has special connotations for the firm and its employees.
A-series models include the flagship A360 three-way, four-driver floorstander (dual 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers, $800/pair); the A250 two-way, three-driver floorstander (dual 5.25-inch mid-bass drivers, $600/pair); a pair of two-way bookshelf monitors called the A26 (6.5-inch mid-bass drivers, $400/pair) and A25 (5.25-inch mid-bass drivers, $300/pair); and the tiny A23 bookshelf/surround speaker (3.5-inch mid-bass driver). Boston also intends to offer a 5.1-channel surround-sound bundle, called the A2310 HTS, which provide five A23’s plus a small sub with a 6.5” woofer, priced at just $900.
Also from Boston come two very simple and inexpensive soundbar systems called, respectively, the TVee 25 ($350) and the TVee 30 ($600). The TVee 25 is essentially a 2.1-channel system whose main mission is to outperform the (typically not very good) speakers included in your flat-panel TV. Thus, the main soundbar features a pair of 1-inch x 6-inch main drivers, while the system also provides a small, simple-to-use wireless sub. With flexibility and user friendliness in mind, the TV25 provides 1-wire hookup features, is able to “learn” your TV’s remote controls, offers separate EQ settings to support wall or tabletop placement, provides both Music and Movie modes, includes optical digital audio inputs with built-in Dolby Digital decoding, and even incorporates an auxiliary analog audio input.
The more ambitious TVee30 is a 3.1-channel system whose soundbar features triple 3.5-inch mid-bass drivers and triple .5-inch tweeter. The system also incorporates a larger and more powerful sub (with a 7-inch woofer) than the one used in the TVee25 system, with a slim enclosure that gives flexible placement options (for example, the sub could fit under a couch). The TVee30 also ads a Bluetooth A2DP feature.
For CES the British firm Cambridge Audio highlighted one all-new product, the 751 BD 3D-capable Blu-ray/universal player ($1199), and a new product family, the Minx sat/sub speaker system, that had debuted at CEDIA 2010 but that many Cambridge dealers were seeing for the first time at CES.
The 751 BD is impressive on several levels, not the least of which involves its use of an Anagram-device based audiophile 24-bit/192 kHz upsampling DAC section, which leverages technologies draw directly from the firm’s award-winning 840C CD player. What is more, the 3D-capable player provides a Marvell QDE onboard video processor, and can handle just about any disc format you’d care to name: 2D or 3D Blu-ray, DVD Audio/Video, SACD, HDCD, and conventional Redbook CD. More than many competitors, this universal player proudly lets its audiophile roots show through, and at a not-cheap but still very reasonable price.
The Minx system, which I covered extensively in my CEDIA 2010 show report, offer the compact form factor of, say, a Bose Acoustimass system, but makes a conscious effort to provide a much higher standard of sound quality. To this end, Cambridge’s Minx satellites use comparatively exotic NXT-type BMR (Balanced Mode Radiator) drivers, which leverage the same basic technologies as found in Naim Audio’s much more costly high-end Ovator-series loudspeakers. What make NXT BMR drives so conceptually fascinating is that they behave like conventional piston-type drivers over part of the audio range, but then transition to an admittedly unorthodox but highly effective “ripple-mode” of operation as frequencies climb higher. (To picture what’s actually going on, imagine that the driver diaphragm, which looks much like a flat disc, starts to ripple in concentric waves at higher frequencies, so that waves spread from the center of the disk to its rim—almost like waves in the surface of a pond when a stone is thrown in.). The upshot is a light, fast driver that offers good power handling and dynamic response at mid-frequencies, but that also behaves like a light, fast, high-dispersion tweeter at higher frequencies. Pretty cool, no? Minx satellites are offered in two sizes: the single-driver Minx Min 10 and the dual-driver Minx Min 20. To complete the systems, Cambridge offers three sizes of compact subwoofers. 2.1-channel Minx packages start well under $600. Watch for an upcoming The Perfect Vision of a Minx Min 20-based 5.1-channel system.
Baltimore-based Definitive Technology used CES as a vehicle for announcing several new home theater-oriented offerings, including the first in what will be an entirely new family of SuperCube subwoofers. On display at CES was the new SuperCube 2000 subwoofer ($599), which features a 7.5-inch active driver, two 7.5-inch passive radiators, and a 650-watt woofer amplifier. Later in the year, Definitive plans to roll out two larger models: the SuperCube 4000 ($799) and SuperCube 6000 ($999)
Another Definitive CES highlight was the debut of two new ultra-slim form-factor on-wall soundbars: the three-channel XTR-SSA3 ($799), slated for release in July, and the five-channel, surround-capable XTR-SSA5 ($999), also coming in July. Both models leverage the technologies Definitive created for its extremely popular XTR-series on-wall speakers, which are rightly known for delivering a huge, full-bodied sound from their almost impossible slim-looking enclosures.
Giving a forward-looking preview of a product likely to arrive even later in the year, Definitive also announced its intention to build a very ambitious, self-powered, all-in-one XTR-series on-wall system (to be called the XTR-SSA Active system), which will include a self-powered soundbar with three HDMI inputs and one HDMI output, an SP/DIF input, and an analog audio input, plus a wireless sub. The system will provide onboard Dolby Digital decoding, with (possibly) support for other surround sound formats as well. Pricing was not known as of CES, but is projected to be “…above $2000,” which seems reasonable in view of the level of sound quality on offer. Later in the year, Definitive also plans to introduce its least expensive 5.1-channel system ever, the new ProCinema 400 system, which will retail for a modest $599.
Finally, Definitive was celebrating the successful roll out of its new bi-polar speaker family, which debuted at CEDIA 2010, but that some dealers were hearing for the first time at CES. To demonstrate the system’s high-end performance capabilities, Definitive showed the flagship BP-8080ST ($2998/pair) as driven by a high-end Audio Research Corporation CD player and vacuum tube-powered integrated amplifier—a combination that sounded terrific.
Denon’s biggest new for CES 2011 was not so much a series of product, but rather new Apple AirPlay-compatible firmware ($50) that enhances the functionality of the firm’s existing AVR-991, AVR-3311CI, AVR-4311CI, AVR-A100, and RCD-N7 models. The Airplay firmware is compatible with iPod, iPhone, and iPad, but also allows those devices to serve as remote controls that can, in turn, stream content from iTunes-equipped Macs to Denon receivers. Very flexible.
GoldenEar Technology debuted as a company at CEDIA 2010, but the fact is that many dealers got their first exposure to the product line at CES 2011. GoldenEar had two demo rooms set up, with one showing the stunning flagship Triton Two floorstander ($2500/pair) as driven by costly and exotic Pass Labs amplifiers, while the other room highlighted the firm’s SuperCinema3 system ($1750), consisting of 4 x Supersat 3 satellite speakers, 1 x Supersat 3C center channel, and one Forcefield subwoofer. Interestingly, the Supersat system leverages technologies drawn directly from the big Triton Two.
Watch for my upcoming review of the Triton Two, which will appear in The Absolute Sound, and of a Triton Two-based 5.1-channel surround system, which will appear in The Perfect Vision. Just how good is the Triton Two? Here’s a hint: it will leave many (though of course not all) speakers in the $5k - $10k/pair price range struggling to keep pace.
At CES the British firm KEF gave a compelling demonstration of its T-Series Flat-Panel Speaker system ($1999), which had debuted at CEDIA 2010, but had frankly been hard to assess in that venue given that KEF’s CEDIA booth was an open-air display that was (naturally) subject to tons of external noise from the show floor. At CES, however, the setting was much quieter so that it became possible to hear what the system could really do. Many people equate “thin speakers” with “thin sound,” but the KEF T-series models dispel that myth in a great hurry, delivering a rich, silky-smooth sound that fairly oozes sophistication and refinement.
At CES, I asked a group of audiophile buddies to let me know if they heard anything affordable and exceptional that I also ought to hear. Early on in the show, one such buddy (whose ears I trust) texted me with this message: “Venetian room 30-323. KEF T-series 5.1-system at $2k sounds great.” That about says it all.
For CES, Marantz highlighted two new models that slot in near, though not at the very top, of its line of A/V separates: the AV7005 A/V Controller ($1499) and the MM7055 multichannel power amplifier (five x 140 Wpc, $1199), which were previously announced at CEDIA 2010. Both components strike me as being very well priced for the quality and performance on offer, especially when you consider that you could buy both of these classy-looking separate pieces for less (actually, a whole lot less) than some competitors charge for their top-tier A/V receivers.
Keeping pace with its sister brand Denon, Marantz also announced AirPlay firmware that is compatible with four Marantz A/V components: the AV7005n A/V controller, the SR 7005 A/V receiver, the NA7004 Network Audio Player, and the MCR-603 Networked CD receiver.