CES 2014 – Digital Components

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Categories:
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
CES 2014 – Digital Components

Introduction

Remember when everyone had to lug around a bunch of electronic devices just to get through the day? We carried pagers, flip phones, iPods, laptops, and—when needed—a camera. This was an unsustainable situation—and the electronics industry knew it. So manufacturers set about creating a new sort of device that would combine some subset of these functions into one versatile, intuitive form factor. However, until Apple hit upon the magic formula we now call a smartphone, there was nothing approaching industry consensus on what the new device would look like, which functions it would incorporate, or how it would operate.

Today’s digital audio terrain, on frenetic display at this year’s CES, resembles that pre-iPhone era. Recent technology advances, such as streaming audio and downloadable DSD files, have presented designers with an opportunity to offer more fully-featured products. But each of those features requires still more decision; for instance, should the streaming be via Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or all three? At the same time, the desire to capture a younger and wider audience entices designers to include certain Gen-Whatever capabilities like Internet radio, a headphone amp, portability, and an attainable price.

This surfeit of options has led to a mish-mash of devices, each an attempt to hit on just the right combination of features, interface, packaging, and price. Sony was first out of the gate when, last year, it introduced a complete line of enormously flexible yet user-friendly high-res audio components. They should be hitting a big box store near you soon after you read this. But until the Sony products prove their market mettle, everyone else has their own take on what a high-res audio “iPhone” looks like.

Most Significant

Chord Hugo
Like Sony’s top high-res model, Chord’s slick new Hugo DAC aims to satisfy discriminating young listeners and geezered audiophiles alike. Gen-XYZ doesn’t own a high-fi system and wants to listen on the go. For them, Chord made Hugo portable; it’s powered by Li-Ion batteries that carry a fourteen-hour charge. Strap on a good set of ’phones and you’ve got reference-caliber sound on the go. The source? There’s an app for that. In fact, there are now several apps that turn smartphones and tablets into high-res players. I listened to such a setup, including a set of Sennheiser HD800s, and was struck by the crystalline purity of Hugo’s sound.

That purity is readily explainable by this DAC’s high-end componentry, which eschews DAC chips in favor of Field Programmable Gate Arrays. Chord says this dramatically lowers the noise floor (down 140dB) and increases linearity. Other audiophile-oriented features include support for 384/24 and double-DSD resolution, plus a fully discrete analog stage. The Hugo’s all-out technical zeal is very Chord-like, yet its $2395 price tag isn’t, and should allow it to appeal to both of its intended audiences.

Weiss Engineering INT204
The world is awash in USB-to-S/PDIF converters, and that’s a good thing. They allow “legacy” DACs to play high-res files sourced from a PC. But when you think about it, these units only do half the job because they don’t enable those DACs to play DSD files. The Weiss INT204 is an elegant solution: a USB-to-S/PDIF converter that is also a DSD-to-PCM converter. The user gets to select the converted stream’s sample rate and bit depth. And because it’s a Weiss, its engineering is beyond reproach. I know this seems like a rather simple new product to be considered one of the Most Significant, but for just $1800 the INT204 opens the entire world of high-res audio to any DAC.

MSB Diamond DAC IV “Select”
Wouldn’t it be great if you could buy a new audio component and know with certainty that your purchase will not be obsoleted for at least ten years? That’s the idea behind the “Select” version of MSB’s highly regarded DAC. MSB hit upon the idea as it grappled with its conflicting instincts to continually upgrade its flagship while also being sensitive to protecting its customers’ investment in the product. The solution turned out to be a new “model”—not a product model, but a business model.

For $59,995, a roughly $10k uplift over a fully loaded Diamond DAC IV, buyers will receive any and all feature or sonic upgrades—including full-blown replacement models—for ten years. That might sound steep, but for audiophiles who want to ensure they always have the latest, it beats losing a fortune selling used gear on Audiogon. Here’s hoping the arrangement works out for both MSB and its customers. I’d love to see it adopted by more manufacturers, especially those with a propensity to obsolete their products with alarming frequency (you know who you are).

Soulution DAC Module
D-to-A conversion normally entails a phase shift in the resultant signal, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Or so we thought. Now, out of the blue, Soulution seems to have a found a way to eliminate (or at least render negligible) this phase shift by means of massive DSP processing. The technology is embedded in a new DAC module that will find its way into the 540 and 745 players by mid-year, and subsequently into a new streaming DAC.

To demonstrate the effect of the new module, the company equipped its 540 CD/SACD player ($32,500) with the ability to switch the new circuit in and out. I compared the sound both ways with a variety of CDs and SACDs, and the results were eye opening. Engaging the phase cancellation function consistently led to greater spaciousness and the elimination of note “smearing” that I had assumed was endemic to the recordings. Based on what I heard, the Soulution phase shift cancellation circuit could be a watershed development in digital sound evolution.

TAD D1000/DA1000
TAD’s new Evolution series models, the DA1000 DAC ($12,000) and the D1000 DAC/transport ($16,000), contain exactly the same circuitry, components, and, in the case of the D1000, TAD-built transport as their Reference series counterparts—at half the price. In a direct comparison with the Reference D600 ($32,000), the new models gave up precious little sonically, making this an exciting debut. Look for a review soon.

Auspicious Debuts

Astell & Kern AK240 ($2-3k, April)
A&K’s new flagship boasts a larger screen than its 100-series units. But the bigger news is that it supports Wi-Fi streaming from a PC, which effectively eliminates on-board storage constraints. Further, the AK240 will have built-in storefronts for popular download sites like HDTracks.

Cary Audio DMS 500 ($5k, 2nd Quarter)
Responding to customer requests to remove blighted PCs from their listening rooms, Cary’s DMS 500 can access multiple computers and drives via Ethernet. The unit also supports USB and S/PDIF inputs, PCM up to 384/32, DSD, Internet radio, and Bluetooth streaming. Music selection is controlled by any UPnP app.

Aesthetix Romulus Signature
The Signature version of Aesthetix’ Romulus ($10k) DAC/Transport supports up to double-DSD and also sports an upgraded tubed analog stage. What really makes the Signature special is its hefty 9-volt output, which ensures full dynamic range when directly driving a power amp.

Korg DS-DAC-100/100M ($599/$349, Spring)
Korg’s new DACs will upconvert anything to anything in real time—even MP3 to DSD. Don’t believe such a conversion can improve the sound? Well, I did the A/B and it does. Korg says this is because converting the signal to DSD prior to decoding means bypassing multiple PCM-related decoding and filtering modules. (Note: The “M” version’s connectivity—for both line and headphone outputs—is limited to mini-plugs.)

Auralic Aries ($995, now)
The Aries is one of several “bridges” introduced at the show. A new term to me, bridges are network streamers that do not include a DAC. Rather, their high-res USB outputs feed a downstream DAC of the user’s choice, thereby adding streaming to an otherwise fully-featured DAC. Aualic’s Aries supports PCM and DSD streams over both Ethernet and Wi-Fi networks.

Calyx M ($995, now)
The M, which stands for music and mobility (and, I suppose Calyx hopes, money), is a high-res music player in the same vein as—but notably larger than—the Astell&Kern devices. Calyx harnesses the extra real estate for a more smartphone-like user interface. I loved the M’s magnetically-sealed sliding volume control, as well as its stellar sound via a pair of Furutech ADL headphones.

Genesis Muse ($15k, Spring)
You know these guys from their speakers, but Genesis is branching out and will soon offer a full line of components. The MUSE (great name!) is a Linux-based music server. Its user interface is based on the Squeezebox protocol, chosen for its compatibility with many apps. Genesis includes a 1TB SSD, and additional drives can be networked. Inside the MUSE resides a galvanically isolated, custom DAC.

Aurender X100 ($3499, March)
The X100 is a networkable music server with dual 3TB on-board drives plus NAS support, all controlled by Aurender’s own iPad app (an Android version is coming.) While the X100 does not include a DAC, it is distinguished by a special, low-noise USB output—the same as found in the company’s $16,000 W20 reference unit. This is a welcome development, as USB needs all the help it can get. The Aurender was playing in quite a few rooms at CES, and always sounded excellent.

Bel Canto ASC1 ($20k, now)
The ASC1 (Asynchronous Streaming Controller) is a luxe media server—with the usual Ethernet connectivity for NAS drives—that also supports USB, S/PDIF and even analog inputs. It includes no DAC, but that’s because the ASC1 is meant to mate with the company’s MPS1 DAC/monoblock amps ($15k each). The components communicate via ST glass fiber. The ASC1 has tremendous processing power and modular construction, both intended to ensure that its aluminum billeted chassis is future proof.

In Other News

Affordability was a key theme at this year’s CES. Various companies experimented with different formulas to woo the uninitiated. Cambridge Audio showcased the DACMagic XS. Only $189, but featuring an ESS Sabre DAC chip, analog volume control and 192/24 support. In an audition through Sennheiser HD25 headphones, the XS sounded wonderfully open and dynamic. Arcam was thinking along the same low-cost lines when it introduced the Blink ($250) and miniBlink ($150), diminutive units that can stream via both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The mini version trades range for the looks of a little egg. Also affordable is TEAC’s UD301 ($499, May), a USB DAC with DSD and double-DSD support, as well as coax and optical S/PDIF inputs. Even at this price, TEAC managed to include dual Burr-Brown DACs and balanced outputs.

Along with the aforementioned Chord Hugo, there were a plethora of debuts in the “sweet spot” range of $1.5-3k. April Music showed its new Aura Note V2 ($2950), a digital Swiss army knife that includes a CD player, USB DAC, headphone amp, Bluetooth streaming, analog inputs, and a 125 watt/channel amp, all in an attractive, affordable, and easy-to-use package. Creek released the $1495 EVO 50CD DAC/Transport (no one calls them CD players anymore). The EVO utilizes dual differential Wolfson DACs. Creek plans to add Bluetooth streaming in the future. A similar animal is the Rega Saturn R ($2995).

Of course, the very high was not neglected. Working our way up in price, McIntosh introduced its M100 ($6500, June), which the company calls a bridge, but is in reality a DAC with NAS stream and an internal 1TB hard drive. No DSD support, but the M100 does have Internet radio and automatic content backup to the cloud. Next up, Pathos launched the Musiteca Server ($9995), which offers 1TB of built-in storage, a tubed analog stage, and a ginormous 21” touch screen. mbl is filling out its Noble line, which slots between Corona and Reference. This summer’s E31 will be a ground-up redesign of the 1531A DAC/Transport, and will cost something north of that unit’s $13,300.

New flagships abounded. In addition to the INT204, Weiss introduced the $24k Medus DAC. The unit uses all discrete circuitry in the analog stage, has four parallel ESS Sabre DACs per channel, and fully buffered inputs. Finally, at the top of the price pyramid, Esoteric announced two new flagships: the aptly-named Grandioso P-1 dual-chassis CD/SACD transport ($44k) and the Grandioso D-1 monoblock DAC ($44k/pair). The former features a completely revised transport module, four separate power supplies, and can shuttle a DSD bitstream to the DAC. The D-1’s sixteen AKM DACs per channel process data at 36 bits.

Awards

Best Sound (cost no object)
True, the Perfect8/VAC/Walker system at T.H.E. Show sounded spellbinding; however, I was unhappy with its loosey-goosey bass on popular music. The Magico S3/Vitus/dCS system, though far from the most expensive, proved the most all-around enjoyable.

Best Sound (for the money)
Driven by modest VTL electronics, the DeVore Gibbon X ($12k) speakers were dynamic as all get-out, yet natural and self-effacing as well. The sound certainly belied the price.

Most Significant Product Introduction
Crystal Cable's Integrated The Cube incorporates many full-blown advances of sister company Siltech's SAGA electronics—at roughly one-tenth the price. Yet the new model doesn’t sacrifice the family’s grainless sound and natural dynamic freedom.

Most Significant Trend
The new crop of iPad, iPhone, and Android apps turn those previously sample-rate limited devices into high-res sources—for a pittance! High-end listening for anyone with a smartphone or tablet. Which is everyone.

Most Coveted Product
If it were Christmas, the Astell&Kern AK240 portable, high-res music player would be on every audiophile’s list. Its leather-clad case, top-shelf components, and ability to stream music endlessly from any PC conspire to evoke drools.