What can you do, when finishing up holiday celebrations, to bring joy and fresh expectations for the New Year? Well, if you’re an audiophile, you can attend the first major high-end event of 2015.
This year, the 2015 CES show did not disappoint, thanks to new offerings from many audio companies. My assignment included analog and digital front-ends, which, of course, necessitated a visit to nearly every high-end audio room at CES. This was a daunting task, to be sure, but steady plodding, with a tight focus on new product introductions, did the trick.
In the analog realm, there were a slew of new and updated turntables, cartridges, and phonostages. Clearly vinyl sales will continue to be strong throughout this coming year, with no signs of a slow-down that I can see.
New digital sources tended to subdivide into roughly three segments: streamer/media servers, traditional disc players/DACs, and portable devices. (Though not part of my coverage for CES, some of these things are now being integrated into preamplifiers, as well.)
Inevitably, because of the limited space allocated in the magazine for show reports, or because I just couldn’t make it into every room at CES, some manufacturers have been missed. If I missed your room or your information didn’t make the report, I’m sorry. There is only so much maneuvering and shoe-horning I can do, and still write to a word count. With that said, let’s get to the report.
Most Significant (Digital)
Boulder 2120 D/A Converter
Boulder Amplifiers introduced a new 2120 D/A Converter with a large 5** x 11.5** color touchscreen displaying cover art, sample rate, metadata, and unit-status information. Aside from the display, the other significant features of Boulder’s new offering were multiple input modules (Ethernet, USB, HDMI, AES3, SPDIF, and TosLink) that are interchangeable for custom configurations, input data rates for PCM of up to 32-bit/384kHz (which are internally upconverted to a minimum of 32-bit/768kHz), DSD64 and DSD128 support, and isolated four-chassis construction (logic, power supply, left and right channels). With an 80dB (1.0dB stepped) digital volume control, the Boulder 2120 D/A converter (estimated $55,000–$60,000) appears to be a worthy addition to the 2100 family of products, and will receive a more in-depth evaluation in TAS in the future.
Meridian Explorer2 USB DAC
Meridian’s Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) technology has been getting quite a bit of press these days. Meridian claims “MQA technology is certified by artists, engineers, and producers as delivering the authenticated sound of the original master.” One new product with MQA decoding hardware (as well as Meridian’s apodizing filter) is Meridian’s Explorer2 PCM USB DAC. The Explorer2 is capable of playing back PCM files up to 24-bit/192kHz, has a fixed 2V analog output, and comes equipped with a low-impedance variable-output headphone amplifier. Thanks to trickle-down technology and Meridian’s 30+ years of experience, the British company has produced a Dual Tile XMOS DSP (16 cores and 1000MIPS) in a very small package for less than $300.
Questyle QP1 (Pro) Portable Player
Venturing into the portable-player market, Questyle introduced the QP1 ($599) and the QP1 Pro ($899). Both units feature patented Current Mode Amplification, playback of native DSD64 and DSD128 files (along with 24-bit/192kHz PCM), line output for headphones, optical outputs, two 128GB Micro SD card interfaces, 8GB of internal memory, an intuitive graphical user interface, an aluminum housing, and 8–10 hours of battery life per charge. The QP1 Pro is said to have higher-grade premium components than the QP1, and to offer much improved sound quality. The QP1 Pro models use the same CS4398 DAC found in more expensive portable players. If the performance matches that of the expensive units, these Questyles may be cost-to-performance bargains. Currently prototypes, the QP1 and QP1 Pro will be available in March.
Bryston BDA-3 D/A Converter
Bryston introduced a new DAC, the BDA-3, which uses a new decoding chipset that allows up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM decoding and native DSD up to quad-rate. With ten inputs (4 HDMI, 2 USB, and SPDIF, BNC, RCA, TosLink), the BDA-3 looks as if it is capable of handling the interface needs of most users. The BDP-3 also offers proprietary analog outputs and custom re-clocking for incoming PCM. Its price is $3195, and delivery is expected by the time you read this in the pages of TAS.
Constellation Performance Series Cygnus DAC/Media Player
Constellation Audio introduced the new Cygnus DAC/Media Player at CES. The Cygnus is available in two versions (DAC or Media Player). This two-box design separates the power supply, Linux computer, USB ports, Ethernet adaptor, and WiFi control from the quad 32-bit/192kHz DACs, analog outputs, and analog clocks. The Cygnus plays single-rate DSD and PCM files up to 192kHz. The Media Player version has a DVI interface between boxes for clock and data communication, and comes with a Web server application for playback control and file management. The Cygnus uses the same output stage as the Virgo II preamplifier, giving it much the same sonics as Constellation’s other Performance Series components. Pricing is $27,000 for the DAC version and $32,000 for the Media Player.
Auspicious Debuts (Digital)
Metronome Technologies C8+ DAC
The new Metronome Technologies C8+ DAC updates the feature set of the C8 by adding the ability to play up to 8x DSD, as well as PCM files. The C8+ has dual output modes—giving the user the choice of solid-state or tubes. Four digital inputs (SPDIF, AES/EBU, TosLink, and asynchronous USB) are available for source connection. During my time in the room, I listened to a streamed DSD256 file that sounded excellent via either output mode. Outfitted with the external ELEKTRA power supply, the C8 + appears to be a DAC worth further evaluation. The 2015 release date and pricing are TBD.
McIntosh D150 Digital Preamplifier
The D150 Digital Preamplifier is really a DAC with fixed and variable, single-ended and balanced (as well as headphone) line-level outputs. The D150 supports up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM (including DXD 352.8kHz and DXD 384kHz), as well as DSD64 and DSD128 via the USB interface. Additionally 24-bit/192kHz PCM is supported on the coax and optical interfaces. When combined with the newly introduced MCT450 SACD/CD Transport via a special DIN connecter at the rear of both units, the D150 can play SACD and CD data directly from a disc, allowing users to continue to play the SACDs in their music libraries.
Wadia di122 Digital Audio Decoder
If the Wadia di122 Digital Audio Decoder seems to have the same features as the McIntosh D150 (and it does), it should come as no surprise, since Wadia and McIntosh share a corporate link. The same features listed in the McIntosh D150 entry above (minus the transport DIN connecter and fixed line-level outputs) can also be found in the Wadia di122.
Moon by Simaudio Neo 280D
The newly introduced Moon Neo 280D Digital-to-Analog Converter is outfitted with a digital engine that decodes up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM (including DXD) as well as Native DSD up to DSD256 over the USB input. Additional inputs include AES/EBU, SPDIF, TosLink, and Bluetooth. Speaking of Bluetooth, the Neo 280D is capable of receiving streamed audio from a Bluetooth-enabled device like a smartphone, iPad, or other smart device, and play it back through its analog outputs. The release date is expected to be March of 2015.
Zanden Model 500 DAC
The Zanden Model 500 DAC is capable of playing up to 32-bit/192kHz PCM files and DSD using the ESS9018 DAC. Its inputs include USB, AES/EBU, SPDIF, I2S, and DSD. Zanden’s enhancements include a high-accuracy crystal oscillator, a patented analog output filter with superior phase characteristics, and Asahi KASEI Fibers Pullshut high-frequency noise-absorption material. Playing back a 16-bit/44.1kHz file, the Model 500 sounded smooth with no edge or brightness in the all-Zanden system driving the Wilson Alexias.
Aurender N100 and N10 Network Servers/Streamers
Aurender added two new products to its lineup at this year’s CES. The N100 is a USB server/streamer designed to be used with a USB DAC. The N100 features a 120GB system/cache SSD for internal and NAS stored music, and has optional (N100S) 1TB internal storage capability. The N10 has all the features of the N100, including the 1TB SSD, but adds AES/EBU, BNC, optical, and coax to the USB output for connectivity to several DACs. Both units are compatible with the Aurender App for control of a music library. The N100 is available in January 2015, and the N10 will be available in March of 2015
In Other News (Digital)
Burmester had the new 151 Musiccenter high-end music server on static display. The unit contains two (2TB minimum) hard drives and a CD transport for ripping files or playback. MSB Technologies has updated the look of its Diamond DAC V and added a quad-rate DSD256 USB input option to the Analog DAC and DAC V family. Genesis Advanced Technologies had its Muse Music Source in an all-Genesis system. The Muse has a 1TB SSD, balanced outputs, two USB outputs, wireless connectivity, and an Android-based tablet remote control. QAT Audio displayed the Music Server RS3 in its KUAN series of products. The Music Server RS3 has RCA and balanced outputs and an internal HDD/SSD bay (up to 2TB); it plays up to 24-bit/192kHz PCM and DSD files, allows data import/export over USB/NAS, and has an app for remote control over iOS/Android devices. Merging Technologies introduced the NADAC (in 2-, 8-, and 16-channel versions), which is capable of 384kHz PCM, DXD, and quad-rate DSD. Input connectivity options include a wordclock, SPDIF, AES/EBU, and networked Ethernet using the RAVENNA protocol. The RAVENNA protocol also allows connectivity to a music server/player or streamer via ASIO on Windows, CoreAudio/DOP on MACOSX, and direct RAVEENA connection on Linux. The NADAC has RCA, balanced, and headphone outputs. EMM Labs introduced its new flagship DA2 DAC with a re-engineered analog system, fully discrete proprietary MDAC DSD converters, its latest digital system with MDAT2/MFAST/MCLOCK components, and up to 384kHz PCM playback, plus double-DSD (supporting higher rates), and future network/streaming support. The DA2 will be available in Q2/Q3 of 2015 at starting prices of $25,000 and up. Pro-Ject has added the DAC BOX E ($79), Stream Box S ($TBD), DAC BOX RS, and the PRE BOX RS Digital ($1499) to its lineup. All products handle up to at least 24-bit/192kHz data, with the PRE Box RS also allowing 32-bit/384kHz PCM over USB. SOtM showed its new sDP-1000Ex DAC with USB input and 32-bit/384kHz plus DSD128 playback. Some additional features include RCA and XLR analog outputs, volume control, low-jitter clock, and a precision 32-bit upsampler. Feeding the sDP-1000 Ex at the show was the sMS-1000 SQ (est. $3000) music server and player, which supports DLNA server and rendering, DSD, and PCM.
Most Significant (Analog)
Pass Labs Xs Phono Preamplifier
The Pass Xs Phono Preamplifier made its world debut at this year’s CES. This statement-level dual-mono phonostage features three inputs with six ceramic input boards (two per input), two gain modules (one per channel), dual-mono external power supply, memory-saved loading for each input, adjustable gain (56dB, 66dB, and 76dB), and optical control knobs on the front panel. A look at the internals reveals that the power supply is similar to that of the Xs preamp, and the ceramic printed-circuit-boards are gold-plated with elastomer mounts to reduce vibrational noise. The Xs Phono uses passive and active EQ for RIAA, has a MOSFET output stage, is DC-coupled, and has Vishay metal-film resistors and special Pass-specific polystyrene capacitors. With the Pass Xs Pre, Pass-modified SP10 ’table, and Xs amps, the Xs Phono delivered a smooth sweet sound with nice vocal dynamics on a Linda Ronstadt LP I played.
Ortofon MC A95
Five years after the successful launch of the MC A90, Ortofon has released the MC A95. One main change from the MC A90 is the use of titanium in the Selective Layer Melting (SLM) process used to construct its body, which is similar to the method used with the MC Anna. Ortofon claims the titanium SLM process damps the MC A95 more than the A90, and allows for better dynamic capability, as well. A quick glance at the specifications for the MC A95 shows that in output, channel separation, balance, and DC resistance it is closer to the MC Anna’s specifications. Other parameters such as tracking force and cartridge weight are closer to those of the MC A90. Listening to the MC A95, I can hear some of the expanse and warmth of the MC Anna. The MC A95 is worthy of a full review in the pages of TAS in a future issue.
TechDAS Air Force Two
Knowing there is an affordability issue with its Air Force One ($100k), TechDAS has introduced the “slightly” less expensive Air Force Two ($50k). Most of the cost reduction comes in the construction of the chassis, which is made via a casting process rather than by CNC-machining. Additional cost savings come from housing the power supply and the air condenser unit in a single box. Listening to my LPs on the Air Force Two with a Graham Phantom tonearm and ZYX UNIverse Premium cartridge, I heard a silent background void of any mechanically-induced artifacts. The sound was very pleasant in the midrange and slightly reduced in the treble, which I would tend to attribute to the ZXY cartridge on the basis of previous experience with the UNIverse line. This said, one can never know for certain what is doing what in an unfamiliar setup. Overall the system played with no harsh edge on any music I selected for playback.
Absolare Passion Phonostage
Absolare has introduced the Passion PhonoStage ($33K) in its product line. This two-box DC-coupled design has a fixed gain of 58dB, five loading options, point-to-point construction, and no step-up transformers. Playing back music on Kodo’s The Beat turntable (with Schroeder LT tonearm and Lyra Atlas cartridge) in the all-Absolare system with the new Passion 845 push-pull amplifiers, the Passion PhonoStage produced a big dynamic sound, aided by the extra muscle of Absolare’s new amps.
Clearaudio Statement v2 Turntable
Clearaudio has updated its flagship ’table to v2 status. Some of the updates include the POM platter and Magnetic Drive system, dedicated AccuDrive battery-power control, the use of Panzerholtz in the construction, and an updated TT-1 armwand fitted with an Absolute Phono circuit. On static display, the Statement v2 Turntable is now priced at $200k.
Auspicious Debuts (Analog)
TechDas TDC01 Ti
The new TechDas TDC01 Ti cartridge ($12,500) is based on the TDC01; however, it is equipped with a titanium body and boron cantilever instead of the duralumin body and cantilever of the original. Output is 0.45mV with a 2.0–2.3 gram tracking force. Listening to the TDC01 Ti in the Air Force One feeding Lamm Signature electronics, with Kubala-Sosna Elation cables and the Verity Audio Lohengrin IIS speakers, I heard a big soundstage and respectable dynamics.
Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ Phono preamplifier
The updates to the new Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ (based on the Mike Yee analog circuitry from the Nova 2, Nova, Phonomena, Phonomena II, and SuperNova) include a more elegant mechanical design, metal/thin-film resistors, gentle subsonic filtering, 256 loading options for improved cartridge-matching, and a reduced noise floor (6dB) for mc cartridges. The retail price is $750 for this flexible phonostage.
Clearaudio Double Matrix Professional S (Sonic)
The Double Matrix Professional S ($5500) is the fourth generation of this record-cleaning machine. The newest feature is the self-adjusting, sonically modulated scrubbing pads in its double-sided cleaning brushes. I watched a demonstration of the cleaning process, and the Double Matrix Pro S appeared to do a good job washing and vacuuming a record that had been demo’d. JV will be getting this unit in the future for some real-world testing.
Air Tight PC-1 Opus
A fully functional prototype of the Air Tight PC-1 Opus was mounted in the Transrotor Tourbillion with 5009 tonearm in my Best of Show room. There isn’t much more to add other than I’m looking forward to listening to this cartridge again. Real soon!
Constellation Orion Reference Series Phono Preamplifier
The Orion Reference Series Phono Preamplifier is designed by the same team that created the Perseus, and builds on the earlier model via the use of the best-possible hand-matched transistors, three individual power supplies, construction techniques borrowed from the Altair II Reference preamplifier, a remote control (input selection, gain, loading), and three inputs (two mc and one mm). The unit at the show was on static display and carries a retail price of $75,000, with shipping to begin in January 2015.
Sperling L-3 Turntable and Sperling Tonearm
The Sperling tonearm and L-3 turntable played LPs via the new Fuuga mc cartridge in the Audio Arts room at CES. There was no information available about the ’table and ’arm other than that it is high mass, and has an external motor with a tape drive-belt. In addition, the ’arm is said to have magnetic bearings. The system, which included the Thoress Phono Enhancer, a full suite of CH Precision electronics, Zellaton Stage loudspeakers, and Schnerzinger Comprehensive cabling, sounded relatively ethereal, airy, but carried slightly less lower-harmonic weight than what I am used to hearing.
European Audio Team (E.A.T.) C-Sharp Turntable
The North American premiere of the E.A.T. C-Sharp turntable was held in the Vana Ltd. Suite. The ’table is crafted from high-density MDF with a high-tech carbon-fiber top layer added to form a damped dual-layer base. The platter is made of a machined alloy with a recycled vinyl mat bonded to it. This recycled vinyl is said to help with energy transfer from the record to the platter. The tonearm is a silicone-grease-damped (to reduce resonances by an additional 50%+) uni-pivot design with a Cardan bearing for high stability and low friction. Speed is handled by an external microprocessor-driven controller that ensures stability. Pricing starts at $4000 without a cartridge, and $4500 with a Ortofon Quintet Black.
Best of Show
Best Sound (cost no object): The new Air Tight PC-1 Opus/Transrotor Tourbillion/Air Tight ATE-2001 and Ref Mono /Isophon Berlina RC 9 speakers/ ACROTEC 8Nines system played my classical music LP with good body and macro-dynamics, and a full soundstage.
Best Sound (for the money): The Meridian Explorer2 with MQA ($299) played music back nicely through headphones. Although I’m not much of a headphone listener, I could appreciate the experience.
Most Significant Product Introduction: The Boulder 2120 D/A converter with its rich feature set and extremely high-quality construction may prove to be a contender in the digital product category.
Most Significant Trend: Digital sources continue to evolve and for now I see it subdividing into roughly three or more segments: Streamer/media servers, traditional disc players/DACs, and portable devices.
Most Coveted Product: TechDas Air Force One (Two) played all of my music with absolute mechanical silence, similar to my vacuum turntable at home.