CES 2015: Robert Harley on Show Highlights

Show report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
CES 2015: Robert Harley on Show Highlights

The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show will be remembered as the moment at which the smartphone and tablet became essential components of an audio system. In room after room, music was sourced from servers controlled by tablets or smartphones. This trend spanned the gamut from ultra-high-end exhibits with state-of-the-art servers and elaborate multi-box electronics to simple and easy-to-use all-in-one systems.

This latter product category, which once would have been pejoratively called “lifestyle,” exploded at this CES, with many elegant, capable, and great-sounding packages on display. Streaming, networking, tablet control, and the high-end aesthetic converged to create complete music systems consisting of just one small box and a pair of speakers. The antithesis of racks of equipment and garden-hose cable on the floor, these new systems allow music lovers to easily access a vast library of music (via local storage or Internet streaming) through cool user interface—all in a graceful package that fits in any décor.

A good example is the Joy line from ReVox of Switzerland. The Joy Audio Network Receiver is the heart of a wired or wireless network-based system that accepts the full range of traditional inputs, along with ports for connecting UPnP storage devices such as the Joy Audio Server, which allows you to rip and store your CD collection on the Audio Server’s integral 2TB drives. Music on the Audio Server is available anywhere on your home network, and accessible via the Joy app. In the demo I was struck by the fact that where and how your music is stored is transparent and irrelevant. You simply select the music you want and it plays, whether it is streamed from Tidal or other Internet source such as Internet radio, or stored on a USB stick or the Joy Audio Server.

Many companies see opportunities for making streaming and file-based music accessible with minimum user intervention. Electrocompaniet of Norway showed their complete line of EC Living components, a group of wireless, modular components that present your music library and Internet streaming services on a tablet for reproduction via the EC Living powered loudspeakers.

These systems are taking on new shapes that bear little resemblance to the rectangular black boxes of traditional components. The Astell&Kern AK500 is a good example; the vertical array of integrated housings is meant to rest on a table, controlled by the flip-up touch-panel or tablet. The AK500 includes a CD ripper, hard-disk storage, DAC, wired or wireless network streamer, power amplification, and a user interface with a 7” touchscreen. The touchscreen folds down into the top of the chassis when not in use, or when the system is controlled remotely via an iOS or Android app. When connected to a home network, the N500 will stream music from any PC, Mac, or network-attached storage (NAS) drive on the network. The system is compatible with all high-resolution formats, including double-DSD. The striking industrial design and final sonic voicing is the work of Kuk Il Yu (pictured with the AK500), whose firm Metal Sound Design has contributed to a range of visually innovative audio products, including Astell&Kern’s portable players.

Along these lines of reinventing how people access music, Devialet showed a visually striking system called the Phantom. The Phantom is a complete audio system with integral DACs, amplification, and speaker drivers housed in a spherical structure that is both the exterior case and the drivers themselves. The two woofers form the sides of the sphere, and the midrange/tweeter module fires forward. Looking at an exploded view of the Phantom, it’s apparent that an enormous amount of industrial design went into creating it. Sonically, the Phantom delivered a surprisingly big and smooth sound with astonishing bass extension and power for the size. Price: $1999 each.

Burmester was one of the first high-end companies to offer a fully realized, great-sounding music server with the Reference Line 111 Musiccenter. The $50k price tag may have limited its market, but Burmester has brought the technology to a server of half the price with the 151 Musiccenter. More than a server, the 151 Musiccenter incorporates CD ripping, 2TB of HDD storage with another 2TB in RAID back-up, a DAC with balanced conversion, Internet radio, high-res compatibility, a full-quality preamplifier that can drive a power amplifier directly with an analog-domain volume control, multiple analog and digital inputs with source switching, networking capability, and a built-in database containing the metadata of 3.5 million titles. The 151 can be controlled via the supplied remote or an iPad app. Dieter Burmester demonstrated the 151 through the new Ambience BA71 loudspeakers with a rear-firing air-motion transformer tweeter. The sound was exceptionally dynamic, powerful, and spacious.

Traditional product categories are becoming increasingly blurred by the proliferation of new technologies, exemplified by the Focus XD system from loudspeaker maker Dynaudio. The three systems in the Focus XD range are active digital loudspeakers that incorporate digital crossovers, a DAC for each frequency band, and individual 150W pulse-width modulation amplifiers to power each driver. Digital data from whatever source you select stays in the digital domain all the way through to the drivers within the speaker. The conversion to analog is a byproduct of the switching amplifier. This method has myriad benefits: no inductors and capacitors in the signal path, amplifiers and speaker drivers designed to work with each other, no analog gain stages, no analog volume control, and digital-domain crossovers that can have slopes impossible to realize in the analog domain—and with no phase shift. I heard the top-of-the-line Focus 600 XD, a four-driver floorstanding speaker ($13,500 per pair) and was quite taken by the system’s immediacy, transparency, dynamics, and ability to disappear. It was quite musically engaging, and offered far more performance than just about any other $13,500 conventional system I could think of. Remember that the Focus XD’s price includes amplification, DAC, and cables. Dynaudio also offers an optional wireless streaming system that consolidates your sources for output to the Focus XD system.

I love discovering affordable products that offer more performance than their prices would suggest. My top discovery at this show was the Tannoy Revolution XT 8F, a three-way floorstanding loudspeaker with a newly developed 8** coaxial midrange/tweeter driver coupled to an 8** woofer. The Revolution XT is packed with interesting technologies. After listening to it and looking at the real wood enclosure, I guessed the price at $7000 to $10,000. The Revolution XT’s price was then revealed to be just $2600 per pair. We’re going to fast-track a review of this one.

I’ve written in the previous two issues about Meridian Audio’s Master Quality Authenticated (MQA), a digital encoding and decoding system that promises to deliver better than 192kHz/24-bit performance—and with an average bitrate of just 1Mbps. At this CES I had an hour-long closed-door demo, and came away even more impressed than when I heard the system a year ago. MQA is digital audio taken to an entirely unprecedented quality level. Played through a pair of Meridian’s Special Edition DSP7200 Digital Active Loudspeakers, MQA-encoded recordings had a lifelike realism that was nothing short of stunning. I don’t have the space here to describe everything that was so right about MQA, but watch for a full report in an upcoming issue. MQA is a game-changer.

I also had an extended audition of a novel and startling new technology that turns two-channel reproduction into an immersive three-dimensional listening experience. Developed by Dr. Edgar Y. Choueiri, a professor of physics at Princeton, the technology uses digital signal processing to cancel the acoustic crosstalk between the left and right ears. Although crosstalk cancellation has been around for decades, it’s never been realized with this sophistication—and without the side effect of tonal coloration that made previous systems non-starters. What’s more, Dr. Choueiri is working on making the technology, which is called BACCH 3D Sound and realized for the demo in a hardware platform called BACCH-SP, available as an app that will run on a Mac. For the demo, I sat in the middle of a large room with a pair of KEF LS50s and a subwoofer about four feet away from me. Playing a selection of Chesky binaural recordings made through a dummy head, as well as some older commercially available stereo recordings, I heard a spatial presentation that was indistinguishable from real life. Instrumental images were rock-solid, appearing in a panorama around me. A recording of an organ in a cathedral was rendered with a palpable feeling of being immersed in a large acoustic, surrounded on all sides by reverberation. An infrared head-tracking system adjusted the crosstalk-cancellation filers in real-time so that the effect didn’t collapse when I moved my head. This is truly a breakthrough technology. Learn more at theoretica.us.

A show highlight was auditioning the upcoming HiFiMan HE-1000 headphones,  an all-out assault on the state of the art that features diaphragms measured in nanometers rather than micrometers. HiFiMan founder, Dr. Fang Bian, earned his Ph.D. in nanotechnology, and has realized for the HE-1000 the lightest and thinnest transducer diaphragm extant. The HE-1000 had stunning resolution, lifelike dynamics, and a rich timbral presentation. The HE-1000 won’t be inexpensive when it’s launched this summer, but it appears to raise the bar in headphone sound quality.

Nagra of Switzerland demonstrated the prototype of an ambitious reference-grade amplifier as part of the company’s new ultra-high-end “High-Definition” series (Nagra’s original line is the “Classic Line”). This massive amplifier can deliver 1000W RMS into 8 ohms, is perfectly stable into 1 ohm, has a bandwidth of DC–5MHz, and is based on a MOSFET output stage. The 1.6kVA transformer alone weighs 40 lbs. I heard this amplifier driving the Wilson Alexia to great effect; the sound was powerful and effortless, reproducing a Peter McGrath recording of Tosca with ease and stunning dynamic contrasts. The terrific-sounding CD of the complete organ works of Durufle (on the label CPO) was reproduced by the Nagra amplifier with tremendous power and authority in the bass. This was the deepest bass I’ve heard from the Alexia. The yet-unnamed (and unpriced) amplifier will be available in September. Nagra showed another prototype, the successor to the company’s MSA amplifier from the Classic Line. The new stereo amplifier, called the Classic Amp, delivers 120Wpc and features an all-new design. Availability is April, 2015. 

I’ve never been that concerned about LP equalization curves, but a demo of the Zanden 120 phonostage and its selectable curves suggested that perhaps I should be. Zanden’s Eric Pheils played “Hey Jude” through the RIAA curve found in every phonostage made in the past sixty years. He played it again, but this time selecting the EMI curve from the Zanden 120’s front panel (the 120 offers five curves). The difference was significant, and not just in tonal balance. In addition to sounding smother, the piano was more coherent, the background vocals seemed to hang in space, and the entire presentation was more engaging. There’s some controversy over whether records were cut with equalization curves other than RIAA after 1955 when the standard was established, but this demo has piqued my curiosity to investigate further.

Chord Electronics had a huge hit with the Hugo portable DAC and headphone amplifier launched at last year’s CES. The Hugo was apparently so good that many have installed the DAC in their home systems. Now Chord has made a desktop version whose larger dimensions allowed the company to add more features and improve performance. The Hugo TT (for Table Top) has improved connectivity including full-sized USB inputs, a remote control, alphanumeric display, balanced outputs, and dual ¼” headphone jacks. One of the performance-enhancing features is a massive (10 farads) capacitor bank across the batteries that stores energy and shares the load and charging demands.

Finally, I’d like to mention my experience with the $6995 Larsen Model 8 loudspeaker that Robert E. Greene favorably reviewed in the last issue. This highly unusual design is designed to be placed against a wall, and features a tweeter firing into an angled baffle. At CES, Larson distributor Audio Skies positioned the Model 8s against the hotel-room wall between a large, immobile, and acoustically reflective dresser. Despite this hostile acoustic environment, the Model 8 sounded spectacular. The imaging was at least as good of that of a first-rate speaker placed in a large room well away from the sidewalls. As REG concluded in his review, Larson is really on to something with this unusual design.

Best Sound (cost no object)
I heard many exceptional systems, but I’m going to single out the YG Sonja 1.2 driven by Boulder electronics and Boulder’s ambitious new DAC and Transparent cabling, and the MartinLogan Neolith, a massive new electrostatic/dynamic hybrid loudspeaker with a Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference at the front end.

Best Sound (for the money)
The Tannoy Revolution XT 8F ($2600) and the GoldenEar Triton 5 ($1995) loudspeakers were both terrific bargains.

Most Significant Product Introduction
Although not a product, I can’t think of anything at CES as monumental as Meridian’s Master Quality Assured (MQA) digital encoding/decoding system. This is the high-res breakthrough we’ve been waiting for.

Most Significant Trend
Quality-oriented smartphone- or tablet-controlled all-in-one wireless streaming systems such as the ReVox Joy and Electrocompaniet EC Living. “Lifestyle” is no longer a perjorative.

Most Coveted Product
’s iPad user interface for managing a music library, browsing titles, and selecting music looks to be the most comprehensive and well-designed app available.