CES 2018: Robert Harley on Analog, Digital, and Personal Audio

Show report
Categories:
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio,
USB interfaces, clocks, and soundcards,
Turntables,
Cartridges,
Tonearms
CES 2018: Robert Harley on Analog, Digital, and Personal Audio

Taking High-Resolution Mainstream
The biggest event at CES, at least for the high end, was a press gathering at the Las Vegas Convention Center to promote high-resolution audio. Organized by the Digital Entertainment Group, the event’s message was a remarkably unified voice of diverse companies and industries. Among the participants were the three big record labels (Sony Music, Universal Music Group, and Warner), streaming services (Tidal and Qobuz), hardware manufacturers (including Astell&Kern, dCS, and others), technology creators (MQA), the RIAA, and even an automotive company (Ford’s Lincoln division).

The single vision that brought these diverse companies together is an initiative to market high-resolution audio to the mass market under the slogan Stream the Studio. The music and hardware industries see streaming as the future of music distribution, and high-resolution sound quality as an important driver of that technology. A representative noted that U.S. sales of hi-res devices increased 77% from 2014 to 2016, and that market research showed that 11 million consumers were in the market to buy a high-resolution playback device. Moreover, mobile applications are key to the continued growth of high-res; LG announced a phone with MQA decoding, and Sony announced three phones with high-resolution capability. A representative from Ford described why the company incorporated high-res Tidal streaming in its new Lincoln Continental; Ford’s research shows that the desire for high-res music is strong across all demographics, not just among Millennials. When music consumers were asked to rank the most important aspects of streaming music, sound quality was ranked #2 of ten criteria. (The first was ready access to a large catalog.)

As part of the many announcements at the event, the ten-year-old European streaming service Qobuz plans to launch in the U.S. later this year with a combination of high-res streaming and downloads. Four subscriptions tiers will be offered, ranging from $9.95 per month for 320kbps lossy compressed streaming to $349.99 per year for streaming up to 192kHz/24-bit in the FLAC format. Qobuz also says it will offer high-res FLAC files for download “at MP3 prices” from its catalog of 60,000 high-res files. When I asked Qobuz founder Yves Riesel about the company’s plans with regard to MQA, he told me that it intended to stick with FLAC for streaming and download.


Portable digital-audio player manufacturer Astell&Kern announced at the event that it will offer an MQA firmware upgrade for all its players. That’s right: If you own any model of A&K, the update will turn it into a full MQA decoder. The first model to get the update is the flagship SP1000, with other models to follow over the next few months. All new production will be MQA compatible. A&K also showed me a prototype of a very compact new player called the Activo CT10 that will sell for $299, and is already MQA compatible. The Activo CT-10 is the first player to incorporate a new digital module developed by A&K, called Teraton, that will find its way into a wide range of personal digital-audio players.

Digital
Back at the high-end exhibits at the Venetian, Chord showed the Qutest compact DAC. A successor to the highly acclaimed and successful Hugo, the Qutest is a desktop version of that product. Both DACs offer selectable filters, variable output level, and Chord’s FPGA DAC technology. The Qutest will play any PCM or DSD format, has a galvanically isolated USB input, and a dual-data pair of BNC inputs. The British-built Qutest will sell in the U.S. for $1850 through distributor Bluebird Music.


Source Systems, the distributor of Lumin music servers, M2Tech, Lindemann, and other products was demonstrating an entirely new category: a massive solid-state drive for music storage. Rather than store your music library on a NAS with spinning discs, the Fidata HFAS1-S10U Network Audio Server holds those same files in silicon memory. The Fidata holds 1TB of data in a pair of memory modules, each holding 500GB. The design, build-quality, and attention to detail were exemplary. The unit features a large and well isolated power supply, extensive vibration control, noise shielding, low-phase-noise clock, and industrial-grade Samsung high-reliability flash-memory modules. According to Source Systems’ Mark Gurvey, the Fidata server sounds considerably better than a NAS drive. Although I couldn’t compare the two, I can say that the Source Systems room with a Lumin server at the front end and Amadeus Philharmonia speakers at the back end produced one of the show’s best sounds. Prices had not been firmed up, but expect the 1TB model to sell for about $6000. Watch for a review.

Pro-Ject introduced a product whose apparent value boggles the mind. The Pre Box S2 Digital is a small DAC with full MQA decoding, is Roon-ready, can play any PCM or DSD format, offers seven selectable digital filters, features dual ESS Sabre DACs (about $40 each in quantity), XMOS USB driver, and a 1/4" headphone jack. The price? $399. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Pre Box S2 Digital sounds good, but it appears to have the potential of being a game-changer in sub-$500 DACs.


At the other end of the ambition and price scale, dCS demonstrated its Vivaldi One CD/SACD player and network player. dCS has combined, in a single chassis, a CD/SACD transport, DAC, network player, and upsampler. The Vivaldi One includes all the latest technologies including Roon compatibility, Tidal and Spotify streaming, and AirPlay connectivity, and is a full MQA decoder. Production is limited to 250 units (half the run has already been sold), and is available in standard silver or black finish, with premium finishes available for an additional charge. These include automotive paint, bright nickel, chrome or black chrome, or even 24k gold. The price for the standard finish is $80,000.

The Audio Alchemy DDP-1 that I raved about in Issue 262 has been redesigned now that Alchemy is part of German speaker-maker Elac. The new DDP-2 is essentially the same circuit as the DDP-1 but housed in a conventional-width chassis rather than the narrow enclosure of its predecessor. However, the DDP-2 has some important upgrades including full MQA decoding and expanded connectivity (Roon, Discovery, Spotify, Bluetooth, and AirPlay). In addition, the larger outboard power supply that was a $595 option for the DDP-1 has been incorporated in the DDP-2. You can think of the DDP-2 as the DDP-1 with the outboard power supply along with the function of Alchemy’s Media Player built in. The DDP-2 will sell for $2500.


Analog
There were more new analog products than digital ones at this show. The most noteworthy was Technics’ display and demonstration of two new turntables in the Reference Class line, the SP-10R and SL-1000R. The $10,000 SP-10R is just a plinth, platter, and outboard motor controller to which you must add your own tonearm. The $20,000 SL-1000R adds an additional support structure as well as a newly developed Technics tonearm. The SL-1000R has the ability to accept up to three arm-mounting structures. The massive direct-drive motor, shared by the ‘tables, features dual coil layers slightly offset from each other for smoother rotation. The SL-1000R at the front end of an all-Technics system produced one of the show’s best-sounding rooms. Watch for our upcoming preview of the SL-1000R.



Pro-Ject has taken product differentiation to an extreme with its new Essential line of turntables. You can get the Essential III as a basic turntable for $299. Want an integral phonostage? $359. Or Bluetooth streaming? USB output? USB output and hi-res A/D converter with ripping software? Pro-Ject has you covered. The Essential range tops out at $749 for the fully loaded model in walnut finish.


Audio-Technica demonstrated a most unusual moving-coil cartridge. Rather than positioning the coils at the opposite end of the cantilever from the stylus, the coils are mounted right next to the stylus. You can see this in the photo of the magnified model. AT calls this technique Direct Power. The $4999 AT-ART1000’s other technical features include a line-contact stylus, titanium magnet-support structure, machined aluminum housing, and a solid boron cantilever. Output voltage is 0.2mV. Audio-Technica also showed the AT-LP7 belt-drive turntable featuring an anti-resonant platter, J-shaped tonearm, moving-magnet cartridge, and an integral phonostage. Price: $799.


Musical Surroundings, the U.S. distributor of the German turntable manufacturers Clearaudio and AMG, showed several new products. First up was the AMG 9WT Turbo 9" tonearm. The new Turbo version of the existing 9WT arm features a new bearing with a larger horizontal axle and dual micro-ball-bearings for lower friction. The Turbo can be set up and adjusted with locking thumbscrews. Price: $7500. DS Audio, the company that makes the optical cartridge that so enchanted Jonathan Valin in Issue 274, introduced a new top model, the DS W2. Paired with the required DS W2 phonostage (the two must be used together), the DS W2 uses light to convert stylus movement into an electrical signal. The price for the DS W2 and the phonostage is $13,000.


In the Musical Surroundings room I also experienced firsthand Clearaudio’s Concept Active turntable. Based on the Concept turntable, the Active version adds a phonostage and headphone amplifier. It sounded like a hokey idea at first, probably because products in this category are usually sub-$200 dreck. But putting on the headphones and an LP, I had an epiphany; I could see myself enjoying LPs through the Concept Active. The sound was superb, and there was something compelling about a self-contained personal music-playback system based on the LP. The Active price will range from $2600 to $4400 depending on the arm and cartridge you select.


Clearaudio’s newest tonearm, the Tracer, incorporates a carbon-fiber arm tube, low-friction sapphire and tungsten jeweled bearing, and adjustments for VTA and azimuth. The $2900 Tracer will be available on Clearaudio’s Performance, Ovation, and Innovation turntables at special package pricing of $2100.

Excel Sound Corporation, the Japanese maker of the acclaimed Hana cartridges (see Andre Jennings’ review in Issue 270), introduced the Hana SL Mono cartridge. The $750 Mono incorporates the same magnets, Shibata stylus, aluminum cantilever, and high-purity copper windings as the stereo version. Excel has been making cartridges behind the scenes for other companies for 50 years.

Finally, Musical Surroundings announced the Linear Charging Power Supply, an upgrade for Musical Surroundings’ Phonomena II and Nova II phonostages. Price: $650.


Over in the Music Hall room, Roy Hall showed the new MMF-9.3 Wood turntable, which comes with a tonearm and is fitted with an Ortofon 2M Black cartridge, all for $2700. It features an external motor and has a beautiful walnut wood finish. Delivery is scheduled for May. Also debuting was the MMF-1.5 turntable/arm/cartridge combination at just $399.


Mark Levinson showed the full production version of its No.515 turntable, a joint effort with VPI Industries. It features a 3D-printed tonearm with gimbal bearing, solid aluminum platter, and a chassis made from a highly damped composite and aluminum sandwich. The motor is mounted separately from the chassis for mechanical isolation. The No.515 sounded terrific playing Ray Kimber’s new LP of Robert Silverman performing the Chopin waltzes, through a new Revel speaker that will cost $10k at its introduction later this year.

The best analog at the show wasn't a turntable, but a Nagra T open-reel tape machine playing master tapes recorded by Nagra's René LaFlamme. Through a full Nagra system including the stunning new Nagra HD Preamp and YG Acoustics Sonja 2.2 speakers, the sound was stunning in naturalness, ease, depth, and instrumental texture.

Personal Audio
Great-sounding headphones seem to be getting more affordable. A perfect example is the PSB M4U 8, a replacement for the M4U 2, a $399 noise-canceling headphone that I happen to own and love. The new model not only sounds better, with wider dynamics and more powerful bass, it also offers better noise canceling along with Bluetooth connectivity.

A second great headphone debut was the HiFiMan Sundara, which features a newly developed diaphragm that is 80% thinner than that in HiFiMan’s outstanding HE400. The result is wider frequency response, more detail, and greater transient fidelity. The Sundara was lightweight and comfortable, to boot. Price: $499.

HiFiMan also showed a scaled-down version of its $50k Shangri-La headphone and amplifier system. That mega-priced system, which drives the electrostatic headphones with a 300B tube, sounded absolutely stunning in HiFiMan’s exhibit room. But right next to it was the Shangri-La Jr which attempts to capture the magic of the Shangri-La at a lower, but still lofty, price: $8000. Although the big boy was clearly better, the Junior was stunning in its own right.

Pioneer debuted the new and highly capable XDP-02U digital audio player. The gently rounded device fits naturally in the hand. The fully balanced circuitry is based on dual ESS Sabre DACs, and the signal stays balanced through the analog output amplifier. The DSP and audio boards are isolated from each other, and from the power supply. The player is MQA compatible, supports any PCM format as well as DSD native up to 5.6MHz, and features a PCM upsampling circuit. The headphone output is fully balanced, delivering 150mW x 2. Onboard 5GHz WiFi connects the XDP-02U to streaming services such as Tidal, and Bluetooth connects to compatible speakers, headphones, and audio systems. The player ships with 16GB of internal memory, expandable to a whopping 800GB with ScanDisk’s new 400GB microSD cards.

RH’s Best of Show

Best Sound (cost no object)
The Lamm room with Kharma Grand Exquisite speakers and an Air Force One turntable was easily the best sound in Vegas (see Jonathan Valin’s report for system details). I also heard BOS-quality sound from the VTL room with Wilson Duette 2 speakers, VTL’s terrific sounding new TP-2.5i phonostage ($3750), and a Brinkmann Spyder turntable with Lyra Etna cartridge. Another contender was the Vandersteen Quatro CT ($14,600 per pair) driven by Vandersteen’s new M5-HPA amplifiers, all on HRX equipment racks.

Best Sound (for the money)
Totem Acoustic
, VPI, and Transparent Audio teamed up to put together a remarkably musical system priced at $7105 including cables, power cords, and a power conditioner. The components were a VPI Cliffwood turntable with Grado Green cartridge, Moon 240i integrated amplifier, Totem Signature One speakers, Transparent MusicLink Phono, MusicWave speaker cable, Hardwired by Transparent power cord, and a Transparent PowerBank 6 AC conditioner.

Most Significant Trend
1) The move to make all music distribution high-resolution. 2) The profusion of LP-playing products, led by Technics’ entry into the ultra-high-end with its SL-1000R.

Most Coveted Product
The TechDas Air Force One turntable in the Lamm/Kharma room.