CES Day One: Affordable Electronics, a Big Surprise, and One Stunning Sound

Show report
CES Day One: Affordable Electronics, a Big Surprise, and One Stunning Sound

The 2009 Consumer Electronics Show opened yesterday to what seemed like lower attendance and scaled-back aspirations. Nonetheless, every exhibitor with whom I spoke was happy with both the quality and quantity of foot traffic through their rooms at The Venetian hotel, site of the high-end exhibits.

Given that all the new products on display were conceived long before the recent economic downturn, this year’s offerings don’t reflect whatever adjustments manufacturers are making to their future product line-ups.

I’m covering affordable solid-state electronic and saw several interesting new products that will be coming your way. Lew Johnson of Conrad-Johnson showed me the company’s new McCormack line, which includes a linestage preamp (LD-2; $2495) that can be configured with a mm/mc phono stage ($2995). The LD-2 uses a new BurrBrown volume control and other refinements, which the company says contributes to the LD-2’s liquid and tube-like sound. The DNA-250 ($3995) is a stereo amplifier with 250Wpc that is based on the “Distributed Node Architecture” power supply concept first used in the DNA-1, in which each output transistor gets its own reservoir capacitor located right next to it. This is in contrast with most amplifiers that use a couple of large capacitors shared by all the output devices. The rest of the DNA’s circuit, however, has been completely redesigned with new input and driver stages. A second amplifier, the DNA-750 monoblock ($4750 each), benefits from these upgrades. It delivers a whopping 750W into a typical 8-ohm loudspeaker, and 1000W into 4 ohms. Finally, the DP-2 CD (3495) player has a completely discrete analog output stage. The four products will begin rolling out later this month.

The “big surprise” in this blog’s title is that one of the best sounds I heard at the show on Day One was produced by an in-wall loudspeaker. In-wall speakers have long been associated with dreadful sound (rightfully so) and the mentality that sound quality doesn’t matter. But ribbon-speaker pioneer Wisdom Audio has produced not just an acceptable level of sound quality from an in-wall system, but one that puts many free-standing high-end speakers to shame. Granted, the Wisdom system isn’t a traditional in-wall; it employs a line-source array of ribbons and midrange drivers housed in an extruded aluminum back-enclosure and separate woofers (free-standing or in-wall). The Wisdom system has several other “unfair” advantages: it its powered by amplifiers designed specifically for the speaker, and it incorporates Audyssey MultiEQ DSP speaker and room correction. The $43,000 package I heard had fabulous clarity, lifelike timbre, very low coloration, and a sense of the music existing outside of the loudspeakers.

The “stunning sound” refers to the jaw-dropping greatness of the new Magico M5. Even in a hotel room, the M5 (driven by Soulution 100Wpc monoblocks, a Pacific Microsonics Model 2 DAC, and a custom-built server) was fabulous in every respect. I’ve come to expect good things from Magico, but the M5 ($90,000) takes all the qualities I admired in the company’s V3 to an entirely new level. The system’s resolution, transparency, delicacy, and quickness were electrostatic-like, but with the weight, power, and body of a dynamic-driver loudspeaker. The extremely low bass had unbelievable resolution and clarity; the lowermost octaves didn’t turn into fuzz and mush but instead had the same clarity of timbre as the rest of the spectrum. From this first listen, the M5 is looking like it might be a great achievement in loudspeaker design.