Complete CES Coverage

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Audio
Complete CES Coverage

The 2010 Consumer Electronics Show

The TAS Staff Reports on the Greatest New Gear Coming Your Way

Chris Martens, Steven Stone, Neil Gader, Alan Taffel, Dick Olsher, Robert Harley, Jonathan Valin

Chris Martens on Loudspeakers under $5000

Affordable loudspeakers have long fascinated me, I suppose because they represent—and have always represented—some of the greatest values in all of high-end audio. Truth to tell, I derive great satisfaction from seeking out sub-$5k speakers that can compete with—and in some cases surpass—far more costly offerings. This year at CES, my search for overachieving loudspeakers proved more rewarding than ever as manufacturers introduced new models that sounded better than they had any right to for the money. I will describe some of my favorite CES discoveries, below. But let me mention in advance that, as has become my practice, I will focus on a few particularly noteworthy speakers from each class, rather than generating a “laundry list” of all the worthy products I sampled at the show. No slight is intended toward speakers that go unmentioned here.

Are the Best Affordable “Speakers” Actually Headphones?

I’ve reviewed a number of headphones for our on-line sister magazine Playback, and in the process have come to think that headphones may well be the most cost-effective way to access true top-tier sound. Consider this: Most flagship headphones sell for under $2000 (or even less), yet they deliver the well-balanced, wide-range frequency response, dynamics, and lavish levels of detail associated with high-end loudspeakers selling for $10k–$20k, or more. Granted, ’phones cannot equal a great loudspeaker systems in reproducing a realistic soundstage, but they can provide an almost microscopically intimate view of subtle details within most recordings. Not a bad tradeoff, is it?

2009 saw the release of exceptionally good top-tier headphones from Grado, Sennheiser, and Ultrasone, but to start the new decade off with a bang the German firm Beyerdynamic has released a heavyweight contender of its own in the form of its new T1 Tesla headphone ($1295). The T1 Tesla is a remarkably efficient 600-ohm headphone that features an extremely powerful magnet structure (with rated magnetic induction of 1.2 tesla—hence, the headphone’s name), plus a very low mass, large-diameter metal-diaphragm and voice-coil assembly. Together, these design elements give the T1s the same delightfully accurate and neutral tonal balance I had previously enjoyed in Beyerdynamic’s less costly DT880 ’phones, but with substantially higher levels of resolution and dynamic responsiveness. Time will tell, but I think the T1 Tesla will be able to stand tall in comparison to world-class models from Sennheiser and Ultrasone, and at a somewhat lower price than its competitors.

Realistically, four-figure headphones aren’t for everyone, and those who wish to limit their headphone expenditures may find their needs well met by the first-ever Bowers & Wilkins foray into the category: the P5 on-ear headphone ($299). I asked a company spokesman to describe the salient features of the P5 and he replied: “It’s all about sonic neutrality and physical comfort for the wearer.” He was absolute right. The voicing of the P5 reminded me more than a little of the sound of B&W’s top-tier speakers, delivering an “organic” sound that emphasizes the natural warmth of music rather than relying upon spectacular hi-fi pyrotechnics. Comfort comes courtesy of well-designed earpads covered in exquisitely soft leather sourced from New Zealand.

One further headphone of note seen (but sadly not heard) at CES is Shure’s new SE535 in-ear headphone ($499)—an improved version of the firm’s critically acclaimed SE530 (a personal favorite of mine and a product many regard as the “gold standard” among in-ear ’phones). The SE535 retains the two-way/three-driver design of the SE530 earpiece, but provides an ultra-high-quality signal cable that connects to the earpiece via detachable miniature gold-plated plugs that click into recessed sockets embedded in the earpieces. The improved cables should not only make for a worthwhile improvement in sound quality, but should also make the ’phones less susceptible to accidental damage (Shure says the majority of “headphone failures” are attributable to cable breakage—a problem the SE535’s detachable cable may help eliminate). We can’t wait to hear the SE535s when they are released in summer of 2010.

Desktop Speaker Solutions

For a growing number of audiophiles (or perhaps would-be audiophiles), the preferred listening room is the desktop, and the ideal source component is a PC. CES saw the announcement of a number of attractive and well-priced desktop solutions.

A fascinating new desktop entry is the Australian Aktimate Maxi ($1000/pair), a self-powered, two-way monitor that features two analog line-level inputs, a USB input, built-in FM and Internet radios, a built-in iPod dock, and support for wireless content-streaming. To help you keep track of all those inputs, the Maxi even provides a front-panel display and corresponding remote control, while a 60Wpc amplifier powers the system. Maxis are sold in matched pairs, with one speaker housing the inputs, iPod dock, display, and amp, and the other serving as a passive monitor driven by the master Maxi. All told, the Maxi represents a compelling and versatile all-in-one system for desktop music lovers.

Leveraging speaker-making know-how from its sister company Era Acoustics, Peachtree Audio announced its first-ever desktop speaker—the lovely DS5.5 ($900/pair), a two-way monitor whose gently radiused cabinet edges remind me of the look of classic a/d/s or Braun monitors from years gone by. Peachtree had shown a prototype of the DS5.5 at CEDIA last fall, but the speaker has gotten much better since then, with voicing that is neutral, yet calculated to provide a level of musical depth and warmth that is sorely lacking in most desktop systems. For nearfield listeners on a budget, this little speaker creates a disproportionately huge sound—especially when driven by Peachtree’s amps.

Speaker Systems under $2500

Shown as a prototype at the CEDIA show last fall, the Atlantic Technology AT-1 tower-type speaker ($2000/pair) is now ready for full production release and sounding better than ever. The speaker uses patent-pending H-PAS (Hybrid Pressure Acceleration System) enclosure system technology co-developed by Atlantic and Clements/Solus Loudspeakers. The H-PAS enclosure gives the AT-1 astonishingly deep, authoritative, low-distortion bass, despite the fact that it uses just two 5¼-inch mid/bass drivers to handle the bass workload. In fact, the speaker shows a -3dB point of 29Hz, and at that frequency can play at 107dB levels with less than 3% harmonic distortion. Though perhaps not the last word in sonic refinement, the AT-1 has a lively and articulate sound that complements many styles of music well and that should prove effective in home-theater applications.

Audiophiles of a certain age may recall the evocative and soulful sound of the British Mission 770 monitor speaker from three decades ago. I’m pleased to report that Mission is now back in the U.S. market and offering, among other things, a sweet-sounding, compact three-way tower-type speaker called the Mission 794SE, which captures something of the “vibe” of the 770 but in an updated, more detailed, and more articulate form. The U.S. price for the 794SE has not been set, but a company spokesman said it should be “under $1800/pair.” Welcome back, Mission.

At CES the British firm Monitor Audio surprised me with its excellent yet affordable new Apex satellite/LCR/subwoofer system (Apex A10 satellite, $400/each; Apex A40 LCR speaker, $700/each, Apex ASW12 subwoofer, $1500/each). Basically, the Apex system leverages driver technologies drawn directly from Monitor’s next-to-the-top-of-the-line Gold Series speakers, but presents them in a more compact and affordable format. Accordingly, the Apex system delivers an unusually open, detailed, and transparent sound, yet one that improves on past Monitor efforts in terms of smoothness and freedom from edginess and glare. The Apex system invites listeners to start out with a 2.1-channel configuration for stereo listening, and then expand into 5.1-channel (or 7.1-channel) surround-sound systems later on.

Magnepan’s MG1.7: The Mother of All Curve-Breakers

I’ve dedicated two paragraphs to Magnepan’s remarkable new MG1.7 speaker ($1999/pair) because, quite frankly, it deserves them. Let me come straight to the point. Within its price class, the MG1.7 doesn’t just raise the performance bar, but rather straps the bar onto a rocket and then launches it clean out of sight. Even after a relatively brief listening session, I felt—and think most listeners would agree—that the MG 1.7 has literally redefined what is possible at its price point.

Where Magnepan’s classic MG1.6 used a planar magnetic mid/bass panel with a quasi-ribbon tweeter, the MG1.7 is a full-range quasi-ribbon-type speaker with what the Magnepan folks describe as a wide-dispersion quasi-ribbon supertweeter. The result is a speaker that equals or surpasses the strengths of the MG1.6, while offering greater transient speed plus an even more detailed, more open, and more coherent sound. (In fact, in terms of top-to-bottom cohesiveness, I suspect the MG1.7 may prove to be the best of all the Magneplanar speakers.). But the best news of all is that this speaker places near-top-tier sound quality within reach of a very wide range of music lovers, not just for an elite few. If that’s not cause for celebration, what is?

 

Speakers Systems between $2500 and $5000

At last fall’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest the Norwegian firm Electrocompaniet (best known for its electronics and source components) surprised us with its superb Nordic Tone loudspeaker, which deservedly sells in the five-figure price range. What I didn’t see coming was the firm’s excellent PSF-1 two-and-a-half-way tower-type speaker ($2990/pair). As driven by the firm’s new Maestro all-in-one Blu-ray player/multichannel receiver, the PSF-1 sounded for all the world like it was channeling the spirit of the big Nordic Tone, but for about one tenth the price. In practice, this means the PSF-1 found that elusive sweet spot between sonic detail and purity, on the one hand, and a smooth, full-bodied, natural presentation on the other.

Teaming with its sister companies Anthem AV and Screen Innovations, Paradigm put on one of the best A/V demonstrations to be seen or heard at CES. Playing a key role were Paradigm’s new v.3-Series Signature S6 floorstanders ($4500/pair), which were used as L/R main speakers in the demo system. The Signature S6 is a three-way, four-driver floorstander sporting a berylium tweeter, a cobalt-infused aluminum mid/bass driver, and dual mineral-filled polypropylene woofers. Judging by the Paradigm demo, the S6 is at once capable of great delicacy and nuance (as demonstrated on a clip of K.D. Lang performing the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah”), yet able to serve up tremendous dynamic wallop on demand (as shown on an action film clip that gave the question “did the earth move for you, too?” a whole new meaning).

At CES, the British firm Spendor introduced its new A-series speakers as successors to the well-regarded S models, with the new A6 two-way floorstander ($3695) leading the way. The A6 leverages driver technologies originally developed for the firm’s flagship ST speaker, with a concomitant increase in overall sonic transparency and resolution. During a too brief listening session, I found that—as advertised—the A6 sounds very much like one of the original S models on serious steroids. What’s hard to put into words is the effortless way in which the A6 combines engaging naturalism of the original S models, while dialing in significantly higher levels of resolution, especially through the heart of the midrange. You can hear much deeper into the mix, yet without being pushed toward the analytical end of the sonic spectrum.

One of the very last things the late Jim Thiel worked on before his death was a project to convert his popular SCS4 monitor speaker into a more extended floorstander, to be called the Thiel SCS4T. The SCS4T prototype was on static display at CES, but several members of the closely-knit Thiel team told me they plan to complete the speaker, partly to honor Jim, but also because the concept of an SCS4-based tower speaker makes good sense. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one Thiel team member told me the firm hopes to complete the design within 6-to-9 months, with a target price of “around $3000/pair.” I was told that Thiel had been experimenting with using the Atlantic/Clements H-PAS enclosure system as a means of increasing bass extension and expanding the speaker’s low-frequency dynamic envelope, though a “go/no go” decision on H-PAS has not yet been reached. This is a product to watch for in 2010.

One of my favorite review projects for 2009 involved the Usher Mini Dancer 2 loudspeaker, a two-way, three-driver-equipped floorstander based on the same drive units found in the award winning Usher Be-718 monitor speaker. At CES, however, I got to see and hear the next-generation version of the speaker, now known as the Usher Dancer Mini-Two Diamond (approximately $5000/pair). At first, glance the main difference between the old and new models involves a new “DMD” tweeter whose diaphragm features a metal core made of titanium, aluminum, magnesium, and a very small quantity of berylium, and that is coated on the front and back with a stiff “diamond-like carbon” material. In practice, the new DMD tweeter does an even better job of resolving low-level transient and textural details than the original Be tweeter did, giving the speaker a more open, airy, and accurate sound, yet without making it sound cold or analytical. But changes don’t stop with the tweeter alone, because Usher has also given the new Mini-Two significant internal upgrades that increase cabinet rigidity, plus a beefy cast-iron floor-plinth equipped with redesigned spikes. The result is an overall increase in the tautness and definition, especially in the mid-to-low bass region. Now more than ever, this is a $5k speaker that invites comparisons with models carrying five-figure pricetags.

Chris Martens’ Best of CES

Best Sound: Avalon Time loudspeakers driven by Karan amplifiers, a Zanden CD player, and Cardas cables. This system had its values straight, with equipment serving the music—not the other way around.

Greatest Bargain

Magneplanar’s Magnepan MG1.7 full-range quasi-ribbon-type loudspeaker. This speaker is not only the best I’ve heard at its price, but one that should make many higher-priced competitors nervous. Works for me.

Greatest Technological Breakthrough

The slow, steady growth of interest in (and commercial viability of) high-resolution digital audio files. My thought: We’ve got the bandwidth and storage space, so let’s do digital right.

Most Important New Product or Company:

Straightforward enough for newbies, yet good enough to satisfy high-end aficionados, Micromega’s new Airstream WM10 is arguably today’s best wireless bridge between iTunes-equipped PCs and high-end audio systems. Very cool. 

Steven Stone on Digital

More products from fewer manufacturers seemed to be a major theme at this year’s CES. Only new CD players were few and far between, as the sales of CDs themselves continued to plummet. What’s interesting is that both mass-market and high-end consumers are abandoning CDs as their preferred media for new music. They’ve all moved on to downloads. Mainstream MP3ers love downloads for convenience, while on the audiophile side it’s the only way to get 96/24-and-higher music files in your library.

Media servers and computer-based audio have succeeded where SACDs and DVD-As failed, supplanting CDs as de facto standard high-end sources.

 

Players? Don’t Talk To Me About Players!

Most of the disc players introduced at CES weren’t for CDs. Blu-Ray and multi-format players predominated manufacturers’ latest offerings. Of course, there were a few exceptions, including two players from Vincent. The CD-S8 player ($2995) featured a tube-based analog section, dedicated headphone jack with its own volume control, 192kHz sampling rate, and a fully balanced circuit topology. Its flagship C-60 ($4995) had a switchable output section that lets you choose either tube or solid-state outputs.

Krell launched a new flagship Blu-Ray player. The Evolution 555 ($15,000) featured ESS Technology 32-bit Sabre Reference DACs connected to Krell’s own differential Evolution CAST analog circuitry. The Evolution 555 comes standard with Ethernet capabilities; a 02.11b/g/n wireless card can be added for wireless transmission. Dual HDMI outputs and a front-panel SD-card slot allow for added flexibility, as does the card–based interior topology. Currently configured for HDMI 1.3, the Evolution 555 will be easily upgradable to HDMI 1.4 with a simple card swap.

McIntosh released its first universal player, the MVP881 BR ($8000). It supports Blu-Ray, but also SACD, DVD-A, DVD, and CDs. With an SD-card reader and Ethernet and RS-232 ports, the MVP881 BR can receive firmware upgrades and BD-live content automatically. With four 32-bit 192kHz internally balanced DACs, the MVP881 BR has enough horsepower to handle all the current multi-channel formats with ease.

NAD also premiered a high-end Blu-Ray player. The Master Series M56 ($1999) supports Blu-Ray, CD, CD-R, and MP3 discs. It also includes a USB 2.0 input on the back for attaching USB memory devices and players to the M56’s DAC.

Luxman’s new D-38u CD player ($4000) featured retro cosmetics including a wooden case. But underneath the old-school looks you’ll find a Burr-Brown 192kHz/24-bit PCM 1754 D/A and a neat switch that lets you change between a 12AU7 tube and solid-state output section. TheD-38u also includes a high-quality headphone output with its own variable-output amplifier.

TAD, who is known primarily for speakers rather than electronics, debuted a D600 disc player ($26,500). It features an ultra-high-precision Crystal Generator master clock (Master Clock UPCG), which provides an ultra-high clock-to-noise ratio. With a Burr-Brown high-performance PCM1794 DACs in a twin differential configuration, the D600 can also be used as a DAC via its RCA coaxial input which supports up to 192kHz/24-bit digital sources.

Boulder added some features to its 1021 disc player ($23,999) that makes it into a network player via both Ethernet and WiFi. Now any music files in any networked computer in your home can be played on the 1021. It can also be controlled by any iPhone or iPod touch, using the $5 plug-play application.

 

DAC Attack

Bel Canto introduced three new DACs and one new analog/digital FM tuner. The e.One Dac 1.5 ($1395) is its entry-level unit. It uses an Ultra Clock, has 96/24 capabilities via USB, includes a 24-bit digital volume control, a front-panel headphone output with its own independent DAC, five separate digital inputs, and both balanced and single-ended outputs. Moving up the product line, the e.One Dac 2.5 ($1995) adds an LNS internal power supply, an analog input, five digital inputs, and a larger eight character alphanumeric display. The top of the line e.One Dac 3.5VB ($3495) includes an ST glass-fiber connection to insure complete galvanic isolation from a low-jitter source. Finally, Bel Canto’s new tuner, the e.One FM1 ($1495) features a 48kHz/24-bit digital output as well as both balanced and single-ended analog outputs.

Not to be outdone in the category of highest number of new products by an enthusiast audio company, High Resolution Technologies unveiled four new DACs. First HRT replaced its wildly successful MusicStreamer with the Music Streamer II ($149). The new Music Streamer supports up to 96/24 signals, an asynchronous transfer protocol, and has a S/N ratio of better than 98dB. The new MusicStreamer II+ ($349) also supports 96/24 via USB, has asynchronous transfer, and promises a 101dB S/N ratio. The third new DAC, the Music Streamer Pro, uses mini-XLR outputs to deliver a professional standard 4.5 volts balanced output with a S/N ratio of 114dB, and yes, it’s also a 96/24 DAC. Finally the new top-of-the-line Music Streamer HD ($800 to $900), supports 192/24 via USB 2.0 and asynchronous transfer protocols. Currently only Mac’s Snow Leopard 1.6.2 operating system supports the USB 2.0 audio codec, but Windows 7 will be adding it soon, maybe even by the time you read this in print.

MSB has long been a technological leader whose DACs delivered great sound but pedestrian looks. That’s all in the past. With its new Platinum family of DACs, MSB has arrived at a physical style that is as slick as its sound. The Signature Dac IV starts at $13,995 and includes three hand-matched DAC modules that run at 384kHz/32-bits and deliver a S/N ratio of over 140dB. All MSB DACs are custom-built and include the ability to add features such as multiple USB inputs, analog inputs, and MSB’s proprietary iLink II input protocol.

Chord unveiled a new and way trick-looking DAC, the QBD76 ($5995). It’s got Buck Rogers retro-cool big-ass side-fins and plastic bug-eyes that reveal the DACs jewelry-box circuit board interior. The technology in the QBD76 is just as well thought out, using Chord’s proprietary combination of RAM buffers and a special digital phase-lock-loop word clock to reduce jitter to less than 3pS cycle-to-cycle. Half tech, half art, and all cool.

Weiss demonstrated its new replacement for the Minerva DAC, the DAC202 ($6500). This FireWire DAC also has S/PDIF and AES/EBU digital inputs and outputs as well as both single-ended and balanced adjustable-level outputs. With a front-panel headphone output and provisions for an external word clock, the DAC202 offers a one-box solution for 192kHz/24-bit music files. Weiss also previewed its INT202 FireWire interface ($1300), which converts FireWire 400 to either S/PDIF or AES/EBU digital outputs.

Simaudio revealed a pair of new DACs. The Moon 300D ($1600) includes USB, coaxial S/PDIF and TosLink inputs, upsamples to 353.8kHz/24-bits, has both singe-ended and balanced outputs, and supports up to 192/24 digital files via its coaxial inputs. The flagship Moon 750D ($12,000) is a 32-bit fully asynchronous device using eight ESS Sabre DAC chips. Besides four digital inputs—AES/EBU, S/PDIF, TosLink, and USB—the 750D also has a built-in CD transport. Its analog output circuits feature a fully balanced differential dual-mono layout.

Wadia displayed a new DAC/digital integrated amplifier with the same small footprint as their trend-setting 171i digital transport/interface. The 151i PowerDAC ($1195) supports S/PDIF, TosLink, or USB digital inputs and includes Wadia’s DirectConnect digital volume control. It produces 25Wpc into eight ohms or 50 watts into four ohms and includes a remote control that can also run your iPod when it’s connected to the 171i.

Peachtree entered the iPod digital interface race with its iDecco ($999) integrated amp. It provides a dock that takes the digital signal directly from your iPod Classic or iPod Touch and routes it to ESS Sabre DAC. It also has USB and S/PDIF digital input capabilities, a built-in Class A headphone amplifier, video as well as audio outputs, and a 40Wpc tube amplifier. The only thing it can’t do is make coffee.

dCS New Debussy DAC ($10,000) offers USB, AES/EBU, and S/PDIF inputs using dCS’s latest Ring Dac technology, 5-bit oversampling, multi-mode phase-locked loop , higher capacity field-programmable gate arrays, and asynchronous USB. With better than 110dB S/N and 96/24 via USB, the Debussy promises to be a contender in the USB DAC horserace.

Never heard of Constellation Audio? Me neither. But with prices for individual components tentatively priced above $50,000, this Southern California company is determined to be a major contender in the price-no-object audio gear category. Designer Peter Madnick, whose designs for Audio Alchemy and Perpetual Audio Technologies redefined budget component performance, has been turned loose by Constellation president Dr. Murali Murugasu to make the best products possible without price constraints. For example, the Sirius DAC and CD player combo is built with a special clamshell chassis milled out of a solid block of material to minimize the effects of resonance interactions. All the digital inputs, including SACD, are upsampled to 128FS before final analog conversion.