Robert Harley's Notes: February 23, 2010 Tele-briefing

Robert Harley's Notes: February 23, 2010 Tele-briefing

This most recent CES was notable for the large number of new-product introductions. The economy in late 2008 and most of 2009 caused manufacturers to delay introducing new products. But the overall sense of the industry is that the worst is behind us, and manufacturers feel more confident in bringing new models to market. Consequently, we saw lots of new gear that had been put on hold during most of 2009.

There was a decided trend at CES toward mega-expensive products. Ironically, this trend is partially driven by the economy. The hardest-hit segments of high-end audio have been in the mid-level price range, but the top end of the market remains robust.

  • This trend is good and bad for the average audiophile. It’s good in the sense that many of the technologies developed for flagship products trickle-down to mid-priced gear. It’s bad in the sense that if the high-end industry continues on this path, it will become marginalized by appealing only to the very wealthy. One of my core beliefs is that high-end audio is for anyone who enjoys music, no matter what their hi-fi budget. A $1500 system of NAD amplification and PSB speakers is high-end when set up carefully. So this trend toward ever more exotic gear is a double-edged sword.

But going back to the trickle-down theory, that formerly esoteric and expensive technologies find their way into mid-priced gear, there were a number of important examples at CES. The first is the availability of diamond tweeters in mid-priced loudspeakers. Diamond tweeters at one time added about a $10,000 premium to a pair of speakers. The tweeters themselves once cost $3000 each. At CES, B&W announced that its entire 800-series had been redesigned, and that all of them would include a diamond tweeter. That includes the 805 Diamond at $5000 a pair.

  • Even more dramatically, Usher unveiled at CES several new loudspeakers with diamond tweeters. The speaker formerly known as the Be-718 (which I reviewed, and thought was amazingly great) now gets a diamond tweeter and the price went up by only $200 to $2995. Where it once cost $3000 for a single raw diamond tweeter, you can now buy a pair of complete speakers with diamond tweeters for the $3k. Another example is magnetic bearings in turntables, which are now found in turntables in the $5k range.

Another trend that continues to astonish me is the proliferation of vinyl playback. A few years ago perhaps 10% of the rooms at CES had turntables in them, either from a turntable manufacturer showing a new model or simply there as part of a system showcasing a new amplifier or loudspeaker. That percentage has increased every year to the point where I’d guess that 40% of the rooms were spinning vinyl.

  • The availability of new turntables, tonearms, cartridges, and phono accessories is driven purely by consumer demand. People are embracing vinyl in a big way, either by upgrading their current turntables, re-discovering their record collections after not having had a turntable for years, or young audiophiles who had never owned a turntable before.
  • Incidentally, sales of LPs more than doubled from 2008 to 2009, the only packaged media to show a gain, and outselling SACD and DVD-A combined.

The confluence of two trends—the move toward ever more exotic and expensive gear, and LP playback—were seen in the proliferation of expensive phonostages. At this CES, five new phonostages were introduced that cost more than $10,000, and this was less than three months since two $10k+ phonostages were introduced at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. Every single manufacturer of these expensive phonostages told me that demand exceeded expectations. The Boulder rep told me that in the first two months of introducing their $12k 1008 they had sold more than they expected to sell in the entire first year of production.

There’s no doubt that music servers are being mainstream. Music servers are the next big growth category and high-end companies are positioning themselves to get in on the action. Unfortunately, most traditional high-end companies lack the skill set necessary for creating a music server, and the music server companies lack the high-end ideals that would drive them to make a server with the best possible sound quality. Music servers tend to be ultra-tweaky when made by high-end companies, or lifestyle products when made by relatively mass-market companies. Although this wasn’t apparent at CES, I expect to see new companies pop up that combine computer skills with high-end values. One example is the Black Box music server shown a year ago, but we’ll undoubtedly see more this year.

We’ve all heard about the coming end of the CD format, most dramatically by Linn’s announcement last December that it would discontinue production of all CD players by the first quarter of 2010. Although physical formats are on their way out, Linn’s position appears to be premature. Despite this larger trend within the industry as whole away from CD, lots of new CD players were introduced at the show—as many as at any previous show by my rough estimation.

Incidentally, when CD was introduced in 1983, Ivor Tiefenbrun, the founder of Linn, said something that turned out to be prescient. He said that CD was an interim format until a good-sounding digital format was introduced, and that the LP would outlive the CD. That’s an amazing statement when you consider that he made it 27 years ago.

The last trend I’ll comment on is an important one—DSP crossovers and room correction. Several terrific sounds at the show were in rooms using DSP, including the $12k Haniwa system by Kubotek, The Granada speaker by The Lotus Group, the tri-amped Acoustic Zen Crescendo that used a DSP crossover, and a sophisticated new DSP room correction system from Holm Acoustics. It’s taken a very long time, but I think that in the next two years we’ll see DSP live up to its potential.