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Positive Feedback ISSUE 5
february/march 2003


CES 2003
by Clay Swartz


The 2003 Consumer Electronics Show was an eventful happening. It took place at several hotels and the Las Vegas Convention Center, and there was also T.H.E. Show, the alternative high-end show at the San Remo Hotel. CES is a mixed bag as far as the audiophile as concerned. The Las Vegas Convention Center has nothing to offer, though the videophile will have a much better time. The first prototypes of the blue-laser players were shown. This technology is meant to bring high-definition video into the home. Since a blue laser has a much smaller wavelength, more data can be put onto a disc. I saw players from Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung. The pictures produced by these players were spectacular, even better than off-the-air high definition sources. Right now the only sources of a high definition signals are broadcasts, digital tapes, and computer hard drives. Sony has developed this technology, and has licensed it to nine other companies. They were projecting the first quarter of next year for the introduction of the players. I feel that this is optimistic, as a final standard has not yet been adopted. Blue-laser technology also promises five-channel SACD sound along with video, and the ability to record high-definition data. This will be important at first, because of limited initial software availability. The Panasonic blue laser player on a plasma set had about the best picture I have seen on anything.

Many companies showed machines that play DVD-Vs, DVD-As, SACD stereo and multi-channel discs, and CDs. Six months ago, there was only one such player, but now there are players or prototypes from Denon, Marantz, Yamaha, Pioneer, Zenith, Lexicon, Linn, McCormack and Muse. I think the industry realizes that the only way for either DVD-A and SACD to survive is not to force the consumer to choose. There were also demonstrations by most of the video projector manufacturers. The brightness, contrast, clarity, and black level of video projectors have all improved greatly in the last year, and the prices are coming down. I saw an $1800 projector from Sanyo that had a very respectable picture. The Marantz was the best projector I saw. It had an incredible black level and a nearly perfect picture.

Plasma, LCD, and rear-projection sets were also shown. Though plasma sets are catching up fast to the rear-projection sets in picture quality, the LCD sets aren’t quite ready for prime time in large sizes at this time. I did notice a very interesting AV preamp from Fosgate Audionics. Its price was $3000, and it appeared to be well built. It had all the newest chips for surround sound, which is unusual for a high end preamp. It also had a 5-inch LCD display on the front for setup without hooking it up to a video source. I noticed this feature on two other more expensive preamps. It also had full video switching. Unfortunately, it was in a static setup. The sound throughout the Convention Center was awful. Most of the stereo equipment was not being played. The one interesting audio technology, the Digital Sound Projector, was from Pioneer. It looks like a metal base for a television, and it creates a surround sound field in a room without the use of surround speakers. It was very effective. The sound was not of audiophile quality, but was as good as most receiver-based surround speaker systems. With a price tag of $40,000, it will probably not be a big seller.

The portion of CES at the Alexis Park Hotel was much more sonically exciting. For the first time at the show, I heard systems that were worth hearing. There were more than 220 rooms showing equipment, most with active sound demonstrations. For the most part, the sound was between acceptable and very good. Since I only had one day to spend at this site, I quickly made decisions on whether or not to spend much time listening to a system. I only saw one revolutionary product at this site—the Hallograph Soundfield Optimizers by Shakti Innovations. These are room treatment devices that improve the soundstage presentation of a stereo system. They were extremely effective, and they are even tunable for your preferences in sound. I hope to have a full review by the March issue. I also noted the large bass output of the HSU subwoofers. The best value at the show was the Triangle Electroacoustique Speaker room. Their Celius 202 speakers produced some of the best sound at CES at a fraction of their competitors’ prices. The Celius 202s are only around $2000 a pair.

T.H.E. Show was a definite step up in sound quality. There were very interesting subwoofers from Virtual Bass Technologies that were very small. Using a different technology to produce bass than other subwoofers, they reproduced a very articulate double bass, though with limited time and software, I could not fully evaluate them. I had questions about how they would mate with speakers, and about the volume of the bass they could put out, but they showed great promise. Another room that had very good sound was the Audience Au24 speaker room. Their large, slender tower arrays have amps attached to their sides. The best sound of the show for me came from the Sound Lab electrostatic speakers driven by Atmasphere electronics and the Marantz DV 8300 SACD/DVD-A player. This system had great presence. It could play large-scale pieces with power, and could also play the delicate parts. The dynamic range was extraordinary, soundstaging very good. The speakers would have probably sounded even better in a larger, more treated room.

I noted various interesting trends at the show. The first was the absence of DVD-A. The only cut I heard during the whole show was demonstrating the Pioneer 47Ai multi-player. SACD players were in a number of rooms, and LPs were being played in many rooms. Surround demos were few and far between, and the choice of video demonstrations was very unimaginative. I saw Ice Age and The Fast and the Furious frequently, and also a lot of high-definition video recorded from an off-the-air source. The Marantz DV 8300 was in three of the best-sounding systems at the show. Finally, there were many fewer separate D-to-As than in past years.