CES 2011 Show Report
The Consumer Electronics Show is the biggest convention held in Las Vegas each year. Last year, due to the economy, the Las Vegas hotels slashed room prices trying to attract customers. This year the hotels were booked full and discounts were nowhere to be found. Thus, it was with trepidation that I ventured to Las Vegas for CES 2011. I figured if the hotels were sold out, the Venetian Hotel where the Hi End audio was exhibiting would be packed with exhibitors and attendees as it had been a few years ago. At times in the past the hotel corridors in the Venetian were so packed with people that it was difficult to walk from room to room. My fear of fighting through the corridor congestion was unfounded. Attendance of both exhibitors and attendees at the Venetian was down this year. There were only a dozen Hi End audio exhibitors downstairs in the ballroom area which used to have scores. Only two floors, instead of the usual three, were used for exhibits in the Tower area. There were about eight more exhibitors using the luxury suites on the top two floors of the Tower compared with last year. Still, the number of exhibit rooms was down. The number of attendees was also down. On Sunday, at about 11AM, I got to the end of one of the long corridors in the Tower and looked back. There were only three other people in the hallway.
Things were somewhat similar at T.H.E. Show which was held again at the Flamingo Hotel. T.H.E. Show is a lower cost Hi End show that in the past has attracted many of the smaller manufacturers. The number of exhibitors at T.H.E. Show was up from last year. I did notice that some of the new exhibitors at T.H.E. Show used to exhibit at the Venetian. The number of attendees at T.H.E. Show seemed less than last year.
Listed below, in no particular order, are the rooms that I thought were interesting and/or had excellent sound. While I tried to get to every room, I did not achieve that goal. Some rooms were too crowded every time I stopped by. Other rooms wouldn't let me play my own CDs. And some rooms just played their music too darn LOUD so I didn't even want to venture in. I did compare notes with friends to see if there were any rooms that I had missed that I should have visited. For listening, I used CDs that I had compiled from various CDs and which I have used at previous audio shows.
Kubala-Sosna/Alfred & Partners – The equipment in this room was expensive: Alfred & Partners Estelon Speakers ($43,900), Tenor Audio 350M mono block amps ($100,000), Audio Research Reference 5 preamp ($12,000), PS Audio Transport ($3000) and PS Audio DAC ($3000), and Kubala-Sosna Emotion cabling, and power cords ($24,350). The 'analog’ source was a Korg MR-2000s Digital Recorder ($2000). Korg is a manufacturer of electronic musical instruments such as keyboards and is considered a pro-audio company. The MR-2000s records at 2 x DSD which means it is recording one bit words at 5.6MHz. Software that comes with the MR-2000s converts files recorded at 2 x DSD into most digital formats. On the Korg’s hard drive were recordings of LPs that were made by playing the LP on a turntable and recording the output from the preamp. I selected one title that I thought I might be familiar with. The Korg converted the file to 24 bit 192KHz and the signal was fed into the PS Audio DAC. The recording started off with the needle being placed on the LP followed by a slightly noisy lead-in groove. A couple of seconds into the music I knew this recording was the Classic Records 45rpm reissue of Louis Armstrong’s St. James Infirmary. This is an LP with which I am extremely familiar. I listened to the entire 'side’. The music was slightly more detailed than when I play the LP on my own system. The sound was also slightly different from what I hear through my system which is understandable since the demo system, including turntable and cartridge, are totally different from my own system. What I did not hear were any 'digital artifacts’. Had the demo system been hidden behind a curtain I would have thought the music was actually coming from a turntable. This is the first time I have heard an analog to digital and then digital back to analog conversion that did not alter the sound in a detrimental way. It has taken 28 long years since the CD was first released in 1982, but to my ears digital recording and digital playback of acoustic music can now sound as natural as an all analog system. The sound in this room and in another room that was using the Estelon speakers was very good.
Atma-Sphere/Classic Audio Loudspeaker – The same equipment that I had heard in October at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was back, though in a much smaller room. The equipment consisted of the Classic AudioT-3.4 speakers ($28,000), Atma-sphere MP-1 Mk III.1 preamp ($13,000) and M-60 Mk III.1 amps ($6950). The source was an Atma-Sphere modified turntable, Triplanar tonearm,and Van den Hul Grasshopper cartridge. Despite the smaller room the sound was dynamic and sounded like real music. According to Ralph Karsten of Atma-Sphere, his amps were being used in six different demo rooms.
VAC/King Sound – This room was a large suite with the main system in the larger room and a more modest system in a smaller room. The gear in the larger room consisted of the new King II electrostatic speakers ($11,500), Luxman D-05 SACD Player, VAC Signature Mk IIa preamp ($15,000), and VAC Statement 450S stereo amp ($39,000). I really like the sound of electrostatic speakers driven by large tube amps and I really liked the sound in this room. The specifications for the redesigned King II states that the speaker has a frequency response of 28Hz to 42KHz. I had no way to measure the frequency response of the King IIs, but the speakers performed very well on bass tracks on my test CD. If I didn’t like pipe organ music and movie soundtracks I could live very happily with this system.
INEX Inovation/Harmonic Technology – The equipment in this room consisted of Marten Getz speakers with INEX CD Player ($7500), INEX Pre-A200 preamp ($12,000), INEX mono block amps ($14,000 which includes one pair of 5m interconnects), and all cables by Harmonic Technology. Each time I visit the INEX room at the shows, the sound keeps improving. This year was no exception. I was able to play quite a few tracks on my test CDs in this room. No matter what type or genre of music I played, the sound was very good.
The Lotus Group – On the final day of last year’s CES I thought the sound in The Lotus Group room was the best sound that I had ever heard on a stereo system. Thus, I was looking forward to hearing the system again. This year the equipment consisted of The Lotus Group Granada speakers ($125,000), Music Fidelity AMSCD CD Player ($8999), Music Fidelity AMS50 amps ($28,000), Smc VRE-18 preamp ($15,950), and all Prana Wire cables. The cost of the total system was $324,245. The sound this year was not quite as spectacular as it was last year. The sound was very good and the best of all the mega buck systems that I listened to this year.
VMPS/Atma-Sphere – For the third year in a row VMPS was doing a live versus recorded demonstration. I sat in on one of the demos using a five piece jazz ensemble with the female pianist doing the vocals. Sitting in the center of the fifth row of seats I had a little trouble hearing the vocalist as she was singing softly directly into a mike. I had no trouble hearing the instruments (piano, acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and flute). The immediate playback through the VMPS RM50 speakers ($14,900) was stunning. Yes, the recorded sound was different. Also, unlike last year where an omni-directional mike was used this year the instruments were multi-miked. Thus, while last year the soundstage was extremely realistic, this year the soundstage was not natural. Despite that drawback, the played back sound was as alive and as dynamic as the live performance. I talked with a number of people who heard the other demos. Most people felt that the recorded playback was better because the tone and timbre of the instruments/vocal was right on and the volume of vocalist and instruments had been properly matched. I felt the same way. It was an impressive demonstration. Hopefully, next year they will go back to using an omni-directional so that the soundstaging is realistic.
During the four days of CES I spent quite a lot of time talking with various equipment designers. On the analog side there are at least three different people working on pivoted tonearms that have zero tracking error. Right now the Thales tonearm ($11,000) is the only pivoted arm in current production that I am aware of that has zero tracking error. On the turntable side I talked with two designers about turntables that can correct for off-centered spindle holes. One designer said that he was ready to build a prototype. The other said that he was still in the design phase. There has not been a self-centering turntable on the market since the mid '80s when the Nakamichi Dragon and Nakamichi TX-1000 went out of production. It would be nice to see turntables offering that feature again. Eliminating the wow caused by off-center spindle holes makes a noticeable improvement to vinyl playback.
On the digital side, what I heard in the Kubala-Sosna room with the playback of digitally recorded LPs using the Korg M2000s and the live versus recorded demo in the VMPS room shows to me that the technology now exists, at least in the pro-audio world, to make analog to digital to analog conversions that do not have a detrimental impact on the sound of analog sources. Also, anyone who has heard an A-B comparison of a speaker using digital crossovers versus the same speaker with analog crossovers knows that there are tremendous advantages to using a digital crossover. Likewise, if you have heard a demonstration of digital room correction you know that if the correction is done properly there can be substantial improvements in the sound at the listening position. Now imagine a digital preamp combines all three of these features in one box. That digital preamp would have the following features:
1. both analog and digital inputs with the A to D and D to A conversion not effecting the quality of the sound
2. volume and balance adjusted in the digital domain
3. allows the manufacturer of your speakers to program the preamp so that the digital crossovers are implemented within the preamp
4. ability to measure and correct for room modes at the listening position
Don’t you want a preamp like this? I have heard a pro-audio preamp that does 1, 2, and 4. I have also heard another pro-audio preamp that does 1, 2, and 3. I am willing to bet that in the next few years we will see a Hi End preamp that does all four of the above. This is an exciting time to be in Hi End audio.