The high-performance audio takeaway from this year's CES was how to rope in the budding audiophile, and how to nip that curiosity in the bud.
Put another way, how do we get people to know what they're missing, or instead, make it so f'ing complicated, that they just shove their earbuds back in and tune out the notion completely. Some rooms made good sound seem easy, others turned it into an ordeal.
CAVEAT to the below coverage: I make no definitive judgments on products at shows. The 'test' methodology: I sit, typically people are talking somewhere in the room. And then it's 50/50 whether I get to play one of my own tracks or listening to something completely unfamiliar. Only thing I'll say is that if something sounds really good under such circumstances, it'll sound good in your room. Otherwise, I'll leave conclusions to better men than I. That said, on with it:
TAD CR-1 monitors @ $37K driven by the new Ayre VX-R ($15K) stereo amp. Source was a Mac Mini running the new Ayrewave ($FREE!) software feeding the USB input on an Ayre DX-5 universal player. Deep soundstage that extended through the glass and hovered above LV Blvd. Solid bass, but not deeper than you'd expect from the monitor-sized cabinet. Highs slightly rolled off which I've come to believe is an Ayre signature. Convincing system.
Venture Audio/Spiral Groove
Venture Xtreme speakers and amps, fronted by a Spiral Groove SG1 TT. Deep, punchy and well-defined bass as you might expect, but thin in the middle and hard up top. This is one of those systems that just didn't work at the Venetian.
Avalon Transcendent speakers ($15K) fed by and Edge NL12.2 amp ($24K) and Signature preamp ($14.4K). Source was the cool Resolution Audio Cantata music server ($6K) fed by an Amarra running Mac. Acoustic treatment by an Italian company called DAAD, which featured a Heimholtz resonator. The sound had ease and delicacy, but I wondered whether it could jump and rock.
Mostly geared to the custom install crowd, these guys know ribbons. The LS4 speaker ($40K/channel) is a monster. It was driven by Classe amps and controlled by a DSP/Audyssey unit. The ribbon assemblies are modular which makes the speaker scalable—3 high, 4 high, etc. Probably not a hardcore audiophiles cup of tea, but in a show that had a number of snoozer systems—I'll take the no apologies dynamics and power of these. Smooth mids and highs too.
Lots of big box stuff from top-of-the-line 9 series, but what interested me most was the 121 DAC (~$2K) with the same small form factor as the 17x series docks and 151 powerdac. It employs the proprietary 24 bit/1.4MHz upsampling found higher up in the line, and has a volume control and headphone output. it may be a great value in a lifestyle package.
The Fire ($6K), Earth ($9K), and Metal ($13K, pictured) speakers feature a 7" house-made, nearly full range Torrent driver that is fed directly by the amplifier. There's a bit of Zu in the thinking, and fronted by Accuphase electronics, this was among my favorite systems in the show. Sound was immediate and full range. Imaging was hard to judge as the speakers were too close together and backed against a wall.
The new Paris TT, cartridge and phono stage ($3K/$800/800). The arm board and bearing are mounted on a platform isolated with sorbothane. Sound had nice flow and was quiet. Nice to see Oracle go more affordable.
The Monitor ($24K) and Column($34K) from Spain employ aluminum cabinets with extrusions inside that resemble the blades and pyramids you might see in an anechoic chamber. Further resonance damping is achieved by a thick layer of sand between the sub-enclosure and outer skin. The funky cabinet design is inspired by the architecture of Barcelona. Scanspeak drivers throughout that didn't quite cohere, but the sound was clean and unforced. A new line is on the way.
What a shock, the ARC/Magnepan 3.7 ($5.5K) room sounded more alive than most—effortless with a huge soundstage. Though far from ideally setup in the Venetian, it was clear that the Maggie embarrasses many far more expensive speakers. They sounded better in the larger Flamingo room.
An armada of Ayon equipment fronting the Lumen White Artisan and Legacy Focus HD ($7150). The sound was transporting… to a Hong Kong hifi shop with all the blingy surfaces, thumping electronica and prominent highs. Having heard some of the system parts individually, I suspect these are all excellent components that just didn't quite come together at the show.