Audiophile Heaven at the Venetian Hotel
The Venetian Hotel has historically been the site that audiophiles migrate to for the latest in specialty audio and high-end products. In recent years, no segment of the specialty AV market has been hit harder than high-end audio, with virtually no real movement and/or innovation being debuted in the past two to three years, thanks in part to an ailing economy. The big story out of the Venetian in previous years had to be the emergence and proliferation of computer-based audio systems, especially products that possessed the ability to stream music wirelessly either via iTunes or a proprietary service. While music servers and wireless steaming capability are still very much commonplace among the specialty audio and high-end set, a new trend emerged this year.
Uber high end.
That's right, to signal the official end to the recession, many audiophile companies, most of which were located on the 29th floor, thought it best to show off their latest and greatest, cost-no-object wares - some with multiple six-figure price tags. What weren't a lot of these companies doing? Playing music through their half-million-dollar systems. Thankfully, not everyone in the audiophile space took stupid pills before attending CES.
Wharfedale has been on a tear recently, producing some of the more compelling and affordable loudspeakers in the industry. This year, they didn't disappoint with the unveiling of their new Jade Series loudspeakers. Both the bookshelf (Jade 3) and the floor-standing models (Jade 7) on display sounded fantastic and were made better when their prices of $4,200 and $1,500 per pair, respectively, were revealed. The Jade Series is available now and includes an on-wall/rear-channel speaker, as well as two center-channel options.
Powering the Wharfedale room was a little-known brand by the name of Napa Acoustic. Napa Acoustic is an Internet-direct company that specializes in high performance, affordable two-channel tube audio products. How affordable? Prices start at $399 for a 25-watt desktop integrated amplifier, which, when used with my iPhone as a source and powering a pair of Wharfedale Diamond bookshelf speakers, sounded positively brilliant. Napa Acoustic's $1,199 35-watt integrated amp was equally impressive on the Wharfedale Jade bookshelf speakers. Look for a full review of each of the aforementioned Napa Acoustic products, for I was absolutely smitten with their price, performance and physical appearance.
NAD had a host of new digital music serving/streaming players, as well as all-digital DAC preamps and integrated amplifiers on display at CES this year. Prices ranged from $800 to a few thousand; all are available now. One such product, the M51 Direct Digital DAC Preamp, looks to compete with Classe's popular CP-800 digital preamp, though for thousands less at $2,000 retail. Also new out of NAD were several new AV receivers and AV preamps, many of which feature NAD's modular construction topology. As with all NAD products, you can expect a music-first emphasis over a lot of bells and whistles.
Raidho Acoustics / Nordost Cables
Newcomer (at least to me) Raidho Acoustics was showing off their new bookshelf speaker, which wasn't cheap at over $10,000 per pair, but they sounded very lush and possessed startling bass. Currently, dealer reach may make it difficult to hear and/or demo any of Raidho's designs, but should you be fortunate enough to hear them, you'll most likely find they're pretty special. They were being used in more than just Raidho's room, that's how well they were thought of by others in the industry, including high-end cable manufacturer Nordost, showing off their wicked-awesome Norse 2 line of cables. Unlike many of the insanely stiff new uber-audiophile cables that were being shown at CES, Nordost's ribbon-thin cables are likely the most installation-friendly.
Vincent Audio had a pair of new tubed products, their K-35 Tube Integrated amp at $2,995 and the tube-based CD player in their $1,995.95 C-35. Both the K-35 and C-35 feature a similar design aesthetic and are available now. The K-35 outputs 35 watts per channel and possesses a tube preamp section if you need more power, whereas the C-35 has a dedicated headphone stage and Burr-Brown 24-bit 96kHz decoding.
This year's CES, at least for Pass Labs, was all about their new Xs line of pure Class A monaural amplifiers. I won't beat around the bush and say that either of the Xs amplifiers are by any means affordable, but man, did they sound good. If you've got the cheese, $65 to $80,000 a pair, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better, more musical pair of solid state amplifiers. While Pass Labs had one of the more expensive systems being demoed at CES this year, I like that their source of choice was the old-school Denon direct drive turntable.
Meridian unveiled their new 818 Reference Audio Core, which is basically a CD player/receiver/music server designed to be paired with any of Meridian's powered loudspeakers, including the new M6 powered speakers. The 818 retails for $15,000, whereas the M6 speakers are $9,000 a pair, not cheap, but the combo sounded very good. Not everything was "expensive" in the Meridian suite. They also unveiled a free Sooloos App. Of course, you would've already had to purchase Sooloos to take advantage of it, which isn't exactly free, but the cost of having the world's best music server is now around $4,000 plus an iPad, when entry-level was closer to $7,500 before. Bravo for that, as the Sooloos music server is something to truly behold if you've never played with one. Best meta data in the business and best interface money can buy.
Big bad Krell took to CES NOT to showcase their next ultra high-end expensive wares, but instead to introduce a pair of $5,000 two-channel products. First up was Krell's new, more powerful integrated amplifier in the S-550i, which has a staggering 275 watts on tap into eight ohms and 550 watts into four ohms. The S-550i will begin shipping in the second quarter, along with Krell's newest two-channel preamp, the Phantom III. Like the S-550i, the Phantom III will ship in the second quarter and will retail for $5,000. Krell clearly gets it.
Audio Research showed off their new reference mono block, the Reference 250, as well as their new Reference DAC/Digital Media Bridge, which at around $15,000 isn't cheap, though Audio Research claims it's a REF 5 for digital fans. It also allows you access to your digital music files via a small full-color display, not to mention via its myriad digital and computer-based inputs.
Dynaudio was showing off their latest line of affordable bookshelf speakers, the XEO 3, which, unlike bookshelf speakers of yore, are completely wireless - not counting the power cord, of course. Floor-standing models are available as well. The industrial design on these suckers was really fantastic and the sound was luring people in from the hallway.
RBH / Status Acoustics
RBH was at CES debuting their new-ish brand, Status Acoustics, and their new speaker, the 8T. Att $50,000 per pair, they were among the more expensive speakers at the Venetian. While I'm certain many will look at their price tag and scoff, there's no way you'll be able to turn away, for they're among the more physically unique speakers that I saw in the entire show. Thankfully, if you have any objections to the 8Ts' price or appearance, there is little to object to in terms of their sound, which was sublime. If you like a live sound or listen to a lot of live music, the 8Ts are worth looking into.
Golden Ear Technology
Golden Ear Technology was a highlight of the show for me, and not just because I got a chance to hear their new bookshelf speaker or even the new Triton Three floor-standing loudspeaker, both of which are crazy good for the money. I actually was amazed by the company's new SuperCinema 3D Array Ultra-High-Performance Soundbar, which at $999 isn't as affordable as some, but believe me when I tell you it is hands-down the finest soundbar I've heard to date. Even amidst the shoddy acoustics of a tradeshow, the Golden Ear SuperCinema Soundbar was utterly fantastic and capable of sonic feats, both two-channel and surround, which defied its single-chassis design. You better believe we'll be reviewing it soon. Golden Ear has reportedly been working with researchers at Princeton University on "3D Audio" specifically how to yield a wide imaging sound from a narrow form factor like a soundbar. Unlike most soundbars - this one throws a very specific image for left right and center, not just a beam of mono sound like most in the category.
Focal debuted their new Chorus lineup of speakers, specifically the roughly $4,000 per pair 836W, which we already have in house for review, so stay tuned. Focal also had really luxurious new headphones, as well as ultra-cool computer speakers that will be reviewed on HomeTheaterReview.com soon.
Paradigm and Anthem
Paradigm continued their support of their new lineup of Shift products, which now includes a pair of in-ear headphones. Home Theater Review writer Brian Kahn was able to pick them up for review at the show. Paradigm also unveiled a new soundbar and wireless subwoofer combo, which will fall under the Shift moniker. Also in attendance was Anthem's new mega-watt Statement M1 monaural amplifier. 1000 watts is the kind of statement that we like, especially when it doesn't cost $200,000 per pair!
MartinLogan showcased their newest dynamic loudspeaker, the floor-standing Motion 20, which will ship some time in 2012. Like the other speakers in the Motion line, the Motion 20 has a folded motion tweeter, as well as dual 5.5-inch aluminum drivers. Available finishes are said to be gloss black as well as gloss white.
Wisdom Audio had a breathtaking demo of their brilliant LS4 on-wall/ floor-standing loudspeakers, powered by Audio Research electronics. Jerry Del Colliano thought it was the best sound of the show, beating out the new Magicos (he loves those, too) and the sound in Dan D'agostino's room - barely - but the real story was their new, passive in-wall speakers, dubbed the Insight Series. I sat for a demo of their least expensive model ($1,300 each) powered by an Integra AV receiver and augmented by a Wisdom Audio subwoofer with excellent results. I'm a fan of all things in-wall and the Insight Series looks to fill the void left by Meridian when they discontinued their 800 Series in-walls, which I called my reference for five years. The difference between the Insight in-walls and the costlier but discontinued 800 Series? I think the Insight in-walls sound better, not to mention being more affordable. Wisdom's Insight demo was among my favorites of the entire show. Look for a full review in Home Theater Review soon.
Bowers & Wilkins and Classe Audio
Once again, Bowers & Wilkins were exhibiting off-site at the Mirage Hotel, alongside Classe. Classe was again showing off their CP-800 stereo preamp and CA-2300 stereo amplifier. The dynamic duo were powering the expected: a pair of miniscule satellite speakers and a separate subwoofer, updates of Bowers & Wilkins' M-1 satellite loudspeaker and PV1 subwoofer. The combo looked as good as it sounded and was a nice change of pace for Bowers & Wilkins, considering previous shows have showcased their more expensive products, such as their Diamond Series. Dollar for dollar, this was one of the best-sounding rooms we heard anywhere in Las Vegas.
Cambridge had a host of new products on display at the Mirage Hotel, led by several new Azur-branded pieces, ranging from AV Receivers to transports. Cambridge also unveiled their Stream Magic 6 digital music player at $999 retail. Likewise in attendance was the revamped DACMagic Plus, which is now a DAC/digital preamp, but the best news out of Cambridge was their new DACMagic 100 at $399, which packs all the same functionality and feature set as the original DACMagic, but at a more advantageous price and in a smaller chassis. I cannot overstate how nice the metal work is on these new receivers. Think "Krell nice" when you talk about this line's build quality.
Harman (Revel / Mark Levinson / JBL Synthesis)
Harman provided a flurry of new releases at CES this year, among them Revel's new mid-fi lineup of speakers, the Performa3 line. Ranging in price from $1,000 to $6,000, the Performa3 line appears poised for greatness. The new Performa3 lineup includes three floor-standing speakers, two bookshelf speakers, two center-channel models, a surround sound speaker and two subwoofer options. The second from the top of the line floor-standers, the F208 ($4,500/pair) sounded terrific when driven by a pair of Mark Levinson No 531H monaural amplifiers.
Speaking of Mark Levinson, CES saw the debut of several soon-to-be-released products from the storied manufacturer, among them a new digital DAC/preamp, a two-channel SACD player, a two-chassis reference preamp and an integrated amp. All of the aforementioned products were on static display and were non-working prototypes, but all featured a new design aesthetic, as well as more affordable price points.
JBL Synthesis unveiled a new floor-standing loudspeaker at CES in the form of the $20,000 a pair S4700. While a bit old school-looking in visual flare, the S4700 is a direct descendant of the costlier Project Everest loudspeakers. I was unable to listen to the S4700, as the Revels were playing when I visited the Harman suite at the Venetian, but rest assured, I'll be following up when they go on sale later this year.
While not at the Venetian, subwoofer masters JL Audio has some new, more affordable subwoofers coming to market a little later in 2012. One woofer reportedly dips into the $800 range, which puts this higher-end player right in the game with lower-priced players like Sunfire, Velodyne and many others.
House of Marley
Headphones are becoming the audiophile fashion statement these days and House of Marley (as in Bob) showed some reggae-flavored headphones that caught our attention. Unlike your Beats by Dre (and the 15 other companies trying to copy them) headphones, Marley headphones are more organic in their design, complete with Rasta design cues and wooden earpieces. The over-ear headphones were pretty comfortable. House of Marley also had some in-ear monitors that were pretty affordable.
The Sound Organization (Naim, Dali, Rega and others)
The Sound Organization had a full suite (or three) filled with goodies, including a new flagship Dali loudspeaker that looked downright delicious. Their Primare electronics pack both smokin' industrial design and strong value-priced products. The Rega turntables had us thinking "review, review, review" and quirky Naim Electronics had Jerry Del Colliano talking about his college audiophile system, complete with an eight-watt integrated amp. Naim is a cult favorite that has one of the best upgrade paths for enthusiasts and always makes an outrageously good sound at shows.
Bob Carver LLC.
Last-minute additions to the show included the new $13,000 300-watt tube power amps from Bob Carver LLC. These strong performers were paired with the Magnepan-like King Audio speakers and sounded fantastically good. Thirteen grand is a ton of money for amps, but Bob Carver has a track record for making seriously fantastic power amps and his new monoblocks don't disappoint. If you are in the market at these levels, go out of your way to hear his new monoblocks.
THIEL and Wireworld
THIEL showed their most modest footprint floor-standing speaker, the CS 1.7 at CES in a static display. The new form factor is similar to past generations, but is greatly refined in terms of overall design. Wireworld showed a host of some of the most compelling high-end cables that we saw at the show, including their somewhat controversial (and pricey) HDMI cables. They sure looked good to us.
Cary Audio was rocking some tubey-goodness at the Venetian, as well as showing their recently reviewed Cinema 12 AV preamp, which is one of the few AV Preamps to be both somewhat affordable and holding true to audiophile music playback.
Theta and ATI
Our good buddies over at Theta and ATI (they are now owned by Morris Kessler and run by Jeff Hipps) were showing pretty advanced room correction software that they planned to have running in the long-standing audiophile-grade Casablanca AV preamp. Much like Meridian with their 861, Theta deserves credit for keeping a legacy product super-relevant over the years. Too often consumers are asked to buck up for a computer-based AV preamp, only to find out that the sucker is out of date. Theta is doing their best to keep their top products right on the cutting edge.
Having been purchased by Gibson Guitar right before the holidays, Onkyo had a bunch of receivers that packed unique picture-in-picture features, as well as lots of network streaming tricks. AppleTVs, NAS drives, gaming consoles and other devices were flowing freely with AV content. Onkyo gets what younger, mainstream, tech-savvy consumers demand from their home theater investment and it was good to see it working right before our eyes.
Rocking 1,000-watts-per-side class-D amps and a fully tuned room, Legacy Audio wins the award for the "most dialed-in room at CES." Their drum solo demo literally made my heart skip a beat. It was the closest thing I have heard to the Cello demo since the mid-1990s, and Legacy could bring the same type of experience home, including massive dynamics and over-the-top bass, for a tiny fraction of the cost of a Cello system back in the day.
One of our newest favorite products is Sunbrite TV. These guys make basically indestructible HDTVs for outdoor use and we will soon be putting one to the test at HomeTheaterReview.com. These sets are designed to take incredible cold and deal with heat of above 120 degrees without blinking. Don't try that with a $399 Vizio from Costco stuck in your "sun room."
Dan D'agostino was making beautiful music with his monoblock amps on Wilson Audio Sasha WP speakers in a big suite at the top of the Venetian. He also had a preamp that matched the watch-like look of his monoblock power amps. As an aside, there was a D'agostino amp dressed in black to match the copper sides, which in many ways looked like a Hublot "Big Bang" watch in rose gold. People were drooling.
Polk had an assortment of its higher-end speakers, as well as its soundbar, on display. It also introduced the UltraFocus line of in-ear (UltraFocus 6000) and over-the-ear (UltraFocus 8000) noise-canceling headphones, plus a new tabletop system, the I-Sonic Entertainment System 3 (IES3), which includes a universal docking system, an aux input, a clock and a 20-station AM/FM tuner for $299.
Bang & Olufsen
Bang & Olufsen introduced a lower-priced sub-brand, B&O Play. Designed for direct sale through "premium retailers" like the Apple Store, B&O Play's first product is the Beolit 12, a completely wireless tabletop sound system with integrated AirPlay support that carries an MSRP of $799. Given its small form factor, it produced a surprisingly full, impressive sound. Bang & Olufsen also showed off the BeoVision 12 65-inch plasma and BeoLab 12 on-wall digital speaker.
Okay, technically Definitive wasn't at the Venetian. The company had a suite at a hotel across from the convention center, where they had a great-sounding demo of the StudioMonitor 45 ($398/pair) introduced at CEDIA. Definitive also showed off its first active soundbar, the SoloCinema XTR. This five-channel 200-watt bar measures just 2.25 inches deep. With three HDMI 1.4 ins (plus optical and analog ins), it can accommodate multiple sources and even has DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD decoding, as well as Dolby Volume. The soundbar comes with a wireless 250-watt subwoofer that also boasts a slimmer profile than your average boxy sub. The SoloCinema XTR is slated for a July release; no official price yet, but it will likely be under $2,500.
Stuff We Missed....
A trusted industry friend with truly golden ears said that the sound that Bret D'agostino was making with his Class-A Bully Sound Corp amps was fantastic. Epson was at the Aria hotel and, while we had plans to get over there, it just became impossible logistically. They had some hot, hot, hot projectors at CEDIA 2011 that were worthy of note. Vutec had one of their projectors in the South Hall that looked really nice even in 3D (using that Owl movie demo), despite a lot of ambient trade show light.
Sadly, there is no physical way that our staff can see everything at the Consumer Electronics Show. It's just too big. T.H.E. Show causes the same problem - there just wasn't enough time to dedicate to the extreme fringe audiophile products.