Home Theater Review

 

CES 2011 Trade Show Coverage

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Jerry Del Colliano's Report

Trends

The Apple Macbook Pro was prominently being used as a featured source component in the world of audiophilia for the first time at a CES. Companies were mostly playing AIFF files ripped from Compact Discs but some had converted files from HD Tracks and B&W's Society of Sound for demo. This is the first time since the rise of Compact Disc that CDs weren't the predominant audiophile format at a CES. Vinyl was also being used more than CDs at CES this year, and not just by the old-school, purist types.

Autostereoscopic (no glasses) 3D was finally on display at CES and it would be fair to call this the story of the show from a mainstream consumer perspective. 3D without glasses has a lot of potential but it is very early in the development of the technology. Right now the viewing angle was truly "head in a vice," which left people wanting for more after the demo.

The audiophile products priced right had much more traffic than the embarrassingly large number of companies who were fishing for audiophile whales. The idea that a specialty dealer will pick up an amp or video projector that spends $20,000 or more at dealer cost is something that will get you literally laughed at by today's top dealers, unless a company can prove that they have people literally beating the door down to buy the product (think the Audio Research limited edition Anniversary two-chassis preamp). There were too many audiophile companies with one at-bat trying to hit the home run and about to make an out, when those hitting for singles and doubles (Zu Audio, Paradigm, NuForce, Elite Screens, Golden Ear Technologies and others) were getting on base with dealers and scoring.

Sonically, I was told by a trusted source who was attending the show, that there were hallway monitors sporting SPL meters and keeping demos below 85 dB in the Venetian. It wasn't clear if they were with the hotel or the show, but considering the background noise at the show, we measured at between 70 and 90 dB - that doesn't leave a lot of room for dynamic window or resolution of subtle detail like you would have at a studio, in a store or in a home. Most exhibitors did the best they could with the handicap. Most booths also let me crank it up to more rock and roll levels when I was feeling it in a given room and for that - I thank you. Sometimes, you just have to feel the music a little.

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Panasonic
Man, did Panasonic go big at CES this year. When the HomeTheaterReview.com team rolled into their booth, literally Darth Vader and 18 storm troopers were on a stage with some Panasonic Executives announcing Star Wars on Blu-ray. That's right - the whole franchise which launched the worst nerd freak-out I have ever witnessed followed by a cell phone meltdown because of the number of people trying to text, Tweet, or update their Facebook pages - at once. The Panasonic execs were smiling from ear to ear. Ironically, Darth Vader wasn't, unless he was under the mask.

Panasonic showed some slick Blu-ray players like the Panasonic DMP-BD-210 that had wave-your-hand control for opening and some pretty blue glowing lights. Panasonic figured out how to fix the 3D glasses to one place and allow people to see their demos, which in many cases was Avatar. Panny showed their 3D camcorders with a gigantic sand carving of an Avatar theme. It was insane. Their 85 inch plasma still impresses every time I see it. They had bigger there, but the crowds were really packed in.

Toshiba
Showing off 56 and 65 inch autostereoscopic HDTVs packing 3D, Toshiba took a leadership role at CES along with Sony in the world of cutting edge video. The new, glasses-free HDTVs are impressive but do not allow for much movement from side to side without noticeable glitching, stair-stepping and other video maladies. Video geeks could beat up on Toshiba for showing this technology this early, but I give them credit for showing the world what they are working on. That took some guts, which is exactly what a market leader like Toshiba should be doing.

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Sharp
Sharp showed a new, gigantic edge-lit 70 inch LED HDTV at the Consumer Electronics Show and even under the huge scale of the show this HDTV loomed large. While not as paper thin as Samsung's 65 inch 8000 series HDTVs, the Sharp set was about 2.5 inches thick, which is more comparable to a plasma screen than a super thin LED TV. The set packed Sharp's Quatron four-color system, which was looking good despite the ambient light towards the outside of the booth.

NuForce
NuForce had so many goodies in their listening room that it wasn't even funny. For starters - they had a full compliment of new-school Oppo-based Blu-ray players that do both audiophile analog out, HDMI 1.4a video and 3D. They ranged in price from $899 for the BDP-93 NuForce Edition to $2,500 for the Oppo BDP-95 SE NuForce Edition and were tweaked to the hilt. NuForce had their unique boards on hand to show that they didn't just repackage an Oppo and increase the price, as the forums like to get uppity about. Speaking of hands - NuForce amazingly had USB DACs and preamps that could fit on a key chain and/or in the palm of your hand. Lastly, the Mark and Daniel speakers in the room got comments from the entire team for their show sound even in a room with lots of ambient noise.

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Sherbourn
Recently acquired by the parent company for Emotiva, Sherbourn was quick to market with a kick ass $3,000 AV preamp. This preamp hits a price point that's been abandoned by the likes of B&K and Sunfire in years past and packs all of today's bad ass HDMI 1.4 goodies, lossless surround processing, lots of inputs and more. Additionally, the preamp has a Control4 module (optional) that makes it network controllable with professional results that could be done in ways that would be hard for a consumer to do with Crestron. Sherbourn will be sold through traditional AV installers and dealers, unlike Emotiva which is sold Internet-direct to consumers. Sherbourn also had a smoking 7x350 Watt power amp that was lustworthy.

Wisdom Audio
Wisdom Audio, who always does one of the best audio demos at any show, installed their $40,000 per channel on-wall speaker. These speakers just came out and are receiving rave reviews from dealers who are swapping out bigger, audiophile floorstanding speakers for these more space-saving solutions. How did they sound? Better than nearly everything I heard at the show. And kudos to Wisdom for letting me play "Machine Gun" from Jimi Hendrix Live at the Filmore East (1970). I say - any speaker that can't play Jimi sucks. These Wisdom's did a fantastic job with an older, live recording presenting a warm, focused yet dynamic sound. You felt there and you don't hear many people talk like that at trade shows.

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Jeff Rowland and Mach II Music
Jeff Rowland was at CES in the audiophile portion of CES at The Venetian showing his new Aeris $9,800, USB 2.0 DAC. Rowland gear is at the top of the list for audio jewelry products and this DAC sounded as good as it looked. For those rocking products like the Mach II Music modified Mac Mini - this is the perfect compliment in a very high-end system.

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Focal & Pathos
Another great sound came from the SET tube integrated amp from Pathos, shown off site in the Mirage as well as at the Venetian. We don't normally go off site but since we were staying at the Mirage - we couldn't miss hearing this hot demo there. The Focal Scala speakers at $29,500 sounded absolutely fantastic in the quieter environment as compared to many speakers heard at The Venetian in the same price bracket. Driven with very little power, the Scalas were Wilson Sasha-WP competitors for sure, similar in form factor to the Wilsons, with perhaps a bit more of a warmer sound. Focal makes the tweeter used by Wilson Audio, thus other sonic similarities. The little Pathos integrated amp is a real gem too. Check the slide show to see the fit and finish of this little sucker - it's just fantastic.

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D'Agostino Audio
Dan D'Agostino never goes small and this CES he showed up at The Venetian to play his first signature mono power amps since his 29 year run at Krell ended. Few had heard the amps in the U.S. before the show and few left the room without needing a Kleenex from tears, drool or otherwise. The amps in person are far better looking than in photos. They are an odd width at 12 inches wide and with their copper sides, are clearly designed to be shown as art in one's listening room. Dan was rocking a strong rig of gear including Wilson Audio's impressive Sasha WP speakers, DCS CD player and Transparent Audio's top-of-the-line Opus cables. He also was spinning much of his music from a Macbook Pro which was a trend seen at some of the best rooms at CES. The buzz with our top dealer friends was - IF they were to pick up a new expensive audio line above what they have now (remember, it's still a recession) that D'Agostino and Wisdom Audio were at the top of their lists. With lots to listen to at the show, Dan once again captured some serious buzz even with a pair of amps costing a whopping $42,000 at retail.

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Magico
One of the absolute best sounds of the show was being made across the hall from D'Agostino at Magico. Their all-aluminum, $34,000 Q3 speakers had a black, stealth look to them and were being fed analog master tape, high end digital sources and music from a Macbook. This was one of the liveliest sounds of the show. Having not heard the Magicos much before, I though this was possibly the best sound of the show in the cost-no-object department.

Harman (Mark Levinson, Revel)
Harman had a very good sounding room using Revel Ultima Salon2s with a pair of Mark Levinson No 53 hybrid digital power amps. This system or derivations thereof have graced mine and Andrew Robison's listening rooms, thus it had a familiar sound. In their demo room, the imaging was specifically good and they had a quiet hallway, thus the noise floor was better than other more noisy areas of the show. The level of detail and control was at a level of excellence that you would expect from Mark Levinson and Revel. They are always in the conversation for best sound at any price point.

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Lamm Audio with Wilson Audio
Lamm Audio is one of Ken Taraszka's favorite brands of electronics in the cost-no-object world and with its wolf-dressed-in-sheep's-clothing looks - and now I know what he is talking about. The Lamm gear powering Wilson Audio's Alexandria 2 had a dozen or so people listening at low levels to minute details with such intensity that it was almost creepy. I wanted to hear Tool at 100 dB (doesn't he always) or Audioslave from Andrew Robinson's demo disc but it would have disrupted the mellow vibe that Lamm had flowing freely in the room. This was one of the most expensive audiophile rooms at the show and you could easily hear why. Lamm also showed their MC 2.2 tube preamp on static display, which will sell soon for a whopping $37,500. People were crowding around it to get a look under the hood like it was an exotic concept car at the Frankfurt Auto Show. It's nice to have fans. Wilson Audio also deserves some Kudos for bringing their big boy speakers to the show, as the Alexandria's are always in the running for someone looking for the best in audiophile speakers across the board. They are easy on the power, they look stunning and they sound even better. Now if I can just get them to play some Rob Zombie at 110 dB - we'd be talking.

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Sony - EMM Labs
One industry friend of the publication is famous for saying "If Sony wanted to make speakers for the audiophile market they could make as good a speaker as anybody else." At CES 2011, Sony showed up in a few booths including the EMM Labs room with a $27,000 floorstanding speaker dressed in black and sounding politely good. The EMM Labs digital front end is arguably the best money can buy and their 4.0 system was a departure from the stereo or 2.1 channel demos that you heard and saw in most rooms. My take away from the Sony speakers was that they sounded tight, resolved, but a little overly polite. To my ears, they weren't as musical and engaging as, say, the Magico's for a few thousands dollars more. None of the team seemed to agree on what exactly was the best sound of the show, mainly because of vast differences in taste for top of the line speakers.

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Audio Research & Magenpan
Audio Research was sporting their uber-preamp, the 40th Anniversary that Dr. Taraszka put an order for in at the show before the limited production runs out. This was one truly relevant high-end audio component priced up in the stratosphere. The sound in the room was very, very good including the updated Magenpan 3.7 speakers. Dr. Taraszka, Andrew and Pierce went Lady Gaga over the new Maggies but I think they still look like they don't belong in anyone's living room. Seriously guys, hire the industrial designer from MartinLogan and work with him. Their speakers are way more room friendly and also sound very good.

King Audio
This poorly distributed brand of audiophile speakers is without question a staff favorite and a must see at every CES. At this show, King Audio showed their new King 2 speakers. At $12,000 a pair they aren't cheap and there are barely any places to hear them around the country but to hear Taraszka, O'Toole and Robinson rave while walking out of the room - maybe some dealers should take notice. There was also rumor of a three-panel system speaker system from King Audio called the King 3, reminiscent of the old Magnepan Tympani D, being on full display at T.H.E. Show. Talk about a throwback speaker system - but people love it.

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Acapella Audio
We heard the worst cover song of all time at CES in the Accapella Audio booth while listening to vinyl. It was Tiny Tim doing "New York, New York" and it was just plain awful. The audio was fine including the Einstein tube amps on these horn speakers, but I simply couldn't communicate with the German guys in the room to turn off the musical nightmare that they had started with Tiny Tim. I made a "cut it off" gesture with my hands and pleaded in English but they were jamming to Tiny Tim and that's a party that's best left alone. So we did.

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Paradigm
Paradigm showed much of their line but the main part of their show was their new DJ-Gen-Y line called "Shift." Designed to appeal to the iPod generation - these speakers were very cool and very smartly engineered. That's not to mention smartly positioned in the market. The transition from crappy ear buds to traditional Paradigm speakers might have been a leap before the Shift line. Another smart move on Paradigm's part. For $499 per pair you can get an "Active Atom" set of speakers and this is positioned to get the very large, Generation Y audience into higher end audio as they transition from college and living at home into bigger careers and homes of their own. The DJ sound we heard at the booth was dynamic but not overly bombastic, thankfully. Paradigm had a pretty stylish groove going when I stopped by which will appeal to this target audience.

ADA - RBH - avielo by projectiondesign - Screen Innovations
ADA was showing with one of my favorite brands of speakers, RBH, in a crowded, hot room with their Trinov room correction device called the ADA TEQ. It comes in a 4, 8 and 12 channel unit for $10,000, $13,000 and $16,000 respectively. If you think Audyssey is good you need to hear this system before you pass judgment with your wallet. It was quite impressive. With a professional acoustician it could get even better. The RBH speakers were punchy yet controlled. They can rock and roll for the most demanding movies as well as transition to handle the most delicate of audiophile sources.

D2 & Daniel Hertz
I heard from my Cello mentor, Mr. Mark Levinson during CES about a new, affordable digital amp chip that he found and really liked, so he was at CES to support the company promoting the new technology. While it's an OEM play (meaning they sell the chips to audio companies that make amps thus they don't make their own amps) Mark was there doing his masterful demos on his Daniel Hertz speakers. It's one thing to be an audiophile legend like Mark, but his new speakers are deferential to his Grandfather (think Hertz like MHz not the rental car) in his brand positioning. Steven Stone, the editor of AudiophileReview.com had time to hear one of Mark's legendary, in-depth demos and called the sound some of the best that he heard at the show.

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Motorola
In walking through the computer and chip section of the Central Hall, it was impossible to miss the see-through LED screen that Motorola was packing. It must have been 30 feet diagonal and could make a convincing image for non-home theater applications. When turned off - you could see right through it. Nobody is ever going to use this for home theater applications but it was pretty amazing nonetheless.

Elite Screens
Elite Screens, the leader in affordable video screens, showed a number of cool new applications for video screens. The one that caught my attention the most was the use of a screen that could also be a white board. While this isn't a true home theater application it was pretty innovative nonetheless.

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Vutec
While packing a kick ass Digital Projection 3D projector, the Vutec booth was a true disappointment when we stopped by on Day One. Amazingly, nobody was there to hand out glasses for an active 3D demo. Let me tell you - Digital Projection would have never allowed that to happen in their booth - not for one demo. DP, at CEDIA 2010, might have had the best booth at that show with stunning video at every turn and in every nook and cranny. Beyond the 3D gaffe, the Vutec booth was physically beat. For example, it's one thing to show tacky automated coverings for screens (think: paintings of cars, golf, dogs in a faux Leroy Nieman style) but to see the frames all smashed up and damaged showed what little attention goes into the product and its presentation. This is the second time in a row that I have been to their booth in two trade shows. After the last time, I wasn't going back but I was challenged to stop by again to learn more about their line in a letter sent by the company. They wanted me to learn more. I sure did. I learned that I wouldn't buy a Vutec screen at those prices when there are players like Stewart, dnp, SI and Elite Screens in the marketplace today.

Best Sound of 2011 CES
Magico Q3 Speakers

Runner Up Best Sound of 2011 CES
D'Agostino Audio amps

Best Video at 2011 CES
Panasonic 85 inch Plasma

Ken Taraszka's Report

Trends
What can you say? CES was, for the first time in three years, busier. This is great for exhibitors, bad for attendees. Cab lines were longer, restaurants and tables busier, add to that the tourists not at CES and Vegas becomes a bit overwhelming at times.

Everyone was showing new displays in the convention center. 3D was even more popular than last year with most sets from every manufacturer sporting 3D functionality. Of note: Toshiba and (I hear) Sony were showing auto-stereoscopic 3D, meaning 3D without the dorky glasses. The problem is you have to be positioned just right or the effect is totally lost. The effects were not as dramatic as many of the sets with glasses, but it was good to see the new technology already in pre-production models on the show floor. Speaking of glasses, active shutter technology seems to be doomed. Many manufacturers, LG most notably, were frankly apologizing for active shutter technology. I guess we will see fewer health warnings with the passive glasses, and we won't have to worry about charging and powering them on anymore. 3D still seems like a fad but the display makers are really trying to make it last.

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Lamm Audio - Verity Audio
The best sound of the show was undoubtedly the Lamm/Verity Audio room, the sound was effortless and sublime with deep and controlled bass and smooth midrange and detailed highs. Though for over $616,000 of audio equipment for a two-channel rig, I would certainly hope so for that amount of coin. The nearly $230,000 of Stealth cables made me wonder why do the call themselves Stealth when I had to step up to walk over some of them?

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YG Acoustics
I was surprised to hear the YG Acoustics Anat Reference actually sounded impressive on the short demo I sat through. Too bad their president seemed more concerned with squabbling with my editor for wanting to take a picture of his super high-end speakers before sitting down and hearing them for himself.


Audio Power Labs
Many new faces were at CES this year. Some - like Audio Power Labs - seemed to not have learned from the deaths of those before them. Making and showcasing serial numbers 1, 2 and 3 of their debut 200-Watt, all tube, Class A mono-blocks that retail for $100,000 each seemed silly. I wish them well, but the sound of their room was flat and lifeless. For what costs more than a used 575 Marinello, I want the room to sing.

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NuForce
On the flip side, the likes of NuForce made a huge impression on me with their diversified line of real world applicable devices for super low prices. The new NuForce Oppo BDP-93 was being shown and an even further upgrade, the Extreme edition, being discussed. They showed an entire range of amps and preamps, with a DAC/stereo pre-amp/USB to SPDIF box that wasn't much bigger than a keychain fob and is spec'd to cost ~$150. It draws power from the USB port and comes in a host of colors. This could mate with a small amp or active speakers and produce a sick little computer based audio system in almost no desk space. These guys really seem to have their finger on the pulse of most buyers today. Offer a solid product for a reasonable amount of money with great customer service and people will keep coming back, and spreading the word of their joy.

King Audio/Magnepan
King Audio, an Asian manufacturer of true, full-range electrostatic speakers, were back with much improved aesthetics and excellent sound in all the rooms that they played in. Speaking of panel speakers, Magnepan had a new version of their lauded 3.6; the new 3.7 and they sounded really good and went deep as well. Audio Research was using them and they made for a wonderful match and one of the finer sounding rooms of the Venetian.

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Benchmark Media Systems
T.H.E Show was about as depressing as could be, from the rundown nature of the Flamingo to the crazy prices many exhibitors were asking for their products, often with mediocre sound. The highlight of the show was the Benchmark room with Studio EIectric monitors. Benchmark was a popular product in the Venetian as well being used in at least six rooms I counted. I have had this piece in my rig on more than one occasion and it is an amazing bang for the buck DAC, and obviously I am not the only one who feels this way as our own Jerry Del Colliano has one in his system currently and loves it.

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Krell
Krell was at T.H.E. Show this year and had some new multichannel Evolution amps, the 3225e and 2225e sporting three and two channels at 225 WPC. At a cost of $10,000 and $8,000 each respectively, they allow entrance into Krell's top of line of amps at a more reasonable, albeit less powerful point.

Apple Computer - Meridian-Sooloos
The most obvious change in the high-end show at the Venetian was the infiltration of Mac products. Sure, turntables were there, but more people were using Mac mini's, thanks to AirPlay, iPads and iPhones. Meridian had several different systems running in their suite for an after show party with iPads connected to a Sooloos system networked throughout the room so you could choose your own tunes. The interface was excellent and worked flawlessly.

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Classe' & B&W
The infiltration of AirPlay was seen in a host of components, most notably Classe's new stereo preamp/processor. This piece is estimated to cost $5,000 and includes flexibility you've never seen in a two channel preamp before, including five outputs that can be assigned to bi-amp the fronts and use a subwoofer, complete with bass management; or you can use multiple subwoofers. Both a front and back panel USB port are there, not only for running audio from your computer to the piece, but also for taking a digital feed off your iPad, iPhone or iPod, all while charging the device. We first saw this piece at CEDIA in September but Classe' had a working model in their private suite with a Classe' CA 2300 amp and B&W 804 speakers - the sound was exceptional. I heard many far more expensive systems than this one sound far worse at the show. For those who still want the best of two channel but also the convenience of the modern world and tons of flexibility, this is a piece to watch for, and it's supposed to ship soon.

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Micromega
Micromega had another piece that really caught my eye, the AS-400 integrated amplifier with Apple AirPlay technology. Priced at $4,600, it offers analog and digital inputs as well as Apple certified AirPlay compatibility, four analog inputs, a phono input, subwoofer output with bass management and a home theater bypass. Power comes from 400 Watt per channel digital amplifiers. The AS-400 was being demo'ed with a pair of Focal Scala's and sounded really good and the Apple interface made operating the system a breeze.

Be sure to read Home Theater Review's past CES coverage:

Andrew Robinson's CES 2010 Report
Adrienne Maxwell's CES 2010 Report
Brian Kahn's CES 2010 Report
Jerry Del Colliano's CES 2010 Report
Ken Taraszka's CES 2010 Report

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