Welcome to HomeTheaterReview.com's 2011 Consumer Electronics Show coverage from Andrew Robinson, Dr. Ken Taraszka, Pierce O'Toole, Adrienne Maxwell, and Jerry Del Colliano. This year's coverage ranges from the best in 3D video (no glasses, passive glasses etc...) to home theater electronics to everything from the world of audiophilia and much more. Our staff hit up booths at the Las Vegas Convention Center's South, Central and North Halls, the Hilton Towers, off-site at the Mirage, The Venetian Hotel for the audiophile displays, the Sands Convention Hall as well as T.H.E. Show for the fringe audiophile products.
This year's coverage will be listed by reviewer, covering what they saw, including what they liked and didn't like as well as overall show trends. Additionally, we took nearly 100 photos from the show to give you a feel for what the show was like. We have assembled these photos in a gallery that you can view below. We think you will like it. Regarding the overall show coverage - please note that CES is the largest trade show in the world with over 120,000 people in attendance. Its simply impossible to cover every booth and display at the show - even those of our paying advertisers. For what we missed - we sincerely apologize as its not personal, its purely logistical. Additionally, the order of what brands are covered are in no particular order and are often written based on the time line that one booth was seen versus another.
We hope you find our CES 2011 trade show coverage to be the best, most comprehensive, best photographed page in any publication, print or online.
Andrew Robinson's Report
This year's CES show in Las Vegas proved to be both invigorating and frustrating at the same time. CES 2011 saw the addition of many new faces in the AV space, though many of them brought old ideas instead of offering up refreshing new perspectives. Turns out 3D isn't dead, it's just evolving, with many manufacturers trying to act as if they had no part in the earlier, active 3D rollout - unless of course their names were Samsung and Panasonic. However the most prevalent, and in some ways the most impressive technology at the show wasn't one confined to a single booth or display, but instead seemed to be everywhere all at once ... Apple's iPad. If CES 2011 showcased anything it was that convergence might actually be upon us. That is, unless you backed Google TV, in which case you might be s.o.l.
Samsung was a presence, to say the least, at this year's CES. Possessing arguably the largest booth among its peers, it was far more subdued in comparison to last year's booth. Within the walls of their tech-metropolis Samsung showcased everything from point and shoot cameras to larger-than-life LED TVs.
Throughout the booth there were several kiosk-like displays showcasing some of Samsung's latest display technology; one of which was their newly developed Micro Dimming Plus technology, which is said to provide deeper blacks and purer whites (at least that's what the display card claimed). In reality it's a little bit like having a dynamic contrast mode on a local dimming LED panel, whereby you can boost contrast in a specific region or area of the screen when needed without having to apply it to the entire image uniformly. The results were quite impressive.
Another notable product debut from Samsung was their gorgeous 75-inch Full HD 3D LED TV. Brandishing Samsung's thin-is-in design esthetic complete with a T-1000 like back panel, the 75-inch display produced arguably the best picture of the entire show, at least in 2D.
While there was a lot of hoopla surrounding the emergence of passive 3D technology at this year's CES, there was even more fanfare given to those who were attempting to do 3D sans glasses all together. Glasses Free 3D was all over the Toshiba booth and if the lines were any indication, you would've thought they'd cracked it.
They didn't, but I cannot fault them for trying.
Glasses Free 3D or auto-stereoscopic displays are absolutely the future if 3D is to have a future at all, though auto-stereoscopic displays are not entirely new and the same issues that have plagued them in the past continue to plague them now and that is: the second your eyes and/or head strays from center, the illusion falls apart. In the case of the various Toshiba Glasses Free 3D displays, this meant you were looking at a lot of blurry images that were rife with what fellow HTR staffers have coined as "prison cell" effect. Similar to the dreaded screen door effect that plagued early LCD displays and projectors, "prison cell" effect seems to plague early auto-stereoscopic displays in that there are very pronounced and jarring vertical lines present when viewing an auto-stereoscopic image even an inch off axis.
Toshiba wasn't the only company to try their hand at auto-stereoscopic displays; Sony too had a handful of large LCDs that were glasses free on hand - though they too failed.
Or did they?
Sony was also showing a pair of glasses free 3D HDTVs to compete with Toshiba, though like Toshiba, their larger auto-stereoscopic LCD displays exhibited the same poor off-axis performance and "prison cell" effect. However, outside the small booths concealing the "top secret" prototypes were two small OLED displays showcasing the same glasses free technology with vastly superior results. Granted your head still had to be largely stationary, maybe an inch or two more wiggle room left or right, but off axis the image didn't fall to bits, instead it appeared to be simply 2D. Among the auto-stereoscopic or "glasses free" crowd, the Sony OLED had 'em all beat, though no word on when, if ever, consumers can expect to see any meaningful OLED release, let alone an auto-stereoscopic one.
The Sony booth was dominated by 3D, showcasing what had to be the largest passive 3D display of the entire show, a curved series of projection screens that hung above the booth's main stage. Throughout the booth there were bowls of RealD 3D glasses (like those you get at your local theater) so that you could partake in all the passive 3D announcements and general goodness. Beyond the large, curved 3D display there were dozens of stations whereby one could partake in 3D gaming, broadcasting, filming and photography. In fact there were few, if any, 2D displays anywhere in the Sony booth with the exception of their small cluster of Google TV-enabled devices.
Sony appeared to be the only manufacturer attempting to push Google TV with any real effort or in any meaningful capacity, though that area of the Sony booth was the easiest to see for it was largely vacant. Google TV may not be all the way dead but it's clearly on life support.
LG took a slightly different approach to the whole 3D discussion that was interesting ... they apologized? There were several LG displays within their booth that outlined what was wrong about active 3D, or more importantly active shutter glasses, all of which appeared to be largely health related - a topic Home Theater Review covered several weeks ago in a featured news story. In lieu of active shutter glasses, LG was showcasing several passive 3D displays, most notably a series of larger 3D OLED displays that looked absolutely stunning and earned several HTR staffers' (present company included) votes as the best 3D of CES.
Panasonic, like Samsung and Sony, had a booth and a presence at CES that simply begged belief. Panasonic's booth was multi-storey and featured a live sand sculpting installation featuring the characters of Avatar (surprise, surprise) that began on Day One of CES and finished at the show's close. The entire installation was being filmed in 3D using some of Panasonic's latest handheld 3D camcorders and broadcast to any number of Panasonic 3D displays throughout the booth.
As impressive as the live sand sculpting was - everything in Panasonic's booth seemed to be overshadowed by the announcement that Star Wars was coming to Blu-ray in the fall. Why a new (or another) Star Wars release is news is beyond me; suffice to say the announcement drew quite a crowd and was met with feverish enthusiasm.
JVC, Sharp, and Vizio
JVC was showing largely the same crop of projectors and displays they had on hand at CEDIA, though there was one display that caught my attention and that was JVC's new 4K2K video camera connected to a new 4K monitor. Upon closer inspection however, the promise of handheld, affordable, 4K video proved to be a lie, for JVC's own literature about the new camera stated, "The name 4K2K comes from its resolution that nears 4K x 2K." In actuality JVC made a faux-K camcorder capable of filming at resolutions up to 3,840 by 2,160 pixels, which is not 4K. The image quality being displayed was excellent and the camera's form factor looked great and could've easily been sold on its own merits as a solid 2K or better camera to much fanfare, but instead (and once again) the promise of a 4K future was brandished but proved to be false, which is becoming a CES tradition.
Sharp was pushing their Quattron technology and at the top of the heap was their new 70-inch Aquos with Quattron technology HDTV that looked pretty impressive.
Lastly, Vizio had a small kiosk-like display on one of the main hall's upper floors just outside the pressroom. I was happy to see a small sampling of their new product line, for Vizio historically only showcases new products at the Wynn via appointment - two factors that would've kept me from seeing them at all had it not been for their display in the main hall.
Vizio was showing their new 21:9 passive 3D LED TV that was nice but hopefully not in its final form for the build quality was horrid. They were also showcasing a pair of traditional (16:9) passive 3D LED TVs that looked far more "finished" and produced a solid, respectable image, be it in 2D or 3D.
What I found annoying about the Vizio display was that at every turn, instead of just letting me take in the image and formulate my own opinion, I was bombarded by Vizio's own hype and award statements, never mind the dozen or so paid henchmen reminding me at every blink how fantastic and wonderful Vizio was, is and always will be. I left Vizio wondering at what time they served the Kool-Aid, because clearly everyone else was drinking the stuff but me.
When many picture CES, I'm sure they imagine a vast show floor littered with bigger-than-thou booths all clad in lights with huge displays and sexy booth girls all showcasing products 20 years in the future. Well, throw in what feels like a half a billion people and make the room smell like locker funk and that's pretty much what the main halls of CES are like.
However, a few miles away from the main exhibition halls, the Venetian Hotel and Resort is where CES' audiophile heart resides. However, not to be outdone by their exhibition hall counterparts, the Venetian hotel smells much worse, seems to have a HVAC that's on the fritz and is filled with even more people...and porn stars. Looking past all of that there are four and some floors of fun to be had at the Venetian.
Residing in one of the lower ballrooms just outside the Sands convention center (adjacent to the Venetian hotel), YG Acoustics was showcasing their latest creation, the-uh-um. Truth be told, I wasn't able to learn about YG Acoustics' products because I was too busy being cussed out by one of their representatives for coming in and taking a picture of the room first instead of sitting down and drooling all over myself over how totally and utterly incredible the YG Acoustics speakers were. I don't get it. YG Acoustics' speakers are not attractive and cost far too much money to be considered remotely relevant.
I would've sat down and listened to their nearly $200,000 per pair speaker but instead I walked to the ballroom next door...
NuForce was showcasing their entire product line, though it was mostly a static display, ranging from their diminutive ICON line to their Reference 18 mono amplifiers and even an Oppo BDP-93 NuForce prototype. However, it was the ICON lineup, especially the uDAC-2 series that caught my eye, for it represented a monumental value in that it's a true audiophile pre-amp for the digital age. Featuring USB and coaxial digital inputs as well as a pair of analog audio outs, the ICON and uDAC-2 are quite possibly the simplest preamp for a digital music lover on a budget or on the go. Prices start at $129 and top out at $449.
If you don't spend a lot of time in professional recording studios, then you probably will never run into a pair of Ocean Way HR3 monitor loudspeakers, which is a shame for they sounded pretty good, albeit a bit large and imposing but still very dynamic and musical. The large three-way horn-based monitors retail for $50,000 a pair and are sold through Guitar Center's pro division, which is probably why David Grohl is keen on Ocean Way speakers but the audiophile community isn't (yet?).
Totem unveiled their newest Element loudspeaker line, which at launch will include two tower speakers and a monitor. The Element loudspeakers are crossover-less for increased coherence and imaging. Prices start at $5,995 for the Fire monitor, $8,995 for the Earth floorstanding loudspeaker and $12,995 for the larger, Metal floorstanding loudspeaker. The Metal loudspeaker sounded pretty good in Totem's suite playing back some up-beat source material as opposed to the usual drab show music you hear in other "audiophile" suites. The Element speakers go on sale in February.
On one of the upper floors of the Venetian towers was Wisdom Audio doing a two-channel demo of their new LS4 on-wall loudspeakers which retail for $40,000 each. The LS4's mated to two Wisdom Audio STS subwoofers sounded terrific though the bass output from the STS subs was at times a bit overbearing, thanks in part to some of shortcomings of the suite itself, nevertheless it was one of the better demos of the show. The LS4s are unlike any on-wall you've ever seen or are likely to see, combining the openness of planar magnetic speakers (think Magnepan or MartinLogan) with the dynamics and ease of a high efficiency loudspeaker. In truth there was nothing at the show quite like the LS4s and while 80 grand a pair is hardly cheap they sounded better than the Wilson X2s being demoed down the hall.
Audio Research & Magnepan
Speaking of planar speakers, Audio Research was showcasing their newest crop of electronics on what I thought was a pair of Magnepan 3.6s, only they didn't sound like 3.6s for they had bass and lots of it, not to mention improved dynamics, speed, transparency and focus. Turns out Audio Research was helping debut Magnepan's new 3.7 at this year's CES. Magnepan is a bit old fashioned when it comes to their products, or should I say product cycles, subscribing to the adage If it ain't broke. Well 12 years later and it seems Magnepan has figured out how to finally build a better mousetrap and has done so with the 3.7s. The best part, Magnepan has kept the price of the 3.7s affordable at around $5,000 a pair.
Devialet & Focal
Devialet is a new company out of France who make a rather ingenious and rather nice sounding integrated amplifier. The D-Premier is a two channel integrated amp that features a host of digital and analog inputs, all of which are assignable (even for phono), in a chassis that is elegant and sexy with a remote that just begs to be touched. D-Premier was powering a pair of Focal floorstanding speakers beautifully, though it's hard to say how audiophiles will react to a largely all-in-one, lifestyle oriented solution.
Speaking of Focal, Audio Plus Services (Focal and Devialet's distributor) had another room featuring Focal's new LCR loudspeakers being powered by Pathos' new Inpol Remix, a mini-Watt tubed integrated amplifier that is just awesome. Look for a full review of both the Focal LCRs and the Inpol Remix soon.
If this year's CES showed me anything it was that I have a closet affinity for horn speakers. Avantgarde was showing their new Duo Grosso loudspeaker and my God did they sound good and look fantastic to boot. The sound quality was sublime with very surprising bass output, thanks in part to the Duo's dual internal subwoofers. While the Duo's look at me orange wasn't really to my tastes, the sound quality was terrific. It's hard to put into words what it sounds like when a speaker and amplifier are working together in perfect harmony instead of one or the other trying to get the other to submit; suffice to say once you hear it, it's hard to listen to anything else. Avantgarde currently doesn't have any US dealers (they may have picked up a few post-CES) but they will sell you any of their loudspeakers direct if you have the means.
Dan D'Agostino, formerly of Krell, was demonstrating his new mono blocks, which retail for $42,000 a pair. They were connected to Wilson Audio Sasha W/Ps with a dCS transport and dac serving as the source/preamp. One thing is for certain: Dan still knows how to build a killer amp. While I wasn't a huge fan of their looks prior to seeing them at CES, I must admit I find their unique look to be rather becoming. Look for a full review in Home Theater Review in the near future.
Silbatone, makers of high-end esoteric tube amps and electronics, weren't really showcasing anything new or particular - instead they were at CES to "have some fun." Apparently Silbatone's idea of fun is to tote some vintage Western Electric theater speakers from Korea to the Venetian for a play date. As great as the sound was in the main room of Silbatone's suite, it was the smaller, Western Electric monitors in the bedroom that really got my attention. Forgive me for not jotting down more detail about the specific products offered in the smaller Silbatone room but I was so taken back by the sound that appeared to be coming from what looked like two suitcases with drivers protruding out of them that I simply didn't write anything down. Instead, I walked out some minutes later with Home Theater Review's Content Coordinator, Pierce O'Toole, and exclaimed, "Best sound of CES."
Classé & Bowers & Wilkins
While technically not at the Venetian, Classé' and Bowers & Wilkins were still a part of CES - just across the street at the Mirage hotel. The Mirage was a far more suitable venue, for it was quieter and more conducive for extended listening sessions. Classé' was showing off a working model of their new CP-800 preamp, which I first saw at CEDIA in late 2010. The $5,000 preamp features a myriad of assignable inputs not to mention a whole host of digital inputs, including USB that feed directly into the CP-800's internal DACs. The sound quality of the CP-800 fed through an iPad and connected to Classé's own CA-2300 amplifier and a pair of Bowers & Wilkins floor standing speakers was impressive; especially once you consider the entire system retailed for less than what a some "audiophile" power cords would run you across the street at the Venetian. Look for a full review of the CP-800 in Home Theater Review soon.
"...where audio goes to die."
While I don't fully share my colleague's sentiment about T.H.E. Show, it wasn't the upbeat, happening "spot" many at CES were alleging it to be. For starters I'm not certain I'd call The Flamingo an upgrade and second, what's with the coco butter smell? Lastly, it's hard to get excited when you have to venture into the bowels of the hotel in order to see T.H.E. Show. Seriously, half of the sucker was in the basement.
But it wasn't a total loss.
After nearly a month of seeing the ads on Audiogon it was time for me to experience Zu Audio's newest $40,000 a pair creation, the Dominance. While a bit large for the room they were in, the Dominances were - ahem - dominant. They sounded good, though Zu was playing things pretty safe and by safe I mean quiet, but from what I could gleam they definitely warranted a review request.
What surprised me however was Zu's enthusiasm for wanting me to discuss their cheaper stuff, as if the unveiling of the Dominance was old hat and their $1,500 a pair loudspeakers were really the main event. I was more than happy to oblige and you can expect a few Zu Audio speaker reviews in the near future.
King Audio had rooms at both the Venetian and The Flamingo, though it was at the Flamingo that they were showing their Emperor II full-range electrostatic speaker array. Looking every bit like shoji screens or Tympani Ds, depending on whom you talk to, the King Audio's Emperor II sounded exceptional.
Though I must admit, for my money, the best panel speakers of CES were the new Magnepan 3.7s - sorry King Audio, you've been dethroned.
Krell was exhibiting at T.H.E. Show this year instead of CES, which seemed a bit odd given their flare for the dramatic and high-impact presentations - two things clearly absent from their suite at the Flamingo. Most of the Krell product lineup was in attendance, including two, all new Evolution-inspired amplifiers. The two channel 2225e is priced at $8,000 and the three channel 3225e bows at $10,000, which puts them in direct competition with Mark Levinson's new No 500H series. In the high-end space the 2225e and 3225e proved to be one of the more relevant (not to mention affordable) amplifier debuts of the show.
Best HDTV of CES
Samsung 75-inch 3D LED TV
Best 3D HDTV of CES
LG SuperSlim 3D OLED TV
Best Sound of CES
Silbatone Acoustics featuring Western Electric loudspeakers at the Venetian
Classé / Bowers & Wilkins suite at the Mirage
Best Product Debut of CES
Wisdom Audio LS4 On-Wall Loudspeaker
Runner Up (tie)
Magnepan 3.7 Loudspeaker
Dan D'Agostino Monaural Amplifiers
Adrienne Maxwell's Report
If the level of claustrophobia and human congestion are reliable indicators, then this year's CES was back to its pre-recession size and grandeur. (Post-show reports suggest that about 140,000 people attended the show, which is up from the past two years and close to 2008 numbers.) It was certainly a more upbeat show than CEDIA back in September, at least amidst the convention-center chaos where the majority of video-related products and services were displayed. In the video realm, four major trends emerged from this year's show: bigger 3D TV screens, different 3D TV technologies, more apps for connected devices, and better user interfaces to help navigate it all. Oh, and tablets. There were a few of those on display, as well. Just a few.
Toshiba showed off 3D TVs in each of the three major categories: active, passive, and glasses-free. All of the active and passive 3D LCDs use edge-lit LED lighting and offer integrated WiFi to access the NET TV platform. The UL610 Series is Toshiba's flagship line of active 3D TVs, which require the battery-powered glasses we've come to know (and love? hate?) over this past year. Happily, Toshiba has added fine local dimming to the edge-lit LED system this year. The series includes screen sizes from 46 to 65 inches and will be available in April. The TL515 Series offers Natural 3D (Toshiba's name for passive 3D) and will include screen sizes from 32 to 65 inches. These TVs require passive polarized 3D glasses, which are generally lighter and cheaper; the drawback is that the 3D image only has half the vertical resolution (540 lines). Toshiba also demoed its glasses-free lenticular 3D approach, in screen sizes up to 65 inches. On a 56-inch screen, the 3D effect was solid but not dazzling. Plus, you have to stay in the ideal viewing area for the 3D effect to work, which is only a few feet wide (literally, Toshiba had three sets of feet on the floor to show the recommended viewing area). Toshiba says that we will see larger-screen glasses-free TVs in the U.S. market this year, but we're still skeptical. The technology needs to get better before it's ready for primetime.
LG also showed off a complete line of passive 3D TVs, dubbed Cinema 3D, in screen sizes from 47 to 65 inches. In the booth demos, the loss of resolution with 3D content was not subtle; line structure was clearly apparent in the movie demos. We're not saying there isn't a market for these TVs: A lot of people are probably willing to accept some loss in resolution (with 3D content only, of course) to get lighter, more comfortable glasses that are significantly less expensive. You just need to know what the tradeoff is before you buy. The best passive 3D TV experience will require higher-resolution display devices, and LD did have its 84-inch ultra-definition 3D prototype on display, too. As usual, LG showed off an extensive array of new LED/LCD and plasma TVs, but its booth also devoted plenty of real estate to highlight the experience of using an LG TV--from the Magic Motion motion-sensitive remote (packaged with more TVs this year) to the new Smart TV interface that unites premium content (Netflix and such) with a new apps store and a Web browser. Smart Share allows you to transfer content from your PC directly onto your TV, and Media Link will display metadata for a more user-friendly experience.
Panasonic will introduce three new 3D plasma series in 2011: the entry-level ST30, mid-level GT30, and flagship VT30 lines. Screen sizes will range from 42 to 65 inches. The company will also add a 3D LED/LCD line, targeted toward gamers, with screen sizes of 32 and 37 inches. The GT30 and VT30 Series are THX-certified, and the VT30 models use the top-of-the-line Infinite Black Pro 2 panel and include RS-232 and one pair of active 3D glasses. All three plasma series include WiFi-readiness, DLNA media streaming, and the new VIERA Connect platform. VIERA Connect incorporates all the features of the former VIERA Cast system (Netflix, Amazon VOD, YouTube, Skype, etc.) and adds an apps store that features CinemaNow, Hulu Plus, Facebook, MLB TV, the Gameloft (3D) and I-PlayTV gaming services, and more. Panasonic also announced the addition of Skype and 2D-to-3D conversion to this year's 3D Blu-ray line, which will include three new models (DMP-BDT310, DMP-BDT210, and DMP-BDT110). All three players are slated for a spring 2011 release.
Samsung also had a vast array of new LED/LCD and plasma TVs on display, which we will discuss more in the coming months. The series we want to focus on here are the edge-lit LED D6000, D6400, and D6420 lines, which are the first TVs to incorporate RVU technology. Adrienne Maxwell discussed RVU technology in her blog post about DirecTV's upcoming HMC30 HD DVR/server. Place these new Samsung TVs throughout your home, and you can stream live and recorded content, along with the complete DirecTV user interface, from the server to the TVs with no additional set-top boxes required. The RVU-enabled TVs will be available in March. Samsung's super-slim BD-D7500 3D Blu-ray player was impressively sleek, as were the new active 3D glasses (SSG-3700CR) that use RF technology and have an incredibly light form (weighing less than one ounce). They are much more comfortable than any first-gen active 3D glasses we've tried. Samsung has also redesigned its interface: The new Smart Hub system offers Samsund Apps, a Web browser, and a Search All function that searches for content across the TV's Web services, mobile devices, and DLNA devices.
In addition to 27 new BRAVIA TVs and a bunch of 3D-capable camcorders and cameras, Sony also announced its "Music Unlimited Powered by Qriocity" cloud-based music service that will include over six million tracks from major labels. The service is expected to launch in the first quarter. Sony also touted its new partnership with Time Warner Cable to deliver select VOD content to connected televisions, and of course the company showed off a newly redesigned interface. This year's BRAVIA line will include 22 connected TVs and 16 3D-capable models, with integrated IR sensors. The company will add Skype functionality to select TVs and Blu-ray players, as well. In the prototype department, Sony demoed some 2K and 4K panels that can show passive 3D at a higher resolution, as well as a portable, glasses-free 3D Blu-ray player.
IOGEAR showed off a number of HD distribution options, including the compelling Wireless 3D Media Kit (GW3DKIT). This transmitter/receiver system allows you to wirelessly stream 1080p/60 and 3D video, as well as 5.1-channel audio, to four remote zones, up to 100 feet away. The system sets up its own private 802.11n network, and IOGEAR claims almost no latency or interference from other wireless routers. You can connect up to six A/V devices to the primary transmitter unit (which has four HDMI, one composite, one VGA/component, and one USB input), and built-in IR allows for control of hidden equipment. Connect a wireless mouse/keyboard unit to the USB port to remotely control a PC for media and Web access. Pricing has yet to be announced. We look forward to trying out this system when it becomes available sometime in Q1.
While many of the major TV manufacturers put a lot of thought and effort into redesigning their user interfaces this year, one of the coolest interfaces at the show came from a company called Fanhattan. In a small demo at the Digital Experience event, Fanhattan showed off its "digital entertainment discovery service," which can deliver everything you could possibly want to know about a movie or TV show: when and where it's playing, reviews, ratings, trailers, movie tickets, cast/crew bios, and more. Like Google TV, it searches across multiple platforms and providers to show you where to access a desired piece of content (be it through your program guide, a VOD provider, or some other online source), and everything is presented in an intuitive, attractive interface that just makes sense. Fanhattan will be available as a free download to a Mac or PC in early 2011, and the company is looking to establish partnerships with the big players that offer connected products.
Jerry Del Colliano's Report
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
Classé & B&W
The infiltration of AirPlay was seen in a host of components, most notably Classé'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 Classé' had a working model in their private suite with a Classé' 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.
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: