Welcome to my 100th column!!! Coincidently, it's being written from the 17th floor of the Las Vegas Stratosphere Hotel, where I'm attending my seventh and hopefully last Vegas show. I know, most of you would feel privileged and be willing to give up a significant body part to attend the world's biggest and supposedly best venue to evaluate all that's newest and best in the world of audio and video, but you really have to attend this behemoth to understand how tiring and wallet emptying it is.
First, the Las Vegas capitalists have tripled or quadrupled the costs for hotel rooms, food, etc, making the four days prohibitively expensive, especially for poorly paid writers ( hint, hint oh mighty editor!)
Second, the show, which when I began going many years ago, once fit into a portion of two medium sized hotels in Chicago, has morphed into a behemoth covering multiple football stadium areas and spread out over several halls and hotels multiple blocks apart.
Third, while there are shuttle buses, about 140,000 attendees are fighting for the free transportation with one sometimes waiting for close to an hour to go from venue to venue.
Fourth, there are actually two shows now for the high end crowd: the original Consumer Electronics Show based at the Sands and Venetian Hotels, and The Show, a high end only side show started by some audiophiles several years ago for those who had become less enamored with the high expenses of the CES. This was spread out over two hotels next to each other but about three miles from the other show. In addition, many companies ride the tails of the show by renting rooms in other hotels to show their products.
Fifth, there appeared to be many fewer high end exhibitors spread out over the two shows than in previous years I've attended, and the rooms in both venues were spread out all over the place leading to needless walking. I can understand how the presenters want their room isolated from the 12 subwoofers down the hall, but each venue could have been collapsed into a more evaluator and buyer friendly closeness.
Sixth, and final gripe, there was little of anything new presented from the high end to report about, and while it is difficult to determine much about the fidelity of the equipment in the small hotel rooms most of the exhibitors are stuck with, there seemed to be a larger percentage of poor sounding rooms this year to this reviewer's ears.
From the above you can probably guess that I was less than enamored over this show. Maybe I'm just getting old and cranky. On the other hand, by beginning early in the morning I was able to evaluate multiple rooms before the crowds arrived. This allowed both a much better ability to listen to the equipment in peace and quiet without several people talking in the back of the room, and more discussion with the presenters.
In addition, there was the advantage of spending some time with old acquaintances. For instance, Jack Eliano of Electra-print Audio, developer of the Direct reactance Drive and Ultrapath single ended circuitry, discussed with me a new single ended circuit he's developed which will be in production in the near future. One of his 300B stereo DRD amps has been used for my central front channel for about 10 years without a problem and still sounds great compared to most single-ended amplifiers out there.
Then there was Poh Ser Hsu, of HSU Audio, demonstrating his inexpensive but very good sounding surround speaker system with his in development new subwoofer playing the second movement of the Saint Saen's Third Symphony. One of my early purchases were four of his 7 foot cylindrical tower subwoofers back in the mid 80's while he was still a student at MIT, and still have two of them still working beautifully in my media room. Now that is a sign of quality when products last for 10 years or more in my ever-changing system.
As far as big news at either show, all were based on the video side of the equation. Audio, the little brother, was practically left out of the equation. Here it is three years out from the introduction of Blu-ray and HD-DVD and there still isn't a player out there that can decode DTS Master Audio, the only true lossless codec. There are a few receivers and players that can transmit and decode both it and Dolby Master, but none yet that I know of from any high end companies.
Even Lyngdorf and Lexicon, probably the leaders for pre-pro's doing digital decoding, still don't have one that can accept the HDMI 1.3 signal, nor the decoders for the codecs. "Maybe by next year" is the word out there. Of course, high end concert discs in the new formats are few if any, and the battle between the two disc types is still on, but moving in Blu-Ray's favor, so it probably doesn't matter as yet. On the other hand I didn't see one new SACD or DVD-Audio player except for those from Esoteric reviewed here in the past few months. Maybe the big boys figure high end reproduction of music is a dead end, or perhaps they think that music over the web captured by computer servers will overtake any new disc format. If it comes in high sampling rates and saves having to buy Reiner's Scherazade 12 more times before my death or deafness, that will be alright with me. Computer audio is getting better all the time, witness the Memory Player, and may overtake other methods of music storage.
Just to show how little innovation was presented, Pioneer won the "Best In Show" Award not for some improvement in video or audio, but for a "power saving" Eco-TV that uses less electricity. While any financial saving with your electric bill is good, is that really what one looks for when buying a new piece of gear? Environmentalism has struck again.
The video innovations consisted of bigger and better and thinner video displays, with Panasonic showing a 150 inch plasma screen about two inches thick, almost wall filling, and with 4000x2000 resolution, four times that of the best home video yet. Of course price wasn't mentioned. Another big thing was central servers receiving and storing all of your video, audio and data, with wireless transmission of all that information to every node of usage throughout the house.
Finally, Blu-ray seems to have won the battle with HD-DVD as Time-Warner announced at the show that they were going with Blu-ray exclusively. Maybe now with that settled and the HDMI 1.3 standard in place, the high-end equipment producers will start developing great sounding equipment that will use the audio standards, without leaving behind SACD and DVD-Audio decoding, like Sony and the other major manufacturers have done.
Enough griping. On to the show.
Rather than just putting up pictures of every room present, I'll show and discuss below only those that either had decent sound or some new and improved equipment worth looking at for the audiophile. The first day was spent at the Venetian-Sands CES high end audio area, with some of the listening rooms in the Venetian spread out over the 29th to 31st floors, and others at the Sands in the basement but near the Press Room, quite a distance. Because of their placement, I almost missed the ones in the Sands, and would have if they hadn't been on the way to the Press Room and a free lunch.
Again, there weren't as many presenters as in previous years with many just staying home and others choosing the less expensive but more difficult to get to The Show. Below are some of the better ones.
Manger speakers being driven by a Callistro CD transport into Delta Sigma Integrated amplifier sounded very good for show conditions.
Lyngdorf was my favorite new audio technology room at the CES, demonstrating their new digital amplifiers, but more importantly their D-1 eight channel speaker and room correcting balanced pre-pro with 4 HDMI 1.3 inputs. When it's introduced it should be able to do DTS Master audio decoding, but there was no mention of whether it will do at least DVD-Audio decoding, if not SACD.
Sonus Farber Guarnieri Homage loudspeaker driven by Audio Research CD-7 player LS-26 preamp and power amps using Nordost wiring and Richard Gray and Hydra power cleaners.
As you can tell from the flag, this is the Manley Labs room demonstrating their updated Stingray II integrated tube amp. While a modest system, the sound was excellent for show conditions beating out many of the super high priced demo's.
This was the most imposing room at the show, demonstrating dual Soundlabs Ultimate I electrostatic speakers driven by Pass Labs XA 200 amplifiers using the EMM SACD transport and converter and a pro equalizer.
This was my favorite set of rooms at CES. Andrew Jones, speaker developer extraordinaire, demo'ed the TAD $40,000 Reference One speakers using only a Spectron digital amplifier. Of course he was using the new Tape Project Tape modified Ampex 350 player and tapes in an excellently fitted out large room. The sound was excellent by show standards, but this room was only a cheater. In the next room he demonstrated the new TAD "mini"-monitor and their new Class A amplifier producing excellent sound. The new amplifier is supposedly pure Class A but uses a new circuit topology which doesn't waste electricity and runs relatively cool to the touch. Of course, both are made of unobtanium now, but should be available in the next year. Of course that's what they said about the Reference One.
Unhappily, one of the rooms where my photos didn't come out was the Teac Esoteric Room where they had set up every unit in their line. Had a chance to meet and speak with Mark Gurvey who has been kind enough to let me review several of their products over the past several months, which put us ahead of the curve as the D-05 and P-05 were being introduced at the show but already reviewed two issues ago here. He has promised to let me know when their latest innovations arrive for evaluation. Stay tuned.