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CES 2015 Show Report & Live Streaming Coverage by Enjoy the Music.com  Sonic Santori: RAL KEB02iP Battery-Powered Headphone Amplifier / DAC Review
CES 2015 Show Report By Michael Mercer
Gear and Roaming In Las Vegas

Just a backpack and headphone rigs 'n' bit o' fun!

Possibly the most fun ever this go-round...


  I wasn't going to attend the 2015 International CES this year. After all, between all the various regional audio shows  kicking things up a notch over the last few years (like Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, T.H.E Show Newport, AXPONA, and Capitol Audio Fest to name a few) plus the Head-Fi Meets I love attending with my fellow Head-Fi’ers: My areas of interest in audio gear are nearly covered. Not to mention I ended up with some additional fun last year while suffering through my now-annual post-CES illness. I ended up with pneumonia. What a prize (not)! So, naturally you can understand my hesitation about being around hundreds of people from all over the globe in the heart of Las Vegas, carrying some of the best illnesses Mother Nature has to offer. However, despite all that, I didn't have a choice! My favorite headphone company: Audeze, were not only workin' their asses off to do a soft-launch of their first attainable (or, affordable) planar-magnetic cans called EL-8, whose industrial designs were executed wonderfully by BMW DesignWorks USA. They were also introducing their first Audeze-branded headphone amp/DAC (whose industrial design was also handled by the BMW USA Design Group) called the Deckard! And on top of those sonic teasings, this was to be their first official year at CES proper. Sure, Audeze's had a presence during CES over the past three or four years, but they were always a part of Richard Beers alternative T.H.E Show at the Flamingo (a great event in its own right, but not affiliated with CES). This year they committed to a large booth space at the Convention Center (also known to many of us audiophiles as "The Zoo"). How could I miss that? After all, according to one anonymous commenter on the interwebs: I'm the "Audeze Jihadist!" Missing this event was not an option.

Now, given my OCD and now infamous tendency to pack like a girl (yup, I ain't afraid to admit it, it's just the way it is) this year’s adventure wasn't going to be as easy for me as it had been in years past. Mr. Richard Beers (President of T.H.E Show, a good friend and client) was not hosting T.H.E Show at the Flamingo for the first time since, well, since I can remember. That meant no free hotel room for me! Strike one. The cool thing was, I ended up not worrying so much about that. Luckily, I reached out to Alex Rosson (CEO of Audeze) and asked him if I could crash on his floor if needed. He said yes so I knew I'd have shelter! Last year I drove to Vegas, stopping in Los Angeles to pick up a couple of friends along the way. This year they already had other car-pooling plans. So, I figured I'd take the long drive alone. After all, I love driving my John Cooperworks Mini! I could drive it for twenty-hours and never get bored, especially with the JL Audio system crankin'! I squared-away my press pass via the internet and was ready to do CES road-trip style. Unfortunately, two-days before I was supposed to leave, a rather large and alarming warning light came on in the Mini's main tach! It didn't look good, like an image of an engine block half-full of something. So I go to the manual, and the corresponding text for that image read: "Pull your Mini over, and call roadside assistance." "You can not continue on your journey." "Call your local Mini dealer". And no, I didn't add the word "journey" in there for effect! To say I flipped-out is an under-statement. But, luckily, I remembered that my friend Jon Reichbach of Amarra (Sonic Studio), who also lives in the Bay Area, always drives to CES with his partner Ralph Schacter! I immediately called Jon, and I got a ride to Vegas nailed-down. A close-call to say the least. So: No hotel room, and no ride of my own. I was going to CES for the first time since 1996 with a camping backpack  (high school graduation gift from my mother – a Vaude pack that got me cross-country back then), and a second smaller backpack full of my headphone gear. It was, truly road-trip time! I was nervous and excited. Well, to be honest I was totally freaked-out (enter OCD), but I had faith that this was going to be an adventure I'd remember for a long time.

Once we got on the road, I realized why Jon and Ralph made the long-drive every year as opposed to driving: A road-trip is an excellent time to catch-up. They were able to focus on discussions about business, while not being disturbed for many hours – brilliant! Being an Amarra devotee and evangelist (I just love the software, as I can use it with iTunes and it sounds great) I was eager to learn some new things about the company, and, admittedly, eavesdrop, just a bit, on stuff coming in the future! Though I've been sworn to secrecy. We also had a chance to get to know each other on that drive. Because what do you do on long-drives? You talk, and talk, and talk. Perfect for me, because I don't shut up! The nine-plus hours flew by, and next thing you know we're lookin' at the bright lights of the strip popping outta the black desert of Las Vegas. It was time to get ready for sensory-overload! Again, luck found me – as Ralph has been using his time-share units at the same place for many years during CES. He and Jon had a huge suite, equipped with a full kitchen, plenty of room, and, as it turned out, an extra bed for me in the pull-out sofa! They offered to let me make that my home-base during our stay, and it meant the world to me. I mean, I would've lugged my backpack with me everywhere, but I wasn't lookin' forward to it obviously. It wouldn't have been fun after a few hours, walking all over the place – from room to room at The Venetian to the Convention Center (a.k.a "the Zoo" to many of us high-end audio freaks) so I was so grateful to Ralph and Jon for giving me a permanent place to keep my stuff, and to come back to every night, depending on where my adventures took me! They also refused to take any money from me! How often does that happen? I realized I've got some pretty amazing friends in the hi-fi industry, and I don't take that for granted. Or, if I did before this trip, I knew I wouldn't do-so ever again.

Ralph had to stop by the Peachtree Audio room at The Venetian in order to get their room correction going via Amarra's IRC software (which, by the way, is terrific and as straight-forward as they come) before everything officially kicked-off. That turned out well for me, as I got to check out their room and audio goodies before the crowds descended. I was psyched to check out their new SonaDAC (line-stage/DAC/headphone amp) and I look forward to tackling a full review soon! The sound was as smooth as its aesthetics, like most of their sharp-looking gear. I also got to check out the first prototype for the Decca! That was cool. I love that kinda-stuff, seeing the origins of successful product lines. Where the vision began. The room was also decorated for music lovers, not just gear-heads. I greatly appreciated that. Bravo to Peachtree. They run a tight ship over there, and they are passionate about what they do. After drooling over some of their stuff we got some dinner, and decided to make it an early night in order to prepare for the madness that was sure to unfold the following day – when CES officially opened its doors. I was anxious, so I didn't get much sleep, but it didn't matter. Once the morning came around and we got ready, I was eager to grab my press pass and get to it! Our hotel was about 2 miles from The Venetian, so even if I lost the guys (which happened often, as we had different business to conduct, and stuff to see and hear) I could grab a cab to head back and it didn't hurt my wallet too badly. Everything was coming together beautifully. After we got our passes we split up, and for the first time at CES: I headed for the Convention Center first. Usually I hit the rooms at The Venetian first, but my main reason for takin' the road-trip this year was to experience the new offerings from Audeze and other headphone manufacturers. Mostly I was itching to hear the brand-new EL-8 from Audeze: Their first, well, let’s call it "attainable", or more-affordable planar-magnetic headphone. They were also introducing the first Audeze-branded headphone amp/DAC called the Deckard. Both the EL-8 and Deckards' industrial designs were provided by BMW DesignWorks USA. I was excited to experience the result of this fine collaboration. I had a chance to hear a prototype of the EL-8 along-side my dear friend and partner in Audio360.org Warren Chi months before CES 2015. We were both very impressed then, and frankly, it wasn't easy to keep our big mouths shut all that time! But, we managed to do so. Now it was time to hear how the design had evolved, plus: The prototype we heard did not feature the design-work/headphone chassis from BMW. I believe it was laser-printed, but I'll have to confirm that with Audeze. Nonetheless, I couldn't wait to hear the EL-8 and Deckard!

I was also eager to meet my friends, which we planned that morning. Some were Audio360.org teammates and others represented other sites as well as Headphone.Guru. I was actually more excited to see them than anything else. We hadn't seen each other in months, since Canjam at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest! So it was time to get down and geek-out! The minute I walked into the South Hall (where Sennheiser, Audeze, CEntrance, and HifiMAN were exhibiting, along with many others) I caught a glance of the Audeze booth and while on my way there Warren Chi basically tackled me. It was great to see him, and Ethan Opolion. Later I was psyched to see Brian Hunter (also w/ Audio360 and his own site Audio-Head) and Frank Iacone, Co-Founder of Headphone.Guru and fellow 360er. We were a gang, all there to take-in some terrific sound and great music. Obviously, my first stop was the Audeze booth. Warren had already been there, so he escorted me directly to the closed-back EL-8. Without my saying a word he knew I wanted to hear that first. I un-plugged the player they were using (I think it was a Pono player, but I can't recall honestly) and busted out my Astell&Kern AK240. I needed one of my references in order to gauge the performance of the new headphones. My first impression? Finally! An Audeze headphone I could walk around with without lookin' like Mighty Mouse! The fit was great, as were the aesthetics. And, despite its spec'd weight of 460g it didn't feel heavy to me. Perhaps the design aids in distributing the weight effectively – or maybe I'm so accustomed to wearing their LCD-series headphones (larger and heavier) these just felt lighter. Either way, it was a sincere pleasure knowing I was going to be rockin' Audeze out in the world soon! Sonically, despite varying opinions across the interwebs, I enjoyed the closed and open-back versions. It's important for me to point out that all Audeze EL-8s at CES were pre-production units (I'll get into that soon). Nonetheless, I thought the closed-backs had a terrific midrange: textural and colorful, plus the detail retrieval was very impressive. The highs were extended, though slightly veiled at-times (which I'm sure they'll address before officially introducing the cans). The bass was tight and controlled. And while I enjoyed both versions – the open-backs had an obvious advantage when it came to throwing a soundstage. The musical image was wider and more opaque, and this also seemed to enhance their dimensionality – which was wonderful. Overall I thought the EL-8 delivered, and my expectations were unreasonably high. I should be receiving a production pair any day for review and I plan on writing an Early Impressions piece for Enjoy the Music.com as soon as possible!

The other new offering from Audeze: Their new headphone amp/DAC called the Deckard, delivered my favorite listening session of CES 2015! In order to test this sharp-looking piece of kit I brought along my own LCD-XCs (their reference closed-back planars), my Double Helix Cables Complement 4 (with adapter kit – perfect for headphone Meets and conventions, as I never know what sort of output I'm going to be facing) and my Astell&Kern AK240 player with my trusty Nordost iKable in order to connect the 240 to the Deckard. So, during my demo I was hearing the headphone amplifier section, and not their DAC. I hope to dig into a full review of the Deckard soon as well – so I'll put the DAC through its paces then. Five or so minutes into my session, I knew the Deckard was something special. Not only did it look far more expensive than its $699 price-tag (BMW DesignWorks USA also provided the industrial design for this component) but the musical performance was also something I'd expect to hear in a more expensive headphone amp! The first record I used during my listening sesh with the Deckard was Recondite's Iffy, as I just reviewed the album is the last issue of Positive Feedback, so I got to know the sonics of this record really well. "Baro", the introductory track, begins with these hovering synths surrounding these bass stabs and pads, along with this effect that sounds like the snap of an electrical line overhead, or the sounds you might hear near a power substation. Then the kick drum drops and the momentum picks up – turning the track into a dance-floor chugger. The Deckard and my LCD-XCs turned out to be an excellent pairing. Transparency was sublime, and the air around the triggered sounds made for an almost holographic stereo presentation. The bass was focused, and weighty. Just what this track needs to sound-like. The mids were incredibly detailed and engaging, and the highs soared gloriously. Though the LCD-XC is a closed-back headphone, Audeze has managed to make it sound open at times. I'm continually impressed with this wonderful sonic attribute, considering there is no ventilation since the XC is totally closed, it's miraculous how wide and deep the soundstage can get depending on the recording. With Iffy, the sound was wide-open and as dynamic as I've heard it, except for my bigger reference headphone amps like my Cavalli Liquid Gold and ALO Studio Six. I was having so much fun I just started dancing right there at the booth. I'm sure I was making a complete fool of myself, but I didn't give a shit. I was having a blast!


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