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CES 2014: Electronics (Source Components)

CES 2014: Electronics (Source Components)

CES (don’t call it the ‘Consumer Electronics Show’ any more, it’s a self-referential acronym now, so ‘CES’ is short for… ’CES’) remains the most important event on the American audio business calendar. Although now its worldwide primacy has been somewhat eclipsed by specialist audio-only events like Munich High-End, the Singapore International Sight & Sound Exhibition and the Tokyo International Audio Show, it remains one of the few places where audio can get coverage in the mainstream media and is still a vital arena to showcase and share your wares.

This year, the big push was for High Resolution Audio, whether that be 24/192 or DSD. Amid the large Microsoft lecture theatres in the Sands convention center, a contingent of HRA hardware manufacturers and software providers joined forces to promote the format to more than just the audiophile community. With, it must be said, somewhat mixed success. The highlight in software terms is HDTracks is beginning its service roll-out into Europe at last, starting with the UK in March this year. It’s also worth noting that with HDTracks being the biggest software supplier of the bunch, with the largest selection of titles, this represents a significant potential step forward for acceptance of HRA in Europe, allowing room for the smaller labels to grow into a freshly minted marketplace. The Korean contingent have it nailed though; they sell hi-res SD cards packaged as albums:

Of course, the software is only half the story. Although the Sony HAP-Z1ES 1TB high-resolution audio streamer ($2,000) was first shown at RMAF in the US, it was the first time this 1TB music server – preloaded with 20 high-resolution albums – was shown to a wider audience than just audiophiles. Intriguingly, the 24/192-compatible £550 NWZ-ZX1 high-resolution Walkman – which has been formally announced in Europe – was almost forgotten about.

Fortunately, the Astell & Kern AK240 player – reputed to cost $2,400 and which can support up to DSD 128 native – was providing the interest in portable players. You can read more on this here (https://hifiplus.com/articles/ces-2014-headphone-earphones-and-related-electronics-part-1/?page=2).

Now where we have two photos of the same thing, sometimes the reverse happens. Musical Instrument specialist Korg announced its stunning looking AudioGate DS-DAC-100, a wing-shaped $599 DSD 128-ready USB only DAC capable of outputting to headphones, as well as to balanced or single-ended audio systems, and the $350 DS-DAC-100m, which does the same in a more slimline case, eschewing the balanced output and sporting a 3.5mm headphone jack. Interestingly, there were a lot of common-ground products between Chris Martens’ round-up of the headphone world and digital source components at CES, simply because so many companies were releasing high-grade DSD-supporting DACs with headphone amplifier components at prices that didn’t end in a long string of zeros.

 

What we saw instead was a gap emerging between the DAC market and the network streaming product category, with a few companies occupying (more accurately, retaining) the middle ground of higher-priced DACs. The network streamer issue is interesting, however; where this category was dominated by UK brands like Cyrus, Linn and Naim as recently as last year, there were now a slew of newcomers appearing with potentially stronger product. Although the Korean brand Aurender is hardly new on the streaming scene, its latest $3,499 X100L and $2,999 X100S digital music players represent a new entry point for the brand. These iPad-controllable, network-equipped players both feature a 120GB SSD drive for the custom operating system and can support virtually every music file format you can think of, including DSD and even .APE. But what is the difference between the two players? The L model is longer, and has two 3TB hard disks, while the S just has a single 1TB drive.

A sign of how fluid this market is today, less than 18 months ago, almost no-one had ever heard of the Hong Kong brand Lumin, then came its first twin DAC A1 model at $7,000 (and now available in black). That is now joined by a trio of additional streamers; the S1 (anticipated price, $10,000), which sports two eight-channel ESS Sabre DACs per channel, running in parallel, can support and upsample to DSD at up to 5.6MHz precision and output that to HDMI. Then, below the current A1 comes the T1 (essentially an A1 in a less funky box, for $4,500) and then the D1, which features a cut-down version of the A1 circuit in a smaller box for $3,500. There is even a small network server on the way, designed to be the same size and shape as one of the company’s power supplies. Watch this space, folks… this company looks like a force to be reckoned with.

DSD wasn’t the only game in town, and two new launches from Fine Sounds showed there’s still mileage in delivering 24/192kHz replay. The elegant Wadia 321 Decoding Computer delivers to this precision from USB, to both headphones and main systems using Wadia’s in a full-sized aluminium chassis that looks elegant and very ‘now’, for $3,000. Meanwhile, at the Audio Research end of things, the company was playing a full ARC/Sonus Faber system, with the $9,000 SP20 full-function preamp being fed by the new CD6 one box CD transport and upsampling DAC, also priced at $9,000. This replaces the evergreen CD5 from the company, and leverages technology from the Reference CD9. The new data player features asynchronous USB alongside the usual digital input suspects and the top-loading CD transport. The new four-DAC circuit upsamples data received from the CD transport, or the digital inputs.

Meanwhile, over at T.H.E. Show, German audio guru Audionet was demonstrating its own 24/192 network streaming system, the $10,000 DNP (I should learn to take better notes… I had this down as ‘DNR’ on my pad, and ‘do not resuscitate’ is harsh criticism for what appears to be a very well sorted networking system), short for Digital Network Preamplifier. It combines network media renderer with built-in DSP delay, bass and EQ management with user-adjustable room acoustic analysis and even a line and digital preamplifier, all driven by a useful iDevice or even Android app. It’s even upgradable, thanks to the EPX external power supply. Definitely one to check out.

 

The lines between source component and amplifier have been blurred recently. Products like those in the Devialet or Naim Audio Uniti ranges cross the lines between where a DAC or network audio device stops and an amplifier starts. Cyrus continues that tradition with its new Lyric 09. Eschewing the half-sized ‘singing shoebox’ design the company is perhaps best known for, the British manufacturer has crammed CD transport, aptX Bluetooth, internet radio, DAB/DAB+, FM, a pair of USB inputs, a proprietary 32bit DAC, UPnP network replay, headphone amplifier and 170W stereo amplifier into the new $6,200 smart looking box of tricks. This is the largest of a currently two-strong range; the Lyric 05 dropping the power down to 80W and 24/192kHz precision. Sometimes, even the best camera can spend its time playing dirty tricks, so here’s a press shot, in place of a blurred photo of a mirror!

Similarly, darTZeel displayed its upcoming $13,000 LHC-208 integrated digital player at T.H.E. Show. With a full touch-screen, the amplifier can also stream DSD 128 and up to 24/384 precision audio, sports a built-in 200W amplifier and, if you think those three red blobs one the front panel are blobs, guess again… one is a headphone socket, one is an infra red eye for a remote control and one is a mini-jack for line level sources. These were played – as ever – with Evolution Acoustics loudspeakers.

It’s a mark of just how deep digital streaming has permeated the audiophile consciousness when Cary Audio makes a $4,995 UPnP Network Media Renderer, called the DMS-500. That is not meant as a slight on Cary – far from it, in fact; the brand takes the audiophile temperature better than most. So, if Cary is making a DSD and 32bit/384kHz compatible device with three USB inputs and AptX Bluetooth connectivity, you know it’s time to start building that network. This played through a full Cary system (SLP-05 preamp, CAD-211FE mono amps) ending in the $75,000 Tannoy Kingdom Royale Carbon Black ultra efficient, high volume speakers.

 

At the ‘off-piste’ rooms over at the Mirage, Nagra showed off its $23,750 HD-DAC in an (unsurprisingly) all Nagra system with Transparent cables and Wilson Alexia loudspeakers. This frankly gorgeous DAC plays to 24/384 and DSD 128 precision, supports USB alongside a host of other inputs, can play balanced and single-ended and if you are done with analogue sources, even can act as preamplifier. With its distinctive Nagra power meter, two-line display and controls built for the aficionado, the temptation to roll out the ‘built like a Swiss watch’ cliché is impossible to resist, although it makes me think that perhaps watchmakers should be saying ‘built like a Nagra’.

Staying with Switzerland briefly, Le Son is a new name on the scene, building a duo of high-concept, European boxes with state of the art technology within. This includes a clever aluminium foam heatsink, a chemical milled grid as EMI shielding and a design that could make audio enthusiasts out of the most minimalist architect or designer. The ‘range’ comprises $35,000 LS001 DSD 128 ready network media streamer/DAC and the $35,000 LS002 100W power amp, used at the show in dual mono form. Partnered with the similarly elegant $46,000 Stenheim Alumine three-way speakers (also from Switzerland), show photos do not do these amps justice, so here’s a press shot (that also doesn’t quite do them justice, either).

Finally from one of the most ‘spendy’ source components shown new, to one of the cheapest. Creek’s new Evolution 50CD is, in fact, a $1,495 data player; it is essentially a DAC with a built in CD transport. It’s nevertheless a sophisticated,  dual differential DAC design based around a Wolfson 24/192 DAC chip, featuring a separate high-grade clock for each sample rate, and asynchronous USB input (although at 24/96 precision). The range also has a matching 50W integrated amp, the $1,195 Evolution 50A, and both feature a neat OLED screen instead of the LED readouts so common in what has almost become ‘entry-level’ these days. It’s partnered here by the new $1,195 Music Hall Ikura turntable and the $1,750/pr Epos K2 loudspeakers.

This is far from a definitive list of products, and there are many we simply couldn’t cover in the allotted time. We didn’t get a chance to see the new Simple Audio Roomplayers, the new Cambridge Audio Azur 851 DAC or DACMagic XS, the Esoteric Grandioso P-1 flagship CD/SACD player or the Genesis Muse server. We did get a chance to see the Arcam miniBlink (a low-cost Bluetooth or wifi pebbleDAC) and got a chance to hear the TAD D1000 CD/SACD transport and DA1000 DAC, but the room was remarkably full (under the circumstances) and there was no chance but to look and wonder.

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