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CES Las Vegas 2016 – First reflections

CES Las Vegas 2016 – First reflections

We try to take a more considered view of CES. The event is often blogged and tweeted at the scene, making instant and snap decisions on the fly. While this is extremely useful to get an immediate understanding of what’s happening at the show, the reality is many products are best considered in context, and that takes time to process. We are collating our opinions on CES from an audiophile perspective and will publish (a lot) more presently, but for now just a sneak peak on the overall audio trends from the Venetian Tower in Las Vegas.

This show was far quieter than ever before. Distributors and international buyers stayed away in significant number, reflecting a broad shift toward Munich High-End and it seems the German event has picked up where CES has left off. This is perhaps all too understandable from all perspectives: the show is extremely expensive, in terms of event space, hotel prices, and even logistics (one exhibitor claimed it cost less to ship a product from Europe to Las Vegas than it did to get it from the ground floor to their room). Putting 170,000 miscellaneous tech journalists on the Strip places a severe burden on the internet and phone connections of the city. And with so many technology launches taking place on the same four days, high performance audio is likely to be lost in a sea of autonomous cars, IoT devices, and ‘wearables’.

Nevertheless, there were key products that broke cover, most notably the return of the hugely popular Technics SL-1200, even though it is to be a strictly limited edition run of 1,200 (naturally) ‘Grand Class’ decks at $4,000, at least at first. Last year showed just how far the vinyl revival has come – Amazon.com announced that its best selling consumer electronic device sold during Christmas 2015 was a turntable! And that’s why turntables were everywhere at CES.

Alongside the usual suspects (such as Music Hall with a new range of high value turntables, and Pro-Ject with the first ‘vertical’ turntable in a generation) and the returning Japanese brands (including Sony’s $599 HS-HX500 DSD-ripping turntable), the big audiophile vinyl stories were the return of Continuum, and its prototype turntable with a working title of ‘Obsidian’ (but no price as yet), and the first ever turntables (and more) from noted vinyl record label, Mobile Fidelity.

 

This was also the year of high performance digital streaming at all prices. CD players were very thin on the ground – not simply new products, but there were far fewer CD players being used to demonstrate amps and speakers. Instead, there were some very fine electronics at all prices to play digital streaming files. The MQA system (Master Quality Authenticated) was gaining traction, with a number of labels and digital audio designers singing up to the format. Meanwhile at the lower end Gordon Rankin of AudioQuest announced a trio of USB ‘Digital Critters’ that range from $99 to $199, and Korean brand Aurender announced the A10 Caching Network Music Server, which is expected to cost around $5,000 and includes 2TB of on-board storage.

In fact, for once, this was a CES Specialty Audio show where the headline products were often the most affordable ones. Take ELAC’s new UB5 loudspeaker, or its Debut amplifier. The UB5s are $595 three-way loudspeakers that sounded better than many systems at the show costing tens of thousands of dollars. Or KEF’s excellent new Muo Bluetooth loudspeaker system that delivers the sonic goods better than you might ever expect given they stand as tall as a can of beer and cost ‘beer budget’.

The great thing about this is it puts the fun back into audio. It’s great that Wilson Audio announced the new $103,000 Alexx or that Audio Note is finalising a new $100,000 reference grade preamp, but with all the hushed tones and polite dinner jazz that surrounds top-spec launches, sometimes it’s great just to kick back and play some sounds on something unassuming, but utterly entertaining, like the new Naim Muso Qb. This little cube of musical greatness shrinks the size (and price) of the first Muso down smaller than ever, but still manages to sound musical, entertaining and fun.

I was also interviewed by Enjoy The Music about this show. Please point your browser at http://www.enjoythemusic.com/CES_2016/CES_2016_Live_Stream/Alan_Sircom_HiFi_Plus_Magazine_CES_2016.htm for a replay of the live stream.

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