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CES Scene: Analogue and Digital Sources

CES Scene: Analogue and Digital Sources

In this, our final round-up of all things audio in Las Vegas this year, we decided to combine the best of turntable with the most impressive digital sources launched at CES. The choice of terminology in that last sentence is different to the headline and that change is deliberate here – in the past, ‘analogue’ was a cover-all to include any non-digital source: the tape machine was the first to go (although open reel players still appear at shows, they are refurbished models), but this year there were no new analogue tuners, either: FM radio is still popular in some circles, but its popularity is waning sufficiently that we can go a few years without a single FM tuner launch. Meanwhile, the popularity of all things vinyl continues to rise: as we were at the show, amazon.com announced that its biggest sellers in the technology sector were a turntable and instant film – two items once thought ‘dead’.

Digital, on the other hand, is diversifying rapidly. The number of new disc players is in fairly steep decline, yet new ways to access digital music are increasing on an almost daily basis. CES saw a groundswell of manufacturers including the MQA standard on new and revised digital players, and both streaming and computer/DAC systems proliferate, at prices and sizes to fit almost all pockets. And for once, the audio industry seems prepared not to run away with itself, leaving owners wondering about the relevance of the products in the real world: unlike the never-ending DSD arms race, with brands competing for ever-higher speed processing irrespective of the availability of music to play at those rates, those hitching themselves to the MQA wagon are doing so on the basis of upcoming announcements from the music ‘majors’. Time will tell which formats find favour with listeners, but there is an increasingly strong vibe of ‘it’s all good’ from digital audio makers, adding yet another string to the bow of a DAC or a streamer.

A full round-up of all the new sources at CES would make for long and excruciatingly uninteresting reading. Instead here are our edited highlights:

Arcam’s popular irDAC has been one of the cheapest ways to get high performance digital music into the home, but it has looked somewhat limited of late due to its lack of DSD decoding. In response, the company announced the £495 irDAC II. The new ESS Sabre-DAC based design now delivers signals up to 24/192 and DSD128, but also includes full AptX Bluetooth wireless streaming, and a new headphone stage, drawn from the company’s A49 flagship amplifier. 

Better known as a cable company, AudioQuest’s range of ‘digital critters’ will see a significant expansion in 2016. The company announced the popular DragonFly 1.2 DAC now spawns two variants; the $99 DragonFly Black (basically an original DragonFly with reduced power consumption allowing it to work with iDevices, and a lower price tag) and the new DragonFly Red. This latter is a $199 version with a 64-bit digital volume control compared to the base model’s analogue design, and sports a better class of DAC from ESS. These are joined by the $199 Beetle desktop DAC, which has been seen before in prototype form. This adds greater input flexibility and a plug-in linear power supply. Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio is considered one of the shining stars of the digital audio domain, his design input runs deep in these three converters.

Bryston announced the $3,995 BDA-3 DAC toward the end of 2015, and this was the first time the product – alongside a RoonReady version of the company’s BDP-2 – was shown to the wider public. The new DAC not only uses Bryston’s reputation for building power supplies to the party, it also includes a host of HDMI connections. Thus far, HDMI’s use has been strictly limited in audio circles, but with companies like Apple dropping connections like optical from the latest Apple TV, the use of HDMI may begin to appear in the audio chain. With all the talk about Bryston’s new amplifiers – and the company’s ability to build a new generation DAC into almost exactly the same case seen in previous Bryston models – it would be easy for this DAC to pass unnoticed. 

 

Clearaudio travelled across the ocean to show its new $6,000 Innovation Basic Wood turntable, that sits alongside the company’s popular Innovation Compact and Innovation models. The new model uses a DC motor, a magnetically raised platter with a ceramic ball bearing system, Panzerholtz plinth, and all the elements that makes the Innovation line so popular, in a smaller package. It’s also joined by the new $3,750 TT-5 linear tracking turntable and the $1,500 Essence moving coil cartridge. The company’s US distributors, Musical Surroundings, was also showing off its exceptional $4,999 Sugar Cube ripping phono stage.

Unlike most models, this phono stage samples the music on the album playing, runs off to its own Gracenote-style database and then populates the metadata of the ripped tracks. This allows the system to insert track breaks between tracks (done by the absence of music, rather than arbitrary track times), imports the album cover, allocates track data and more… automatically in the way iTunes does when ripping a CD. This is the first standalone phono stage to do this (the Entotem Plato can also automatically populate metadata on vinyl, but is currently a part of a complete music server system).

The high-end community was talking about the rebirth of the Continuum turntable brand before CES, but it seemed like so much hot air. But there, in the Constellation Audio room (of course) was the prototype of the Obsidian turntable and the new Viper arm from the reborn brand. This is a radical departure for those who can recall the original Caliburn table, although the Viper looks to be a distillation of all things Copperhead and Cobra (the arms from the original Continuum project). The vacuum platter and bearing are gone, as is the large plinth. Instead, we have mechanically isolated housings for platter, arm(s), and motor, with opposing magnets to part-float the platter. The DC motor itself is designed specifically for the project. The only real secret is the price: although said to be considerably less than its predecessor, the price of the new Obsidian and Viper remain deeply hush-hush.

Having just launched two new lines in the last few years, dCS is not planning on bringing any new models to market. However, it is not resting on its laurels, and CES saw the company present one of the first in a series of significant updates to its DSD filter algorithms in the Vivaldi system, and was running blind A-B tests in its excellent-sounding room at the Mirage. The company has a regular system now, comprising dCS front ends on a Stillpoints ESS rack, into a pair of D’Agostino Momentum power amps and to a pair of Wilson Alexias, all with Transparent cable, and this just works wherever you hear it. It was certainly nuanced enough to hear the striking differences between the two filters.

Currently, the new filter options will roll out to Vivaldi customers, alongside a slew of other upcoming software developments in functionality and especially streaming. It’s likely that Rossini users will eventually receive the same benefits, but sadly the upgrade path is not open to users of older dCS electronics.

 

Perhaps the most significant new product of the show, Naim Audio announced its new Mu-so Qb, a smaller $999/£545 version of the popular Mu-so all in one player in an elegant cube shape. We’re not going to say too much about that because we now have one in house for test, and you can read about it here: http://www.hifiplus.com/articles/exclusive-first-listen-naim-mu-so-qb/

One of the best DACs we’ve ever heard came from the Nagra brand, but the top-line HD is possibly too rich for many listener’s blood. However, by moving to a solid-state output stage, not making the outboard power supply virtually mandatory and eschewing the headphone socket and volume control, the new $15,000 Classic DAC brings a lot of the company’s ideas about DSD replay down to a more attainable level.

Mark Levinson’s new launches at the show were not in the main event, but at an off-shoot show. Of course, with a company the size of Harman, an off-shoot show is larger than most audio shows in its own right, with automotive, portable, wearables, and all things audio or electronic on display. Levinson’s new No. 519 audio player is the perfect expression of this multi-standard company; it’s a full-function audio player that supports CD replay from its front-mounted drawer, wired or wireless streaming vie ethernet, USB connections, or Bluetooth. It supports every streaming service you can point a keyboard at, at every format from MP3 to DSD, and can even help make the best of a bad source with its Clari-Fi digital signal enhancement. An equally full function No 526 dual mono preamplifier was also launched at the same time. Prices of these products are to be confirmed.

Mobile Fidelity, or MoFi, is a music label of note, making high-grade masters of classic albums on disc. It’s perhaps best known for its vinyl, however. The company has recently diversified, now making the means whereby those wonderful slabs of the black stuff can be played. At CES, MoFi announced two turntables; the $999 Studio and $1,799 Ultra. Both feature a Delrin platter, a 10” arm, and an inverted main bearing, the principle difference between the two being the rigidity of the chassis and the thickness of the platter. If that triumvirate of performance attributes sound familiar, it’s because the design of the turntable is intrinsically linked to Spiral Groove designer Allen Perkins. MoFi also announced a trio of ‘Tracker’ moving magnet cartridges, two phono stages and a pair of record clamps, all priced aggressively.  

 

Music Hall’s ever-popular range of affordable turntables saw a lot of great change for 2016, with three new turntables, and a new phono stage, all the right side of affordable. The trio of new decks – the MMF 2.3, 5.3, and 7.3 all feature a carbon-fibre arm, with the 2.3 featuring a Music Hall Spirit cartridge and the other two variations on the Ortofon models. All three feature an isolated DC motor, with the 5.3 adding a Sorbothane-damped wooden plinth, and the top model taking that level of independent isolation to the highest degree. Expect to pay from around $750 for the 2.3 rising to $1,599 for the 7.3. A 9.3 will be available soon, too.

Meanwhile, Music Hall also announced a $399 PA 2.2 two input MM/MC phono stage complete with USB output for ripping and headphone socket.

If 2016 was the year MQA came to Las Vegas, then it was closely followed by Roon. The software company had announced a RoonReady software development kit for manufacturers in late 2015, and companies were already starting to take advantage of the system as a digital endpoint, and many rooms were combining Roon’s user-friendly interface and general MQA-chumminess to good effect.

This is something of a perfect storm of software goodies, with MQA-ready and RoonReady devices making the seamless transition to the new format, making for seemingly effortless streaming from host computer to endpoint device without wire or performance sacrifice. It’s still early days for both, but with a large number of brands at all price points looking at both Roon and MQA as future upgrade paths, expect to hear more soon.

Naturally MQA was playing in the Meridian room, but it was also featured in a number of other rooms at the show, sometimes with and sometimes without Roon. And Roon was also featured independent to MQA. This was not simply an upgrade for well-heeled audiophiles, as evidenced by Bluesound’s inclusion in the MQA club.

While all the attention went to Technics, that other Japanese giant Sony also made a turntable; its first ‘serious’ model in many years. The $599 PS-HX500 is tellingly a part of the company’s ‘Hi-Res’ range, and although it can be used as a standalone turntable in its own right, the deck’s hidden secret is its ability to rip vinyl directly, right up to DSD128. The belt-drive deck comes complete with Sony-designed tonearm and moving magnet cartridge, so it is essentially a one-stop hi-def ripping shop for budget-conscious record collectors.

Finally, the Technics SL-1200 direct drive turntable garnered an unassailable reputation in some audio circles, where it is considered the best turntable that ever is, was, or will be. Regardless of whether or not you agree, with millions sold over its almost 40 year reign over the domestic and DJ market, the 1200 was sorely missed when production was finally halted. With unavailable parts, a broken-up factory, and the 1200 team scattered to the four winds, the turntable – and indeed the Technics name – once looked as if it were consigned to memory. However, Technics (the brand) reappeared a couple of years ago, and this year saw the announcement of the Technics SL-1200G, a complete from the ground up reboot of the iconic deck, available in two guises: the first, a magnesium-based limited-edition ‘GAE’ turntable (just 1,200 units, of course), followed by an aluminium SL-1200G model later in the year. 

Such is the importance his was one of the few audio products to appear in the mainstream press. Twice: when it became clear that re-engineering a complex direct drive turntable from scratch (in the process introducing an improved motor system and microprocessor control to reducing cogging effects) came at a cost, the mainstream press that first welcomed the rebirth of the Technics railed at its $4,000 price tag. 

As mentioned at the outset, this barely scratches the surface of the products on offer, and only focuses on the launch models, completely ignoring the that have already spent some time in the market. Although I have some very deep misgivings about CES and the audiophile world, this is still a very active market!

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