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Positive Feedback ISSUE 41
january/february 2009


Apocalypse for T.H.E. Show, Renaissance for Video, High End Audio Trends and Best Sound at CES
by Clay Swartz and Karen Wong


The attendance for the CES was down for both attendees and exhibitors. This is probably because of the economy. I had called several manufactures that I was interested in before CES and found out that they did not plan to attend. T.H.E. Show was a huge disappointment. My last time at T.H.E. Show, I spent a day and a half there. There were over a hundred rooms at two hotels. This year there was less than 20 rooms in the Alexis Park. There seemed to be more exhibitors than attendees. I spent two hours there including lunch. I heard someone at the high-end CES part at the Venetian, say that CES had made a great effort to pull the high-end exhibitors away from T.H.E. Show. It seems to have worked. This is too bad because T.H.E. Show made it possible for tweak products and smaller manufactures to come and show there goods. It encouraged more AB comparisons. It had more products that most audiophiles might be able to afford.

They supposedly had the ultimate AV system in one of the Ball Rooms. The sound was nowhere near audiophile quality to me and it was hard to see how good the picture was because they kept the lights on. Magnepan had a very interesting demo. It was in a fairly large room with a thin curtain across the room in front of the speakers. They played several cuts of different types of music. I think everybody in the room thought they were listening to some large new Magnapan speaker. Then they showed this small panel that was probably about 2 ft. by 2 ft. It was a rough prototype of a new speaker. It also had a plainer woofer in a small box. The sound was quite good and sounded big and detailed. This would probably be of use for theatre users. They also had a room where they recorded live music and then played it back via the recording.

Please read this for a response from T.H.E. Show.

Video seemed to be the most interesting part of CES. The big three companies in video (Panasonic, Sony, and Samsung) all had massive displays of their products. Sony showed the XBR9, the new Z series and some medium size OLEDs. They all looked great. Both Samsung and Panasonic showed the newest versions of their LCDs and Plasmas. Samsung also showed some medium size OLED sets. All looked much better than last year's models. 3D TVs were shown by most companies. There were definite trends in video to thinner screens, more internet connectivity, and raising the 120Hz. scan standard to 240Hz. There was also a big push for greener technologies and recycling. You could definitely tell the big three had set up for a competition gauntlet. I had hoped to see the Mitsubishi Laser TV Prototypes, but they only showed two front projectors. Surprisingly Pioneer didn't seem to have kept up with the big three this year. DTS and Dolby Digital both had demos of the new surround sound formats which showed promising sound. Other than these two demonstrations, very little surround sound was demonstrated. There were several LCD TV manufactures that I have not heard of before that looked decent. Sharp showed a 108 inch LCD that looked good for its size.

Non-audiophile audio had very little presence at CES. What there was, was mostly stagnant displays. CES had successfully gotten a lot of high-end companies to come to the Venetian Hotel. There were two complete floors of rooms with exhibitors. There was also two-thirds of another floor and a couple of rooms on three other floors, full of equipment. There were a lot of manufactures from the orient and some from Europe. The emphasis seemed to be on bigger and more expensive equipment. There were particularly a lot of big expensive speakers. There was also a lot of interesting looking equipment, which can be seen in other CES reports in Positive Feedback and other internet sources. Most rooms were using either turntables or hard drive based playback systems. Many places also had CD playback. There was almost no SACD, DVD-A, Blu-Ray or surround sound playback. I also did not hear any new interesting recordings. There was pretty good attendance without it being too crowded. However, there were not very many of the smaller audiophile companies This was probably due to the high cost of being in a CES suite and the state of the world's economy. Companies like Emotiva, Outlaw Audio, Oppo, Classe, SoundLabs and Thorough Bass were absent. I noted a lack of tweak products. Most rooms had power conditioning and power cords, but I had come to CES hoping to see new power regeneration power conditioners, and saw none. Some rooms had equipment isolation and room treatment products. I only saw one demonstration of a system with and without a tweak, that was the Acoustic Art Real Time Analogue Room Correction System, which sounded pretty promising in the demonstration.

Now we come to my best sound at CES in 2009. I should say that there is one big caveat to my ratings. That is most equipment does not sound its best at shows. Exhibitors have only a couple of days to set up a system with limited tweak resources. There can also be electrical problems because the hotels usually don't have to deal with such electronics. There can also be problems with room acoustics. I believe it takes between weeks to months of tweaking and experimenting to make a system sound its best. Many exhibitors do not want to confuse their attendees with a lot of tweaks done to the system. Sometimes exhibitors must borrow equipment from other manufactures to complete a system, so sometimes this does not come out well. One of my favorite electronics manufactures choose a large multi-driver array speaker which could not show the true potential of his electronics. I will identify the systems by the speakers used as they create the sound. I will admit that I have a decided preference for the sound of ribbons or electrostatic speakers. The main dynamic speakers that I have liked are Avalon and Focal/JM Labs with either diamond or beryllium teeters. The main things I find lacking in most speakers are fine detail, presence, and dynamic nuances. Most dynamic speakers sound a little sluggish to me. The systems I found that sounded good have proved they can sound good. The products that did not sound that good at CES, which I will not mention, may sound good in another setup.

The best sound of the show for me was the King Audio full-range electrostatic speaker. It was not only the best sound I heard at 2009 CES, but the best sound I have heard at any show. It was also one of the best sounds that I have heard from any system. They must have been either very good or lucky with their setup to get that good of sound. Music simply flowed with a sense of ease. There was a tactile sense of presence. The sound was crisp and clear. During female vocals it seemed as if she was standing live in front of you. Both micro and macro dynamics were realistically presented. The music simply had a sense of life to it. Detail was clearly presented. I did not get a chance to listen to any large scale orchestral music or heavy rock music on the system. They had an even larger electrostatic speaker system in another room. I did not think it sounded quite as good. The exhibitor thought that the larger speaker was a better but admitted that at the show the smaller one may have sounded better. If these speakers were combined with a pair of really fast subwoofers (like the Thorough Bass Magellan VIII) and fully tweaked with possibly a super tweeter, it would probably be state of the art sound. I am definitely not saying the speakers are lacking in either bass or high treble, they are better than any other un-supplemented speakers in the bass and only bested by diamond or other high end tweeter speakers as far as extended high frequencies. If I were to buy a new speaker, this is the one I would try first. The really good news about these speakers is that they are less than one tenth or less of the price of other speakers that I will mention here. They are about $5600. I would love to do a full review on these speakers.

Clay's thumbs up for sound in King Audio room

The second best sounding room was the Boulder-Wilson room. To show you the relative value of the speakers, the Wilsons were about $130,000. I have heard the big Wilson speakers before and they usually sounded good. Before they had never sounded as good as their lofty price would suggest. The Boulder Electronic made the speakers stand up and salute. The sound was very good, the best I have heard the Wilsons sound. The speakers gave a very strong and solid sound to the music. However, the Wilsons sounded slightly less delicate, airy, and alive than the King Audio Speakers.

Boulder and Wilson Audio

Another very interesting speaker was from RAAL Advanced Eternity speakers. It is a very strange looking speaker. The bottom is a dice like looking large box standing on one corner. Up from that was a tower in two sections. Each section had multiple drivers firing in a 360 degree plane. The speakers seem to disappear when playing music. You could move around without the sound changing much. Imaging was good, but not pinpoint. The music had a relaxed sound to it. This could be an interesting speaker in a large room with proper setup.


Raal Speakers

There were several other speaker systems that deserve mention. The Avalons sounded good to very good in several rooms. The MBLs sounded very good, but they did not bring their largest speaker. The new Gallo Reference speakers also sounded good. I had hoped they would bring their new biggest speaker, but they didn't. The Talon speakers made their usual strong appearance. The Reference 3A speaker sounded pleasant fat a much lower price range than most of the speakers there.


Gallo Speakers


MBL System


One of several rooms using Avalon Speakers

For most audiophiles the High End CES Show at the Venetian is like a visit to a candy store where you cannot afford to buy most of what was there.