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CES High End Audio 2019 R.I.P

02-06-2019 | By Gary Lea | Issue 101

"Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building!"

Perhaps an odd opening title bar anywhere but here in Las Vegas. For the last 20 years I have attended CES almost every year save for a couple of misses along the way. In all those years it was a struggle to get out of work to attend, but always worth it. As a matter of fact Dave Clark posted a picture one year of me in the stairwell on a conference call for work. So it went every year. Retiring this last June left me excited about attending with no interference from anyone or anything. Unfortunately someone at CES didn't get the memo.

Much like a younger Elvis making hit record after hit record, staring in movies, having the world eat out of the palm of his hand, anyone who was around in the days when the High End part of CES was at the Alexis Park, and T.H.E. Show was next door at the St. Tropez, will remember what a great time it was. It was like a huge community of friends got together every year to show gear, listen and learn, great conversations, and a general good time. Innovation, new and exciting products, after parties, live entertainment were all to be had every day of the event.

Even when high end moved to the Venetian Hotel it continued with solid attendance, and with T.H.E. Show down the street at the Flamingo the same vibe continued on. Almost following the career of the King after The Comeback in all his svelte, bedazzled, bejeweled jumpsuit glory, and sweaty scarves to throw to his orgasmic audience, the move to the Venetian was a more glitzy venue and also more expensive, but it consumed the top five floors of the hotel. The vibe changed, but all the toys were there.

Much like the end of Elvis's career, when he became a bloated, incoherent shell of his former self, High End audio as we had known it in the past at the Venetian, was a barely recognizable, singular floor event, and only about half of that was dedicated to high end. Instead a total absence of the more prolific creators and manufacturers. Gone were the sounds of exquisite vinyl, tube amps, and cutting edge state of the art electronics and speakers wafting out of most of the rooms. Static displays, computer drive servers, Bluetooth galore, and digital everything was the stock and trade of the Venetian this year.

In essence High End left the building, went home, sat on the toilet, and passed away.

While it was definitely disheartening, and certainly the last time I will attend unless a significant change occurs, there were a few rooms that I feel deserve mention, if for nothing other than die-hard dedication or some truly new items to speak of. So with that, here are the very few noteworthy things I saw at CES.

Main convention center:

This is not the place to try and find gear if you are really hoping to get in any listening, but I did see a couple of interesting static displays.

Phil Jones new company AIRPULSE was displaying some nicely built self powered, stand mounted monitors. The A200, A300 and A800 appear in the picture. Unfortunately no one was available to talk to, but the speakers were clearly well built, and if they sound as good as Phil's other speakers are known to sound, they would surely be worth a listen. Each speaker is self powered, and they provide AUX, Balance Input, Optical, Coaxial, and Bluetooth inputs. Back panels and controls are all top rate. If you're curious, check them out at http://www.airpulseaudio.com/en/product/a200.

The only reason I was in the convention center was to pick up my press packet. This year the visit to the press center brought a really great surprise. Each year CES has provided media with very snazzy backpacks to haul our stuff around. This year we got yet another backpack, but this years unit went straight to the backpack cemetery once I was done. Picture is self explanatory!

On to the Venetian to get into more serious territory with my snazzy, sixth grader clear backpack.

ELAC was in attendance, and was demoing a pair of their Vela series monitor speakers. The speaker is a very sharp piece. Wood veneer combined with aluminum and glass in a trapezoidal shaped cabinet. Sporting a 6 inch mid/bass and a JET 5 tweeter, complete with a down firing port that opens at the back of the speaker's bottom. The speaker is bi-wire capable, and sounded rather inviting pushing out Mark Knopfler's "El Macho." The system was driven by Elac's own electronics. Plenty of rhythm and pace with a very acceptable level of bottom end oomph. Considering the size of the speaker overall, presentation was extremely large.

I wandered from ELAC to the NAD / PSB room. A small $699 desktop NAD system, D3045 Hybrid Digital DAC amplifier was driving a pair of $599 PSB Alpha T20 small floor standing speakers. Overall the system belied its $1300 price tag with very respectable delivery across the frequency spectrum, reasonable soundstaging and focus. The preamp section offers 2 way Bluetooth, HDMI, USB inputs, and a MM Phono input. Amp output is between 60- and 80-watts depending on the mode selected. My initial thought was the perfect millennial starter set, or a nice apartment system.

I next headed into the Kimber Kable room. Lo and behold there was Ray, who I had just seen in December at the So Cal Audio Gala. Had a great visit, and while there was nothing shocking on the cable front... Ray was demoing a new Sony Walkman. Forget the cassette size Walkman of the past. Sony is launching a new equivalent in today's terminology. What does the Sony piece have to do with Ray? Engineering input by the man himself and all the internal wiring is Kimber.

The Sony Portable Music Player DMP-Z1 is a stunning unit, both in build quality, and music delivery via a set of headphones with Kimber headphone cables. The unit is roughly 10 inches deep, 5 inches wide, and about 2 inches tall. The term portable is limited by the weight that had to be around 10-15 pounds. Cost is $8000 with 256gigs of internal storage, and it runs on a full battery charge for 10 hours. It also sports 2 SD slots. Pictures do not do the build quality justice. The volume attenuator costs $800 alone.

I next found my way to the VTL Room. Finally a high end system to listen to. I wasn't the least bit disappointed either.

The system consisted of the:

  • VTL TL-7.5 Series III Reference Linestage Preamplifier $25,000
  • VTL S - 400 Series II Reference Amplifier $33,500
  • VTL TP - Series II Signature Phonostage TBA
  • dCS Rossini Player and Clock $35,998
  • Kumasi Stabi Turntable with 11 inch 4 point Arm and Lyra Etta cartridge $26,500
  • Wilson audio Sasha Speakers $37,900
  • Odin 2 Cables costing, yes this is not a misprint  $300,570
  • Grand total (less Phonostage) $437,968

Now that is truly High End hi-if!

The sound quality was exactly what you might imagine. They were spinning the new Natalie Merchant Paradise is There: The New Tiger Lily Recordings LP. (Available on Nonsuch Records Anon 549801.) Absolutely stunning and as if Natalie was in the room performing a private concert. For half a mil she should have been, and I also should have gotten an autograph.

In the Audioquest room there were some sweet tunes coming from a system driven by Aesthetix electronics feeding into B&W 802s. This setup was there, however, to simply show off the new Dragon Speaker Cables. The demo was a trip through time back to the advent of of dedicated speaker wire, the introduction of Monster Cable original speaker wire, and a demonstration of how things sounded through that wire, through a few other cables all the way to Audioquest's newest top shelf Dragon which tops the Mythical Creatures series of cables. the demo featured Ry Cooder's version of "Nobody's Fault But Mine." It was a quite well done demo, and the cable's designer Garth Powell gave a great presentation. The difference was rather noticeable all the way through the various iterations of cable. Whether or not they are for you is a very personal matter since they won't be cheap. Price was not firm but expect it to come in around $50k plus for a pair.

I dropped in the Technics' room to look at the offerings of their direct drive tables. I specifically wanted to look at the SL-1000R. Price $18,000 to $20,000. Serious build quality and a great looking table. Unfortunately, it was all static display. That being said, they are creating a nice series of tables for both the DJ crowd and for home use. One particular table seems geared towards millennials, and is going to have a built in MM preamp. If you are interested in spinning vinyl on a direct drive table, Technics has you covered.

Rogue Audio was present with a nice system on display. Partnering with EgglestonWorks and Audioquest the system consisted of:

  • Rogue Audio RP-9 Preamplifier $7495
  • Rogue Audio St-100 Power Amp $3495
  • PS Audio DirectStream DAC $6900
  • EgglestonWorks Emma EVO Speakers $5490                                                
  • Audioquest Cables (no prices given)

The system sounded exceptional considering the price and the fact that I had just walked out of a room with a half a million dollar system running in it. I have always found Rogue Audio pieces robustly built and easy on the ears. For someone looking to get into tube audio you could always do a whole lot worse, and if this system was an indication of the kind of system you could put together for roughly $25,000, you could be very happy for a very long time. The system was very smooth, with great frequency sweep. Even in the Venetian it sounded very lifelike with great midrange, sparkling highs, and some good solid oomph in the bottom end. (Oomph is a technical term describing copious energy behind low frequency sounds. Really.)

After leaving this room I began to stumble around looking for anything truly interesting. I wandered into the... room where I saw some very nice, small self powered speakers for desktop applications. I ended up spending a good deal of time with Brent Smalley about the Kantos line of self powered small speakers. The company was displaying its YU2, YU4, and YU6 speakers, all small monitors with drivers using 3/4- to 1-inch tweeters and 3.5- to 5.25-inch mid/woofers. Output from 100-watts for the YU2 and 200-watts for the YU6—all coming from class D amps. Inputs were the ubiquitous mini jacks, optical, and USB inputs.

What caught my attention though was the RCA with phono input switch. All the speakers come in great colors, including Gloss Red and Gloss Teal, quite an attractive color. They also have two subs. The 200 watt SUB 6 (see if you can guess the driver size) and the 250 watt SUB 8. This may the perfect college small apartment setup, or for the budding audiophile because the prices were in the hundreds and not thousands of dollars. Kantos also rolled out their new TUK speakers and matching sub. This systems is still a few months out from being available, but sounded extremely good for a sub $1000 system at projected MSRP. Look for a possible review coming soon. Actually one of the more exciting things I saw this year.

My final stop was to visit with a company out of Latvia called Sonarworks True-Fi. This group has developed a headphone software that works with over 300 sets of headphones to recreate music as it was heard during recording in the studio. It is hard to explain the effect but it is truly stunning. Listening to source material through monitors and headphones, with and without the sound ware, was incredibly convincing. The sound was more lifelike and palpable than I have ever heard from a set of headphones ever. We are not talking about using $5000 Star Electrostatics, but rather run of the mill Technics, Sony, and at the top end, Beats headphones. Check out their website for technical description. If you use headphones a lot you would be well advise to look into this software. www.sonarworks.com/truefi

And that brings me to the end of my final CES review, unless something changes radically in the coming years. As I said earlier, Elvis has definitely left the building, and I don't expect a return engagement. Long live the King!