Before, after and during. That’s when I heave out the long sigh. An audio show — any audio show — wrings that out of me. But this year, CES was … different.
For me, a show is equal parts work and play. I get out of the house, away from responsibilities, for two or three days. It’s like a vacation — or so my wife says. I get to sleep late, eat and drink myself silly, and hang out with all of the weird and wonderful folks that make up high-end audio. In short, my wife is absolutely right. It’s a party and I love it.
I also have to work, however. Yeah, yeah, I can hear you crying for me, Argentina. But I feel compelled to mention that I do have a day job that isn’t audio-related, so every audio show also means about 3 weeks of Scot-is-annoyingly-unavailable-to-his-family, while I sift, retouch, edit and presumably write. And by “write”, I mean something like 25k words. That’s a lot. For those of you keeping track, that’s about 100 pages of words, before you slice in the hundreds and hundreds of photos.
To help me make sense of what I’m sorting through, to enable Traveler to cover much more ground, and to acknowledge that a burden shared is a burden lightened, I’ve attempted to enlist a series of collaborators for most of the audio shows. Especially for a show like CES, with over 200 rooms all stuffed full of audio tasties. Without help, there was really just no way it was going to happen.
So, as with the last few shows I’ve attempted to tackle, I lined up a pair of likely lads and we set off. We split up the work. We grappled with the crowds. We slung our hash and ate that shit up. We departed, victorious. All the work was laid out and ready to be tackled.
And … they disappeared.
For the record, the missing personages are, to the best of my knowledge, no longer on Planet Earth or anywhere within the Inner Ring of Planets, but I’ve given up looking and referred the matter to Boba Fett to collect on the advances they were paid.
As for me, well, I’ve been practicing yoga. Okay, not really “practicing”, per se, so much as doing it in my head. And by that I mean that I’ve been drinking, binge-watching Archer on Netflix, and periodically pounding my head into a table. Mostly the latter.
Anyway, I’m finally getting my arms back around the beast. But yes, this is a long way to go to explain why CES took 3 months to “finish”, even if we’re really only 1/3 of the way through, and there was that big ol’ month-long gap in the middle. To those that pitched in and pinch-hit, you have my gratitude.
I’m sorry to say that I didn’t get to everything at CES this year. I didn’t even get close! My excuse — that I had folks lined up and ready to help me do just that — is just an empty suit. It’s all on me: mea culpa.
But now … well, now it really is time to move on.
So, before we stick a fork in it, there were many things I wish I’d had more time to see and talk about from CES. I mean, aside from just about everything. Let’s start with Chord.
Chord has been making truly exceptional electronics for longer than I’m aware of, but the most recent impact on my awareness (and the general awareness of the personal audio community) was with their remarkable battery-powered combo DAC and headphone amplifier, the Hugo. At CES this year, Chord launched Hugo’s big brother — the Chord Hugo TT.
The TT (“table top”) is not meant to be portable, like it’s little brother. Not that you’d really be tempted to stuff $4,795 worth of amplifier into your backpack, but hey, whatevs. The new form-factor is significantly larger than the relatively petit Hugo, but this one features a variety of delightful things unavailable to the smaller package. One is a galvanically isolated USB port. That’s good. Two 1/4″ headphone jacks are paired up with XLR and RCA analog outputs. A bigger battery and dramatically upgraded capacitors (supercapacitors, is what I heard) mean more power and more slam. The digital circuitry is unchanged from the Hugo.
Are you ready for a table top Hugo? Me, I’d love to try one out.
The big news at Calyx this year was actually quite small — say hello to the PaT. A headphone amplifier and DAC, the PaT is tidy, totally portable, even if it is somewhat limited with only 16bit/48kHz file playback support. While this means no DSD (sniff) and no ultra-high-res audio, you have to realize that the target market — iPhone users — can’t really do that anyway without some custom software that no one I know regularly uses. Thus, the PaT is pretty much perfect, and at $99, it’s a pretty good deal. Buttons on the case will interact directly with IOS for pause, volume and fast-forward/reverse.
I don’t really know much about Scansonic, other than it seems that the designer also worked on Raidho. Makes sense, looking at the speakers — ribbons here framed by carbon-fiber drivers, caged in a svelte towers, some of which also house a pair of aluminum bass drivers — but the prices are what caught my eye. Even before my ear. That is, they’re cheap. The MB 3.5 is $5,000 per pair — and yes, that is not cheap. Except it is. That sound, here paired with electronics from Jeff Rowland and Hegel, was shocking. And yes, I mean that — I was taken aback. Surprised. Eyebrows fleeing into the hairline. Yep. Was not expecting that. 6Ω, 30Hz-30kH, this speaker kills. And it’s one of several available models, all at price points below this, their flagship offering. Looking forward to seeing (and hearing!) a lot more from them.
While we’re on the theme, Raidho seems bent on an up-market tear. The super-narrow X3 ($30k) was festooned with drivers (five on the front, plus two 8″ on the sides). Honestly, this speaker was way too much for the room, but the promise was there — give it oodles of space, and bask in it’s subsonic glories. Also shown was the new $30k Aavik U-300 integrated that Dr Karavitis saw last year in Athens. It’s an impressive beast, and that dial is wicked clever looking.
SOtM is an odd brand. My familiarity really only extends to their famous computer-audio audiophile-grade USB card, but that card was the best thing since sliced bread — according to just about everyone I know that tried it out in their DIY servers. But SOtM does quite a bit more than that.
Shown here with big speakers from Eggleston Works, SOtM fronted the system with a DAC/Pre, an amp, external power supplies, and proprietary cables and filters for both USB and Ethernet. There was a lot more on offer, and quite frankly, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of bits and bobs the company is offering.
Gideon Schwartz of Audioarts is a charming fellow and no one is ever going to fault him for his excellent taste. Lately, I’ve found him championing a speaker I’d never heard of, a brand called Zellaton. The speakers’ drives aren’t actually aluminum, but instead are a rather complex sandwich of space-age materials, resulting in a super-light and super-rigid cone structure. The cabinets are also not ported — they’re completely open on the back. I’m pretty sure Schwartz was using the Zellaton Grand ($80k/pair) here at CES, and drove them with a top-of-the-line electronics from CH Precision. That gear, including the $95k/pair M1 monos, have these giant digital meters on the front that give you a real-time readout of the output. Mostly loafing, the amps nonetheless slammed up to several hundred watts near-as-I-could-tell instantaneously. That was pretty awesome.
This show made a marked difference to my expectations when I found a Thöress Phono Equalizer in front of the turntable. Tubes? And CH Precision? Oh, yes please. The life and warmth of this pairing may have been the best I’ve heard from Audioarts to date.
I’m a big fan of Gary Koh and Genesis, and was lucky enough to get some serious time on his superb G5.3 full-range speakers. One of the things I love about Gary is his near-miraculous attention to detail. There’s nothing in any of his products that Gary didn’t put there. Take the new $45k/pair G4 loudspeakers. The screws? Gary designed them. The veneer? Gary invented it. The bamboo? Gary grew it from seeds, fertilizing it with his own happy tears. Everything is “just so”. Like the G5.3, the new 4 has all the knobs and tweaks you could want. Gary’s preference, as a designer, may be Accuracy Above All, but he certainly gives us the tools to deviate as wildly as we see fit. Here, there are two knobs, “one that goes from soft to bright, and another that goes from tight to warm. It’ll drive the audiophiles crazy, but as my usual with all my designs, turn the knobs to point straight up, and that will be ‘flat’.” Two new monoblock amplifier lines were introduced as well. More here.
Wendell and Galina were on hand showing off the newest from Magnepan — the .7 at $1,400/pair. A massive upgrade for the Model 12, the new .7 is cut from the same acoustic (and technological) cloth as the rest of the Dot-Seven series panels, and as such, shares a startling sonic similarity with them. $1,400 is not inexpensive, but calling it the opposite is kind of abusing the word “expensive” — at least in this context.
My first thought, hearing it here with electronics from Conrad-Johnson, was “Holy Cow!” My second thought was, “Are you sure this is not a 1.7?” Seriously. Seriously good.
I’m hoping PTA can field a pair of these in the near future. They’re killer, and for the price, an absolute bargain.
The Rest of CES
The problem with CES is that it’s CES. That is, it’s big. That is, it’s kinda all over the Venetian Hotel … and the rest of the city of Las Vegas.
I did not make it to the Convention Center this year at all. I’m sure I missed a lot because of that but oh well.
What I did find, in the Convention Center area down under the Venetian, was a lot of wacky stuff, but robots, 3D printers, and drones were available in such splendid abundance, that I suspect that the coming AI Apocalypse is in fact much closer than anyone might care to admit.
So, I’ll close on this partial catastrophe of coverage with some images of the future-is-now, aka, your impending doom.