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CES 2017: Wirelessness

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by Brian Hunter of Audio-Head

Even though 2-channel rooms at CES appeared slightly diluted to a few floors in the Venetian, the giant machine that is audio in general roared on in typical fashion across the giant electronics show that takes place in Las Vegas every year. Of particular note, wireless gains seemed noticeable, or at least pushed to the forefront given the post iPhone 7 world we now live in. The jackless market leader has forever changed the landscape, and much to the chagrin of audiophiles everywhere, appears to have gained a foothold in the popular market. Gains with the more audiophile-friendly aptX wireless protocol appear promising, but its implementation is still starkly vacant from the Apple ecosystem. (For those with a stake in the ecosystem, a sliver of light on this front does exist, as Mac computers now carry this protocol for connection with a little finagling.) But in any case, wireless in general still has much ground to cover before it will ever be considered a sound quality equal with its wired options for audiophiles. Even with this drawback it’s still nearly impossible to deny its convenience to the consumer.

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At CES perhaps one of the biggest contributors to this point was the demo done by KEF and the new wireless LS50 loudspeakers. Much more than merely an amp in a speaker cabinet, KEF was clear that all the digital stops had been pulled for these concentric driver bookshelves in an experience that was truly untethered from the source. The demo offered up in the Venetian parlayed the use of electronics that could be found in any modern home. Bluetooth from an Amazon Echo, analog from a turntable, NAS drives, the list went on and on. Wireless is the next frontier and its slowly worming its way into traditional 2-channel weather the inhabitants a fanatical or not. Just a few short years ago you would be hard pressed to find a tablet inside a listening room at any show. Now, you be hard pressed not to.

Headphone audio’s prioritization of convenience over sound quality (at least with the masses) allows it to get away more on the product development front. Nearly every major manufacturer introduced a wireless headset, most with multiple pricepoints to cover the $150-$300 sweet spot for the market.

At CES Sennheiser announced two slightly less premium wireless headphones called the HD 4.50BTNC ($199) and HD 4.40BT ($149) to help round out the lineup underneath the touch-sensitive, travel-oriented PXC 550 ($399).

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Audio-Technica busted out a new branded technology they are calling Digital Drive with Bluetooth in two new headphones, the ATH-DSR9BT ($549) and ATH-DSR7BT ($299). According to AT the benefit here is that the audio signal stays digital “from listening device to driver”. Here is the pitch from the press release:

“Typically, in headphones using Bluetooth wireless technology, the digital signal goes through a series of steps that process and transform the wireless signal. With each processing step, there’s an opportunity for distortion and disruption in the audio quality. With the Pure Digital Drive system used in the ATH-DSR9BT and ATH-DSR7BT, Audio-Technica combines its engineering know-how of designing headphone drivers and the latest technology. The Trigence Semiconductor Dnote® chipset is used instead of a traditional D/A converter and amplifier. The Dnote system keeps the audio signal entirely in the digital domain from the source right through to the driver, thereby eliminating the opportunities for disruption or distortion that occur in the conversion stages employed in traditional systems. The digital pulses generated by the chipset directly excite the voice coil(s) of the driver to move the diaphragm forward and backward to create the sound waves heard by the user. In order to make the Pure Digital Drive technology a practical reality, Audio-Technica needed to engineer the drivers from the ground up. A unique four-wire voice coil is used in the ATH-DSR9BT to provide precise control of the diaphragm displacement, resulting in improved accuracy in the audio representation. The ATH-DSR9BT’s True Motion D/A Driver uses a new, very light and responsive 45 mm driver diaphragm coated with DLC (Diamond-Like Carbon) for superlative fidelity, and the ATH-DSR7BT employs a 45 mm True Motion Driver.”

The two over-ear options add to the headphone company’s growing list of wireless than includes the SonicFuel ATH-AR3BT ($119) and two around-the-collar IEMs with NFC (for pairing), ATH-CKS990BT ($199) and ATH-CKS550BT ($199).

IEMs with batteries and Bluetooth modules located in harnesses that hang around the neck were very popular on the CES show floor. Italy-based headphone maker V-Moda joined the fray with an updated wireless version to its Forza IEM line. The Forza Metallo Wireless ($169) also offers noise-cancelling from its two on board microphones as well as vibration from the collar for silent notification from your phone.

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In a somewhat odd incarnation of the same concept, LG gave the public a sneak peek at the LG Tone Studio which incorporates a pair of small built-in speakers that allow the user to switch from IEM listening to a more open air option. The LG Tone Free Wireless charge in a collar that you can wear, but also pop out wire-free (from the collar charging station) for a more Apple Airpod experience. Pricing and Release dates are TBD for both products.

All this adds to the options already in play in the market with include Noble Audio’s $99 BTS 3.5mm plug-in module and many in-wire solutions like Westone’s MMXC Bluetooth Cable ($149), Jaybirds Wireless Freedom ($179.99) and X3 ($129), and the NuForce BE6i ($129).

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NuForce also introduced a new wireless speaker under their Optoma brand. The new Q7 pushed out quite a bit of volume in a demo in conjunction with an Optoma projector. Intended to go hand-in-hand with home theater or as a standalone, the minimalist cube shape would offer up little interference in terms of real estate presence when placed in living room or office. The Q7 will hit the market in May with a $499 MSRP.

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Lifestyle-friendly audio company B & O also added a cylindrical option to their BEOPLAY line with the M5 wireless speaker ($599). The demo at CES ran without a hitch with one M5 in each corner of the room, but the setup was not dedicated stereo. Intended as another complement to the A6 and A9 already in the market, the M5 is designed for more position-agnostic setups. The bass projects downward in a 360 dispersion pattern while 3 tweeters and a small mid driver take care of the rest of the frequency range. The sound from the dual product demo was bass-centric in its delivery, with a big sound, depth and volume one would not expect from the size. The BEOPLAY line was started 5 years ago as a move to tap into a younger demographic for the audio brand. The sound signature designed into the M5 reflected some of that appeal in its approach.

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Last, but certainly not least, there was Poly. A new add-on to the popular portable Chord Mojo, the addition here is quite a big one to the mobile DAC that has taken hold of many hearts in the personal audio community. Intended as a wireless streaming module, Poly offers up NAS, Airplay and even Roon integration on the WiFi front. File compatibility includes nearly every popular codex up to DSD512 (via DoP). Bluetooth and even a card reader push the versatility of the appendage to the point where it could be now considered a portable DAP if not for the lack of a screen. Control can still be had from computer or phone, with any number of streaming options to make that happen in-between. With its own battery and power supply, the Poly can charge the Mojo itself, or pass through the Micro USB plug-in supply. Expect 9 hours of playback time and a March release date. Street price should be around 500 British lbs. ($612 USD).

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