CES 2019 Highlights

The Venetian wasn’t “dead,” so to speak.

Before I set out to commit to CES 2019 I wanted to make sure there would still be something to cover. But as the weeks before the giant Las Vegas electronics show drew to a close, it become slowly apparent that my schedule was filling up… over filling perhaps.

The show is notorious for a tidal wave of PR releases about cell-phone cases and all manner of technical nicknacks that range from giant TVs to odd health devices. Regardless, there was enough media merit to forage onward across the desert from the city of Angeles to the city of Sin.

The impact of the high-fidelity corner of CES was certainly diminished by any standard. Actual listening rooms were reduced to a single hallway, with some stragglers to be found a few floors upward. There were of course, many off site meetings taking place for dealer and distribution, but the traditional experience of room-to-room networking was all but a tiny trickle in a dried up stream, but there were still a few drops of hi-fi essence to be captured, especially on the digital end. Some of the big initial announcements actually came in on the less physical, or tangible side of things.

MQA and TIDAL

First out the gate is the addition of MQA Masters support to the Android Tidal app]. Now as a core decoder, Android users can get the first unfold of MQA’s highest resolution right off their phone or tablet. Apple fans will have to wait a little longer, release date for that update is still TBD.

Qobuz Beta

Also announced in time for CES is the launch of the US Beta for the high res streaming service Qobuz. The high res music streaming service has been around for some time now on the other side of the ocean and things are really ramping up for Tidal’s biggest competitor in the hi-fi space. US pricing was also released with a $9.99 starting point for 320 kbps MP3, $19.99 for 16-bit CD quality and $24.99 for Hi-Res 24-bit/up to 192 khz.

Nagra DAC X

Placed right at the entrance to the single hallway that housed the lion’s share of high-fidelity sonic wonderment at CES was a recessed door, just off to the left. The room inside that door housed a new DAC from the Swiss company Nagra. The digital news bullet point from Switzerland is the HD DAC X ($64,500 USD), which was leashed to a pair of Wilson Audio Sasha DAW ($37,000 USD). The new flagship joins the HD line along side the HD Preamp ($65.900 USD) and HD Amp, but the Nagra Classic Amp ($32,000 USD) was on display in the Venetian. The two-chassis unit offers separate power supplies for each electronic stage, 37 in total. The all-important USB input is a proprietary design, as is the delta-sigma based chipset. DSD compatibility handles up to 4x, but there is currently no support for MQA. Nagra states the digital section is designed to be upgradeable however, and firmware updates leave the door open for more playback options. The hand-wound transformers in the HD DAC X are also a new design and the analog section boasts dual-mono topology with an inter-stage transformer and tube each. Expect orders to start building immediately with shipping shortly thereafter.

Elac

Elac’s charismatic and always entertaining Andrew Jones usually makes a big splash at any audio show. At CES he was showing off a new line of speakers sporting a JET folded ribbon tweeter called the Carina series with the bookshelf loudspeaker ($1,199 USD/pair for the 5-inch woofer) on display on one side of the room. The other side showcased a new pre/DAC/streamer as part of the Alchemy tier of products, headed by Peter Madnick who was recently brought into the ELAC fold after showing with the company for years. Retailing for $2.500 USD, the DDP-2-BK does a full MQA unwrap, DSD 4x, UPnP and can act as a Roon output device. Mainstream users can rejoice with Bluetooth, Ethernet and even built in Apple Airplay. The volume pot is a digitally-controlled, analog-resistant divider and the internal topology is fully I2S, which includes direct connection to outside devices via HDMI cable. Also coming to life is a new stereo amp and streamer joining the ELAC Discovery Series. The DS-A101-G all-in-one ($750 USD) outputs 2x80 watts from the BASH amp section but also allows for Dolby Digital decoding and room EQ. Part of the room EQ also includes an ABC (auto blend and calibrate) tech for automatic subwoofer blending – is was a lot of acronyms for one room. Connectivity for the new model includes plenty of wireless options like DNLA, Ethernet and Spotify Connect, but no longer involves a direct USB digital input.

NAD

A quick stroll into the 29th-floor space housing NAD revealed two unique setups facing each other from either side of the suite. One of them accommodated a new streamer that offered up acoustic services with a very simplistic design approach. A combination of digital provider and amp, the NAD M10 ($2,499 USD) pushes 100x2 watts of Hypex nCore (class D) power along with an almost full-frontal quadrant of display screen. Roon endpoint and Dirac room DSP are on board along with the BluOS App for wifi operation. The one-box solution is further realized with an HDMI return channel and multi room control via BluOS, which also allows integration with smart home systems. Connected to a pair of Dali Epicon 6 loudpeakers ($14k) the two-piece rig had no trouble harnessing a firm low-end presence to build upon – an impressive and authoritative show within the small window of time I had to sit and listen. Clever industrial design and a small footprint are all hallmarks of a possible future we may share together, even if the idea is still very un-audiophile at the moment. The grand sum in the NAD room that day left me with some positive affirmation that the simplification and ubiquity of an interface doesn’t have to tow a sacrifice of sound quality along with it.

Technics

While the Technics room had their two new turntables on display (audiophile SL-1500C, ~$1,400 USD and DJ SL-1200MK7, ~$1,200 USD) there was also a new digital streamer looming quietly in the far corner. The Grand Class Network and SACD player SL-G700 has a target price of approximately $3,500 USD and a target release date of this summer. Proudly displaying MQA compliant signage above the classic silver casework, the minimalist LED screen was a bit of contrast to NADs new streamer aesthetics. In addition to MQA, the streamer also does Google Chromecast and native DSD playback without breaking a sweat. Digital conversion comes courtesy of an AK4497 chipset and is fed with juice from five unique power supplies. Bonus points awarded for Apple Airplay compatibility on top of Bluetooth, Spotify and Tidal. Although it’s not the least expensive streamer on the market, the SACD disc spinner feels like a nice bonus here as well.

AMBEO

Outside of the confines of the Venetian a few other audio sundries could be found among the throngs of flowing attendees in any of the massive convention halls located across the city. The South Hall of the LVCC is home to a few of the larger headphone manufacturers that still present at the predominantly AR/VR/Gaming hall. Sennheiser’s PR release was somewhat void of any precisely high-end personal-audio statements, but they did bring along a speaker array that took advantage of their research into 3D-audio recreation which they call AMBEO. This year’s AMBEO product is a 13-driver sound bar that costs roughly $2,500 USD. Capable of virtual 5.1.4 sound, the AMBEO sound bar’s surround-audio success hinges on its capabilities to properly capture the layout of a room and bounce sound beams accordingly. In theory, the system developed jointly with Fraunhofer IIS should be capable of tricking your brain into rear sound effects from a single, listener-facing position. The sound bar of course comes with a wired calibration tool for room measurement and also a smart control app. Digital compatibility starts with Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and MPEG-H, but also includes built in Chromecast, Bluetooth and HDMI eARC/CEC. Six of the 13 transducers are 4-inch long-throw woofers intended to provide some bottom-end shove and dissipate the need for a separate sub arrangement. Physical inputs include 3 HDMI, optical and a single ended RCA.

Overall, much of the rumored diminishing returns from CES for the audiophile media have come to that final 10 per cent. That is to say, there are not too many directions left to go for the once established high-fidelity audio collective. Aside from the small listening-room showing, the resulting growing number of individual offsite meetings make it extremely hard to manage from a logistics standpoint. Leaving the Venetian can be an all day affair, further misguiding the thinning ranks of audiophile press left to cover the few remaining product launches around the event.

The “foot traffic” impression left on those who paid for a listening room varies greatly on who you ask. I wouldn’t be lying if I said some told me that “they didn’t know what they were doing here.” Alternately, Andrew Jones and the ELAC room never seem to have a dull moment and their couch is always full with the sweet spot firmly occupied. It is most likely true that the listening-room days of high fidelity at CES are over, but… many wrote that last year. Still, those few stubborn souls who did show their wares were producing lovely sound. Being one of the few press that did attend – as previously mentioned – my schedule was delightfully full.

The words “Chrome” and “Cast” appeared to be uttered more than once over the course of the week, as were three letter abbreviations like DSP, APP, and MQA… USB not as much. It appears that even the most wired of hobbies gets worn down by the evolving tech and the torrential demand of convenience in product development. Regardless of trend, CES 2019 was a still a sight to see and hear. 

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