International CES 2014 Wrap-Up

This year's CES wasn't one for the record books, though plenty of records were played and that was good. From the main convention site to the Venetian to T.H.E. Show at the Flamingo, the show was rather lackluster and attendance was off, mostly due to cold weather flight disruptions.

Some years are major, like the ones where the VCR, CD or HDTV were introduced and some years are minor where there's not much of anything new. That would be CES 2014.

This year at the main convention site there was almost nothing earth-shatteringly new or innovative, just a lot of old stuff refreshed. That could be said about just about every recent year at the high performance audio venues, since what we're about is great sound and that means tried and true form factors like big loudspeakers, amplifiers and turntables playing vinyl. High resolution audio played via computer or server was the last new form-factor and that was introduced years ago.

My take is that the last big wave of innovation in all sectors came just around the same time as the big economic meltdown and before producing anything new most of the companies want to see returns on the big investments made then.

Still, many companies did introduce new products. Unfortunately, while we saw the $50,000 Tech DAS Air Force 2 turntable we didn't get to hear it. Why? Apparently someone who shouldn't have tried to set it up yanked out and broke a ribbon cable. Very sad. We also missed hearing the new $11,000 Tech DAS TDC01 MC phono cartridge.

Speaking of sad, on day one I entered a room and asked to hear the "Winds of War and Peace" track used for the phono preamp survey (results coming soon) that has those monster bass drum "thwacks". All sounded fine through the big, expensive speakers driven by big, powerful mono blocks (no names will be divulged) until the first "thwack" at which time the ceramic midrange driver literally vaporized before my eyes and those of the importer and the speaker designer. I felt awful on one level but on another I couldn't help but chuckle (my bad) I did not play the track as a 'destructive test'. I just wanted to hear it.

There were some very good sounding rooms at both ends of the price spectrum where the same track did not destroy any drivers, and legendary mastering engineer Doug Sax's presentation in the ATC speaker room was memorable and well worth the time.

Sax spoke about the surprising vinyl resurgence and about how busy he is now cutting lacquers for young bands. He played some of a sampler record he's producing (one in a series) featuring a dozen or so of the groups whose albums he's mastered for vinyl and he plans to release the sampler some time this year, pressed at Chad Kassem's QRP. He also said he was planning a Demonstration Disc, which will be used as a turntable calibration disc complete with alignment tones and an anti-skating adjustment track, etc.

He told me that I would not like the anti-skating track. I said "I won't if it's a blank, groove-less surface" and he said "That's what it is." And I said "Well then it will be wrong because skating is caused by friction in the groove and a groove-less disc will have far less friction than any grooved disc and cannot, therefore, produce accurate results."

If you had told me 30 years ago that I'd be arguing and contradicting Doug Sax at a CES, I'd have asked what you were smoking and can I have some! But there I was doing just that. I hope to get into a long discussion with Sax and perhaps help in the disc's production. Maybe try to push my name onto it, but only if it's done the way I think it should be done. And if not, I should probably produce one myself!

So what were the sonic highlights at the show? I thought the $480,000 Coltrane Supreme II speakers driven by Pass Labs amps sounded superb and solid. For $480K you should get the full spectrum dynamically and in terms of frequency response and these speakers delivered. I heard some people say otherwise but I'd say they were wrong. That said, the flat-baffled design didn't produce the spatial accuracy produced by the $45,000 Wilson Audio Specialties Alexia in the VTL room, which was another of the best sounding at the show, but I thought the Marten Audio speakers produced more accurate and consistent timbral performance as well they should for more than 10X the price! VTL used its big Siegfried-like stereo amp and its preamp and phono preamp fed by a Spiral Groove SG 1.1 fitted with a Lyra Etna cartridge. You'd have liked the sound in that room, I'm sure

Rogue Audio always gets good sound for a reasonable price and this year they were driving a pair of $8000 Dynaudio Confidence C 1 II speakers with the company's $3495 Pharaoh tube/solid state integrated amplifier complete with internal adjustable MM/MC phono section. The analog front end was a Dr. Feickert Analogue Woodpecker turntable with 12" Jelco arm, Acoustical Systems Arché headshell and Ortofon Cadenza Black cartridge—a special $11,500 package put together by Feickert importer VANA, LTD. Great sounding system.

Over at T.H.E. Show a 'statement' system consisting of the Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond V turntable, VAC electronics, Perfect 8 speakers and Stealth cables sounded great despite being in an oversized auditorium-like room. I sat through a side of a Beethoven Violin Concerto test pressing from The Electric Recording Company. i usually don't sit through a side of anything at a show.

Overall though, the best bang for the buck system in my opinion as well as the most living room friendly one, and one I could see a young "newbie" couple considering was the Devialet 110 amplifier/DAC/MM phono preamp driving a pair of Focal Aria 926 floor standers—a new model using Flax coned 'W" construction drivers. I don't recall offhand the Devialet model number but it sells for around $6500 and the speakers sell for around $3000. That's a grand total of around $10,000. Add some cables and a modestly priced source or two and you're in!

The sound in that room was absolutely wonderful. I stayed and played vinyl transfers on a USB stick at 96/24 and enjoyed every minute of it.

There were some other notably good sounding rooms, but I'm done.