CES 2016: A Turning Point

See that huge line? It's a small indication of the huge, multi-national, multi-industry group of CES attendees whose numbers—170,000, if the former CEA (Consumer Electronics Association), now CTA (Consumer Technology Association) counts accurately—set new attendance records.

There's just one thing. That line was not at the Venetian Hotel, where all but a few of what CES dubs the "high-performance audio" exhibits were staged. Instead, it was at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Just about everyone you see had no idea that the High End of the audio industry was holding forth on floors 29, 30, 34, and 35 of the Venetian, because virtually all PR, including the multipage "CES 2016 Attendee Guide" that they received in the mail, failed to mention our existence.

Does that mean that the high-end held forth alone? Not quite. Imagine the surprise—shock, if I may—of discovering, scattered amongst the high-end audio exhibits on both sides of the Venetian Tower's long hallways, a fair number of technology companies. On some hallways, there was an entire block of a dozen or more meeting rooms, completely unrelated to audio.

It wasn't exactly "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," but you get the picture. The high-end companies that did exhibit were as committed as in years past. But there were less of them, far less than before.

Their absence is certainly not due to a declining interest in music. It's a safe bet that a huge number of attendees arrived with tablets, phones, computers, and portable players that held their digital music collections. Many of them returned home to listen to music, increasingly turning to vinyl as well as digital sources. In their spare time—even at work—they share their favorite tracks and videos, get together to listen, and fill the soundtrack of their lives with music. No matter what anyone may say, music is alive to more people than ever in the United States and abroad.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that growing numbers of young American listeners are turning to vinyl and CD quality/hi-rez download and streaming services, most of them are about as aware of what the High End can achieve with sound as Graham Nash was before Jon Iverson made the brilliant move to invite him to CES. How to reach these newbies of all ages with what we have to offer is, as we all know, an uphill climb. Nonetheless, high-end turntable manufacturers at all price points will tell you that business is booming. Check the record pressing plants, and you'll discover a bigger resurgence of vintage and new music vinyl issues than almost anyone other than Michael Fremer ever imagined would be possible at this point in time. No matter who did or did not attend the high-end exhibits in Las Vegas, our industry is beginning to find ways to embrace entire new generations of music lovers who have yet to discover their audiophile nature.

Back to those numbers. The numbers game also affected Stereophile's blogging crew. With one blogger less this time around, we made some hard choices. Doing our best to restrict ourselves to newly introduced or upgraded products, Herb Reichert covered budget gear; Jon Iverson digital; Larry Greenhill mid-price electronics and subwoofers; Bob Deutsch mid-price loudspeakers and turntables; Jason Victor Serinus high-priced and cost-no-object loudspeakers, electronics, and occasionally turntables; and John Atkinson wherever curiosity, obligations, and love for audio and music took him.

For the first time in my memory, cables and accessories, which have usually been my purview, had to be skipped due to time constraints. We deeply regretted this decision. But with a limited number of people, one can do only so much. To those companies who wondered where Jason had gone, I'll do my best to cover you at the next show. Promise.

Skipped by Stereophile as well were most headphone products, which we left for Tyll Hertsens's coverage on InnerFidelity.com. Ditto for turntables, tonearms, and cartridges, which were left to Michael Fremer and AnalogPlanet.com. Kal Rubinson explored multi-channel offerings, and will share his observations in his bimonthly "Music in the Round" column in Stereophile. And whatever computer-based/server-based/desktop / streaming products we could not get to, Michael Lavorgna covered for AudioStream.com and his "Audio Streams" column in Stereophile.

The quality of our collective coverage, I believe, speaks for itself. Each of us has his own voice and style. Except when he accompanied the wonderful Graham Nash, who clearly lit up every room he visited with his spirit and openness to receive, Jon Iverson tends to stick with the facts and reserve comments on sound to future reviews. Herb Reichert, on the other hand, makes most stops on his journey into poetic adventures, mixing visual and verbal art with the audible. And so it goes.

Before filing this "show wrap," I asked each member of the larger Stereophile team to share his "best of" observations. With a fond adieu until next time, here they are:

Michael Fremer: Best sound: Big Lamm room—Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand speakers, Lamm ML-3 Signature amps, etc.

Most startling, earth-shifting presentation: Bruno Putzeys' compact, stand-mounted Kii Three speakers powered internally by his class-D amp modules—one amp and one DAC per driver (six in all). Deep bass into the mid 30Hz region, sweet, extended highs. $13,900/pair. Amazing.

Second most startling, earth shattering presentation: Andrew Jones's new 3-way, $500/pair ELAC "Mini-TAD" bookshelf speaker featuring a concentric midrange/tweeter. Now young people will have to learn proper speaker placement so prodigious is the bass response.

Finally Digital I Can Dig: "Digititis" was not an invention of "Luddite" analog fans, but a quantifiable, identifiable sonic disease that the MQA process can cure, regardless of the patient's age.

Herb Reichert: 1) PrimaLuna's Kevin Deal played selections from Neil Young's "Live at Massey Hall" double LP. Mr. Deal was powering the beautiful Sonus Faber Amati Futuras ($36,000/pair) with Dialogue Premium KT120/150 amps ($3899 stereo/$7798 mono), and the Dialogue Premium preamp ($3199). He had the ferocious VPI Avenger turntable ($9500) equipped with one of my all-time favorite cartridges: the Kiseki PurpleHeart ($3499) feeding the renowned Manley Steelhead phono stage ($8500).

What can I say? "The warmth of tubes"???? Forget that ridiculousness. This system did small-scale and micro-dynamic information like almost nothing I can remember. The best I can say is; "Midrange, midrange, midrange!" Color and detail out the yin-yang. Extremely not warm or cool. Until Pono, I was never a giant Neil Yong fan—but I am now. Young's voice was pristinely sweet and present. This system gets my vote for Best Sound among the "budget" (cough cough) systems I heard at CES.

2) The new Spendor Audio Systems SP200 loudspeakers ($24,995/pair) are clearly not in my assigned "Budget: Under $5k" territory—they are in Jason's "Cost No Object" realm. So what? These 87dB-sensitive beauties are my nomination for Best Loudspeaker at CES. Call me old fashioned, but these substantial wood-box old school British designs did it all. If I had to retire with only one loudspeaker . . . This Spendor would surely be it!

Michael Lavorgna: The biggest word in computer and digital audio replay at CES 2016 was "-Ready." Roon-Ready and MQA-Ready products captured the most attention mainly because Roon makes file-based playback much better in terms of interfacing with stored and streamed music libraries and MQA makes digital music sound much, much better.

My personal favorite rooms for listening to and enjoying music included DeVore Fidelity featuring the wonderful totaldac and the DeVore gibbon Xs which I have in-barn further, and which was further enhanced by sitting next to Graham Nash; the MSB room, which sounded simply stunning; and the Bluesound/MQA demo of The Doors' "Riders on the Storm", a song I've been listening to for nearly 40 years. This was the best-sounding digital version I've ever heard by a very long shot, played back through a $1199 server/DAC/MQA decoder (and cheap interconnects!).

Jon Iverson: 1) MQA is obviously of interest to audiophiles and a very impressive technology. I had a discussion with one of the engineers about challenges on the supply side, which includes music production and mastering. Recording industry adoption of MQA will be key I think, since the public is not exactly clamoring for better offerings because they don't sound "good enough."

Human behavior on the mass-market level will likely dictate how something like this rolls out, and if the supply of music includes MQA going forward, they'll have a shot. In other words, I think wide availability of MQA-endowed albums is more likely to attract consumers to the format, who will then start to buy equipment with decoders, than the idea that consumer demand for buying MQA optioned decoders will encourage the labels to finally adopt it. Hope it works either way though!

2) All-in-one digital streaming solutions have caught on in a big way with the mass market, Sonos being the prime example. To see several companies come up with high-end, Sonos-like products seems a no brainer. They'll just have to prove why they cost more for the same basic functionality.

3) Roon-Ready illuminated signs appeared in several rooms at CES. This is a development I whole-heartedly support, simply because I think using Roon is better for music. If manufacturers stick to hardware and recognize that Roon leapfrogged everyone on the software side, the consumer will win all over, and everyone will have much more fun with music.

Tyll Hertsens: Front and center in Sennheiser's booth were four virtual audio listening stations featuring prototypes of current laboratory work intended to get headphone sound out of your head. Three-dimensional audio is coming, but big roadblocks remain in place for headphone makers, as an entire ecosystem of aural display technologies (head tracking, higher bandwidth to the headphones, etc.) must be developed. Katrin Huss, Sennheiser's Director of Consumer and Business Insights, agreed the display was fun and captivating for listeners, but additionally hoped it would act as an invitation to industry players to begin the serious dialog and developments needed to commercialize this powerful new technology.

Robert (Bob) Deutsch: Award for Best Sound and Most Advanced Technology: Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 90. Larry has a blog item on this, with a contribution from me here.

Besides that, I'm a sucker for the fake Venetian ambience of St. Mark's Square in The Venetian.

Kal Rubinson: Two speakers, one at each end of the size/price continuum, impressed me. One was the ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 ($500/pair). Because of the Uni-Fi concentric tweeter/midrange, Andrew Jones is able to create a true 3-way speaker in a pint-pot enclosure. The result is a midrange clarity that very few 2-ways can muster. The capper was a rendering of the last movement of the Copland Symphony 3 that was more than credible—it was astounding for such a small speaker. Modest in price, only.

The other was the B&O Beolab 90 ($80,000/pair). To celebrate their 90th Anniversary, B&O let designer Geoff Martin pull out all the stops, instead of giving him a design/function/price spec. The result is a real departure from traditional thinking that, with its 18 drivers, 14 power amps and prodigious DSP, results in a speaker which tests well and sounds great. (My report on my its development is in Stereophile's October 2015 issue.)

Larry Greenhill: I found DACs and their smartphone apps installed in most high-end audio components, both solid-state and tube products, something I hadn't noticed at earlier CES shows. Several high-end component manufacturers introduced new products that were considerably less expensive than their flagship line (by factors of 3–5 times), with many of the same design features.

The biggest technical standout for me was the live presentation of Bang & Olufsen's Blue Sky, $80,000/pair BeoLab 90 loudspeaker system, which uses 18-driver floorstanding enclosures and 18 channels of DACs and internal amplifiers, all working to focus the direct sound to the listener and filling in gaps between the three main drivers. The effortless sonics were even better than the technical chat, producing wide soundstages, and powerful bass.

Thiel introduced the most technically advanced subwoofer system in a beautiful rosewood contoured cabinet, easily the best-sounding and best-looking subwoofer I saw at the show. VAC's Kevin Hayes announced the development and implementation of his iQ bias regulation to optimize sonics and tube life in his amplifiers. Kii Audio's Model 3 speakers, slightly larger than most bookshelf two-way systems, reminded me of the BeoLab90 in a much more compact package (6 drivers, 6 DACs, 6 NCore class-D amplifiers per cabinet) at one-fifth the price.

Great musical selections and sound was present in many exhibit rooms I visited including (in alphabetical order) Audio Research, Bang & Olufsen, Bryston, Harman/Mark Levinson, VAC, and VTL. Finally, one highlight was the presence of the Quad Electrostatic loudspeaker at the show, which had been missing for several years because of the lack of an importer for the United States. Yes, CES 2016 was a superb show, reassuring me that high-end audio is healthy and growing.

John Atkinson: In no particular order, MBL, dCS, Vivid, VTL, YG Acoustics, Synergistic, CAT/SAE, big Lamm room, MSB, Vandersteen, MQA. And Lori Lieberman performing live in the On a Higher Note suite.

Jason Victor Serinus: In all matters MQA, I'm on the same page as the two Michaels and Jon. All of us who heard the without/with comparisons can't wait until Tidal and the major labels come on board. MQA may not be the best thing since the invention of Swiss Cheese, but who listens to Swiss Cheese?

I haven't yet begun to use Roon, but will install it in the week ahead. Everyone I know who uses it tells me that the way to avoid library filing ruin is with Roon.

My two favorite high-priced spread exhibits were across from the Venetian, in the off-site Mirage suites. There, speakers were not constrained by space considerations, and music had the space it needed to bloom. John Quick's dCS/D'Agostino/Wilson/Stromtank/Transparent room and Philip O'Hanlon's Luxman/Vivid rooms were at the top of my list. Both sounded great, with the color saturation and unforced clarity of the dCS/D'Agostino/Wilson/Stromtank/Transparent gear unprecedented in my experience.

Of the rooms I wish I could have spent more time in, pride of place goes to EgglestonWorks/dCS/D'Agostino/Transparent and Raidho/Aavik/Ansuz. Of exhibits I wish I could have indulged in, Bang & Olufsen, VTL/Wilson (which John Atkinson tells me sounded just wonderful), MSB, YG Acoustics, Chord, Dynaudio, and Audio Alchemy come to mind.

If there's one long held observation I re-affirmed from spending four days with the high-priced spread, it's that cost is not necessarily an indication of quality. I'll let my blogs do the talking in that regard. And, on that note, away we go.

COMMENTS
Anton's picture

"I like listening to music, on my Hi Fi."

Our hobby does not convey that simple and elegant philosophy any more.

I can see why "our" part of the hobby gets left off of the emails and notifications. Whoever the evil genius was who decided to differentiate us audiophiles from the unwashed masses by calling what we do "high end" may have succeeded in fooling some of the people some of the time, but it lead to Hi FI being ignored by more of the people more of the time. “High end” is snobbish self-congratulatory pretention, and we are seeing the result – being ignored by the very industry that hatched us!
You can talk about Elac's success all you like, but it will be lost in the shuffle of 200,000 dollar speakers we seem to tell the public they will need to wring out the true essence of the music. The aura we convey is too Biedermeier and not enough Oscar Mayer. It's not that we should settle for crap, but we spend far too much time congratulating ourselves, fawning over systems that cost more that the median home price, and ''Stockholm Syndroming' the “high end” industry.

"High End" audio is not inviting, even to my perception, and I am a lifelong audiophile!

At this point, I say, let the "high end" be the "high end," but do not fool yourself into thinking that average music lovers need our paraphilia to get the same amount of joy out of music that we do. They don’t need us to get their musical rocks off! Hence, we get ignored.

We spend way to much time on the fetish wear and not on the romance.

We are aural gynecologists, not music "lovers."

I think you summed it up pretty well when apologizing to all the cable manufacturers for missed coverage in the same blog entry that bemoaned a lack of interest in the "high end" on the part of the public or CES!

Audiophilia will always be a niche, always has been. That's no biggie. But it's not fair to say the public would certainly embrace 300,000 dollar "high end" systems and cable "looms" if we only got a little more positive press.

OK, rant over. Back I go to comparing record cleaning machines.

Thank you for great show coverage, too!

Let's start killing the term "high end" in audio.

eriks's picture

I have to agree that the "High end" has become mere fashion. The generation of the perception of value without constraint or reason. Mind you, I get that we cannot sell products if we focus on costs, but when reviewers get used to thinking of nearly $20k speakers affordable, it's laughable.

Best,

Erik

Steve Eddy's picture

It's not even fashion.

A bunch of ugly boxes connected with a tangle of cables isn't fashion. It's just a bunch of testosterone-driven vomit aimed at appeasing the clinically neurotic.

bpw's picture

Howdy in any event. Perhaps the term "high end" can be banished because it sounds snooty, so to distinguish the systems we like let's call it "high performance" because after all that's what it's about, no matter your budget. I consider myself a high performance audio dealer and strive to offer some of the best in several price ranges which deliver great listening satisfaction, backed by unparalleled customer service and home auditioning opportunities.

We need $500 components, but we also need $200,000 ones, too, so let's not dumb down what is written about and reviewed.

Brian Walsh
Essential Audio

rdiiorio's picture

I agree with what you say. I too love sound, and in the '70s my favorite system was a pair of KLH Nines, Marantz 7 preamp and a Futterman H3a amp. I moved to Calif leaving my stuff behind thinking i would miss hearing Hi-Fi . Well i met a wonderful woman, fell in love and one night while listening to a classical piano on a table radio, the music moved me in such a way as never before, I walked away from that experience as knowing its not the music i was listening too all these years it was the system, once i "heard" music it didn't matter where it came from. Its all boils down to a 'state of mind' in the end, I heartily recommend being in in love.

maelob's picture

+1 Wow, that was well said!!!

rschryer's picture

Exciting coverage all around! And lots of it! Kudos to all involved for giving us such a delicious taste of CES 2016.

Robert

jporter's picture

We spend way to much time on the fetish wear and not on the romance.

We are aural gynecologists, not music "lovers."

Anton...Your comment is one of the best I have seen on any of the audio sites I visit. Very well said and very true.

Thank you.

Steve C's picture

Well said. It's all about the music any way.

Johnny2Bad's picture

... and in 2016, as evidenced by this year's CES, we have it.

I've been involved in this hobby for 40 years, both professionally and on the outside, depending on when you're asking about. I don't have "rose-coloured glasses" ... I do remember what the HiFi sounded like in 1979.

And it sounded good, make no mistake. But it didn't sound as good as it does today; we are lucky to be experiencing outstanding sound quality, if you bother to seek it out, in this early 21st Century.

A PS Audio Sprout ($499), a pair of ELAC speakers ($499) and $200 in appropriate cabling and you are enjoying outstanding Sound Quality (SQ) from your stored digital files. You are only about $400 away from adding a very competent vinyl solution if you so desire.

All new, with warranty. And far from the only options out there.

Back in the day (around 1978 or so), it took about $650 to get into an entry level HiFi of what I would have considered Stereophile Class C Sound Quality.

Using an Inflation Calculator, we see that is $US 1872.00 in 2015 dollars. Can you get a great sounding, true "High End" system for that kind of scratch today? You bet you can, and with probably ten times the options to choose from to boot.

I really don't understand the column inches devoted to the gnashing of teeth over the costs of quality audio gear I see, almost monthly, in the Consumer Audio press today. There is no crisis, the problem simply doesn't exist, and I am tiring of the efforts devoted to convincing us all that there is something to worry about.

There are more Audio Manufacturers who are not going broke today than ever before; doesn't that count for something?

Crisis? What Crisis? Sit back and enjoy the music.

Gumbo2000's picture

You mention some great equipment for the "newbies". But the problem is with the mags, the sentence where it states something about getting "newbies interested in High End" shows a lack of understanding on the part of Stereophile. It seems like they want to jump from iPhone streaming to High End in one fell swoop! As per an early post, it would be nice to kill off the term "High End" but I don't think the snobs would allow that.

Mike Rubin's picture

No one denies that there are some low-cost solutions that probably are affordable to anyone with a job, and you have identified one of the handful of combinations that fills that niche. However, if you read the CES and other show reviews, the low-end segment really is an afterthought to all but literally a handful of manufacturers, especially with respect to the source and amplification sides of things. If anything, with a few notable exceptions, products like DACs and integrated amps, once thought to be good entry and even "resident" points, are subject to escalating pricing.

There are hundreds of dozens of products costing above $5k. There are dozens costing less. The reviewers, in fairness to them, do cover the lower end products, too, but they clearly are much more interested in state of the art products, including those costing above $50k at the system level. Even the CES "budget" reviewer apparently found nothing all that worthy of commentary when you consider his remarks in the summary above.

So, yeah, while there is coverage of the stuff that ordinary people can afford in Stereophile, that doesn't change what's happening in the industry or where the reviewers focus their enthusiasm. A show report covering products averaging in five figures -- virtually none of which I am going to hear, anyway -- is utterly without interest to me. Your mileage obviously varies, but the existence of a literal handful of lower-priced solutions doesn't mean there's no issue here.

bpw's picture

Two of the people in the first photo above are longtime friends. I'm sending them the link!

Robert Deutsch's picture

I took this photo of the lineup for the Tech Express shuttle, which went from the Convention Center to the Sands/Venetian. (The Sands is continuous with the Venetian.) The Sands had exhibits dealing with things like Smart Homes, Robotics, Smart Watches, Sports Tech, Wearables, 3D Printing, etc. These exhibits took up much more floor space than the High Performance Audio exhibits in the Venetian Tower.

Are your friends audiophiles? If so, they were probably going to the Venetian, as was I. The lineup for the Tech Express was the longest that I've seen for this shuttle, but they were loading two buses at a time, so the line moved fairly quickly. You can be pretty sure that if the Tech Express was identified as going only to the High Performance Audio exhibits in the Venetian, the lineup would have been MUCH shorter!

bpw's picture

Hi, Robert! No, they (the guy in the light blue short sleeve shirt and the guy next to him) are not audiophiles, but they've heard plenty from me on the topic through the years. I expect they were headed for the Sands.

Brian Walsh
Essential Audio

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

As for the "high end" flourishing, as claimed in the article, the truth is that most of the folks at the Las Vegas show aren't there for "high end." They probably don't even know what it is. They're certainly not there for tubed amps or turntables.

The technology which is getting the most attention in the press is auto technology, like self-driving cars and displays.

I truly enjoy seeing the proliferation of audio equipment described on this site, even as I know I would never buy any of it. Digital drove its final stake into the heart of hi-end in the early 1990's. Unless one obsesses over antique vinyl, all we have is various degrees of mid-fi. Hi-end, such as it is, is no more than a marginal niche market, kept alive mostly by aging boomers, affluent white men. This publication boosts it, obviously, because it's its bread and butter.

(my posts are screened carefully by Editor-in-Chief Atkinson)

John Atkinson's picture
Osgood Crinkly III wrote:
This publication boosts it, obviously, because it's its bread and butter.

With all due respect, this is a semantically void statement. Of course we support high-performance audio because since its founding 54 years ago, Stereophile promotes the idea that listening to the recorded music with the highest possible sound quality one can afford is a good thing.

Osgood Crinkly III wrote:
my posts are screened carefully by Editor-in-Chief Atkinson

Everyone's posts are screened. I try to apply a light hand when it comes to moderation but I am deleting the sadly increasing number of flames and gratuitous insults.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Mr. Atkinson, as usual you ignore my point, going your merry way, the point being that the trouble and expense of hi-end is useless for digitized audio, where mid-fi is more than enough. Hi-end is irrelevant.

Just a couple of many examples:

1) The complete Otis Redding on Rhino CD (Soul Manifesto) sounds like it was recorded underwater. The ratty, noisy, original Atco and Stax/Volt vinyls, hardly audiophile, are a thousand times better. The recent Stereophile review of this digital reissue, btw, fails to mention its abysmal sound.

2) Downloaded Laura Marling's album I Speak Because I Can on iTunes. Couldn't believe how bad it sounded -- hard to even make out the lyrics. So I got the CD, which sounds just as bad. This, sadly, is today's mainstream audio standard for pop.

Yup, my $100,000 system really IS necessary. Must absolutely, positively spend another $5000 retubing my gear ASAP!

audiocaptain's picture

It's refreshing to read calm words. I'm fried from all the politics. Good work on this year's coverage. Steve

jorbolet's picture

I cannot but chuckle when I read all the above. With, in all likelihood, less than 1000 (trade, pseudo-trade and all 'other') visiting the Venetian for the "Specialty Audio' segment of the CES2016, it is all very clear that what used to be a wonderful industry for decades, no longer exists in any shape or form. Why? Simply, because there is no interest from those who kept it going for so long.. Why? Because the world has changed towards something else (actually, it HAS changed already). Thank you Apple and Dr. Dre, for example. Why? Because that is the cyclic nature of the history of time on Planet Earth.

It is of no consequence whether we have $500 or $500,000 components or systems. Just as much as it is of no relevance there is a RELATIVE increase in sales of LPs or disappearance of CDs etc. etc. Tangible sound carriers are a matter of the past(for ordinary people at least) although there will always be a micro niche for everything. Manufacturers have turned to ludicrously expensive components for one, very plain, reason : when there are no $5000 per piece customers, there still are a few left for $500,000 per piece every year. And it is, of course, less hassle to deal with fewer people. New money comes from areas where it is (for now) still available in close to infinite amounts. So, let's take it while we can and it does not matter whether this kills the longevity of the business (industry) or not.
So, my dear all, instead of elevating a profane situation to levels as sophisticated as the true high-end (audio and other) creations should be and used to be, why not accepting the truthful reality and try to educate and teach those who, apart from money, may have some other aesthetic and cultural ingredients left to be tackled? Perhaps there still is hope...I certainly wish to believe there is.

drblank's picture

by this year's CES. I really didn't see that much in terms of compelling products. Nothing really jumped out this year.

The same thing with this year's NAMM show. Nothing much was released that was compelling.