Hi-Res Audio and More at the 2014 CE Week
First, there was a panel discussion "Making High Resolution Audio Accessible," which was an updated iteration a similar event held last January in which industry representatives discussed marketing strategies for high resolution audio. However, this time, it was preceded by an evening reception at Jungle City Studios hosted the DEG, CEA, NARAS, and major labels. Amidst the food, drink and handshaking, there were demonstrations by mixing and mastering engineers of the audible advantages of high resolution. Sort of preaching to the choir, this compelling demo should be available to a wider audience.
Second, both Onkyo and Pioneer (now linked ay the corporate level) demonstrated prototype systems for home implementation of Dolby ATMOS, an object-oriented (rather than channel-oriented) audio format which thrives on having many speakers including some in the ceiling! While that might be prohibitive for many of us, Dolby's suggested solution is adding upward-aimed drivers to bounce the sound off the ceiling and, thereby, creating a virtual height source.
Pioneer's Andrew Jones has taken this concept and developed some intriguing ATMOS-enabled speakers (above). These utilize a new coaxial driver based on the TAD drivers. In his Pioneer Elite application, the 5" coax is mated with a woofer or two for normal front radiation while an identical coax is mounted on the top of the cabinet and aimed at a precise angle towards the domestic 8' ceiling. The front-firing and upward-firing systems are electrically independent.
The demonstrations by both manufacturers were disappointing but provocative. Clearly, the additional sources created a more enveloping soundstage but it fell far short of the ATMOS theater experience in many ways. Still, utilizing not-quite-ready-for-primetime prototypes and in rooms with >15' ceilings, it demonstrated a proof of concept.
Third, Denon unveiled (and is shipping) new networked "life-style" HEOS loudspeakers. This, in itself, is not news, although the user interface on a tablet was outstanding and the sound quality surprisingly good for small, one-box, stereo speakers. They stood head-and-shoulders above the myriad of Bluetooth speakers that cluttered the show. What appealed most to me was that the HEOS system will be expanded to include a 100Wpc D/A integrated amplifier and a stereo preamp with phono stage. This means that more serious componentry with an audiophile's choice of amps and speakers can be smoothly integrated into a networked system along with the purpose-designed HEOS speakers. A very interesting development.
Finally, my favorite discovery was the new Sharp Wireless High Resolution Audio Player, the SD-WH1000U ($4999, pictured front and rear above). This is a universal player (BluRay, SACD, CD, DVD, etc.) with ability to support stereo and multichannel files via attached USB or via network. Moreover, it is the first serious audio product to utilize the WISA standard (Wireless Speakers and Audio) standard to output 24-bit/96kHz uncompressed audio without cables or wires. It also transmits uncompressed full HD video to your TV wirelessly using the Wireless HD (WiHD) standard and an included adapter.
It was demonstrated with several B&O WISA-compliant speakers but, also, with a pair of Classé power amps driving Focal speakers. The latter are not WISA-compliant but Sharp is also offering the Sharp VR-WR100U Wireless Bridge ($999) to connect it to any traditional amp and passive speaker. In the bustle of a show floor or a claustrophobia-inducing closet-sized demo room, there was never any question but that this was a nice sounding player-controller. Even without considering the wireless options, this seems to be a substantial product that, by supporting all disc formats, accepting and decoding most file formats (including multichannel) and incorporating ESS Sabre32 DACs for its analog outputs, the Sharp SD-WH1000U can be the heart of a serious stereo or multichannel system. In addition to a nifty mobile app interface, it even has a friendly, large volume control on the front panel.