The 1986 Winter CES

I always enjoy CES. Like the Big Apple, or the City of Angels, the Consumer Elecronics Show is stimulatingly frenetic and enjoyably fatiguing—things that would soon put me in the funny farm if I lived with them year 'round, but can easily cope with twice a year. In fact, attending CES is rather like visiting the city of my birth, a place whose culture is one with my own because I grew up there, and where half the pleasure lies in seeing once again those audio people—the Allisons, Marantzes, Frieds, Beveridges, Haflers, and Tuckers—whose durability as friends always reminds me of how rapidly time passes and how little of it we may have left.

But then, high-end audio is not really the city at CES; it is a suburb. The city is the Convention Center, that sprawling monument to capitalistic acquisitiveness and the sole justification for these huge bi-annual bashes. After all these years, I still feel a little like a stranger at the zoo. I have no part of, and little more than superficial curiosity about, cellular telephones, satellite-reception systems, car audio, electronic watches, CBs, TVs that allow you to watch two programs at once (conventional wisdom has it that the public's attention span is already taxed by single-picture TV), and radios and telephones styled. to look like frogs, mushrooms, or Muppets.

Of course, the zoo is where the CES Press Room is, and I always find at least a few old, familiar faces in that exclusive haven of relative tranquility amidst the uproar. (No amount of rustling paper can approach in revulsion value the sound of one audio system at the zoo!) But, Home is where the audio High End gathers, like a gaggle of "A"-students at a high-school prom, separate from the mainstream of jocks and druggies, and defensively proud of their isolation from the common herd.

Unlike any other, the high-end audio crowd sells sound quality. Not more convenience features, gimmicks, or lower prices, which can be appreciated visually or intellectually, but sound quality, which can only be appreciated aurally. The only way high-end people can show off their wares is through audible demonstrations—something that would be utterly impossible in the cacaphonous carnival atmosphere of the convention center. So, from the first CES, audio high-enders have always had a separate venue at CES, usually in a hotel a few blocks from the Coliseum.

Somehow, though, high-enders never seem to be in the same hotel twice. CES chooses the location, and it has seemed of late that each choice has been worse than the last. This year, for example, the high-end rooms had large platforms (for elevating the beds, which were of course removed for the show), thereby forcing many exhibitors to put their speakers about a foot higher than they were designed to be placed. Then there were the dividing walls between the rooms, which, when tapped with the knuckles, sounded as if they were made of corrugated cardboard. As a result, the interference between exhibits could not have been much worse if the demos had been on the open floor at the Convention Center! Low frequencies, in particular, were so efficient at permeating whole wings of the hotel that it was often impossible to tell whether that impressively deep bass came from Sheffield's new Firebird in the room I was in, or from Star Tracks, Kodo, or The Sheffield Track Record in adjacent demo rooms.

The listening environment may have had something to do with my lack of enthusiasm for this show. Certainly my inability to get excited about what I saw and heard in Las Vegas was not shared by the exhibitors, most of whom reported that this was one of their best shows. Of course, "best" for a CES exhibitor means more visiting dealers and more successfully negotiated sales contracts. While I was pleased that "the business" seemed once again to be thriving (after several years of doldrums), the generally upbeat mood among exhibitors did little to offset my own vague feeling of unease, a feeling that grew stronger as I made my rounds at the show.

Finally, the reason for my unease dawned on me. The average quality of sound at this show was several notches below what it had been at the last few CESes. For the first time in as long as I could recall, high-end audio's single-minded assault on the bastions of total perfection seemed to be faltering. Among the exceptions were Dave Wilson, Audio Research, and Infinityems, all of whom produced exemplary sound. (Ho-hum, so what else is new?) But some exhibitors who had demoed very good sound in Chicago six months ago did less well in that department this time around, often with exactly the same featured products—MartinLogan's little TLS (transparent loudspeaker), for one.

But even more discouraging, I felt, was the apparent reversal of a healthy trend which has characterized high-end shows for the past five years: sonic convergence.

Since we all like to believe we are striving for a common goal in audio—accuracy—it has seemed reasonable to expect that refinements in various areas of sound reproduction would continue indefinitely, resulting in a gradual dimunition of the sonic differences between competing products. After all, if accuracy is the goal, and three louspeaker systems all sound quite different from one another, it is obvious that at least two of them, and possibly all three, are inaccurate.

The best example of this evolutionary convergence has occurred in the area of power amplifiers, where tube and solid-state have grown more and more similar in sound for so long that the classic distinctions between them—the warmth and sweetness of tubes, the tautness and quickness of transistors—are no longer of great significance. Phono cartridges, too, have converged sonically, as the audiophile's past enthusiasm for MCs with a fiery high end, sucked-out upper middle range, and groove-bashingly low compliance has given place to a heightened appreciation for greater naturalness and the ability to trace high levels without breaking up or skipping grooves.

Not so with loudspeakers. In fact, the richly and imaginatively varied sounds of the loudspeakers I heard at this Winter's CES suggested, as never before, that the art (or science or philosophy or what have you) of speaker design has become as directionless as the proverbial decapitated chicken. How many of these differences were due to bad rooms, ancillaries, program sources, or just plain bad vibes is hard to guess, but the overall impression was one of indecisiveness, as though each speaker designer had been working in a vacuum to perfect an idealized sound that bore more relationship to wishful thinking than to any such criterion as an "absolute sound" of music.

Perhaps much of this new directionlessness is attributable to the Compact Disc, whose consistency of signal quality (relative to analog) makes it harder to compensate for loudspeaker colorations by choosing cartridges with complementary colorations. Winter 1986 was a turning point of sorts for CD and the High End. Now that small, perfectionist manufacturers like Mission, Meridian, and PS Audio have lent an air of respectability to CD by introducing their own players, other high-end exhibitors have been able to use CD for their own demos without embarrassment or the usual lame excuses (eg, "pressure from outside sources"). Even Wilson Audio had a Meridian MCD Pro CD player on hand, for those who "insisted on hearing" Sheffield's latest floor-shaker, Kodo. What was even more fascinating was that, in those rooms that did have CD players, the sound from analog was not as shockingly different as in those very recent days when everyone complained about how much more "shrill" CD sound was. Here's an area where convergence is definitely the order of the day.

It would be unfair, though, and untrue to say that loudspeakers show no evidence of improvement. Certainly, HF response continues to get more extended and smooth, with genuine teeth-setters becoming the exception rather than the rule. And as much as one can tell under the unpredictable (and usually adverse) conditions of small-room demos, low-end quality continues to show less boom and more genuine LF extension. But it is in the midrange area where loudspeaker designers seem to be galloping off in all directions at once.

Judging midrange quality at this show was harder and more fatiguing than at most because of those infernal bed platforms—harder because I had to guesstimate at what height my ears should be to compensate for the platform height, and more fatiguing because this optimum height could not be attained while either standing or sitting. (You try spending an entire day listening from an acute-indigestion bent-over position!)

At the entire high-end show, I don't think I heard more than five systems that produced anything even approaching a natural (realistic, accurate) middle range. The others were either politely laid-back and withdrawn, or had midrange colorations ranging from honky to steely. The laid-back systems often had very impressive depth and spaciousness, the colored ones often sounded impressively forward and alive, but none managed to sound like real music.

Whether or not it is possible to apply a single set of criteria to loudspeaker performance is a philosophical matter that I'm not going to think about right now. But it is becoming increasingly clear that a complete lack of any such criteria may now have become the most important obstacle to further advancement in the state of the audio art.