Long Lines at the Venetian

The last time I attended CES was three years ago. Although many things have stayed the same, there were also interesting changes—some of them profound. At the Las Vegas Convention Center, it seemed that almost every exhibit had to do with 3D, iPods, or tablet computers. At the Venetian, in addition to the traditional areas of speakers and amplification, it was music servers and related products—ably summarized by Jon Iverson in his wrap-up. Cables were big. (More on this anon.)

It was a very crowded show. At the convention center, the scene was at times like being on a subway platform during rush hour. At the Venetian, home of high performance audio, there were long lineups for the elevators—see photo. Although officially CES is not open to the general public, there were a lot of attendees with “Industry Affiliate” badges, and being an industry affiliate was apparently very broadly defined. This had the effect of increasing attendance, which I guess is not a bad thing, but it also meant that some of these attendees were really consumers, not industry people. One veteran speaker designer told me that some of the questions he was asked at this year’s CES were quite naïve, like “What if you played all these speakers at the same time?” He attributed this to these attendees being consumers (and not very knowledgeable ones at that).

My show report assignment was low-to-moderately-priced speakers, and I was very pleased to get this assignment, leaving John Atkinson to report on expensive speakers. As I said in one of my reviews, I’m more of a Volkswagen/Honda/Toyota than a Ferrari/Lamborghini/Aston Martin kind of guy. But CES had lots for the Ferrari/Lamborghini/Aston Martin crowd, and sometimes I was taken aback by the prices. In one case, I saw a three-way not-too-huge floorstanding speaker that I thought might be under the $10k that for me defined the top of the moderately-price range. I asked how much it cost. The answer: ninety thousand. I wasn’t sure I heard correctly. Nine thousand? No, ninety thousand. OK, this one is for JA.

One thing I thought was interesting was that the Hansen The King E and the YG Anat III Reference, two speakers in the $100K class whose previous versions had technical performance that seemed beyond reproach, in their current versions sounded significantly better: less mechanical, more musically engaging. (In the case of the YG Anat III reference, extensive room treatment this time around surely helped in getting the best sound from the speakers.)

Although I admired these ultra-expensive speakers, I was more than content to discover and write about speakers that sound great and that most people can aspire to buy: speakers like the GoldenEar Triton Two ($2500/pair), Atlantic Techology AT-1 ($2500/pair), Thiel SCS4T ($3690/pair), Magnepan MG3.7 ($5495/pair), Vandersteen Tréo ($5990/pair), and PSB Imagine Mini ($700/pair).

About cables. My impression was that there were more expensive cables at this show than the last CES I attended. How expensive? Well, I did a rough calculation involving 1m interconnects that Jason Serinus reported on in his blog entries. The median price of these cables was $5000, the range extending from $100 to $25,000. Now, I know that the right cable can make the difference between a system sounding very good and sounding truly excellent. I use high-end cables in my reviewing system because I want to make sure that the sonic performance of the component I’m reviewing is not limited by the cables used. Also, we should keep in mind that Jason was merely reporting on these cables, not endorsing or recommending them. But still...if you were undecided between the GoldenEar Triton Two and the Atlantic Technology AT-1, you could buy both for the $5000 cost of the average interconnect in this report. This makes me. . .well. . .uncomfortable. The fact that these expensive cables exist means that somebody is buying them, but I can’t say that they represent great value.

However, the good news is that there were also some very reasonably-priced cables in the lower part of the range, such as the ADL cables from Furutech ($100 for a 1m interconnect), and the new Leif series from Nordost (four levels ranging in price from $180 to $400). These provide welcome alternatives to the multi-kilobuck cables.

Finally, as Stephen Mejias noted in his “Leaving Las Vegas” piece, CES is as much about people as it is about equipment. It provides an opportunity for the Stereophile crew to get together and share our experiences with music, audio equipment, food, and life in general. I particularly enjoyed meeting for the first time Erick Lichte and to find out that he’s also a fan of Bernstein’s Mass, and that he’s played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof in both high school and college. A man after my own heart! CES also means meeting or reconnecting with people in the industry. For me, one of the highlights was meeting and chatting with the legendary “JJ”—who has forgotten more about audio than most of us know.

Oh, and I picked up a really bad cold in Las Vegas, which I’m only now, a week after the event, starting to recuperate from. With a time difference of three hours between Las Vegas and my home in Toronto, throughout the show I was staying up late and then waking up at 5 a.m. Six days of this routine left me pretty exhausted. But was it worth it? You bet!