What to Make of CES 2014 and Beyond?

Photo: John Atkinson

Before you lies what I expect is the most comprehensive coverage of CES 2014 "high-performance audio" exhibits available on the Web. Combined with the online coverage at our sister web publications, AudioStream, InnerFidelity, and AnalogPlanet, it gives you far more than a snapshot of the vast array of new audio equipment on active and passive display at CES 2014 and T.H.E. Show. The implied optimism that motivates so much new equipment, and so many innovations, gives signs of strength and renewal in a world where listening habits and means of music distribution are ever-changing and, in the minds of many, evolving.

So much new equipment is especially welcome in a year when it was impossible to evaluate the state of the industry by assessing attendance. January's flight-grounding weather, a manifestation of radical climate and atmospheric changes that will ultimately affect our industry and lives in ways that will dwarf the impact of the iPod, iPhone, wireless connectivity, and emerging audio formats, set CES off to a slow start. If Convergent Audio Technology's Ken Stevens couldn't make it to set up shop until the third day, neither Joe Reynolds of Nordost of Massachusetts nor Stereophile's Rosemarie Torcivia could rebook on a flight that would arrive in a timely fashion, Michael Lavorgna of AudioStream only made it pulling an overnight in Denver, and the Marchisottos went through hell to arrive in time for their Nola pre-show opener (with a system that had not yet begun to settle in), imagine how many other people from multiple countries decided to join Joe and throw in the towel.

What is certain is that while the rooms of CES's The Venetian venue were crammed with equipment, its rooms and halls were less filled with distributors and retailers. The lower-priced alternative T.H.E. Show at the Flamingo appeared to fare even worse. To quote a private email from an industry veteran who flew to Las Vegas this year solely to attend meetings, "We did not exhibit, as we had been told that T.H.E Show wasn't going to be successful this year. The predictors of this news were correct, the place was a ghost town, very depressing." The poor showing does make me wonder about the future of T.H.E. Show Las Vegas, especially since its sister, the far more consumer-oriented T.H.E. Show Newport Beach, has both been successful and has grown since its inception in 2011.

Photo: Jason Victor Serinus

In one of his finer think pieces, posted on the last day of CES, Paul McGowan, aka Mr. PS Audio, not only questions why CES remains an exhausting four-day show for the high-performance audio industry, but also discusses why he no longer presents an active exhibit. Instead of lugging an entire system to CES, and attempting to engage with a challenging mix of industry professionals, press, get-in-by-any-means-necessary consumers, and site-seers who attend CES for reasons other than high-performance audio, Paul instead rents a suite where he holds three days of meetings with dealers and distributors. He may show them new products on passive display, but he reserves the whole ultra-expensive dog and pony show for the host of consumer shows that now take place in the US, Canada, and beyond.

It's a convincing argument, but one that ignores one vital new development CES 2014: the new Hi-Res TechZone in the Sands Convention Center. Situated downstairs and through the woods from the high-performance exhibits in the Venetian Tower, where only a few companies such as Parasound choose to exhibit, the Hi-Res TechZone was a major attempt on the part of HDTracks.com, Acoustic Sounds' SuperHiRez.com, BlueCoastRecords.com/IsoMike, NativeDSD.com, AIX Records/iTrax.com, Mytek, Sony, and other companies to disseminate information about high-resolution audio to industry members who are not necessarily affiliated with the high-performance audio community.

According to Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Music, fully 50% of visitors to the zone were not even familiar with the high-resolution "movement" before they set foot in the place, poked around, or attended one of the three star-studded panels. "There's a buzz going on about DSD," Cookie told me by phone, "and when two different chip manufacturers from different parts of the world mentioned to me that they're agnostic about DSD, but all their manufacturer customers are now requesting DSD chips, it made me think that this is much bigger and happening much faster than I anticipated."

Cookie was very happy with attendance. "We got out of it much more than we thought we would. For us, it was about education and long-term development. In that respect, it succeeded. And I also got to know all the other retailers, which was great. There were even jokes about the food fight between the DSD side and PCM side of the room."

David Chesky of HDTracks not only shares Cookie's optimism, but also postulates what's coming next. "Just the fact that a multi-national giant such as Sony has taken an interest in hi-res shows its potential to influence far more than our audiophile market," he says. "We audiophiles have always been considered a niche cult. Thanks to hi-res, there's a growing understanding of the importance of sound quality. The average person will now become aware of better sound, we can swing the pendulum from 'MP3s are good enough' to a desire for something better, and a new eco-system will develop to support the hunger. This could ultimately make both the music and audiophile industries stronger."

Photo: John Atkinson

In short, just as the combined impact of headphone listening, portable listening devices, palm-size DACs, and hi-res audio is transforming the high performance industry as we have known it, so too are fledgling forays such as the High-Res TechZone transforming the face of CES. Whatever your feelings about love-it-or-leave-it Las Vegas, when it comes to CES, there's plenty of life left in the old baby. It will be more than interesting to see how this all plays out in the year ahead, and discover what CES 2015 will bring. The guy in the picture below might already be tweeting about it!—Jason Victor Serinus

Photo: Jason Victor Serinus

corrective_unconscious's picture

Stereophile's show coverage is always the best of what I come across, and despite my jaundiced views it's fun to see all the things that people cook up, both sane and insane.

I see too many ultra high end products chasing too few ultra wealthy consumers, an unavoidable result of current economic and social policies, i.e., something manufacturers must do to even try to remain operational.

But like so much else these days, it yet again this year hardly seems sustainable.

blueingreen48's picture

I'm struck by the fact that so many of the companies jumping on the high res bandwagon assume that the future of these formats is digital but not physical. 

Any of these formats can now be put on discs (or thumb drives and SD cards), all of which are plug and play and all of which can have after market value just as LP's and CD's have always had. If one has a universal player (I have an OPPO) there is no need for additonal software, no need trying to figure out how to work while you play music without buying an addtional computer and no need to rip CD's and SACD's to a high res player. Sometime back some people in the auto industry, beginning with BMW decided we no longer needed buttons and nobs on our dashboards. They then proceeded to take a number of very simple functions, like turning on the radio and make them much harder. Buttons and nobs are back. I suspect discs will make a comeback too. 

DLKG's picture

Blueingreen:  I remember when all the knobs and dials were taken off of synthesizers and everything had to be hunted for in the menus.  There was a definite decline and electronic music for a time until the companies got so many complaints that they started adding knobs and dials again.  Now E music is as ood as always.  



jmsent's picture

looks like he hasn't slept in 3 days. Kind of like everyone else who goes to CES. As for the latest push on "hi rez" audio, I'm a bit more skeptical than you. After all, we've been here before, and more than once. SACD, Meridian lossless, DVD-A, all came...and went... over 10 years ago, and the only thing that's different this time is the method of delivery. Hard for me to see how this will make the essential difference that launches these formats into the mainstream.  Sure they sound great (if the source material allows it), but there just doesn't seem to be enough support for these formats in a world where MP3 rules and so many people think it sounds just fine. And let's face it, Jason. The vast majority of music purchases is in genres where ultimate sound quality is simply not the highest priority, and the majority of listening is now done over personal devices that don't support these formats. Sony seems to be leading the way in trying to revive the hi rez segment. They have a large catalog of DSD titles and a huge investment in the technology, so this is a logical move. But Sony also has a pretty poor track record when it comes to making new formats "stick", so I'm not going to hold my breath over the rebirth of hi rez audio.

jimtavegia's picture

I believe that DSD will be the talk and greatly evolving in 2014.  I can only hope that will resurrect more interest in SACD pressing and the recording in DSD as opposed to 24/48 PCM which is all too common these days. 

The Ayre QA-9 could be a game changer for recording engineers who wish to take their artists to the highest level. I think the handling of this will become much easier and cheaper as we head toward to end of 2014. 

I will remain a physical media guy for as long as I can with SACDs, LPs, and some CDs. As sales increase for hirez pcm and dsd downloads I hope the prices will come down to physical SACD levels.  

It will be inrteresting to see how this all shakes out. We can count on Stereophile and the sister web sites to keep us informed. 

christopher3393's picture

I've only been following show coverage for about 8 years, with an audio emphasis for only 2, but I too would like to see continued increase in display and coverage of products for the mainstream, including mainstream economics. It is a matter of degree and balance regarding high-end demo and coverage. I do have hi-rez downloads and sometimes really appreciate their quality. I have a dsd capable system, but haven't explored it mostly because of the present prices for downloads. Just one consumer's opinion. Thanks.

RPL's picture

I think the difference this time is that for whatever reason, it is clear to me that a computer as a server sounds better than even the best disc players.  I started on computer audio a number of years ago as a convenient way to bring music to a second home but I quickly learned that it sounded better than even my Linn Sondek CD12, a great player by anybody's standard.  I sold it a couple of years later to upgrade my analog rig, and have never looked back.  These days if I buy a physical disc other than an LP I rip it immediately and put it into storage.  My living room looks better and sounds better as well.  I think that is why this time may well be different.

Anon2's picture

Some may object to the use of Youtube to post videos of the equipment on display in major shows like CES.  A Youtube video will never do full justice to the sonic capabilies of a meticulously set up audio rig at a major show.

Still a video, no matter how poorly done, will convey information about a system that pictures and words never will.

And you know what?  I'll bet you that many people look at Youtube to view the many videos that professional and amateur alike have posted of their personal hi fi systems, or of hi fi systems in expositions. 

I frequently refer to Youtube videos, particulary to get some basic insights into the capabilities and general sonic textures of speakers.  It's a great resource. Audiophiles are smart enough to know that they should use these videos as a rough reference point, not as an authoritative listenting session.

There is a range of quality of these Youtube videos. I find the majority to be informative and useful.

Far from downgrading the experience of a speaker, for example, a reasonably well-done video from a show, or from a personal listenting room, conveys valuable insights to a person who either does not have the time or credentials to go to CES or RMAF, or who does not want to bug his or her local retailer for the 1,000,000th time.

Videos will capture the basic essence of audio exposition listening rooms and convey valuable information, which may just inspire an otherwise unenlightened person to seek out a more in-depth demonstration of a product of interest.

The coverage of Stereophile, and many other publications, of CES is excellent and copmrehensive.  Videos may violate some purist sensibilities of how audio should be experienced.  Still, video is widely posted on Youtube, and it tells 1000 words more than a picture.