CES 2005: Day One

The Wednesday before the official start of the CES is traditionally a day devoted to press conferences and room set up and today was no different. Many mainstream companies put on dog and pony shows announcing products they think will answer the mass market's thirst for more and better—but a few high-end companies make announcements as well.

Thiel Audio had a press conference at the Las Vegas Convention Center, choosing to publicize its less well-known in-wall, on-wall, and custom-targeted speaker products to a press corps that wasn't all that aware of its high-end credentials. This made for an interesting dynamic for those of us who have known Jim Thiel's designs for many years.

For high-end audio enthusiasts, Jim Thiel's passion for phase- and time-coherent speakers is a given, but it was news to many of the journalists attending Thiel's event. One scribe was stunned that the designer has spent so much time and company resources on the $1450/each PowerPoint 1.2, the company's innovative on-wall loudspeaker. He asked Thiel, "When you design something like this," he said, "do you give much consideration to how you will market it?"

"I'm lucky," Thiel answered. "My job is just to come up with this stuff. Other people get to worrying about marketing it."

The press corps got a big laugh out of that; Thiel's partners seemed more resigned to it than anything.

The reality is that the marketplace has changed, however. These days 80% of Thiel's dealers do 50% or more of their business outside of the showroom—either in the realms of custom installation or latchkey system building. Thiel Audio's current focus on in-wall speakers such as its PowerPlane 1.2 or HigherPlane (an in-ceiling speaker), not to mention its complete line of subwoofers and bass integration products, is a response to the new market realities.

That doesn't mean Thiel has abandoned his standards, however. "When I first started work on the PSX02 (his $350 two-channel passive crossover which can be factory configured for use with any Thiel loudspeakers), I thought it would be pretty straightforward, but as I worked on it, I began to realize that nobody had actually approached subwoofer integration from this angle before.

"Because the PSX02 takes its signal from the amplifier's speaker outputs, it knows what the volume level is, and since it's output is balanced line-level, it delivers the properly balanced signal to the sub. You get natural sounding bass at the proper level. It's foolproof. Of course, if you want something other than balanced sound, you're going to have a problem."

There's also a five-channel version available for $500. "The PSX05 is a bit more complicated, since you might have to match three different speakers to a subwoofer. In fact, because of all the possibilities, we don't have any 'stock' models. We make every one to order for the speakers involved."

Thiel also introduced a new subwoofer, the $2900 SS 1, which sports a 250W amplifier with a switch-mode power supply and a 10" aluminum driver. "It's a surprising sub," Thiel said. "With a pair of CS 1.6s and an SS 1, you get bass that's as deep as a pair of CS 7.2s."

"Wait a minute," said Thiel vice-president Kathy Gornik. Are you sure? I've heard CS 7s and the CS 1.2 with an SS 1 can't deliver the same sound as a pair of the 7s, can it?"

Thiel just grinned. I think that's a system I just might have to hear for myself.

A few minutes later, John Atkinson and I made our way to XM Satellite Radio's press conference, where the company announced its new "XM Ready" program, wherein major electronics companies can add a single IC chip to products such as DVD players, boom-boxes, receivers, and CD players, making them "XM Ready." All the consumer has to do is add a $49.95 XM antenna and activate an account in order to receive XM programming.

This level of ubiquity, more than any single model, may be satellite radio's "killer app." Perhaps 2005 will be the year satellite radio really takes off. This past year hasn't been too bad though, with Hugh Panero, XM CEO, reporting that today XM has 3,275,000 subscribers, 1.9 million more than a year ago. Panero also mentioned that December 25, 2004 saw the single largest number of activations in a 24-hour period, 50,000.

Not to be outdone by arch rival XM, Sirius staged a press event later in the day to report that the company has officially exceeded its goal of one million subscribers by year end 2004 with 1.1 million listeners signed. Sirius used the occasion to also reveal the Star Mate, which is about the size of a deck of cards, is a transportable "Plug & Play" unit that can be used in vehicles, boats and homes, and provides access to the company's various music, sports, and talk channels.

Featuring a three-line full display, the six-ounce Star Mate has 30 presets and a built-in wireless FM transmitter with 100 frequencies. The Star Mate, including both home and vehicle adapter kits, is expected to retail for just $129.95. The company's Larry Pesce commented, "This is the smallest transportable Sirius satellite radio unit to date, and we believe it will be very popular with consumers."

Sirius is also betting that video channels will be popular with consumers, and announced a partnership with Microsoft to collaborate in the further development of video applications using the software giant's Windows Media Video 9 platform. Sirius reports that they plan to offer a video service in the second half of 2006, and expects to devote 2-3 channels of video content designed primarily for children. The company hastens to add that the addition of its video channels are not expected to affect the current audio fidelity of the company’s existing channels.

Much of my day was spent looking for additional high-end news to report. Most exhibitors were still setting up their rooms and chased me out the minute I attempted to listen to or photograph their new gear. One exception was Ayre's Charlie Hansen, who invited Jon Iverson, Stephen Mejias, and me into Ayre's room to check out the company's new $5950 U2 digital player. "That's 'U' as in 'universal' and '2' as in 'two-channel.'" Hansen explained. It turns out he was just funnin'—the model number is really "C-5xe Universal Stereo Disc Player," but U2 is a lot catchier—but also a lot more likely to catch a lawsuit from the well-known Irish musical outfit.

The C-5xe plays CD, SACD, DVD-Audio, DVD-V (soundtrack only), and MP3. Like other Ayre digital players, it features zero feedback and is DC-coupled and balanced. PCM formats are "upsampled," which is surprising, given some of Hansen's diatribes against upsampling in the past—although, since he is quite clear that he "upsamples" to quad rate at 24 bits and then "oversamples" tp 32x at 24 bits, this is probably different from the sort of upsampling he formerly disapproved of. (And yes, we are having some fun with Mr. Hansen, but mostly because the C-5xe sounded so wonderfully musical playing an SACD of Aimee Mann that we'd be gushing if we weren't able to have some snarky fun at Hansen's expense).

Besides, it was a long, slow day and we're getting cranky. Also punchy.

But Day Two will be another story altogether.