CES 2004: Day Three

Yesterday, we talked with Microsoft about the high-resolution audio capabilities of Windows Media. Today, we met with one of their key competitors, Real, who also promised that, as the market matures, we will be seeing more options for audiophiles.

Presently, Real's own codecs support only your basic low-rez internet formats ranging up to a proprietary lossless encoding and decoding process similar to DVD-Audio's MLP scheme, only this time applied to a CD stream. The result is a file that is typically half a normal CD's size without any compression.

Real's latest player is called the RealAudio 10, and supports not only the company's own codecs mentioned above, but also those of Windows Media Audio Pro, and Apple's version of AAC. The result is a single program that can manage a variety of formats in one place, and because it runs WMA Pro, can decode Microsoft's 96/24 5.1 or 7.1 files.

Real's Jason Milstead reveals another interesting side effect of this multi-format capability: you can burn any of these formats to a CD from the RealPlayer, then re-rip them back to almost any other format. This means listeners would be able to play Napster's incompatible files on an iPod. Milstead says that the company's studies show that 80% of their users burn CDs with the RealAudio player.

Real's Kevin Forman adds that while they have no higher-resolution audio formats of their own ready to release in 2004, the future is open, depending on the market's demands. In other words, once the mass market starts requesting higher-fidelity music, which Forman thinks is inevitable, Real will keep scaling their player to keep up. Forman says that SACD/DSD or DVD-Audio are not being considered right now, but that could change if the formats ever caught on.

And speaking of burning CDs, In addition to their new loudspeaker line, Mobile Fidelity has just announced a new "Ultradisc" CD-R that it will sell, a blank based on a premium 24 Karat gold 1x gold disc that they've had specially manufactured. The discs will come in MoFi's custom "lift-lock" CD cases and will retail for $99.98 for 50 or $29.98 for 10. And, if CD is not your thing, MoFi is again releasing Gain 2 Ultra Analog Vinyl LPs. First titles include Aimee Mann's Lost in Space, John Lennon's Imagine, and Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul.

In the Alexis Park, Portal Audio is debuting its new Paladin fully balanced monoblock amplifiers sporting 200 watts of high-bias clas-A/AB power and 16 bipolar output devices per channel. The new amps will debut at $3000/pair from the company's website until February 1, when the price will go up to $3500/pr.

At the Mirage, Aerial Acoustics showed us its new $23,500/pair Model 20T flagship loudspeaker. The tall, slender floorstander mates a ribbon tweeter to a 7" carbon pulp midrange driver and a pair of long-stroke 9" woofers. The cabinets are double-walled and extensively braced and damped. Designer Michael Kelly describes the crossover as a "precision 24 dB/octave network made with expensive polypropylene-film capacitors, large air and nickel-steel core coils, and high purity cables."

Everything certainly seemed to start and stop on time. The speakers had amazing tonal presence, but their portrayal of dynamic material and their precise, powerful presentation of rhythmic information left us gasping. If there's such a thing as an audio high, the Model 20Ts must be classified as a Category Three controlled substance—and are, no doubt, powerfully addictive.

We also heard David Wilson's fascinating presentation of his conception of system hierarchy. He compared a pair of Wilson Sophias driven by a Parasound stereo power amplifier with a competitor's flagship speaker and an extremely powerful premium-priced amplifier. Not, as he explained, because he thought the Sophias sounded better, but to prove that meaningful comparisons could be made between systems assembled according to different priorities. This was a demo aimed at his hi-fi dealer clientele, after all (it's a trade show, remember?), but there's a kicker: after we all confirmed that we could hear meaningful differences, Wilson whipped a fake component shell off the digital source and revealed that with the Wilson speakers we weren't listening to the $20,000 CD player that had been used for the competitor's speakers, but an Apple iPod playing uncompressed WAV files!

Classé unveiled its new Delta Series of components, which were gorgeous examples of the metal-crafters' art—and pretty swoon-worthy on the inside, too. The line consists of five power amplifiers, an integrated, a preamplifier, a CD player, two universal players, and two preamp processors. Prices ranged from $3500 for a stereo 100Wpc power amplifier to $8000 for a five-channel power amp.

The Delta Series components are modular inside and the front end components feature florescent displays, which means, as Classé's Dave Nauber pointed out, that even the front panels were easily re-configurable.

So much thought has gone into every aspect of the Delta Series that Nauber spent a full 10 minutes on the boxes they come in. If you think that's sounds sad, we have to confess that we found the subject fascinating. Let's just say that Classé seems to have thought of everything with this line-up.

Back at the Alexis Park and at the opposite end of the price spectrum, we were enthralled by Music Hall's $1300 Mambo class-A integrated amplifier, which features a built-in 24-bit, 96kHz upsampling DAC. Remote-controlled and rated at 50Wpc, the Mambo boasts two digital inputs (one optical; one coaxial) and five analog ins. It's robust and hefty—and it sure doesn't look like a scaled-down anything.

It doesn't sound like it, either. We found the sound vivid and warm—full of testicular fortitude, as they say. Transients snapped off of acoustic guitar strings, bass slammed us in the gut, and voices floated on a warm cushion of black velvet—land we liked it.

DeVore Fidelity may not be a familiar name yet, but we remembered seeing some of its speakers when VTL premiered its Reference Preamplifier at HE2002. We liked what we heard then (the Gibbon), but the company's new $20,000 Silverback is really impressive. It employs two opposing, side-firing 8" woofers, a 1" silk-dome tweeter, and a top-mounted custom 6' midrange driver with what John DeVore describes as the DeF SVDX (Suspended Vibration Damped X-over), which encapsulates all network components in vibraflex to eliminate coil, resistor, and capacitor resonance. Rated at 90dB sensitivity and never dropping below a 6-ohm load, the speaker seems to be easy to drive.

They sounded fabulous, whether with vinyl or silver disc. Detail, detail, detail, with nary a hint of etch or screech. We felt all warm and fuzzy—and a little like Columbus discovering a new world. Watch out for John DeVore, he's the real thing, and so is the Silverback.

Another company to watch is the Finnish firm Amphion, which brought its new flagship $16,500/pair Kryptons to town. Towering over the company's other speakers (which never seemed small before), the Kryptons utilize a side-firing 12" woofer in a sealed enclosure. A 1" silk-dome tweeter is centrally mounted in a large bell-shaped wave guide, which is located between two 8" SEAS midrange drivers.

The speaker's side panels are perforated with a pattern of holes designed to "leak" a controlled amount of out-of-phase energy into the room, further focusing the HF dispersion pattern. The result? A big speaker that doesn't sound a tad bigger than the instrument it's reproducing. Delicate, graceful, and, when it needs to be, powerful, the Krypton is a speaker worth a return visit—or perhaps permanent installation. Determining which will be a fun job.