CES 1999 Wrap-Up: January 11, 1999

The most important issue facing the high-end audio crowd at this Show is the looming battle for high-resolution audio formats. DVD-Audio and SACD posturing was everywhere, with SACD probably displayed the most. But it was a relief to see that manufacturers were starting to consider putting both SACD and DVD-Audio processing in a single box, thus making the choice for consumers much easier. This means that the makers of disc players are not forced to choose sides, and are able to please everyone. It allows consumers, as well, to make a single-player choice and be covered for the coming armegeddon. But it will put record labels in a tough spot: which format will they support for their releases---SACD, DVD-Audio, or, somehow, both? We'll keep you informed.

Special mention must go to Mobile Fidelity, who, along with a handful of booths exhibiting one of the new high-resolution audio formats, chose to play air-guitar music instead of audiophile-appoved toe-tappers. First up was the Mahavishnu Orchestra and an SACD-remastered version of "You Know, You Know" from Inner Mounting Flame---a stunning rendition of a stunning piece of music. Next came an SACD remaster of Blood, Sweat & Tears' "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know," which, while an inspired choice, did manage to drive a few folks from the room. Even so, more demos like this will encourage larger parts of the potential audio audience to care about bringing virtual audio reality into their living rooms.

One interesting side note about the SACD/DVD-Audio wars: A Sony executive mentioned to Stereophile publisher emeritus Larry Archibald and editor John Atkinson that there may be an SACD rollout timetable already set for introducing the product in Japan and the US. Hardware for Japan is due in late spring while the US could might see players this fall with the main event scheduled for the 2000 CES. They also pointed out that because the audio and video divisions at Sony are separate, each may release a functionally different DVD player. The audio group will likely toe the company line and release a machine that plays SACD and CD, but the video arm could choose to release a "universal" machine capable of playing SACD, CD, DVD-Audio, and DVD-Video---like the designs announced by Yamaha and Denon. This should prove very interesting.

The award for the best transformation of a hotel room into a listening environment would likely go to Martin-Logan for their understated industrial-style makeover. We have to admit, though, that when we first walked in, we weren't sure if some of the metal panels standing at the entrance to the room were new speakers or high-tech design elements---but they never made any noise, so we're pretty sure they were part of the display.

No matter how else you cut it, one area that always sets the extreme audio crowd apart from the rest of the consumer electronics industry is over-the-top design. High-end audio products are easily the most sculptural, sensuous expressions of technology in metal, wood, plastic, glass, stone, and materials rarely seen anywhere else. The Flatte amplifier design from Evett & Shaw was a "case" in point (pun intended): a rectangular slab of metal about the size of a record cover and about an inch and a half thick, with three 2"-diameter holes serving as heatsinks carved into one side. This striking, functional design would create a minimalist statement even if it didn't amplify music.

Burmester also must be noted for lavish use of carefully polished chrome with an imposing array of components and speakers, but, once again, mbl takes the cake with their designed-in-a-parallel-universe speakers and amplifiers. We are still debating whether this company believes that form follows function or function follows form. Whatever the "case" may be (use a pun, go to prison), design alone makes delving into tweak audio a pleasure for anyone with a visual as well as aural predilection.