CES Countdown, part the twooth: 357 days to CES2009

In yesterday's philippic about CES's petty annoyances, I said that I continue to be a recidivist in spite of them. The reason? Pretty much that the high-end portion of the industry remains a fascinating, personal, and essentially civilized place.

No, it is not that CES allows me to glimpse the direction of audio technology over the coming year.

Truth be told, the high-end is frequently as clueless about the next big thing as the big guys. This year, for example, it seemed like iPod docks were everywhere. That's not a bad thing, but as Stereophile web monkey Jon Iverson observed in his CES Wrap-Up, docks are probably best used as a "gateway drug" to introduce iPod users who think everything sounds the same to a realm where everything doesn't.

In that sense, iPod docks are years too late. When I reviewed the G3 iPod back in October 2003, I recognized that it was the perfect device to demonstrate the audibility of "better." Not only could the savvy dealer show iPodistas the difference between various MP3 bit-rates (and the difference between 128kbps and 256kbps is audible to the most lead-eared neophyte), but using losslessly-encoded files (and the iPod as a source) provided a spectacular opportunity to demonstrate why everybody can benefit from a better hi-fi.

Of course, in keeping with my track record as a prognosticator, CES2004 was not the year of the high-end iPod dock—but it should have been. I won't say that's the reason why sound quality of recordings has deteriorated so precipitously over the last five years, but the high-end's dismissal of the iPod as a noxious toy certainly didn't help.

Now it's the next big thing.

There's one exception: Wadia's iTransport, which grabs the digital signal before the iPod DAC and lets you port it to an external transport. That's pretty cool—and it lets guys like JA carry around his latest works in progress and play them for me—assuming I get one, which I intend to.

Most iPod owners have a far larger library of full-resolution digital files than fit on even a 160GB iPod Classic, so the natural high-end product would be a device that gets that music out of the computer and into audiophiles' music systems.

So that would make 2008 the year of the music server, right? It's certainly the year high-end audio noticed music servers, but most companies haven't thought through all the details yet.

At CES2008, music servers on display fell into three major categories: full servers, with a user interface, ripping system, and media storage, "bridge systems" that transport the data on the user's computer (or NAS) to the music playback system, and products that fall between the two, having, say, a ripping drive, but no memory.

In a conversation with Conrad-Johnson's Lew Johnson and Bill Conrad, I was told that Johnson had constructed for the partners' own use a pair of special low noise computers with (IIRC) two 500TB drives in a RAID 1 array (fully mirrored backup) with an S/PDIF digital output plugged into a CJ DAC. "I downloaded Media Monkey to gather the metadata and let us control the files," Johnson said.

Does that mean CJ will make a server?

"Um, no," said Bill Conrad. "Computer manufacturers make computers and storage very cheaply—and far better than we could. It makes no economic sense to compete with them on this. What we do better than them though is handle the digital audio signal, so our suggestion is find a low noise box and give the signal to a good DAC—preferably ours."

And that's why I keep returning to CES year after year: It gives me a chance to talk to some of the smartest guys I've ever met. It also lets me see the folks who make the products I have given less than stellar reviews. I had my shot, now it's time to look them in the eye and let 'em know it wasn't personal. 'T'ain't always easy, but it comes with the territory.

And, of course, it also lets me catch up with the characters who make this niche of the industry such a, um, special place. Music Hall's Roy Hall, for instance, who offers some of the most natural hospitality I've experienced, even while dispensing a bracing dose of contempt for the working audio press. He doesn't really mean it—I think—but it's amazing what an audio journalist will put up with for a ¾ ounce serving of single-malt whisky.

I caught up with Mary Cardas in the Cardas room. With NHT's late 2007 decimation (actually, what do you call it when you cull 90% of the staff?), Mary's looking for a job in audio. She was handing out business cards that said "Mary Cardas: Your Company Name Here." I told her I'd just seen the Transrotor Artus. She insisted I take her to the Transrotor room, where she gaped in awe at the beast. She got a private demo and, as I left the room, I heard her asking, "Whose wire do you use in the tonearms?" Even out of work, she's always working.

Over at T.H.E. Show, there are the good doctors Dotson and Alazard, the far-from ordinary "citizens" who inadvertently registered as exhibitors a few years ago and set up an audio oasis as NFS Audio. It serves the same function the Stereophile CES party used to—essentially everybody who is anybody will eventually show up there. And a good time will be had by all. (The Institute of High Fidelity badge at the head of this article was given to me by Dotson and Alazard—John Atkinson coveted it mightily.)

Then there's the music I discover. Hansen Audio's Wes Bender knocked me out with the new LP of Donald Fagin's Morph the Cat. I have to get that—and while I'm at it, I wouldn't mind the CAT amplifier that was driving the Hansen Princes V2, too. While I'm making up a shopping list, I want everything John Devore and Jonathan Halpern played me in their room, as well.

I must also add that you hear music at CES that you only hear at audio shows: a particularly affectless style of female singing that is tonally pure, emotionally sterile, and boring as piss-all. I try to be guided solely by what will interest our readers, but I admit I deduct a solid 15 "interest points" from any room playing this swill. I doubt a full bottle of Roy Hall's magic elixir could make that crap palatable—and if it did, I'd hate myself in the morning.

And, of course, the very bestest part of CES is that I get to be with the other Stereophile writers. Erase that image you have of us lounging around the Stereophile mansion, listening to mega-buck hi-fi and examining the legs of a hearty Pinot Noir as we swirl our crystal goblets. I live three blocks from JA—and essentially in the same city as Bob Reina, Kal Rubinson, and Stephen Mejias—but our hectic schedules prevent us from spending lots of time together. Bob Deutsch lives in the Great White North—and for this autoless Brooklynite, Larry Greenhill might as well. CES is the only time I have to reconnect with this fascinating cast of characters—and best of all, I'll get to do it again next year.