The annual US trade fair, ending today in Las Vegas, threw up the usual jumble of ‘tech’ – from bendable TVs to wearable everything –, but less widely covered was plenty to please the music enthusiast
2014 is going to be the year of the curve; the year we allow devices to track our every move; the year everything ‘tech’ becomes wearable; and the year everything – from your fridge to your footwear –finally becomes web-connected, in the ‘Internet of Things’.
Those are just some of the claims made by major manufacturers and industry pundits during the Consumer Electronics Show 2014, which opened in Las vegas on Tuesday and closes today.
CES may not be as huge or as long as once it was, signifying the slightly chilly winds blowing through the technology industry, and this year’s seems to have been somewhat down on attendance, thanks in no small part to the freezing weather affecting much of North America earlier this week, but it's still seen as the place where pointers to the future of consumer technology are given.
An alternative view? Well, as one photographer tweeted over last weekend as he set out for the show? ‘CES bound... again. I wonder what nonsense that will never actually be released I'll be taking photos of this year.’
There does seem to have been a lot of product on show more about headline-grabbing than fulfilling aching consumer needs: iPhone controlled helicopters, 3D printers able to make sweets on demand, and bendable TVs are just some examples.
Curved, curvier – and flexible
The major consumer electronics companies decided last year that curved TVs were what the world was waiting for, and this year they'd pre-announced models which were, larger, thinner and even curvier – yes, really! But just to keep the buzz going, exhibits on show this week also threw up flexible screens, able to change from flat to curved on demand.
Most of the new audio equipment was away from the blaring razzmatazz of the main exhibition floors, and on show in the Venetian Hotel, a part of the event many of the visiting trade and press never get round to exploring. And among the most striking hi-fi launches at the show was the Statement amplifier system from Salisbury’s Naim Audio – all £140,000 and almost 300kg of it. You can read more about the new NAC S1 preamplifier and NAP S1 here, but suffice it to say that Naim went to Las Vegas with the intention of getting some attention, and with this monster amplifier seems to have succeeded rather well.
However, this wasn’t the only new amplifier from a well-known British audio brand at CES 2014: the Arcam A49 integrated amplifier may be a fraction of the price of the Naim at £3250, but it’s still a statement of intent from this British company.
It’s a resolutely all-analogue design, built in the grand scale and for high quality sound: it uses Class G amplification able to deliver 200W per channel to deliver all the dynamics of music, but with the first 50W of output in Class A for clarity and sweetness.
Under the lid is a wide range of Arcam’s proprietary technologies for keeping electrical and mechanical interference away from the audio electronics, and should you wish to add features such as USB or Bluetooth digital inputs, you can do with Arcam’s rSeries add-ons – the hefty power supplies in the A49 have provision for powering a couple of the rSeries units.
Joining the A49 will be a two-box version of the design – the C49 preamplifier and P49 power amplifier, bringing the benefits of flexibility and upgrading.
The seven-box amplifier
You can use them as a two-box stereo amplifier, add extra P49s to drive speakers supporting biwiring or triwiring, or even bridge the power amplifier to create a mono amplifier, Arcam saying that the ultimate 49-series system would be a C49 used with six bridged P49s to drive triwirable speakers.
As is the case with so many British brands these days, the Arcam amplifiers are designed in the UK and built elsewhere, but not quite where you might think: the 49 series models are being assembled in the USA – in Rochester, NY.
Cambridge Audio, meanwhile, is sticking to its tried and tested formula of designing in London and building in China, and is expanding its range-topping Azur 851 separates with the addition of an ultra-low noise analogue preamplifier, the 851E; the 851D DAC/preamplifier, complete with asynchronous USB input and Bluetooth; and a heavyweight stereo power amplifier, the 851W.
All three products are claimed to offer the best performance Cambridge Audio has ever delivered, and their arrival bolsters the already impressive 851 series.
The new products look good value at £1200, £1000 and £1500 respectively, and will be on sale through Richer Sounds shops in the UK later this month.
Also reinforcing its range is German high-end company T+A, with additions to its HV (High Voltage) range: the P 3000 HV preamplifier, the A 3000 HV stereo/mono power amplifier and the PS 3000 HV power supply for the A 3000 HV. The preamplifier has 11 inputs – seven balanced, four on RCA phono sockets –, uses a dual-mono construction with each section of circuitry individually shielded, and will sell for £9500.
The £11,900 A3000 HV delivers 500W per channel, and is also of dual mono layout, while the add-on power supply is £7900 and promises further improvements in sound and power output.
At the more affordable end of the market is the T+A Caruso Blu, a £2990 all-in one system combining CD, DVD and Blu-ray playback, internet radio, FM and DAB tuners, and access to music on network servers, USB storage or Bluetooth devices.
It has built-in amplification and speakers, or its preamplifier outputs allow it to be connected to external amplification or active speakers.
New British audio start-up Musaic, led by former Audio Partnership Technical Director Matthew Bramble, has use the show to demonstrate its multi room music system, due on sale later this year. For more on Musaic, see here.
The Essence of simple streaming
Also thinking multiroom is Bang & Olufsen, with its new BeoSound Essence system: comprising a hideaway box with AirPlay, DLNA streaming, internet radio and streaming music services built-in, plus a compact aluminium remote control designed for wall-mounting or use on a table, allows music to be streamed to any of the company’s active loudspeakers.
Similar thinking informs the new AirStream A100 amplifier from loudspeaker company Monitor Audio, its first-ever amplifier and designed to form the bridge between computer-stored music on Wi-Fi networks – whether on PCs, Macs or network storage devices as well as via Apple AirPlay – and loudspeakers.
Delivering 50W per channel, and set to sell for £400 when it arrives in the shops in March, the AirStream A100 can also play music straight from iOS portable devices using AirStream connectivity in the absence of a wireless network.
Music direct over wireless networks is one of the features of the compact Eclipse TD-M1 active speaker system, which will sell for £999 when it arrives next month. It combines a pair of Eclipse Time Domain single drive speakers with built-in amplification, plus wireless connectivity able to play direct from Apple devices using AirPlay and AirPlay Direct, or use conventional Wi-Fi music streaming over a network, and USB direct input compatible with music at up to 24-bit/192kHz music.
Arcam's blinking Bluetooth mini
Bluetooth streaming made simple and portable is the intention of the Arcam miniBlink, the latest in the company’s rSeries accessory range. Powered from a USB socket - so it can be used with devices such as speaker docks to add wireless capability, the miniBlink is a tiny, lightweight aptX Bluetooth receiver, supplied with all the cables required to connect it to hi-fi systems and separates, and set for sell for well under £100 when it arrives soon.
A source for wireless movie surround – and music
The latest move in another wireless idea – WiSA – has been showcased at CES. A couple of months back I reported on the Bang & Olufsen Immaculate Wireless Sound concept, available in the company’s BeoLab 17, 18 and 19 speakers and BeoVision 11 TV, and using the WiSA standard for multichannel high-definition sound; now Sharp has announced a Blu-ray/universal disc player complete with WiSA compatibility.
This allows the player to be used directly with active WiSA speakers such as the new BeoLab models, delivering up to 7.1 channels of 24-bit/192kHz sound. As well as Blu-ray, the Sharp SD-WH1000 – the first WISA disc player – will also play Super Audio CD discs when it goes on sale early this year, at a price yet to be announced. And that opens up some even more intriguing prospects for high resolution wireless music systems.
The high-resolution revolution is coming – sometime...
What did rather fail to materialise was the major focus on what the CES organisers had dubbed 'HRA' - high-resolution audio. Panel discussions seemed to be in agreement that it was a big ask to expect consumers to move up from MP3 files to much more data-hungry high-resolution content.
However one panellist put his finger on the problem when he said that, were Amazon or Apple to make the move to high-resolution, the battle would be won in a day.
The feeling seemed to be that high-resolution has legs, but it’s early days yet - which may come as a surprise of us who have been buying, downloading and enjoying music at beyond-CD quality for some years. As a result, high-resolution audio equipment wasn’t as prominent as many had hoped, though Sony did firm up details of its flagship NWZ-ZX1 Walkman player able to handle high-resolution content on the move.
Though the Sony is impressively sleek, it’s by no means the only high-resolution pocket player: Astell & Kern, the division of Taiwan’s iRiver already specialising in high-end high-resolution players, rolled out its latest model, the AK240, which is expected to have a price somewhere north of $2000.
The new model can play not just 24-bit/192kHz high-resolution music formats, but also Double-rate DSD at up to 5.6MHz, which is decoded in its native form. It has dual-mono conversion, balanced audio out, and a shell made from aircraft-grade Duralumin.
With such high-resolution capability, the AK240 needs the standard 256GB storage it has onboard, along with a microSD slot for memory expansion, and it ensures you can keep it topped up with music with direct Wi-Fi music downloading, removing the need for a computer.
25 years of digital speakers
Finally, the pioneer of digital active speakers, Meridian, is been marking 25 years since the arrival of its first model – and the world's first digital active speaker, the D600.
To mark the anniversry, new Special Edition versions of its DSP8000, DSP7200 and DSP5200 speakers have been announced at CES 2014.
They have a new Meridian-designed semi-horn tweeter with Beryllium dome driver for enhanced transient response and bandwidth; wide-bandwidth analogue electronics to make the most of high-resolution recordings; reworked Digital Signal Processing for fast, clean bass and open soundstaging; and machined rings to clamp the drivers in place for mechanica stability.
The new models, forming the cornerstone of the company's 2014 Digital Active Loudspeaker range, are described by Meridian as 'the most lifelike-sounding loudspeakers we've ever created'.
Andrew Everard, Audio Editor of Gramophone since November 1999, read English at Queens' College, Cambridge a very long time ago, and was a member of the Westminster Abbey Special Choir even further back in the mists of time. He has worked on What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision, High Fidelity, Audiophile and Home Cinema magazines, as well as contributing a monthly column to Japanese title HiVi.