by John Sciacca
For my final day at 2012’s CES I returned to the Venetian to hit the numerous exhibitors – and entire massive Ballroom/convention areas – that I’d missed on my first visit. You remember, the one that was like, I don’t know, 6 years ago. Wait? It was only 3 days ago? CES and Vegas have a way of messing with your mind like that. Oh, well. Let’s press on…
Floors 29 and 30 of the Venetian Towers Suites probably housed 150 or more audio-centric companies, so I headed up to 30 and decided to work my way down. Each floor has a central hub with three spokes that branch off so I randomly chose one and began my day. I generally peak into rooms of companies that I haven’t heard of just to see if they have anything cool. This often results in bits of tech serendipity. One such discovery was a company named Pathos. What initially caught my eye was the jumbo-sized color touchscreen – I’m a sucker for giant touchscreens filled with album art – but then I noticed some products that just exuded Italian style and flair. (Hey, with a last name like Sciacca, you know I’ve gotta support my paisanos.) Beside the touchscreen was an amplifier employing the coolest use of heat sinks ever.
Pathos displaying an amplifier with unique heat sinks.
Pathos was also displaying its new InterpolRemix, a true Class-A amplified iPad/Pod docking station. The unit also includes both balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA inputs and offers frequency response from 10 Hz-80 KHz and a 24-bit/192KHz DAC. This little guy produced full, warm, rich sound from the towers that it was connected to and would make a beautiful start to any mini-system.
Pathos' InterpolRemix is a Class-A amplified iPad/Pod docking station.
Venturing on, I found Sony’s suite where they were demonstrating their new flagship tower speakers, the SS-AR1s. Granted, Sony probably isn’t the first name that springs to mind when you think ultra-high-end speaker systems, but they aim to change that with a serious commitment behind the new SS-AR1 loudspeaker that retails for a very un-Sony-like $27,000/pair. The speaker cabinets are beautiful looking, with a high-polished lacquer finish that appears black but which is actually a dark, deep almost purplish-brown-walnut color. (Guess it depends on the temperature of lamp bulb you are shining on them.) They are constructed from a combination of hand-selected logs of maple from Hokkaido, Japan and Nordic birch; the woods chosen due to their natural hardness and tight grain from growing in freezing climates. I got a chance to sample these speakers in another booth for a bit on Tuesday and they were using source material that kind of sounded like marching band music, and the horn section was so dynamic, it felt like you were listening to a live performance. But I wanted an opportunity to take a listen with some material I was more familiar with, say anything besides marching band. While perhaps a bit forward sounding, the speakers produce amazing dynamics and pounding percussion, playing to 28 Hz. They are also very quick and deliver a wide soundstage.
Sony’s new flagship tower speakers, the SS-AR1s, will retail for $27,000/pair.
From my visit to the THX suite last April, umm, I mean on Wednesday, I knew that MK Sound was producing the first speaker to be certified for THX’s new Compact Speaker System program. This program is “designed for smaller accommodations including small home theaters, gaming rooms, living rooms, apartments and dedicated media rooms.” This includes spaces up to 1,000 cubic feet (13.5 feet long x 10 feet wide x 8 feet tall), with listening distance up to 8 feet from the screen. Though the speakers are smaller, they’re still required to produce reference levels with low distortion up to 105 dB. MK’s new system is called the M7, and a 2.1 system will retail for $2000, with additional M7 LCR units selling for $499 each. As multiple flat-panel continue to become prevalent in homes and users add second and even third surround systems, the M7’s could be the perfect high-performance solution for people moving to smaller, less dedicated spaces. Sound quality was certainly impressive in the small space, including real bass you-can-feel.
MK’s new 2.1 system is called the M7, and is the first speaker to be certified for THX’s new Compact Speaker System program.
Wandering on, I walked past Wolf Cinema’s suite and was stopped by the gorgeous, bright image coming off the 12-foot wide Stewart 2.35:1 cinewide aspect screen. I ducked in and donned the requisite 3D glasses and watched a bit of The Owls of Ga’Hoole. The image was wonderfully bright and punchy with rich, deep blacks, and quite engaging despite actually being The Owls of Ga’Hoole. The active 3D was, well, you know I’m not a giant 3D fan, but it was certainly every bit as good/bad as other active 3D projectors. I went back and looked more closely at the SDC-10 projector and it had a wonderful cabinet design, with the lens housed completely inside of the unit’s case as is Wolf’s design style. The unit also features Wolf’s VariScope lens memory with presets for 1.78, 1.85 and 2.35 aspect ratios, allowing users to enjoy widescreen presentations without an anamorphic sled system. Built around JVC’s three-chip D-ILA technology, the 220 watt lamp delivers 1300 ANSI and 70,000:1 contrast. Most impressive was the price. I was expecting to hear that it was $25,000, but, no. This bad-girl is shipping now for $10,000. Impressive. Most impressive!
I popped into Davone’s suite just long enough to take a picture of their unusually styled upcoming speaker. Not sure what it sounded like – it wasn’t connected – but it certainly exuded classic Denmark styling – I could imagine it being sold in the audio section of IKEA with a name like MUSSIK or SPEAKURR or KLÖRB – and will surely be a conversation piece whether playing music or not.
Davone's new speaker, while not plugged in for demonstrations, exuded classic Denmark styling.
A visit to the Pass Labs suite answered the question, “What does 600 pounds of ultra-high-end stereo amplification look like?” Turns out, it looks pretty much exactly like this:
Pass Labs demonstrates their ultra-high-end stereo amplification.
Sound was ultra-quick and dynamic as you’d expect with tons of depth and detail. They played a bit from Sonny Rollins “Saxophone Colossus” which I’m pretty familiar and if Sonny were to have be-bopped his way up to the 29th floor of the Venetian, grabbed his sax and step into the Pass Labs suite, I doubt that he’d sound any more real. Just make sure you have help on hand whenever you decide to relocate either the amp or power supply as they weigh a cool 150 pounds apiece. Oh, and the stereo set will run you around $85,000.
I decided to return to the world where mere mortals can afford audio and headed to the Meridian booth. (OK, I decided to return to the world slowly, weaning my way off uber-high-end by taking one last stop in just regular high-end.) The exciting news at Meridian is the introduction of the M6. Designed to fill a spot in the line-up between the DSP3200 and DSP5200 speakers, the M6 will sell for $9000/pair when it ships in February. This speaker has a new design for Meridian, featuring a round cross section that offers some unique acoustic properties. Since there are not hard cabinet edges, there is no cabinet diffraction. The result is terrifically tight imaging even when well off-center or when standing close to one of the speakers. Meridian says these speakers are “made for rooms that real people actually live in; standing up, walking around, enjoying music but not dedicating a space to it.” Also cool is that the tapered design causes the speakers to really kind of “disappear” in a room, making them very designer friendly. Of course, looking good is one thing, but Meridian is also kinda about sounding really amazing too, and the 5 ¼-inch woofer with 1-inch of throw delivered amazing low-end, with tight-tight punchy bass.
Meridian revealed the M6, and is designed to fill a spot in the company's line-up between the DSP3200 and DSP5200 speakers. The M6 will sell for $9000/pair when it ships in February.
Also cool is a completely revised iPad control app for working a Sooloos music server system. Jeff Dean demonstrates the app here. (Incidentally, this is the same Jeff Dean that provided me the wonderful blog on “The Art of Speaker Placement in Films.” If you haven’t read that yet, now’s your chance.)
Without question, speaker companies are turning to soundbars as a way of capturing some of the market that wants better audio but not a complete, complicated surround system. Polk Audio new SurroundBar 500 Component Home Theater ($999) has a unique take on this in that it can be configured in a variety of manners, allowing users to use it as a 3-channel LCR in a typical surround system, or 5 channels with separate height or back channels or the full 7-channels. It also features an installer-friendly design, with a separate outboard crossover box – the SDA Crossover Module – that sits in the component rack and accepts all of the speaker wiring from the receiver/amplifier and then wires to the speaker via 15-foot umbilical to that carries all the audio channels. Removing the crossover allows the bar to achieve its ultra-thin 1 ½-inch depth which fits in with modern svelte panel designs. The SurroundBar 500 features nine 3 1/4-inch mid-drivers and three ¾-inch tweeters and incorporates Polk Audio’s proprietary SDA Surround to produce a convincing surround experience. A smaller Surround Bar 400 is also available.
Polk Audio's SurroundBar 500 Component Home Theater can be configured in a variety of manners, allowing users to use it as a 3-channel LCR in a typical surround system, or 5 channels with separate height or back channels or the full 7-channels.
Accompanying the new bars is a new sub line-up, the DSW Prowi series. This new line-up features three models with 8-inch, 10-inch and 12-inch drivers that features increased power, lower pricing over previous offerings and are all wireless ready. (The PWSK-1 wireless kit is sold separately for $119.) One design feature I appreciated was that the subwoofer’s feet can be unscrewed and moved, allowing the sub to perform as either down-firing when out in a room or front ported for better performance when installed in cabinetry.
Atlantic Technology made quite a splash at CEDIA two years ago with the tech-demonstration of H-PAS technology. This stands for Hybrid Pressure Acceleration System, and produces a stunning amount of bass from normal sized cabinet enclosures. With the introduction of the new AT-2 ($1800), Atlantic Tech wants to prove that “bookshelf and bass [are] no longer mutually exclusive.” The single 5 ¼-inch woofer produces a stunning low-end of 41 Hz at the -3 dB point and is potent enough to be a main speaker without sub in a 2-channel system. Atlantic Technology is also planning a March/April launch of the H-Pas PowerBar 235, a soundbar with this technology that will sell for under $1000 and hit bass-lows of 47 Hz.
With the introduction of the new 5 ¼-inch AT-2 woofer, Atlantic Tech wants to prove that bookshelf and bass are no longer mutually exclusive.
My final stop was Onkyo’s booth were they were showcasing a new Silicon Image technology called InstaPrevue. Onkyo is the first to include InstaPrevue in its line of AV receivers, and this allows users a picture-in-picture preview of all HDMI inputs connected to the receiver, allowing users to actually see what is playing on that input before switching. While not a full-motion image – it seems to refresh about every 2 seconds – it is certainly a snapshot that would be perfect for seeing if a commercial was over or if you wanted to cue up a demo scene or something. Here’s a video of the system in action: