I have absolutely no intention of taking credit for this. It’s almost certainly a coincidence. But I do find it pleasantly surprising that two years after lauding GoldenEar Technology’s Jack Shafton for establishing a “Diana Krall-Free Zone” in the Venetian suites at CES, I made it through this year’s show without hearing “The Look of Love” even once. Nor Livingston Taylor’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” Nor the tiniest snippet of Jazz at the Pawnshop.
No, this year’s audio demos were an absolute hoot, and furthermore I don’t think I heard the same song twice. Yes, there was the usual mix of jazz and classical, some swinging Nat King Cole, some innovatively recorded Bach. But what surprised me most was the preponderance of honest-to-Glob fun pouring out the suites of even the most esoteric audiophile manufacturers. It gave me hope that the hi-fi industry is finally coming to the collective realization that we’re in the business of selling a good time, that a little toe-tapping and booty-shaking does nothing to distract from a speaker’s exquisite phase response or frequency range, nor an amp’s exceedingly low total harmonic distortion.
Here are just a handful of the most memorable (and unusual) demos from this year’s show.
Lindsey Buckingham: Out of the Cradle
Best Track: 5 ”All My Sorrows”
The author enjoyed “All My Sorrows,” from Lindsey Buckingham’s Out of the Cradle in a whole-new way at GoldenEar’s CES suite. Unsurprisingly, the first selection that blew me away came from GoldenEar’s suite, when the company’s founder Sandy Gross gave me a sneak peek at his new Triton Five loudspeakers on Sunday night before the show. It’s a track I’ve heard thousands of times from an album I love more than peanut butter-covered peanut butter. But soaking it up in the context in which it was played made me realize for the first time what a stupefyingly gorgeous recording “All My Sorrows” truly is.
From the first note, the track’s luscious bass line, ethereal electric guitar ambiance, and sleepy percussion weave a cradle of audio bliss that undulates back and forth across pretty much any crossover points your speakers could conceivably have, lulling the ears and mind alike in a way that’s both hypnotic and arousing. Tiny sparkles of chimes light up the front soundstage like barbiturate-addled fireflies tracing a lazy but brilliant pathway through three-dimensional space.
Then Buckingham’s dubbed-and-dubbed-and-overdubbed vocals join in, in a tantalizing one-man chorus that seems to stretch from sea to shining sea. The soundstage is gargantuan. The tonal richness is staggering. But the combined effect is that you quickly forget about speakers and amps and interconnects and get swallowed by the music, losing track of your bread-crumb trail back to reality (or any semblance thereof). It breaks pretty much every rule of audiophile demos and it does so unapologetically, which is why I love it so much.
Aphex Twin: Syro
Best Track: 3 “produk 29 ”
On Aphex Twin’s Syro album, track 3— produk 29  providing a convincing demonstration on Meridian’s new MQA music encoding system. Pop quiz, hot shot: of all the high-end audio manufacturers exhibiting at CES, which would be the least likely to crank out some straight-up synthesizer-saturated electronica? If you said Meridian you’d be wrong, because that’s exactly where I stumbled across clips of Aphex Twin’s new comeback album. This cut in particular was being used to demonstrate the sonic advantages of the company’s new MQA (“Master Quality Authenticated”) music encoding system. And it wasn’t the only track in the demo, of course, but it was the one that most convinced me of the sonic benefits of the format.
I wish I could paint you a clearer picture of what’s going on in the song and what makes it so interesting from an aural standpoint, but to be frank, aside from the drum machines and synths I couldn’t tell you the source of any of these sounds. Was that Buck Rogers’ robot Twiki passing gas? A Theremin being dropped into a black hole?
The sound a Galaxian arcade machine makes when you drop a quarter in and press Play? I honestly don’t know.
But the combined result is a sonic landscape that’s rich, robust, detailed, and even nuanced in a trippy, acidtechno sort of way. It’s a cut that not only gives your subwoofer a sweaty workout, but leaves the mid drivers and tweeters gasping for air as well.
Hadouk Trio: Shamanimal
Best Track: 7 ”Moussa”
For something a little more organic, check out this eclectic jam from Didier Malherbe, Loy Ehrlich, and Steve Shehan. For something a little more organic (and, perhaps counterintuitively, a lot more danceable), check out this eclectic jam from Didier Malherbe, Loy Ehrlich, and Steve Shehan. It’s world music of a sort, but not the kind you may be thinking of (i.e. music from any part of the world where there aren’t a lot of white people). As such, no matter where in the world you’re from, I have a feeling it’s going to sound both comfortable and foreign, like a snug blankie made of yarn from the fifth dimension.
The track starts with a decidedly traditional Japanese flavor, then settles down into a Middle Eastern groove punctuated by threads of western jazz. Throughout it all, though, Ehrlich’s Hajouj (which, according to my Google Fu, is a three-stringed bass lute-like instrument from Morocco or thereabouts), Malherbe’s wind instruments, and Shehan’s percussion weave together in a way that feels like it shouldn’t make sense, yet it all congeals into a melodious mélange that ought to be the first earth song we play if aliens ever visit and want to consume the entirety of our musical stylings in a single sitting.
Or, you know, if we just want to show off what our electrostatic speakers are capable of. The thing is, the music here is so dense, so richly textured that it seems miraculous that a pair of speakers can contain it all. There’s a truly tactile quality to the recording that I just dig, and I’ve been obsessing over it since I got back home, through everything from my gigantic Triton Ones down to itty bitty wireless Play-Fi speakers. I’ve yet to hear any system that it didn’t make sound superb.
If you mashed up the Aphex Twin cut with the Hadouk Trio and threw in a bit of early Herbie Hancock and the score music from 1969’s The Italian Job, you’d sort of have a good idea of what to expect from this Mr. Scruff ditty.Mr. Scruff: Ninja Tuna
Best Track: 11 ”Kalimba”
If you mashed up the Aphex Twin cut with the Hadouk Trio and threw in a bit of early Herbie Hancock and the score music from 1969’s The Italian Job, you’d sort of have a good idea of what to expect from this Mr. Scruff ditty. It’s electronica. It’s jazz. It’s trip-hop. It’s pretty much everything you could want in a speaker demo all rolled up into one.
It’s got dope beats that seem tailored specifically for massive monitors above and around a disco floor. But at the same time, it also has these deliciously real dueling organ grooves that simply saturate your soul. And the interplay between the percussive beats in the left and right channels makes it the sort of tune you just want to park yourself in front of and analyze, all while your feet are dragging you toward the nearest expanse of open floor. I’m not sure if it’s the funkiest electronic music I’ve ever heard or the most rave-able jazz, but whatever box you want to put it in, it’s like a nummy sonic buffet catered by a dissociative trickster.