Asynchronous USB is commonly referred to as the best type of USB interface implementation. Until recently consumers have only had a few options for async USB components. There were a handful of new asynchronous USB interfaces on display at CES this year. Some of them I was unable to verify as truly asynchronous. Instead of cast doubt on the product or the manufacturer or publish incorrect details I will wait for further information before commenting. Two interfaces I was very impressed with come from Mbl and Resolution Audio.
Everyone in high end audio is aware that Mbl manufacturers very good sounding products. I met with Mbl's Chief Engineer Juergen Reis who provided details about his new USB interface. Some technical aspects were admittedly way over my head, but I understood the gist of what Juergen said. The new Mbl USB interface does register as Asynchronous using the USB Prober utility, but Juergen's design appeared to take asyc one step further. I jokingly referred to it as Asynchronous+. It will be interesting to see other engineer's opinions of what Juergen has done and to compare the Mbl interface to other asynchronous interfaces on a technical level. The Mbl USB interface can be added to current Mbl DACs and does not exist as a standalone product.
At CES 2008 San Francisco based Resolution Audio demonstrated a DAC with embedded AirTunes. The DAC received music via a wireless stream from a Mac Mini sitting a fair distance from the audio rack. At the time this component was all the rage. I mentioned the then named IXS Music Server in a post from January 8, 2008. Since CES 2008 Resolution Audio's Jeff Kalt has gone through the same frustrations that many Computer Audiophile readers went through. When Apple updated iTunes and essentially broke the AirTunes functionality it was a headache for many readers and a turning point for Resolution Audio. The Apple "upgrade" was the straw that broke the camel's back and solidified in Jeff's mind that he could not depend on Apple's Airport Express as an integrated part of a Resolution Audio product. Resolution Audio is a small shop that could never handle all the customer service calls it would have received if it would have gone the AirTunes route. Following that experience Resolution Audio decided to develop the best USB interface it knew how to develop and include the interface in a new product or two. This year at CES Resolution Audio debuted of the Cantata Music Center and the Pont Neuf bridge asynchronous USB to Ethernet interface in the U.S..
The Cantata Music Center features a Redbook CD player, AES/EBU, Coaxial, Optical, asynchronous USB, and Ethernet digital inputs. The Cantata's Ethernet port connects to a home network where it's a UPnP client and will play files from any UPnP server in addition to receiving remote control commands and streaming audio from a computer. The UPnP server can be any number of devices. Readers will most likely use a NAS unit as a UPnP server to store their music. At CES Jeff Kalt controlled playback through the Cantata via an iPod Touch.
The Pont Neuf bridge asynchronous USB to Ethernet interface is the small device pictured below. It appears as an asynchronous USB DAC to a Mac OS X or Windows based computer. The Pont Neuf bridge allows one to place a computer anywhere on one's home network and still send audio to the Cantata. The Pont Neuf bridge uses a wired or wireless LAN as a USB extension through network hubs, switches, or routers. Technically each Ethernet cable can be 100 meters in length, greatly out-stretching traditional connection methods. Even a single Ethernet cable at 100 meters is substantially further than the current limits of FireWire and USB cables. FireWire currently limits a single cable to 4.5 meters. USB's current cable limit is about five meters. According to Jeff Kalt the Pont Neuf bridge will work at 24/96 over a wireless home network. As of this writing Resolution Audio has no plans to release the Pont Neuf bridge as a separate component capable of connecting other DACs.
In addition to the technical details both the Cantata and the Pont feature a new look and chassis design for Resolution Audio. In the past Resolution Audio components were about half as wide as the current Cantata and didn't feature the wonderful metal work now incorporated into both new components. Pictures alone don't do these components justice. The metal work is very solid and looks much more stunning in person.
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As I said in the opening paragraph I was pleasantly surprised with PS Audio's advances. To be honest I told the guys at PSA that I didn't think they could pull it off. We've all heard about PS Audio's ambitious goals in this area and I really thought there was no way a high end audio company could actually meet the goals (iPod Touch application, HRx 24/176.4 playback, metadata from its own server, a NAS, etc...). I am very happy things are working out great for PS Audio. In fact I Tweeted via the Computer Audiophile Twitter page that PS Audio may have out-designed Apple with its iPod Touch application. The app is as simple as it gets while still including all the extras a user could want. I played with the iPod app for quite a while trying to use all the features and possibly find its weaknesses. The whole experience was simple. I didn't find any real weaknesses but I did offer a suggestion or two. I'm sure the PS Audio guys had already thought of my suggestions and were just playing along to make me feel smart :~) Included in the PS Audio photos below is a shot of PS Audio's prototype NAS device. The final design is far from complete according to Paul McGowan. Paul does envision the PS Audio NAS as a simple device that requires no user intervention to setup or configure to work with the other PS Audio components. PSA has really put a lot of R&D into its new products and it's wonderful to see things are working out great.
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Best and Favorites of CES
My award for Best Sound of CES does go to Magico and its Q5 loudspeaker. That should be no surprise considering how much I've previously said about the speaker. There's no need to go into more detail other than to say I didn't hear better sound anywhere in Las Vegas.
My award for Favorite Sound of CES goes to the new Nagra 300i integrated amplifier with four 300B tubes. I got into the Nagra suite the night before the show started and listened to the 300i for a few minutes. The rest of the weekend I was craving that sound. It was very lush and so enjoyable I wanted more. During the course of the show I ran into several people who felt the exact same way. The 300i produced their favorite sound of the show. There was no price available for the new 300i.
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My award for Favorite Component of CES goes to the Resolution Audio Cantata Music Server and associated Pont USB converter. A price wasn't available for this component either, but I sure it will not be stratospheric. Resolution Audio produces great components at reasonable prices and I expect nothing less going forward.
Edit: Pricing just received from Resolution Audio.
Cantata Music Center $6,000
Cantata 50 amplifier $4,000
Pont Neuf $400
One of my favorite things to do at CES and RMAF is to find new music. At every show there is a large area where many online record stores and record labels setup shop. It's always an expensive part of the show but it's the most fun and what I look forward to the most. Here are the selections I purchased at CES 2010.
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Links to purchase:
- Hank Mobley - Soul Station (XRCD24)
- Horace Parlan - Speakin' My Piece (XRCD24)
- Sonny Clark - Cool Struttin' (XRCD24)
- Tina Brooks - True Blue (XRCD24)
- Art Taylor - A.T.'s Delight
- Ike Quebec - Soul Samba Bossa Nova
- John Patton - Along Came John
- Lee Morgan - Lee-way
- Dexter Gordon - Dexter Calling
- Kenny Dorham - Whistle Stop
Cary Audio was demoing its new music server. The server is still very much a prototype.
Jeff Kalt of Resolution Audio was using a little USB iMo monitor to display iTunes cover flow. A touch screen is now available.
Ayre's Bluray player produced a great picture as well as really nice sound through Ayre components and Vandersteen model Seven loudspeakers.
The Samsung both at the convention center was absolutely over the top. Not audio related but worth a mention. The 3D TVs were also better than expected.
Finally, it was great meeting the Computer Audiophile readers who I ran into at the show. I think we need to set something up for Rocky Mountain in October so more of us can meet up :~)
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