CES 2016 is in the can. I spent much of the four days at the high-end exhibits in the Venetian and a bit of time with manufacturer's electing to display at the Mirage. I didn't get over to the main convention center this year because I had too many people to meet with on the last day of the show. I always enjoy going to the convention center to see the computer side of Computer Audiophile, but it just wasn't in the cards this year. Note to self: don't schedule meetings all day every day of the show.
Without question the two most popular items of the show were RoonReady and MQA. Let's dig into RoonReady first. Roon released its much-anticipated software development kit (SDK) to manufacturers in late 2015. The Roon SDK enables manufacturers to install code on their devices to make them RoonReady. A RoonReady device is one that appears as a Roon-capable audio endpoint on a network. In other words, users can stream audio to a RoonReady device from Roon's application. Think of it as AirPlay without the limitations. CES 2016 was littered with RoonReady signs. Some manufacturers had implemented the code already and were streaming from Roon to their DACs or digital-to-digital converters. Elac even had a speaker on display with a built-in RoonReady module enabling Roon to stream right to the loudspeaker. Other manufacturers displayed RoonReady signs to note their intentions of implementing the technology very soon. CA readers will also be happy to know that Roon will support Chromecast Audio devices in the coming months. What's not to like about $35 Roon endpoints?
The other hot topic was MQA. Before offering some opinions I must say the people behind MQA are very smart, very nice, very easy to work with, and have good intentions. The product itself is also technically very valid. In this industry we too often see voodoo and smoke & mirrors, so it's really great to see MQA stand on its own with solid engineering concepts. In addition, the sound of MQA files that I've heard to date is fantastic. At an MQA event in Las Vegas I heard Natalie Merchant and Green Day as well as the millionth version of Kind of Blue. It's wonderful to see MQA involved with such popular music. I can only take so much Scottish nose whistle recorded at 32 bit / 768 kHz. Now for the other side of the MQA coin. Right now MQA is like a soup sandwich. Nobody outside of MQA really knows what it is exactly. The message from MQA is hard to understand, partly because it's such a large undertaking. There's the MQA recording studio pieces of the puzzle, the consumer device playback pieces of the puzzle, and the different methods used to create MQA files that sit on a continuum from a white glove process going back to the original master recordings to a much more low-touch process that will likely be used to convert larger catalogs of music, and many other pieces. Talking to manufacturers at CES about MQA was interesting as well. Some were puzzled as to what was going on with MQA while others were surprised to see their names listed as MQA partners on signage at the show. This raised the question of what exactly is an MQA partner. I currently don't have an answer to that question. Then came Friday night at CES. At 5:29 PM I, and other journalists, received the following text message:
"MQA is undergoing "Proof of Concept" with its partners here at CES, and as part of that there will be a small, but important clarification from MQA and AURALiC coming later today...please hold up any coverage of the two partners until the clarification is sent out today."
I don't want to get into the gritty details of what happened, but I believe we are in for more confusion in the coming months.
I want to be clear that I support MQA's effort to bring us our favorite music at a level of quality most of us have never heard. I like the people at the company and the company's goals. I simply have trouble with MQA's communication.
Over at the Mirage I visited with dCS. Using its Rossini and Vivaldi series of components together with D'Agostino amplifiers and Wilson Audio Alexa loudspeakers, the dCS team with assistance from Brian Berdan of Audio Element in Pasadena, CA achieved the best sound of the show. dCS America's General Manager John Quick played NYC Man from Lou Reed's Set the Twilight Reeling album as well as several other enjoyable tracks. The sound in this room was simply better than all the other rooms. Partially responsible for this great sound is the new dCS DSD filter and upgraded software that completely changes the mapping functionality. dCS offered me as many A/B blind tests as I wanted, to hear the difference between the filters and new software (coming to Vivaldi soon). It was readily apparent after a single blind A/B of each technology that the changes are significant. I heard a wider soundstage and even a hint of Q-Sound-like reproduction when playing normal RedBook CD material. I even looked down at the iPad placed next to me on the couch because I thought it was making a noise, when in reality the music through the two speakers gave me this illusion. I'm not making that up or embellishing, it actually happened. Cheers to dCS for delivering the best sound of CES 2016.
I'm tired of hearing about Andrew Jones and Elac. There, I said it (not too seriously though). The man and the company are everywhere! Everyone is always talking about the demo Andrew puts on at every show, and CES was no exception. This year Andrew demonstrated the new Elac UB5 ($500) stand-mounted speaker with a newly designed concentric driver. Listen to what everyone else said, it's true. This speaker sounded awesome. Andrew played both popular music and more traditional audiophile music, and it all sounded wonderful. I don't know how he does it so inexpensively. In addition to loudspeakers Elac displayed its streaming solution named Discovery with Roon server built-in and a loudspeaker that's a RoonReady endpoint. I was told the Discover streamer is required to send audio to the loudspeaker. I would love for Elac to enable streaming directly to the loudspeakers from any Roon server, especially the forthcoming Roon server running on a QNAP NAS. I would love to send audio right from a NAS to a speaker. Talk about simple solution.
Auralic continues to update and improve its Lightning DS streaming platform. The iPhone version of the app was on display at CES. Based on a quick run-through of the app with Xuanqian and CA's Ted Brady I was very impressed. I may even like this version better than the current iPad version.
Audio Alchemy displayed its DAC and amps with TAD loudspeakers, as well as its forthcoming RoonReady music server solution. I was very impressed with what I heard and look forward to my upcoming review of the DDP-1 DAC.
I met with the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) for an hour at the show. We talked about the move to USB type C and how it may effect the word of USB audio. I expect to see many mobile phones remove the 3.5mm analog audio jack in favor of the USB-C connector. The biggest news I heard in this meeting was that the USB audio stack (collection of software) is being completely re-written. In addition to this, we should expect to see Windows support UAC2 audio devices natively once the software is released.
The new Naim Mu-so Qb was displayed in several colors. This smaller version of the Mu-so is said to perform very close to its bigger brother for five-hundred dollars less. I'll be comparing them both soon.
I took the Wireworld headphone cable polygraph test at CES. In this test Wireworld first connects a pair of Oppo headphones to a Pono player without a cable. This establishes a reference to which all the cables can be compared. After listening through the cable-less direct connection I switched to the stock Oppo PM3 cable, followed by a series of Wireworld cables. I was very surprised at how bad the stock cable sounded compared to the direct connection and the Wireworld cables. I think my first word was "gross" after listening to the stock cable for ten seconds. I really wish I would have taken this test blinded in order to give the results that extra bit of confirmation. I don't doubt what I heard, but it's always nice to give everyone (objective / subjective) something to digest.
The Arcam MusicBOOST was one of my favorite products of the show this year. If I only had an iPhone 6 rather than 6 Plus, I could use the device. It slides on to the iPhone 6/6s and works as an added battery and DAC with headphone amp. I absolutely love this device, partially because I'm tired of dongles and headphone amps hanging off my phone when I travel. For $189 it's worth a try.
Audioengine displayed its new HD3 loudspeaker at the show. This is a smaller version of the HD6 with similar styling. The HD3 is a nice upgrade from the A2+.
Constellation Audio and Martin Logan paired up in two rooms at the Venetian. One room displayed the Constellation Inspiration series of components with a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS and Martin Logan Renaissance loudspeaker. Unfortunately this room was very noisy and didn't enable me to render an opinion on anything. I know the components are great, as I have all of them in my main system right now, but the $25,000 loudspeaker was brand new. I would have liked to hear it. The other room displayed Constellation reference components and the Martin Logan flagship Neolith loudspeakers. This was a difficult room in which to place such large electrostatic loudspeakers. I'm glad I stayed for a while and was able to select several tracks of my choosing. The first few tracks didn't really cut it for me. I believe the room was a major factor with reflections and frequency humps that didn't suit the music well. The following several tracks I played were very good sounding. For the first time that I can remember at a show I played a track twice within ten minutes. Lost on the River #20 from The New Basement Tapes sounded so compelling I had to play it twice. Visitors to this room should also note that sitting in the sweet spot was a must in order to get the best sound.
Bel Canto displayed its DAC 2.7 and e.One series amplifiers connected to Joseph Audio Profile loudspeakers ($7,000). I have to say Jeff Joseph made my day by providing an iPad with the Computer Audiophile 100 Tidal playlist queued up and ready to go. I played several of the tracks of the playlist, enabling me to really get a feel for the sound of this system. This system was one of the best I heard at the show.
Bug Spray Anyone? (only kidding)
AudioQuest hosted an hour long event to announce updates to the DragonFly line of products and present more details about the Beetle. On hand was product designer, Godfather of USB audio, and founder of Wavelength Audio, Gordon Rankin. The DragonFly is now two distinct products called DragonFly Red ($199) and DragonFly Black DAC ($99). The Beetle is a USB, optical, and Bluetooth enabled DAC retailing for $199. The entire event was full of really good information about the products' designs and the lengths to which AudioQuest went to improve performance and lower power, that I think many readers will find it interesting to listen to it in its entirety. I've uploaded the audio below (my recording starts about one minute into the presentation). IN addition to the recording I've posted some information about the products.
Overall Design Goals: DragonFly Black, DragonFly Red, & Beetle
- Advanced 32-bit Microchip microcontroller
- Higher-performance 32-bit ESS DAC chips
- Improved signal-to-noise ratio
- Lower distortion
- Lower power consumption
- Lower phase noise (audio-related jitter)
- 64-bit bit-perfect digital volume control (DragonFly Red & Beetle)
- Asynchronous USB compatibility with: OS X and iOS (5 and newer), Windows 7, 8.1, 10, Android Jellybean 4.1 and newer (as long as the device supports USB Host Mode)
- Asynchronous Bluetooth compatibility (Beetle only) with: OS X and iOS, Windows 7, 8.1, 10, Android Cupcake 1.5 and newer
Lower Power Consumption
- Microchip MX Microcontroller: Consumes 77% less currant than the TAS1020B and 95% less current than the XMOS microcontroller
- Does not require DC-to-DC converters or other noise-generating power supply components
- Employs analog-linear power supplies
- Free OS X and Windows desktop application
- Device name can be customized to accommodate multiple devices in one user environment (Beetle only)
Improved Price-to-Performance Ratio
- DragonFly Black: $99 US MSRP
- DragonFly Red: $199 US MSRP
- Beetle: $199 US MSRP