Today was full of surprises at CES 2017. Tidal announced 30,000 tracks available immediately in what it calls master quality (MQA), Napster announced high resolution streaming, Pandora did everything except announce high resolution streaming (look for it soon though), MQA announced software decoding in Audirvana and the Tidal desktop app, Roon communicated it would have full software decoding soon, Chord announced the Hugo 2, Blu mk II, and Poly, Klipsch featured really cool products for reasonable prices, and I heard some great sound.
Now, where to start? I guess I'll cover this is the order I saw / heard it today.
Before leaving the hotel room this morning, I was able to release the good news that, effective immediately, Tidal was streaming 30,000 tracks in MQA, and MQA decoding was now available in software. Both of these are big news. Tidal was ready to go with MQA long ago, but the record labels just didn't have the content to deliver. Once the number of titles hit critical mass, Tidal flipped the switch on Master Quality. MQA is included with HiFi Tidal subscriptions for now, we'll have to see if there is an added cost for Master Quality at a later date.
It would be strange for Tidal to stream MQA without the ability for its customers to decode the content. Thus, the Tidal desktop app can now fully decode MQA. if one guy can do it why can't others? now they can. Audirvana announced it will soon release an updated version of its software supporting software decoding. I received word from Roon that it too will enable software decoding. According to Roon,"Roon is more complex than other audio software products (especially in terms of multi-room, Roon Ready, and other supported streaming protocols) so the MQA team has had to undertake some additional engineering effort to make MQA decoding work in the Roon world. Both teams are working on it and we will ship as soon as technically possible."
Let me take a minute to explain what this is and why it's a big deal. First, MQA must be decoded for listeners to hear the full quality of the file. Think of it as an SACD with a CD layer. People needed an SACD player to decode the SACD layer of the disc, otherwise the regular CD layer would be played. While not exactly the same, the concept is similar.
When MQA launched, we were told publicly that MQA would only be decoded in hardware (unless played on a mobile device). This meant that people would be required to purchase new MQA enabled DACs to get the full benefit of the technology. The announcement of software decoding means that people only need an app that decodes MQA rather than hardware.
I asked a very high end DAC manufacturer what it saw as the differences between hardware decoding in its DACs and software decoding in an app like Roon (before outputting to its DACs). The answer was a refreshing, "there should be no difference."
I started the day in the Las Vegas Convention Center. The madhouse of all things technology. I had to be there for the Hi-Res press conference at 12 noon, so I thought it would be cool to check out the other items at the main event, and head to the Venetian (home of high end audio) later.
The doors opened at 10:00 AM and shortly after entering, some really neat looking Klipsch speakers caught my eye (The Sixes). I walked over to the Klipsch "booth" to get a closer look. I put the word booth in quotes because it was a really cool retro looking space, and booth doesn't begin to do it justice. Anyway, I was immediately stopped by Steve Jain, Klipsch's VP of Digital, Streaming. and Portable solutions. Steve recognized Computer Audiophile on my badge and said he loved the site and the community. He also said he had some products designed specifically for computer audiophiles and people who want great sound, great looks, great feel, and convenience.
The first product Steve showed me was the Powergate Max. An integrated amplifier with USB DAC, wireless streaming, Hypex 2x180 watt amps, ESS chip, Bluetooth, MM & MC turntable inputs, and much more for $999. The look and feel of this product is very nice. Retro wood and copper finishes are nice touches, but the physical switches on the front panel really set it apart from the crowd.
The next product I saw was The One $249 / The Three $399 (different size, same product category). Great looking finishing touches. The cloth grill is fabulous. The real knobs are so very nice. A full compliment of Klipsch drivers are inside, but of course I lost track of all the internal goodies. I believe this speaker also supports wireless streaming and USB input.
Then I saw The Fifteens. Such a classic Klipsh look, but with engineering and features. All the streaming and inputs of the other new products, and built-in amplification, but with a great horn and 15 inch bass driver. Some may look at these and think, "are we going back to the 1970s?" But, in person they look wonderful and the modern design makes them a perfect match for many scenarios (think - no external amps, DACs, etc...).
Last, I saw the new Klipsch headphones and little headphone amp/DAC. The headphones not only look good, but they feel as light as air when on the head. The wood and metal design feels like a very quality piece of gear. The headphones are open-backed, so I could only get a taste for the sound quality int he noisy Central Hall of CES. The Heritage Headphone Amp ($499) has an ESS DAC, USB input, headphone & RCA outputs (for powered speakers).
Needless to say, I loved what I saw at Klipsch. I hadn't planned on stopping by, but I accidentally entered the show through a rather odd door and had to make my way past the booth. Thanks to Steve for stopping me and telling me all about the new Klipsch and its cool products.
After seeing Klipsch, I stopped at the Hi-Res Audio pavilion. I really like that Hi-Res audio was featured at the convention center rather than the Venetian. Everyone in the Venetian already knows about high resolution. Getting the products in front of a different, more mainstream audience, was a good move. At the booth was a mini-studio with digital audio workstation for people to see and hear how things are done and how they sound in the studio.
In addition, products from Mytek (Clef), dCS (Rossini), ELAC (Discovery), Bluesound, Onkyo, AudioQuest, and many more wore available to see and hear. Plus representatives from each of the companies were on hand to answer questions. Again, I liked the setup and the fact it was mainstream.
The Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) put on a Hi-Res Audio Update press conference. DEG can sure pull in the big names. Sir Lucian Grainge, chairman and chief executive officer of Universal Music Group, was sitting two chairs away from me while Jimmy Jam was speaking to everyone about the importance of sound quality. I'm not impressed by "celebrity" but the fact that some very big names attended or presented at the event, goes to the importance of high resolution audio to the music industry. (note: watching people fawn over Shaquille O'Neal near the elevators was ridiculous. He's just a guy that puts his pants on one leg at a time people, move on.)
Anyway, some of the interesting notes from this press conference were, a CTA survey found nearly 90% of consumers cited sound quality as most important when listening to music, and sound quality was ranked second as a motivating factor for people to purchase streaming music subscriptions. See my photos of the slides below for more information.
Pandora's CTO, Chris Martin was quoted as saying, "Hi-Res music streaming has the potential to engage millions of digital music fans who are seeking a more immersive studio quality listening experience." The quote by itself isn't really that big, but the fact that Pandora hinted at high resolution streaming is very cool for those of us who cherish sound quality.
Following this, Napster announced it will deliver high resolution streaming to subscribers this spring. I'm sure all the snarky readers are thinking to themselves that Napster delivered free high resolution downloads back in the late 1990s. That was before Napster switched to being a legit company and combined with Rhapsody.
After the presentation I spoke with Napster's VP of engineering, Darryl Wood. Darryl let me see and listen to Frank Sinatra streaming through Napster in high resolution on his phone. The streams were all in FLAC. I asked about MQA support and he was very noncommittal. I don't think it's his call to make and I also think Napster will stream whatever the record labels deliver to the service.
I took the shuttle from the LVCC to the Venetian, after the press conference, to do some listening. On the 35th floor as I got off the elevator I ran into one of my favorite guys, CA reader Joel (joelha in the forum). I could talk to Joel about audio, and other things, for hours on end, like we did in Munich last year int he lobby of our hotel. Of note this time, was the lack of people and high end audio rooms at the Venetian. Perhaps this is the last year for high end in Vegas? Who knows.
Joel easily persuaded me to stop by the YG Acoustics room to have a listen to the new flagship loudspeaker Sonja XV ($266,000), paired with Audionet electronics and the MSB Audio Select DAC ($89,000). The total cost of the system was somewhere north of $600,000. Somewhat surprising was the lack of music server in the room. I heard CDs played through an Audionet CD player and CD played through the Select DAC via an MSB CD transport. Is this s trend? I don't think so, but my next stop at Chord surprised me in this area as well (see below).
Anyway, the sound I heard in the YG / Audionet / MSB Audio room was really really good. I preferred the Select DAC to the Audionet CD player, but that's to be expected, given the difference in price and component design.
YG's Dick Diamond played The Thrill Is Gone from Archie Shepp. Archie's tenor sax sounded huge yet very easy to localize within the soundstage. The rich deep tones were just what I needed after a long morning at the LVCC. After Mr. Shepp, Dick played one of my favorite artists, Fink. The track Trouble's What Your In sounded just wonderful. Fink's acoustic guitar and bare vocals sucked me into the listening experience nicely.
Based on my listening session at YG today, I will probably go back for another dose of music, and I recommend members of the CA Community stop by as well. It's an expensive system no doubt, but it delivered nicely for me today. Highly recommended.
P.S. While in the YG room I was actually able to listen without interruptions from loud people in the hallway and typical show disruptions. It was really nice, but perhaps a sign of low attendance.
Closing out the day, I attended the Chord triple launch press event. This one was definitely worth attending. At the event Chord introduced the Blu mk II, Hugo 2, and completely new product Poly.
The Blue mk II was introduced first. We were treated to all the really neat technical features and the fact that the component has over 1 million taps. Rob Watts went into great detail about how big of deal it is to have an FPGA with over a million taps in the Blu mk II. I'll include some audio from the event below, so you can listen to him talk about what he has accomplished with this design.
One "interesting" part of this event was near the end of the Blu mk II introduction. Chord's John Franks talked about how important physical CDs are to people and that the Blu mk II was really to bring out the best in CD playback. He went on to say people should have CDs, collect them, pass them down to children etc... And, that it's his belief that the "downloading generation" is missing the tangible quality and that people like cd collections. CD is important to John and he made if very clear. Rob even noted that CD is equal to any high resolution format.
Don't get me wrong, I love 16 bit / 44.1 music and think it can sound fantastic. However, the physical plastic discs are over in my book. I last spun a physical CD in my home in 2004. I see no need to have the physical disc. I don't want to pass a CD collection down to my daughter. In addition I'm willing to bet she won't want the trouble of selling my large CD collection upon my passing.
The Blu mk II has BNC S/PDIF digital input, but it's clear this product is meant for spinning plastic discs, not converting digital to digital and processing it with highly advanced DSP.
The introduction of the Hugo 2 was very impressive. The new Hugo has ten times less distortion than the previous version, double the tap length, 16 times more resolution (WTA filtering at 88ns), half the output impedance, 1000 times more noise shaper resolution, and better than half the noise and no measurable noise floor modulation. Hugo 2 makes version 1 seem pretty old school.
The most surprising announcement of the night was the Chord Poly. The Poly is an add-on to the Mojo portable DAC. Poly runs Linux and has three Cpu cores. Given this as the base, nearly anything is possible via software. Poly currently run Roon Bridge, but will be certified RoonReady in due time. It also runs an MPD server and UPnP software that enables it to appear as a UPnP renderer in apps such as JRiver Media Center. Poly supports Bluetooth and WiFi, SD cards, and connecting to NAS storage. Poly's supports PCM audi out through 768 kHz and DSD up through DSD512.
I really like the engineering and technology that went into Poly. It's great to see a high end audio company produce a product of this caliber. I'll need to use one a bit to really get the full impact however. For example, I'm a little doubtful I'll be able to stream Tidal to the Poly losslessly while on an airplane, using my Google Pixel Android phone. iPhone is easy. Android is another story. Tidal music is stored offline on my phone, but I can't see how it would be streamed to the Poly given it supports AirPlay, Bluetooth, UPnP, and Roon. Tidal supports Google's Cast Audio protocol for sending audio to other devices. Given how Cast Audio works, pulling audio directly from the cloud, I'm not sure it would work on an airplane even if Poly supported Cast Audio.
Nonetheless, Poly is really cool. For 99% of use cases it will be a must-have add-on for Mojo users. If I owned a Mojo I'd purchase a Poly without a doubt, even though I'm unsure I could send lossless audio from my Pixel while on a airplane. It's that cool and has that much potential.
Chord press event audio:
Much more detailed information about the three new products can be found in the following forum threads:
CES day one was a blast. All kinds of cool announcements and product introductions. The MQA switch flipped on Tidal giving access to 30,000 track at no extra cost to HiFi subscribers, software MQA decoding, and new products from Klipsch, YG Acoustics, and Chord. This was the most fun day at CES in recent memory.