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CES 2015 Show Report & Live Streaming Coverage by Enjoy the Music.com  Sonic Santori: RAL KEB02iP Battery-Powered Headphone Amplifier / DAC Review
CES 2015 Show Report By Michael Mercer
Gear and Roaming In Las Vegas

Just a backpack and headphone rigs 'n' bit o' fun!

Possibly the most fun ever this go-round...


  That night turned out to be somethin' really special: Memories that I will carry with pride for many years to come! It was surreal, as I've spent my whole professional life in both the Hi-fi and music industries, but rarely do those worlds collide (as George Costanza would say). Well, at Drei's those worlds collided in such a magnificently positive way I couldn't have scripted it better myself! There I was, surrounded by some of my most cherished friends in the personal audio and Hi-fi communities, introducing them to somebody from my music biz life. Now, most of them knew him by name at that point. I spoke of him often, as not only have we stayed in-touch, but we share a sincere passion for great sound (and music of course). So I've been fortunate to help guide him in his hi-fi journey since I first met him, and now he's got, arguably, one of the best high-end audio reference systems in the music biz. Craig Kallman, the Co-Chairman of Warner Music Group and President of Atlantic Records has been a friend of mine for almost twenty-years (yeah, makes me feel old). When I worked at Atlantic, Craig was a rising super-star A&R man. He was one of the youngest high-level executives in the music industry, having sold his own label, Big Beat Records, to Atlantic. In the process he accepted the position of Executive Vice President at Atlantic Records. He also had the privilege and honor of being taken under Ahmet Erteguns' wing. Talk about hit men! But Craig isn't your typical industry exec. He has a deep-rooted love (bordering on obsession) for vinyl, and has one of the most extensive collections in the world. He still goes record shopping and crate-diggin' whenever he can come up for air, and he's also one of the only higher-ups I ever met that has a clear grasp and view on the underground electronic dance music scene, having been a DJ in college. After all, love him or hate him, but Craig's the man who brought Skrillex into the spotlight.

It was trippy standing there, cuttin' it up with Craig, listening to FreQ nasty on the turntables (workin' the vinyl like a true technician) at the Audeze party (my favorite headphone line of all-time – and Craig also loves his Audezes). Worlds were clearly colliding! It was magical, and I don't mean to sound all bromantic and shit, but having my new friends there, interacting with a man I worked my tail-off for many years ago (when I was still trying to figure out what to do with my manic-self) really meant the world to me. I was also so very proud of the Audeze team. Their meteoric rise is no accident, and it wasn't by luck (OK, well, some of it always is). They've been busting their asses ever since Alex and Sankar showed up at Canjam at RMAF in 2009 with the very first Audeze prototype and they deserve everything they have coming. It was just one of those evenings I didn't want to end. Not to mention the fact that Zach from Subpac managed to do something extremely rare: Shut me up for more than fifteen minutes! The cool thing was, all he had to do was sit me down in a chair, strap the Subpac (a backpack with a bass transducer that gives you the visceral impact of a club system) to my back, and toss on a pair of closed-back Audeze EL-8s. I plugged-in my iPhone 4S (yup, workin' on that) runnin' TIDAL, picked Recondites On Acid album, and proceeded to lose myself in the vibe and feel of the music in the midst of the party! I couldn't get enough of the experience. Subpac has the Silent Rave solution that's always been missing: The big, hard-hitting bass. I'll be playing around with one very soon. The rest of the evening was full of laughs, smiles, drinks, and a palpable collective feeling of gratitude for being involved in this crazy game! Great music, great friends, and a wonderful atmosphere (big thumbs up for Drei's). Does it get better than that? Unfortunately, while most of us got home OK, others found Vegas had gotten the best of them by morning. I guess it's the price we pay for goin' that hard sometimes. But – as my mom used to say: "Work hard, party-hard, but don't let one over-take the other". I think we all deserved a temporary respite from the grind. At first I thought the party should be later in the week, but the timing was perfect. None of us were experiencing CES-induced burn-out yet, so we were all amp'ed-up and ready for a great time. Let’s do it again!

The next day was a blur. It seems like I went back-n-forth between The Venetian and the Convention Center all day. That day (Wednesday) ended up being more about seeing friends and catching up than audio. However, Michael Liang and I did manage to make it over to the Chord Audio room. We wanted to check out the Audeze EL-8 and Chord Hugo combo! I brought my Astell&Kern AK240 for reference there as well. Michael and I thoroughly enjoyed the pairing of the EL-8 and Hugo. I ended up picking Stevie Wonders Talking Book in 192/24-bit for that listening sesh. The tracks I focused on were two of my favorites: "Big Brother" and "Superstition". I love the imaging in "Big Brother". The recording sounds so intimate, with the instrumentation spread-out, and Stevie's vocals hovering in the center, sometimes just just-left of center. This track also stirs wonderful memories for me:  sitting with my older cousin Kenny listening to this record on his turntable when I was a kid. "Superstition": Well, C'mon, how could I not play that song when rockin' Talking Book? The Chord Hugo – Audeze EL-8 combo (plus my AK240) handled all the tracks on the record with precision, without sounding too linear. The sound was electrifying and so silky-smooth. I could've sat there all day. Not to mention the Chord stereo component system driving a pair of Estelons! That was a serious treat! Those guys are on a roll, and I'm sorry we didn't make time to listen to the new desktop Hugo! I was drooling looking at it, but we had to move on. Hopefully I'll get to hear that soon. We also stopped in to see Ron in the McIntosh/Wadia Digital room. Man are we glad we made that stop! Michael and I were lucky enough to write the first review of McIntoshs' killer MHA100 headphone for Audio360.org – so we wanted to see if anything new was waiting for us to drool over! Not only did McIntosh have an updated version of my current reference DAC: Their D100 (which we also reviewed at Audio360 – and I loved it so much I bought it). The new model, the D150 also handles DSD and they also came out with a sharp-looking SACD transport as well. We hope to get our hands on both pieces for review ASAP.

However, the most refreshing components on-display in that room was from Wadia Digital! I was so psyched to see something new from Wadia – the company that literally introduced the iPod to audiophiles. They were the first company to offer an iPod dock that accessed the digital output, allowing the use of an outboard DAC – and that was a serious game-changer! It seems like Wadia pulled somewhat of a vanishing act over the past few years. But, leave it to McIntosh to come along and save the day. We were told that McIntosh provided the guts of the new Wadia Di122 Digital Audio Decoder – a line-stage, DAC, and headphone amplifier. They also built the guts of the new Wadia amplifier: The s102. Michael Liang and I are currently suffering from new McIntosh gear withdrawal. So hopefully we'll remedy that soon. Ron told us we'd have a crack at reviewing the new units soon. I'm really excited for that, and I'm pumped that McIntosh revived Wadia! Since both companies are under the Fine Sounds umbrella, it must've made it easier to get all that done. We look forward to reporting on the result of that collaboration!

Through the blur of that day however, I ended up experiencing my most memorable listening session of CES 2015! Best part about it (well, maybe not the best, but very cool): I didn't even know this component (prototype) existed, and it's from a company I know well: Unison Research. Imported by Colleen and Marc from Colleen Cardas Imports – two of my favorite people in the biz... Not only have I reviewed their products in the past: Their Simply Phono tube phonostage became one of my top analog references! So no need to say how pumped I got when I noticed the Unison Research S H  tube (Class A) headphone amp on a table in their room at The Venetian. I forget what headphones they had on-hand for auditioning the amp, but before they could say I was pulling my trusty Audeze LCD-XCs out of my road-case with my Double Helix Cables Comp4 & adapters. After all, I didn't know what sort of outputs the thing offered. I used my Astell&Kern AK240 as my source again along with my first-generation Nordost iKable for the lead to the headphone amp. The volume knob is huge (nothin' like a big knob) so I was eager to fire up the music and crank that sucka'. Thankfully, its sonic performance was as graceful as it's wonderful design.

Now, I usually begin auditions by playing some high-quality intelligent electronic music. I always end up playing acoustic music as well. For me, though I realize the greatest recording of electronic music, even if it only encompasses analog synths and drum machines, is still a symphonic presentation. However, its not realism I'm checking for at all at-first. I'm checking out a systems sonic capabilities: It's dynamic contrasts, overall gestalt, speed and transient attack – things like this. Then, if the component (as part of a whole system of course) can handle certain frequency extremes with control and finesse, and I don't detect any over-hang when it comes to the bass (I hate that) I move onto "real" music. Songs with vocals and guitars, drums, all that good stuff! The Unison Research SH prototype handled everything I threw its way with power and grace. I was hooked, and for the first time in a while, I may have to beg my wifey to let me sell somethin' else or figure out a way to cover it once I get the review sample! It had such a sweetness to the mids, it reminded me of my Unison Research phonostage. I could tell early-on, before even jumping into acoustic music tracks that I wanted the thing. It was a joy to listen to music through it. The sound was excitable and fluid when I played some tech-house by Recondite or Art Department, and it was captivating when I played AniDrFranco's "Hearse" off Which Side Are You On. It also did a splendid job reproducing James Blakes vocals from his cover of Joni Mitchells' "A Case Of You" off Enough Thunder. Blake has a very unique tonality, and it's a great test of a system’s resolving capabilities. The SH was practically invisible. It didn't seem to impart much of anything of itself onto the music, in terms of sonic signature or colorations. This is the biggest goal for me. I want gear that gets outta the damn way. As much as I like playing with gear, which speaks to the inner kid in me, I don't give a shit if it is 10 bucks or 10K. If I can forget all about the components specs and the system itself while taking in some of my favorite music, then I've found what I'm looking for (or, at least the main consideration). The SH, though still a prototype, seemed like it could be that sort of amplifier! I'm itching like an audible junkie to have one here at home.

This year’s CES 2015 holds a very special place in my heart. No bullshit. It's because of situations like this, where people I know and care about find kick-ass products to spread the "your music deserves great sound" gospel, or especially if someone I care deeply about builds an outstanding product. We're a community. And we're all better off when we don't cut each other down and waste time on fossilized notions of what manufacturers and writers can and can't do. Times are changing. Bottom-line: If you can't see that hi-fi and personal audio are both still niche, and therefore many of us know each other, and work together in all sorts of different ways. If you think this presents some sort of "conflict-of-interest" situation automatically, allow me to share something with you: The readers who are wholeheartedly interested in learning about new and exciting gear don't give a shit! I'm tired of people talking to me about all the various work I do in the industry. I live in this space for a living! And I'm proud that Colleen and Marc make great gear choices. I'm psyched that Alex Rosson is the CEO of the company that builds my favorite headphones. As long as we're all transparent about who we are, and some of us stop building-up drama where it doesn't exist, we can all have a successful life in these audio. At the core, personal audio and Hi-fi are built around the love of experiencing our music through the fine art of fidelity. As the world changes, so will the ways we interact with our readers, our customers, our tribe. As long as that communication remains between equals (thanks to Chris Sommovigo for sharing one of his favorite quotes recently, and sorry I stole it) we can all maintain a future in this wacky world of high fidelity. The days of us critics sitting on any kind of pedestal are over. It's time to make real connections with people, as that's a rare thing in today's fast-paced society (for another essay). The only way that happens is with passion. And I felt that passion by the boatload this year in Vegas, and it was a refreshing departure from the norm.

I usually realize how special this livelihood is during smaller shows like RMAF and Newport. CES is typically far more business-oriented. Maybe I should just go with a rucksack and a bag of headphones from now on! Catching a ride down to Vegas, along with everything else, made this year feel more like a continuous party than work. You can hear that during my live-chat from CES 2015 with Steven R. Rochlin, hosted on Enjoy the Music.com and Enjoy the Music.TV. I had a blast, even though I lost my Audeze LCD-XCs for the night (was gonna get into that story here, but the important thing is they came back to me). Though I will say that I probably kept a couple people up with my borderline nervous breakdown. Aside of that incident, I wish every CES could feel like this! See ya next year!


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