The Digital Wars
If there was one defining moment for CES 2001, it was the battle for Generation D. At one end of the bandwidth, Intel unveiled the Pocket
Concert™ ($299.99) - a MP3 player with 128MB of memory - to compete in the hot Internet music scene. Both MP3 and Windows Media Audio (WMA) files use compression to squeeze digital music to roughly one-tenth the original CD file size, which means that 128MB of memory are equivalent to 4 hours of music. Although sound quality is sacrificed with lossy compression, the format is often advertised and accepted by the consumer as CD quality.
At the other extreme, Sony and Philips continued to promote and expand the boundaries of the Super Audio CD (SACD). It is now clear that a multi-billion dollar investment in SACD is at work. New players are being introduced using the Philips SACD integrated chip (e.g., the Philips SACD 1000) and the library of available titles is rapidly expanding. The marketing strategy appears to be twofold. First, give away SACD by bundling it in the context of a DVD player. For example, the Sony DVP-S9000ES is a new DVD player that is SACD compatible. Pop in a DVD, conventional CD, or even a SACD and go. Second, continue to issue popular titles in the hybrid SACD format, so as to eliminate the dual stocking requirement and not disenfranchise over 600 million CD player owners. While it's true that a hybrid disc is compatible with any conventional CD player, the current premium price of any SACD title (~US$26) isn't conducive to enticing the average consumer to step up in quality. The biggest problem is one of perception. The Industry has simply done a great job of convincing the public that digital is perfection. With a promise of "perfect sound forever," CD sales have finally eclipsed those of cassette tapes. It is a "good-enough" convenience medium for a mass market that tolerates cassette tapes. Hence, it isn't clear as to why Joe Sixpack would renounce the CD any time soon in favor of an SACD. This leaves us with SACD as primarily a high-end medium, and I would expect it to co-exist with the CD mass market. I'm going to make another prediction: SACD will trounce DVD-Audio. That's pretty much a no-brainer as that format is effectively comatose with almost no DVD-A releases in sight.
The most exciting application for Direct Stream Digital (DSD) is on the recording front. Recording directly to digital using a 1-bit representation of the audio waveform with 2.8224 MHz sampling finally produces a digital master that captures the spatial and emotional nuances of live music. At long last a solution to the problem of archiving analog tape masters without fear of information loss. Freed from the compromises of PCM digital, the SACD promises a direct link to the digital master. Non other than mark Levinson, President and CEO of Red Rose Music, is devoutly pro DSD. He considers DSD/SACD as the most important development in audio over the past 30 years. So disgusted was Mark by the sterility of recorded music via PCM digital, that he was ready to quit the business. His experience with the Sony DSD recorder apparently changed his life, and motivated him the to mount another charge at the audiophile market. The Red Rose Music Demo at the T.H.E. Show (next door to CES at the St. Tropez), using a Sony DVD/SACD player, Sony receiver, and the R3 speakers ($3,500), was a very effective venue for the program material - the Red Rose SACD Music sampler. I also ran into a few Sony SCD-1 SACD players at other exhibits. It was quite shocking to listen to a hybrid SACD and A/B the CD and HD layers. The HD layer was consistently and incredibly more spacious and involving - a testimonial to the potential of this new format.
Digital Signal Processing for Loudspeakers
My first stop of the Show was at the perpetual Technologies (PT) exhibit, located offsite at the Wild Horse Golf Course Club House - not far from our hotel in Henderson. Mark
Schifter, Perpetual's President, was on hand to unwrap SOCS, a custom software application that is said to optimize the performance of virtually any loudspeaker. SOCS is a speaker correction algorithm that runs on PT's P-1A Digital Correction Engine. The P-1A uses an Analog Devices ADSP-21065L 32-bit SHARC processor capable of executing up to 60 million instructions per second. The correction process begins with the measurement of a speaker - typically on axis using MLSSA techniques. The intent is to improve the speaker response, as room response is not taken into account. Once the MLSSA impulse response files are generated they are processed by SOCS to produce a correction algorithm. The algorithm may be loaded onto the customer's P-1A via its USB port, or it may be burned onto an internal EEPROM at the factory. A customer may request an algorithm for a speaker already on file, or may opt to measure the response of his speaker using a Mobile Measurement Kit to be available for rent at $250 in early March 2001. The SOCS software is already available for several popular speakers at $399, while the P-1A needed to run SOCS is being offered at a direct-to-consumer price of $950.
Of course, a basic question central to the efficacy of SOCS, is just how well does the 1-meter on-axis response of a loudspeaker correlate with sound quality at the listening seat? With many speakers, and in many rooms, a flat 1-m anechoic frequency response is not necessarily the best solution, as the room's response function tends to dominate the tonal balance at the listening seat. But in some cases it works like a charm. Witness PT's demonstration of this technology using the B&W Nautilus 802. It seems that everyone around me had no problem at all discerning the effect of the
SOCS. And once heard, I had no desire to ever again hear the stock B&W 802 without correction. Bass definition, soundstage depth, and image focus all improved significantly with SOCS in the signal path. The moral of the story is this: even expensive $10K "audiophile reference" speakers can benefit from this technology. However, note that SOCS is not intended as a substitute for loudspeaker quality. Don't assume that you can simply correct a cheap bookshelf to sound like an expensive one. SOCS is unable to correct for harmonic distortion and dynamic limitations of poor speakers. And I'm sure that PT would also advise any potential customers to start off with the best speaker that their budget can afford.
To my surprise ClarityEQ from down under (www.clarityeq.com) offers substantially the same type of loudspeaker correction system as Perpetual Technologies. The Clarity
Calibrated™ system also uses an active DSP correction engine to achieve "reference" quality frequency and phase response. Field measurements may be sent directly to Clarity's server via the Internet where the required correction algorithm is computed and sent back to the user's PC. The correction algorithm is then loaded onto one of Clarity's two processors (e.g., the PDC-6.6) via its PC interface. The PDC-6.6 features:
· Audiophile 24-Bit 96KHz analog to digital and digital to analogue converter
· 96K DSP processing for all channels
· Four 32-Bit floating-point Digital Signal Processors
· Flash RAM that stores up to three Correction Templates
(more on the PC)
Clarity also offers its customers measurement and correction services at an anechoic facility.
Neat People and Products
One of the distinct pleasures of attending a large show such as CES is the inevitable connection with industry movers and innovators, friends, as well as neat products. As writers, we tend split off the people from the products. The following images are not intended to give a flavor of entire CES experience. It is not exhaustive, and I apologize in advance for any omissions and for having to keep this montage of folks and gear fairly short.
Air Tight's Mr. Muira (seen here together with my Lesley) is my idea of the quintessential vacuum tube designer: passionate about music and respectful of classic tube sound. His designs could be best summarized as old wine in a new bottle. I'll mention in passing the ATE-2 phono stage and the ATC-2 line stage - two remarkable components that I've lived with and enjoyed for many years. Recently Mr. Muira has set his sights on redefining the single-ended triode (SET) genre with the likes of the ATM-300. An 845-based amp is currently in the works. The prototype I heard in Vegas sounded very special… so stay tuned.
Mr. Hiroyasu Kondo of Audio Note Japan (www.audionote.co.jp) is a rare sight at CES, but always a welcome one. I've lived with a copy of Kondo's legendary Ongaku SET amplifier for several years, as I couldn't afford the real thing (construction courtesy of Ron Cox - hence I've dubbed it the
Ongakucox). New for 2001 is the KSL series, the integration of his cumulative expertise over a 45-year period. In addition to cable products, the line currently includes a moving-coil cartridge step up and the KSL-V6 - a power amp based on the classic 6V6 beam power tube. According to Kondo, the 6V6 offers a very linear and reliable alternative to directly heated triodes that has been underutilized in modern times.
Valve Amplification Company's (VAC) Kevin Hayes seems quite pleased with the new and affordable VAC Auricle line (seen here with a prototype of the Auricle line stage preamplifier. The Auricle Power amp ($1,995), now in production, is derived from the power amplifier section of the VAC Avatar that our Steve Rochlin reviewed so eloquently. Check out all of the VAC products at
Blue Circle Audio's designer, Gilbert Yeung, is seen here making a fashion statement. May the power of the Blue Circle be with you! New for 2001 are the BC8 class AB fully balanced power amplifier mono blocks (US$6,950/pr). The nominal power rating is 220 wpc into 8 ohms. But did I mention that they scale up to 1760 wpc into 1-ohm loads. Look no further in the battle cruiser division.
KR Enterprise's Dr. Riccardo Kron has realized his dream of manufacturing vacuum tubes exclusively for audio. The factory is located in Prague, the Czech Republic and employs the staff of the former Tesla High Vacuum Research Laboratory. Welborne Labs is the North American distributor for the tube line (www.welbornelabs.com). Unfortunately, the amplifier line, which includes some innovative designs (e.g., the
Kronzilla), is not distributed in the US. What a shame!
Mr. Analog himself, A. J. van den Hul, is ready for the digital age with the VDH Array amplifier technology. The solid-state bipolar amplifiers (M1 monoblocks and S1 stereo) are unique in that the open-loop unity gain bandwidth is 120 MHz. The objectives are twofold: reduce crossover distortion so that class AB sounds as good as class A but without the heat, and to maintain extreme phase accuracy at audio frequencies. For more information, check out:
Wavelength Audio's Gordon Rankin in a relaxed pose. What's there to worry about, when you can assemble an entire chain using the likes of the Cosine DAC, Sine New Century Edition preamp (US$5,000), the Triton Signature New Century Edition
300B amplifier (US$10,000), and Nirvana speaker cable and interconnect? For more information, check out:
Diva Classic Audio's designer, T. S. Lim, is beaming over his latest creation - the Tian Zhu - "A voice from heaven." This single-ended stereo amplifier uses a paralleled pair of EL34 pentodes, driven by a 2A3 triode. Sonically, it represents a unique blend of sweetness and blues, and very affordable at US$2,980. The man knows his craft; I should know, since I've been auditioning two of his designs for the past several months (review forthcoming). Diva is based in Singapore. For more information visit:
As was the case last year, Réthm Loudspeakers and Diva Classic Audio were making beautiful music at the St. Tropez. Seen here is designer Jacob George with his flagship - the Second
Réthm. The unique cabinet design never fails to elicit a quizzical double take. The Swiss cheese "holes" in the side panel, are actually vents. Every aspect of this loudspeaker combines form with function in striking fashion. The Show version was outfitted with a Lowther DX4 full-range driver (US$6,000/pr), and is identical to my review samples. Look for a full review in the pages of
Enjoy the Music.com™ in the near future.
Divergent Technologies' Tash Goka proudly displays the most cost-effective entry level power amplifier know to me on this or any other planet in the Galaxy: the Antique Sound Lab
(ASL) AV8. This 10-watt push-pull tube monoblock is slated to retail in North America at $99 ea. No, it's not a kit. This is a fully assembled and factory tested unit that is intended to promote ASL to a whole new audience. And yes, it sounded better than most competing units under $1,000.
Relax, Joe. It really is a beauty. That's Art Audio's Joe Fratus, and the amplifier is the new PX25 ($5,000), a 6 wpc stereo unit based around the KR Enterprise PX25, an ultra-linear triode with the most delicate harmonic structure I've ever heard. A review sample is hopefully forthcoming in February.
Green Mountain Audio's Roy Johnson and the Continuum 1.5 loudspeaker ($4,800/pr) are holding class: less enclosure, more clarity. This is a 3-way design using a 10-inch woofer with an Aerogel cone, a 4.5-inch midrange, and a 1-inch dome tweeter. Johnson's philosophy is to keep it simple; hence 1st order crossover networks are used throughout.
It's always a pleasure to meet up with cool dude, Vladimir Shushurin of Lamm Industries. If you've never heard a properly setup pair of ML1 or ML2 amplifiers, you owe it to yourself to experience true high-end.
The Manley Labs Neo-Classic SE / PP 300B ($7,200/pr) deserve a serious audition. First of all, there's the built-in flexibility of being able to switch from SE to PP operation at the flick of a switch. If the music demands it, you can rock n' roll in PP or savor the delicacy of SE. In addition, the damping factor is variable via adjustable feedback to suit the needs of the speakers and room. Finally, the circuitry has been greatly improved form the Retro version. The tube regulation has been retained, as has the classic input/driver stage. But the power supply and driver stage have been improved. For further details surf over to:
Finland is slowly gaining a reputation for fine loudspeaker design. Gradient Loudspeakers (see below) is perhaps better known on this side of the Atlantic, but Amphion loudspeakers
(www.amphion.fi)clearly deserves attention as well. With a product line that spans affordable price points, generally under $1,200/pr, Amphion offers sound technology and uncommonly good looks. Shown here is the Xenon model in cherry veneer. The enclosure uses resistive vents to produce a hypercardiod radiation pattern to minimize room reflections above 150 Hz. In addition, crossover points are outside the critical range of 2 kHz to 5 kHz. The Amphion folks are resourceful to the max. When the ceiling in their room at the St. Tropez sprung a leak (on the last day of the Show), they improvised a neat temporary fix.
One of my favorite loudspeakers, the Gradient Revolution ($3,995/pr), was on display at the St. Tropez. Driven by the fine GamuT D200 amplifier from Denmark
(www.gamutaudio.com), the Revolution produced clean, airy bass - the hallmark of a dipole bass radiator. An active version of the Revolution is now available. The system includes an active crossover and up to two additional bass modules per channel. For more information visit:
Cabbase loudspeakers and Jadis electronics were teamed up at Northstar Leading The Way (www.northstarleadingtheway.com). The inexpensive Cabbase Caprera ($1,495/pr) sounded superb while driven by Jadis monoblock amplifiers.
Bright Star Audio unleashed a bevy of new vibration control devices, including the IsoNodetm isolation feet. A set of four will set you back a mere $12.50. Check it all out at:
Edgarhorn's Vintage Titan Horn loudspeaker ($7,450/pr - direct) is big, but strangely enough, women seem to like it according to Bruce Edgar. JBL compression drivers and woofers are used. The matching 35 Hz horn loaded Seismic Sub ($3490 - direct), with an enclosure the size of a refrigerator, was also on display. The sound was extremely mellow.
Finally, it was a pleasure to meet up with John Wyckoff of Hammer Dynamics (www.hammerdynamics.com). The S-12 high-efficiency loudspeaker was making a lot of friends at the Show. The mention of the price ($500 for the kit) apparently elicited brought gasps of disbelief. There is nothing nobler than to bring good sound within reach of the masses. Bless you, John.