Sunday, January 14, 2007

CES 2007 Review - Day Three 1/10/07

On the third day of CES, I planned to focus almost exclusively on audio products. All of the exhibits for CES were basically at 2 main locations - the Las Vegas Convention Center/Hilton and the Sands Expo and Convention Center/Venetian (plus T.H.E. Show at the St. Tropez Hotel). The high end audio was on display in the Venetian Towers, so I decided to spend the full day at the Sands Expo/Venetian location.

I started out in the morning at the Sands Expo. I wanted to check out the MIT Media Lab, because they always have something interesting going on, but as it turned out, they really only had a meeting room. They weren't demonstrating anything at all and the room was empty when I visited. I also wanted to check out the Apple booth, and amazingly enough, couldn't find it. The booth layout and numbering was pretty screwy making it pretty difficult to find what you were looking for. Anyhow, Apple is never a big presence at CES because of MacWorld only a week later, where they make all of their big announcements.

I decided to stop by the Silicon Dust booth just to say hello and congratulate them on a great product. They created the HDHomeRun, which is a dual HD tuner that you connect to your home network. I purchased one of these about a month ago and have been pretty impressed. Here's how it works - After hooking it up to my network router (via Ethernet cable), I connected one of the tuner's inputs to the coax cable from my cable TV service and the other to a coax that runs up to an antenna in my attic. Then I installed the driver software on several of the PCs connected to our home network. I also installed SageTV on these machines. Now I can watch cable (QAM) or over-the-air (OTA/8VSB) TV on all of these machines, without having to install a bunch of TV tuner cards in each machine. It works great. I really enjoy watching HD programming on my 24" 1920x1200 HTPC screen (someday I'll invest in something like a 47" LCD monitor, but with any startup, money is tight). I wish I could view more HD programming because I'm limited to the HD/SD channels offered locally OTA by the major networks or the same programming that is coming over cable unencrypted.

There were a couple of companies at the Sands Expo that were audio related software developers. The first company, Garritan Soundware, developed a program called the Garritan Personal Orchestra (GPO). It is music production software for making orchestral music and includes a complete orchestral sample library, player and VST host. Instead of using electronically synthesized sounds with a sequencer, the GPO uses sounds that were sampled from actual instruments. It sounds amazing. With most synthesizers the sounds just don't quite sound real, especially the articulation from note to note on wind or horn instruments. However, with GPO you can control these transitions with your keyboard's controllers to make the instruments sound really natural. It's a very cool program for musicians or wanna-be musicians like myself.

The other software company I visited was MusicIP. They have what I think could potentially be a very cool product. In the future, I'll probably want to write a post dedicated to this, so I won't go into too much detail at this time. MusicIP is a program that creates intelligent playlists from your music library. Most players (Windows Media Player, iTunes) have smart playlist functionality, but not as sophisticated as something like MusicIP. I am very curious to see how it compares to my current player of choice - J.River's Media Center. With JRMC11, it will analyze my audio tracks and calculate the average beats-per-minute (BPM) and sound level intensity. Its media library also stores basic metadata info like Artist, Album, Genre, etc. and the date a track was added to the library, the last time it was played and the number of times the track was played. So, I can have it automatically generate a playlist of mellow jazz that I haven't listened to for a month and will play for 2 hours by specifying BPM is less than 100, intensity is less than 2, genre is Jazz and/or Vocal, the last time any of these tracks was played was over 1 month, the sort is Random and the time limit is 2 hours. It would be great if MusicIP exceeded JRMC's music library capabilities. I'm looking forward to testing it out.

I then moved over to the Venetian Towers where most of the high-end audio was located. Just like at T.H.E. Show, the hotel suites were converted to listening rooms. Even though the Venetian has very nice rooms, they weren't necessarily the best match for some of these systems both in terms of size and acoustics. There were a lot of exhibits, so I didn't have the chance to spend a lot of time in some of the room, but I did try to spend a little time in everyone. The manufacturers I'm writing about in this post have products that relate in some way to what we are trying to do at Amplio Audio. I've also written about a few that I think use interesting technology and looked a little unusual.

I visited the Bel Canto room to listen to their latest DACs because they use one of the leading contendors for our choice of DAC - the TI/Burr Brown PCM1792. The e.One Dac3 is a great sounding, well designed product. It's not cheap, but it isn't priced as ridiculously high as many DACs at this show, and I doubt there was much, if any, difference in sound quality.

I spent some time in the Channel Islands Audio room and spoke with Dusty Vawter, who I assume is the owner. They have great sounding products and also use components very similar to those we plan to use. Their DAC uses the PCM1794 and their highly regarded mono amps (see photo to the left) use Hypex Class-D amp modules that were custom designed for CIAUDIO with separate power supplies for the input and output sections.

I visited the booth of British semiconductor manufacturer Zetex Semiconductors, who were showing their Class-Z direct digital feedback amplifier. They were also at last year's show, but the product was still in development. Unlike the Hypex technology (and most Class-D amps), these are fully digital. They take PCM data from an I2S input and convert it to PWM, which is amplified. Their specs are pretty impressive - dynamic range of 120 dB, and distortion and noise less than 0.004% from 1W to 250W into 8Ω. Another manufacture, Theta Digital, uses them in their multichannel digital amps and is very happy with the performance. This is something we plan to look at very closely in the near future. They sounded pretty good, but I'm not convinced that they are an improvement over the state-of-the-art Class-D amps we've been working with lately. If they do outperform the Class-D amps, it would also mean we wouldn't have to include the DACs and analog circuitry. This would simplify our design and possible lower our costs (I haven't seen any pricing on the Zetex parts). However, it would also mean that we'd have to take more time to develop our product.

I'm very interested in digital room correction and digital crossover technology, so I spent some time with several vendors to learn a little more about their approach. It was interesting to learn that DEQX, an Australian company that focuses on room and loudspeaker correction pr
eamp/processors, was demonstrating an NHT Xd system (which was one of the first to incorporate the DEQX processor), except they substituted the standard amps with Hypex UcD400. They said they favored the UcD400's performance over the amps that were normally included with the Xd system. The system sounded great, but I must confess, I didn't get to A/B the setup with room/speaker correction turned on and off. DEQX believes the weak link in the audio chain is the loudspeaker and its interaction with the room. They also believe a good preamp or amplifier is very transparent, meaning they don't introduce errors and distortion of their own. The loudspeakers are the biggest challenge because they are a mechanical device and no single driver can produce the entire audio spectrum ideally. Because of this, they say, "the speakers introduce far more errors and distortion than the totality of the audio chain that precedes them." So with the DEQX processor, they try to bring the loudspeaker distortion and errors down to levels approaching the electronics. Their system is designed to reduce errors and distortion caused by the loudspeaker itself, as well as room acoustic problems.

I
was also fortunate to sit in on an excellent presentation in the Tact Audio room. They offer a full line of digital amps and processors. They are also very focused on specialized room correction technology. During their presentation, the room correction was toggled on and off so you could experience the difference. Even sitting off to the side I could hear the bass tighten up and the highs became clearer with room correction on. The improvement in the lower frequencies was very noticeable.

There was also a speaker manufacturer with a unique design, from Kubotek called the HANIWA Cybernetic Audio System. This system integrates large horn speakers with a DSP unit that provides digital crossovers with frequency, phase shift, impulse response and step response analysis. I thought they sounded excellent and I'm not a big fan of gigantic horn speakers. As you can see by this picture on the left, they may not pass the wife-acceptance-factor (WAF) test. They gave me an excellent brochure that includes a little blurb on how the speaker cabinets are built.

The first photo to the right shows how MDF or laminated plywood, which is cut into 1 - 2" sheets is stacked and glued together.

The second photo to the left shows how the laminated block is pressed together for 3 days to firmly fix the lamination.

The third picture on the right shows how their CNC machine is used to precisely mill out the cabinet.

Another interesting speaker design was the very tall prototype from the German manufacturer Meletzky Berlin Loudspeaker (MBL). Their omni directional speakers are made up of a bunch of stacked spherical (actually they are more like oblong spheres) drivers, which they call "Radialstrahlers". The Radialstrahlers are made up of carbon-fiber petals, which they call "lamellas". Anyhow, it is pretty unique stuff. I think they mentioned the retail price will be something like $150,000 for a pair. I'm not sure if they are worth it. That amount of cash can buy a lot of plane tickets to the best live performances on the planet. I have to admit, they sounded pretty impressive. I kind of expected them to have weird imaging because of the 360° omni directional output, but surprising they don't. The soundstage did seem pretty open and "live" and at the same time 3 dimensional and accurate. The instruments and vocals all sounded like they were in the right position. They also sound pretty good with a variety of material - jazz, vocal, rock, blues, classical, etc. Most of the other exhibitors were playing Norah Jones or Diana Krall, and I think female vocals sound pretty good on just about any system. So it was nice to listen to something else for a change. As you can see from these pictures, they may not pass the WAF test, unless you have a house with Victorian furniture or some other dramatic style.

For those of you who like the looks of big iron (or aluminum), check out these monster amps from Ypsilon Electronics. Most of the home theater PC enthusiasts I've talked with have gone out of their way to build the PCs so they look more like consumer audio equipment. This is the first time I've seen an audio manufacturer build an audio device that looks like a big tower standing PC. Choice is good. Do you think these would pass the WAF test?

In conclusion, there were quite a few high-end (expensive) systems that didn't really impress me and there were some reasonable priced stuff that I thought sounded really good. So the saying "you get what you pay for" doesn't always apply. There were some products that used expensive components and wild design that just didn't sound as good as some of the less expensive products with more basic designs. I also can appreciate the fact that some of these very expensive components also sounded amazing. My next post will cover my final day.

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