CES Dives Into High Res Audio

By Steve Harvey. High-end audio products at the 2014 International CES may not have caught the media’s attention in the same way as did the Ultra HD and curved displays, self-driving cars, wearables, networked home appliances, 3D printers, robots and smart devices, but they were there.
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Seen at CES were (clockwise from top): Sony's HAP-Z1ES; Griffin Technology's StudioConnect HD; Korg's AudioGate3 and DACs; and the OceanWay Audio Montecito reference system.
Las Vegas, NV (January 13, 2014)—High-end audio products at the 2014 International CES may not have caught the media’s attention in the same way as did the Ultra HD and curved displays, self-driving cars, wearables, networked home appliances, 3D printers, robots and smart devices, but they were there.

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This year you are going to be hearing a lot about high-resolution audio, also known as HRA. The Consumer Electronics Association has brought together the major record labels, retailers and consumer electronics manufacturers to support the format, which isn’t actually a format but rather an umbrella term for any audio files with greater resolution than 44.1 kHz/16-bit—although some members of the alliance appear happy to lower the bar to better-than-MP3. (See the January 2014 issue of PSN for a more in-depth look at HRA.)

While a panel discussion during the show acknowledged the uphill battle associated with re-educating a world population used to listening to low-quality audio via YouTube and iTunes (330 million visit YouTube monthly just for the music, and there are 600 million active iTunes accounts), there were plenty of hi-res audio products on display.

Sony Electronics, in particular, unveiled a swath of new playback products supporting HRA. As a co-developer, with Philips, of the DSD (Direct Stream Digital) format, Sony hi-res playback products promise support for any popular audio format—lossy and lossless compressed and uncompressed—up through double-rate DSD (a sample rate of 5.6 MHz or 128 times that of CD, also referred to as DSD128). In fact, Sony’s new flagship streaming music player, the 1TB hard-disc-based HAP-Z1ES (http://discover.store.sony.com/ES/high-resolution-audio/HAP-Z1ES.html), incorporates a “DSD Re-mastering engine to convert and enhance virtually any music files to DSD (5.6M) quality,” according to a company statement.

Korg, too, performs up-conversion to DSD128 via the latest version of its USB playback platform, AudioGate 3 (https://www.korguser.net/audiogate/en/about.html), and two new hardware interfaces, the DS-DAC-100 or DS-DAC-100m. Both DACs support ASIO and Core Audio. AudioGate plays back any music file—compressed or uncompressed—as DSD128 by reportedly eliminating from the playback path the filtering and modulation typically associated with D-to-A converters, resulting in improved quality even from lower-res files, according to the company. The software converts between formats on-the-fly.

High-resolution music catalog company Blue Coast Music (http://bluecoastrecords.com/home), for one, is sufficiently convinced by the performance of AudioGate to incorporate it in its download platform. The company was one of five hi-res music download companies—the others being Acoustic Sounds Super HiRez, HD Tracks, iTrax and Native DSD Music—showing in the CES Hi-Res Audio Experience TechZone at the Venetian Hotel.

Blue Coast offers every track for download in a variety of formats, including 44.1k/16 and 96k WAVs as well as DSD128. According to founder Cookie Marenco, her customers typically ignore the PCM audio, regardless of sample rate, and head straight for the highest definition DSD version available.

Appreciation of high-resolution audio appears to be increasing hand-in-hand with the availability of better quality headphones at the top end of the market. The CEA’s 15th Annual CE Ownership and Market Potential Study, released in April 2013, included headphones among the top planned CE purchases for the first time. In fact, the number of respondents planning to buy headphones (33 percent) topped those intending to purchase smartphones, portable computers, tablets or HDTVs. Not surprisingly, the top end of the market has been flooded with new headphones—and they all appeared to be on display at CES.

There was one exception: Mo-Fi, from Blue Microphones. The company’s booth included an enclosed room playing a promo video (http://vimeo.com/83331745) for the headphones that offered scant details, other than the promise that they would solve the dilemma posed by portable devices: the supplied earbuds are typically poor quality, yet the devices struggle to drive high-quality headphones.

For those who prefer to listen to high-resolution music through speakers, Allan Sides debuted his new OceanWay Audio Montecito (http://oceanwayaudio.com/oceanway-monitors/Montecito) reference system at CES. Building on the reputation of the company’s HR series studio monitors, Montecito says it offers a more compact form factor without compromising the performance. Montecito says it offers a very wide dynamic range, a broad sweet spot and well-defined low frequencies flat to 30 Hz.

Last but not least—and not necessarily high-resolution—Griffin Technology, a manufacturer of peripherals and accessories for computers and portable devices, offered a tantalizing peek at a new interface for the audio pro on the go. StudioConnect HD promises to enable multitrack recording on your favorite iOS or OS X platform via its Lightning or 30-pin iPad connections. Constructed from metal, it incorporates a pair of combo XLR/jack inputs, each with gain control, separate headphone and monitor level controls, plus USB MIDI and 5-pin MIDI connectors. Griffin did not announce what resolution audio the unit will support.

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