The Hub: CES/THE 2011: After the meltdown .. what?

Have we turned the corner? If we had turn-by-turn directions for the economy, attendance at CES returning to "pre-recession" levels would at least be a marker along the road to a robust economy. According to CEA, attendance at this year's show was over 140,000, versus last year's 126,000.

CES has become an important launching-pad for mainstream companies to draw attention to new and sometimes-significant products, as indicated by Ford's choice of CES to preview the forthcoming Focus Electric. Does the general public's increased awareness of CES mean increased exposure for high end audio exhibitors? Well, maybe. How many of the 140,000 were in Vegas for audio is unclear, but I look forward to the day when we see, say, Wilson speakers, McIntosh amps or Caliburn turntables on Good Morning America. While we're at it, it'd be great to see John Atkinson chatting with Matt Lauer. Maybe next year.

Navigating Vegas during CES is always challenging, but on Saturday another bottleneck appeared. Elvis impersonators were clogging the sidewalks to mark the 76th anniversary of the King's birth. Pirate ships, the Eiffel Tower, hordes of Elvises ... don't tell ME Vegas isn't a theme-park in the Twilight Zone!

In spite of the noise and hoopla..or perhaps because of it??...spirits in the hallways of the CES audio exhibits were high, and there seemed to be even more hilarity than usual in the sardine-can confines of the Venetian elevators.

What was significant in the exhibit-rooms themselves? There were the usual complaints of high costs, and the inevitable social gaffes of some exhibitors (such as the newbie who berated new visitors with "---- is listening-- be quiet!" the well-known reviewer's horror).

Three trends were evident:

1.) Digital music servers/streamers/centers appeared in more flavors and types than ever, and not surprisingly, price-points were dropping. Even Meridian Sooloos, known for rarified prices and touch-screen displays, showed a $4k iPad-controlled unit.

2.) Trickle-down of technologies from "statement" products. It wasn't just Hansen Audio that introduced products incorporating most of the goodies from the top model, many companies did. In Hansen's case the price-drop from top-model to next was from $250,000 to $96,000! Speakers, amps, sources, all reflected this trend, emphasizing value. For most of us either price is way way WAAAAY beyond our reach, and it's hard to conceive of "value" at those prices...but give them points for trying!

3.) Glass speakers: they're freakin' everywhere...or at least it seemed that way, like these from Waterfall Audio. Dating back to at least the '70's in designs by Ted Jordan in the UK, the idea seems to be that a hunka hunka glass is more domestically-acceptable than an MDF box, even if it means the wiring and bits are visible. Can't say I find them compelling, either aestetically or acoustically. An anemic "whatever", for this trend/fad/obsession.

While there was no shortage of unintentionally hilarious exhibits, a touch of whimsy was seen from normally-staid McIntosh. Imagine a wall clock which replicates the faceplate of a Mac amp, displaying time on the "meters". At $2k it outprices even a Bose clock-radio, but it's probably a must-have for the serious Macanista.

One quickly learns that distances in Vegas are as deceptive as they are when one approaches the Rocky Mountains. On paper, THE at the Flamingo is only a few blocks away from the CES audio exhibits at the Venetian. Try walking those blocks, and you may find yourself parched, cramped and winded. Or not, if you're fitter than I am...and who isn't? Anyway, it's a hike.

Attendance figures are not yet available for THE, but as affable organizer Richard Beers stated last year's crowd as "a bunch", 2011's crowd would likely be stated as "a bunch and a bunch more". Traffic came in fits and spurts, just as it did at CES, but many rooms were often packed to the gills. Given the relatively small rooms and the acoustic properties of human beings, some rooms sounded a tad over-damped as a result.

Being open to any member of an audio society, exhibit rooms at THE tend to be more relaxed and accessible than many of the rooms at CES. THE is also far more conscious of human needs; food, drink, bathrooms and places to collapse are readily available.

Trends? Perhaps the same as at CES. Trickle-down technology was evident, and new digital servers/sources were everywhere. Glass speakers? The ones shown at THE by new Slovenian manufacturer SoulSonic sounded decent, and with four woofers and a long ribbon on mirror-matched slabs of glass, brought to mind a see-through, better-looking version of the short-lived Glaciers. The price of $150,000 produced polite coughs, however.

As forecast, big news was new models from Magnepan and Zu. The $5500 Magneplanar 3.7 impressed with its sense of effortless power and its cohesion. Zu's $40,000 flagship model "Dominance" clearly enters a new market for them, as shown by their amusing Model Comparison Chart. The Dominance clearly..well..DOMINATED the smallish room they were in, absolutely rocking Little Feat with a 1 1/2-watt Yamamoto SET. Sound was punchy and effortless, frequency response greatly extended on both ends. A bigger room and perhaps a better source would be helpful to determine just how good these are.

In typical Zu fashion, build-quality was impressive; the 2"-thick baffle of milled aluminum billet was awe-inspiring and knuckle-bruising. You have to love a company whose flagship is the cost of many company's entry-level pieces. Yes, I know $40k ain't cheap...but with these guys you can see where your money went, even if you can't actually see THROUGH the speakers.

Many of the usual audiophile favorites were at THE, including Galibier, Harbeth, DarTZeel, PBN, and of course, the inimitable hangout at NFS Audio. A good show, and a good time.

In days to come, Audiogon's comprehensive room-by-room coverage of both CES and THE will begin to appear, complete with our world-exclusive sound-bytes! In the meantime, you can get a Sneak Peak of CES coverage and T.H.E. Show.
Good to see you at CES Bill, although all too briefly! I appreciate your stopping by our room.
After the CES meltdown? I'm shooting for a double melt down, hosting a Music Night here at Blackbird Audio Gallery tomorrow night. Going to have a good size crowd for this one and am still trying to get the place ready for it. Can't wait!