The weather for this year’s Consumer Electronics Show couldn’t have been much worse. Ice storms, snowstorms, and bone-chilling temperatures descended on large parts of the US and Canada just before the show was to start, resulting in flights being delayed, rerouted, or canceled altogether. I’d arrived a few days before and so avoided all the weather problems, but as I waited in Las Vegas, I heard tales of thwarted travel plans and watched as attendees and exhibitors arrived anywhere from barely on time, to a little late, to very late, to not at all. Our own Jeff Fritz, traveling from North Carolina, had to be rerouted to Texas, where he slept one night on a cot in the Dallas-Fort Worth terminal, and finally arrived in Vegas on next to no sleep, still ready to cover the show.
But even with the weather causing the most mayhem since the late 1990s, when massive ice storms wreaked havoc in parts of Canada and the US, CES 2014 wasn’t a complete bust. Though attendance seemed a bit lower than usual, there were, as always, plenty of products for us to write about, including the five I’ve chosen as “The Best of CES 2014.”
Naim Audio Statement NAC S1 preamplifier and Statement NAP S1 mono power amplifier
The biggest surprise of CES 2014 was Naim Audio’s foray into cost-no-object electronics: their new Statement line. Technically, the Statement NAC S1 preamplifier and Statement NAP S1 mono amplifier are two products -- but Naim’s engineers have gone to great lengths to make them look and act as a single unit, that’s likely how they’ll be purchased and used, and that’s how I’ll treat them here. The NAC S1 costs $80,000 USD, the NAP S1 $120,000/pair -- a total investment of $200,000. Anyone who buys in is in deep.
Designer Steve Sells with Naim's Statement
But in this case, deep doesn’t seem a bad place to be. For the Statement models, Naim apparently re-thought how preamps and amps should look, how they should be built, and what they should be made from -- for the amp, they claim to have even made proprietary transistors. This is a surprise coming from Naim, a UK-based company that, till now, has been known for producing tiny amps of modest power and cost and unassuming appearance.
The technical details are too complex to go into here (see Naim’s video on YouTube; it’s worth watching). Suffice it to say that extremely low noise and distortion, combined with super-high power output, were prerequisites -- the NAP S1 is claimed to continuously deliver 746W (one horsepower!) into 8 ohms, and over 9000W into 1 ohm on peaks. At CES, I heard more than a few people say, “Finally -- a high-priced preamp-and-power-amp combination that seems worth it.” Our team agreed.
NAD Masters Series M12 Direct Digital preamplifier-DAC
It would’ve been easier if, as with the Naim Statement models, I’d been able to consider NAD’s new Masters Series M12 Direct Digital preamplifier-DAC and M22 stereo power amp as a single unit. But I can just as easily see people buying only one of them and using it with what they already have. I had to choose which Masters Series model I liked more. I chose the M12 Direct Digital preamp-DAC, for reasons of technology, versatility, styling, construction, and price. It will cost $3499 when made available near the middle of the year, and it appears to offer much more than that modest price indicates.
NAD's Masters Series M12
The M12 is a logical extension of NAD’s Masters Series line. Although NAD already had a Masters integrated amplifier, music streamer, and DAC, they didn’t have a preamp or power amp (hence the M22, for $2499). And given that NAD is now at the forefront of digital technology, with products such as the M22 and C 390DD Direct Digital integrateds, the M51 Direct Digital DAC, and other products, it makes sense to make not a mere preamp, but instead a preamp-DAC that takes advantage of some of the company’s proprietary technologies. For example, the M12 features NAD’s Modular Design Construction (MDC), which allows the user to load various cards into its rear-panel slots to add features and upgrades. The M12 is technically advanced, rich in features, and, from what I can tell, as future-proof as any product can be.
Besides the features and advanced technology, the M12’s appearance and construction quality are top shelf. NAD pays close attention to the industrial design of its products, and that’s paying off for them in spades; other manufacturers take note. The M12 bears a strong resemblance to previous Masters Series models but has been updated in obvious ways, resulting in appearance and construction fitting for a product multiples of its price. For example, its all-metal casework wouldn’t be out of place on a preamplifier costing three to five times as much, and its overall appearance and styling are on a par with the finest-looking preamps at any price. All told, the M12 is a gorgeously styled, wonderfully built, well-thought-out centerpiece for a topflight hi-fi system.
Wadia Digital 321 Decoding Computer digital-to-analog converter
When you’re doing on-the-spot show coverage, you often have to double-, triple-, even quadruple-check a price if it doesn’t seem right. So when Livio Cucuzza of Fine Sounds Group, the parent company of Sonus Faber, Audio Research, McIntosh Labs, and Wadia Digital, told me that the price of Wadia’s gorgeous new 321 Decoding Computer was simply “three,” I knew that he’d dropped the “thousand,” as do most who frequently talk about high-end prices -- but as English isn’t his first language, I figured he’d actually meant “thirty” thousand.
“Do you mean . . . 30?”
“Three,” he quickly replied.
Still feeling something was awry, I politely replied: “Euros or pounds?”
“Three thousand . . . dollars?” I sheepishly asked, so as not to offend. “Are you sure?”
Seeing that his stance on the price was firm, I was so shocked that I hustled a couple of our team members over so they could have a look at the 321 and to see if they believed what Cucuzza had just told me about its price. Hans Wetzel, who wrote about the 321 for our show coverage on SoundStage! Global and was as dumbfounded as I, asked Cucuzza pretty much the same questions and got the same responses.
Wadia 321 Decoding Computer
It wasn’t the 321’s capabilities that had us doubting its price. It’s essentially a 24-bit/192kHz-capable DAC with balanced and single-ended outputs and an onboard volume control, something that can be easily had for $3000. But, not unlike the NAD Masters Series M12 above, the 321’s stunning styling and high-quality casework would suit a product costing multiples of its price: chunks of solid aluminum form the bulk of the case, which has a top plate of glass. The 321 is also big -- a full-size component very unlike the itty-bitty models Wadia released a few years ago. What’s more, it’s made in the US, not in the Far East. Wow!
To manufacture the 321, Wadia leveraged their familial association with McIntosh Labs. The 321’s fine appearance is mainly the work of Cucuzza, the chief industrial designer for the Fine Sounds Group. Livio’s design achievements are quickly becoming legendary. He’s responsible for the appearance of all the latest Sonus Faber speakers, including the Amati Futura and Aida, and the Olympica and Venere lines. He also masterminded the unique look of the Intuition 01, which returned Wadia to prominence in one fell swoop when it debuted at CES 2013. He appears to have hit another home run with the 321 Decoding Computer, which will do nothing but strengthen Wadia’s name.
GoldenEar Technology Triton One loudspeaker
Some say that Sandy Gross is the most successful speaker man in the history of hi-fi. Who am I to argue? He cofounded Polk Audio and Definitive Technology, two of the biggest speaker brands in the world, and most recently he founded GoldenEar Technology, which appears to be on the same trajectory. Obviously, the guy knows what he’s doing. If I had to guess two things he has keen understandings of, they are knowing what kind of speaker most audiophiles want, and, just as important, what they’re willing pay for it.
GoldenEar's Triton One
Gross’s latest triumph is the GoldenEar Triton One, which debuted at CES 2014 and retails for $5000/pair. It appears to cap off the Triton series of floorstanders, which also includes the smaller, lower-priced Triton Two, Three, and Seven models.
Roger Kanno wrote at length on SoundStage! Global about the Triton One while we were in Las Vegas, and described it well (see: “GoldenEar Technology’s Terrific Triton One”), so I won’t reiterate many of those details here. Instead, I’ll tell you what most impressed me when I heard them. They provided full-range sound (i.e., bass down to 20Hz), which you normally have to pay well over $10,000/pair for, while delivering levels of neutrality, detail, and refinement through the mids and highs that also befit a far more expensive speaker. In short, they seem a very good value. Plus, the way Gross had them set up -- widely spaced and severely toed in -- resulted in a soundstage spread that was the best I heard at CES. I’m sure that Sandy Gross and GoldenEar have another winner on their hands in the Triton One, but given what’s emerged from Gross’s stable before, no one should be surprised.
EMM Labs MTRX mono power amplifier
Our team members were less than impressed with the size of EMM Labs’ new MTRX mono power amplifier, which was shown in prototype at last fall’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and as production samples at CES 2014. Who can blame them? It’s flippin’ huge. Using a pair of MTRXes would be like parking a compact car in your listening room. OK, I exaggerate -- but not by much.
Overall, I agreed with their concern about the MTRX’s size, but I understand why Ed Meitner, founder and chief designer of EMM Labs, designed it that way. This isn’t the first amp he’s created -- his history in audio stretches back to the 1970s, including work for various companies, some owned by others and some by himself -- but it’s the first amp made under the EMM Labs name, and he wanted to come out with the biggest and best amp he could, to make a statement. And what a statement -- 750W into 8 ohms, 1500W into 4 ohms, or 3000W into 2 ohms, and completely stable into loads of less than 1 ohm. Meitner also claims to use a circuit topology that’s never been used before, resulting in an amplifier that will drive any speaker on the planet to pretty much any volume level with vanishingly low levels of distortion. The price for all this metal, weight, technology, and power is $130,000/pair -- Naim terrain! Its price is as obscene as its weight and size, making the MTRX irrelevant for the common person on a normal wage -- like me.
Designer Ed Meitner with the MTRXes
But there’s more to this story, and it’s why I’m so excited about the MTRX, despite its huge size and price. Currently in my house are EMM Labs’ DAC2X D/A converter and PRE2 preamplifier. The DAC2X is, by a large margin, the best DAC I’ve heard, and while I’ve heard some darn good preamps in my day, the PRE2 is, overall, the best preamp I’ve ever heard. The sound qualities of these components have made me a big fan of Ed Meitner’s work. What’s more, they’re of sane sizes (normal) and prices: $15,500 for the DAC2X, $15,000 for the PRE2. From what I understand, the MTRX is only the first model of a new line; smaller, lower-priced amps will now be designed based on the MTRX’s topology and will, according to Meitner’s reps, “come quite quickly.” That’s what I’m hoping for, and that’s why I single out the MTRX here -- it looks to be the start of something great. If Meitner can trickle down his MTRX technology to amplifier designs of more practical size and more reasonable prices, count me among the very first to try at least one of them. But those who don’t mind the size, weight, and price should head straight to the MTRX right now -- it’s the biggest and best Ed Meitner has ever made.
Break, show, break, show
CES is the big, kickoff audio event of any year, but in February nothing much happens -- I get a break from show coverage. In March, however, comes Salon Son & Image, held in Montreal, Canada, and I’ll definitely be there -- we’ve covered it consistently for more than 15 years. We won’t be attending any shows in April, but in May is High End in Munich, Germany. High End used to play second fiddle to CES in terms of product introductions, but I’m not sure it can any longer be relegated to second-tier status, given the rumors I’m hearing about the gear that will be debuted there by some big brand names -- High End seems to be taking over as the international showcase for new products. Look for full coverage of both shows on SoundStage! Global, as well as “Best of” articles in the month immediately following each event. And between audio events, look forward to product-based articles that might help if you’re looking to buy something new -- there are some interesting things that I’ve seen and heard that I still need to tell you about.
. . . Doug Schneider