It’s been a few years since I last had the opportunity to visit the annual high-end audio orgy at the Venetian hotel at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. So I was very pleased to get out there for the 2015 edition. I was also pleased to discover that the CD transport continues to be the reference standard in many hifi systems. Great European and American companies, such as Audio Research, Metronome, Burmester, Naim and Chord, continue to offer very compelling CD front-end gear. But I knew that already…
I was most interested to experience first-hand the state of the high-resolution file revolution. Audiophiles have generally considered low-bit-rate, lossy-compressed “MP3” files to be a triumph of convenience over quality. Heck, 16 bit, 44.1 kHz oversampled “CD quality” audio was never good enough for many of these folks. But with improvements in broadband and storage technology, high-bit-rate, high-resolution files are gaining a foothold in the high-end.
I was excited to debut The Pono player, an iPod-like device that has received high-profile pimping from Neil Young. It’s designed to playback 24 bit, 192 kHz oversampled files either through headphones or through your hifi rig. I camped out in the suite of Ayre Acoustics (who did the development work) for quite a while listening to everything from Ella Fitzgerald and Dave Brubeck to Van Halen and Pearl Jam. The display is small and the navigation is a little difficult to get used to, but the sound is amazing.
I was also keen to check out Tidal, a new music streaming service offering CD-quality, lossless music streams at a bit rate of 1411 kbps. It claims to be a noticeable upgrade over the best 320kbps bit rate offered by Rhapsody and others. I listened to Tidal in the Meridian Audio suite, and the system featured amazing amplification and loudspeakers. I was impressed particularly with the sound of the acoustic bass on albums like Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um. Tidal also includes streaming videos and, at $25 a month for the service, it seems quite promising.
My feeling on these new high-resolution products and services is that this stuff may not be right for me, right now. I don’t have an awesome dedicated audiophile rig. I have a vintage system featuring a Marantz 2270 integrated amp, a Dual 1219 turntable and a pair of Mordant Short bookshelf loudspeakers. I’m listening to vintage vinyl and occasionally CDs, tracks from my iTunes library and streaming music from Rhapsody. I believe that the high quality of the sounds I heard at CES had more to do with the great amplification, headphones and loudspeakers I was listening through.
I believe I will look to upgrade my headphones and perhaps invest in a good headphone amp before I join the high-resolution revolution.