Ah, Newport Beach. Where the weather is impossibly glorious, women impossibly blonde, and cars impossibly expensive. But we, your faithful audio reporters, were having none of that. We dwelled in dank hotels, drove rental buggies, and socialized only with fellow industry types. And you know what? It was a blast! For 2012, the country’s biggest and best consumer audio show got bigger and better, with more space, more people, more exhibitors, and more new product introductions. Not to mention better food.
In my category, the show was bursting with new and interesting gear, from Chord’s $25,000 CD player/DAC to Audioquest’s $250 Dragonfly DAC-on-a-stick. Let’s start with the former, a stunning piece of audio art called the Red Reference Mk III. It combines a state-of-the-art CD mechanism with a high-tech DAC that now supports USB at rates up to 192kHz. There are also optical, AES/EBU, and coax inputs. The Red Ref III won’t play SACDs, but it will play streamed DSD files. The technology and charisma this unit packs could make it a game-changer.
The player/DAC combo component epitomized by the Chord was actually pioneered by Esoteric, and at Newport Beach the company was doubling down on the strategy. The flagship K-01 and Golden Ear-winning K-03 are now joined by two less expensive stable mates. The K-05, which is essentially a K-03 with fewer DAC modules per channel, runs $8300, while the $5900 K-07 makes due with one DAC per channel and a scaled-down transport. Of equal import was Esoteric’s announcement that it was lowering prices on the two top K-series models. How often do you hear that in our industry? The K-03, which I judged a good value at $13,000 is now down to $10,900. The flagship K-01, formerly $23,500, can now be had for $19,500. Kudos to Esoteric for a move I fervently hope catches fire with other manufacturers.
While we’re on big buck products, let’s have a look at the brand new Audio Research Reference DAC ($16,000). Without a doubt, this is the most technically advanced DAC on the market; yet, paradoxically, it employs a tubed output stage. That module is virtually the same as is found in the formidable Reference 5 linestage. Combined with its variable output, the Reference DAC holds the promise of also serving as a reference-caliber linestage. On the digital side, in addition to all the usual folderol, the Reference sports a digital iPod input and a thumb-drive slot right on the front panel.
But the big difference between the Reference and most DACs is its networkability. The ARC can be connected to networked music servers via either wired or wireless connectivity. That means you don’t have to bring your laptop to the DAC in order to play music files. This technique has been tried by Linn, among others, with dubious sonic results, but hopefully Audio Research has cracked the code. As if all this wasn’t enough, the Reference also boasts an Internet tuner, switchable filters, support for the DSD-over-PCM standard, and kernel-streaming. I predict this DAC will force many another maker to re-evaluate its feature set.
Networked DACs are not yet a certified trend, but there were other examples in Newport Beach. One such was the Plinius Tiki ($4775), an Ethernet-only DAC. Not on display but also fresh from the factory is the company’s Toko, a Tiki with an optical drive. Plinius has also created an iPad app for these models that features a clean and highly intuitive interface.
Casting an eye to the other end of the network, AVM debuted its networked music serer, the Music Library ML8 (August). For roughly $15,000 you can have 2TB of music at your fingertips. Personally, though, I was even more intrigued by the $20,000 ML8S, which throws in the AVM Ultra DAC and swaps out the ML8’s 2TB HDD for a 600GB solid-state drive (SSD). Having compared these two storage media in a controlled environment, I am bound to report that SSD clearly sounds better, which makes this a groundbreaking offering. AVM also introduced the CD5.2 (approx. $5500, July), with a tubed output stage, and the no-holds-barred Ovation CD8 ($10,000, July). Both units, despite their model designations, are also full-fledged DACs with seven digital inputs. Hmm. Looks like player/DAC combos are a certified trend—and a good one at that.