A lot of coverage of CES focuses on what is new, which makes sense because this is a trade show with a focus on launching new products. That's lovely, but it is easy to lose perspective.
In this post, I want to reflect on products that I think any audiophile should hear. The editors are often asked to distinguish between "big" and "small" differences in equipment, and some users offer the critique that we make small differences sound gigantic. This problem stems from that fact that "big" differences can be a) dramatic or b) subtle but important. In audio, we are often concerned with the latter, when I think many (but hardly all) users mean the former.
With that in mind, I thought about more obvious and dramatic differences as I cruised the halls of CES this year. Here are three products that sound very good, and do not sound typical -- which is to say the differences on offer here are easily noticed. I think any audiophile, and especially those just getting (back) into the sport, should hear these because they raise the questions of "why is it that three appealing sounds can be quite different?" and "what are my personal realism triggers and inhibitors?". I concentrate on speakers because that's where big differences tend to be, and because many electronics makers have only static displays.
1. TAD Reference One Loudspeakers
These speakers demonstrate two qualities that I think may be very important to some listeners.
First, they have a form of quiet resolution that is pretty rare in audio (though becoming more common). That is to say, with the TAD's one gets the sense of tremendous micro-dynamic detail without the sense of exaggerated or distorted upper frequencies (especially the leading edge of transients). Vocals do not sound unnaturally sibilant. Strings sound tonally correct.
Second, the TAD's have a mid-range and upper frequency coherence that is quite like real music. That is to say, once you hear the TAD's you realize how many speakers have slightly difference sound qualities in different frequency bands or with different kinds of musical dynamics. You often don't notice this explicitly, until you hear a speaker that doesn't have these issues.
Now you may or may not care about these things. The reason to hear the TAD's is to help figure whether you do or not.
2. Avantgarde Acoustic Duo G2 loudspeaker
I was reading a text book last month on signal processing. The author presented a few surprising charts to make a key point. He showed the frequency analysis from 5 minutes of two sound samples. They were identical, meaning that at each frequency from 20hz to 20khz, the two samples had identical levels over the 5 minute period. One sample was a recording of a hydraulic pump, the other was from a Mozart symphony. The difference? Dynamics, or the variation of level and frequency with time.
The avantgarde duo G2 is mainly a horn speaker. And horns are known for dynamics. Listening to these new Duos on a variety of music, what impressed me was that they sound vivid and lively on music like acoustic folk that we don't normally think of as "power music" (e.g. hard rock or big symphonic material). Dynamics are always in music, and something about the way the Duos deliver those dynamics is a refreshing reminder of how important time is to music. Again, you may not respond to this, but it is worth knowing how it fits into your own approach to signal processing.
3. Magnepan 1.7 loudspeaker
These new Magnepans demonstrate the importance of an "open" sound, which is to say the sense that each instrument is playing in a real acoustic space. The 1.7s do this without sounding distorted or artificial.
The other important thing about the 1.7's, is that they show something like 90% of what the high-end can do at a price that many could afford. There will be people who feel it is worth going beyond that 90% level if you have the means (and I'm one of them), but for someone new to audio, a listen to the 1.7s is sort of like trying a cuisine you've never tried. If you don't at least think the 1.7s present an interesting musical experience, I'm guessing you won't find much else of interest in the high end of audio.
On the other hand, for those who "get" it, the 1.7 is a line of demarcation. Below the 1.7 there are some very good products, but I don't think they represent a quantum step above what people are used to, or at least not in a way that lines up with what the rest of the high end community is trying to do. The 1.7 is on that first step, and worth hearing to see if it matters to you.
There are other ways to construct such a list, so the takeaway from this probably lies more in the idea of hearing really different products as part of an education process more than it does in any specific list.