• Azur 851C DAC/CD Transport ($1849): A bit of history is in order here. The original Cambridge 800-series CD player was regard as one of the best sub-$5000 CD players available—and at a selling price well under $2000 dollars. Obviously it was a tough act to follow, but Cambridge has answered the call by essentially redefining the new 851C as a very high performance DAC (and Digital Preamp) that just happens to include a CD transport. Cambridge sources told me the 851C incorporates what is hands-down the best-sounding DAC that Cambridge makes—one based on twin Analog Devices AD1955 DAC chips, which Cambridge calls the “Rolls Royce” of DACs. For those who plan to use only digital audio source components, the versatile 851C, which doubles as a digital preamp, may well be the only source and pre-amplification component needed.
For several years now I’ve been saying that headphones and earphone are the high-end audio transducers of choice for a new generation of music lovers, and now I have independent confirmation of this viewpoint from an old-school high-end veteran whose name and credentials are beyond reproach. I’m speaking of none other than George Cardas—the legendary founder of Cardas Audio (a firm best known for its wonderful high-end audio cables). But at CES 2012 Cardas broke new ground by offering not one but two new very high performance earphones, the Cardas EM 5813 Model 1 ($325) and Model 2 ($425), which Cardas call’s “Ear Speakers.”
Cardas describes his Ear Speakers as using what he terms “Ear Mirror” technology said to provide a more effective and sonically pleasing connection between the earphone and the wearer’s inner ear. I was able to do a brief bit of listening through both the Model 1 (which uses steel-frame drivers) and the Model 2 (which uses non-magnetic brass-frame drivers) and found that both had considerable promise (though I had left my reference portable amp in my hotel room, and thus was not able to hear them through an amp I knew well). My initial take was that, while the Model 1 is very good in its own right, the Model 2 is substantially better and well worth the extra $100 investment required. I’m encouraged to see a high-end product developer of George Cardas’ stature enter the headphone world, and can only hope that other high-enders follow his example.
Every once in a while speaker manufacturers manage to pull off trade show demonstrations that stop listeners in their tracks, and this was certainly the case with Definitive Technology’s demonstration (held off-site in a suite at the Residence Inn) of its diminutive SM45 Studio Monitors ($400), which were driven by an Audio Research Corporation tube-powered integrated amplifier and an Oppo universal player. These tiny two-way monitors produced a focused and intensely evocative sound that could easily have put many of the costly monitors I heard in the Venetian Hotel to shame—a point made even more compelling by the SM45’s oh-so-manageable price. In a world where value is paramount, the SM45s are disarmingly good—not state of the art, to be sure, but close enough to give you huge musical rewards for your hard-earned dollars.
Dynaudio’s cool new wireless Xeo 3 stand-mount monitors ($2300/pair) are part of the first family of loudspeakers created specifically for people who want high-end sound, but hate all the cabling and componentry that are part and parcel of typical high-end audio systems. Accordingly, the Xeo 3 (and its bigger brother, the $4500/pair Xeo 5 floorstander) is a self-powered, wirelessly controlled speaker featuring high-quality Dynaudio fabric dome tweeters and mid/bass drivers, DSP-controlled crossovers, and built-in tweeter and woofer amps each rated at 50Wpc. The included 2.4GHz multi-input X12 wireless module is used to select sources and set playback levels. I found the Xeo’s sounded much like Dynaudio’s better mid-priced passive speakers, but with the benefit that they require no amplifiers, preamplifiers, or speaker cables whatsoever, and can be placed wherever there are AC outlets nearby. Just connect analog and/or digital source components to the wireless transmitter and you’ve got instant high-end audio. I couldn’t help but think the Xeo 3’s would make a killer desktop/computer audio system—but one that could also be used to fill an entire room with sound.