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High-Res Audio Products Proliferate

LAS VEGAS – New high-resolution home audio products flooded International CES, where musician Neil Young announced the opening of his high-resolution download store, Pono Music World, to compete with at least seven other download sites available in the U.S.

Dealers also found an expanded though still-limited selection of high-resolution portable players and the first two high-resolution car audio aftermarket products.

Other new high-res products included component DACs for the home at prices up to and exceeding $3,000, integrated amplifiers with USB audio inputs and high-res decoding, and plenty of new portable USB headphone-amp/DACs with high-resolution capabilities priced from $69 to $2,500 or more (see TWICE, Jan. 6). Other new products include new wireless multiroom-audio speakers with high-resolution decoders (see story, p. 36) and high-resolution audio components from Panasonic’s Technics brand, which has been resurrected as a high-resolution component brand.

Meridian’s high-resolution MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) technology also drew support from CE makers, streaming and download services, and music labels (see TWICE, Jan. 6, p. 30). MQA files deliver higher-performance sound quality in smaller files compared with today’s high-resolution music files, and they’re said to make high-res music-streaming services practical because of file efficiency.

In the car audio aftermarket, Sony unveiled an in-dash mech-less head unit (see p. 34), and Audison unveiled two hideaway players that can be added to aftermarket and most OEM car audio systems (see

The show also held out the hope that OEM autosound systems will play high-res music files at some point. Dinesh Paliwal, chairman/CEO of automotive supplier Harman, said his company will “collaborate with Mr. Young and the team at Pono Music to expand their reach into the car and let people hear music as the artist intended, a mission of ours at Harman.” Details weren’t disclosed.

At the retail level, most retailers on a CES panel said the market is still small and faces challenges despite the expansion of high-res playback products and the growing selection of downloadable high-res albums, now at about 5,000 albums from the big three music labels and about 8,000 with independent labels included.

Stimulating demand is the business’s top challenge, and panelists agreed that everyone in the music ecosystem, including artists, must push for higher-quality sound. Rock legend and Pono Music CEO Neil Young came to CES for just that reason.

“Neil Young — one of the few artists promoting highres audio — was in Vegas, and the industry needs more influencers to talk about high-res audio,” said Jack Wetherill, senior market analyst at Futuresource Consulting. “While we acknowledge there is some skepticism in the industry surrounding high-res audio, and previous attempts at higher resolution have failed to tempt people away from MP3, we believe that high-res will find its place, although it will be more for the audiophile than a mass-market phenomenon.”

To help high-res find its place, select suppliers unveiled the following products and plans at CES:

Bang & Olufsen: The company’s $2,700 tabletop BeoSound Moment “intelligent” tabletop music system, which requires active B&O speakers, supports the high-resolution 96/24 WAV and 96/24 high-resolution FLAC formats. It learns a household’s listening patterns to deliver one-touch playback of the type of music that a household prefers at different times of the day and week.

D’Agostino: The networked MLife integrated amp, due in March at $48,000, supports the following file formats: WAV, FLAC and PCM up to 24/192 resolution as well as DSD, AAC, AIFF, MP3, Ogg Vorbis and WMA. It features USB, optical and coaxial inputs.

Pono: The company plans to expand distribution of its previously announced $399 PonoPlayer music portable beyond about two dozen high-end audio and record outlets currently selling the product in limited quantities. The company, which also sells the device through its download site, has begun selling the Pono Player through Fry’s. Pono Music also said it envisions offering a full slate of products on its web store and through retailers, including more Pono players, speakers, headphones and ear buds, and home players with terabytes of storage.

Sony: The company expanded its selection of AC-only Wi-Fi/Bluetooth speakers with high-res decoding to two from one. Both are also the company’s first Wi-Fi speakers to decode DSD files. The company also expanded its selection of high-res portable products by adding a second high-res Walkman, a second portable headphone DAC/amp, and its first Bluetooth headset, which uses proprietary LDAC technology to maintain high-resolution performance over Bluetooth. New high-res Sony AVRs and soundbars also feature LDAC.

Technics: The Panasonic-owned brand reentered the U.S. home audio market after an absence of 13 years, focusing on high-performance and high-resolution audio playback. Separate components and passive speakers top out at a $52,999 for a stereo system consisting of a network player/preamp, floorstanding speaker pair, and amp. A second series of products collectively retails for $5,499 combined.

Products include the SU-R1 network audio player, which accepts digital music up to 32-bit/384kHz and up to DSD 5.6HMz. It features digital coaxial and optical inputs to accept 24/192 PCM and 24/96 PCM respectively. A USB-B input accepts up to 32/384 and DSD 2.8/5.6MHz with asynchronous transfer mode, and DLNA and USB-A accept FLAC, WAV, AIFF up to 192/24, ALAC up to 96k/24, MP3, WMA and AAC up to 48k/16.