CES 2019 Highlights | InnerFidelity

CES 2019 Highlights | InnerFidelity

The trek out to CES in Las Vegas isn’t usually as bad as actually getting around at the show. The event is absolutely massive in comparison to the usual audiophile circuit, and most of the new headphone tech is housed in the very populated South Hall of the LV Convention Center. Compounding the issue for high fidelity is the apparent retraction of some of the smaller, more core brands of the personal audio hobby. The four-day information dump is more of a Business-to-Business operation and is not open to the general public which tends to create a larger international footprint on US real estate.

The South Hall (and the direction of headphones in general) can be summed up in two words for 2019 – “True Wireless.” The irony of the wired/wireless IEM trend of 2018 is now behind us, but the addition of Truth might still haunt us for several years of wordplay on this front. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any new full-sized h-fi cans, but its fairly safe to say that most (if not all) the major players in the space have finally bent a knee to that cellphone without a 3.5mm hole.

One of the more interesting developments on the show floor was the wireless update to the budget classic from Audio Technica. The beloved entry level ATH M50 will see an update to Bluetooth 5.0 and playback claims of 40 hours from a full charge. The new ATH M50xBT will house the same 45mm driver, magnet and voice coil as the original M50. AptX compatibility comes standard as does an old school removable wired connection. Street date starts now for the new headphone with a retail cost of $199 USD. Audio Technica’s True Wireless IEM products are called the Sound Reality ATH-CKR7TW and the Sonic Sport ATH-SPORT7TW, which retail for $249 and $199 USD respectively. The former offering a diamond-like, carbon-coated 11mm driver and 6 hours of playback with the latter incorporating a 5.8 dynamic driver and 3.5 hours of playback, both are now available.

The HiFi crowd was still treated with the release of 3 new wired headphones, starting with the over ear, closed back ATH-AP2000Ti for $1,250 which sits just under the $2k ATH-ADX5000 open back revealed last year. Along with two in-ear options, all three models feature DLC (diamond-like carbon) coatings and titanium housings. The removable cables for all three can even be swapped out with a 4.4mm balanced mini-plug.

The in-ear ATH-CK2000Ti flagship retails for $750 USD and features “dual-phase push-pull DLC drivers of different diameters (9.8 mm and 8.8.mm) that face each other but are wired out of phase, causing them to move in parallel with each other.” The almost earbud shaped “in-ear” ATH-CM2000Ti costs $400 USD and houses an enormous 15.4mm DLC dynamic full range driver. The new hifi-targeted products from Audio Technica should become available by the end of January 2019.

IEM maker MEE took a fresh look at the product category and produced a modular solution that even covers the spread between universal and custom fits. Using ear scanning technology on the CES show floor similar to what we have seen from UE and Snugs in previous years, MEE transitioned the idea of customization and upgradability to a more overarching execution. With the new MX-Pro line, consumers will be able to swap out cables, faceplates and tips (including silicone custom molded options). In essence, if buyers like the look and feel of everything they own but want a sonic upgrade, they can do so while all aesthetics, fit and connection remains the same.

The line starts at the inexpensive $50 MX1 Pro with a single dynamic driver. The remaining 3 tiers (MX2-4) add 1-3 more Balanced Armature drivers for the mids and highs, thus effectively opting for a hybrid design for the rest of the range. Each progressive step up costs an additional $50. According to information available at the show, the tuning is different for each option with a corresponding musical professional targeted for each (i.e.; more bass for bass guitars and drummers). It’s a clever culmination of IEM options for relatively low cost, especially when you consider the breath of premium custom products it touches with fitted silicone ear tips in the mix.

The recently re-acquired and rebranded KLH Audio announced a two pairs of earphones at CES for an upcoming March release. First up was a $499 full-range open-back Ultimate One. The 50mm dynamic driver encased inside is pure beryllium (not just coated) and comes with both a balanced cable (with SE adapters) and a hard case. That’s a fairly dense feature set for half a large, even if just on paper. The second is the Ultimate Two wireless IEM ($299). AptX enabled with a 10mm dynamic driver hybrid design, the new in-ears also come with a hard case and swappable wired cable. Beryllium is becoming increasingly common as a material choice for dynamic headphones, and not just reserved for flagship pieces like Focal’s $4k Utopia – an interesting choice for the category re-launch of the company.

Beyerdynamic’s new products this year landed a little to the left and right of hifi, but still utilize unique tech like sound personalization via their MOSAYC system to get things cranking in creative ways. The newest addition to the partnership with Mimi Defined is the LAGOON ANC ($449), which is the company’s first BT headphone to offer both noise cancelling and sound personalization. As an added bonus there are LED lights embedded inside the ear cup for some visual bling and a hard wire and case included.

The entire Byron IEM series has been replaced with the updated BYRDLAND line. Pushing more compact designs, the four piece flock starts with the Beat Byrd which is exclusive to Beyerdynamic’s website and sells for an unassuming $25 USD. The Soul (wired, $89 USD), Blue (BT/MOSAYC, $TBD) and Blue Byrd ANC (BT/MOSAYC/ANC, $TBD) round out the technologically-stacked lineup with both BT options appearing as neckband style designs.  For those looking for a gaming streamer package, Beyerdynamic also recently released the DT 990-inspired TYGR 300R, which includes the headphone and the preexisting large diaphragm USB microphone called the FOX for a combined $399 USD. The 300R claims specs of 32 -Ohms impedance and a weight of less than a pound.

SonarWorks brought out their latest updates to the headphone-equalizing software (previous IF post), which now includes a beta for a mobile app. The demo the team was running included a loudspeaker demonstration this year, so in addition to making two different pairs of headphones sound the same they were also able to push both a pair of studio monitors and even a car stereo to respond in the same manner. The company is prepping even more personalization options (which also travel with you from device to device) for next quarter which will be honed by the user via both A/B choices and hearing tests. The interesting bit for die-hard headphone enthusiasts may come from the newfound ability to hear differences in competing products without the massive variable of frequency response in play.

Helm Audio first appeared to me at Pepcon, a little mini-convention that takes place the day before CES in a Mirage convention hall. The two-month-old startup was born out of a few players from the 1More company and had a True Wireless IEM for $99 USD on display at the show. Perhaps of even more intrigue to enthusiasts however, was the unveiling of the Helm Studio Planar ($349). Equipped with a rectangular shaped 66mm driver and silver coiling, the 375g open back headphone is the newest contender to enter the race that gets a little more competitive every year. To add an even spicier twist, the company was also releasing an in-cable amplifier with THX AAA technology called the HELM Boost Cable ($99 USD). The idea being that for your additional Ben Frank one no longer has to worry about the source power being enough to drive the sometimes finicky planar-magnetic transducer to the best version of itself. It’s sort of a plug-and-play option for the on-the-go planar lover. Look for HELM to start shipping near the end of January 2019 with its debut products.

At least 8 other companies had True Wireless headphones to talk up, and that doesn’t even include the models that became available earlier this year (Harman’s JBL brand will have 4 options available by summer). Most new models ranged from $80 to $150 USD, and included either BT 4.0 or 5.0. Some offer ambient sound pass-through with the touch of a button or moisture-resistant designs. Playback times clock in anywhere between 3 hours and 10, with most landing somewhere near 5. The recharging cases also vary somewhat in their capabilities, but if you are looking to buy a pair don’t be duped by claims of 20 hours or more just yet – some manufacturers are including the case time into the overall spec. There were also a few workout products that used bone conduction that peaked some interest (especially for swimmers) but sound quality doesn’t quite seem to be there this year for the technology.

Overall, some of the same decline for audiophiles felt in the two-channel area of the Venetian is bleeding into the South Hall. With so much tech to promote in the lifestyle category high-fidelity personal audio is slowly fading from the front lines, no doubt ushered in by the new pivot point of wireless connectivity. It is an expensive show for the boutique companies to attend with any type of splash, both HiFiMAN and Audeze no longer appeared with their large scale booths as they had in previous years. Still, it was a well attended show and my schedule was packed from morning to night so here’s a finger crossed that wireless codecs will some day catch up to copper.

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