Full Report Coverage by Contributor
Doug Blackburn Every Day Overview
Las Vegas Will Never Be The Same
1998 was the year of SoundStage! at CES. We were everywhere. It was an exciting experience that is probably going to be one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. I spent most of the Show doing daily coveragetaking photos and updating SoundStage! so you all could see the new gear almost as fast as we saw it. I dont have a lot to say about what I heard because I spent a lot more time talking and taking photos. But you cant go to a CES, especially in Vegas, and not have some stories to tell. So my Show coverage will be more like "The Diary of dBs CES" than a Show report in the traditional sense.
It has been a while since I was in Vegas. The Luxor and New York, NY were not even built the last time I was there. Like many fun-seeking adults, Id heard all kinds of stuff about the high-tech entertainment and rides being put in at various locations. So I decided to arrive early and take in some of these new "family entertainment" facilities. Gambling is of no interest to me, so the high-tech entertainment proliferating in Vegas gave me an outlet for all those dollars straining to get out of my wallet.
Pre-Show Day - Tuesday
The first stop on Tuesday was a brand-new theme entertainment facility that had just opened at the Las Vegas Hilton: The Star Trek Experience. A large area of the main floor of the Hilton was set aside for a casino that appears to be inside a space station orbiting earth. Of course you have to traverse the casino to get tickets for the ride and stand in line right in the middle of the casino waiting your turn.
Once my line started moving into the ride area, two Ferengi regaled those waiting in line, and there were numerous "Look, Bro, heres me with my arm around a real Ferengi!" photos taken. The Ferengi themselves were moderately amusing.
"Where are you from?"
"Were here from Ohio."
"I dont think I am familiar with the planet Ohio. What system is it in?"
A good time in line was had by all. It seems like 40% of those in line were foreign tourists who spoke little or no English. Yet the Ferengi managed to keep them just as entertained as they did the "locals."
Without getting into too much detail, I have to say the Star Trek Experience is the best entertainment facility in Las Vegas. The stuff at the Luxor is second best, obviously from an earlier generation. Even if you are just passingly acquainted with Star Trek, the ride itself is great fun. For Star Trek fans there is much more to experience, including the bridge, hallways and turbo-lift of the Picard-era Enterprise. This was the best $10 I spent in Vegas.
Pre-Show Day - Wednesday
On Wednesday, I tried to find something, anything, that was as much fun as The Star Trek Experience, and I failed. It was an OK day anyway, capped off with the best meal of the trip: Yucatan-style Halibut and an ice-cold Corona in an eclectic Mexican restaurant in the mall area of the MGM Grand. Wednesday night I was bushed from walking the half-mile-long "blocks," getting from casino to casino, so I crashed early in anticipation of the SoundStage! 7:45AM team meeting in the lobby of the hotel.
Thursday CES Day 1
About eight of us were there Thursday morning and after a brief strategy meeting, we adjourned to the Hard Rock Casino for the first of several breakfasts. This was a good location for us, almost directly across the street from the Alexis Park Hotel & Resort where the bulk of the high-end exhibitors were located. When breakfast was done, we headed for our various assignments. Each writer was assigned a group of rooms to cover for the Show reports. To do daily photographic coverage, I was carrying a loaned Kodak DCS-210 Zoom digital camera. The appearance of the photos in the daily Show coverage is due to this cameras superior color rendition over other cameras in the same price range. When you are shooting for the web, resolution is not usually an issue for digital cameras. If you can shoot at 640x480 you are in good shapeespecially if the camera creates JPEGs internally and you can select from several levels of JPEG quality, like you can with the Kodak DCS-210 camera. Once your digital camera can do 640x480, how it renders color is by far the next most important criterion. Poor color quality pretty much ruins the appearance of images taken with typical digital cameras. Nobody comes close to Kodaks color-rendition capabilities.
To support the digital camera, I was carrying a leather backpack loaded with: a laptop computer, track ball (built-in pointing devices in laptops are just too lame and imprecise to use for prepping photos in PhotoShop), an allowance of about 20 AA batteries (I got about 30 digital imagesalmost all needed the flashdownloaded to the laptop per one set of four batteries, there is an AC adapter for the camera but I did not bring it), phone cables, serial cable, and miscellaneous supporting bits and pieces.
I set off with intrepid publisher Doug Schneider to shoot the baseball-cap shots of high-end personalities and take photos of new products. There was a lunch break somewhere in thereback at the Hard Rock Casinos restaurant, fast becoming "our place." Around 4:00 we started the work of downloading images from the camera to the laptop, formatting the images in PhotoShop, dropping them into the HTML files and uploading them to SoundStage! We did the Thursday upload right from one of the suites at the Alexis Park. The days upload was completed around 7:00 PM, and we headed off to see Mighty Sam McClain at the Fi party in the Alexis Park.
Refreshed with food and drink, I walked the floor looking for familiar faces. Richard Vandersteen was there and tapped me on the shoulder. Before the Show we had discussed a demo of the Roger Waters Amused to Death Q-Sound CD. This demo was particularly interesting because Q-Sound relies on manipulation of the audio signal in the time, frequency and phase domains to achieve spatial tricks through two speakers. These effects can usually only be duplicated in discrete surround-sound systems. Because of differences in speaker designsthe number of drivers used for each frequency range, crossover slopes, physical and/or electrical time alignment (or lack of), the arrangement of drivers, the radiation pattern of the speaker, etc.different speakers will reproduce the Q-sound effects differently.
In the Vandersteen suite for this Q-Sound demo were the Vandersteen 5 speakers (approx. $10,000/pr), a design that has near-perfect time and phase alignment, as do all the Vandersteen speakers. Driving the 5s were the Quicksilver V4 mono tube amps, a KT-88 design with 120 watts per channel selling for $3,800/pr. These amps feature very low phase shift from the bass to treble, with the bottom and top octaves starting to get into some phase shift. Since the Q-Sound effects are mostly midrange effects, these amps are fine mates for the Vandersteen 5 speakers in assembling a system that is essentially time and phase perfect for evaluation of what's going on with Q-Sound effects.
The 5s reproduced the opening dog barks (track 1) with amazing precision, far behind the listeners right earthats right, BEHIND the listeners head from two speakers. Other systems I have heard this track on put the barking dogs in many locationsfrom behind the front speaker to various locations to the right of the listener. But only with time/phase correct speakers driven by a low-phase-shift amplifier is the dog-barking effect reproduced far behind the listeners head.
What does this demo have to do with listening to normal stereo music? Q-Sound is an extreme example of how time/phase performance affect the listening experience. In real-life music, the effects are not as obvious, but you get to know and understand them when you have long-term (years) of listening experience with time/phase correct speaker designs.
Of course we listened to a variety of other music. The room acoustics made the soundstage seem smaller than it should, but the tuning of the bass was obviously excellent. The Vandersteen 5s have numerous "poles" in the bass circuit that are individually tuned to make bass response linear after positioning the speaker for the best midrange/treble performance. This means that you dont have to position the speaker for the best bass response then live with whatever you have for mid/treble performance. You maximize mid/treble performance though speaker positioning, then the dealer measures bass response with a special "computer." The bass in the Vandersteen suite was notable for having fewer dips and humps than you are used to hearing in other rooms at the Show. Bass drive in the 5s is provided by dedicated 400-watt bass amps. So the Quicksilver monos were not providing the drive for the deep bass, and this makes the main amps sound even better than they would if they were being driven full range.
The 5s employ a unique solution to getting exemplary bass performance from any combination of room and amplifier. Nobody else does the bass this way, and Vandersteen received a 1998 CES Award for Design and Innovation for the work on the 5s.
Friday CES Day 2
Friday AM there was another breakfast meeting and another breakfast at the restaurant in the Hard Rock Casino. By now the hostess was nearly a member of the SoundStage! crew! We had a complex schedule Friday, and its a wonder we kept to it as well as we did. First stop for me and a few others was the Dunlavy suite next door to the Alexis Park at the St. Tropez. We put in some extended listening to two different Dunlavy speakers, especially the new $7,995 Sigma-1 speakers. John Dunlavy himself was there, and seemed surprised to see so many SoundStagers traveling in a pack!
After the Dunlavy suite, I made a point to have a listen to Dunlavys surround-sound setup in one of the meeting rooms at the St. Tropez. Here they had set up five of the two-way "big bookshelf size" SC-1 A/V speakers and four of the new Dunlavy subwoofer prototypes. The movie soundtrack for the demo was the Dolby Digital soundtrack for The Fifth Element. The surround processor was the new and elegant-looking EAD processor. The sound heard here was the best movie surround sound I heard at the CES. Part of the credit goes to the soundtrack of The Fifth Elementeasily the best Dolby Digital soundtrack in existence. But Dunlavys sound with four discretely driven subwoofer channels with the (relatively) full-range SC-1 A/V speakers was pretty impressive in this large room.
Back at the Alexis Park we met up for a trip to Caesars Palace to see some high-end exhibitors over there. After figuring out that shuttle buses to Caesars were not running between 10:30 and 3:30, we resigned ourselves to a long walk from the Sands to Caesars. The walk through the Forum Shops on the way to Caesars was surrealan adult amusement park cum shopping center/mall. Sections had arched ceilings painted to look like blue skies with puffy white clouds. Huge fountains featured robotic "marble" statues. Inside, the casino was equally surreal. Only in Las Vegas do you get experiences like this. Upstairs, Genesis was exhibiting a number of new and updated models. More of the speakers in their suite were over $10,000/pr. than under!
More work on downloading photos and a dinner at "our place," the restaurant at the Hard Rock Casino. Typical Las Vegas casinos have slot machines set up where you could "Win This Jaguar XK-8" or "Win This Viper" or Win This Prowler." At the Hard Rock you could "Win This Buell Motorcycle" (a hot-rodded Harley 1200cc in a light-weight, short wheelbase chassis) or "Win This Restored Original 1966 Shelby Mustang GT-350"a much hipper flavor of cool. Also prominent in the H.R. Casino were such memorabilia as a piece of the private airplane Otis Redding died inand it just happened to be the piece of the plane that had "Otis" painted on it.
Saturday CES Day 3
Saturday morning found us uploading Fridays Show coverage to SoundStage! before breakfast. Then on to the Show once more. My morning was spent taking in home theater exhibits at the Hilton. Unfortunately, these were mostly static sales displays with no designers/owners in sight. So I took in a few demos, most notable was the Snell & Wilcox Interpolator demo. The Interpolator is a high-end video device designed to be used with the best video projectors available. It can take virtually any video source from any computer, laserdisc player, DVD player, satellite dish, TV tuner, etc. and output that source at any desired resolution and aspect ratio. In addition it can mix two signals any way the operator might want to mix them: Side by side, pic-in-pic, overlayed with parts of one image transparent (like the background of Windows 95 being transparent so you only see menus overlaying TV or movie video). This video demo was most impressive, and the technology in the Interpolator foretells what the future of TV might be like. The Interpolator is so powerful, it is HDTV readyeven if the image is widescreen HDTV The Interpolator can handle it. All was not completely perfect though. While the image seemed grainless and quite film-like, the blue alien opera singer in The Fifth Element had a dark halo around her like a force field. (This artifact was not visible viewed at home on a Sony XBR direct-view monitor with The Fifth Element laserdisc as source.) Of course, there was no time to investigate where in the chain this artifact may have originated.
Back at the Alexis Park, I spent all afternoon photographing new equipment for the daily coverage. We gathered at the designated meeting time to head back to our hotel, then on to the Stereophile party held at the Flamingo Hilton. The Stereophile party is increasingly anticipated by frequent showgoers. There are chances to meet people you may have missed as well as to take in some good food and drink. This year there was the usual Bass ale on tap, an excellent selection of wines, finger foods, and fresh chef-cooked pastas prepared right in the room. There were any number of lively conversations to listen in on or participate in. We arrived early and left latewell fed, well connected, well photographed (see a number of Stereophile-party photos in the daily coverage area) and looking forward to the last day of the Show.
Sunday CES Day 4 (Last Day)
I needed to return home on Sunday, so I prepared Saturdays photos and captions in my hotel room, while waiting at the airport, and on the plane until my laptop battery died. When I arrived home after the six-hour trip (plus three hours of lost time zones), it was getting late, but Saturdays coverage was uploaded just before the end of the day Sunday. We transferred photos from Sunday to SoundStage! on Monday, and they were up for viewing by Monday afternoon.
Well, thats what my Show was like this year. Hope you enjoyed a peek behind the scenes.
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