CES 2020: mobile audio arrives in force
The Consumer Electrics Show in Las Vegas traditionally marks the start of the Hi-Fi and video year. It is an opportunity for the biggest retail electronics manufacturers to present their new wares for the coming months. It's where the market leaders meet and where all the latest TVs from Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, TCL or Hisense are unveiled. It's also the place where lots of audio manufacturers come to show off their flagship products such as headphones and sound bars. Follow us on a whistle-stop tour of the important news from the 2020 Show.
This year's trends
While the whole audio market isn't represented at CES, the Show gives us an opportunity to take its pulse. In the world of mainstream Hi-Fi, wireless speaker sets continue to dominate. Whether they are proprietary or run off a more general player like Google's Chromecast or Apple's AirPlay 2, they are looking to gradually displace traditional Hi-Fi speakers.
For now, there is no technological breakthrough in progress. But one could come from 3D restitution. At the moment, getting 360° sound means installing multiple speakers. That's the case with Dolby Atmos and the DTS:X, among others. These formats are focussed on music quality. They aim to work just as well for wireless speakers as for headphones.
Meanwhile, up at the other end of the scale from the most accessible wireless solutions, high fidelity is far from finished. Products oriented towards Hi-Res are still being developed. They are edging further and further towards the top of the range, though, with the mid-range categories being somewhat neglected. And we mustn't forget the design side of things – an increasingly important aspect of audio products. Today, electronic devices like headphones and speakers are judged for their shape or for the choice and combination of colours and materials in their construction.
In terms of earbuds, Jabra's 75t is now out in Elite Active version designed for sports. With their IP57 certification, they can withstand immersion in water, and so are suitable for use at the swimming pool, for example. After launching their first Bluetooth headphones last year, Technics is back with true wireless earbuds with active noise cancellation (EAH-AZ70W). They also come in a slightly less audiophile version available from the sister brand Panasonic (RZ-S500W).
With the Tune 220TW, JBL is going for a look that's fairly similar to Apple's AirPods. These JBL buds don't have a noise cancellation system: above all, they're aiming at accessibility. Audio-Technica is also offering two moderately-priced new earbuds, the ATH-CKS5TW and ATH-CK3TW. Note that the 5tW comes with a big 10mm transducer. Shure has brought out the clip-on Aonic 215, its first true wireless model. The batteries are in the ear clips. Klipsch, for its part, has released four earbuds: three versions of the current T5, including an IP67 version for sport, as well as the very high-end T10 in original format.
The JBL Club range is made up of three over-ear headphones with 40mm transducers. Two of the three come with noise cancelling. In the same category, Harmon Kardon's Fly ANC Bluetooth headphones also feature noise reduction. Shure are preparing to release the Aonic 50, an imposing headset with the latest Bluetooth audio codecs, and, naturally, noise reduction too. Sennheiser's reasonably-priced HD 350BT and HD 450BT come with the aptX Low Latency codec. Unlike the 350BT, the 450BT has noise reduction.
Another accessible product, Jabra's Elite 45h is a discreet Bluetooth headphone with more than 40 hours of battery life. In an effort to compete with the best headphones on the market, Klipsch has brought out its first noise-cancelling circumauricular headphones, which come with the aptX HD codec. Meanwhile, Panasonic has unveiled a range of three Bluetooth headphones: the RP-M300B, RP-M500B and the RP-M700B. Of the three, only the latter comes with noise cancellation. These headphones are all about high-performance bass restitution.
When it comes to soundbars, this year is all about Atmos. This home cinema layout requires speakers in the ceiling. Alternatively, it is possible to use speakers set in a standard configuration and angled at the ceiling, so as to bounce sound off it. LG, Samsung, JBL, Klipsch and Vizio are now all catching up with their competitors who brought out products in this range in 2019.
The LG SN11RG was developed in partnership with Meridian, a prestigious English Hi-Fi manufacturer. Like the competing models such as the Samsung Q950T and the Klipsch BAR 54, the LG works in a 7.1.4 speaker configuration with two wireless satellite speakers which need plugging into a power source. JBL has also taken the same approach to the BAR 9.1 True Wireless set, with the difference that the surround speakers are rechargeable, making them more convenient to use. All these models come with a fairly imposing bass module, which can be placed anywhere you choose thanks to its wireless connection.
Devialet was present at CES indirectly, represented by Belkin. This digital accessories manufacturer has brought out its first smart wireless speaker, which comes with Google Assistant. It also comes with an induction charger for smartphones. As for the audio, Belkin has called on Devialet technology, which is known for performing well in lower frequency ranges in smaller formats. Another product offering wireless charging, Harman Kardon's Citation Oasis is a mini-speaker in the form of a radio clock with a display unit.
In the same range, but more approachable, the Citation 200 is a portable model with a charger cradle. Certified IPX4, it can resist water splashes. The two Citation models come with the voice-operated Google Assistant. The Fives from Klipsch are active speakers in a classic format. They come with different wired inputs plus Bluetooth. An HDMI ARC input allows them to efficiently replace a soundbar.
JBL is continuing its revival period with the release of the L82 mini-speakers with a 20cm woofer. These speakers come in a classic configuration and have a vintage look, with a foam grille that comes in orange or light blue. NAD on the other hand have brought out a high-end power amplifier, the M33. Boasting a BluOS network connection and AirPlay 2 compatibility, it also sports a 32-bit DAC, multiple inputs, a big touchscreen display, and 2x200 watts of class D amplification.
Moving even further upmarket, Mark Levinson has released a new turntable, the n°5105, an aluminium and carbon model for serious audiophiles. Focal has rounded off its Chora Hi-Fi range with a new column, a satellite, a centre speaker and a bass module for home cinema. Over at Definitive Technology, the Demand series now boasts two columns, as well as a centre speaker on top of its existing range of bookshelf speakers.
The mobile wave
There isn't really a show dedicated to audio: new releases come out throughout the year, unlike, for example, TV sets. CES offers a chance to take stock of the world of consumer audio, and get a sense of where it is heading. This year, mobile audio has emerged the winner. However, given strong developments in the TV market thanks to the 8K and HDR, soundbars are hardly lagging behind. They have become almost as sophisticated as the home cinema audio/video amplifiers that they set out to replace!
Translated by Edward Maltby
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