Top 4 audio highlights from CES 2016

At this year's CES, a number of different audio products vied for our attention. Here are our favorites.

After some initial excitement it's easy to become emotionally hardened by CES. It's big, it's loud, it's confusing, and also confused at times. Yet sometimes it can bring you little audio gems that give you "that spark," reminding you of why you became interested in gadgets in the first place.

For me, 2016 was one of those shows. One product in particular stood out above the usual dross for me and caused me to gush almost uncontrollably. But there were other standouts too, and so here are the highlights for home audio in the coming year.

Budget hi-fi can also mean performance

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

It's not every year that I come away from CES excited by a product that I've seen at the show. But this year was different. The ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 by legendary speaker designer Andrew Jones is a $500 dynamo and possibly his best "budget" speaker yet. The man has been designing value-for-money components for several years, first at Pioneer and now at ELAC, and the UB5 uses technologies only seen (typically from him) at much higher prices.

The UB5 speaker uses a concentric midrange and tweeter that offers excellent spacial imaging, and thanks to an isolated, dedicated woofer it has amazing bass response as well. From a very exciting demo by Andrew Jones himself I can say that it wipes the floor with ELAC's cheaper Debut, and it could be poised to become somewhat of a classic at the price. Watch this space for a full review nearer its release date of April 2016.

4K Blu-ray

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The cover of the "The Martian" 4K UHD Blu-ray available for pre-order on Amazon

Amazon

One of the biggest shocks to come out of the show was that Sony didn't announce its own 4K Blu-ray player. Instead, it played its "hi-res audio" hand and announced a premium HD Blu-ray player with enhanced sound quality. An unusual move for sure, especially as hunger for 4K will likely see premium HD players passed over for premium 4K ones.

Instead there are three players waiting out there in the wilderness from Philips, Samsung and Panasonic, and the studios have announced support for 4K Blu-ray in 2016. It's unlikely to be the success that DVD or even HD Blu-ray has been, due to the very real threat from 4K streaming, but it's likely that these discs will offer the "reference" standard for 4K content versus compressed streaming formats.

Play-Fi

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The Polk Omni SB1 Plus is a Play-Fi speaker

Polk

DTS Play-Fi is now one of the biggest contenders in multiroom music, and this has been helped with the addition of several key companies at CES 2016. Hi-fi manufacturer Rotel, speaker pioneer Klipsch and satellite TV provider Dish all made their intentions to release product in 2016 known, and it has become one of the largest portfolios of products as a result. With speakers, sound bars, receivers and now set-top boxes, interoperability of music players in all the rooms of your home appears to be now even easier.

DTS:X

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

DTS:X is the latest surround sound format -- after Dolby Atmos -- to offer dedicated height channels, and DTS says it is to appear on compatible receivers in the coming months. At CES, the company demoed some of the (promo) content we'll be testing with this year. The canned DTS demos sounded fantastic played through both the new YSP-5600 sound bar and a Yamaha receiver/Focal speaker combo. There's only been a couple of discs announced so far, with "Ex Machina" the highest profile of the lot, but these demos suggest that with care, DTS:X soundtracks could be a viable complement to Dolby Atmos.

On a related note is Samsung's first Dolby Atmos sound bar, the HW-K850, which offers dedicated rear speakers and ceiling-firing woofers for height effects. We have yet to receive confirmation from Samsung as to whether this is compatible with DTS:X or not.

Conclusion

It's hard to see the show's trends while you're still enmeshed in it, and only distance (and a good lie-down) can help clarify what each year is about. In 2015, the trend was wireless everything, and while that more announcements have continued into 2016, it's no longer a hot topic -- that distinction belongs to HDR and televisions. While there were nothing truly new at this show in terms of home theater, there were some excellent stand-out products, with the ELAC UB5 being one of my favorite products in at least the last three years. The demonstration of the Yamaha YSP-5600 in conjunction with DTS:X was also highly entertaining, coming in a close second. Just when I thought it was easy to be cynical about CES, it's products like these that helped reignite my enthusiasm for home theater.

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