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As one would expect for one of the world's premier electronics shows, CES 2020 featured an impressive assortment of new audio gear to demo, with plenty of exciting speakers, soundbars, and headphones on hand.
It seems like more wireless earbuds are popping up every week, and CES saw a large collection of new models to choose from. Though it's getting harder and harder for specific headphones to stand out in this increasingly crowded market, a few models have successfully piqued our interest, offering some potentially tough competition for Apple's ever-popular AirPods lineup.
When it comes to soundbars, Dolby Atmos was the name of the game. Models from companies like TCL and Vizio promise to take the listening experience to greater heights with support for overhead audio effects and engaging surround sound.
For those more interested in compact wireless audio, CES 2020 was also home to a few promising new speakers. From models with premium sound quality to models with more unique perks like a built-in wireless phone charging pad, it really looks like there will be a speaker for all buying needs this year.
After making our way from booth to booth and researching all the latest announcements, we've selected the very best audio products from the show. Though closed-door sessions were available for some gear, please keep in mind that a noisy convention floor isn't really the best environment for an audio demo. That said, these headphones, soundbars, and speakers still managed to impress.
Les Shu and Monica Chin contributed reporting and photography to this post.
TCL's 4K TVs are well known for offering strong performance at affordable prices. Now, the company is hoping to bring that same blend of quality and value to the soundbar market. A few TCL soundbars already hit stores in 2019, but the new Alto 9+ Soundbar demoed at CES is its most impressive model yet.
Built with movie performance in mind, the 3.1-channel soundbar features a dedicated center channel for clear dialogue and a separate wireless subwoofer for extra bass. Unlike traditional soundbars, the Alto 9+ also includes special side speakers built in. These side speakers enable a feature called Ray-Danz technology. Using a unique backward tilted design and acoustic reflectors, this process produces an especially wide soundstage, creating a large "sweet spot." Basically, this means that you can enjoy the soundbar's immersive effects even if you're not sitting right in the center of the couch.
Though the bar doesn't include actual upfiring drivers like some of Vizio's Dolby Atmos models, virtual overhead sounds are simulated through special Dolby Atmos processing. The effect isn't quite as convincing as upfiring drivers, but the feature still adds an extra layer of audio to the room.
This was evident during our demo at CES 2020, resulting in powerful bass and an enveloping sense of virtual surround sound. Even without multiple speakers, it really did seem as if audio was coming from all directions. As an added bonus, the Alto 9+ is also the first soundbar model to be certified as "Roku TV Ready" for simple control when paired with existing Roku TV models and Roku TV remotes.
The TCL Alto 9+ soundbar is set for release later this year for a tentative price of around $400. If TCL ends up sticking to that price point, this could be one of the most affordable Atmos capable soundbars on the market.
Vizio already has several great Dolby Atmos soundbar options available for purchase, but its upcoming lineup announced at CES 2020 includes a few innovative new features. This is especially true of the flagship Elevate Soundbar, which offers a unique mechanism that can position its speakers in two different ways.
More than just a single soundbar system, the Elevate package actually includes a wireless subwoofer and two separate rear satellite speakers. Together, all of these components create a full 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos soundscape. But just what does 5.1.4 mean? Well, in addition to standard left, center, right, rear, and subwoofer channels, this 5.1.4 setup also features four upfiring drivers — two on the soundbar itself and one on each rear satellite speaker. These upfiring drivers are specially designed to bounce sound off of your ceiling, making it seem as if height effects — like rain or spinning helicopter blades — are coming down from your ceiling.
Regular upfiring drivers are cool on their own, but Vizio's Elevate Soundbar takes this design even further by adding a unique auto-rotate feature. When watching movies and TV shows that don't have Dolby Atmos height effects, the two upfiring drivers on the soundbar actually reposition themselves to face forward like regular speakers, enhancing standard stereo and 5.1 audio playback.
Other notable features include support for DTS:X, which is the main audio format competitor to Dolby Atmos. DTS:X isn't as common as Atmos, but it's a very nice option to have, making the Elevate one of the most well-rounded 5.1.4 home theater soundbar systems you can buy. Vizio has not announced pricing or an exact release date for the Elevate Soundbar just yet, but previous flagship models from the company have debuted for $999. Considering the features included, a price in the $1,000 range would actually be very competitive compared to similar models from companies like Samsung.
Manufacturers have been bundling mobile charging support into speakers for years, but Belkin's new Soundform Elite stands out from previous efforts thanks to some extra smarts and high-end sound engineering. The former comes via integrated Google Assistant support, and the latter comes courtesy of premium audio brand Devialet, which has actually partnered with Belkin to help produce this unique speaker.
With Devialet's expertise at hand, the Soundform Elite offers up to 90dB SPL of max volume, along with the company's patented Speaker Active Matching technology and "Push-Push" dual woofer construction. These technologies are designed to provide accurate sound while minimizing pesky vibrations.
Noisy trade shows aren't the best environments for testing speakers, but the Soundform Elite put these features to good use during our listening session at CES, resulting in clean vocals and enveloping sound. It doesn't seem like the speaker's overall quality can compete with more expensive wireless speakers geared toward the premium market, but the Soundform Elite is still impressive, especially when you factor in the device's added features.
Those extra features include built-in support for Google Assistant, enabling voice control and hands-free digital assistant capabilities. Adding even more value, the Soundform Elite also includes an integrated wireless charging pad right on top. If your Qi-enabled smartphone is running low on juice, you can simply place it on the speaker for up to 10W charging. Since most buyers will probably be using their mobile device to stream music anyway, this combination is actually a very convenient bonus. The Soundform Elite Speaker is set to launch in spring 2020 for $299.
At CES 2020, Braun announced its return to the US audio market with the introduction of its new LE Series speakers, including the LE01, LE02, and LE03. Though all three models are worthy of recognition, the entry-level LE03 is shaping up to be a particularly impressive value. Despite its smaller size and lower price, it comes surprisingly close to mimicking the quality of the lineup's flagship LE01.
Beneath its minimalist external design, the LE03 incorporates advanced sound engineering developed in partnership with Pure Audio. Specially designed digital signal processing is complemented by a class-D amplifier, balanced mode radiator, and low-profile aluminium high-excursion woofer. Together, these high-end audio elements help to produce exceptionally clean sound.
During our demo at CES 2020, we were especially impressed by the LE03's audio dispersion, resulting in a wide soundstage from just one speaker. For more enveloping performance, you can also pair multiple speaker units together to create a full stereo system or even a 360-degree audio setup.
Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and AirPlay 2 connectivity are all included as well for easy music streaming support from a variety of devices. For voice control, the speaker also offers integrated Google Assistant support. For buyers concerned about privacy, the speaker even includes a physical button that lets you manually deactivate its microphones.
With stylish aesthetics and impressive audio performance, Braun's reintroduction into the audio market could present some worthy competition for other brands in this space like Bowers & Wilkins. The LE03 will go on sale this summer for $379. The larger and more powerful LE02 and LE01 will arrive in summer as well for $799 and $1,199 respectively.
CES 2020 was filled with earbuds of all shapes and sizes, but the EAH-AZ70W in-ear headphones easily stood apart from the crowd. As the first wireless earbuds from Panasonic's prestigious Technics brand, the EAH-AZ70W are designed to provide premium audio performance with support for advanced noise cancellation.
We'll need more time with the headphones to really offer a full judgement, but after hearing the earbuds cancel out the loud commotion of CES with ease, it looks like Panasonic could have a real AirPods Pro competitor on its hands.
Built with high-end sound reproduction in mind, each earbud incorporates a specially tuned 10mm dynamic driver. Dual Hybrid Noise Cancellation technology has been employed as well, using a combination of digital and analog processing to block out unwanted noise. The rowdy CES convention floor presents a particularly difficult test for features like this, but the headphones were able to reduce the crowd's roar incredibly well during our demo.
Of course, great noise reduction is worthless if the sound you're left with isn't great. Thankfully, the quality appears to live up to the Technics name, with a clean midrange and pleasing bass. Though we haven't tested battery life yet ourselves, the earbuds are supposed to offer support for 6 hours of continuous use with noise cancellation on. That's about 1.5 hours more than Apple says its AirPods Pro last.
Speaking of the AirPods Pro, the Technics EAH-AZ70W are set to launch in June for the same $250 price tag that Apple currently sells its flagship earbuds for. Based on what we've heard so far, this could make the EAH-AZ70W earbuds a strong competitor in this increasingly crowded market.
For buyers who aren't ready for that kind of price investment, however, Panasonic also has its less expensive RZ-S500W true wireless earbuds set for release in June for $179. You won't get the premium styling, advanced drivers, or Technics branding that all come with the EAH-AZ70W, but you'll still get similar noise cancellation performance.
For buyers who prefer to wear headphones over their ears rather than in them, CES 2020 was also home to a bunch of new wireless closed-back options. This includes Sennheiser's competitively priced HD 450BT headphones, which could present a very solid alternative to more expensive models from companies like Sony and Bose.
The HD 450BT headphones feature simple wireless connectivity via Bluetooth 5.0 and support for popular codecs like AAC, AptX, and AptX Low Latency. Active noise cancellation is included as well, allowing you to enjoy commutes and everyday listening without outside distractions. The headphones also offer a foldable design, providing added convenience for mobile listening. Sennheiser is listing up to 30 hours of battery life, which is on par with Sony's popular WH-1000XM3 headphones.
You'll also get a voice assistant button for enabling Siri or Google Assistant through paired devices, and you can further tweak audio performance via an equalizer setting on Sennheiser's Smart Control app. It remains to be seen if all these features really translate into performance that can rival similar wireless headphone models in this space, but Sennheiser's showing at CES 2020 demonstrates a lot of promise.
The Sennheiser HD 450BT headphones will be available in mid-February for $199. That's a very reasonable price considering Sony's WH-1000XM3 currently go for around $350. Sony's option will likely edge-out Sennheiser's when it comes to pure audio performance, but the HD 450BTs look like they could be a very attractive option for buyers who want less expensive wireless headphones with noise cancellation.
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