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Home Entertainment 2004

New York City, May 20-23, 2004

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After a one year absence, the Home Entertainment Show returned to the New York Hilton last month. By allowing regular consumers to attend – not just trade and press – the show is somewhat unique, and some of the vendors reflect the changed focus. There were NY-area retailers showing off ware, an entire area on one floor dedicated to selling music (on CD, XRCD, HDCD, DTS-CD, SACD, DVD, DVD-Audio, and probably a few acronyms I’m leaving out), and a couple of Internet-only vendors came to prove that their products and people are real, not virtual.

I (Avi Greengart) attended the press-only day, which didn’t seem to be restricted to press, and tried to take in as many demos as I could without frying my brain. There seemed to be more home theater and less tweaky audiophile gear this time around. Here are some highlights:

Sony announced specs on their LocationFreeTV product that was shown at CES. Definitely not high performance video, but an intriguing concept – the base station pumps video out over your home network and the Internet, and the monitor can wirelessly receive and display that video wherever you have a WiFi connection. They also showed off an extensive lineup of plasmas, LCD RPTVs, and their usual wall of SACDs, but the focus was decidedly not on the SACD format. They’ve exited the separates market, so they demo’d their latest ES uber-receiver driving seven Wilson Audio Watt Puppies – which sounded great, but is not a combination likely to occur in nature. The SXRD projection demo was fabulous, but the bright, jump-cut HD movie trailers I saw were not something I could make any firm judgments about.

One of the local retailers (I assume Sound By Singer, but there was no sign on the door) had Runco’s new $35,000 3-chip DLP running off of 480i DVD (Pirates of the Caribbean in this case) on a 10’ wide screen. It was stunning – my notes from the session read, “oh, my.” It also made me question the logic of Runco’s $85,000 CRT projector in a booth elsewhere. I’m sure an A/B comparison would reveal differences, but without one, I was hard pressed to tell you why to spend the additional 50 large.

WAF – Wife Acceptance Factor – was top of mind during Monster’s demo. “Head Monster” Noel Lee was rather outspoken about the need to get people interested in audio again. He feels one reason for declining audio sales is that home theater gear is not as aesthetically pleasing as high end appliances are for kitchens. Sticking with the kitchen theme, Monster is launching several new lines of products named after various Italian coffee varieties. The new furniture and speakers are expensive, but were designed to color coordinate and blend with room décor, including “invisible” speakers that look like picture frames.

Outlaw Audio displayed their processor, amps, and new LFM-1 subwoofers in a large corner suite along with Vifa speakers unavailable in the US. I was not crazy about the speakers (something on the center channel didn’t sound right at higher volumes), but the subwoofers were tremendously impressive. I sat 15’ away from the three subs (“We would have used two, but we needed to smooth out room modes,” they said) and had major PFF (Pant Flappage Factor) – these subs can move air. They were reasonably tight, too - I had them play the opening of Toy Story 2, which I use as one of my reference tracks.

The most outrageous sound award goes to Cinepro, who touted their 10,000 watt home theater system – including speakers, a new line for them. Unfortunately, you do not need 10,000 watts of power to fill an 8x10 (or thereabouts) hotel room well beyond reference levels! I could not begin to describe the sound, as it was way too loud. If the good folks running the demo kept volume at those levels throughout the show (I’d guess in the 110 – 120 db range), they have, in all likelihood, permanently damaged their hearing.

I often browse these shows hoping to “discover” a company or product – last time around, I was pulled into the tiny Totem Acoustic room and was astonished at the amount of bass from a small bookshelf speaker. They were back at the show with improbably small, beautifully finished hardwood speakers that didn’t fail to impress (I heard one jaded audiophile muttering as he left, “And they do all that with just two small speakers"). My discoveries this time around:

• The ZVOX – a single $299 box that simulates surround sound. It sounded good for what it was, but at a booth in the main hall of the show it was impossible to accurately judge the sound. They aren’t trying to really replace a 5.1 or 7.1 system, just make your second or third TV sound a lot better than it does without running any wires anywhere.

• Winner of my Most Surprisingly Good Sound award of the show: Hyperion’s HPS-938's are Wilson Watt Puppy look-alikes, with boxy bodies and trapezoidal heads. They’re Chinese speakers distributed by Studio Acoustics in the US for $4,000 a pair, and they were playing jazz/pop songs by Jenna Mammina - crystal clear sound with a touch of warmth. Great stuff.

No show would be complete lately without a huge lineup from Samsung. They had DLP rear projectors, some with a single stylish “leg” instead of a wide stand. They had LCD panels, of all sizes. They had plasma panels in all sizes. The surprise: they had CRT – cheap. Samsung will be introducing four CRT direct view television sets with integrated HDTV tuners for under $1,000, including a 30” widescreen model for $999 and a 26” model for $699.

 

I give the worst WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) speakers award to Gershman Acoustics’ Opera Sauvage speakers, which weigh 210 lbs., are 52” tall, cost $15,000, and look like living room sarcophaguses. The cabinets are constructed of 18 front-to-back layers of bonded 1-inch MDF that are pre-sawn to create a wavy internal surface. They sounded pretty good in the room, playing saxophone-heavy jazz.
On the other end of the WAF spectrum, Monster introduced the InvisiSound plasma TV picture frame; with the grilles off, you can see the line array of tweeters (facing forward) and midrange drivers (angled). It was hard to gauge the sound in the filled room, but it certainly sounded better than the speakers built into most plasma sets and could be a clever (if moderately expensive at $3,000) solution for a lot of people.
Sony displayed an absolutely huge receiver.
They had another view of the receiver on a turntable to show off their attention to design – the power supply is shielded from the rest of the circuitry, and it has a card-based architecture. Unlike Onkyo’s card-based products, Sony has no cards actually planned at the moment, but for maintenance alone, it could be a handy feature.
 
Sony LocationFreeTV, 12.1 inch model, side view. It's a TV to go.
LocationFreeTV, front view with channel selection showing. The gadget on the right side is a mockup of the more portable 7” model. Take your TV to go really far away.
LocationFreeTV, front view full screen.
Watch infomercials on the go! This pic shows the pull-down user interface, which includes web surfing e-mail, and selecting video sources remotely.

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