1998 Las Vegas CES Report
Part I - by Stacey Spears
The 1998 Winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is now in the past. What was this years theme? It looks like it was DTV and HDTV. Most of the major manufacturers had at least one on display. It seems that 61" is the popular size to start with. Direct DTV has said that there will be 2 channels of HDTV being broadcast later this year. This is great news, as now you will have at least two sources, UHF antenna and DSS. They have also said they will begin broadcasting AC-3. When will these happen? Not sure? Keep an eye out. There were also lots of DVD players on display, including DVD changers.
I was feeling under the weather for most of the show, but I made my rounds because I know you, the reader, would like to know what is coming in the future (at least that's what you might hear from other sources, but the truth is that I just like these toys). One of my favorite aspects of the CES is all of the free magazines. It is like Christmas, with free magazines for days. Or is it more like us, Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity? I mean, we always give you the latest news and reviews for free. What the printed magazines can only do at trade shows, we do all year long. Kind of cool, huh?
Divx was there; at least I think it was. Thompson had one Divx player at their booth that I saw, but it was not hooked up, and no one was talking about it there. All of the people with whom I spoke to about Divx expressed nothing but negative feelings. It seems that the Divx backers are really trying to tell us that it is merely a feature. If they, the studios, would guarantee that they would release every Divx title on open DVD (can play on any player, without getting someone's permission), as well as day and date (at the same time as Divx), I would have no problem with it, but you know that isnt going to happen. I discussed this with a rep from one of the Divx machine-supplying studios. He believed that studios would release their hottest of the hot on Divx first, and then after things calmed down, they would go ahead and release it on open DVD. This was just his opinion though.
THX has begun certifying DVD players. There are 40 pages of specifications on exactly what that entails, but they cover video performance, MPEG-2 decoding, audio performance, and the user interface (UI) design. You may be asking yourself what is their concern with the UI? Well, they want all players to be easy to operate, because some of the machines out today have really flaky features. For example, some always turn on the subtitles every time you put in a film. Then you have some that always default to the 2 channel pro-logic version, and others which seem to force the picture into the opposite mode of your TV, i.e. 16 x 9 when you have a 4:3 TV. So you see, UI is rather important. I have always been a proponent of THX, and I think they have done a fantastic job.
Enough of the "off the top of my head" stuff. Let's get down to what the manufacturers had on display.
This first booth that I stopped at on my CES journey was Thompson. The first thing I actually noticed was their Divx player. It is the first and last one that I saw. It looked like a DVD player but with horns and a pitchfork. Above the player was a lighted sign with four movies that were supposed to be coming out on Divx later in the year ("Face/Off", "GI Jane", "The Jackal", and "Mousehunt"). Thompson had various Web TV type boxes and even some PC-ready TVs. But center stage for them was their 61" HDTV set, which was being fed live from DSS. They had the trailer for "The Fifth Element" playing in a loop. It looked good. There was some pixelation at the same spot of the trailer as it looped through, but hey this was a test. I think 61" is big (for me), so lets hope they have some smaller projection models coming out. The price is expected, like all other sets, to be between $7,000 and $15,000. Hidden around the corner was something else of interest, their new D-VHS. The deck links to their next generation DSS box via IEEE1394 FireWire. The deck will record 5 hours of data off of DSS. In order to view what you have recorded, you must play it back through your DSS box. This allows them not to place an MPEG decoder inside their VHS machine, keeping the costs down. The one thing I felt was wrong with the D-VHS machine was that it did not support S-VHS. This means I will need two VHS decks, one for recording DSS and one for my S-VHS tapes.
Second Generation DVD players were everywhere along with HDTV, and Pioneer was no exception. They had an HDTV on display that was shaped like their current line. The picture was stunning. I hope that glossy protective screen is removable! I asked the rep what would the color of the sidebars (blank areas to the side) be when watching 4:3 (regular TV broadcasts) and he said black. I hope this is true, as the gray bars that are on current widescreen TVs are annoying. Under the Elite line, Pioneer introduced their DV-09 THX certified DVD player. It should be out in the second quarter of 1998. The first generation Pioneer DVD players were some of the worst around, so this will be a real test for the THX program. They (Pioneer) are now using 10-Bit video D-to-A instead of the 9-Bit ones. Pioneer also had several flat screens on display.
Walking around the convention center was like being a kid in a candy store with no money (I know today's kids have money, but let's assume the proverbial). Everything caught my eye, but I could not buy anything. Fisher had a 60 disc DVD changer. Thats right, 60 discs! The unit was not too massive; it stored the DVDs on a carousal. As with multi-disc CD changers, I am not sure if you can keep the quality when adding that much convenience. But I am sure this and other changers will be a hit!
What would a show report be like without Sony? This group of people always puts on a flashy show. Upon entering their room, I was introduced to their new FD Vega series of DTVs. They started by explaining that they have a huge library of films already transferred to HDTV. They showed a clip of the newly HDTV-restored "Lawrence of Arabia." Fantastic!!! While the hostess on stage went to the next section, I was still staring at the movie. I could not take my eyes off it. Sony had a RP and a 34" direct view (which they said will cost around $10,000), and here they talked about how they can improve standard NTSC with their new built-in line doubling technology. "Legends of the Fall" was displayed from a standard DVD, and I have never seen it look better. Then on their final display, they showed "Starship Troopers". WOW! Prepare for a stampede when HDTV arrives! After the little dog-and-pony show, their trained crew was released on us like hounds on a fox. They had several new second-generation DVD players on display, one being a 5-disc changer with their Dolby Digital decoder built in. I asked the rep about DTS compatibility, and he said, "NO, the second generation will not support DTS". This could change, since these new players are not due until this summer, but he was pretty positive about the lack of DTS support.
So, after enjoying the Sony demo, I proceeded upstairs to the DTS room. Here, the famous Garrett Lee of Image Entertainment was outside the door chatting with people in line. Upon going into the room, we were given the DTS hype, super DVDs with better picture and sound, etc. But get this . . . they had a DTS demo DVD, so what gives? (A PCM version, perhaps.) They showed the trailer for "Titanic" and a Fleetwood Mac video, but the video was not enhanced for 16:9 TVs. Next we were treated to 5.1 channels of sibilance, or was that music? Dont get me wrong . . . I like the improved audio resolution of DTS, but the current "I have 5 speakers, so let's use em" mixes are far from my favorite and their late intro in LD and DVD could use a little tweaking. I hope DTS makes it!
Next . . . the Hilton, where Home Theater was centered.
My first stop in the Hilton was at the Carver booth. I was treated to their new DD decoder ($1,295) which is a standalone piece that can be inserted between your existing processor and amplifier (it has its own volume control), or it be used as a preamp. The unit is very thin and looks like it would make a nice add-on to existing systems. It has an RF demodulator built-in for all you LD users out there. They also had on display their full-blown DD receiver that will be coming out later this year ($1,795). This unit will also be DTS upgradable. Next, I went into their backroom where I got to see and hear their new THX speaker package and Darkstar subwoofer ($1,495).
On now to Entec. I have been mentioning their new Audio Video switcher in our Q&A section for months now. They had it at the show, and it should be out by March. You can look for a review of it here sometime in the future along with their new Number Cruncher DAC. I spoke with Peter Madnick for awhile, and it sounds like they will have a lot of cool products coming down the line.
Across from Entec was Monitor Audio. David Solomon put on a fine display of music with their new full metal theater. They were really pushing the audio side and how you can have a single system for both audio and home theater.
Up from Monitor Audio was Atlantic Technology. I had to stop by here, because they were showing the THX trailer DVD. This DVD contains all six of the THX trailers including the Simpsons and Tex with MOO can. I am a sucker for trailers. While there, I also listened to their new line of THX speakers. They sound promising, though the room was a little annoying because of all the rattles. Most of the rooms in the convention center were plagued with this problem.
Next on my list was the THX booth. They had on display three of the four THX-certified DVD players: Pioneer, Meridian, and Runco. Stephen Shenefield, director of Home THX was nice enough to take the time and talk to me about their certification of the DVD players. While they do require all of the players to have component video outputs, they are not forcing BNC connectors on anyone. I mention this because the high-end DVD player manufacturers are putting BNC-outs on their machines. Also, the broadcast industry uses BNC. THX is not forcing the support of DTS, but all current THX DVD players do support DTS. They also said they will certify Divx players should anyone want them certified.
On my way to the other side of the Hilton convention center I saw the Snell & Wilcox booth. Hands down, they put on the best video at CES (IMHO). This time around they were showing their Interpolator Gold, which supports a higher scanning rate than the standard version that they exhibited last year. The new gold supports up to 1280 x 1024, while the standard handles 1024 x 768. Along with the higher scanning rate, the Interpolator sports all new icons. MUCH improved over before. Something else I was not aware of is that the Interpolator will support multiple color temperatures at the same time. TVs are set for 6500 Kelvins (color temperature), and computer monitors should be at 5400 Kelvins. So, the Interpolator will run the video at 6500, and if you have a window on the screen, it will actually be at 5400. AMAZING! They were using two Runco DTV-1000s and showed a snippet from, "My Best Friend's Wedding". This looked as good or better than any HDTV I saw displayed. But at $38,000 for the Gold version, only a few videophiles will actually be able to enjoy it.
Next, I headed over to the Faroudja booth. They have re-designed all of their boxes, and the new look is very cool. They also had their 58" and 48" RPTVs on display. The 58" was plagued with problems and looked REALLY bad. There were color shifts, but this TV is still under development. Their 48" model looked much better, but both had something that I did not like. They were too tall! You will need to elevate your couch a few feet if you want to watch these babies! They were also showing a second-generation DVD player which is supposed to support DTS.
Dwin had their projector on display along with their new line multiplier. Their projector does a great job, but their new Trans-Scanner is something to behold. This thing does not double or quadruple. It is more like the Interpolator, which means that it does what needs to be done rather than always double or always quadruple. They are doing something a little different. Instead of processing every line, they are only working on the active scan lines. This means all of those lines wasted by the letterbox portion of the picture are being ignored, and it allows the projector to run more efficiently. "Austin Powers" was playing and looked totally cool! The Trans-Scanner was one of my favorite things at the show, and it does a fantastic job. The price should be under $10,000. Of course, $10k is still a lot of money, but I would be able to afford this before I could purchase any Faroudja product or Snell & Wilcox.
After being awed by Dwin, I took a trip over to the Sunfire booth. Here, Bob Carver had several new things on display. First was the new TheaterGrand surround processor that supports both DD and DTS. It has two component video inputs and looks like it will be fine product, at $3,295. Next was the signature subwoofer ($2,195). This new unit has 12" drivers and should do a little more "tub thumbing" than its sister with 10" drivers. Powering the home theater side was the new Signature CinemaGrand home-theater five-channel power amplifier with 375 Watts per channel! That's 1,875 Watts total, for $3,495. And last, but far from least, was their new Classic Tube Preamplifier at $1,495.
After running through the halls of the Hilton, I decided to take a bus ride out to the Alexis Park, where the high-end audio folks set up shop. I like the open area of the Alexis Park. It is much nicer than the cramped corridors of the old Sahara. I wish they could have found something a little closer to the rest of the show. There is a huge new building going up at the Convention Center. Maybe someday there will be room for everything in one place.
My first stop was at Meridian. Every year they have more and more new products on display. I started out in their main room with three products that I cannot afford, but wish I could. First is the 861 Surround processor. This has been mentioned before, but now they have introduced a plug-in EQ card that corrects all the channels for things like what kind of walls you have (brick, stucco, etc.), and floors (wood, rugs). The card will run around $5,000, and it is supposed to be very difficult to install, but once it is done, home theater nirvana is the result. They will also have a new upgrade coming that will support 8 more channels, bringing the 861 up to 16 channels. You could have 8 full range, 8 subs, or more sides and rears, etc. This upgrade will also boost the EQ capability to 16 channels. Next, I saw the new 800 DVD machine. This is supposed to be the end-all DVD player, at least for now. It uses a DVD-ROM drive to get the bits and then Meridian's processing takes over from there. This piece will probably be around $10,000. Upstairs, I heard about the new upgrade for the 565. Meridian will be replacing the internal 18-bit DACs on 565s with the new 24-Bit DACs found in the 508-24 CD player reviewed here in Secrets. They will also be replacing the 16-bit A-to-D with a 20-bit A-to-D, and are doing the same A-to-D upgrade on the 562v. Also introduced, was the 561 surround decoder. This is the unit I have mentioned in Q&A before, and it is a combined version of the 565 / 562v, though it will only be using 20-bit DACs. Then there is the new M-33 active loudspeaker. These are bookshelf size (maybe a little bigger) active loudspeakers, and look very promising at about $1,000 each. Meridian also might have a digital version of them at some point. Back downstairs, I got to see the new 581 video switcher. This new box will do all of your video switching and control all of the components through on-screen display. There are two component video inputs using BNC and a whole slew of Composite and S-Video. The unit will start out as just a switcher, then later, there will be a plug-in Composite to S-Video (comb filter), followed by an S-Video to component (NTSC decoder), then still later, a line doubler or quadrupler.
After seeing Meridian, I walked into the Gallo room. My interest here was in their new little speakers that are almost the size of billiard balls. The sound was pretty incredible from these little guys, and I think they plan to sell them directly on the Internet.
Atma-Sphere showed their MA-1 MK II OTL (Output Transformer-Less) tube power amplifier, fully balanced (differential), rated at 140 w/ch into 8 Ohms, and priced at $7,995/pair. Look at all those output tubes! One of the interesting things about OTL amps is that, as the impedance goes down, so does the power output. Just the opposite from a standard amplifier. The benefit is direct coupling of the tubes to the speakers, rather than going through an output transformer.
I had to stop at Camelot Technology to see what was new and exciting there. Howard Schilling was showing the Crystal Vision against the Sony XBR TV's comb filter, the Pioneer Elite CLD-99, and the Faroudja VP-100. Also on display was their new 24-bit CD player the Morganna 24, at around $2,194. I also got to eat some great treats made by Howard's mom. She is a terrific cook.
I found my way over to the Nordost booth. I wanted to see what these cable Gods had to offer, and they did have some new items. First is their new shielded interconnect cable at $1,400/meter pair with individual Teflon wrapped conductors. It has taken them awhile, but they were not going to release something that they were not happy with. They also have a new power cord using the same technology as the new interconnect. And of course they were delighted to show everyone who walked in just how each cable sounds by playing the same piece of music over and over with each interconnect, very cool. Lars is one of the best demonstrators around.
Tetra Sound is a new company in the speaker field who claims their technology will cancel standing waves and echoes because their speakers are self-adjusting. They also say their technology will not only help the audio world but other applications like airport speakers that page so and so. Of course you never know who so and so is because it is so distorted. The speakers that I saw were actually made out of granite, and they appear to be very heavy duty as well as scratch resistant.
I wanted to see what Theta Digital had to show, but this was a pricey cab ride out to the old part of Vegas. Was it worth the fundage? You bet. They have some cool new products coming. First, they will be offering two DVD players. One is a combo LD/CD, the Voyager, which is supposed to cost a hefty $6,500. I hope that they have fixed the problems with the Pioneer transport! Or you can spend $4,500 and get their DAVID which is a DVD only (CDs also) version. They will also be offering a new mini version of their popular Casablanca home theater processor called the Casanova. This unit includes DD, DTS, and the Spatializer. It will sport 24-bit DACs.
Piega, from Switzerland, is now looking for USA distributors, and I was struck by their P4L small floorstanding speakers. The enclosure is all brushed aluminum! Very unusual. Piega dampens the enclosure with an asphault-like substance so it doesn't ring. The P4L uses a ribbon tweeter, and the ribbon is made of narrow woven strips. Price, $2,380/pair. I could see these in a nice high-rise deco apartment with a view overlooking the Golden Gate. Don't forget the subwoofer though. Perhaps a Sunfire or Velodyne HGS-10 in the corner, underneath the Louis XIV table.
Yamaha has a new DD/DTS processor, which should arrive on the shelves at $2,500. Sherwood displayed their DD/DTS receiver and said they will offer an even lower cost one that does DD or DTS, your choice, for $799. Panasonic exhibited a portable DVD player that was VERY COOL. It even had its own little 16x9 display, but at $1,200, it is a bit steep.
Part II - by Colin MillerBecause passengers couldnt follow instructions most five year olds would have excelled at, we missed our time slot, delaying the departure of our flight home by hours. Not exceptionally thrilled about travelling by plane, while looking out at the wing and finding only a stump disappearing into the fluffy white stuff turned dark by the shadow of the earth, I wondered if the pilot felt absolutely confident, or just pretty sure because it had been fine so far, that the plane would touch the ground without violence, emerging safely from this miniature monsoon. Why would anyone volunteer for such an experience? Because we're obsessed!
Luring us to a City of Sin, populated by castles of lights, the Consumer Electronics Show, an organized event of debauchery, promised spectacles of wonder, innovations of new and old technology, and in the perspective psyches as bent as our own, fun. And, now that its over, its time to share.
And what to share? What sounded and looked best? I dont know. Its difficult to say when youre shuffled around between convention center buildings. At best, the evaluations would be unreliable, at worst, misleading. Thats why we do in-depth reviews. So what then? How about food for thought - the novel, the interesting, and perhaps even the entertaining? This is, after all, somewhat of a carnival.We found examples of the retro-vintage, the cutting edge, the gaudy, the discrete, and combinations of the above. Overkill, underkill, road kill, and occasionally just right kill littered the sides of avenues in display booths, conference rooms, or bedroom suites.
Among the biggest, the Krell and Martin-Logan Flagship systems. The revised, $70,000 Martin-Logan Statement loudspeaker systems contained sixteen 12" woofers backing up a line source of dipolar mid-bass drivers stacked next to full-size electrostatic panels. In case youre wondering how it sounded, the last day of CES (when the system finally burned in, according to the presenters), it sounded big, clear, and big again. I mean BIG. Of course, the panels beamed like crazy, so I only heard one speaker for the most part, but it sounded like a very big speaker. And with good reason. The smaller Krell 250-M mono-blocks powered the subwoofer arrays below 50 Hz, capable of delivering 650 watts each into their loads, while a pair of 580 lb. Sedans, posing as amplifiers, lit off the panels and mid-bass towers, heat waves undulating off their silver hoods. Power ratings? How much do you want? The power supplies are programmable to a specific loudspeaker impedance, optimizing the already insane voltage and current delivery. The new Krell reference monoblocks, in case you want to keep your living room from blowing away in a hurricane, will only run you $85,000/pair. Each monoblock has 128 output devices, and will drive a load of 0.5 Ohm. Im sorry to report that, because the CD player and cables tip the system cost up to around $200,000, its not going to make too many shopping lists.
They werent the only ones to engage in overkill that some might call just right. Velodynes FSR-18 driver has the muscle behind the motion for all to applaud. With a dual-differential, push-pull motor structure, it eliminates even-order distortion before the servo-feedback loop, which then corrects acceleration errors within a massive linear excursion range. How low can it go? How low do you want?
If it wasnt really big, it had to be really small. Many companies introduced small or relatively small products, meant to fit in with the more average lifestyle. Gallo Acoustics brought forth some metal spheres the size of baseballs, which served as satellites, orbiting a subwoofer the size of a basketball. With an entire 5.1 channel setup retailing for $1,000, they intend to compete with the bigger name brand, smallish sat/sub systems. Even though they were among the smallest Ive seen, there were speaker systems that had them beat in terms of hiding from the eye.
Threshold introduced their full range electrostatic speaker, the DCI (Direct Coupled), which does not use a capacitor at the input. Priced at $5,595/pair, they are really quite manageable in size (see photo at right) for full range panels.
Gekko displayed some framed paintings and posters, quite convincing really, that were actually speakers. If you think thats sneaky, Sound Advance made in-walls that really were in the wall. Fully installed, they had no speaker grilles, and so with paint or wallpaper, it sounded like the walls were singing. Thats sneaky, almost creepy. Imagine haunted houses of the future!
One of the hottest markets in home theater is the coveted subwoofer, and Carvers new Darkstar, although not small in the absolute sense, does use dual 15" drivers, which makes the cabinet small in the relative sense (using dual drivers in this configuration allows the designer to get the best from them in a smaller enclosure). It is shaped like a trapezoid, and has a neat blue illuminated logo on the front. The Darkstar is powered by a 1,500 watt amplifier using the Lightstar technology. At $1,495, this should be a big seller.
NEAR showed off their line of outdoor speakers. So, lots of companies have outdoor speakers, but how many are submersible? Freeze them, soak them, cover them in Jello, they just dont care (but I prefer the Jello).
Besides making things smaller, some companies took great pains to make products cheaper, hopefully sacrificing very little of performance. NHT, (Now Hear This) showed their 2.9 speakers, midget versions of the 3.3s, virtually identical except for a smaller cabinet, a 10" woofer compared to a 12" woofer, and about 40% less money.
Similarly, M&K introduced LCR-55 satellite speakers, using the same tweeters as their flagship models, but retailing for $225 each. Ive heard the LCR-75s, and if these are close, thats not bad at all.
Velodyne, too, took a stab at the affordable, unveiling their Classic Theater Series subwoofers, starting at $379 for an eight-inch woofer in a slotted port enclosure. Its really difficult to make a halfway-decent subwoofer for under $500, so Im thinking these might be ripe for looking into.
In the retro-vintage arena, there were lots and lots and lots of tube amps. Of course, the big boys like Sonic Frontiers, VAC, VTL, Cary Audio, and Conrad Johnson showed up, but it was pretty much the same stuff as last year, with a couple of new items. The really interesting thing, though, was that I saw tubes getting into Home Theater. Jolida sold the idea of using tube amps for surround applications and, believe it or not, I even saw a tube-based surround processor, made by some obscure company, with glass valves utilized even for the output meters. Nouvo Flash Gordon? Not as much as some omni-directional speakers we ran into, which looked like miniature rocket ships.
And let me prattle back to earth and Home Theater. Even though Im convinced that two-channel stereo will never die, due to the practical reasons, multi-channel seems the future of high-end, or at least the fastest expanding field in it, like it or not. The long-awaited ACT-3 from Mondials Acurus made a debut. Not only does it have AC-3, DTS, and a digital input for every source, (didnt I say digital computer pre-amps would eventually take over?), it only costs $1,500! Yes! Too bad theyre backordered. If youre up for an even greater wait, their Aragon equivalent is in the works. More details as they come.
Bryston will finally get into the digital surround world with their digital pre-amp, expected to retail for roughly $3,500. Like many computers, its upgradable. Plug that into the modular monoblock 5-channel amp, (estimated at about the same price,) and youre probably in some good company.
If youre into really high performance, but really want a receiver, dont fret. B&K may have something for you, their Dolby-Digital receiver, the AVR-202, selling for $2,500 ($2,800 with DTS). This is no ordinary mass-market receiver. With a hefty toroidal and 54,000 µF of filter capacitance, this 105 watts x 5 channel one-box solution might take a few separate components for a ride. Its nice to know we audio/video enthusiasts have options.
Other options included high efficiency without horns. Acoustic Research and Legacy both had lines with just that. 95dB sensitivity ratings with reasonable impedance loads. Go figure that someone might take into account practical considerations. The Acoustic Research HO series has been around for awhile, as has the Legacy line, but I thought them interesting enough to bring up. What I also thought interesting, was the Legacy Whisper, not because of the efficiency, but because of the design philosophy of limiting the horizontal dispersion throughout the entire bandwidth, including bass frequencies, by use of a curious dipolar dual-differential loading of 4 15" woofers.
If youre tired of black, black, and more black, how about white? The NAD Silver Series amplifiers may fit your bill. They are very solidly built, complementary to the goals of many interior decorators, and the power supply on that integrated amp (see photo at left) looks quite formidable indeed.
For those interested in the best seat in the house, look into the Clark Audio Center Stage. At $5,500, you might have to settle for having the only seat in the house, but what the hay, with a seat like this, who needs friends?
With lives becoming busier each day, some might not have enough time to separate the bathroom hour from the television hour. For this working class, RCA has a concept product with a display screen on the bathroom mirror. Looking in the mirror may take on entirely different meanings, as well as expand the functional possibilities of the former sanctuary to include entertainment center.
Straightwire gave back massages, a tweak that makes real sense. Music and movies are always more fun when relaxed and comfy.
HDTV was everywhere. With direct view, projection, or by any means, it looks pretty nice, far superior to the NTSC or PAL standards. Hard to see pixels, even up close, although artifacts arent completely eliminated. Fujitsus 42EP plasma screen, the next generation of plasma television, looked alright to me, but the most exciting feature was the ability to see the picture equally well from all angles. About 4" deep, and $11,000. I think Ill wait for the generation to come, seeing as Im still paying off my Sony Trinitron.
There was so much stuff, I couldnt see it all. Not even close. Of what I did see, some of it was pretty cool, nifty even. If you havent had the upgrade bug for a long time, and dont want to, stay away from CES. It goes around there like the flu.
Part III - by John E. Johnson, Jr.
I have been attending the four day CES for years, and I am allergic to smoke. Plus, I don't drink. Viva Las Vegas! Fortunately, I finally located an older hotel that had been renovated but which kept the original relationship between the front door and the elevators, namely, a direct route that does not go through the casino. Nevertheless, by the end of the meeting, my voice took on a decided tonality of the Godfather.
It was worth putting up with all the smoke. This year, finally . . . finally, HDTV (High Definition Television) is ready to go! A dozen major companies like Philips, Mitsubishi, JVC, Panasonic, Zenith, Sharp, etc., had working consumer models, all connected via satellite dish on the roof, showing movies such as "Fly Away Home", TV programs such as "Brooklyn South", and also live HDTV broadcasts of the Olympic Trials for the Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, JAPAN. I had seen HDTVs at the CES several years ago, and then the HDTVs were not at the CES until now. The image quality is absolutely sensational. All of the initial consumer units are large screen rear projection TVs (RPTV), somewhere around 5 feet in width, and in the 16:9 format. The manufacturers are doing this because the large image is the best way to really show off the difference between HDTV and NTSC. With smaller screens, it is not so obvious, unless you sit really close. I was stunned at how beautiful the picture is. It was as if I were looking through an open window at a live event. The image quality is actually better than a commercial theater! Razor sharp from edge to edge (the widescreen movies at the commercial theaters are a bit fuzzy at the edges because of the curved screen). The photo below, right, shows a scene from "The Fifth Element" on one of the exhibitor's HDTVs.
HDTV comes under the more general domain of DTV (Digital Television), which has 18 formats. HDTV is only two of them, with one being 1080 horizontal lines (the "vertical" resolution) x 1920 vertical lines (the "horizontal" resolution) interlaced, or 1080I, and the other being 720 horizontal lines x 1280 vertical lines progressive line scanning, or 720P. The rest of the formats are still DTV, but can be several resolutions. The new official DTV Certification Logo is shown below on the left. Standard Definition Television, or SDTV, is part of the DTV group, and will include 480P (480 x 704) and 480I (480 x 640). Current NTSC has a resolution of 480 x 330 for broadcast programming (some of the 525 NTSC horizontal lines are not actually shown, so the real vertical resolution, i.e., number of horizontal lines, is about 480). The HDTV will automatically sense which type of signal is coming in, decode it, and display it accordingy. I could see some motion artifacts (jagged lines) with 1080I (because of the interlaced image), and although the 720P was not as sharp, it did not have the jagged lines. I preferred the sharper image of the 1080I, even with the motion artifacts. It would be nice to have everything in 1080 progressive, but the bandwidth can't support it right now. Also, the scan rate would have to be doubled, and the cost of HDTV is already going to be high. One booth which was affliated with HDTV had a Sony Professional HDTV Direct View Monitor. They were not demonstrating the monitor itself, but were promoting HDTV in general. I took the opportunity to study HDTV in direct view. I have never seen anything like this! No visible scanning lines. No dot crawl. Spectacular color and detail. When I subsequently viewed an NTSC TV, it was if I had suddenly developed bad vision. Terrible by comparison. And that is just the video! HDTV has audio too, and it will be Dolby Digital (DD or AC-3), although some stations may utulize two channel stereo for awhile.
HDTVs will go on sale to USA consumers this Fall (1998), and a number of cities will have HDTV broadcasts beginning at this same time: New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Dallas/Fort Worth. Then, in the Spring of 1999, more cities will be added: Seattle, Houston, Denver, Miami, Phoenix, Tampa, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, Portland, Minneapolis, San Diego, Cincinnati, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Hartford, Sacramento, and Orlando. No doubt, the 1999 Superbowl will be broadcast in High Definition (HD). Besides the obvious high profile sporting events, It will be interesting to see which Fall, 1998 television programs will be in HDTV. Probably some big movies in HDTV. Maybe some silly sitcoms in SDTV. Who knows? In any case, take a look at an HD broadcast as soon as you can because once you have all seen HDTV, there will be no going back. It's better than I ever imagined, and I think you will all agree that it's fantastic. Start saving your money now. These first HD RPTVs will be about $8,000, although the manufacturers were shy about giving this dollar figure
As you know, CDs have a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz and words that are 16 bits in length. For some time, new audio standards have been under development. One of these is 96/24 which means a sampling frequency of 96 kHz and words that are 24 bits in length. Because CDs don't have enough space for the new formats, DVDs are used, but they will be called something like Digital Audio Discs, or DADs. The first of these DADs was demonstrated at the CES this year. They play on any DVD player, although the first generation of players will resolve only 20 of the 24 bits. New DVD players will resolve all 24 bits. The output is two-channel stereo, like a CD. I listened to the demo disc along with the same music on a standard CD for comparison. The difference was very obvious. More detail, more body, and reduction in the hard edge that CDs have. Even more amazing was that the DAD sounded better on the mass market DVD player than the CD sounded on a $10,000 CD transport and DAC. That's not the fault of the CD transport or DAC. It's the software (the disc). The pundits who argued that since Nyquist's Theorem states that all you need is a sampling frequency which is twice the highest frequency you are trying to decode, then 44.1 kHz is adequate, must be feeling pretty foolish. Good reason to feel foolish when they were wrong, wrong, wrong. Anyway, when these DADs hit the store shelves, you can listen to them right away if you have a DVD player.
Tubes, tubes, and more tubes. The Alexis Park Hotel (high end audio exhibitors) was full of them. Perhaps 50% of the preamplifiers and power amplifiers on display had tubes. Some were exotic in appearance (the ones from Italy), some were plain, and some were downright ugly. But they all sounded great (well, most of them did). Not all were expensive however. The day of the "only game in town" is gone, so competition is high. Jolida has a CD player with tube output stage for $400, and their amplifiers are not much higher in price. They showed a home theater system consisting of five bridged stereo tube amplifiers, with the total cost of the system, including speakers, at $11,000 (photo below right). Of course there were plenty of the high performance models in the $5,000 and up range, but that's also true of solid state components. Cary had their new integrated tube amplifier (25 w/ch Pure Class A, Single Ended), at $7,495 (photo below left). There was even a five-channel tube amplifier for home theater. Unfortunately, it only provided 35 watts per channel ($4,500), so I don't know how well it will do here in the USA where we like our amplifiers to dim the lights on main street.
Well, I guess with all of this new technology and multiple formats about to arrive on consumer shelves, I had better get more staff writers for the Q&A section of Secrets.
John E. Johnson, Jr.
© Copyright 1998 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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