CEDIA 2016 was supposed to be Sonos' show. That's what most of the prognosticators thought, anyway--those sage journalists and analysts who scour through pre-convention press releases and listen to whispering little birds to figure out what the Big Story is going to be before it's even told. So many of them seemed to think that Sonos would be the thing that we in the media talked about most as we gathered in the press room to fight over electrical outlets and sustain ourselves on cookies and all-too-tiny bottles of water.
And it was a good guess, as prognostications go. After all, Sonos just announced weeks ago that it was officially partnering with smart home luminaries like Control4, Crestron, Lutron, Savant, iPort, and others to develop sanctioned drivers for all of those systems. Any other year, CEDIA Expo would have still been flying high on the contact buzz from that announcement. This year, though? Amazon totally owned the show with its Alexa voice-activated digital assistant ecosystem in the most unexpected way.
If that seems strange to you, consider this: CEDIA Expo is a very specific type of trade show. If CES in Las Vegas can be likened to the Super Bowl of the consumer electronics world, CEDIA Expo is more like the International Mathematical Olympiad of our industry--smaller, more focused, more insular and exclusionary. And a hell of a lot more geeky. Custom installers and integrators outnumber the press by a huge margin, and the odds of running into a civilian who's just there to nerd out on new gear are slim-to-none. It's a world of structured wiring panels and enterprise-grade networking solutions, where representatives from Integra are far more likely to point out the HDBaseT capabilities of their new receivers than mention their power ratings and streaming audio apps. If a new doodad simply plugs into the wall, turns on, and offers the consumer its full range of capabilities out of the box, it used to have no place at CEDIA. And if the new products in Booth 2112 don't play well with the new products in Booth 5121, fingers are bound to be pointed.
It's the sort of show where you'll never see a smart watch on display, but you will see things like SnapAV's new OvrC remote management and diagnostics tool for enterprise-grade networks (shown right), which lets dealers monitor the status of your IP-connected devices and perform remote maintenance if necessary. It's also the only such solution that allows owners to monitor their own networks and perform basic maintenance.
So yeah, a little wireless speaker that houses the hipster offspring of Siri and Google Now might seem a little out of place in this environment, until you consider that: 1) Alexa is available on five of the top-ten best sellers in the Electronics department on Amazon.com right now; and 2) this ridiculously popular voice-activated assistant is now compatible with pretty much everything. And by everything, I mean big home automation giants like Control4, Crestron, and Lutron (as well as all of the products they connect to), but also specific devices like the Nucleus touchscreen video intercom system and Big Ass Fans' super sexy Haiku line of ceiling fans.
As much as it makes me throw up in my own mouth a little to type the words "game changer," this new marriage of Alexa with the custom installation and integration market does kind of change everything. Because while Amazon has played well with DIY smart home solutions for a while now, what most of those systems can't do is literally control everything in your home. The home theater, in particular, has been left out of the voice-activation party (sure, individual products offer voice control, but what's missing is one voice to control them all).
Now, with home automation systems like Control4 or Lutron mated to an Amazon Echo or Dot, your dealer will be able to write macros that allow you to say, for example, "Alexa, watch ESPN," and automatically have your display fire up, turn on your surround processor or receiver, dial in all of the appropriate inputs, and tune your satellite or cable receiver to whatever channel ESPN is. Check out this video of Alexa in operation at the Lutron booth:
And if you don't need that deep level of voice integration, the Amazon Echo can still scan the lights, thermostats, and whatnot connected to your existing Control4 or Lutron system, and give you some pretty Star Trek-like control of your home environment without a bit of input from a dealer or programmer. I made this video of me performing basic setup of the Echo with my own Control4 system, if you're interested in seeing how simple it is.
From what we saw at the show, Crestron's implementation is a little more clunky, in that you have to tell Alexa to tell Crestron to talk to your devices--e.g., "Alexa, tell Crestron to load Morning preset." But it's still neat.
There's no doubt that having microphones scattered around your house is going to be a security concern for some people, and others simply won't want their home control system to be that easily accessible to children or guests. But if the buzz at the show is any indication, this whole thing is going to be huge.
If you're tired of reading about Alexa and just want to skip to the audio goodies, here you go...
Trigger warning: I'm going to mention Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro3D a lot in our tour of the audio products on display at this year's show. However, it's also worth mentioning that these object-based formats didn't seem to be nearly as hyped as they were last year, which could mean one of two things: Either the industry has accepted 5.1.2 and 7.2.4 and 9.whatever.whatever speaker configurations (and everything in between) as the new norm...or people just don't care. And I honestly have no clue which is closer to the truth.
Either way, object-based speaker systems and the electronics that drove them at the show ran the full gamut from affordable to aspirational to astronomical. On the low end (in terms of price, not performance), GoldenEar Technologies shone as usual with another mostly invisible speaker system, this time built around the company's $499.99 Invisa MPX in-walls at front left and right and the rear of the room, a quartet of the identically priced Invisa HTR 7000 in-ceilings above, a $799.99 SuperSat 60C perched atop a TV as the center speaker, and the new SuperSub X ($1,249.99) providing all of the deep bass. All told, the speaker system carried an MSRP of just over $6,000, but it sounded like a million bucks (okay, maybe just a few tens of thousands, but you get the point). What's more, GoldenEar was using the Atmos system in a way that no one else at the show was, at least not as far as I saw (heard). Yes, there were the expected clips of Transformers: Age of Extinction and so forth, and GoldenEar founder Sandy Gross even played the Star Wars Battlefront demo video with a wink toward yours truly (he knows I'm a hardcore gamer). But what impressed me more were the two-channel music clips (some Enya, along with an as-yet-unreleased Chesky CD) up-mixed for Dolby Atmos on the fly. I'm normally not terribly excited about DSP-processed music, but at the risk of going into complete cheese-ball territory here, Atmos really did add an entirely new dimension to the stereo recordings, in a way that made me think that I might want to live with an object-based surround system on a permanent basis.
Definitive Technology also had a neat Atmos setup in its sound room, made up of two BP9080x towers ($1,749 each) up front and two BP9040 towers ($899 each) as surrounds, each equipped with A90 Height Speaker Modules ($499/pair), along with a CS9040 center ($499). Pretty modestly priced as Atmos systems go, and the room really wasn't the best environment for up-firing speakers, but it still sounded quite lovely.
Harman Luxury Audio also had a stunning Atmos theater setup, built on the same JBL Synthesis SDP-75 processor used in last year's demo (now shipping, by the way). Whereas last year's theater was configured as 13.4.11, this year it was 15.4.10 (with each LFE channel represented by the S4S Dual 10-inch sub). Simply put, the sound was flawless.
Lest you think it was all Atmos all the time, though, some of the most impressive demos at the show were pure two-channel bliss. Paradigm was on hand with its new Persona Series loudspeakers, the realization of the Concept 4F speaker we've seen at the past few trade shows. We only got to hear the flagship Persona 9F (shown below), a beast of a speaker with a quartet of active 8.5-inch woofers, Beryllium drivers for midrange and high frequencies, integrated Anthem Room Correction, and a cool $17,500-each price tag.
Anthony Grimani was also at the show demoing his company Grimani Systems' new $32,700 Alpha loudspeaker along with its $20,000-ish Delta subwoofer. The open-air demo, right next to a crowded food court, was the worst possible demo location you can imagine. In fact, I whipped out my phone, fired up my SPL meter app, and gauged the background din at a steady 83 dB. And yet the speakers cut right through it, delivering stunningly dynamic audio with some of the best imaging and dispersion I've heard in any venue.
Pretty pictures, big and small
In terms of video, I have to admit that I went into this show not expecting much of interest. The reality on the ground was that TVs and projectors seriously strutted their stuff at CEDIA Expo 2016, and the story was somewhat more interesting than merely, "This one has 4K and HDR." There was a lot of that, to be sure, especially given that we're starting to see more projectors with a native 4K resolution, rather than pixel-shifting or "wobulation" technologies that squeeze more effective resolution out of what are technically 1080p chips.
Before we get to those, though, Epson did have one pixel-shifting projector in its booth, and I think it may have been the single most talked-about display on the show floor. The Pro Cinema 6040 accepts 4K input, features all of the expected goodies like HDCP 2.2 copy protection and HDR capabilities, and its specs are quite impressive: 2,500 lumens brightness, 1,000,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio, and an anamorphic mode for 2.35:1 video content. Perhaps the most shocking thing about it, though, is the price: just $3,999.
That makes it a far cheaper proposition than the true 4K projectors at the show, like Sony's new step-up VPL-VW675ES, which stood out as particularly interesting for the fact that it supports not only HDR 10, but also the Hybrid Log-Gamma HDR standard developed in Japan for HDR broadcasts. It's slated to sell for $14,999.99 when it goes on sale in November. JVC also had a native 4K projector on display, the $34,999 DLA-RS4500, which comes with a 100mm-diameter all-glass lens and dual 18-Gbps HDMI inputs, not to mention a ridiculously stunning image.
What's also interesting is that the three main TV manufacturers exhibiting at the show--LG, Sony, and Samsung--all managed to have a very distinct presence with little overlap, technologically speaking. Sony was, of course, showing off its new Z Series displays, which differ from your normal backlit LED/LCD TV in that they boast what the company calls Backlight Master Drive, which effectively takes local dimming to new extremes in an effort to crank out better blacks and reduce halos. The displays on the show floor were cranked to solar levels of brightness, of course, so it was hard to tell exactly how they'll perform in an actual living room, but what we saw was impressive.
LG had its award-winning, $19,999 OLED77G6P on display, and if I had to hand out an award for my favorite picture of the show, this one would win it. Black levels were flawless. Colors were perfect. I only wish I could afford it.
The big news for Samsung at the show was the unveiling of its new technology called HDR+, which takes standard dynamic range content and "upconverts" it to HDR-like levels of contrast and shadow detail. The demo at the show consisted of an outer space shot, which we were told came from one Blu-ray player run through an HDMI splitter into two side-by-side displays, one running HDR+ and one not. The difference was pretty staggering, especially in the fact that you could see stars in one image and not the other. The thin halo of atmosphere surrounding our pale blue dot also stood out much more clearly in the HDR+ processed image. Sadly, Samsung is only pushing the tech out to its 2016 UHD TVs (like the UN65KS9800 that just so happens to be the subject of this week's featured review), so those of us with last year's models (I'm looking at me and Jerry both) are right out of luck.
Want to see other new products on display at CEDIA Expo 2016? Check out the photo slideshow below.