CES 2013 has come and gone and the largest take away from the global tradeshow - I guess - was that UltraHD/UHD/4K is here. The reason I won't definitively say 4K has arrived is due largely to the wide open release windows the display manufacturers have left for themselves, with sets arriving as early as next month on through to the end of the year. One thing is for certain: there is no 4K format in sight, physical or otherwise, though that didn't stop some from trading upon the idea that such a format may already exist. In truth, I don't believe a consumer or home 4K format will take the form of a physical disc, but rather streaming and/or broadcast content, as both were arguably the second most important story at the show. Streaming was everywhere and seemed to match 4K blow for blow in terms of vying for the attention of the throngs of people filling the main convention halls. Still, with all the talk about 4K and the hordes of folk clamoring to view said content, HD hardly rolled over and died -in truth, it may have been the sleeper hit of the show.
Over at the Venetian Hotel, the site where many of the two-channel and high-end manufacturers resided, the mood was a little more casual and a lot less frenzied. There wasn't much by way of Earth-shattering product breakthroughs, though three of what I believed to be the most notable announcements at CES occurred off-site at the Venetian, with another happening at the Wynn. There was definitely a return to an older way of thinking in regard to the majority of exhibitors at the Venetian, as two-channel systems costing tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars were seemingly the norm.
It is very difficult to take in everything present at CES, especially when flying solo. As one gentleman with whom I shared a cab said, "If you wanted to see every booth and exhibit at CES during its week-long run, you'd have to spend no more than 39 seconds per exhibitor." In other words, it's just not possible. So to those whom I may leave out of my ultimate recap, please accept my sincerest apologies; your omission was by no means intentional.
Without further ado, and in no particular order, here we go ...
The South, Central and North Convention Halls
The main convention halls are where the bulk of the action surrounding CES is located. It's where you'll find the major display and technology manufacturers, such as Sony, Samsung, LG, Sharp, Panasonic, Intel, Monster, etc. You could spend a full week just inside the three main halls, but alas, I had but a day-and-a-half, so here are a few of the highlights.
Panasonic's booth was a flurry of activity, though oddly enough, it wasn't anchored by the unveiling of the company's 4K OLED, which Panasonic claimed was the World's Largest (the first of many World's First accolades at the show), but rather the new ZT-Series of plasma displays. The ZT-Series represents Panasonic's new flagship effort, surpassing even the beloved VT-Series. The ZT improves upon the legacy of the VT in every meaningful way. Brightness, contrast, color (98-percent of the DCI spectrum) and motion are all radically improved. Sizes will range from 50 to 65 inches, as was the case with many of Panasonic's new or updated display offerings. Panasonic was holding one of the few (maybe only) true apples to apples comparison at the show whereby the company pitted a calibrated VT against a calibrated ZT in a light-controlled room. The differences between the two were not subtle, with the ZT besting the VT in every respect. Does the ZT's existence mean the VT is a bad display? No, but the ZT may finally put to rest the age-old Kuro debates that still linger to this day. More impressive was the fact that, although the ZT-Series is entirely HD and not 4K or UltraHD, it possessed arguably the best picture quality seen at the show. The ZT-Series goes on sale soon and would-be customers can expect to pay between $500 and $1,000 more than current VT prices when ZT panels hit store shelves. One reader, who was kind enough to email me directly, informed me that he just preordered his 65-inch ZT-Series display to the tune of $4,100.
Samsung, as is the case every year, had a lot of buzz surrounding the company's presence at the show and for good reason - the Samsung booth positively sizzled. Unfortunately, there wasn't much by way of substance, as many of the so-called firsts were but showpieces meant to entice and inspire, as opposed to actually be acquired, as I would later find out. The products garnering the lion's share of attention within Samsung's massive albeit temporary walls were the company's new S9 Gallery displays, which were gorgeous. Samsung's ode to modern art and design were arguably the most striking displays of CES from an industrial design standpoint, what with their gigantic size, chrome frames and brighter-than-the-sun imagery. The Gallery displays ranged from 110 inches diagonally on down, and were featured free-standing as well as on-wall. The avant-garde styling was also functional, as the bezel not only served as the display's table or floor-stand (yes, I said floor) but also its discrete speaker system, with speakers residing in the frame, rather than attached to or inside the display itself. All of the Gallery displays were LED-based, featuring full panel backlighting, with local dimming, as well as possessing UltraHD resolution as standard. Where the rubber stopped meeting the road was in the S9's supposed or projected availability. The Gallery displays above 85 inches diagonally were but show pieces (so far), with the 85-inch and below offerings representing the real lineup. When pressed for release details, I was told "soon" as in "maybe summer," and when I inquired on price I was asked, "What is the competition charging?" I responded, "$17,000 to $25,000 retail," to which the Samsung rep replied, "We'll be more than that." Okay.
Alongside the Gallery displays was a rather meager showcase of Netflix's soon to be released 4K streaming service, which was running on one of Samsung's smaller Gallery displays. There weren't much by way of specifics on just what Netflix was doing in order to achieve such streaming capabilities. Suffice to say that 4K streaming is definitely in the works and arguably the format on which you can expect to see 4K content, rather than via a physical disc. How did it look? Terrible, but it's still very early going and this particular display was meant to showcase what was coming, rather what's ready now. Speaking of showcasing the future, OLED was also in attendance inside Samsung's booth, with Samsung claiming (yet another) World's First, this time in the form of a curved OLED TV. While OLED has been "coming soon" for the better part of five years, which hasn't stopped manufacturers from updating it, despite never actually having to ship it. When asked when the World's First Curved OLED TV would be available, the only response I got was a laugh. Sigh.
Sharp, which may be clinging to life as a company with both hands and a respirator, put on quite a show at this year's CES. Focusing on bigger is better and more simply being more, Sharp was dominated literally by displays all in excess of 70 inches or more. Some were HD, others were UltraHD, and one was even 8K. The first day I stopped by the Sharp booth, there were some issues with the 8K display, as the pagination of the four 4K quadrants were visible on certain patterns, though by day two, the errors seemed to have been corrected. The resulting image was nice and very clear when viewed inches from the display, but no one views anything with his nose pressed against the screen (though that is how most were viewing 4K displays at CES) and, from reasonable distances, the 8K set from Sharp looked no better or worse than 4K or even HD. Sorry, it's true. Sharp was also touting its new Moth-Eye technology, which is little more than an anti-reflective coating that will be featured on the company's updated Quattron lineup of displays. The Moth-Eye coating Sharp had employed definitely did help preserve the displays' natural brightness, contrast and colors under the harsh sodium lights of the main halls.
Arguably the only true 4K anything at the show came by way of Sony, though it wasn't via any of the company's displays or content, but rather the recently unveiled F55 4K cinema camera. While that may not excite many of you reading this, it did thrill me, though there were a lot of other developments happening in and around the Sony booth that were also of interest. For starters, Sony was all in when it came to 4K, more so than arguably any other manufacturer I saw at the show, and for good reason - it's kind of the company's baby. That said, Sony came to CES with one of the greatest loads of marketing BS I've seen yet in the form of the Mastered in 4K Blu-ray standard. Before I go any further, allow me this analogy: Mastered in 4K is to Blu-ray what Superbit was to DVD. The idea behind Mastered in 4K is that your Blu-ray disc, which is still a wholly HD format at present, is made better via the original 4K files generated at Sony Pictures. In turn, the resulting Mastered in 4K Blu-ray disc, while still HD, looks better, what with its higher bit-rate, better color, etc. The problem with this concept is that a lot of it just doesn't hold a great deal of water. Take for instance Sony's flagship title for the Mastered in 4K format, The Amazing Spider-Man. Spider-Man was originally shot in 4K, meaning it was always mastered in 4K, even when down-converted to Blu-ray/HD. What Sony has done is gotten rid of the special features that take up space and re-encoded (not remastered) the 4K down-conversion to use less compression, so that the movie will come through at a higher bit-rate. The only issue that I have with this is that it's all still written upon an existing Blu-ray disc, which is played back via today's Blu-ray players, meaning I believe the bit-rate isn't going to exceed 40 mbps (maximum video bit-rate of Blu-ray) and the color is still coming through in 8-bit, 4:2:0, as per the Blu-ray standard. This is a far cry from 4K anything. In comparison to the already-released edition of The Amazing Spider-Man on Blu-ray, your bit-rate is probably in the neighborhood of 20 to 25 mbps, with your color being (largely) the same. Is Mastered in 4K better? It supposedly uses less compression, so signs point to yes, but are you getting closer to the elusive 4K standard? Not so much. Sony wasn't doing any head to head comparisons between existing Blu-ray discs and those Mastered in 4K at the show and likely for good reason, though several patrons could be overheard extolling the differences.
As for true 4K content, CES gave Sony the opportunity to showcase its much-talked-about 4K media server, which was positively gorgeous in its physical incarnation, though admittedly its future is shrouded in secrecy. Sony also showed 4K streaming/broadcast content at the show by way of a European football match and, when viewed from appropriate distances, it looked quite good, though it didn't stop folks from pressing their noses to the glass to check for clarity. When will people learn that pixels are not the product of clarity but rather of compression and that no amount of 4, 8 or 80K is going to solve our compression issues?
All of the Mastered in 4K and 4K content within the Sony booth was being showcased on Sony's new crop of 4K displays. The displays possessed striking visuals in the picture quality department but their industrial design left a lot to be desired, in my humble opinion. The new Sony displays seem to hark back to the early days of HD, when speakers were readily found attached to the sides of the displays, rather than being contained within or below. This gave the new Sony displays a decidedly wider look, which may be the point, though the displays looked bulky and a bit dated as a result.
Lastly, there was another World's First at the Sony booth, this time in the form of the World's First and Largest 4K OLED TV.
I don't believe in trade show awards, but if I had to give one, it would be to Toshiba, though it's probably one the company wouldn't want to accept. Toshiba, more than any other manufacturer at CES, took my top honor for the most blatantly biased 4K demo of the entire show. Not only was the whole demonstration rigged, supposedly to sell 4K, but the end result didn't even look good. Toshiba had two displays of equal size, both playing the same HD content. The purpose of this so-called head-to-head comparison was to show how much better not only the native 4K display was, but also how good it was at upscaling HD content, which is arguably what we'll be viewing on our 4K displays for the foreseeable future. The problem with this demo was that Toshiba used two different displays. One was the company's entry-level HD model, the other the soon-to-be-released 4K flagship. To add insult to injury, the 4K set was juiced in order to appear brighter, sharper and overall better, whereas the HD set had been deliberately toned down. Furthermore, the HD set had a giant overhead light above it, while the 4K display did not. Still, with all that flying in the face of the HD display, Toshiba's 4K effort, albeit upscaled, looked positively grainy and artificially noisy in comparison. What people were mistaking for resolution was actually artificial sharpness and resulting artifacts. I was so angry at Toshiba's deliberate attempt at pushing misinformation upon the public that I left their booth almost as quickly as I had entered.
LG's booth was dominated by the presence of a 3D video wall that hung over the main entrance. Inside, the story LG was pushing was not only UltraHD/4K but OLED, all of which were coming soon, of course. Not to be outdone by Samsung, Panasonic and Sony, LG also had a World's First to share, this time in the form of the World's First Curved 3D OLED TV. I was told LG also had a laser projector on hand too, though the crowd was so unbearable that I had to take a rain check. My apologies to you and to LG.
North American newcomer Hisense was at CES this year, occupying the space once held by Microsoft directly across from Intel. The booth was awash with activity, a lot of which was focused upon UltraHD displays, specifically Hisense's 110-inch UHD display. Hisense got around a lot of the issues plaguing many other UltraHD/4K demos by showing still photos captured in higher than 4K resolution, which looked positively stunning, though no one is going to be purchasing a 4K display for the home just to look at family photos. There were other, smaller UltraHD and HD displays on hand as well, though pricing and availability information was scarce.
SIM2 had a rather scaled-down presence at the show this year, though it didn't stop the company from showcasing its most ambitious endeavor to date, the super-exclusive three-chip HD DLP, dubbed Fuoriserie. This $100,000 front projector is limited to only 30 pieces and is entirely-hand assembled in SIM2's factory in Italy. It is made from the finest components the front-projection market and Texas Instruments has to offer. The Fuoriserie is a single-lamp, high-brightness (5,000+ ANSI lumens), three-chip DLP, capable of outputting true D-Cinema quality imagery -albeit in HD (2K). Still, in a show dominated by 4K and cheap parlor tricks, the image quality put forth by the Fuoriserie was decidedly real, as both the content and the capability could now be enjoyed with zero hype or sleight of hand required. It even looked good playing back 3D content, though 3D was admittedly dead at this year's CES. SIM2 also had the wonderful M.150 on hand, though it was merely playing a static supporting role. Too bad as it remains my favorite projector currently available.
Dune was one of my "finds" at last year's CES. This year, the company's presence, while slightly smaller, was nevertheless impressive. There wasn't a great deal by way of wholly new products, though Dune did showcase a small HDMI dongle device, dubbed the Dune HD Connect 3D. The Dune HD Connect is a small dongle that connects to your display's HDMI port and brings with it full Dune-HD functionality, including wireless streaming, etc. The Dune HD Connect is coming very soon, as in within a few months, and will be priced below $200. For those rocking a Dune-HD Max or the like, the Connect 3D is a great media extender/streamer for other, secondary displays in your home.
I got a chance to observe Vutec's new Theater Art System Multi-Vu, which is a décor-friendly way of incorporating a front-projection screen, as well as multiple flat panel displays within a single custom frame. When not in use, both your projection screen and your flat panel displays are hidden from view behind your favorite painting or photography. It's expensive, but it's also very cool to see in action.
Since I was in the mood to view screens, I popped by one of my favorite manufacturers, Elite Screens, to check out what the company was showing off at CES. I've always liked Elite Screens, which is probably why I've used the brand for years now, and at CES I loved seeing the Lunette AcousticPro 4K Series screen in action. Elite was also showing a prototype of the soon to be released ambient light-rejecting screen surface, which should do battle nicely against competitors such as SI and dnp, albeit at a far lower price point. I can't wait.
With respect to putting your money where your mouth is, Sunbrite's CES demo was proof positive that the display lives up to the company's claims about its outdoor pedigree. While Sunbrite's displays have been more about all-weather longevity rather than utmost image fidelity, it was nice to see a demo at CES that wasn't a cheap trick, as it is hard to fake running water pouring directly upon and over your flagship set.
I always like visiting Sanus' booth at any tradeshow, as I find the company's products to actually provide some meat in a sizzle-dominated environment. The affordable, easy-to-ship expandable skeleton racks were a budding home theater enthusiast's dream come true, though it was Sanus' Alabaster furniture collection that caught my eye. I sent a quick picture to my wife via my Android phone. She replied, "Yes please!" While I may love and rely on my Sanus Component racks, there's something to be said for equipment racks that don't appear to be equipment racks.
Harman's presence inside the main halls at CES was all about lifestyle - specifically, lifestyle-oriented loudspeakers like the JBL Flip, Charge and the like. The air around the booth was about fun and enjoyment, which was refreshing juxtaposed with the more serious tone of all the display manufacturers vying for one percenters' attention. Most of the products found inside the Harman booth retailed for less than $500 (minus the static display of some Mark Levinson and Synthesis gear), which I doubt could be said of any other booth at CES. While none of the products were wholly revolutionary, it was just fun to hang out there, which I did twice.
The Wynn Hotel and Casino
Before venturing over to the Venetian in what was my second and last full day at the show, I made a pit stop at The Wynn to visit Vizio.
Vizio used CES 2013 to celebrate the company's tenth anniversary, a milestone marked by a small museum-like display located in the center of the hotel's grand ballroom space. Around the outer edges were all of Vizio's current and soon to be released products, anchored by the all-new 80-inch XVT-Series UltraHD display. The XVT display looked brilliant playing back native 4K content from Dreamworks Animation, though admittedly there was nothing nearby to use as a basis for comparison. The XVT will be available towards the end of the year, in sizes ranging from 50 to 80 inches. No pricing was given at the show but, because it's Vizio, you can expect it to cost much, much less than what the competition will be charging for their first-generation UltraHD displays. Also on hand were Vizio's new M-Series displays, which are shipping very soon. Sharing largely the same industrial design as the XVT -Series, the M-Series represents Vizio's best HD effort to date. Believe me when I tell you the imagery was very impressive. I mentioned to one Vizio rep that, had he not said the M-Series displays were HD, I would've assumed they were also UltraHD sets. Vizio is on a tear as of late and the new M-Series displays not only look to enhance the company's batting average, but also emphasize the fact that HD is far from dead. The M-Series will be available in sizes ranging from 30 inches on up to 80 inches, with the lesser-sized models featuring IPS panels - extra cool.
Vizio was also showcasing the new crop of soundbars which, to my surprise, sounded brilliant, especially the soon to be released 54-inch model. Prices will vary, as will sound/surround sound capability, but two things are certain as of CES: all will feature Vizio's new design aesthetic (which is brilliant) and all will be truly affordable. Vizio's goal with the new soundbars is to challenge the benchmarks set by AV receivers and 5.1 bookshelf speaker systems. After listening to Vizio's 54-inch soundbar at CES, I think the company might have a case.
Read about what the audio companies showcased in the Venetian Hotel on Page 2.