If attendance was any indication, I'd say the crowd at this year's CES show in Las Vegas heralded the possible end of the economic correction and the return of some levels of consumer confidence -at least from a specialty AV standpoint. End of show reports had the attendance at over 152,000 people, which would be a record if that number holds up under an audit (which often comes out a few months later). That being said, there was little to get wildly excited about, for many "technological debuts" were nothing more than the same, or refreshed versions, of products and technology we've seen for years now (many still promising no meaningful street date, mind you). More alarming, at least among the specialty audio set, was the proliferation of new products aimed squarely at the top one percent. Still, the show wasn't a total waste and there were a number of notable products worth calling out and paying attention to, even if the record crowds sometimes made it difficult to do so.
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The Main Convention Halls
For me, going into CES, I was most interested in the story of 4K. Following Sony's unveil of their new 4K front projector at CEDIA, I was curious how other manufacturers were going to respond. Well, respond they did, for all of the major display manufacturers had some form of 4K display being showcased. The problem with the various 4K displays was that none were as grand or possessed the same gravitas as Sony's front-projection demo or JVC's true 4K demo -not that e-Shift nonsense. Instead, 4K's public coming-out party was relegated to displays no bigger than, say, 55 inches, which isn't really the size at which 4K makes good on its promise. Was 4K on a small screen better than its HD counterpart on the same sized screen? Yes, though in order to garner mass public and media support, the difference must be night and day. Frankly, on screen sizes between 37 and 55 inches, it isn't. Samsung was one of the only manufacturers to showcase 4K on its own, away from its HD counterpart, and was more successful because of it -that and the fact that they had a larger 70-inch display to do it on. Truthfully, 4K displays are a lot closer to becoming a reality, despite not having any more true 4K content than, say, "glasses-free" 3D, yet you wouldn't have known it at CES.
Much to my chagrin, 3D did not die at CES this year as I had originally predicted, coming off of a decidedly 3D-shy CEDIA in the fall of 2011. No, 3D was alive and well in each of the major display manufacturers' booths; some like LG wouldn't even let you tour their massive virtual showroom without wearing a pair of 3D glasses, for virtually every display was set to showcase a 3D image, as opposed to a 2D one. This was annoying, to say the least, but by no means as bad as those still trying to demonstrate autostereoscopic 3D or "glasses-free 3D." Toshiba and Sony seemed to be the largest proponent of the answer to 3D's woes, though both admittedly have not cracked the glasses-free 3D code just yet. Still, it didn't stop them from trying, though when there are strict viewing instructions, not to mention actual marks indicating precisely where to stand in order to increase your chances for a proper glasses-free 3D experience, I say, "There's always next year." 3D is definitely a feature that is going to be with us for some time, but the dream of true glasses-free 3D for everyone is still a ways off.
In the realm of 3D glasses, XPAND showed off its new line of active 3D glasses that are compatible with all-new Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung 3DTVs (and backwards-compatible with 2011 models). The XPAND glasses are less clunky and more stylish than some active 3D glasses. They have a rechargeable battery and an automatic shut-off function. IR support is built in; if you have an RF-based active 3DTV, you can buy a sleek little RF dongle that attaches directly to the glasses. And, for those who are clamoring for more 3D content, SENSIO announced plans to introduce a 3D video-on-demand service, 3DGO!, that will include pay-per-use rentals of big-ticket Hollywood films in 3D. 3DGO! is an app that can be offered as part of a TV's Web platform; we should see its arrival this spring.
Thankfully, it appears 3D-enabled displays will no longer command vastly higher price tags compared to non-3D-enabled displays. That honor will now go to OLED.
If pre-CES show reports were any indication, this was to be the year of OLED. If you happened by LG or Samsung's booths, you'd no doubt believe it, for they were the largest proponents of the new display technology by far. When I tried to view LG's new OLED displays, they had them all set to 3D mode, which meant I wasn't able to enjoy them or judge them on their 2D merits. Suffice to say OLED 3D is brighter than, say, plasma 3D, but I couldn't give you a comparison to LED backlit 3D displays, for LG was smart enough to keep the two separate. From what I could surmise from all of the various OLED displays that I saw at CES, their form factor appeared to be their largest selling point, followed by their light uniformity and brightness - though in all fairness, Samsung had several LED HDTVs that at first blush appeared to be every bit as bright and vibrant as many of the OLED displays showcased at CES.
From an energy-saving and performance standpoint, OLED does appear to be the answer, though when it arrives on the scene later in the year (estimated), it will be at a premium. Thankfully, this means that many LED-based models will most assuredly drop in price. Should you wait for OLED? Prior to the show, I might have said yes, but having seen what is coming down the pike in the form of LED and even plasma-based displays, I don't think I would wait. OLED is a new technology and one that, so far, has only really been proven to look good when viewing screen saver-like source material (honestly, how many of us view still images of dew-covered flowers 24/7), whereas LED and plasma-based HDTVs have a proven performance record, one that is also getting better with age.
Samsung was again the undisputed winner of the best LED displays at the show this year in my humble opinion, though Sony put on a good show as well. Samsung's new lineup of LED displays looked positively brilliant and every bit as bright and colorful as many of the show's OLED offerings. While I was expecting to see massive LED displays in excess of 90 inches or more, I was pleased with what I saw in terms of size from the likes of Samsung, Sharp and LG. LG took home the prize for the largest display, outside of Panasonic's 100-plus-inch plasmas, of course, but I have to admit I preferred Samsung's 75-inch and Sharp's 80-inch LED HDTVs over LG's. Sharp obviously is the value leader in this department and, while they didn't have anything (that I saw) that broke the 80-inch HDTV size barrier, they're still a formidable competitor against the likes of Samsung and LG.
It's worth noting that, for the first time, Panasonic will offer LED/LCDs at the 47- and 55-inch screen sizes; in the past, Panasonic only offered LCD TVs at screen sizes of 42 inches and below, with plasma being the technology of choice at the larger sizes. These are serious LCD entries, with IPS panels, 120/240Hz refresh rates, and Panasonic's full VIERA Connect Web platform. Could it spell trouble for plasma technology if they sell well?
Speaking of Panasonic plasmas, in terms of the best overall picture of CES, that distinction goes to Panasonic and their consistently great lineup of plasma products. The new redesigned line, labeled Viera Design, looked brilliant and physically redefined what's possible from a plasma platform, possessing near LED-like levels of thickness, coupled with single-pane smooth glass fronts. Physical appearance aside, the image quality that the Panasonic plasmas, especially the VT Series, were able to produce was stunning and superior -to my eyes - to anything else I saw at the show.
Front projectors were less of a hot topic at this year's CES show, at least in the main halls, though there were several demos off-site elsewhere along the Vegas strip that were quite nice, including BenQ's new W7000 3D DLP projector, a 1080p active 3D projector that will offer perks like ISF calibration and lens shifting for a street price of around $2,500.
There were also a few front-projection screen debuts worth mentioning. Among the coolest was Da-Lite's new Multi Vision Imager that, like Stewart Filmscreen's Daily Dual or even Elite's Osprey screen, houses two projection screens in a single chassis. In Da-Lite's demo of their Multi Vision Imager, this meant a screen for 3D and another for 2D, though you can outfit it for ambient-light and no-light screen scenarios too. The best part about the Multi Vision Imager is its price, which is close to half as much as their number one competitor Stewart, with prices starting at around $7,000. For cost-no-object home theaters that need multiple projection surfaces, the Multi Vision Imager is good value, though still expensive.
Another cool new screen debut was Elite Screen's 4K woven screen, which is said to have an acoustically transparent surface made of woven fibers are virtually invisible when projected upon by some of today's and future 4K projectors. The screen is currently undergoing THX certification, which Elite is hopeful will pass (I think it did, though no announcement has been made ... yet) and it should begin shipping soon, with prices starting somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000.
Vutec continued their push of the ArtScreen product line, which is a system designed to disguise your front-projection or HDTV-based home theater setup. While I didn't see any new finish options, Vutec is hands down a leader in the d�cor-friendly front-projection and HDTV space. While I had seen ArtScreen prior to the show, I couldn't resist playing with it at length while at CES.
Blu-ray, Streaming and NAS Devices
Blu-ray has been with us for a while now, so there wasn't a great deal of fanfare surrounding the player, even with the introduction of Sony's newest 4K-capable (via upscaling) BDP-S790 Blu-ray player. The story among sources was their network streaming capability, whether it be via a third-party platform such as Netflix or Hulu, or via a proprietary network such as Sony's own iTunes-like service. In the realm of standalone streaming media players, Roku's new Streaming Stick makes form factor a non-issue. The Streaming Stick, which is the size of a USB flash drive, attaches directly to a TV's HDMI input and gives you the full complement of Roku's Web services. The catch is that the HDMI port has to be compatible with Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL). Each year, we move closer and closer to abandoning physical media and making streaming the content delivery system of choice, and CES did little to dispel that trend.
While I'm not a huge fan of streaming music and movies via third-party platforms I am a HUGE fan of doing it locally on one's own home network. The coolest product I saw at CES that aids and enables home network streaming (as well as Internet streaming) of both music and movies came by way of DuneHD. DuneHD used CES to show off a variety of truly affordable NAS and streaming devices that, if one were so inclined, could easily be used to create a true Kaleidescape-like system for hundreds to perhaps a few thousand dollars, as opposed to tens of thousands of dollars. Their compact Smart Series of products were true giant killers and their Blu-ray/HDD player in the DuneHD Max was extraordinary. They had a few prototype products on hand, too, including a massive media server featuring several hot swappable drives in a RAID configuration.
If you've been reluctant to welcome some form of media server into your home, I urge you to reconsider, for with products from the likes of DuneHD, the possibilities are endless, not to mention affordable. For me, the DuneHD booth, was one of the true highlights of the entire show.
Another product that turned some heads was the Simple.TV DVR, which allows you to capture and stream broadcast TV to an iPad, Roku, Boxee Box, or Google TV product. It sports a single HDTV tuner (and comes with a mini HD antenna) and records to a hard drive that you provide. You get the full complement of DVR controls and programming options. The cost is $149 for the hardware and $4.99 per month for the service.
While there was no shortage of uber high-end equipment racks at the Venetian Hotel, those of us who live on Earth were shopping in the main halls of the convention center. This said, there wasn't much new news with the exception of Sanus, who used CES to unveil a new, more affordable lineup of AV furniture, the Basic Series. Despite their lower price points, the Basic Series products looked very nice and spanned a wide range of d�cor tastes, including mid-century modern, which I appreciated. Sanus also had their new equipment racks on hand, which they originally debuted at CEDIA. I'm told these are now shipping.
BDI made some interesting in-roads into the audiophile market with their lifestyle-oriented products. With the hotel furniture moved out, the slick BDI Ola stands matched the gorgeous industrial design of a number of top audiophile brand's products.
Head to Page 2 to see our coverage of the audiophile gear from the 2012 CES.