The 2014 International CES is in the rearview mirror, and now it's time to process all the information that we were bombarded with and try to paint a picture of the year ahead. I'm happy to report that I made it through the show without contracting the plague (some of my colleagues weren't so lucky), but I regret to report that, even though I spent five days in Las Vegas, I feel like I barely scratched the surface of all there is to see. It's so easy to get distracted by shiny objects that are often equal parts cool and ridiculous. I could've spent a whole day in the land of 3D printing, watching them "print" everything from gourmet chocolates to Star Trek character figurines molded in the likeness of an attendee's scanned face. I mean, come on now! But alas, until one of those 3D printers is cranking out speaker systems, I can't really tie it back to our little corner of the CE universe, so I had to move on.
This year's show report will be a little different from years past. I'm going to start with an overview of some of the major trends we saw in video and audio, then we've assembled a slideshow with more details on the booths and rooms we visited. We hope you enjoy.
The two themes in HDTV were Ultra HD and curved screens. We were expecting Ultra HD TVs to make a big showing, and they certainly did. Every major display manufacturer had multiple Ultra HD models on display, in screen sizes ranging from 50 to 120 inches. UHD sets will become more affordable this
year, with players like Vizio, Hisense, and JVC officially entering the fray. Of course there will be some higher-end, higher-priced models, too. Samsung will add a 110-inch screen size to its S9 UHD Series (we gave a five-star performance rating to the 85-inch S9 last year) that will reportedly sell for $150,000.
I wasn't expecting quite so many curved screens. We saw the curved concept in last year's 55-inch OLED TVs from Samsung and LG, but this year the design concept has infiltrated the LCD camp, too. Both LG and Samsung showed off the "world's first" 105-inch curved UHD LCD TV, along with multiple curved models at smaller screen sizes. The marketing buzzword for why we should want the curve was simply "immersion." I wasn't crazy about the curve in the Samsung 55-inch KN55S9C OLED, and I'm not sold on the idea that it will create any meaningful sense of immersion at screen sizes under 65 inches. However, I can see it having some potential advantages with very large-screen LCDs, in regards to both immersion and viewing-angle issues. The aesthetic was certainly striking, as was the gorgeous native UHD content being displayed.
Speaking of UHD content, there was little in the way of hardware announcements, which unfortunately wasn't much of a surprise. Sony vaguely hinted at a new 4K media player due out later in the year, but that was it. All the talk I heard surrounding UHD content revolved around streaming partnerships between smart TV manufacturers and companies like Netflix, Amazon, M-Go, and YouTube. Netflix demoed its 4K streaming and says that the service will be ready when these new UHD TVs begin to appear on the market. At Sony's press conference, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said that consumers will only need a broadband speed of about 15 Mbps to stream 4K, thanks to HEVC encoding, and pretty much every new smart UHD TV on display had the necessary HEVC decoder to support the service. YouTube showed off 4K streaming using Google's VP9 codec, and Amazon announced partnerships with Lion's Gate, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, and Discovery Channel to offer streamed 4K content.
Given my excitement over the performance of the Samsung KN55S9C OLED TV, I was disappointed with the paltry number of new OLED TVs on display. I saw a few 55-inchers from companies like Hisense and Haier, but LG was the only major company to introduce a complete line of five new OLED models, from 55 to 77 inches. Sony and Panasonic have dissolved their OLED development partnership, and Samsung had nothing new to announce in this space. I guess videophiles will have to keep waiting to see if OLED really can become a mass-market replacement for plasma. By the way, plasma isn't dead just yet. LG did introduce four new models at the show, and Samsung said that it will launch new plasmas in 2014, even though none were being displayed at the show.
Videophiles can take some solace in the fact that full-array LED backlighting with local dimming is making a strong comeback in LCDs this year. After all but abandoning full-array in favor of edge LED lighting in recent years, major TV manufacturers have had a change of heart. Don't get me wrong, there were still a lot of edge-lit LED/LCDs on the show floor, but most of the big-name TV manufacturers will offer one or two top-shelf lines with full-array lighting and local dimming for better black level and screen uniformity. In a surprising move, Vizio is completely abandoning edge LED lighting and going with full-array in all of its models, even the entry-level TVs.
CES is seldom a big show for home theater projectors, but Panasonic did demo a prototype of a large-venue 4K projector, and several manufacturers - including Sony, LG, and Hisense - showed off 1080p and 4K short-throw projectors that allow you to cast a very big screen from a very short distance. Sony's yet-to-be-named short-throw 4K projector was integrated into a coffee-table-like cabinet to make a more stylish design statement.
Click on to Page 2 to read about all the new AUDIO gear at CES 2014 . . .