Jeff Berman is one of a rare breed of AV industry writers who focuses on the business side of the market. In addition to a rich history of working in retail, he has written for M&E Daily, Smart Content News, Smart Screen News, and CDSA Cyber Security News, and also worked for six years as a contributing editor for the Consumer Technology Association's annual Digital America publication.
Video tends to steal much of the thunder from audio each year at the Consumer Electronics Show, and the same thing has typically been the case at the much smaller CE Week conference and new product showcase, which is held in New York each June and is designed to help manufacturers tout their latest technology products ahead of the back-to-school and holiday seasons. After all, it's pretty hard for the latest headphones, receivers, and speakers to compete for the attention of reporters and other attendees when going up against the latest and greatest in the video world: large screens, curved screens, OLED, Ultra HD, smart TV, etc.
But a strange thing happened at this year's CE Week. Audio was well represented--everything from new, inexpensive headphones from multiple manufacturers to new high-end receivers from Onkyo to a high-end digital-to-analog converter (DAC) from Data Conversion Systems (dCS) that costs more than $20,000.
New video introductions, on the other hand, were few and far between. That was especially the case with TVs: no new TVs were announced at CE Week, and only Seiki and Westinghouse touted their latest TVs on the exhibit floor--models that were previously announced at CES in January. LG, meanwhile, announced that its 4K OLED TV won the 11th Annual Value Electronics TV Shootout in a competition among four contending flagship 4K Ultra HD TV models during CE Week.
The standout display product on the exhibit floor was clearly Epson's Pro Cinema LS10000 4K Enhancement Projector that combines the company's new 3LCD Reflective technology and a laser light source that, together, provide exceptional contrast ratio, especially when compared with lamp-based projectors. Using liquid-crystal-on-quartz panels, the model offers up to 1,500 lumens of color and white brightness, along with Absolute Black contrast ratio displaying zero lumens during full-black scenes, according to Epson. Its 4K Enhancement Technology2 achieves sharpness, clarity, and detail by shifting each pixel diagonally by 0.5 pixels to double the resolution and surpass full HD image quality, Epson says.
Leon Temiz, CEO of New Jersey retailer Electronics Expo, literally pushed me into the demo room to make sure that I saw Epson's projector, and the LS10000 didn't disappoint. Still, it wasn't a new product introduction: Epson already unveiled the LS10000 at last year's CEDIA Expo. The LS10000 is Epson's highest-priced consumer projector, coming in at $8,000, said Jason Palmer, senior marketing manager-home entertainment. The projector was available in only limited distribution, at select CEDIA dealers, in early 2015. The number of dealers carrying it has since expanded, but it's still only being sold by CEDIA members, Palmer said.
TV was spotlighted during the Your Next TV Conference at CE Week, and the main subject during its sessions was Ultra HD. Basically, the panelists discussed TVs that were already announced prior to CE Week, but also among the list of topics were new technologies and other trends, including High Dynamic Range (HDR), a feature that's starting to appear in new products.
In contrast, the Your Next Audio Conference that took place on the same day featured high-resolution audio. It was great timing, coming on the same day that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and its member companies unveiled a new logo that they said was designed to help consumers more easily identify the highest-quality digital music. The new Hi-Res Music label allows digital retailers to mark recordings that meet the official definition for High Resolution Music that was agreed to last year, in cooperation with the Consumer Electronics Association, the Digital Entertainment Group, and The Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing.
Monster and Onkyo Stole the Show
In terms of new product introductions, Monster and Onkyo easily stole CE Week, with multiple announcements coming from each company. Monster grabbed attendees' attentions with the company's usual frenetic news conference, presided over by CEO Noel Lee, atop his usual Segway. Onkyo took a more low-key approach, touting its new receivers in a demo room.
Onkyo announced several new AV receivers in early June, but opted to save its two highest-end models so far this year for CE Week. The top-of-the-line TX-RZ900 at $1,599 and TX-RZ800 at $1,299 both feature 7.2 channels; are Dolby Atmos-enabled, DTS:X-ready, and THX Select 2 Plus-certified; and offer HDMI inputs with support for HDCP 2.2 and 4K/60Hz 4:4:4 signals. Two 4K/60Hz HDMI outputs allow for dual-zone video for streamed and broadcast Ultra HD content. These receivers will ship in August.
The RZ900 also marks the return of Onkyo's original VLSC technology, said Product Manager Brian Sandifer. VLSC compares digital input and analog output signals and removes pulse noise generated during D/A conversion, resulting in uncommonly clear and accurate sound, according to Onkyo. The technology was introduced by Onkyo about 15 years ago, said Sandifer.
Video is "certainly important," but the two new RZ models are "really all about getting the best possible sound quality," he said.
Onkyo also bowed the TX-8160 network stereo receiver at CE Week, saying the two-channel model will cost $499 when it ships in August.
Monster, meanwhile, continues to search for an audio product that can match the huge market penetration and popularity of the Beats By Dre headphones that, once upon a time, Monster co-designed and distributed as part of an exclusive pact. That deal ended in late 2012 and led to a court battle between Monster and its former business partners.
Monster has expanded its iSport fitness/sports headphone line with a black version of its iSport SuperSlim earbuds that will ship in August at $149.95.
The company also has expanded its line of 24K products that feature a gold finish with a limited-edition rose gold version of its 24K over-the-ear headphones that it said will be available exclusively through its website and Zumiez stores in July at $329.95, as well as a 24K SuperStar BackFloat water-resistant Bluetooth speaker/speakerphone at $179.95. These products join the previously announced wireless 24K headphones that will ship this fall in over-the-ear ($349.95), on-ear ($229.95), and in-ear ($149.95) versions.
Monster also stepped up its efforts in the multi-room streaming speaker category that's been largely dominated by Sonos. After bowing the SoundStage wireless music system at CES with three speaker models--the $249.95 S1, $299.95 S2, and $399.95 S3--featuring Bluetooth and Wi-Fi functionality, Monster used CE Week to say the SoundStage speakers are now compatible with the Spotify music streaming service. Spotify Premium subscribers can now instantly access songs from within the standard Spotify app on their mobile devices or PCs and use Spotify Connect to directly control their music on any of the three SoundStage speakers, said Monster.
Monster is limiting distribution of SoundStage products to launch partner Best Buy, as well as unspecified custom installers and independent specialty dealers, Lee said at the news conference.
Audio Odds and Ends
JLab Audio introduced new color SKUs for its line of Epic Bluetooth earbuds: blue/gray and white/gray models that it said will ship in July, costing the same $99.99 as prior earbuds in the line. The company also made the cords on the newer versions a bit longer than the one on the black model and moved the microphone up so that it's closer to the user's mouth, said Terra Teat, senior brand marketing manager. What sets the Epic in-ear headphones apart from rival products is that they can run for 10 hours between full charges, offering 60 percent more battery capacity than competing earbuds, said JLab. They also weigh only 15 grams, making them among the lightest earbuds on the market, according to the company.
High Resolution Technologies (HRT) has no plans to expand distribution of its dSp headphone digital sound processor beyond Amazon.com, HRT CEO Michael Hobson said at CE Week. The $79.99 dSp is being sold exclusively by Amazon in the U.S., although it will soon be available in other markets also, he said. The dSp, introduced at CES in January, enables improved headphone sound quality on portable devices, the company said. While it won't make $30 headphones sound like $300 headphones --"there is no magic sauce to do that"--it will improve the sound of those $30 headphones, he said. HRT is content with just Amazon because about 70 percent of the customers who bought its previous products did so through one of Amazon's third-party dealers at Amazon.com, he said. The thinking was, "Why not deal with Amazon direct" on the dSp. dSp sales are "climbing," and about 1,000 units are now being sold a month, he said. HRT will soon start cross-promoting the dSp with Jay Z's $19.99-a-month TIDAL high-fidelity music streaming service, he told us.
Amazon is the first retailer that is selling the new $199.95 Avy "smart speaker" from Zettaly, said James Lenthe, Zettaly national sales manager. Despite the company's smart speaker label, the Android device actually performs pretty much any of the same features that an Android tablet does. In addition to streaming music via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, the device can also be used to play video on its seven-inch screen. Avy will also be sold on TV's Evine Live channel starting in July, and "tens of thousands" of units will then ship in August, opening it up to additional interested retailers, said Lenthe.
Audio cable specialist Kimber Kable is entering the portable cable category soon with high-end headphone cables and intends to have several products for the portable market after that, said Nathan Call, a recording engineer and multimedia developer at the company. The first headphone cables will work with Sony headphones that use eighth-inch connectors, but Kimber's goal is to "support as many" headphones as it can, he said. Although the company provided a sneak peak at CE Week of what the introductory headphone cables will look like, details haven't been finalized yet, including its exact name and pricing. But the product is clearly going to be targeted at audiophiles with a lot of disposable income. (Consumers who think Monster's cables are over-priced need not apply.) The initial Kimber headphone cables are expected to be in the $1,000 range, said Call.
Data Conversion Systems (dCS) spotlighted the new Rossini DAC, which General Manager John Quick said will ship in August at $22,500. Rossini was announced by the company last month and shown for the first time in the U.S. late last month, at The Home Entertainment Show Newport, held in Irvine, California, despite the show's name. The Rossini replaces the Puccini and can be used to stream music from network attached storage (NAS) drives and streaming services, including TIDAL, Spotify, and Deezer over Ethernet, from Apple devices via AirPlay, and through USB, said dCS.
Wait Until CES
Sony only exhibited a limited number of audio products that it already announced prior to CE Week, including the HT-ST9 sound bar, shipping in July at $1,499.99. The HT-ST9 features a wireless subwoofer that it said was sound-tuned by Oscar-winning Sony Pictures engineers for cinematic sound, along with 800 watts and 7.1-channel surround sound from seven discrete amplifiers and nine speakers. The HT-ST9 is also hi-res-capable, has integrated Bluetooth functionality, supports Spotify Connect, and has three HDMI inputs. Sony didn't tout any video products at CE Week.
Pioneer focused only on its car electronics and didn't announce any new products, instead showcasing products at its news conference that the company had already announced, including the second-generation Networked Entertainment eXperience (NEX) in-dash receivers, led by the $1,400 AVIC-8100NEX featuring Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration.
CE Week attendees who were hoping to see major product introductions from Sony, Pioneer, and a few other large CE players may just have to wait for individual companies' news briefings or the 2016 International CES. Panasonic, Sharp, Toshiba, and Vizio were among the big names noticeably absent from the CE Week exhibitor list.
• For more news from CE Week, click here.
• CES 2015 Show Report and Photo Slideshow at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Streaming Music Services Show Strong Revenue Growth in 2014 at HomeTheaterReview.com.