Some people make the trek to CEDIA Expo every year to see the latest product offerings, hear great demos, and keep in touch with industry friends. I’m something of a weirdo; I go to the show for the 30,000-foot view of the home theater industry. I go to get a sense of where we’re headed down the road, not what’s just around the corner. And I go to check the general health of our hobby/business.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen some interesting trends come and stick around. We’ve seen the home theater and home automation industries embrace voice control in a big and meaningful way. We’ve seen personalization and customization of advanced control systems become the norm. We’ve seen speaker manufacturers accept and embrace the fact that “black ash” and “cherry” cannot be the only finish options they offer.
In short, for the past four or five years, I’ve somewhat felt like the show managed to strike a nice balance, offering something for nearly everyone, at nearly every socioeconomic level, despite the overall emphasis on the custom installation industry.
This year, I walked away from the show feeling like little middle-class me was the last person that any manufacturer or integrator really cared about.
To dig a little deeper into what I mean by that, my strongest impression from this show was that it was a microcosm of the wealth and income inequality that’s plaguing the world as a whole right now. I’ve never once in my years of attending CEDIA Expo heard the phrase “the high net-worth individual” before this show. But I heard it more times than I care to count this year, from a variety of manufacturers and integrators. It’s as if someone passed out a vocabulary list unbeknownst to me, and that phrase was at the top of the list, since that’s the only consumer that really matters. Or maybe it was just in the zeitgeist. I don’t know.
I heard this phrase time and time and time again as manufacturers showed off $600,000 display technologies and over-the-top “wellness rooms.” And mind you, CEDIA Expo has always been home to high-end AV and control solutions. But this current trend goes way beyond the high-end into ultra-exclusive one-tenth-of-one-tenth-of-one-percenter territory. In the words of my friend and colleague John Sciacca, “I’m pretty sure I saw more six-figure products at this show than I ever have before.”
At the other end of the spectrum, we also saw any number of manufacturers offering dirt-cheap control and entertainment solutions at prices that would make Monoprice blush, yet for some reason aimed at and available only through the custom installation market. $29 smart home hub/dongles. That sort of thing.
In a weird way, though, this bifurcation of the market did make me appreciate all the more those products that fit into the ever-shrinking high-performance/attainably priced category. GoldenEar Technology had its new Bookshelf Reference X (which we previously covered here) up and running in a sound booth, and I can honestly say it’s as fine a two-way bookshelf speaker as I’ve heard in years, despite its modest $699 price.
And although they didn’t have any music cranking through them, Sound United was showing off the new Legend Series speakers, which we’ll have a review of soon. This was my first opportunity to see the speakers finished in brown walnut, and I would have honestly been content to just stand and pet them for a few hours.
Focal also turned heads with its new Chora speaker line, which certainly aims for a simpler look than the company’s gorgeous Kanta line, but nonetheless borrows finish inspiration from its bigger siblings, and wraps those finishes around some interesting technology, including thermoplastic polymer and recycled carbon fiber for the woofers and aluminum/magnesium for the tweeters. Best of all, the speakers run between $900 and $2,000 per pair.
On the video side, things were a little more complicated. We did see a great demo of JVC’s 8K/e-shift projection technology, which looked nearly OLED-like in its presentation. I also took the opportunity to talk to representatives of a handful of different companies about 8K in general and its place in the overall market. The best insight came from someone who wished not to be quoted, but he basically told me what we all already know: no, there won’t be any meaningful native 8K content for a long, long time, outside of perhaps gaming. But the real benefit of 8K comes from the fact that as average screen sizes continue their upward trends (I’m honestly convinced that I saw more 85- to 98-inch retail models at this show than I did 65-inch offerings), the smaller pitch of 8K displays will reap visual rewards even when viewing 4K material. Not to mention the fact that the video processing and upscaling are getting so much better.
So, that’s reasonably compelling and even a bit exciting. I’m somewhat less excited about MicroLED after leaving those show, though, if only because of the utter unattainability of the technology from a price standpoint. Even if we see price declines in line with what we saw in the early years of OLED (half or more in a year), I just don’t think MicroLED is going to be viable outside of Bel Air and Bozeman, MT, anytime in the next half-decade.
One other particularly interesting video trend we saw at this year’s show, though, was something that we here at HomeTheaterReview.com have been blowing our horns about a lot in the past year: the overall declining relevance of front projection. Again, just to reiterate, that 8K JVC projector demo blew our socks off. But it was the rare standout in its category. More and more, we saw home theater demo systems built around big, beautiful flat panel displays (in the aforementioned 85-inches-and-up class) that not only cost a lot less than a top-tier projector, but also deliver better clarity, better detail, better contrast, and undeniably better brightness.
Even JBL Synthesis, which we’ve always counted on to have a ginormous projection screen crammed into its lofty on-floor demo theater, this year opted for more of a media room setup with a flat-panel display on the front wall. It sounded no less gorgeous, and to be frank it looked better than any JBL Synthesis demo we’ve seen in the past. The only downside, of course, is that it seated fewer people. So, if you typically invite your closest thirty friends over for movie night, you can safely ignore this trend and our excitement about it.
That’s not to say that projection was entirely dead. It’s just that the most interesting applications weren’t really the sort of typical front-firing/long-throw setup. Ultra-short-throw was a serious thing this year, with some really compelling offerings coming from the likes of Epson at around the $6,000 mark, built to reside on or into some really sexy looking credenzas and gear racks. So, if 85 inches of pixel-perfect real estate just isn’t enough for you, and you can’t really mount a projector in the back of the room or on the ceiling for whatever reason, there’s reason to be excited about that, for sure.
Anyway, back to the point of this whole rambling rant: As I wandered the show floor one last time on Saturday while waiting on my long-delayed flight home, I felt like there were two lines forming around me: one for Bugatti owners, and the other for people who clip coupons for ramen noodle soup (and no offense to anyone in that group; I pretty much survived on “Oriental Flavor” Maruchan in my college days.) That famous line from Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty kept popping into my mind: “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right/here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”
And I’m not saying which side is which. All I know for sure is that, by and large, I felt ignored by this CEDIA show. Not as a journalist, but as a fan and consumer of home entertainment technology. And I felt as if the average HomeTheaterReview.com reader was, with the few exceptions listed above along with a handful of others, also sort of dismissed.
I’m hoping the theme of CEDIA 2020 is something along the lines of “The Middle Class Strikes Back.” I’m not overly hopeful on that front, since once this sort of stark stratification becomes entrenched, it’s hard to undo. But I’m also not quite ready to ring the doom-bell just yet. As Auric Goldfinger said, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence.” The squeezing out of the Average Joe at this year’s show could have simply been a weird confluence of unrelated factors. Time will tell.