As I sit here on the plane flying home to L.A., I can't help but be a touch disappointed by this year's CES show in Vegas. Many of the high-end players were MIA or showing static displays only, while others probably should have been.
HDTV and Blu-ray, the two dominant forces at these shows for the past few years, were surprisingly unspectacular. In a weird sense, it felt as if the industry allowed itself to peak for a year. The big boys in the flat panel world seemed to battle it out in the thinner-is-better arena while touting their greenness. I'll overlook the irony of proclaiming ones eco-friendliness on a 150-inch plasma display that requires three 240-volt AC receptacles. Needless to say, the power requirements of a 55- or 60-inch LED flat panel make even a Prius look like a Hummer. 3D was the buzzword this year, with nearly every manufacturer showing one or two displays with some form of 3D technology. 3D is coming, believe me, and it has its benefits, though you may want to hold out for second or third generation sets on this one. If one of the HDTV giants wasn't trying to sell you on efficiency or 3D, then it was all about enhanced or super-resolution displays, with some claiming 4K resolutions. As near as I can tell, these "enhancements" only added to the sharpness and noise in the image, not the resolution. I really wish manufacturers would stop trying to sell consumers on upscaling the way that they do, and focus on moving consumers into high-res native formats, such as Blu-ray, 2K and the like.
As for 4K and the great beyond, there is nothing incredibly relevant to report, other than the fact that 3,800 lines of horizontal resolution does not equal 4K. Toshiba, which was dabbling in almost-4K products, does take one of my top honors in the design category, with their super-thin, uber-modern, floor-standing HDTV that is designed to simply lean against your wall or free-stand in your room. Seriously, the display was gorgeous and a bold statement beyond mere size and thickness. However, I'm told it was a prototype and no concrete plans have been set to put the crazy-sexy-cool display into production. Here's hoping someone over at Toshiba changes his or her mind and hurries it to market.
For me, the real story in the video world was, once again, Vizio. Vizio showed off a variety of new products, including several HD LED TVs with 240Hz refresh rates and Internet connectivity built in at under $2,000 for the 55-inch model. Another stunner was Vizio's upcoming Blu-ray player that not only is a profile 2.0 player featuring every codec and feature imaginable (not to mention full analog audio outs), but will carry a sub-$200 street price. Rumor is that when the player launches this spring, it will cost $150 retail. Knowing Vizio, come next holiday season, they may have the first sub-$100 Blu-ray player in the market, but that is only speculation at this point.
Lastly, at least in the video world, if you're not on board or familiarizing yourself with Internet streaming content, be it iTunes, Amazon VOD, Vidabox or any number of service providers, you have a very short time to become acclimated, for this is how content is going to be delivered. You can take that to the bank. Wireless video streaming, Internet downloads/rentals, on-demand content, even porn - yes, porn - are all going to come to you in HD via your computer or Internet provider and, for the first time in CES history, everyone seemed to be well aware of this fact.
Another emerging technology, at least in the home entertainment realm, was Bluetooth. Sherwood, Chord and others were all showcasing Bluetooth streaming audio capabilities that would allow users to stream music wirelessly from their iPhone or Bluetooth capable devices without the need for docking. The results are spectacular and the convenience is unparalleled. Home Theater Review will bring you more on Bluetooth-capable audio and video products as they become available.
On the audio side of things, there were a few standouts for me, starting with Wisdom Audio's latest flagship in-wall speaker, the L150i ($15,000 apiece). The L150i is a true cost-no-object in-wall speaker, providing stereo and home theater performance that rivals floor-standing giants such as Wilson Audio and B&W. In my opinion, no in-wall has provided the high-end customer with true full-range audiophile sound quality in a hidden installation quite the way the L150i does. Look for a full feature review of this remarkable system in 2009 from Home Theater Review.
Canton, exhibiting with Parasound, had a very nice-sounding room, showcasing Canton's latest reference speaker line. Parasound was also touting their superb JC2 stereo pre-amp, which is spectacular, considering its $4,000 asking price. Expect both Canton and Parasound reviews in the coming months. However, my favorite demos came from two relative unknowns: NTT Audiolab and King Sound. NTT Audiolab makes large, full-range loudspeakers that look eerily similar to Watt Puppies and MAXXs. However, they are a touch more affordable and produce a far more balanced sound that allowed them to literally rock the Venetian show floor. King Audio, makers of full-range electrostatic speakers from China, showed their lineup again this year. King Audio attended CES last year and caught my attention, but had no U.S. distribution at the time, so I didn't report on them. Well, this year, they have U.S. distribution and I'm delighted to say that, for those of us who long for a full-range electrostatic but don't quite have the money for MartinLogan's new CLXs, we now have King Audio. Prices start at $1,000 and cap out at $8,000, with the Prince II, my personal favorite in the line, retailing for $5,600. Expect a full review of these speakers in the coming months.
Overall, the show was a bit of a disappointment for me. Attendance was down, way down, which made navigating the vastness easier than in past years, but it also sucked some of the excitement out of it. Products seemed to fall into two categories: consumer-friendly and downright ugly, not to mention expensive. While my personal tastes found much to like in almost every camp, the most important thing I took away from the show was the growing importance of digital downloads and wireless/streaming media. While Blu-ray, flat panel displays and 3D may have taken the lion's share of attention at this year's CES, I have no doubt that, next year, we'll be talking about things far more virtual.