Another CES is in the books, and now comes the process of deciding what it all means for our industry--what trends should we be truly excited about, what's just marketing hype, and what products should you start saving for now?
HDTVs are always a major focus at CES, and this year was no different. What is different between this year and last year (where the emphasis was on curved designs and 4K resolution) is that we saw trends that are absolutely worthy of our (and your) enthusiasm. The big buzzwords were quantum dots and high dynamic range. I plan to delve into the technical aspects of both of these technologies in the weeks to come; for now, let's just boil it down to the basics. Quantum dots equal better color. High dynamic range equals better contrast. By better color, I mean that new 4K Ultra HD TVs on display from LG, Samsung, and others aim to meet the DCI film color standard, which is larger than the current Rec 709 HD standard but smaller than the proposed Rec 2020 UHD standard (manufacturers insist this isn't attainable yet). DCI color is the standard in your local cineplex right now, and the goal of quantum dots is to help your new TV reproduce it at home.
For me, the move toward high dynamic range (HDR) capability is more exciting because the improved contrast provides a benefit you'll be able to see right now, with any content you feed to your HDTV. Yes, HDR will be even more relevant when we start seeing HDR-mastered content, and both Netflix and Warner Brothers announced plans to stream HDR content this year. Demos that I saw of HDR content on HDR-capable TVs were gorgeous, but HDR will also improve the contrast in anything you watch. HDR can exist in either an OLED or an LED/LCD TV; naturally, the majority of the show-floor demos were of LED/LCDs, but I did get a sneak peek at an LG 4K HDR OLED, too. Good stuff. (By the way, LG remains the only company fully committed to OLED right now, introducing seven new models for 2015...some of which are flat, not curved.)
Of course, in our industry, there's always a caveat...and always the potential for a format war. Dolby has its own method for doing HDR (called Dolby Vision), while Samsung, LG, and other manufacturers have embraced a more open method. No consensus exists in how HDR should be implemented in future 4K UHD content, which is why the other piece of potentially good news coming out of CES is the formation of the UHD Alliance, a consortium of content providers, manufacturers, and technology companies whose goal is to develop a "technology roadmap for the rapid evolution of UHD technology" (as the press release puts it). The Alliance currently includes heavy hitters like Dolby, LG, Netflix, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Technicolor, DirecTV, Walt Disney Studios, Twentieth Century Fox, and Warner Brothers. These guys certainly need to be on the same page to successfully usher in the UHD era, and hopefully this alliance will get them there.
Speaking of standards, the Blu-ray Disc Association released more details on its upcoming 4K Blu-ray standard and said the finalized spec should be available to licensees by mid 2015, which hopefully keeps us on track to see players by the 2015 holiday season. The format will officially be called Ultra HD Blu-ray, and the spec will include a wider color gamut, at least 10-bit color depth, and HDR support; players will be backwards compatible with the current Blu-ray format, they will use the HEVC codec, and disc sizes will range from 66 (dual later) to 100 (triple layer) gigabytes. Panasonic showed off a "prototype" of an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, with zero details provided.
The biggest piece of non-TV-related news on the video front was Dish Network's launch of Sling TV, a no-contract $20/month streaming TV service that will not require the purchase or rental of any Dish Network equipment. The Sling TV app will be integrated into a variety of networkable playback devices; at CES, they demoed Sling TV running through a Roku, an Amazon Fire TV, an Xbox, and directly through a tablet. So what's the big deal? There are lots of streaming services out there. Why did this one earn Best of CES from Engadget and other publications? Because Sling TV represents the bundle-buster that people have been waiting for. Lots of big names in the entertainment/tech industry have tried to make the necessary deals to assemble a low-cost package of compelling TV channels and have met with frustration. The fact that Dish got the price to $20/month and still managed to include major channels like ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, Food Network, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, ABC Family, and CNN is a huge development. And it's not insignificant that a major satellite provider is the one encouraging people to cut the cord. That, too, says an awful lot about the future of television entertainment.
How about audio? Of course, plenty of new and intriguing speaker systems were on display from the likes of Revel, GoldenEar, RBH, SVS, Thiel, Paradigm, and more. Dolby Atmos wasn't as big a theme here as it was back at CEDIA, but it still made its presence known, as speaker companies like Atlantic Technology, KEF, Onkyo, and CAT performed Atmos demos, and we saw a lot of new pre/pros and receivers with Atmos capability. Just before the show, DTS officially introduced its competing object-based codec, DTS:X, and you can expect to see it in 2015 electronics from Anthem, Denon, Marantz, Krell, Onkyo, Integra, Outlaw, Pioneer, Steinway Lyngdorf, Yamaha, and others.
Hi-res audio continues to gain traction, both in portables and home audio components. Neil Young made the rounds at CES this year to talk up his Pono hi-res service and portable player, Sony introduced its second-generation NW-ZX2 hi-res player, and HiFiMan showed off its new HM-901s hi-res player. Naturally, there were plenty of new audiophile headphones and other accessories to go along with the players. For the home, we saw an assortment of new hi-res-capable network audio players from Cambridge, Technics, Astell&Kern, and others. For those who want hi-res streaming in a multi-room speaker system, Bluesound and Musaic both had their lineups on display. And finally, the music streaming service TIDAL had a big presence at the show, being streamed in a variety of demos. TIDAL has joined forces with Meridian, with plans to incorporate Meridian's new Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) technology in order to stream high-resolution audio files. Right now, TIDAL offers lossless CD-quality streaming, but the use of MQA will allow for a hi-res streaming service through Meridian's Sooloos music system and other products that support the TIDAL service.
Those are some general highlights from CES 2015. Check out the photo slideshow below for details on the specific products that we saw.
• All You Need to Know About Dish's New Sling TV Service at Gigaom.com.
• Ultra HD Blu-ray Launches With 4K, HDR Support at HollywoodReporter.com.
• Tidal to Launch High-Res Streaming Service Using Meridian MQA at What Hi-Fi?