It's that time of year when we're all encouraged to press the pause button and reflect on those things for which we're most thankful. Social media was filled this month with people taking 30-day challenges to put a name to the blessings and bounty in their lives. It's a great way to gain perspective, which is something that's so easily lost amidst the business and the noise of our everyday lives.
Perspective is just as important in the business world as it is at home. Here at HomeTheaterReview.com, we can get so busy trying to deliver the everyday news and reviews that it's easy to lose sight of the big picture. Is our industry healthy? Is it headed in the right direction? What are the encouraging trends? It's also easy for the negative voices--those that love to bicker about minutiae--to make us forget one important thing: this hobby is about entertainment, pure and simple. It's meant to be enjoyed.
So, in the spirit of the season, the HomeTheaterReview.com team has come up with its own list of audio and video trends that we're thankful for--things that we think are good for the long-term health and enjoyment of our hobby.
The Imminent Arrival of Ultra HD Blu-ray
The naysayers love to proclaim the death of physical discs and bemoan the need to purchase new versions of their favorite titles, but we're pretty darn excited about the arrival of Ultra HD Blu-ray. The 4K resolution is nice, but really it's the other video perks--support for High Dynamic Range, a higher bit depth, and a wider color gamut--that have us excited. These features represent the first major step forward in picture quality since the arrival of high-definition, and Blu-ray is the perfect way to deliver them in a stable, quality-controlled manner that streaming just can't do yet. We expect a number of Ultra HD Blu-ray product announcements at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.
The Rise of 3D Audio
Object-based audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X bring a whole new level of immersion to your surround sound system. Yes, they do require the addition of new/different speakers and a new processor/receiver; but, as Jerry Del Colliano puts it, "It's like an upgrade from an eight-pack of crayons to a 64-color box, including the sharpener in the back. Steering is better. Control is better. The WOW factor that we used to get with the THX intro is back." If you remain unconvinced, we strongly encourage you to visit a local AV dealer who has a 3D audio demo in place and hear it for yourself. If you like what you hear, check out last week's story, What Your System Needs to Enjoy Dolby Atmos Today, for a list of the newest products.
The Move Away from Edge-Lit LED TVs
For many years, the trend in TV design was thin! Thinner! Thinnest! Manufacturers were determined to make those LED/LCD TVs as thin as possible, even if it meant sacrificing picture quality to do it. And that's exactly what edge LED lighting does, in our opinion. It's very hard to get uniform brightness from an edge-lit display, and it's even harder to get precise local dimming for good black-level performance. We're not saying it hasn't been done effectively, but a good implementation usually comes at a high price. Anyone shopping at the lower end of the price spectrum gets a mediocre to poor-quality edge-lit TV with significant light bleed at the corners and cloudy-looking dark scenes because of errant patches of light.
We applaud Vizio for bringing full-array LED backlight systems with local dimming back to the table at more affordable price points. Other manufacturers like Samsung and Panasonic are moving back toward direct-LED-backlit cabinets in lower-priced TVs. They may not be quite as thin and light, but they simply perform better.
OLED Is Alive and Well
Thank you, LG, for not abandoning OLED when everyone else seemed to give up on it...and thank you for recently slashing prices and introducing a new series of flat, non-curved OLED models (my review sample should arrive any day now!). OLED can deliver those uber-thin panels without sacrificing picture quality, and it remains the best hope for the best picture quality since the demise of plasma. At IFA a few months ago, Panasonic got back in the OLED ring with the announcement of a THX-certified 4K OLED TV, so LG is no longer alone in the category. Let's hope others will follow suit.
High-Quality Audio Gear Costs Less Than Ever Before
After last year's CES, Jerry Del Colliano penned the story CES Delivers Higher-Quality Audio at Lower Prices, applauding how much further your dollar takes you now than it did 10 years ago when it comes to assembling a good-performing system. Other team members like Dennis Burger and Brent Butterworth wholeheartedly agree. As Brent describes, "You can easily buy a good receiver like the Onkyo TX-8020 for less than $200, plus terrific speakers like the new Polk T-50 or the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR for well under $300 a pair. Add whatever source--a DVD player (for CDs), a computer, a decent-quality old or new turntable--and you have really, really good sound for less than $800."
It's Easier Than Ever to Discover and Buy New Music
What good is all that great audio gear without great music to play through it? No matter how much you love your Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, or Diana Krall, at some point you really need to broaden your horizons. Anyone who says there are no good new artists out there simply isn't paying attention...or making use of all the great channels (so to speak) that are available to discover new music. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, new music is at your fingertip--whether you embrace Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, YouTube, TIDAL, or one of the myriad other options.
Audiophiles like to bemoan the quality of compressed music, and we're not suggesting that compressed music files be your only music source. But they are a great way to introduce yourself to new content, and the quality of downloads and streams from the major services has gotten better over the years. TIDAL's lossless streaming service and the rise of hi-res download sites like HDTracks are positive indicators for the future.
The popularity of all these streaming/download services proves that kids these days love music just as much as we did. This ties in to the previous trend, but the wisest audio manufacturers have learned how to entice the younger audience with high-quality but cost-effective headphones and wireless tabletop speakers--products that reflect how they discover and listen to music right now while planting the seed to grow a future high-end audio enthusiast.
Those are some of the AV trends we're most thankful for this year. How about you? Let us know in the Comments section below.
• No Love for Next-Gen AV Technologies at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• What 4K Content Can You Enjoy Right Now? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• CEDIA 2015 Show Report and Photo Slideshow at HomeTheaterreview.com.