February 1, 2008Things Just Keep Getting Better: Sights and Sounds at CES 2008
Everyone talks about how grueling the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is, and it is tough on the concentration, the ears, and especially the feet. Its also like being a forty-niner panning for gold -- you have to sift through a lot of mud to find the occasional paydirt. But then something magic happens that makes it all worthwhile. In four days, I found nine products that I just couldnt wait to tell you about.
Ill start with automation. I know that many of you are wary of letting something take control of your system, and I understand why: You know what youre doing. In fact, most of you reading this are probably knowledgeable enough to be the person whom friends and family call to help them figure out why their DVR isnt working, and why that picture looks so odd on their new flat-panel display. I know -- it happens to me weekly. But wouldnt it be nice if none of us had to worry about getting everything right?
Well, prepare for a near future in which the content providers -- by which I mean the artists, not the bean counters -- embed a signal in their music or movies or whatever thats sent throughout your entire home theater to adjust the aspect ratio, contrast, color, sound level, and balance -- all automatically. It will work with silver discs, games, broadcast television, cable, satellite -- everything. And it will be invisible to your needy buddies. Just turn the system on and everything works. They even claim to have figured out a way to get many of these benefits with older equipment. That would be a neat trick.
Those of us who think we can do a better job can override any of the parameters we want to. But you might not want to. After all, the brand handling the implementation is a trustworthy name: THX. The product, THX Media Director, will start showing up in April in some very luxurious electronics brands (no doubt to lend the product some panache). Anchor Bay, maker of the DVDO iScan, will implement THX MD in their VP50PRO video processor ($3500), and Lyngdorf in their D-1 preamp-processor ($17,000).
Speaking of Lyngdorf, the other welcome trend in A/V automation is the blitz of room-correction processors now hitting the market. This technology itself is not new; whats new is that now it works. The new versions take into account multiple measurements from multiple different listening positions to improve the sound for a greater number of listener-viewers. At the low end of the market is Audysseys MultEQ, now included in Marantz and Denon receivers, all the way up to a fully loaded Lyngdorf at $17,000.
At CES, I visited every manufacturer that claims to be able to tame room distortions, and four stood out. However, among all makers I found a stunning degree of misunderstanding of their competitors capabilities, which resulted in a lot of double-talk. Unless you do as I did and buy one of the less expensive processors (NAD, Integra) that includes Audyssey MultEQ Pro, youll be spending some serious money; its vital to be able to sift the hype from the actual performance.
Under show conditions, I couldnt evaluate the subtleties of the various systems, especially as all of them were using different speakers. But given the reputations of the companies and the price range ($7500 to over $20,000), I think theres a good chance the electronics will be pretty pure.
The main differences I found had to do with the flexibility of the final room curves, which ranged from Anthems decision to adhere to the results of research conducted at Canadas National Research Council (NRC) on what constitutes perfect sound, all the way to the TacT systems dizzying ability to mold the sound any way you want.
Anthems D2 processor ($7500) is one of the best-sounding audio products around, and the addition of room correction steps its quality up a notch. Turns out theyve been planning to implement it since the days of the D1 -- they were just waiting to perfect their program. The good news is that anyone who owns a D1 or D2 can add the room correction for just $399.
Lyngdorf scores points by giving the user a percentage likelihood of their processors having a perfect understanding of the users room. The first measurement is of the sweet spot; from there, you measure other random locations. It takes about six measurements to hit 90%; the more measurements you make, the closer you get to 100%. Peter Lyngdorf founded TacT, so he has as much experience at room correction as anyone.
TacTs own Theater Correction System ($15,000) is for folks who want total control over the final sound of their rooms, be it flat, with the ubiquitous midbass hump, a midrange scoop and high-end rolloff, or anything in between. The problem with so much flexibility is that youll end up spending all your time searching for perfection rather than enjoying what youve got. Still, its the best choice for control freaks.
DEQX was showing at T.H.E. Show, which each year runs concurrently with CES in Las Vegas. DEQX has been making strides over the years, and should finally have a home-theater system out by mid-2008. Currently, for a 7.1-channel system, you have to daisy-chain four DEQX PDC-2.6 processors, which costs $12,000. The new processor, as yet unnamed, will come in a single chassis along with, I hope, substantial savings.
The next big showstopper was at the Texas Instruments exhibit. While the Japanese and Korean companies were trying to outdo each other in the size of their flat-panel plasma displays (do people forget that, with a projector, a 150" image is possible for far less money than with a plasma or LCD screen?), TI brought in what may be the biggest change in their DLP chip since its introduction. The Dark Chip 4 is 30% darker than its predecessor, the Dark Chip 3, with a native contrast ratio of about 10,000:1. Thats not all that exciting in the contrast wars, but heres the difference: When the DC4 is driven by LEDs, the contrast ratio becomes infinite. The reason is that LEDs can react faster than the programs frame rate, and can be dimmed based on what the buffers are seeing. If the buffer sees a really dark signal, the LED can be dimmed all the way to total black. No chipset driven by a light bulb -- D-ILA, LCD, or DLP -- can ever attain true black. I saw a side-by-side demonstration of a bulb-driven DC3 and an LED-driven DC4 displaying the same image. The differences were vivid.
The other exciting news was about speakers. I heard so many wonderful speakers at CES 2008 that I cant cover even a fourth of them here. From the astonishing little Usher Be-718 to the huge KEF Muon, I kept running into fabulous sound. But three speakers really got my attention. Here they are, in descending order of cost:
Finnish company Gradient has been around since the mid-1980s, always making unique speakers that sound very musical. But none of those earlier models prepared me for their new Helsinki Series 1.5 ($7000/pair). I saw the Helsinki 1.5 before I heard it, and my first reaction was that it couldnt possibly work. The bass is produced not by an infinite baffle or ported design, but two woofers whose fronts and backs are open to the room. Yet when Gradient CEO Topi Lintukangas cranked up some acoustic jazz, I heard some of the most convincing bass Ive ever heard. And despite the fact that both the mid and HF drivers are aimed away from the listening area, the sound was smooth and extended, and the speakers completely "disappeared." Youll either love or hate their looks, but I couldnt argue with their spectacular sound.
There must be something in the Scandinavian waters. The next eye-opener came from just 400 kilometers across the Baltic Sea, in Stockholm, where Ingvar Öhman has seemingly conquered the laws of physics with his Guru QM10 loudspeaker ($2595/pair). The Guru QM10 is quite small (12"H x 9"W x 9D"), but when I entered the room, a pair of them were playing loud symphonic music full range, with honest bass down in the bass-drum range. When I finally took my turn in the sweet spot, I was shocked at the flawless soundstage, something you shouldnt be able to get with a wide baffle. On top of that, they were just inches from the front wall, which should also create havoc with the soundstaging. Instead, they pumped out gorgeous, transparent sound. Talking with importer Lars Erickson, I learned that the Guru tests poorly in anechoic chambers because it uses room boundaries for reinforcement and to smooth the frequency response. But its a brilliant design, and its small size and the fact that it works best close to a wall will make it an easy sell to your own personal Design Police.
The most jaw-dropping demo I heard was at T.H.E. Show, from the always surprising Dr. Poh Ser Hsu, owner of and chief designer for Hsu Research. His PhD is from MIT; it takes someone really smart to be able to figure out how to sell $10,000 worth of sound for under $2000. Thats what I heard from Dr. Hsus new HB-2 speaker ($200 each!) and a subwoofer as yet unnamed. When Dr. Hsu played acoustic music, the sound was pristine, with spot-on imaging and crisp realism. When he switched to the crash scene in Flight of the Phoenix, I was worried the hotel would fall down around us, yet never heard any strain from the speakers. Its diminutive size (15"H x 8"W x 8"D) makes the HB-2 nicely unobtrusive; for an upcharge, it will be available in several beautiful wood finishes.
While I was in Vegas having fun, our owners and editors were working their butts off each night, making sure they got coverage of CES and T.H.E. Show online in a timely fashion -- something they do for all the main A/V shows of North America and Europe. If you havent seen any of those reports, take a look at www.soundstage2.com/lasvegas2008. Its the most complete coverage youll find anywhere.