A TALE OF TWO TRADE SHOWS
Just after the turn of the new year come, back to back, theConsumer Electronics Show and then MacWorld. Both tell a tale oframpant infatuation with the Net (duh) and DVD (double duh). Alsoevident was an upswing in consumer interest for quality sound forpicture and audio in general.
To me, CES is all about distribution. Las Vegas, that’s anothermatter. Anyway, it’s distribution of content, audio, video, voice,text and data by shiny, plastic CE gadgets in every conceivableshape and form. The next big distribution channel for all your hardwork is radio. No, not Ye Olde FM approach, though that’s not deadyet. It’s satellite radio, a surprisingly groovy way to receive thesame continuous programming from coast to coast. The catch? It’ssubscription-based. Yup, no free stuff here like the olden days.The content will cost you, and to get these new channels, your carstereo will need to be replaced as well. Kinda like DTV: Newcontent means scrapping the old infrastructure, but new businessmodels await, offering greater revenue than from the moribundmechanism it replaces. Satellite radio focuses on mobileapplications, with roving bands of upper-income consumers willingto pay for narrowcast, commercial-free music and talk.
Speaking of rambling Yupsters, DVD has made its way into thedashboard of your ride. DVD-V that is, as car DVD-A players are fewand far between. “Dear, take your eyes off Charlize Theronand watch the road or I swear I’ll kill ya!” And you thoughtcell phones were bad.
Another mobile audio item of note: The new DSP-based CD70“San Francisco” model CD player/receiver from Blaupunktincorporates a measuring mic for active EQ and selective loudnessonly at frequencies that may be masked by acoustic noise in thevehicle. Maybe the next model will incorporate active acousticnoise cancellation as well.
Examples of both DVD-A and SACD made a strong showing, albeit asmains-powered models. Home DVD-Audio players were shown by Onkyo,Matsushita, Pioneer, Denon, JVC and Rotel. Most includedprogressive-scan component video out, so the picture qualityapproaches that of the audio. Still no “simple” playerson the scene, though, that provide CD’s ease of use. I expectedsimple portables at the show, but I guess I’m the simple one,because the only DVD-A portable I saw had the obligatory LCD screenfor viewing and navigation.
Also concerning navigation, a disturbing trend was the lack (inmany of the players) of a Group button, either on the front panelor remote. The implication here is that some DVD-Audio contentcannot be navigated and accessed without a video display attachedto the player. This only highlights, along with the continuedabsence of simple players, the fact that DVD-A is really ared-haired stepchild of DVD-V, at least in the minds of the CEmanufacturers.
Parasound had one of the most impressive DVD-A dreadnoughts atthe show, a massive pre-production prototype that solves the Groupbutton dilemma in a novel fashion. Thoughtfully appointed andfeature-laden (can you say 1394?), it was my hit pick. Thecompany’s approach to not having a Group button? A small color LCDon the front lets you see the video content on the disc whetheryou’re in view of the video monitor or not. How did it sound? Don’tknow, because very few of the DVD-A offerings were functionaldisplays.
Bright moments came with some manufacturers’ recognition, Onkyobeing an example, that audiophiles might be purchasing their DVD-Aplayer. They provide a button that disables all video circuitry soas not to contaminate the audio with internal spuriousemissions.
I don’t know about anyone else, but my CES cohort, Ed, and Iboth found this year’s audio portion of the show to be generallysuperior to last year’s. Better sound all ’round. Someoutstanding inexpensive speakers were demonstrated, especiallysmall two-ways that would make excellent, budget-priced surroundplayback setups.
Now for the bad news: There were lots of el cheapo, multireadDVD-V players with MP3 decoding built-in. There were also so manyportable MP3 devices that I gave up counting. Look, even MP3 soundsokay if the bit rate is high enough. Also encouraging was theincreasing support for advanced audio codecs. As an example,Ritek’s DataPlay-equipped concept piece claimed to support“AAC, AC3, ACELP, ADPCM, MP3, .WAV, WMA and more.” Whatmore, QDMC? It’s SDMI-compliant and has voice-recordingcapabilities, by the way.
In case you skimmed the last paragraph, I will again mention aproduct that’s been on my radar for a while. The product, andcompany, is DataPlay, and they won TechTV’s Best of CES in theLifestyle category. The company offers an outstanding solution tocheap, convenient delivery of prerecorded content in the form of a500MB, 1.25-inch, read-only optical disc. In addition, consumerscan “bake” up their own discs using write-once versionsof the media. What’s the catch, you ask? The current projectedprice for blank media, a hefty $10 for the double-sided, 500MBvariety and $5 for a 250MB, single-sided version. Appliances shouldbe around the same price as other members of their category, soit’s the media that will make or break this format.
From “near-CD quality,” we now turn to the otherextreme — SACD. Players shown included stand-alone modelsfrom Sony, Pioneer and Philips with their new $1,000 multichannelSACD1000. More two-piece transport/processor combos made a showing,from an update to Sharp’s existing example to Accuphase’s $30kshowpiece. Luxman had a nonoperational SACD/DVD-E (DVD-Everything)player destined initially for the Japanese domestic market. ThePhilips team informed me that their sister company, Marantz, willhave a less-expensive multichannel player later this year. Yes! Andhow did that Super Audio stuff sound? Lovely, as usual. This year,Sony used mid-priced components in its SACD demo suite, so youcan’t cry foul that their rig costs more money than God.
Before I leave the CES cavalcade, I should mention that homenetworking, home servers, home Internet gateways, “Internetradios” and Internet appliances were all represented in amyriad of ways at the show. These market sectors point toward anincreased public awareness and usage of rich media, streamed orotherwise. NAB attendees and other audio practitioners take note.If you don’t have a fast, simple workflow established for AC3, MP3,WMA and QuickTime file production, then you’d better startseriously thinking about it.
I started out mentioning MacWorld, but I’m gonna string youalong until next month. Gotta get you to read this stuff somehow!So, if I survive my current projects, we’ll talk again inMay…
Oliver Masciarotte lives, works and listens to d23radio inThe City by the Bay. Borrowing from Charles Wright’s songbook, whydon’t you “express yourself!” Send comments, criticismsand lush, tropical fruit to firstname.lastname@example.org.