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Widgets, Widgets Everywhere

Professional audio products are finding their way into consumer applications — and vice versa

I’m coming to you live from beautiful Lost Wages, that city ofsilliness in the great, pointy state of Nevada. Nothing typifies excesslike the faux grandeur of the midline hotels here, unless, of course,you’re into gadgets, and what engineer isn’t? No, I’m not going to tellyou about the NAB show. That’s for the high end, and you can find thatreport on page 62. I’m going back in time to the annual Winter ConsumerElectronics Show, the place to go for binging on electronicgewgaws. This month, we’ll take a look at fun gear that sounds good andmay just impact your thang in days to come.

Let’s start with USB Flash drives, which have matured considerablysince our last visit to USB Land. Features have proliferated, withcapacities up to 1 GB, biometric security, waterproof packaging,Bluetooth and USB2 connectivity, and multimedia capabilities such asonboard still/video cameras and MP3 players. But will they do thedishes? Home networking is also maturing, with vendors offering allsorts of solutions to the nightmare of wiring the crib. These productswill, in turn, drive the demand for home consumption of rich media, agood trend for us audio folks.

Lots of spendy DVD-Audio, SACD and universal players were out on thefloor from Kenwood, Meridian, MSB Technology and TEAC, while Denonshowed its universal player tentatively priced at $999. But, it wasPioneer that finally delivered the olive branch to both sides in theWar of the Formats with its DV-563A. This player, with a MSRP of $270,handles MP3 and WMA files on CD-ROM and CD-RW, along with DVD-V, DVD-Aand multichannel SACD. It even includes a JPEG playback function forthose slide shows of the wee ones. Now that’s value!

One of the standout trends at this year’s show was the wide range ofquality choices in the Home-Theater-in-a-Box category. DVD chieftainToshiba even announced its first HTIB, the SD-43HT, a $300 package witha 50-watts-per-channel receiver/DVD player combo, a wide range of I/Oand DTS decoding. Another example is Mission’s fs1 system. This 5.1loudspeaker product combines high-fidelity reproduction with moderngood looks and an incredibly small footprint. At a suggested retailprice of $1,000, this is a good example of the many manufacturersproviding multichannel speaker packages in the $600 to $1,500 range,well under the pain threshold for many households. This means that,with the introduction of very inexpensive DVD and SACD players, manymore families will be settling in for some surround audio thrills inthe near future.

Tannoy showed a more innovative HTIB design, its FX5.1 model. Thetwo-way satellites provide extended high-frequency response viatitanium tweeters. The shielded sats have provisions for wall mountingand are spec’d as -3 dB at 71 kHz. Way out there, baby! Another Britstalwart, KEF, also preached the wideband gospel. Its new XQ Series ofdown-market loudspeakers have additional hyper-tweeters for extendedultrasonic response. While most engineers pooh-pooh the concept ofplayback above 20 kHz, I have not done any tests with ultrawidebandspeakers. I’ll just say that some folks I know like having thatextended upper-frequency response. A more concrete advantage,applicable to most complex systems, is that extending the bandwidthprovides better linearity and less phase shift within the passband.

At the fidelity scale’s other end, Ellula showed its latestinflatable loudspeaker, the HotAir. Yup, I said inflatable, as in wayportable. This $99, battery-powered, active 2.1 system shares somethingwith Mission’s fs1: They’re both based on NXT’s flat-panel transducertechnology.

In other consumer-electronic news, JVC has something wonderful forall you vidiots out there. The company’s new GR-HD1 is the firsthigh-definition consumer camcorder. “By utilizing a newlydeveloped ⅓-inch-type 1.18 million pixel progressive scan CCD andJVC proprietary processing, the new camera records and plays back750/30p (1280ࡍ720/30p viewable) digital high-definition and 525pprogressive wide images to mini DV tape.” What this press releasemeans to me is that for video-graphers, the quality of a work is nolonger tied to the cost of production, just like we’ve seen inaudio.

As in years past, Sharp showed the latest generation of its DX-SX1high-end SACD transport and SM-SX1 amplifier ($3,000 and $4,500,respectively) with a proprietary DSD link. This year at least, they gotthe styling right. More important is the company’s trend ofmanufacturing a line of inexpensive hi-fi packages and components using“64-fs 1-bit switching” technology. Sound familiar? Itshould, because this is DSD data. Sharp is doing for hardware whatABKCO is doing for reissues: sneaking quality in under the radar, whilenot scaring consumers with more jargon and obfuscation. I hope we’llsee some end-to-end DSD hardware at commodity prices from these folksin the near future.

Score one for Windows XP; ignore the hype over Tablet PCs. Instead,check out one of the most compelling new features: support for“Smart Displays.” I spent some time with the ViewSonicfolks while beating on one of their air panel V150 wirelessdisplays. Imagine not having some honking big CRT, which creates abogus acoustic shadow, or a traditional LCD at the mix position, withits accompanying acoustic reflections. Instead, your display hangs outaway from the sweet spot, and you can pick it off its charging cradle,hold it or lay it down, and interact with your CPU as if the darn thingwas hard-wired. Wi-Fi-connected Smart Displays support stylus input,great for non-Roman alphabets like Farsi or Korean, but a major PITAfor the rest of us. The ViewSonic critter also has USB ports if you’drather go with an ordinary hard keyboard instead of a virtual“soft keyboard.”

Speaking of which, another useful but overpriced Windows technologyis a new keyboard with electroluminescent backlighting. Auravision’s$100 EluminX full-size keyboard lets you type even by a Lava Lamp’sfeeble illumination.

For those of you who spend a generous portion of your waking hoursin a vehicle, you may have noticed how car interiors force you into acompromised listening position: too left or too right. The folks atAlpine noticed and took matters, or possibly power tools, into theirown hands. They started with a Honda Civic Si, gutted the interior andmoved the steering column to the center of the vehicle, creating asingle-seat, center-drive car! They then stuffed it to the gills withthe latest mobile audio and video madness. In addition, “eachdoor panel…holds three nitrous-oxide bottles, which are artfullyincorporated into the design scheme.” Humm, is that for theengine or the driver?

With a Lava Lamp and a can of nitrous, I think I could be happymixing the next *NSync record. Okay, maybe not. Anyway, I hope youenjoyed this month’s peek into the world of consumer gear, the productsthat ultimately drive our pro audio industry. Until next time, keep ontweakin’!

This column was written while under the influence of DJ JonahJone, whose first birthday arrived while I finished writing up thismadness. Drop bywww.seneschal.netfor more new, wild techystuff.

Bonus pics! Get up close and personal with these slickgadgets…

Pioneer’s DV-563A handles every format from MP3 to WMA to JPEG.

A keyboard that doubles as mood lighting: the Auravision Eluminux.

The Mission fs1 delivers surround fidelity with style.