Home Entertainment Expo 2005 - Part I (Cinepro, Samsung, Microsoft, Polk I-Sonic, ZVOX, Outlaw Audio)
By Chris Boylan
Hey, Where'd Everybody Go? (Part I)
When last fall's San Francisco Home Entertainment show was cancelled due to union issues, I guess the writing was on the wall. But when mass market vendors such as Sony, Denon, Panasonic, and Toshiba, and even specialty manufacturers like Faroudja, MartinLogan and Krell are nowhere to be found at what is arguably one of the premier home theater shows, ya gotta wonder what's going on with the industry these days? Are the salad days of home theater already behind us? Or is something else afoot?
Don't get me wrong, there were a ton of excellent home theater and home audio and video vendors showing their wares, but something seemed amiss with the noticeable drop-off in vendor participation.
The show kicked off with a joint press conference between Samsung and Microsoft. I was hoping there was going to be some news in the High Definition home theater front, but it turns out, it was just a game. A video game that is: XBOX or more specifically the next generation of XBOX code-named "Xenon." Samsung and Microsoft teamed up to announce a joint marketing campaign around Microsoft's next generation video game console, which will support High Def gaming. Samsung will provide 25,000 of their 23-inch HD LCD monitors (LNR238W - $1199, available now) to retail locations to be paired with next generation XBOX consoles for in-store demos. With a fast 12 millisecond response time, and support for true HD resolution, this monitor definitely shows the game console in a favorable light.
Samsung's LNR238W 23 inch widescreen monitor will be paired with Microsoft's Next Generation XBOX in stores.
When asked whether Microsoft's next generation XBOX will support HD-DVD or Blu-Ray Disc, the Samsung and Microsoft reps were vaguely format-agnostic but did not get into specifics. They did not want to spoil Microsoft's official announcements at the upcoming E3 show in Los Angeles. But we know that Microsoft already supports HD content on a standard DVD, via the WMV9 codec (e.g., "T2 Ultimate Edition"), so why not put HD games onto regular DVD using the same method? The Microsoft reps did say that the game system would be "extensible" which means it will be capable of supporting new formats in the future.
Microsoft and Samsung are also jointly sponsoring a continuation of Samsung's existing PR campaign to donate money to schools for the express purposes of investing in new technology that can enhance the educational experience. The "Hope For Education" program invites employees, teachers, administrators and students from K-12 education facilities to write short essays on how better technology could help improve the education of children in the future. Samsung has already provided $1,000,000 in technology to needy schools, and now with Microsoft's participation, they are donating a combined $2,000,000 in new technology and software donations to needy schools throughout the country. $200,000 in technology and software will go to one lucky grand prize winning school, plus 100 more grants of $20,000 each. Find out more at www.hopeforeducation.com.
Polk Audio was next up, introducing their I-Sonic clock radio for a mere $599.99 (available September, 2005). Of course, it's more than just a clock radio. It's a dual clock radio! Plus it's got a built in DVD player that plays CDs, DVDs, and MP3s. It's XM Satellite radio-ready (just add a $49 Connect-and-play XM antenna), and it's the first table radio to feature on-board HD radio (FM and AM). The unit features two auxiliary inputs, two speakers (plus built-in subwoofer), and a stereo image enhancement effect that gives you stereo sound from any location in the room. Now I'm not usually a fan of using phase tricks to enhance the stereo sound field, but if anyone can do that properly it's Polk, since they pretty much invented this technique in the 70s and early 80s with their "SRS" and "SDA" series of loudspeakers.
Polk Audio's Paul DiComo expounds on the virtues of the i-Sonic table radio/DVD player.
The I-Sonic's design goals were simplicity and high performance. It is intended to go head-to-head against the various high-priced table radios from Bose and others. But as Paul DiComo from Polk says, "this one actually sounds good." Well, we'll have to take Paul's word on it for now, as the sample they had on hand was for display purposes only. We'll see if the HD Radio option gives it the edge. HD radio seems to have the sound quality advantages and text-display capabilities of satellite radio, but without those pesky monthly fees. HD Radio also works with a standard dipole FM antenna so you don't need any additional equipment. And there are already over 2,500 stations broadcasting in HD radio, covering 85% of the U.S. population with more to come.
Polk hopes that this unit will appeal to mother-in-laws, tech-savvy early adopters and yes, even audiophiles. For many folks, it will be a their primary system. But even audiophiles would benefit from an I-Sonic in the office or as a secondary system, say the bedroom. Small footprint, flexible placement, high-quality stereo sound from across the room - what's not to like?
Polk hopes to challenge Bose with the i-Sonic lifestyle system.
Continuing on the theme of simplicity, ZVOX Audio was on-hand showing new items that they hope will follow on the success of their popular model 315 powered one-piece three-channel speaker system. Built to fit under a TV and to replace the TV's built-in speakers, or to be used with an iPod or other portable device, the original model 315 garnered many positive reviews and mentions in the home theater and mainstream press. ZVOX is extending their model line with two new products, the model 315x ($249.99, Summer 2005) which adds a remote control to the model 315 as well as other enhancements, and the model "ZVOX Mini" ($199.99, Summer 2005).
ZVOX Chief Designer Winslow Burhoe (left) and president Tom Hannaher (right) were on hand to launch two new one-box audio systems for TVs and portable audio systems.
The ZVOX Mini is significantly smaller than the 315, but it maintains a good deal of the sound quality of its bigger brother. It can also go on the road by virtue of the optional battery pack ($49.99) and carrying case ($49.99). With the case and battery, the combo sells for just under $300 and goes by the comical and memorable name, the "Porta-Party." And the guys who make it are from Boston, so it's even funnier when they say it. Mobile audiophiles and home theater nuts of the world can now take their sound on the road, no longer shackled to headphones or limited by tinny-sounding laptop speakers.
Like the original model 315, the ZVOX mini and 315X include "PhaseCue" technology, which enhances the stereo separation and even gives you a diffuse kind of surround experience when playing back Dolby-encoded material. For a demo, they compared the sound of a DVD playing through typical built-in TV speakers vs. through the ZVOX and the difference was not subtle - The ZVOX blew TV speakers out of the water. If you've got any TVs outside the main listening room, and you don't want to be bothered with the expense and complexity of a receiver and speakers, or if you want to share your killer iPod play lists with others then there should be a ZVOX in your immediate future.
ZVOX mini in travel case (left) and ZVOX 315X
After the ZVOX demo, which sounded great but was, after all, a small inexpensive system, limited in performance by both size and budget, I had a hankering for something on the other end of the spectrum. So I stopped by the Cinepro dba MiCon Audio room for some gut-wrenching, heart-thumping pure high sound pressure goodness. Their room at the 2004 show was too small for the power and dynamics of their system, but this year, the much larger room (25 feet by 41 feet) was just right. Their 7.2 channel system, driven by over 5,000 watts of ultra-clean power, had no trouble reaching cinema reference levels. In fact, at the end of the day, when most visitors and vendors had fled, we were rocking out at rock concert reference levels (100+ dB) with nary a hint of strain or break-up.
Partners Constantine "Gus" Cossifos and Michael Panicci's entrepreneurial spirit and love of music and movies led them to carry on the defunct Cinepro brand with a revitalized line of high-end electronics and loudspeakers.
The all-Cinepro/MiCon Audio system (it's one company, with two names… don't ask) was even tough enough to withstand a power snafu whereby the 120 volt feed to the room was replaced with a 190+ volt feed (can you say "major hotel screw-up?" Sure you can!). Was it a mistake or was it sabotage from a competitor with SPL-envy? That remains to be seen, but whatever it was, the components survived to rock out another day. The system performed equally well with movies, DVD-Audio and DTS-encoded music with excellent dynamics and full extension on both the higher and lower ends of the audio spectrum.
The system was comprised of their DTP-8 tuner/preamp/processor ($6,500), 4K6 Mk. IV SE Gold power amplifier ($10,295), 3K6 Mk IV power amplifier ($6,795), RPC-30240 power conditioner ($4,995) and Evo 2 7.2 channel speaker system ($43,000). At a little over $72,000, this is not an inexpensive system, but I have heard systems that cost three times as much that could not keep up with this one in dynamics and grace. It didn't just play loud; it played clean, so it didn't sound loud. On complex surround mixes like the Blue Man Group DTS cut on the DTS Surround.9 demo disc, the panning and spatial presentation were pinpoint in their precision. And when the bass kicked in, you could feel it deep inside, in that special place that most home theater systems never fully reach.
Proud papa Michael Panicci poses with his babies. Notice how, like all men, he clings to his remote control for dear life.
If you've got the wherewithal for a system of this caliber (and expense) then you owe it to yourself to check it out. Oh, and keep in mind that you'll need 220 volts to drive the amplifiers. Well, technically, you'll need two out-of-phase 110 volt circuits, which the RPC-30240 will happily combine for you in order to make 220 volts. This is a fairly simple task for a custom installer or electrician to set up for you. The extra power goes a long way in providing the headroom necessary for a truly dynamic home cinema experience.
Teaming up with MiCon/Cinepro for the video side of the system was the crew from Silicon Optix who were showing off their new Realta video processing chip. It performs a whopping 1 trillion operations per second, and processes any input signal from 480i or 480p up to 1080i and puts out 1080i, 1080p or 720p (as well as other custom resolutions) to the output device. It actually supports up to "2K" resolution output, which is better than High Def, but good luck finding a display device that supports that today. Why do you need this? Well if you like to watch DVDs, or regular TV, or even watch HDTV via satellite, cable, antenna or DVHS, you need a device that can match or "scale" all of these different resolution formats to match the input of your HDTV display device. All HDTVs have some type of built in scaler and deinterlacer, but the quality varies considerably from device to device. Silicon Optix would like to get their processing/deinterlacing chip into as many HDTVs, processors, and DVD players as possible. And from what I saw, this would be a good thing. Silicon Optix performed a truly impressive demo pitting deinterlaced up-converted 480i (DVD) signals against true HD signals (1080i) of the same content. In 4 trials, I got 3 out of 4 right but it was very close and it shouldn't have been! This is a testament to how good they make standard 480p DVDs look.
They also went head to head against a Faroudja processor, showing what a 1080i signal de-interlaced to 1080p looks like on each processor. The difference was clear (no pun intended). The Silicon Optix-processed signal looked much sharper and more realistic than the Faroudja-processed one. Currently Algolith and Denon are using the Realta chip in their devices (Algolith in an outboard scaler, Denon in their top of the line DVD-5910 DVD player). Runco will also be coming on-board soon, and if any more manufacturers see the demos I saw, then I'll expect vendors will be lining up to license this technology from Silicon Optix. This was easily the most impressive video technology at the show.
TAO's XM2go player (pictured - $349.99) and a similar new model from Pioneer (also $349.99) allow you to take your XM satellite radio with you, wherever you go, and even "time-shift" up to 5 hours of XM radio content for playback when you're unable to receive a signal.
At lunch on opening day, sponsor XM Radio gave us an update on their progress toward world radio domination. Currently XM has over 4,000,000 subscribers and 150+ channels of music, talk radio and news. Their target is to reach 20,000,000 subscribers by the end of the decade. The big announcements in XM satellite radio include two new manufacturers of "XM2Go" units (TAO and Pioneer), who are each introducing fully portable XM Radio units similar to the popular Delphi "MyFi" introduced late last year, plus XM announced a new technology called "Connect and Play." Connect-and-Play allows home audio manufacturers to include a low-cost chip in their tuners and receivers to enable XM radio. Then all the consumer needs to do is add a new XM Connect-and-Play antenna ($49.99, available now), sign-up for the service and they're off and running. This makes it easier than ever to bring XM Radio home.
Acoustic Research (AR) was on-hand showing their new Media Bridge HDTV-capable media "receiver" ($349.99, available June, 2005). Not a receiver in the traditional sense of the word, the MediaBridge receives photos, music and video content from a PC either wirelessly or via a standard Ethernet cable and displays that content on your TV. The device supports HDTV content with a 720p output. It also supports all of the most widely used codecs for HD and SD video content including DIVX, XVID, AAC, MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG3, WMV9 and DRM10. If you've been legally downloading HD movies via the new CinemaNow service, then you'll be happy to hear it supports these too. The MediaBridge includes built-in 802.11g wireless support, as well as an ethernet port, composite video, S-video, component video outputs, and both fiberoptic and coaxial digital audio outputs and analog stereo outputs for integration into any home theater system.
AR's Media Bridge (small silver box in picture) displays content from your PC directly on your TV.
Over in the ever-popular Outlaw Audio suite, I was finally able to get an up close and personal look at the new Model 990 preamp/tuner/processor ($1099, shipping in May, 2005). This bad boy is feature-packed, with all the usual surround formats, including Dolby ProLogic IIx and Dolby Headphone, DVI video switching (2 in, 1 out), HD component video switching (3 in, 1 out), upconversion of composite and S-video to component, quadruple crossover support (for finer bass management in a 7.1 channel system), lip synch adjustment, auto-calibration and 24 Bit/192 KHz DACs.
Outlaw's new Model 990 ($1099) will be shipping in May, 2005.
It even includes a built-in phono stage for you vinyl-lovers. And for the computer-savvy, the unit's firmware and processing are user-upgradeable via USB and RS-232 inputs. The USB input also accepts a PCM digital audio stream so you can use your computer as yet another audio source. Outlaw's earlier model 950 preamp/tuner was a budget favorite of mine (it's still in my system) and the new model 990 looks like it could set a new benchmark in affordable reference-quality home theater gear. The Outlaws were also showing their new LFM-2 down-firing 8 inch subwoofer ($299.99, available early Summer, 2005), which looks like a miniature version of the LFM-1, plus they showed a pre-production sample of a brand new 7 channel power amplifier that I'm not supposed to talk about yet. Oops.
The Model 990 features just about every conceivable input and output except HDMI
As I was walking down the hall, I heard some sweet sounds emanating from the Bosendorfer room. I could have sworn that there was a real piano being played in that room. And I know that sounds trite, but alas, I was mistaken -- there were actually two live pianos being played in the room (both Bosendorfers, of course).
Bosendorfer reminded us why were there... to Enjoy The Music!
After the performance, we were invited to the back room to listen to piano recordings through Bosendorfer loudspeakers. Now that's a bold move, but the system actually did do an excellent job of reproducing the recordings.
Bosendorfer loudspeakers driven by the magnificent Art Audio Adagio tube amps.
Continue to Part II
aaaaaahhhhh... the warm inviting glow of tubes
, including Kaleidescape, Joseph Audio, Manley Labs, BodySound, Music Hall, and much more.
Manufacturers/products included in Part I of this report: Samsung, Microsoft, Polk Audio's I-sonic, ZVOX Audio mini, porta-party and 315x, Cinepro, Micon Audio and Silicon Optix Realta, Bosendorfer, Outlaw Audio, XM Satellite Radio.