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CES 2005 - It's Just So BIG!
Part 2 - (Audio And Some Video)

 

Getting There Was Half The Battle

One of the great challenges of CES is actually getting there and getting around -- e hour cab lines from the airport, limited shuttle bus service from the hotels to CES and no shuttles whatsoever between the major hotels and the high-end audio exhibits at the Alexis Park. To get to the high-end audio exhibits, you either had to take a shuttle to the main convention center, then hop on a separate shuttle to the Alexis Park, or take your chances in a cab along with everyone else.  But one big improvement over previous years was the new monorail system.  Running just about the full length of the strip, from the MGM Grand to the Sahara, with stops at the Convention Center and Las Vegas Hilton, the monorail definitely proved helpful in getting around Las Vegas.  Now if they'd only increase the frequency of the trains, and extend it to the airport, we'd be talking!  

Riding on the Monorail
The new Las Vegas monorail pulls into Harrah's station near sunrise.

Bright and early Friday morning, the monorail carried me over to the convention center for Logitech's press breakfast, where they previewed many things, including the newest Harmony remote control, the model 880 ($249.99, coming in March, 2005).    

Bryan McLeod from Logitech's Harmony division
Logitech's Bryan McLeod (V.P. of the Harmony Remote division)
strikes a pose with the new model 880.

I'm a big fan of Harmony's well-designed remotes. Though my own review of the Harmony 688 was not without its criticisms, the remote has become an essential part of operating my complex home theater system. The new model addresses several of the shortcomings I had noted in my review. The 880 comes with a larger, full-color LCD screen and gone are the small, hard to read activity buttons of the 688. The higher resolution screen allows you to select from more activities without scrolling, and it allows easier access to advanced functions for each device by providing more readable text for each function. 

New Logitech Harmony 880 remote
Logitech's new Harmony 880 remote features a high
resolution color LCD screen and a charging cradle.


There are fewer hard buttons on the 880, but I'll take customizable, easy to read LCD labels over hard-buttons in a minute.  The 880 also includes rechargeable batteries, a charging cradle and a battery strength meter.  The fact that they were able to pack these features into a remote with the same list price as the 688 ($249.99) is pretty impressive, and I'm hoping to get my hands on one of these puppies soon for a full review. And oh yeah, if you're a current Harmony remote owner, all the programming you've done to date will carry over into the 880 so you hit the ground running. And there was much rejoicing!

 

And Now For Some Tasty High-End Audio

Over in Martin-Logan's suite at the Hilton, they were previewing their new model, the Summit ($10,000 to $15,000, depending on options, available March, 2005), a beautiful mating of an electrostatic panel with a dynamic woofer. Driven by an Ayre multi-disc player and Parasound amplification, the Summits produced exceptionally transparent sounds with seamless integration between the panel and woofer, excellent dynamics and tight, extended bass. In the sweet spot, these loudspeakers imaged like there was no tomorrow, providing an open window into the music. Off-center, the tonal blend was equally balanced, but the soundstage was not as deep -- but that's pretty much the Achilles heel of electrostats. In a controlled listening environment, it's hard to imagine much better sounds than those the Summit produced. 

Martin-Logan's new Summit loudspeaker
Martin-Logan's Summit.

Down the hall, NHT was showing off their stylish tri-amplified Xd system in a 6.2 channel configuration ($15,300 for 6.2 channels, $5,500 for a 2.2 channel system).  While this may seem a little steep for what appears at first to be a sub/sat system, the price includes dedicated amplification for each driver (that's 14 channels of amplification), plus a proprietary DSP crossover/equalization/correction system that precisely matches the amps to the speakers and adjusts for common room set-up issues.  Representing a collaboration between three companies, NHT for the loudspeakers, PowerPhysics for the Class D amplifiers and DEQX for the DSP circuitry, the goal in designing the Xd was simple - perfection through correction.

NHT's XD 6.2 channel active speaker system
NHT's Xd system includes amplification and a proprietary DSP system.

NHT acknowledges that loudspeakers tend to be the weakest link in the audio reproduction chain, but using traditional analog equalization tools and crossovers to correct for driver and placement limitations can introduce phase errors, potentially doing more harm than good.  The Xd adjusts the signal sent to each amplifier to compensate for the specific of each driver and uses brick-wall digital crossovers (300 dB per octave) to send each speaker its ideal signal without introducing phase errors. It can also compensate for common placement challenges such as speakers placed too close to a corner or a wall. The result?  Flat frequency response in real-world conditions.

NHT's XDA amplifier modules - the duck approves
The NHT ducky looks on approvingly at the Xd's Class D amplification modules.
They're small, light, 96% efficient and generate very little heat.


I'd heard the Xd system before, in a press preview in New York last June and there was a lot to like, with precise imaging and a cohesive soundstage.  But in the earlier iteration, there was some congestion in highly dynamic orchestral pieces, such as a Wagner recording I brought along. I'm happy to say that this congestion was nowhere to be found in the latest version of the Xd.  They handled everything I threw at them with aplomb - that same pinpoint imaging that has been NHT's signature sound since the days of the SuperZeros, but with powerful authoritative bass to boot, and a seamless tonally accurate blend across all six channels. 

They really rocked out on my Mobile Fidelity CD of Rush "2112," but the system also captured the subtleties of male vocals in Bonnie Prince Billy's "Master and Everyone" CD.  The only negative in the listening session came when the bass amp module shut down briefly during a demo of "Lord of the Rings - Return of the King."  When the Olyphaunts came stomping in, some really low bass was fed to the woofer's amplification module. And apparently the hotel power supplies were less than clean, with large swings in voltage -- in some cases dipping below 100 volts -- causing the amp's protection circuitry to kick in. According to the NHT folks, this kind of thing should not occur in regular listening, with a cleaner power source. Let's hope not, because the system sounded very promising otherwise.   

Nearby, B&K was on hand to showcase a new multi-room, multi-zone system, the CT-300 ($1998) but I was more interested in their Reference 50, Series 2 tuner/preamplifier/processor ($2398) and Reference 200.7 Series 2 seven-channel amplifier ($2998). The Series 2 preamp/processor improves on the already excellent Reference 50 with the addition of Dolby Pro Logic IIx and upconversion of composite and S-Video sources to component as well as the ability to display on-screen menus via the component output.  This can drastically simplify your audio/video switching by allowing you to switch all video components through the B&K and connect just component video cables from the preamp to your monitor or television. 

B&K's new preamp processor - front
B&K's Reference 50, Series 2 preamp/tuner/processor and 200.7
Series 2 multi-channel amplifier (both are also available in black).


The Reference 50, S2 preamp/tuner/processor features 3 HD-capable component video inputs (100 MHz bandwidth), 7 unbalanced line inputs, 4 balanced inputs, 11 digital audio inputs and even an IEEE1394 input (aka "firewire" or "iLink"), in case you're lucky enough to have a DVD-Audio/SACD player with a digital IEEE1394 output.  Of course, it also has a standard 6 channel analog input for SACD/DVD-Audio, and both balanced and unbalanced line outputs for all 8 channels (7.1 configuration). It also includes an advanced universal remote that is basically a rebadged version of the highly rated Home Theater Master MX-700 (which sells for $349 on its own).   It seems like this unit packs a lot of punch for the price and it's possible we'll be taking a closer look and listen to one in the near future.

B&K's new preamp processor - rear
B&K Reference 50, S2 - rear view - inputs and outputs up the wazoo!

I Want My HDTV

Back down in the Convention Center, VOOM - the premier provider of High Definition content through satellite - was once again touting their upcoming High Def DVR box. Delayed from Winter 2004 to March 2005 introduction, the DSR580 (built by Motorola) will incorporate a 250 GB hard drive, two ATSC tuners for simultaneous record and playback as well as home networking capabilities. It features component, DVI, S-video and composite video outputs, plus digital and analog audio outputs. It supports the current MPEG2 encoding used by Voom, and will support a "field upgrade" to MPEG4, when this becomes available (which will drastically increase storage capacity).  I'm dying to get my hands on one of these and when I do, you'll hear all about it.

Voom's upcoming HD PVR - front
Motorola's DSR-580 HD tuner and DVR for VOOM features two HD tuners.

Voom is also planning a massive service upgrade in March by leasing 16 new transponders on a satellite they call "Rainbow 2." This will nearly double their HD channel line-up from 39 to 71 HD channels, and nearly triple their total channel line-up (HD + SD) from 130 to 355 channels.  But even now, with "only" 39 HD channels, they're still way ahead of other providers of HD content, like DirecTV, Dish Network, and even the local cable networks. 

Voom's upcoming HD PVR - rear
Motorola/Voom's DSR-580 (rear view)

Speaking of HD content, while I was in their exhibition area, I noticed more and more guys stopping and staring at the display screens which were tuned to a live sampling of Voom's HD channels.  It turns out that there was a full-frontal nude scene on the "Monsters HD" channel and the tasty little number looked even tastier in High Def. Luckily (or unluckily?) they didn't have any HDTVs tuned to their Playboy Hot HD channel, although that might have led to a surge in on-site sign-ups.  And if Playboy is not your bag, Voom also offers a gay/lesbian/camp HD movie channel, an international film channel, multiple family-friendly movie channels, HD News, extreme sports and much more.  Plus the Voom dish installation includes setting up a traditional antenna so you can receive any locally broadcast HD channels right over your Voom box.  Name your pleasure - Voom has got it.  If you've recently bought an HDTV and are still trying to find good stuff to watch on it, just get Voom.  No one else comes close in terms of sheer quantity of HD material. (editor's note: shortly after CES, most of Voom's assets were bought by Echostar, which throws Voom's future into question).

Motion Simulation -- The Final Frontier?

OK, so you've got the home theater all set up, with a killer display and surround sound system, but it still feels like something is missing.  Maybe it's time to stimulate some senses other than hearing and vision.  No, I'm not talking about Smell-o-vision or Taste-o-rama, I'm talking about your sense of touch, or more accurately, the sensation of motion.  Ya know those motion simulator rides at the theme parks?  Well now you can have the same technology in your living room or home theater, courtesy of D-Box.  

D-Box motion simulator chair
If the chair's a rockin, make sure the corn is a-poppin.

D-Box has been providing theme parks and high-end video games with motion simulation technology for years and has recently diversified into the home market with their custom installed "Odysee" motion simulator platforms.  Now they've taken that one step further by designing individual home theater seats with their "Quest" motion simulation technology.  Pictured is the D-Box chair ($5295 and up, depending on options).  Coming soon is a D-Box love seat ($10,200 and up, available March, 2005) so you can share the experience with someone you love.   You'll also need a controller which will set you back another $3,000 for a standalone unit, or $799 for a software-based controller (PC not included). 

So how does it work?  Well, D-Box will enhance virtually any game, movie or TV show by interpreting the Dolby Digital soundtrack and adding rudimentary motion simulation, but where it really shines is on DVD titles that are already in its film database.  For these movies (currently over 400), D-Box "motion artists" have gone through the entire film and added screen-specific motion codes.  This means that when a roller coast banks left, the chair banks left.  When a character ducks back to avoid oncoming bullets, the chair tilts back as well.  Until you've experienced it, it's hard to describe, but suffice it to say it brings film enjoyment to a much deeper level, particular fast-moving action films.  When you buy the controller (PC or standalone version), you get 100 titles.  When you purchase a subscription ($299/year), you get the remaining database of codes plus one year's worth of new films.  They are currently adding 10 to 12 new titles per month, so there's no shortage of films from which to choose.  Hey, if you've got the bread, then check it out.  You can't take it with you (unless you get a Quest Motion Simulator Coffin, but where's the fun in that)?
   
D-Box is so effective that Runco also used their motion technology to enhance their own demo room.  Their centerpiece however, was their VX-2 three chip DLP projector ($40,000) with its new optional motorized anamorphic lens, the Autoscope ($13,000), which enhances widescreen content by projecting it anamorphically and using the lens to stretch it back to its proper ratio.  The result was quite impressive with cinemascope material now filling the full height of the screen (a motorized screen mask revealed extra inches of screen on each side to the wider image). 

The Temple of Runco was quite popular this year
The classically inspired temple of Runco was quite popular this year.
So what, now Home Theater is a religion?

Continue to Part 3, featuring Parasound, Atlantic Technology, Canton, Wireworld, Monster Cable and much more. 

Just tuning in?  See what you missed in Part I of this show report.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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