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Home Entertainment 2003 Hi-Fi and Home Theater Event

Home Entertainment and Hifi Show 2003

Thursday By Chris Boylan

  Sony kicked off the show this year with a press conference at 9:00 AM on opening day that attempted to explain why they were appearing at what has traditionally been a high end audio conference. In a series of presentations that tended toward overly-polished marketing-speak, a string of VPs and directors espoused the virtues of the "digitalization" of the home entertainment industry and how Sony is poised to dominate this new golden age of digital technology. 

Tim Alessi, director of marketing for video products, who actually had one of the more natural presentation styles, talked about the trend in display devices toward fixed pixel, plat panel displays and away from tubes. In my personal opinion, tubes still rule the roost in ultimate picture quality, but recent advances in Liquid Crystal, plasma and DLP technologies, in conjunction with the drawbacks of tubes (weight, size and tweakiness) have made flat panel displays a more palatable alternative. 

Tim Alessi from Sony
Tim Alessi, Director of Video products at Sony
discusses their new line of flat panel displays.

Sony is introducing several new plasma screens, LCD televisions, and LCD rear projectors including new 60" and 70" LCD rear projection models and a cool "floating" transparent framed plasma design (seen earlier this year at CES) as well as a new third generation set-top box for HDTV reception. 

Sony Plasma Television

Sony’s new plasma line features ultra-cool transparent frames.

Sony also announced their new DVD recorder the RGR-GX7 – a recorder that supports both DVD-RW and DVD+RW formats for maximum compatibility.  Unfortunately, this recorder does not include hard drive recording capability, which would have made it an absolute competition-killer. Panasonic and Pioneer are both introducing new DVD recorders this year that include built-in 80 GB hard drive recording, allowing you to record dozens of hours of video onto the hard drive, decide what shows or segments you want to keep, do a little non-linear editing and dump the keepers onto disc.  This, to me, is an excellent approach as it allows you to time-shift a hefty amount of material for short-term storage on disk and save only the best for the removable permanent media. But at least Sony is making an attempt to minimize the format battles by supporting both –RW and +RW variations of recordable DVD.

David Bent, director, home audio products discussed the new Sony ES receiver line, including the top of the line STR-DA9000ES ($4,500 - available in Fall 2003).  The 9000 features two hundred watts per channel, three-zone multi-room operation, "digital drive" amplifiers, 9.1 channel support, DVI-HDTV input and a new touch screen remote which David states is as easy to use as an ATM.  To continue this report in English, please PRESS 1.  Sony also released a new flagship DVD/SACD player (sorry, no DVD-Audio support), the SCD-XA9000ES ($3,000 - available in Fall 2003).  In addition to a host of audio and video upgrades, the new DVD player supports a digital link for SACD (iLink, aka IEEE1394) between itself and the 9000ES receiver.  

Sony STR-DA9000ES receiver and XA-9000ES DVD/SACD player
Sony’s new top-of-the-line receiver and DVD/SACD combo player.

Sony’s Music Division held its own press conference to update the world on the progress of the SACD format.  The March 2003 release of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon provided a welcome boost in SACD sales with a reported 100,000 copies of the hybrid 5.1-channel SACD sold to date. 

Labels that are currently supporting SACD include Telarc, Concord Jazz, Harmonia Mundi, the newly resurrected Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, Groove Note, Chesky, Domo, Rounder, Universal and Sony Music.

Sony stated that 150 new SACD titles are now being released each quarter, and more than 800 titles are currently in the catalog with approximately half of these offered in multi-channel mixes.  Of particular note, Abco is releasing a collection of Sam Cooke titles in hybrid SACD this year and Sony Music itself (Legacy Records division) is releasing 15 Bob Dylan records in the hybrid SACD format (some in stereo, some multi-channel). 

Demoed through Sony’s new flagship ES receiver and DVD player (connected digitally, and driving Wilson Watts/Puppies), the sound quality of the latest SACDs was decidedly mixed.  It is likely that this is a limitation of the original source material.  More recent recordings like "Gotta Serve Somebody" were lush and full-bodied, whereas earlier recordings were not quite as polished.  Steve Berkowitz, Senior Vice President of the Legacy Records division of Sony stated that their goal in releasing these albums in SACD was to remain true to the original mixes, which means the higher resolution SACDs are bound to reveal some of the limitations of the earlier recordings.  Purist Dylan fans will probably embrace this decision. 

Steve Berkowitz, Sony Music Legacy Records
Steve Berkowitz, Senior Vice President, Sony Music’s Legacy Records

The SACD demo also included a new multi-channel SACD release of audiophile favorite Steely Dan Gaucho.  This gem of studio engineering highlighted the capabilities of the SACD format and is sure to become a popular demo disc.  
Polk Audio’s Paul DiComo, their self-proclaimed “Minister of Propaganda” presented new models in their middle-of-the-road RTI line of loudspeakers.  Ranging from $159 to $769 each, the new models feature real wood veneers, higher efficiency (90dB to 91dB) and improved drivers. 

Polk also introduced their new high-end LCI series of in-wall/in-ceiling speakers, which incorporate many components and design elements from their flagship LSI line, plus flexible, adjustable filters that allow the owner or installer to compensate for room placement choices that may impact acoustics. 

Matthew Polk, Polk Audio  
Proud papa Matthew Polk poses with a cross section of his new baby
(no loudspeakers were harmed in the making of this photo).

Monster Cable sponsored the press lunch, and Noel Lee, head monster, revealed his vision for the high end market.  Mr. Lee believes that the key to success in high-end audio is to get in touch with the "mp3 generation" and put passion back into the industry – show the kids how great their MP3s sound through high quality amps and speakers, and they’ll be ready to plunk down their hard-earned cash on the good stuff when they grow up and get jobs. 

In the coming months, Monster intends to diversify their own product line to include high-end amplifiers, speakers, A/V furniture and even a home theater seating option called the “Action Couch.”  Mr. Lee did not reveal whether the couch will come with its own action, or will help the buyer get some action, but all will soon be revealed (details to follow in August, 2003).       

Lee’s rousing speech was followed by one by David Hyman, chief strategist of Gracenote whose CD Database – cddb – is used by virtually every media player on the PC (and in many other applications) to lookup artist, title, track and genre information from CDs.   Hyman’s belief is that the future of the high end audio market may depend on embracing the computer, or more specifically the computer’s hard-drive as a true high-end audio source component. 

With the proliferation of broadband technology and the ever-shrinking price of high capacity hard drives, Hyman rightly stated that there is less and less need to use lossy compression codecs like MP3 to rip and store music.  Currently lossless compression codecs can store songs in half the space they take up on a CD with absolutely no loss in quality.  This means you can store an entire, full-quality, full length CD in 250 to 350 megabytes of space, fitting approximately 250 full quality CDs onto a standard 80 GB hard drive.  Hyman believes the high-end audio market needs to step up to the plate and devise a new invention that will ease in this convergence, and get audiophiles thinking about their computers as viable high end source devices...  an interesting idea to say the least.    

On a more traditional high-end note, McIntosh was on hand to demonstrate their new stereo and multi-channel gear including the new MC501 monoblock power amplifier (500 watts per channel into any load - $8,200/pr.) and their new XRT28 loudspeakers (12,000 Watts of power handling - $18,200/pr. – also available in an in-wall version). 

McIntosh MC501 (MC-501) and XRT28 (xrt-28)
McIntosh’s new monoblock amplifier and tower loudspeaker put
out some smooth, yet butt-kicking sounds with deeeeeep bass!

Providing the video portion of McIntosh's demo system, MAXX donated their Maxx 1400 projector ($11,000) to the system, featuring a whopping 1,400 x 1,050 pixel resolution.  The Maxx 1400 is based on the LCOS chip (Liquid Crystal on Silicon, or as I like to call it "Liquid Crystal on Steroids").  The home theater demo, which featured clips from the latest Bond film Die Another Day as well as a live Roger Waters DVD, was an excellent example of both audio and video done well.   

Sim2/Seleco held a press conference to discuss their plans for future display devices. In an ingenious approach to minimizing the impact of the HDTV connection format war on their customers (DVI, HDCP, M-O-U-S-E), Sim2 has decided to separate the video connections from the display device itself.  According to Sim2’s Michael Verkinder, in their new projector design, the projection unit chassis is connected via a simple fiber-optic connection to an input/output box.  The box is then connected to the source components via iLink, RGB, component, DVI/HDCP, HDMI or whatever new digital format the industry dreams up.  Rather than scrap the entire projector just to enable a new connection format, the new design would only require the upgrade of a relatively inexpensive connection box. The projection engine itself would be kept intact, minimizing upgrade costs and installation hassles.  The fiber-optic connection is purported to support connections as long as 1,600 feet without appreciable loss. 

 Michael Verkinder of Sim2/Seleco USA
A new Sim2 design will feature an outboard input/output box like
this one connected to the display device by a fiber-optic cable.

Michael also talked about other upcoming Sim2 developments such as the implementation of a 3rd generation DLP chip from TI into a future Sim2 product.  Among other improvements in the chip are enhanced light efficiency and contrast ratio.  As the new TI chip itself is not yet in production, it was too early for Sim2 to give any details on its implementation.  But it is clear that Sim2 is striving to remain at the cutting edge of display technology.
Rounding out today’s audio and video adventures was a nice sounding system featuring Cain and Cain speakers (Studio Ben ES - $12,500/pr.) and the Art Audio PX25 monoblock amp ($10,500/pr.) – a very smooth tube/horn combo high-end system with natural ambience and excellent tonality. 

Art Audio single-ended tube amp driving Cain and Cain speakers
Single-end tubes + horn-loaded speakers = audio bliss!


Continue to Chris Boylan's Friday coverage


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