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Home Entertainment 2004
Hi-Fi and Home Theater Event

Back In The New York Groove
Part I
By Chris Boylan
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

  Well, folks, the Primedia/Stereophile/HiFi/Home Theater show was back to my home territory this year -- New York City that is -- and there was much rejoicing.  Actually things are looking so rosy with the economy and the electronics industry that they're hosting two shows this year -- an East Coast show in the spring and a West Coast show in San Francisco in the fall.  It seemed to me that there were a few less exhibitors this year (not every manufacturer or label can afford to display their wares at two shows), but there was certainly no shortage of attendees.

Sony kicked off the festivities again this year with a press conference on opening day. Last year, it was all about "digitalization."  This year apparently we're all going wireless.  Sony's vision for the electronic future is a central repository for your media storage (movies, music, photos, etc.), and wireless devices that can access that repository from anywhere in the world where there's a wireless internet or WiFi connection.  Sony exhibited their wares in many suites at the show this year, one of which showed multiple examples of these wireless devices, also known as "Location Free TVs" playing back a variety of DVDs, TV shows, photos and MP3 audio files, all with no wires.  Quality was actually pretty good considering the lack of wires. 

Sony wireless TV
Sony displayed a variety of "location free TVs" in mock living rooms and
bedrooms. Should we read into the strategic placement of the tissue box that
these devices are perfect for porn? Or tear-jerker chick flicks? You decide.


PlusR, DashR, PlusRW - Can't We All Just Get Along?

Sony had quite a bit more than just wireless TV going on at the show, including a second generation DVD recorder that supports all of the plus and dash formats (DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+RW) and includes a 160 GB hard drive. Woo hoo!  Finally Sony gets it!  If the popularity of the Panasonic and Pioneer HDD/DVD recorders is anything to judge by, then this new DVD recorder should be a hot seller. 

Sony DVD recorder with 160 GB HDD
Sony's RGR-HX900 supports every recordable DVD format but DVD-RAM and
includes a 160 GB hard drive.  Available this fall for $999-$1200 (price not final).

Also appearing later this fall is Sony's first High Definition PVR, which will support HD recording from broadcast and cable with its on-board cable card slot.  In July of 2004, federal mandates in the US will require all digital cable providers to supply a cable card to any customer who requests one.  This card enables the consumer to buy his own cable box (like, for example, this one) instead of being locked into whatever device the cable company foists upon him. With its internal 250 Gigabyte drive, the DHG-HDD200 ($799 MSRP) will record up to 25 hours of HD content, or 250 hours of SD. I want one!

Sony HD PVR for cable and broadcast HD
Sony's HDG-HDD200 will offer up to 25 hours of
HD recording from cable or OTA for just $799.

But perhaps the coolest media device shown by Sony was their production Blu-Ray disc recorder.  They can't call it "High Def DVD" (because the format is not endorsed by the DVD forum), but that's pretty much exactly what it is -- one of two competing formats for recording and playing back high definition video material on a disc the size of a DVD.  They used their BDZ-S77 Blu-ray recorder/player (only available in Japan currently) in their home theater demo to show HD trailers from "Spider-Man 2" and "50 First Dates."  Projected through Sony's Qualia 004 SXRD projector ($30,000), this system produced some of the most vivid and film-like video images at the show.  Unfortunately this means there's another format war in store, and Blu-ray recorders and players are not expected in the U.S. until late 2005, but my friends, I have now seen our HD future... and it was good.

Sony's BDZ-S77 Blu-Ray High Def recorder
Sony's Blu-Ray HD recorders are scheduled for arrival on these shores in late 2005.

On the audio side, Sony was demonstrating SACD through their 9000ES receiver configured in 9.1 channel mode, driving a Wilson Watt/Puppy 7 speaker system.  Last year, I was under-impressed by this particular combo, but they must have taken some extra care in set-up, because the sound was actually quite nice this time around both on the HD trailers and on the multi-channel SACDs.  SACD demo tracks included a new Diana Krall cut, Steely Dan's "Babylon Sister" and a thunderstorm effect track from Dr. Chesky’s Magnificent, Fabulous, Absurd & Insane Musical 5.1 Surround Show SACD.  After a deluge of rain and crackling thunder from Chesky's "The Storm," the audience felt like towelling off -- it was that realistic.

 

Remotes, Remotes Everywhere...
And Narry A Place To Put Them

If you're a gear-obsessed audio/video geek like me, your remote collection is probably growing faster than your 401K retirement fund.  I have 15 different remotes for my current system, all of which are necessary for one function or another, on one device or another.  I tried programming the functions of my Outlaw preamp remote into my Marantz RC-2000 universal remote, but it just wouldn't take so I've been pondering a replacement.  That replacement may just be the brand new Harmony H688 ($249 -- now shipping).  The remote supports up to 15 devices (coincidence?  I think not!) and is all programmed by pointing and clicking on the Internet. 

Harmony's H688 remote - supermodel not included
Harmony's H688 remote is so simple even your wife can use it.
By the way, dude... your wife is hot!

Once you get your Harmony remote home, you simply visit their web site, select the devices you own (their database currently includes codes for over 80,000 models), click a button to download the remote codes to your PC or Mac, then transfer the codes to your remote via the supplied USB cable.  No more pointing one remote at the ass-end of another remote to painstakingly learn one function at a time.  And no learning some less-than-intuitive programming language just to program in your devices.   Harmony even codes macros for you (they call them "activities") like "watch TV" or "watch a DVD" or "listen to radio" by guiding you through the steps it takes to perform this function.  Press a button labeled "watch a DVD" and the Harmony remote can turn on your TV and select its Video 2 input, power up your AV receiver and switch it to "DVD" and press play on the DVD player. Voila!  The H688 differs from its predecessors in that it has more tactile, responsive buttons (they feel kinda like cell phone buttons), full back-lighting and a layout that specifically lends itself well to Tivo and PVR devices.  Stay tuned - full review coming soon.

 

Big Flat Mama

In the "bigger is better" department, Samsung was showing off their new 46 inch LCD flat panel TV - the LT-P468W, with a whopping 1920x1080 resolution and 800:1 contrast ratio.  This is one of the few HDTV-capable monitors that supports the full resolution of HDTV (1080p).  In showroom conditions, it was hard to get an accurate reading on the picture quality - it definitely had plenty of detail, but there were a few digital nasties present as well (a light gray haze in dark areas and slight motion artifacts).  Actually, I'm no huge fan of plasma, but the 50" plasma next to it (also a Samsung, of course) had a more natural picture to my eyes.  This should be taken with a grain of salt of course, because trade shows are not the ideal conditions for evaluating high end audio or video gear.  A well calibrated set in a normally lit room would probably look much better.

Samsung LT-P468W 46 inch LCD TV
Samsung's LT-P468W 46" Widescreen LCD flat panel HDTV   

Next door, in the VOOM ROOM, Samsung flat-screen HDTV panels were ubiquitous - used by Voom to good effect to show off many of their 35 HD channels (21 of which are exclusive to Voom), all of which are available via Voom's satellite service.  Voom positions themselves as the most comprehensive provider of HD programming (three times as many HD channels as the competition, so they say), but they also include a good selection of SD programming as well as support for local HD channels via a roof antenna (which they provide, by the way, and install for you if necessary). Voom plans to introduce their HD recorder (PVR) in the fall, with a 160 GB internal hard drive.  This may seem small for a High Def recorder, but Voom plans to migrate from Mpeg2 to Mpeg4 compression before then, so they'll be able to squeeze much higher quality into the same bandwidth and disc space.  But with the upgrade to Mpeg4, current customers will not be left out in the cold.  All current Voom receivers come with a built-in expansion port which enables them to be updated from Mpeg2 to Mpeg4 when the time is right (expansion port is visible on the right side of the Voom receiver pictured below).

Voom HD box
Voom is planning an upgrade from MPEG2 to MPEG4 encoding
before releasing their HD PVR this fall.

Monstrously Clean Power... And More!

Monster, the company that pretty much put high-end tweaky cables on the map in the 1980s, has recently diversified into power products, such as high-end power stabilization and power cleaning (and even alkaline and rechargeable batteries).  This year, Monster is even further into the realm of high end home theater and audio reproduction with the introduction of a line of power amplifiers, attractive high-end loudspeakers and even stylish audio/video furniture.  In an attempt to hook today's MP3-enthralled consumer on the benefits of high end sound reproduction, the head Monster himself, Noel Lee demonstrated his ultra-high-end components with an iPod MP3 player as the source... and it actually didn't sound half bad!  Well, it shouldn't, with several tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear and speakers to play it through.

Clean power courtesy of the Monster
Get your clean power here, folks, from MonsterPower.

Monster's new "M-Design" brand is behind the new lifestyle-oriented speakers and furniture.  One of Monster's more unusual products is a frame for flat panel TVs that has high-end center, left and right speakers invisibly embedded into it.  It's called the "InvisiSound" and it will sell for between $3,995 and $6,995 depending on size, finish and configuration. 

InvisiSound hides center, left and right front speakers in a plasma TV frame
Monster's InvisiSound hides center, left and right front
speakers in a frame that surrounds your plasma TV.

Continue to Part II including Cinepro,
Martin-Logan, Outlaw, Joseph Audio and more

 

Click here to see a
complete listing of show exhibitors.

Click here to see our 2003 show coverage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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