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CES Round-Up 2006:
A Personal Take on the Annual Las Vegas Electronics-fest

Many thousands of people -- around 140,000, in fact-- converged on sunny Las Vegas 20 days ago and strained the transportation resources of that city to its maximum, although the new-ish monorail, which I rode for the first time, efficiently moved people to and from the Convention Center if you were lucky enough to be in a hotel with access to a station.

I don't ever recall the crush of CES crowds in the main hall of the convention center being quite so daunting-at times I felt like I did years ago in the Tokyo subway during rush hour-nevertheless I forged ahead, trailing my wheeled press bag (thanks, Toshiba) behind me. Imagine this, if you will, as a random tour of the main convention halls, hotel suites, and individual exhibits, riding shotgun on my wheeled press bag:

Much of the hoopla surrounding the arrival of 1080p HDTV displays and the rival High Definition disc formats (HD-DVD and Blu-ray) tended to upstage one of the more interesting innovations of this year's video-fest: Toshiba's preview of its remarkable new SED technology (Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display). SED promises to bring all of the advantages of a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) display-the color gradations, black levels, brilliant colors and detail --to a thin-panel screen format with none of the disadvantages of plasma, LCD, DLP, and other displays.

Co-developed by Toshiba and Canon, the SED, like a CRT, shoots electrons at a phosphor-coated screen to emit light. However, instead of a big, heavy, glass picture tube with an electron gun firing at the whole screen, the SED uses a thin glass panel with electron emitters for each individual pixel in the display. Toshiba says the technology offers high brightness, contrast and color gradation, HD detail and fast video response times, and it does all this with low power consumption (plasmas are power pigs, sucking up twice as much juice as old CRT sets or even current DLP sets).

The largest SED screen shown was 36 inches, and it looked excellent, however, the current technology is prohibitively expensive. Still, given the increasing rate at which prototypes become consumer items, we should all memorize the SED acronym. Repeat after me: "Surface-conduction, Electron-emitter Display. . ."

HD-DVD and Blu-ray
Right next door to the SED theater was HD-DVD, Toshiba now being one of the lone supporters of this quite excellent HD disc format. (Thomson/RCA, Hewlett Packard and Microsoft are hedging their bets and backing HD-DVD and Blu-ray.) With only a few movie studios (Warner, Universal and Paramount) supporting HD-DVD and most hardware builders migrating to the Blu-ray camp (Pioneer, Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, LG, and Philips all showed Blu-ray players), HD-DVD's chances of commercial success seem slim, except for one important fact: Toshiba announced that its HD-A1 HD-DVD player will ship in late March and retail at $499, less than half the price of Blu-ray machines, some of which will list for as much as $1,800 and won't be available until summer. Blu-ray has lots of movie studio backing, including Lion's Gate, MGM, Columbia, Fox and Disney, with releases like Pirates of the Caribbean, Kill Bill, and House of Flying Daggers promised as early as this summer.

Demos of HD-DVD and Blu-ray showed both High Definition formats looking superb, entirely free of visible artifacts that I had previously noted in demos a year ago. I certainly want one, but which to choose? And of course I suspect thousands of consumers will think the same way, even with the attractive low price of Toshiba's HD-DVD player, and simply hold off buying until the market sorts out the winner.

Like the Blu-Ray machines, Toshiba's HD-DVD player will be backwards-compatible, which means it will play your existing DVDs with ordinary DVD resolution (480i; 480p) as well as new High Definition DVDs. Statements by various spokespersons suggested that HD-DVD is 1080p capable, but the HD-DVD machines I looked at seemed to be outputting 1080i via HDMI outputs. Blu-ray players are definitely 1080p compatible.

Interactive Capability
I have trouble getting excited about the much vaunted interactivity potential of these HD disc formats, but it's clear that you'll be able to go directly to different chapters in a movie without first returning to the disc Menu and calling up the Scenes menu. I only occasionally watch extras on current DVDs; for those who want it, the new HD disc formats will let you superimpose visuals of the director or other production folks commenting on the movie as it progresses. (Yawn.) Extras are fine for college Film Studies courses, but do most movie fans really want their movies dissected into component parts? Nevertheless, the interactivity potential of HD-DVD and Blu-ray for gamers is huge, and I expect Sony's Playstation3, which is Blu-ray compatible, will make the most of the interactivity potential of the format when it appears on store shelves.

Of course the storage capabilities of both HD disc formats are spectacular, especially Blu-ray's at 25 GB for a single-sided single-layer and 50 GB for a single-sided dual-layer disc, or roughly 5 hours of HD material. These capacities carry through to the recordable (write-once) and rewritable (erasable) versions as well. TDK has already developed a quad-layer 100-GB Blu-ray disc capable of storing ten hours of HD material. At first I balked at that specification, thinking who needs all this storage?, and then I realized that more than half of my existing HD cable box's hard drive is already occupied with a dozen HD programs I've saved, so I guess the more storage capability, the better. But will I ever get around to watching all those HD programs before the Grim Reaper turns off my DLP?

Scratches and Fingerprints
Incidentally, early fears on my part about the ultra-thin 0.1-mm clear plastic outer protective coating making Blu-ray discs sensitive to fingerprints and even tiny scratches (current DVDs have a 0.6-mm protective layer, six times as thick as Blu-ray's 0.1-mm layer) seem to have been successfully overcome by TDK, which has developed a robust Durabis coating that TDK claims can be scrubbed with a Brillo pad and still play perfectly with no glitches. (Past versions of Blu-ray marketed in Japan in fact had to use a clumsy cartridge to protect the Blu-ray disc's delicate playing surface from dust and fingerprints, which could cause errors.) While TDK's hard-coating technology is stated to be part of the Blu-ray spec, it appears that it would still be possible for some Blu-ray disc replicators to produce discs without TDK's special Durabis coating, which is somewhat worrisome.

HD DVD and Blu-ray's Much Improved Audio Capabilities
It's hard to fault any of the HD disc formats' stupendous audio capabilities, which include lossless multichannel audio for eight discrete, full-frequency channels from both Dolby and dts. Dolby Digital Plus, which is a "lossy" algorithm like Dolby Digital 5.1, will be the core audio format, with capabilities of up to 13.1 discrete channels but in most applications running at 7.1-channels, all discrete. Dolby Digital Plus will run at its highest rate of 640 kilobytes per second (kbps) rather than 448 kbps (the current highest data rate of Dolby Digital 5.1), and will be backwards compatible with your existing Dolby Digital/dts AV receiver, only to the extent that embedded in the data stream will be a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. If your existing AV receiver has a Dolby Digital decoder, then it will process a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix from an HD-DVD or Blu-Ray player.

But Dolby also has TrueHD, based on Meridian Lossless Packing developed for high-res DVD-Audio discs, which enables eight full-frequency channels that are totally lossless (a "lossless" audio record/playback format delivers audio that is bit-for-bit identical to the studio master recording). Dolby TrueHD will be mandatory in HD-DVD players and optional for Blu-ray players. Dolby TrueHd runs at data rates of 1.6 Mbps to 3.6 Mbps and will support 16-to- 24-bit word lengths as well as sampling frequencies of 48 to 192 kHz. To get TrueHD, you'd need an HD-DVD or Blu-ray player with built-in decoders for the high-resolution audio (the Toshiba players have those built in) as well as an analog 8-channel input on your AV receiver. Alternatively, Dolby TrueHD will also output an 8-channel PCM data stream via HDMI or IEEE 1394 "Firewire" connectors. But that would still require a TrueHD decoder to sort out channel ID's and the like. Dolby Labs intends that all audio processing for TrueHD be done in the HD-DVD player, not in the A/V receiver.

DTS will also be a standard soundtrack of the new HD disc formats, and your existing dts AV receiver will decode the dts soundtrack, likely running at higher data rates, which should mean better sound than you hear now from dts. Like Dolby's TrueHD, dts will also have its own lossless format, called dts HD, and as with Dolby TrueHD, you'd need to have an HD player with a built-in dts-HD decoder to benefit from dts HD's lossless capabilities. If your current A/V receiver has an 8-channel analog input set, then you'd be able to enjoy the improved audio capabilities of DVD-HD and Blu-ray players by connecting the eight analog audio outputs from the HD player to your set of analog inputs on the AV receiver.

1080p vs. 720p
As one wit remarked to me about Pioneer's demo of 1080p on an excellent Pioneer plasma panel, "Oh, so that's the difference???" I'm not quite so jaded, and although I did have to carefully position the Axiom entourage between two Toshiba DLP displays, one at 720p, the other showing the same material in 1080p, and say, "See, look at the pebbles and the grains of sand on the beach. They're sharper, right?" And indeed they appear sharper on the 1080p sets. But you have to stand there and look at one, then the other, and it takes a few minutes to discern the difference.

That comparison was conducted on two Toshiba 50-inch DLP HD rear-projection sets, both of which looked excellent. Farther along, at the Thomson/RCA booth, the lone female in the Axiom group, Mrs. Colquhoun, watching Lemony Snicket in 1080p remarked that the 1080p display had an almost hyper-realism - it looked sharper than in real life - such that the hyper-resolution revealed all the flaws in the skin of the adult actors. The kids, however, looked great. It didn't bother me, and while I loved the 1080p DLP demos, I did find that the world's largest plasma panels-103 inches diagonal-exhibited by Panasonic, LG, and Samsung, had a kind of hyper-clarity that for me lessened their realism. Is it possible to have too much resolution? Maybe. Or perhaps it was just the Stepford Wives-type models in the demo clip lounging about and running their delicate fingers over the glossy black grand piano (and that piano's blacks looked impressively black).

Wandering through Samsung's enormous booth, I came across a very cool new product: the HL-S5679W, a 50-inch HD rear-projection set that uses an LED DLP light engine instead of a projector bulb and color wheel. Rated at 20,000 hours of life, the LED/DLP light engine uses groups of red, blue and green LEDs that fire sequentially, eliminating the need for a color wheel. I didn't see any rainbow effects (and I've become quite adept at spotting them) but it was unclear whether the sequential-firing red, blue and green LEDs totally eliminate rainbow effects. (Rainbow effects are brief red, blue and green flashes on bright lights in dim areas, occasionally visible and bothersome to a tiny minority of viewers on any DLP projection device that uses a color wheel.) The new Samsung LED/DLP rear-pro set has 1920x1080p resolution, and looked excellent, perhaps a hair better than its regular projector-bulb DLP sibling next to it. It will retail at about $4,200 USD in April this year.

The best plasma and LCD thin-panel displays seemed to have moved up a notch in clarity this year, with better blacks, fewer motion artifacts, and more vivid colors, with plasmas or LCDs from Pioneer, Panasonic and Sony at the top, followed closely by LG and Samsung. Sharp seems to have a corner on its excellent small LCD displays.

Front Projection
Although I didn't spend as much time looking at front projectors, there were two absolute stand-outs shown by Optoma. At the top of the Optoma lineup, the two-piece HD81, with separate video processor and projector, uses Texas Instruments' new DarkChip3 1080p DLP chipset, and produced what for me was simply the best-looking high-definition video image I've ever seen. The HD81 is $10,000 and as exquisite as its picture was, the really big news lay next door in another demo theater. There, Optoma's HD72 DLP projector, with native 720p resolution (1280 x 768) and using DarkChip3, produced an image that was within a hairsbreadth of the $10,000 HD81. What's stunning is that the HD72 has a street price of $1,999US. The HD72 is apparently shipping now and for me set a new HD benchmark in front- projector image quality for the money.

A/V Receivers
Consumers continue to be the beneficiaries of more high-end features being offered in lower-priced A/V receivers, and Denon's new AVR-2807 is an excellent example. At a suggested retail price of $1,099, the 2807 includes HDMI video source switching as well as upconversion of all incoming analog video (composite, component and S-Video) to HDMI outputs. The 2807 also has a new room correction technology from Audyssey Labs that Denon claims will "maximize room acoustics for multiple listeners, creating an optimized 6-point soundfield that delivers a 'sweet spot' for every listener in the room." I'm highly dubious of such claims, as previous auto-eq room correction systems tended to be rather rudimentary and hit-or-miss in their operation. That aside, the Denon lineup offers a choice of nine different models, most with XM radio "Connect and Play" capabilities and considerable versatility.

Yamaha showed a few new models as well, some with HD Radio tuners (that's free terrestrial digital radio) and others with XM satellite radio capability. The 4600 has been out for awhile so it isn't news but other mid-level models offer HDMI switching and other features formerly found on up-market receivers.

Camcorders, DVD Recorders
Camcorders are moving away from tape transports to hard-drive-based units for digital video storage. Toshiba's Gigashot camcorders use 1.8-inch hard drives of 30 or 60 GB capacity, enough to store many hours of home video. These allow consumers to transfer their video in digital form onto DVD without conversion via a DVD recorder or a PC. Most of these camcorders will also function as still cameras. And if you want to shoot HD home video on a budget, Sanyo's little HD1 will record 720p video to an SD memory card. Using MPEG-4 compresson at 30 frames per second, the HD1 will let you shoot 40 minutes of HD video on a 2 GB SD card. It will also shoot 5-megapixel stills and uses an Organic Light Emitting Diode display rather than the conventional LCD. What is amazing is that its HD video abilities go for a retail price of $899, a fraction of what HD home video cameras previously cost. DVD recorders generally sport better connectivity, more editing facilities and larger hard drives.

High-End Audio: The Alexis Park
No trip to the Consumer Electronics Show would have been complete without a whirlwind pass through the charming Alexis Park hotel, far removed from the pushy crowds of the Convention Center. Gene DellaSala of joined me for part of my tour, and the warm sunny weather and outdoor pathways leading to different rooms made it painless. There were the usual array of weird, unorthodox loudspeakers on display-even more surprising to me is the appearance every year of entirely new brands. Everyone seems to think they can design a great loudspeaker, but only a very few succeed. I heard a new version of the venerable Quad electrostatic, and it was quite neutral but the demo material was very low-key, so it made me wonder just how loud it would play before distortion set in (always a limitation of electrostatic designs). In any case, it did have authentic bass output, unlike previous electrostatics that had to use a dynamic woofer for low bass. Nearby was a giant and quite beautifully finished speaker, the Tebaldi, made by Opera Loudspeakers in Italy. It used an array of nine conventional forward-, side- and rear-firing drivers and produced as good sound as I've heard from a European speaker of any sort, albeit at an elevated price--$18,000 per pair. Still, any designer who uses opera recordings as demo material and names the speaker after Renata Tebaldi, a famous soprano, has to be doing some things right. I noted in the specs that the crossover points for the 3-way Tebaldi speaker were almost identical to those used in Axiom's 3-way M80ti tower speaker, so someone at Opera Loudspeakers is doing his or her homework.

I wish I could report that I saw some truly wacky steam-driven turntable or some such device, but it wasn't to be. Looking back, vacuum tubes seemed to be much less in evidence at the Alexis Park this year than in previous years (a good thing, in my view), and my "out-of-room" test continues to be a reliable indicator of speaker quality. Standing in a hallway, I heard a sax being played and remarked to Gene, of Audioholics, "Hey, that sounds pretty real. Let's check this one out." Turned out to be the Opera Loudspeaker room.

Finally, on the concluding Sunday, when most of the crowds had left, I darted in to the Microsoft booth at the Convention Center to learn something about the new Windows "Vista" program. It looks awfully nice on-screen, and seems very intuitive for users who have multiple windows open as they work. Microsoft formed a partnership with Starz Entertainment Group to offer an Internet video download delivery service, aimed at users of Personal Media Center (PMC) handheld media players. Vongo, which stands for Video ON the GO, will download video to a broadband PC and then to portable devices based on Microsoft's PMC operating system. The video is of VHS quality, and there's a library of 870 titles of new and classic movies to choose from. Subscriptions will be $9.99 per month or pay-per-view video downloads at $3.99 each, kinda stiff for VHS quality, no? Actually, it looked good on a 2-inch screen. At lunch last week, I quizzed a friend of mine who is the Tech Editor of Cargo magazine about watching TV on his phone, saying, "But doesn't Law and Order: Criminal Intent lose all impact on a 2-inch screen?" He said, no, that it's great, and that he watched it on the flight out to Las Vegas.

Well, those young folks can have their iPod or Vongo. Me, I'm for the Big Picture, 1080p or 720p HD on a Big Screen, with an encompassing 5 or 7.2 surround system cranked up. Now, that is theater!

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