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CES 2007 Show Report

Do all paths lead to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held annually in Las Vegas each January? Perhaps not all paths, but if you are in any way professionally involved with home theater sound, loudspeakers, video displays, software, telephony, games and gadgetry of all sorts, then indeed those paths converge on this annual circus in the desert.

The show has grown to become one of the largest trade shows in the world, attracting as many as 150,000 attendees, and covers so much acreage (37 football fields) that it's become exhausting to try and see everything. Despite those impediments, most of us in any way involved with the manufacture, development, selling, distribution and reviewing of most consumer electronics products dutifully trundle our wheelie bags to the on-ramp and land in agreeable sun and relative warmth for four days or more.

Sharps claims the world's largest LCD screen at 108 inches.

This year, the big push was certainly on larger �1080p� (1920 x 1080 pixels) High Definition flat-panel plasma and LCD displays from Sharp, Toshiba, Hitachi, Sony and others, with a particular focus on LCD in larger screen sizes to 57 inches (Toshiba) and larger, with new features that include variable dynamic backlighting synched to picture content to enhance blacks (unlike plasmas, LCD panels require backlights to create the image). When a dark scene appears in a movie, the backlight dims to enhance the blacks. Sharp laid claim to the world's largest LCD display at 108 inches and it looked impressive. Pioneer and Panasonic displayed big plasma panels in both 1080p and 720p, with some interesting side-by-side demos of plasma vs. LCD. Both companies spec plasma panel longevity at about 60,000 hours (equivalent to watching TV 8 hours a day for 20 years�far too much, in my view) by which point light output dims to the 50% level.

Toshiba's new "Regza" 1080p 52-inch LCD panels showed impressive picture clarity.

The momentum towards bigger LCD panels and plasma displays upstaged DLP and LCD rear-projection sets, which were left in the shadows. This isn't so surprising given that some of the previous flaws for which LCD panels were criticized (lateral motion blurring, grayish blacks) have been addressed in new sets from Sony, Sharp, Toshiba and others. By doubling the frame rate from 60 Hz to 120 Hz through �Motion Vector Frame Interpolation,� to cite Toshiba's fancy term, both Toshiba and Sharp claim their LCD panels have eliminated motion blurring with fast lateral action. Demos of the improvements were convincing, as were the LCD panels with dynamic backlighting exhibited by Sony, Sharp and Toshiba.

Front 1080p projectors in both DLP and LCD versions were shown by Sony, Panasonic, Sharp and Optoma, and prices have come down a lot, although if you contemplate getting 1080p in a front projector it's still going to set you back around $5,000 or more. While that's hardly a bargain, a couple of years ago such projectors cost $20,000, and Marantz's VP-11S1 1080p DLP unit still does. Panasonic's new 1080p PT-AE1000U and Optoma's two-piece HD81, also 1080p, showed huge front-projected LCD and DLP images, respectively, viewable in exquisite detail from a dozen feet away, although the giant screen images were noticeably dimmer than those from 720p projectors on a smaller screen. The principal advantage of 1080p displays is a closer viewing distance with no visible artifacts, but if you accept a somewhat smaller image and sit farther back, a 720p projector is able to throw a very bright image with lots of contrast, as Panasonic demonstrated with its new 720p PT-AX100U LCD projector, which has 2,000 lumens light output. It uses an ambient room-light sensor (a �Light Harmonizer�) that boosts the projector's light output as room lighting increases, so a projected image in a normally lighted room is still quite viewable, although black levels suffer. Incidentally, I noticed no �screen-door effects� at all from the Panasonic LCD projectors, a flaw that's always bothered me in earlier LCD projectors from various manufacturers.

LG Electronics heralded its new combo HD-DVD/Blu-ray player as the solution to the HD format dilemma.

LG Electronics trumpeted the introduction of its new hybrid �Super Multi Blue� BH100 HD-DVD/Blu-ray combo player that will read HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs. It's slated to appear in stores this quarter at a suggested retail of $1,199 US. Fence-sitters now have an alternative to committing to one format or the other, which was an agonizing choice because although Blu-ray has far more brands backing its player, its 2006 launch stumbled badly, compared to Toshiba's HD-DVD, which delivered superb picture quality. In the background, of course, is the patent taken out by Warner Brothers for its Total HD, a dual-format double-sided High Definition DVD that will have HD-DVD dual layers on one side and a Blu-ray dual layer on the other, and could be read by players of either stripe. Unfortunately, at this writing, most movie studios have committed to one format (mostly to Blu-ray) or the other. There would have to be universal adoption by all studios of a dual-format HD-DVD/Blu-ray disc to ensure the long-term viability of the standard. Toshiba announced a new step-up model HD-DVD player, the HD-XA2, at $599, which outputs 1080p over HDMI and uses a sophisticated Silicon Optix video processing chip.

Pioneer's comparison of LCD (left) with the same image on a plasma (right) argued that the plasma panel delivered the more nuanced image. Most viewers felt that both looked very good.

On the hard-drive front (not my usual �beat�), Hitachi announced its new CinemaStar 7K1000, which provides 1 Terabyte of digital storage, enough to store up to 250 hours of HD programming. The Hitachi drive is priced at $399, or about 40 cents per Gigabyte, so we can expect it to begin showing up in various set-top DVR boxes, stand-alone DVR recorders and of course in desktop computers.

Dolby Labs demonstrated its lossless Dolby TrueHD 7.1-channel surround sound at 24 bits and 96 kHz, feeding a prototype Sony AV receiver with built-in TrueHD decoding. Based on Meridian Lossless Packing, which we already know from DVD-Audio discs is utterly transparent, the Dolby TrueHD bitstream is transportable by HDMI 1.3 and is backwards compatible as a PCM stream over earlier versions of HDMI, �for future optical players,� as the Dolby press release notes. It sounded transparent and dynamic and is a standard format for HD-DVD and optional for Blu-ray players. DTS handed out demo discs of DTS-HD Master Audio in both HD-DVD and Blu-ray formats, so all I need now is a compatible AV receiver that will decode them.

Differences between the 1080p plasma (left) and the 720p panel (right) were very difficult to discern unless you moved within 4 feet and looked at the detail inside the red circles. Curiously, the 720p panel seemed to be subjectively cleaner looking, which might have been just an adjustment anomaly.

Have we reached a point of too many audio formats? As long as it's technically possible, it will keep on progressing but it's increasingly difficult to keep up! Looking back, Dolby Pro Logic was launched 20 years ago, in 1987. By comparison to Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus, the original Pro Logic now seems quaint: an analog system with four channels�left, center, and right, and a single mono (!) surround channel, the latter played over two surround speakers. At the time, we thought it was a huge improvement over earlier Dolby Surround, which had between-channel separation figures of 3 dB or so. Pro Logic upped those figures to as high as 30 dB, which was impressive.

Many new AV receivers offer video up-conversion to resolutions as high as 1080p and despite the incompatibility issues encountered with HDMI connections between some components and video displays, new receivers sporting version 1.3 of HDMI should be showing up later this year.

Images of the future: Sony's 12-inch Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) display is only 1/4-inch thick and stunningly clear. Not yet available and no prices quoted. OLED could eventually supplant other display technologies when larger screen sizes become possible.

One overlooked display was Sony's stunning Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) ultra-thin screens. Attendees stared awestruck at the clarity, black levels, contrast and brightness. The display is only a quarter-inch thick, requires no backlight, and screen size is limited to 12 inches (Sony did show one 27-inch panel) but this technology, once it arrives, may hold the future of flat-panel TV. It's not available yet, with no prices announced, although gossip hints at models showing up in Japan in 2008.

SED (Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display), another �just around the corner� thin-film display technology that Toshiba showed a year ago, which was as impressive as OLED, has hit various snags. This technology can be imprinted on large sheets of film that are supple enough to roll up. Toshiba has sold the technology to Canon, who will continue to develop it. But don't wait around if you are hesitant about jumping into a High Definition video display. The best of current display technologies are absolutely beautiful, whether it's LCD, plasma, DLP, or LCoS.

The range of innovation evident at this year's CES was startling and this report offers only a glimpse of the products on display. I'm not sure the world is crying out for a talking B-B-Q thermometer, but Oregon Scientific exhibited such a device. I could be wrong, of course. After all, Americans and Canadians love B-B-Q, outdoor speakers are growing in popularity, and we certainly don't want to overcook the meat while we boogie on the patio.�A.L.

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