1999 Consumer Electronics Show - Las Vegas
This year, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (January 7 - 10, 1999) was definitely focused on High Definition TV (HDTV), and the pictures were awesome! One of the reasons it has taken so long, is that TV broadcast studio conversion is very, very expensive. Panasonic showed their first HDTV studio TV camera in the United States (photo at left). It costs $120,000, not including the lens. Panasonic had the camera set up in an actual studio environment and were broadcasting local programming to monitors in the convention center.
Panasonic also showed numerous DTVs. One must remember that all HDTVs are DTVs, but not all DTVs are HDTVs. DTV (Digital Television) includes formats that are not high resolution, but are still digital. Some of the DTVs that are going onto the market now are 4:3 rather than 16:9. They will receive all DTV broadcasts, including HDTV (HDTV includes 1080i and 720p), but the high resolution signals are downconverted to lower resolutions. If you have a media player installed on your computer, click the next line to download a video (an mpg file) which shows a sample of "Lost in Space" playing on one of the DTVs. [CLICK HERE TO SEE VIDEO OF "Lost in Space" ON DTV] If you don't have a media player, you can find them at Stroud's, including a free one from Microsoft. Regardless of downconversion, the images are superb, and the cost is much less than a full blown HDTV (about $3,000 instead of $7,000). This gives us lots of options in terms of affordable DTVs so that we can watch all the programming.
Sanyo exhibited new 16:9 DTV models, including this 30" one, shown on the right. It will sell for $3,500, but you have to get the decoder box for an additional $1,500 if you want to watch HDTV programming. The unit has built-in line doubling, so that 480i (regular NTSC material) is upconverted to 480p. The image on the screen is from "Lost in Space". Local TV stations were broadcasting HDTV signals over the air in 1080i format and with DD 5.1 surround sound, for use at the Convention Center. This brings up an interesting point. I wonder what will happen when broadcasters, such as digital satellite, are showing movies in HDTV (1080i or 720p, or even 480p), with digital surround sound, and in widescreen format. The picture will be better than we can get with current DVD, and the sound will be just as good. Pay per view will cost about $3.00, and we won't have to go to the video store to get the movies. Hmmm . . . , this may be a predicament for the DVD manufacturers and video stores. Maybe they had better get HDTV DVDs into operation soon. In fact, prototypes (720p) were shown here, so I guess they are already thinking about this potential problem for movie rentals.
All of the major companies were showing HDTVs. One of the nicest is the Sharp XV-60HDU (photo at left). It is a rear projection unit, with 3 LCD panels (R,G,B) and 1.3 million pixels. It has a bright, sharp picture, and will be sold for about $7,000. The overall appearance of the package is very nice too. LCD TVs are much better than they were just a couple of years ago. The screen door effect is gone. Also, the LCD panels last quite a bit longer than CRTs, so the only thing that has to be replaced now and then is the projection bulb, a relatively inexpensive item.
Plasma screens were everywhere. They are still very expensive (up to $25,000), and the image quality, in my opinion, is not as good as direct view or projectors, but it is a technology that will soon have its day. Notice the example shown on the right. The plasma screen fits up against the wall on the mantle above the fireplace. This sort of convenience is just too good to pass up, and eventually, we will probably all have this type of screen in our homes. Mass market prices will be a couple of thousand dollars.
Super audio formats were being demonstrated in several places. Pioneer had a prototype player (photo at left). The specs for their DVD audio format include two channels at 192 kHz - 24 bits, and multi-channel (as in 5.1) at 96 kHz - 24 bits. The signals are PCM on DVD as the substrate.
Sony/Philips had their own version of DVD audio, called Super Audio CD (SACD) which is direct stream digital (DSD). A prototype player is shown on the right. The players are estimated to cost about $2,500 once they hit the store shelves. The SACD discs have two layers, one of which is semi-transparent (the high density layer), and a deeper layer which is a conventional CD layer. The discs can be played on conventional players, in which case, the deeper layer is read. For those consumers who have the new players, the outer layer is read. Up to 4.7 GB of data can be stored in this outer layer. The Sony/Philips system utilizes one bit samples taken at 2.8224 MHz sampling rate. Although this rate approaches 192 kHz - 16 bits in terms of the number of data bits, DSD uses a different method than conventional 1 bit DACs. With PCM, steep filters have to be used at the input and output stages in order to keep signals that are more than twice the sampling frequency (44.1 kHz for conventional CDs) out of the circuit. Otherwise, aliasing occurs (like in the old Western movies, where the wagon wheels appeared to be turning backwards). The one-bit technique is called Pulse Density Modulation (PDM), and the positive portion of waveforms is represented by 1s, while the negative portion is represented by 0s. Filters are not required, and the frequency response is flat from DC to 100 kHz, instead of 20 kHz with conventional CDs. Although the format is not set up for 5.1 (two channel for the present), it can probably be adapted for 5.1 use down the road. Right now, it is for high performance two channel stereo use.
The fact that DVD audio can utilize multiple channels (5.1) at 96 kHz and 24 bits leads me to think that we will have this type of sound for our movies before too long. DTS can incorporate it into the current specs, while Dolby Digital will need to modify its specs. DTS and Dolby have done wonders with the compressed audio formats, but 96/24 is so marvelous, it is time to put this capability into operation with our movies. The 96/24 technology is here, and the space on the disc is available, although we might have to use both layers and both sides for each movie. I don't mind this, and I don't think any of you would either. What we want is terrific video and sound. If we have to turn the disc over to get it . . . so what!?
In the audio components arena, Mirage showed their version of the small box, big sound subwoofer, the SS1500, which sells for $2,200 (photo at left). It utilizes a long throw 10" active driver, with a 10" passive radiator, and a 1,500 watt digital switching amplifier. The voice coil is very large (3" diameter) and the magnet on the driver weighs 12 pounds. The photo on the right shows the inside of the SS1500. The active driver is on the right, the passive radiator on the left, and the amplifier is in the back. Mirage also had a larger version (12") that was less expensive ($1,100). The reason is that, due to the larger enclosure, less power is required, so . . . it is less money. Lots of companies appear to be designing powerful, yet small, subwoofers. They are hard to resist, since they fit just about anywhere, and have great performance.
CinePro exhibited their new "Predator" 14 channel, 500 watts per channel, power amplifier (photo below left). This unit is designed to work with a Polk Home Theater system of speakers and represents a very high performance choice for home theater custom installations. We are talking 7,000 watts of audio amplifier power here, enough to get 120 dB from those high impact action films. Of course, you need 240 volt, 50 amp service, so your house power meter wheel may spin off into space like a frisbee. One of the features of this package that I really liked was the fact that each amplifier channel is tailored for the speakers it is driving. EQ is used so that only those frequency bands being driven are passed through the amplifier. Thus, its 7,000 watts are utilized very efficiently. Nothing is wasted, even though the amplifier has plenty to spare.
Monitor Audio's new line of speakers (photo at right) are quite affordable, yet the finishes are real wood veneers, instead of wood grained vinyl. They range in price from $599/pair up to $2,000/pair. Aluminum/magnesium drivers are used in these speakers, as they are in Monitor's high performance series, but the magnets are a bit smaller.
RBH also showed a new line of affordable, but wood veneered, speakers. Their new MC Series, Package 5, has a complete set of surround sound speakers, and they come in oak and cherry for about $1,600, including the matching powered subwoofer (photo at left, shown in cherry). The drivers are all aluminum, including the subwoofer.
Exhibitors spend an enormous amount of money (a million dollars) at these shows. All the large corporations have huge booths. So, in order to get your attention, some of them have musicians and dancers. Click here to download a video example.
Five-channel power amplifiers were a big thing at this year's CES. The high-performance companies like Proceed showed their new products with the lid off. No wonder too, because the inside of the chassis is packed with power supply goodies. Notice that, for the Proceed (photo at right), each channel has its own power supply toroidal transformer and pair of large power supply capacitors. Like most five-channel amplifiers these days, it's modular. 125 watts per channel x 5. Price is $4,995.
Pass Labs, renown for amplifier quality, jumped into the home theater amplifier arena with their version of five-channel amplification. It has 125 watts per channel x 5, with only two gain stages (all MOSFET) in each amplifier (most amplifiers have at least 3). The amplifier weighs 85 pounds and is elegant, to say the least.
Numerous readers have asked us about CD juke boxes. Most of the ones we have seen in the past are not of very high quality. Denon changed all that with the introduction of their DCM-5000 100 CD Changer. It has dual transports (so you can begin playing a second CD immediately after the first one is finished), HDCD decoding, 24 bit DACs, and on-screen TV menus. The DCM-5000 is $1,800, and will handle up to five DCM-5001 slaves, each of which will hold 100 CDs. The slaves are $1,300 each.
Marantz showed their new SR-18 Surround Sound Receiver, which retails for $2,700. It has five channels of 140 watt power, THX, and will decode DD and DTS. It uses a thumb wheel control for FM/AM tuning, like their designs of decades ago ("Retro" design).
Sunfire unveiled the latest edition to their line of small high powered subwoofers. This one has a 7" driver, 7" passive radiator, 1,200 watt amplifier, and weighs only 28 pounds, yet will deliver 105 dB SPL at 22 Hz. Price is $895. This thing would literally go under your bed in the dormatory! I'll bet this small powerful subwoofer is a huge success. Great bass in the <$1,000 range has been hard to find.
The new Acoustic Research AR1 Floorstanding Speakers use Sunfire amplifier technology to drive the subwoofers. They have very high sensitivity (95 dB/w/m), and so, would perform nicely with receivers.
M&K showed their 750 THX Select speakers, which are the first speakers to incorporate the THX Select specifications (THX quality performance designed for small rooms).
Krix introduced their new KDX speakers (photo at right) which are two-way, with drivers arranged in the D'Appolito configuration. They sell for $895/pair and would be a nice set to have in a home theater (four of them, plus the KDX-C for a center channel). They are finished in Jarrah, which is an exotic hardwood sourced in Australia, and also used in South Africa as railroad ties, because it resists the elements so well. It's very beautiful and looks like a combination of rosewood and walnut.
Lots of new audio and video cables were shown. Nordost, long known for their flatline cables, exhibited a power cord that utilizes the technology developed for Nordost Quattro Fil, and also some new aluminum dampers to be placed under DVD players. Click here to see Joe Reynolds, of Nordost, describe them.
All in all, I enjoyed this year's CES much better than the last one. Apparently others did too, as attendance seemed to be up quite a bit. It seems obvious that we will never again be in a situation where the technology is in a resting phase. There will always be some new digital format or feature on the horizon. I hope that mass market products, like some of the high performance units, will be upgradable by software downloaded from company websites. That is the only way we will be able to stay in touch with this constant change.
J.E. Johnson, Jr.
The high end audio industry is alive, well, and recently gathered in Las Vegas, Nevada for the 1999 version of the Consumer Electronics Show, and what a show it was! I've read the editorials and heard the skepticism about the future of two-channel audio reproduction, but if Vegas was an accurate barometer, the industry is positively brimming with talent, enthusiasm, and creativity.
About 90,000 of my closest friends and
I descended on Las Vegas (aka Lost Wages) to see, hear, and feel
the latest in consumer electronics. Of course only a small percentage
of us were there for the sole reason of seeing what's new in
high end audio, but count me among the devoted. I heard that
Las Vegas is the only city with enough hotel rooms to accommodate
this convention, which is believable, but let's face another
reality, the cities where this event can be held in the dead
of winter are pretty limited regardless of the number of hotel
My goal at the CES was to seek out lots of the latest high value audio equipment and accessories, then let you know about it so you can check it all out for yourself after reading about it here at Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity. The adjective "high value" can apply to a lot of different gear, including the expensive and inexpensive. My criteria for high value is simple: any audio equipment that appears worthy of my hard-earned cash, judged from a price/performance perspective, will be deemed high value. You will notice a predominance of tube equipment in this report, which is in part from personal bias, and part because that's what I most often review and write about for Secrets.
Regretfully, there was a lot of great equipment
that I didn't have an opportunity to see or hear -- to those
manufacturers not mentioned in this report who worked so hard
to bring, display and play their equipment, I apologize and will
be sure to catch up with you at CES "Y2K". That promise,
however, presumes that everyone's digital playback equipment
doesn't lock up from "the bug" at 12:01 a.m. on January
1, 2000. That would force everyone to use vinyl playback, which
come to think of it, really wouldn't be such a bad thing, now
I spent a lot of time in the room shared by Speaker Art, G&D Transforms, and Placette Audio. Not only great audio designers, the guys that run each of these companies are some of the nicest people you'll meet. The system in this room represented an "all-star" high value package with a lineup of components that each performed beyond typical price range competition. Heading the list was a speaker that I'd read much about, but never heard personally, the Speaker Art Super Clef ($1,795/pr). From what I heard, this speaker deserves every accolade that has been heaped upon it. The full-range sound that this stand-mounted speaker produced was astounding. This was also my first introduction to the Placette Audio Active Line Stage preamp ($3,000) with just about the slickest volume control I've come across -- a 126 step attenuator using all Vishay resistors -- with remote control adjustment! It's difficult to comment on the sound of the preamp, as its goal is ultimate transparency, but the way this system sounded, my only conclusion is that it was successful in its goal. Finally, the G&D Transforms UCD-2 CD player ($2,395) was at the source, providing all the wonderful music I heard. This new design is G&D's realization of a no-compromise, all-in-one CD player. I use their Reference One transport in my own system and can't say enough good things about it.
G&D was also eager to discuss the Maximum Overdrive Break-In Engine (MOBIE), a set of two boxes that significantly speeds analog and digital cable break-in. To really break-in cables, you realistically need a couple months of frequent use, during which time your sound will undergo lots of funky changes. The weird, phasey sound you heard during these months of break-in often result in owner discontent and unnecessary trade-ins/ups. Sure, patience is a virtue in this situation, but how many anxious audiophiles really have the patience to wait that long? The MOBIE will completely break in cables in five days, and you don't have to annoy your family and pets during the process since the MOBIE is a completely self-contained system that makes no noise. Dealers -- are you getting this? I implore you to check into this product. Make your customers happier with their purchase by offering to completely break-in their cables prior to delivery for a modest additional charge (or maybe no charge for the really estoteric and expensive cables). Talk about a win/win situation! At $250, the MOBIE should be a big hit.
Proving that price-point design is doable,
Pathos Acoustics has managed to transfer many of the good ideas
from their well-received Twin Towers integrated amp ($4,950)
into the more affordable Classic One integrated amp ($1,950).
I spent some time listening to this amp with their own Pathos
loudspeaker system ($1,995), which is soon to be released. The
Classic One integrated has a tubed preamplification stage, using
the heretofore unknown to me Ediswan 8625 tube, mated to a solid
state power amplifier stage producing 50 wpc into 8 Ohms, or
95 wpc into 4 Ohms. The soundstage in this listening room was
deep and defined, with treble clarity that was world class. The
deep bass wasn't reproduced as well as I think these speakers
are capable of, but the hotel room acoustics likely had a lot
to do with it. Oh, did I mention that both the Pathos Classic
One and loudspeaker system were flat-out gorgeous? Just as you
would expect from the Italians. I'd like to get to know these
products better in the future -- and speaking of the future,
it sure looks bright for Pathos.
None of these technical features matters a hoot if the sound isn't right, of course, so I'm glad to report that the sound was everything you may want, and more. I auditioned the Continuum 2 with vocal music, which was very nice with a deep and clear soundstage, as well as some bass-thumpin', made-for-dancin' music that showcased its significant lower register output capability. I truly enjoy seeing real innovation like that which Green Mountain has put into the design of the Continuum 2 -- a smashing debut for sure.
Audio Note was showing an array of their
new entry level gear aimed at getting those with limited budgets
into the Audio Note sound. A smooth-sounding system consisting
of their P-Zero power amp ($1,199), M-Zero preamp ($599), CDT-Zero
transport ($799), and DAC-Zero converter ($699) was playing an
emotionally involving rendition of Mahler's First Symphony, recorded
in 1951 in glorious mono sound. The sound was not what you typically
think of as "hi-fi", but musically satisfying nonetheless.
TG Audio Labs teamed up with VMPS for an utterly convincing demonstration of the new VMPS Special Ribbon Edition FF 3 speaker system ($6,800/pr with new larger subwoofer $699) driven by a system that included the CTC Blowtorch preamp ($9,000) hooked to the Plinius 100 Mk III amp ($4,400) on bass and the Bear Labs Symphony No. 1 ($14,000) on the mids and highs. The digital setup included the Entech/TG Number Cruncher DAC (being closed-out direct at $2,200 -- a deal) fed by the G&D Transforms UTP-1 transport ($1,500). Analog sounds were from a Sota/Benz Glider combo with a CTC-modified Vendetta SCP-2T phono stage ($5,000). All the gear had its AC cleansed by the TG BybeeSucker 1 for analog ($1,500) and BybeeSucker 3 for digital ($2,500). The wire was exclusively TG Audio, of course. This system, while not inexpensive, was incredible from top to bottom and garners one of my votes for "Best of Show". For an idea of how it sounded, close your eyes, think about the last live music event you attended, then imagine a similar sonic experience packed into a hotel room at the St. Tropez -- there, you're pretty close to what I heard that day.
A variety of value-oriented gear was being
displayed at T.H.E. Show by Musical Design. Their vacuum tube
based linestage preamp, the SP-4 ($1,495), was paired with the
affordable and excellent D-75B Platinum stereo power amp ($1,995).
On the front end, the new T1 transport ($1,495) using the Pioneer-based
stable platter mechanism, was feeding a DAC-1A Platinum ($2,495)
HDCD-capable decoder. The platinum designation means that the
component has top-of-the-line passive parts such as exotic audiophile
resistors, Blackgate capacitors, special diodes, and more. All
cabling for this good-sounding system was Musical Design's own
Aura line, which are very affordable and well-constructed. Rounding
out the system were speakers from Scientific Fidelity.
One of the most enjoyable hours I've ever spent at a high-end audio show was the time spent at an accessory demonstration in the room hosted by Nordost, the red-hot cable manufacturer. Lately, it seems the release of each successive top-of-the-line product from Nordost means that the pinnacle has been moved one notch higher.
Our demonstration was conducted by Lars Kristensen, the international marketing director for Nordost, and a person that truly believes in the power of allowing one's own ears to be the judge. Accessories are tricky to demonstrate effectively, but this demo was simple -- Lars would play some music, make a change, play more music, make another change, and so forth. The products being demonstrated were the new Pulsar Points de-coupling devices ($100 per set of 4 in aluminum and $500 per set of 4 in titanium) and the El Dorado power cord ($600 per 2M cord). There isn't sufficient space here to re-cap the entire demonstration, but a two-word summary of the product demo would be "they work"! The insertion and removal of both the El Dorado power cord and Pulsar Points (both aluminum and titanium) had a significant effect on the impact, dynamics, depth, and overall "life" of the music during our demonstration. Simply put, with these accessories in the system, even individually, the music had more of the positive characteristics I just mentioned, and without them, the traits seemed to be lessened, sometimes significantly -- with no other system changes.
The demonstration system wasn't elaborate, and the music used wasn't typical "audiophile" fare. In fact, one of Lars' points was that proper accessories can help make even poorly-recorded music more "musical" and enjoyable. His point was hammered home to great effect using a 1968 live recording of Cream's "White Room". I was absolutely jamming to this historic recording, which is average at best, with the Nordost El Dorado and Pulsar Points installed. When removed, the music was harder to get into. No Kidding. I know, I know . . . the true test would be one with single or double blind methods, but I was impressed with this simple demo, nonetheless.
I will be listening to both the El Dorado
and Pulsar Points in my own system soon -- I'll be sure to let
you know how it goes after living with each for a while and experimenting
with them in different locations in my system. Bravo, Nordost!
All product demos should be this well-executed.
The Galante Audio Buckingham (photo at
left), at $6,500/pr., are an ideal match for low-powered, single-ended
amps. They boast oodles of efficiency (100 dB) and an uncanny
ability to reproduce the ever-important midrange in a lifelike
manner. A Cary 2A3 SE Signature tube amp
and SLP-50 preamp were driving the action, with a Sony XA7ES
spinning the silver discs to complete the system. I requested
"I Will Survive" by Cake to find out whether these
speakers could kick out the jams -- and kick they did! To round
out the Galante Audio speaker lineup, they offer the Bedminster
at $4,500/pr. and Silverdale at $2,500/pr. These speakers share
a family resemblance with the Buckingham and a penchant for high
efficiency at 99 dB. This room was a fun time with super sound.
Hail, high efficiency!
Speaking of Margules Audio, their own room
was generating quite a stir among the visitors while we listened
to their U280sc amplifier ($3,280 - picture below left). This
product is amazingly flexible, offering a choice of ultralinear
(60 wpc) or triode (30 wpc) operation, along with the ability
to bridge the amp to mono. Finally, you can also choose among
a variety of output tubes -- 6550, KT88, KT99, or KT100. Have
it your way, as they say about a completely different type of
product. The Margules SF220 ($2,189 without
remote -- other options available) was handling preamplification
duties with aplomb and is good-looking to boot. The speaker was
the model A1.2 ($4,390/pr) which features three drivers in a
two-way design. Extensive detail is paid to the damping of resonances
within the cabinets of these speakers, minimizing the colorations
that can result. There was a smoothness to the sound in the Margules
room that was intoxicating -- bravo!
After a particularly excessive lunch I was wandering back toward the demo rooms, in somewhat of a food-stuffed daze, when I heard the sweet and familiar sound of Diana Krall singing "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" from one of the rooms. That was all I needed to direct me quickly inward. I unfortunately didn't find Ms. Krall standing there singing, but a tall, attractive (like Diana) pair of speakers that were doing a great job creating the aural illusion. These new speakers, pictured on the left, are from Vince Christian Ltd. and are called the AXIS ($4,000/pair). The AXIS was sitting atop the BASS CUBES ($2,400/pr), which supplement the bass of the AXIS, but are not required. Should you choose that combo, there is a specially designed active crossover ($1,700) to optimize the connection. The electronics in this room were from Birdland Audio and included the Pleyal 250 mk-II prototype amplifier ($3,850) which employs Solid-Tube technology, featuring the accuracy of solid state and the warmth of tubes (description taken from their brochure). The DAC was the Odeon-m2 24/96 converter that retails for $3,500.
If you are into tubes, have a real-world
budget, and appreciate well-designed and great-sounding gear,
please get acquainted with Jolida. The beautiful JD-801A integrated
amp shown on the right, at $1,400, produces 70 wpc out of a quartet
of 6550s, enough to drive just about anything. This amp looked
amazingly well built. Digital gear has made massive leaps forward
since its introduction in 1982, but the logical marriage of tube
output stages within integrated CD playback systems has been
relatively absent from the high-end market over the years, save
for a few designs by CAL and a couple others. Here
in 1999, on the eve of a new digital playback standard, Jolida
is stepping forward to introduce the JD 602A CD player ($525)
that has a pair of the ubiquitous 12AX7 tubes glowing secretly
within. Inclusion of tubes in the output stage reportedly results
in sound that surpasses most, if not all, of its under-$1K solid
state brethren. I would be curious to hear the JD 602A matched
up against the best digital of even a few years ago -- heck,
just for kicks I'd like to check it out against some of today's
better 44.1/16 digital playback systems. This new giant-killer
from Jolida deserves a full report, and I'll do my best to bring
it to you.
I thoroughly enjoyed the people and products that I was introduced to at '99 CES. We came away with lots of ideas for great equipment that I want to review ASAP. Stay tuned for our reports throughout the year.
© Copyright 1999 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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