The Home Entertainment 2002 Show Report
held at the New York Hilton Hotel, May 30 - June 2, 2002
Report by Avi Greengart
The Home Entertainment 2002 Show in New York City was an interesting mix of high end audio and mid-level video directly targeting well heeled consumers. DLP was everywhere and getting less expensive in sub-$5,000 projectors from PLUS and InFocus, and sub-$5,000 rear projection sets (Big Screen TVs) from Samsung. The use of digital amplifiers is growing, but after a high profile debut in the Sharp SM-SX100, they are decidedly moving downstream. SACD is developing additional content, and was used to demo speakers and amps throughout the show. The show had more audio than video, marginally more multi-channel than two channel, and the two channel gear on display often cost really big $$$. Not to worry, though, because some of the attendees (not yours truly) can afford it. During my time in the $230,000 Aston Martin Vanquish, the Aston Martin sales representative closed a sale with a gentleman who recently sold his Ferrari 360 Modena . . . .
I’ve heard several high resolution audio demos, but Sony went all out to show off the format. Sony marketing tried to position SACD as the antidote to “ripping, file sharing, and piracy.” 650 titles are now available (if you can find them), with more SACD replication capacity coming on line with greater emphasis on hybrid and multi-channel discs.
Sony dedicated a relatively small room (a living-room-sized portion of a much larger space) lined with as much acoustic absorbing material as they could squeeze into the space. And the gear! In addition to the Sony ES SACD player, they had five monoblock Manley 250 tube amps with Transparent cables feeding high-end speakers from Eggleston Soundworks. Among the tracks they demonstrated the following:
· Remastered (two channel) Rolling Stones tracks, where the guitars and vocals sounded like the Stones were in the room with you, along with great kick drums, and . . . noticeable analog hiss underneath it all.
· A gospel group, recorded in multi-channel using DSD equipment (designed for SACD) from the outset. Played back over five full range speakers, this track was – pardon the pun – a religious experience. Noticeably better than the best DVD-Video multi-channel audio (my DVD-A experiences have not been ), I could feel that church, and pick out individual choir members from within the group.
The other big power behind SACD, namely Philips, was demonstrating SACD elsewhere at the show on one of their home theater in a box systems. Music I know extremely well – Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” – was playing in multi-channel. I detected perhaps a bit more dynamic range and punch in the bass, though the use of surround on the recording struck me as quite odd.
The Stones track was the best remastered-for-SACD two channel demo I’ve yet heard, and it may convince wealthy baby boomers to buy their favorite albums again if they have top quality amplifiers and speakers. However, I did not find the difference in clarity and “analogue-ness” enough of an improvement to justify the format for the give-me-flexibility MP3 generation, especially since any improvement is negated when played back on less than stellar equipment. Sony’s multi-channel demo was revelatory, but I doubt that the gospel-loving five-full-range-speaker-owning market is large enough to stamp out “ripping, file sharing, and piracy."
Sony also showed their latest home theater in a box designs – but did not plug them into the wall. Part of Sony’s less pedestrian ES line, the most intriguing features of the systems are the inclusion of digital amplifiers and “full multi-channel bass management.” As an integrated system, the digital amplifier directly accepts the 1-bit converter output, which should theoretically result in better sound.
Sharp also showed off a line of components with digital amplifiers, and is targeting the lower end of the market. While they continue to sell their flagship $15,000 SM-SX100 two-channel model, they showed a variety of new integrated components starting at $500 (est. street) for an executive mini system (CD/AM/FM) and $1,500 for home theater in a box.
Audio, Audio Everywhere
About that Aston Martin Vanquish. As you can see from the Day 1 pictures, the car is gorgeous. It was at the show courtesy of Linn, who designed its 1000+ watt 12 speaker audio system. Since Aston Martin only intends to sell a few hundred of the cars, clearly this is mostly a branding effort on Linn’s part. But I was compelled to sit in the car to fulfill my journalistic duties and report on the audio quality for Secrets readers. I am pleased to report that the materials in the car are beautiful, and the lumbar support in the seat was the best I’ve ever experienced. Right, the audio: Sting’s "Ten Summoner’s Tales" was playing, the strings were honest and detailed, the bass was musical, and the two channels enveloped me whether I sat in the driver or the passenger seat. I tried both.
Linn also showed their Katan home theater speaker line. The room was open and untreated, the demo material was "Shrek", and the standout was an unusually clear center channel.
Wilson’s newest Watt Puppies speakers were on display in their room, and slightly older versions were used by JVC to show off their line of XRCDs. The speakers were impressive in both locations, with rich, bold sound, and a clear, almost-bright high end.
Totem’s $3,000-per-pair Forest speakers were nice, playing clear and LOUD in a small room. The bookshelf versions were also quite musical, and went deep.
Speaking of small rooms, Outlaw Audio was demonstrating their $899 Model 950 pre/pro and $1,799 Model 770 seven channel amplifier. Sharing the space was a set of Atlantic Technologies 450THX speakers, which certainly didn’t hurt the crisp, loud "Vertical Limit" demo material. After reading about the many delays in bringing the 950 to market, it was nice to see that the product does exist after all. Aside from production delays, the other major complaint about this component has been a slightly raised noise floor; but I heard no such problems on the setup at the show.
Another vendor aiming for low cost / high value, was Polk, who showed their new LSi speakers. The towers were good on CD, very good on SACD, and good again on DVD-Video (playing Diana Krall’s “Live In Paris,” a killer big band jazz disc used by several other vendors at the show – and next on my “I gotta buy this disc” list). Pricing on the bookshelf models – which I preferred over the towers – starts at just $500 per pair.
Most Impressive Sound, Given the Room
In a large, mostly untreated room, TacT showed the benefits of their digital room compensation technology and active crossovers. Their large, ribbon driver speakers (with corresponding subwoofers playing up to the mid-bass region) were playing gypsy-style music with lots of hand clapping and wood block percussion. Despite the large room, strings sounded etched with plenty of space around them, and the percussion was crisp and free of room echoes. Impressive stuff.
Least Impressive Sound, Given the Room
The worst sound at the show, in my opinion, was the official North American unveiling of Dynaudio’s $16,000 per pair C4 speakers. 100+ journalists were seated in a large, untreated conference room, and at least for those of us in the back, the speakers sounded like mush. Smaller, controlled demonstrations would surely have produced better results.
The video conditions at the show were dreadful. I had a Zenith representative tell me that "magnetic waves from the subway are distorting the pictures and making it look like we're overdriving the sets." True? I certainly found that story hard to believe, but who knows? All I can say is that all the sets on the 2nd floor (Zenith, Samsung, and InFocus) were clipping white.
DLP-Based Rear Projection Television
Overdriven or not, the Samsung DLP rear projection sets were impressive. The first consumer-oriented products to use Texas Instrument’s HD2 DLP chips, the contrast and black level of these new HD2 chips are markedly improved over previous designs. Samsung is pricing the sets above CRT rear projection sets, and below plasma. At only 18” deep with nicely designed cabinets and a tabletop form factor, these should be very spouse and decorator friendly. To remain competitive, Zenith lowered the pricing on its LCD based rear projection set to $6,000.
All the major front projection manufacturers are planning to introduce HD2-based 720p units to be introduced later this year, though they do not plan to lower prices significantly. Meanwhile, they demonstrated HD1-based wares.
Only six months after its initial debut, PLUS announced an update to their HE-3100 “Piano,” addressing many of its shortcomings. The HE-3200 (due next month) will accept progressive scan signals, can downscale 720p and 1080i HDTV to the panel’s 848x480p resolution, and includes a short zoom lens. The zoom lens is necessary for the dual resolution panel (848x480 and 800x600) to ease installation and to allow both anamorphic and letterbox source material to fill the full width of the screen without physically moving the projector. Lumen output remains unchanged at 450, and the price increases by several hundred dollars to $3,299.
I own an HE-3100, and have been pleased with the price/performance it offers. However, I wasn't all that impressed by the downscaled HDTV on the HE-3200 at the show. It looked like a decent DVD – much better than NTSC, but a lot of detail was obviously missing. However, the choice of demo material and screen material makes such a big difference! PLUS was showing dark, moody scenes from "CSI" while I was there, and they looked rather muddy on the 1.3 gain screen. InFocus was also showing downscaled HDTV on the ScreenPlay 110, however, their demo material (bright Jay Leno clips) had much more contrast and apparent detail on a Stewart FireHawk screen.
InFocus’ display was nicely designed to show projection systems in an “affordable” context. They demonstrated a complete audio/video system – including projector, screen, receiver, DVD player, speakers, and cables – for $10,000. While the room was not treated, and the performance did not transcend the individual products, the real-life consumers I saw it with on Day 2 were extremely impressed.
Setup and source material bedeviled Sharp’s 720p XV-Z9000U, which looked quite dreadful with DVD on Day 1. Having spent time with this projector under better circumstances, I knew it can look much better, and by Day 2 they had an HDTV loop going (mostly Victoria's Secret eye candy) that did. This choice of demo material led to my favorite attendee quote: “Honey, I’m just looking at the projector for the articles.”
LCD and Plasma
Projectors were not the focus of Sharp’s video displays, though. Sharp, Zenith, and (to a lesser extent) Samsung and Sony, showed extensive lineups of plasma and LCD displays in all shapes and sizes. Sharp’s line included 13”, 15”, and 20” 4:3 LCDs, a 30” widescreen LCD, and widescreen plasmas in 43” and 50” sizes. Similarly, Zenith had a complete line, including a unique 40” 4:3 plasma. Decorators, rejoice!
Despite the extensive flat screen technology on display, the most interesting gear was behind the scenes. Sharp was using HDTV hard drive-based recorders to stream clips to the LCDs and plamas. Unfortunately, while the devices are available in Japan, Sharp has no plans to introduce them in North America. For their front projectors, they used JVC’s D-VHS decks with D-Theater. Sharp representatives insisted it wasn’t a product endorsement, simply an economical way for them to get HDTV feeds to the displays, as they had a limited number of the HD hard drive boxes.
Click on links below to go to the photo pages for each day.
© Copyright 2002 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity