Hi-Fi '99 - The Palmer House Hilton, Chicago

 Stacey Spears and Scott Evans


Another year has passed, and so has another Hi-Fi show. This is my 5th.  This year’s show took place at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago.  It was my first trip to Chicago, and I guess the best way to describe it is as a clean New York.  I don’t mean to offend anyone, but NYC is not the nicest place I have been. It is fun, but kind of scary!  Chicago, on the other hand, was much easier to deal with.

The best audio and video in Chicago was actually not at Hi-Fi '99, but I will cover that after I mention what I did see.

This year, the show covered 7 floors of the hotel and occupied 82 rooms.  Most trade shows do not offer anything for sale, but the Hi-Fi show has always been a little different.  You will find all of the Peterson publication magazines on sale along with several CDs from the various high-end companies like Chesky, Reference Recordings, and DCC Compact Classics.  Actually, it’s a great place if you want to purchase some of those high quality CDs, because 1. you  get them for a discount, and 2. you pay no sales tax.

After the first night was complete, Scott and I headed down State Street towards Rush to get some Chicago style pizza from Gino’s.  Several peoples told me that I must try Gino’s pizza on Rush Street while I was in Chicago.  This place was probably the biggest dump I have ever eaten at, the service was slow, but the garlic bread was very tasty. Of course, there are plenty of people who feel that west coast restaurants don't know how to make pizza, and that Chicago and New York are the ONLY places to get the right stuff.

It’s amazing who you run into at these shows, besides other members of the press and company execs.  While cruising the halls on Friday just before I left to go home, I bumped into John Gannon, an ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) guru who usually does the calibrations for SGHT.  I first met John at the ISF dream vacation in Florida.  While we never plan to meet, it seems that I bump into him at every trade show.  I am usually sporting a T-shirt and jeans; this guy is always, always dressed to kill.  He was not the only familiar face that I ran into, but you can read that later.

At the Hi-Fi press luncheon it was announced that next years show will be at the Hilton Rye Town in Westchester County, NY.  It was also announced that they have changed the name of the show. Next year it will be called, “Home Entertainment 2000.” - SS -

Being from Ohio, this wasn’t my first time to Chicago, but it was my first Hi-Fi show.  I must say, I was a bit disappointed.  Reading about all the glamour and developments released at other shows such as CES and CEDIA, I had higher expectations.  Many of the audio rooms had very poor video, and some of the marketing people had very little knowledge of the products they were representing.  There were some interesting products, and I will share my opinion and collected information about these below.  I did have Lasik eye surgery the day before, and my vision was still correcting, so I will avoid being too critical of the video displays.

Being a college student, I am more accustomed to (and even more comfortable in) places like Gino’s, and I really love the occasional Chicago style thick crust pizza.  I was looking forward to ‘the best Cajun food in the east’ at Heaven on Seven, but the potential for the best sound in Chicago, which Stacey alluded to, took priority. - SE -

XTRAX (Booths, Room Lower Exhibition Hall)

Xtrax Labs is a Chicago based company that is not in the business of making products . They are focused on creating technologies.  They introduced something so simple, how have we ever lived without it?  With the advent of DVD, it might be too late, but perhaps you can use their technology on DVD as well.

Xtrax has invented a simple new way of programming your CD player. They call it “pick ‘n’ play.”  You simply apply an Xtrax label (sticker) to your CD.  The label contains 24 check boxes that represent the tracks on your CD; it also has 4 option boxes, which can be used for something like EQ settings or random programming.  You simply mark, with a pen, the tracks you do not want to hear.  When you insert a CD into your player, these marked tracks do not show up in the table of contents and are not played.

I know, all CD players offer the ability to program what titles you want to hear, but how many of us actually use that feature?  Heck, a lot of us probably leave our VCRs with the flashing 12:00.  The regular method of custom programming a CD only works on the CD players that you program it on.  So when you take that CD to a friend’s house, your programming is gone.  With Xtrax, your CD carries the programming information, and as long as your friend's CD player supports Xtrax, it will work there too.

Right now, there are no CD players that have the Xtrax feature, because it is so new, but since the component is only $0.50 per player, it will probably be added in future players.  The Xtrax is a small ribbon cable with a tiny circuit board on the end.  At the show, they had it installed in a portable CD player and a CD changer.  They are also working with the music industry to pre-package CDs with the label already applied. However, I doubt the music industry will really want this on their CDs, because the last thing an artist would want is for it to be easy for you to skip songs. I suspect that downloading just the musical numbers you want from an artist (pay per song), rather than buying the whole CD, represents the future. CD-Rs are routine now, with blank media costing less than a dollar per disc, and Sony has announced recordable DVD. So, you would just download the songs you want, and burn then onto a CD-R or DVD-R, right on your computer. - SS -

Unfortunately I missed this room, but something just doesn't seem right with this concept.  It feels like a duct tape solution.  Here we are in a digital world with potential for tons of features and functionality, and we  resort to a Bic pen to compensate for a poorly designed user interface.  Someday I will make my audio preferences known to my personal computer, and that information will automatically follow me around from room to car to discman, etc.  Until then maybe I will be filling in ovals on stickers with my pen. On the other hand, since CDs are actually becoming yesterday's technology (can you believe it?!), Xtrax is just providing the patch. Keep in mind that Xtrax will be backwards compatible with all the millions of old CDs out there (I guess that is really what it's for), as long as it is installed on your new player. - SE -


ASC (Booths, Room Lower Exhibition Hall)

ASC had a booth at the entrance of the Exhibition Hall.  The booth was surrounded by their new Proponent series.  There were several other manufacturers that used the Proponents to improve the sound of the hotel rooms.  Some of the rooms I remember seeing them in include Polk Audio, Wilson Audio, and Infinity.

Room acoustics is the one area where we tend not to spend much money.  We are more concerned with special equipment racks and audio cables, and we should also be paying attention to the room itself.  Dealing with the first reflection point on the side walls can make the single biggest improvement.  ASC's Fresco is designed just for that.  It is 6" D x 13" W x 60" H.  In a home theater you will need three pairs, one pair for each front speaker (left/center/right).  The Fresco's retail for $678 a pair.  They also have the new Cornerstone which is an improved version of their Tube Trap product, for $389 each.  And rounding out the new Proponent series is the Foundation.  This is a mini tube trap that is designed to be used under your subwoofer.  It retails for $329 each.


Monitor Audio (3rd Floor, Room PDR 2)

David Solomon of Monitor Audio has to be one of the most passionate people I have met when it comes to music.  When he is demonstrating his speakers, its like he is part of the sound.  He will tell you what to listen for and what you should be experiencing.  I always enjoy talking to him at trade shows.

With that said, Monitor was showing off their new Silver Series.  They represent a more affordable version of the Full Metal Theater.  [Click here To read a review of the Full Metal Theater.]

These little speakers were producing an amazing sound.  A Meridian 561 surround processor and Meridian monoblocks were driving them with the help of  a Denon DVD player.

Monitor Audio was using the Silver 5s for the left and right speaker, and they retail for $999.  The Silver Series does not have the dipolar/bipolar speaker that the Full Metal Theater speakers have. The Silvers use a pair of direct firing speakers for the surrounds called the Silver 3.  The Silver Center delivers crisp clear intelligible dialog.  They had the ASW 210 producing the bass, that is when David was not showing how much bottom end the Silver 5s had. - SS -

We started with a demo from "Desperado" that sounded pretty convincing.  Stacey asked one of the Monitor reps to switch to audio 2, and the rep responded, “What, you want to hear it in Spanish or something?” as he fumbled with the remote.  (David was not in the room at this time. - SS -)  Stacey took the remote and switched the DVD from Pro Logic to Dolby Digital, and the dynamic range and surround really kicked in.  This experience was a testament to several things: 1) Meridian Tri-Field does amazing things;  2) reps can be clueless sometimes; 3) somebody was asleep when it came time to design DVD's user friendliness. - SE -


Wilson Audio / Wadia (3rd Floor, Room PDR 4)

Wilson was showing off their new Watt Puppy 6.  This new speaker was on display in various cabinet colors.  They are going to retail for a mere $18,900 a pair. A pair of Wadia 790 PowerDAC digital amplifiers was powering the Wilson speakers.  It’s nice to see people integrating the DAC into the amplifiers; this leaves much less distance for the analog signal to travel. However, I was surprised because, even though the DACs were built right into the amplifiers, the amount of background noise and hiss coming from the speakers was high..  For the amount of money being spent I would expect dead silence in the background. - SS -


Kimber (3rd Floor, Room PDR 5)

For the audio buff who wants it all, Kimber displayed an AC outlet that is priced at $240, and that is EACH, not for a box of 100!  The outlet is called the WATTaGATE 380, and it is being billed as an audio grade wall receptacle.  All the internal contacts are gold plated. Although gold is actually not as good a conductor as copper or silver, it does not oxidize. Me, I'll take the $1.49 version at Home Depot.

On the other side of the Kimber booth they showed the strength of their RCA connectors by hanging a dumbell from the interconnects that were plugged into them.  Having tight connections is important, and I do like the WBT RCAs they are using. - SS -

I try to be very open minded when I see products like this.  There is no arguing that the WATTaGATE is a high quality, well designed AC receptacle.  But how much is too much?  It seems the point of diminishing returns has long passed here. - SE -


Dynaudio / Mark Levinson (3rd Floor, Room PDR 6)

Dynaudio held their press conference on Thursday morning.  Both Scott and I attended, along with writers from all of the other magazines.  We were treated with a demonstration of their “Evidence” $85,000 loudspeaker.  The bad news is, that's not a typo. The good news is, that's $85,000 per pair rather than each ;->.

Every part of the Evidence speaker is designed and built in-house (at that price, maybe it's in-palace).  For those who don’t know, many companies purchase component parts of their speakers - like drivers - from other manufacturers, like Dynaudio and Vifa. Often, the drivers are custom modified for a specific design. Nothing wrong with that at all, but designing them from scratch gives you total control of your final product. Of course, this also makes them much more expensive.

The speakers come in three sections and are connected together with an aluminum locking mechanism.  The finished arrangement consists of two bass modules with a midrange module sandwiched in between.  The modules sit atop a steel plinth with adjustable spikes.

Each bass module has two 8” woofers, while the midrange module has two Ferrofluid-cooled tweeters and two 6” cone midrange drivers.  The speaker crossover is mounted in the back of the midrange module on plug-in cards.  This allows the speakers to be upgraded as things change.  They also use WBT connectors.  The speakers were designed from the outset to be upgradeable.

Currently the speakers are available in Rosewood and Bird’s Eye Maple.  You can also special order custom finishes.  The speakers are 9.6” W x 82.2” H x 22.1” D.

The Evidence were being driven by a complete all Mark Levinson reference system, consisting of their No 31.5 Transport, No 30.6 DAC, No 32 Preamplifier, and a pair of No 33 Power amplifiers.

Three cuts of music were demonstrated.  I have the same complaint here that I had just down the hall in the Wilson / Wadia room.  The sound was amazing, with every detail, but there was too much hiss and noise for this amount of money. If the hiss was in the CD, they should have used a different one. - SS -

Lots of enthusiasm here from Dynaudio on their new $85k “Evidence” speakers.  Nice design and performance was pretty good.  $85k good?  I don’t know, but for that kind of scratch I expect to have my socks blown off (assuming I still owned any clothes after paying the MasterCharge bill). - SE -


Dolby (3rd Floor, Room PDR 9)

Dolby Labs had several HDTV demos going.  First they played pre-recorded HDTV excerpts from a hard drive.  It opened with "The English Patient".  The image was soft and lacked detail.  It could be how the scene was in the theater, I'm not really sure.  They also showed clips from "The Ghost and the Darkness", "Opium Wars", and "Men in Black".  The video clip from "Men in Black" was by far the best hi-def I witnessed at the show.

They next played HTDV being fed in live from an EchoStar Satellite feed.  Again, the scene was from "The Ghost and the Darkness".  This looked much better than what was being shown from the hard drive. - SS -


Sony (3rd Floor, Room Wabash Parlor)

On the first day of the Trade/Press days, Sony held a press conference to introduce their high quality audio format SACD and SCD-1 player.

Their first audio player, the SCD-1, is going to retail for somewhere around $5,000.  It is a 2 channel- only system unlike the multi-channel DVD-Audio format.  They also announced that they plan on having 40 titles available when the SCD-1 is released.  The SCD-1 has a digital output, but this is only for CD playback, not SACD playback.  The only way you are going to get the high quality info from this baby is if you use the analog outputs.  So, you will need a high quality analog preamp to take advantage of it, as opposed to using a preamp with digital inputs and digital processing.

Sony had announced at one time that they were going to offer a hybrid CD/SACD disc.  Things seem to have changed. First, the cost would be too high.  People are used to paying $12.99 - $17.99 for a standard CD, and most would not be willing to shell out $25+ for a new hybrid disc.  Second is compatibility. While the disc should work with any CD player that meets spec, it appears that greater than 50% of the CD players on the market today do not meet spec and therefore might not play these new hybrid discs.

Sony also had a few plasma screens on display along with their new 200 disc DVD changer.  The changer is going to retail for a mere $699, and you can’t beat that.  They were also showing their new line of Sony ES gear.

Additionally, they had set up a little theater room which was being powered by a whole Sony theater system and their VPHG90U projector.  While their demo was pretty good, they should have done some better editing with their demo software.  It would show some production stuff, then switch to some film, and then back again.  The transition was fine, but the volume would change drastically, and someone had to manually adjust it each time.  It was very distracting.  The projector was a nice piece, but their DRC technology can’t compete with the like of the iScan, Faroudja, TranScanner, or Snell & Wilcox Interpolator.  The image was plagued with jaggies, but it was free of scan lines.

Scott would have enjoyed this demo, but he was outside talking control software with one of the Sony guys. - SS -

I didn’t get to see this demo because I was chatting about Sony’s new 200 disc DVD changer.  Sony included some daisy chaining capabilities, but these features only work for audio CDs, not DVDs.  The good news was I learned that Sony makes an RS-232-to-S-link converter for use by custom installers.  This means you can use a computer or even an AMX system to control a whole slew of Sony gear.  In the emerging world of Havi, HomeAPI and other control initiatives, this could be very useful. - SE -


NAD / PSB Speakers (7th Floor, Room Burnham 2)

I do not have much experience with either NAD or PSB, but after visiting this room, I plan on getting to know them better.

NAD had some absolutely beautiful products on display.  Their Silver Series would make any spouse happy with its aesthetics.  They had the S100 preamplifier ($1,199), S200 power amplifier ($1,499), S300 integrated amplifier ($2,199), S400 FM Tuner ($999), S500 CD player ($1,499), and S70 remote control ($199).

On the home theater side of things, they had the T770 Dolby Digital surround receiver ($1,699) and T750 surround receiver.  They are calling them the first music-first A/V receivers ($699). 

The T770 can deliver 2 channels at 80 watts each, or 5 channels at 70-watts each.  The T770 does all of its processing in the digital domain, including Pro Logic decoding.  It is using 18-bit Burr-Brown DACs.  The internal DSP of the T770 is a 24-bit Motorola chip.  It also has a built-in RF demodulator for laserdiscs.  Like any well designed receiver, it includes a 5.1 channel input for use with an outboard decoder like DTS.

The more affordable T750 does not include an internal Dolby Digital decoder but does have 5.1 inputs so you can use an external decoder.  The T750 does its Pro Logic decoding in the analog domain unlike its big brother.  The T750 can provide 2 channels of 60 watt audio or 3 channels at 50 watts for the left, center, and right speakers and 2 channels of 30 watts each for the surround channels.  The T750 was designed to be used with those DVD players that have the built in 6 channel Dolby Digital decoders pre-out jacks.

NAD also had a cute little music system that consisted of the L40 CD receiver and a pair of PSB Alpha mini speakers.  The little system retails for $799.

PSB had an upgraded version of their Stratus Silver speakers on display.  The Stratus Silver is a three-driver system that uses two 6 ½” woofers and a 1” aluminum-dome tweeter.  The crossover drives both woofers for low frequencies but only one at the midrange level.  The Stratus Silvers retail for $1,799 and are available in both black ash and dark cherry wood veneer.  For $1,999 you can get them in high-gloss black.

PSB also exhibited their Image Series of loudspeakers.  There are ten models available which include one powered subwoofer, two center channels, three surrounds, and four towers. - SS -


HSU Research (7th Floor, Burnham 5)

Dr. Poh Ser Hsu and his wife always have something new to show off at these trade shows.  Poh Ser always likes to play tricks on the audience, though I am used to it by now.  He had his new VTF-2 subwoofer hooked up, but it was the one in the back right corner of the room that was shaking the foundation.

The front of the room had a VTF-1 on the far left and right sides, with a VTF-2 in the center.  The left and right main speakers were the NHT Super Zeros.

VTF stands for Variable Tuning Frequency and will be available in two models: the VTF-2 and larger future version VTF-1.  The VTF-2 is fairly small at 16” H x 16” W x 19.5” D.  It contains a 10” woofer and a 150-watt amplifier.  It weighs in at 50 pounds and retails for $499.

HSU research also had on display a 500 watt subwoofer amplifier.  It has all the features that make it subwoofer friendly like phase (00/1800) switch, soft clipping circuit, and plug in crossover modules.  This little gem weighs in at 35 pounds and retails for $649.  Crossover frequencies are available in 28, 34, 43, 51, 62, 75, 109, and 155 Hz.

It is amazing how the use of affordable speakers, connected to standard zip cord and being run off of a mass-market receiver and CD player can rival that of mega buck products on display elsewhere in the show.  If you wanted to hear what the masses can afford, all you had to do was pay a visit to the HSU room and you would be blown away!

The little NHTs blended so well with the VTF-2, that it sounded like one speaker, and the sub they were using was in the back right corner of the room to boot! - SS -

The HSU room was a great reality check for me.  Room after room of mega buck speakers and equipment, well thought out acoustics and lighting, etc.  The HSU room had a terrible LCD projector, a standard mass market receiver, low cost speakers, and no cost speaker wire.  And the sound was terrific.  I am not advocating that everyone regress to a budget system, just be aware of the surprisingly high level of performance that can be achieved with a well designed, inexpensive setup.  HSU subwoofers never cease to amaze, bringing standard sub/sat configurations to a new level. This also shows how much a good sub can add to a small system. - SE -


Infinity (7th Floor, Room LaSalle 1, 2)

Infinity introduced their new Prelude MTS home theater system.  The one they had on display at the show was a prototype.  The MTS system includes a couple of new acronym technologies: Ceramic Metal Matrix Diaphragm TM (CMMD) driver technology, and a clear Plexiglas box with their subwoofer room correction board aka Room Adaptive Bass Optimization System TM (RABOS).

The MTS system includes a pair of matching left and right towers.  These towers consist of one 1” tweeter, one 4” midrange, four 5 ¼” mid-bass drivers, and one 12” powered subwoofer with a 500 watt amplifier.  The system also includes the center channel which contains one 1” high-frequency driver, one 4” midrange driver, and dual 5 ¼” mid-bass drivers.  The surrounds are identical to the front speakers, minus the subwoofers.  They did not announce the price of this package at the show.

A Lexicon surround processor and amplifiers were driving the Prelude MTS home theater system.

They also had their really cool FPS-1000 Flat-Panel speakers on display, just sort of hanging around.  John Johnson did a review of these recently; they would be perfect for a ceiling or rear center speaker where space is limited.

And finally, Infinity had a stack of subwoofers on display.  Their High Performance Subwoofers or HPS come in a stylish art deco design and in three flavors: the HPS-250, HPS-500, and HPS-1000.

The HPS-250 contains a 12” driver and a 250 watt amplifier, and it retails for $699.  The next step up, the HP-500, uses a 15” driver and 500 watt amplifier, and it retails for $999.  The revolutionary HPS-1000 has 15” downward firing driver and dual side firing 15” passive radiators.  It retails for $1,299.  I can see JEJ salivating now. He loves them woofers! - SS -


Faroudja (7th Floor, LaSalle 3)

Faroudja had both the DVP-2200 (a video processor) and LCD projector on display.  I have never been a fan of LCD projectors because of the screen door effect, but the Faroudja / Info Focus LS700 LCD projector was stunning!  Scott did not even realize that it was an LCD projector until I told him. This thing really gives CRT and DLP projectors some competition.

I stopped by later after Scott left and got to see the DVP-2200 in action.  They said that the Chroma decoder in the DVP-2200 is their best yet, even better than what is in the VS50.  [Click here  to read a review of the VS50.]  I was told they were able to get the cost down because everything is now on 12 ICs.  The VP-301 still contains a large amount of discrete components, and that's why its cost is almost double the DVP-2200.

They showed a scene from "Blues Brothers 2000".  I could not see any scan lines, and they were running it at 600p.  Faroudja is calling the DVP-2200 a scaler. It actually runs at one of two fixed scan rates, but internally it scales the 4x3 and letterbox video to 16x9.  I did not get to see how it handled 4x3 or letterbox sources, because all their material was 16x9. - SS -

The LCD projector here impressed me. It really demonstrates the kind of results you can get when you take the work of experts and put it all together.  This makes me excited about the future of non-CRT based video systems, especially DLP.  Tons of potential once the technology matures. For one thing, LCD and DLP run cooler than CRTs. Secondly, the image comes out of one lens instead of three, so alignment issues are reduced. Third, they are lighter and smaller, so they will fit in a home theater without taking over the whole room. The problem in the past was image quality. The LS700 kisses that problem goodbye. - SE -


Vidikron (7th Floor, Room LaSalle 4)

These guys showed off their ever so sweet Vision One projector.  They demonstrated a clip on DVD fed through the Faroudja Quad of "Blues Brothers 2000".  The Faroudja’s detail enhancement might have been set a smidgen too high as there was a slight outline around the characters, but with that said, the depth the picture had was amazing!

They then fed HDTV from a hard drive that included some outdoors clips and some Rose Bowl parade clips.  Having seen the Rose Bowl parade live many times, I can say that the HDTV was lacking.  I think it was definitely the source because I have seen that projector perform much better. The DVD looked as good as the HDTV, if not better. - SS -

I agree with Stacey here.  I have seen the Vision One being sourced from a Unity Motion feed, and it looked much better than the analog tape based HDTV being shown here.  Previous HDTV demos with this projector just seemed to pull me into the picture. Amazing, really. - SE -


Seleco / DVDO / Da-Lite (7th Floor, Room Montrose 3)

While DVDO was not official there, the iScan line doubler was being demonstrated in the Seleco booth.  Joe Kane was also on hand at this booth to answer questions.

They had their SVD 800 HD Projector on display with the DVDO iScan line doubler. The screen was a Da-Lite Horizon Electrol screen.  The new Da-Lite screen has the ability to change aspect ratios by using a masking system. The SVD 800 HD utilizes 7” CRTs, and it can scan up to 72 kHz.  The price of the projector is $14,995.

The picture looked even better than the pre-production iScan I reviewed previously, although they were playing video material that I am unfamiliar with.  [Click here to read a review of the iScan.]    They, like most everyone else at the show, were demonstrating their equipment using clips from Blues Brother 2000.  The first day, when Scott and I visited the booth, the flesh tones were looking a little hot.  The next day when I returned, everything looked much better.

The iScan mated well with the Seleco projector, and scan lines were not visible from the viewing seats with the anamorphic Blues Brothers 2000.  As I said in my review of the iScan, this is going to be one hot selling little product!

Speaking of Joe Kane, it seems he is in the planning stages of his next DVD, “Digital Video Essentials.”  You can expect this new disc sometime after the 2nd half of 2000.  He is actually working on three discs: NTSC, PAL, and 720p versions. 

Before you ask, I don’t know anything about the 720p thing except that sometime next year we may get to see a 720p DVD player.  Perhaps there will be more info at WCES on this new technology.  For now, enjoy your current 480i DVD player. We haven’t even been able to get 480p players yet, so don’t expect the 720p until late 2000 at the earliest!

Joe’s new disc will be a DVD-ROM and will be dual-layered.  It will have DTS and DD test tones.  The 720p will contain additional information and will still require the standard NTSC version to get all of the info. - SS -


Linn (7th Floor, Sandburg 8)

Linn had a rather cool display going, with their new Klimax amplifiers (8 of them) mounted on the wall. Not only were they powering their speakers, but they also doubled as a room decoration.  The room was very soothing, with a soft blue sheet arranged around the perimeter.

The Hi-Fi show was the introduction of their Klimax solo amplifier.  Each amplifier delivers over 500 watts of power.  Linn also introduced two new CD players, the Ikemi and Genki.  Linn has some pretty cool names for their products. Much nicer than the TK-421 type of naming that so many companies use.

Linn builds their entire system from source to speakers. They believe in a total “package” approach, and the sound quality shows.  I like the ability to upgrade crossovers inside the loudspeakers from passive to active and having several different ones available. - SS -

A very dynamic system, with one monoblock amplifier per driver and an outboard active crossover.  Plus, the monoblocks looked really cool hanging from the wall! - SE -


Marantz (8th Floor, Room 8160)

Marantz had a few nifty toys coming out, including a new remote control, and a few new A/V receivers.  The RC5000 is the successor to the popular RC2000, and it appears to be a Philips Pronto repackaged.

Marantz introduced their new THX Ultra certified flagship receiver, the SR-18, which includes all the latest buzzwords, THX, DD, DTS, and 24/96.  The SR-18 packs in 140 WPC with 5 channels.  The suggested retail price for this new bad boy is $2,699.

If you are into separates, Marantz has two products that might interest you, the AV-9000 with THX, DD, DTS, 24/96, and an AM/FM tuner for $1,799.  They also introduced a successor to the popular AV-550, called the AV-560.  They have added DTS, while maintaining the same price at $999. - SS -


Samsung (9th Floor, Room 9142, 9146)

Samsung had their new line of HDTV/HDTV-ready television sets called the Tantus.  They showed a 65” model, the CJ652W with built in DTV tuner and 9” CRTs, for $7,999, a 53” model without a built in tuner, HCJ552W for $3,499, and a 40” model DTV-ready set.

Samsung also introduced a couple of 4:3 HDTV ready sets.  Since HTDV is going to be 16:9, I am not really sure what their market is for these two.  The 61” PCJ614RF will retail for $5,999, and the 53” PHJ534RF will be $2,999.

I was disappointed to find out that the Samsung 65”, with built-in HDTV decoder, will up-convert everything to 1080i.  This means you do not even get 480p because they up-convert that format to 1080i.  I don’t want to pick on Samsung, but signals should be displayed as they are broadcast, except for 480i, which should be converted to 480p via a high quality line doubler. But 720p should stay 720p when it gets to the screen.

Samsung also introduced the ARS-T100 DTV decoder.  It can decode all 18 ATSC formats but will only output 480p or 1080i in either RGB or YUV.  The retail price of the ARS-T100 is $1,999 and should be available in July. - SS -


Pioneer / Pioneer Elite (9th Floor, Room 9155, 9159A)  

Pioneer had a prototype of their new DVD-A drive on display.  I was told that this might be what is released in Japan, but the US version will be different.  They said that the DVD-09 is still in the product line-up and will not be replaced until a DVD-Audio/Video player is created, which is a ways off.  So those waiting for a successor to the DVD-09 have a long wait ahead of them.  This consumer trade show does not really unveil future products, as that info is saved for the CES in Vegas.  We should have more info then.

Pioneer was also showing off some nifty new compact home theater speakers designed by Andrew Jones.  The line includes 3 new L/R combinations, a center channel, subwoofer, and surround speakers all at affordable prices. - SS -



I was most interested in seeing their new TIVO personal video recorder.  They had two on display. TIVO is one of at least two products being released in 1999, which will let you pause an ongoing TV program while you do other things, and then come back and start the program from where you left off. It works by recording what you are watching onto a big hard drive, and playing it back a few minutes after it is actually coming into the recorder. This lets you skip commercials if you want to, keeping the program almost at the moment it happens.

They have put together a new book entitled, “DTV for Dummies.”  I am sure you have seen this line of books in the store before, on computer program topics, and this one is about our television future.

TIVO is available in two models for now, the $499 14-hour model and the $999 30-hour model.  You then have to pay a subscription fee for their guide at $9.95 per month, $99 per year, or $199 for a lifetime membership. The program guide lets you highlight a particular set of programs that you want to record, and the TIVO does the rest. You don't need to type in any times for the recorder to come on or turn off. It's all in the TIVO programming guide.

Philips also had on display their 64” 64PP9901 HDTV.  The retail price is $9,990.  I think it is interesting that the first HDTVs are all around the 65” picture size.  A little big for most consumers as they take up large amounts of floor space and the price is too high. But, large TVs are the best way to really show off HDTV.

They had their Pronto remotes on display.  [Click here to read of review of the Pronto.]

They also showed a new S-VHS VCR that will retail for $299.  When I first purchased my SVHS deck, a few years back now, it was $1,000.  It’s nice to see the price come WAY down. Now, if we can just get those digital video (DV) VCRs away from that $2,000 price tag.

Lastly, Philips had their new DVD825 DVD player.  This little product features something they are touting: it's upgradeable!  Plus, it retails for $349.  They say it has the ability to add audio and video options, screen savers, and search modes.  It is equipped with dual lasers so you can listen to CD-Rs (recordable CDs).  The one thing it is missing is component video outputs.  Perhaps that is a future video upgrade option. - SS -


PS Audio / Perpetual Technologies (11th Floor, Room 11128)

PS Audio had their new Power Plant 300 on display.  This is the first of four products coming out that generate new, perfect, AC.  The Power Plants actually convert the AC coming from your wall to DC, and then they generate new AC that has a perfect sine wave and convert it back to AC like a UPS does.   They also claim it will provide you 115 Volts of power at all times no matter what the juice from your wall is providing.  So, it does not matter if the AC drops down to 90 volts or jumps up above 115 volts.  The Power Plant also outputs balanced AC, which means that the hot and neutral connectors are 120 volts potential difference, while hot to ground is 60 volts, and neutral to ground is 60 volts.

I was excited to see the Power Plant at Hi-Fi 99. These are the exciting tweaks that I always look forward to.  Prior to hearing about the Power Plant, I was planning on getting an industrial UPS and a balanced conditioner.  I will get the same benefit, minus the battery backup, with the Power Plant, all in one box.

Perpetual introduced their new P-1A speaker correction device.  I remember some time ago, Mark Shifter mentioned he was working on this technology.  Several years later his dream is now coming to market.

The P-1A is supposed to correct a speaker's Phase, Time, and Amplitude.  The P-1A contains updateable software that is designed for your specific speaker.  The box will retail for $995, and for this price it does de-jittering and dithering of the audio signal.  For a $399 upgrade, it will add the speaker correction.  You will also be able to upgrade from there to full room correction.  Perpetual will supply you with a microphone and test CD.  You record the data and send the info back to them. They then create the room EQ and you can download it from their website directly into the DSP1.

Besides the P-1A, Perpetual had a Genesis digital lens, and a TACT digital amplifier.  Mark played a piece of music, then played it again, switching the P-1A in and out.  They had the other features of the P-1A like de-jittering and resolution enhancement disabled. They just wanted to demonstrate the speaker correction by itself.  This is exciting technology. Musical instruments became more defined in their space.  The depth of the soundstage increased, and everything just became clearer.

Both of these companies will be selling directly on the Internet to offer consumers the best prices and will be sold at http://www.av123.com. - SS -

Being an Electrical & Computer Engineering student (full blown ECE in one week!), these are products I could talk about for hours. In fact I had read all the literature about the Power Plant before coming to the show.  I spent quite a bit of time in front of a white board with the PS Audio representative discussing some of the operating principles.  The categories of AC power and A/V cables have always been a bit of a black art in the high end audio and video world. PS Audio isn’t an exception here, but I am happy to say that Power Plant is one of the most promising products in the audio AC power areas I have ever seen.

The goal is perfect AC to power your A/V gear, and the approach is to use an audio amplifier to generate the AC.  Yup, the wall current goes through a transformer to feed DC current into an audio amplifier.  A microprocessor and DAC generate a sine wave as an input to the amplifier, then the juiced up outputs are wired to the outlets in a balanced configuration, meaning that you get +60 V on one spade and –60V on the other spade, yielding 120 V.  The benefit to balanced output is that any common mode noise is rejected. That is, any noise affecting all the power conductors is canceled out.  Another interesting feature on the Power Plant is what PS Audio calls power factor correction.  This really isn’t power factor correction at all (which would involve changing the reactive impedance of the load), but is a feature that alters the frequency of the amplifier, up to 120 Hz.  But why?  The idea is that almost all A/V gear takes wall power and converts it to DC to operate.  Most gear uses a transformer and rectifier to do this.  A rectifier works by taking the ‘humps’ of the sine wave and making them all positive (called a Full Wave rectifier, as opposed to a half wave rectifier that discards the negative portion of the incoming AC sine waves). By rectification, the AC becomes DC. The humps are smoothed out with capacitors.  Well, this is much easier to do if the humps are closer together (as in 120 Hz AC instead of 60 Hz AC), which is exactly what is going on with PS Audio's technology. Unfortunately, most transformers are not designed to run at higher frequencies than 60 Hz and can mechanically resonate when they are.  Can PS Audio design an amplifier that can amplify a sine wave continuously at full output?  We'll see, but the prospects are certainly interesting.

The P-1A is another fascinating device.  It's a completely digital signal processor.  It starts as a PCM ‘noise shaper’ doing digital upsampling and increasing the bit-depth by shaping the noise and data, much like the Meridian 518 does.  However, the device can be upgraded to alter the PCM audio data to compensate for speaker performance.  Some speaker manufacturers provide impulse response data to Perpetual for use in the P-1A, or the results can be measured by the customer, the data uploaded to a powerful computer over the Internet, and the new algorithms can be downloaded a few hours later.  Where is this technology headed in the multi-channel world?  Time will tell, but one thing is for sure, digital is hot! - SE -


Cinepro / Polk Audio (11th Floor, Room 11150)

Polk introduced a couple of complete system approaches.  First, they had the more affordable RM Digital Solution, which includes an A/V receiver, five powered speakers, and a powered subwoofer.  The receiver has been streamlined; they have removed features like bass management because the entire system is pre-configured as it will be used with their speakers.  The complete package will retail for $2,699.

They also had on display their cost no object system, which mated the Polk Audio Signature Reference Series (SRT) with thousands of watts of power from Cinepro.  The amplifiers used have been specially modified to drive the SRT system.  They played the opening sequence from "Lost in Space" (what a terrible flick!)  But, it made for a great demo, and it showed the dynamic power of this integrated package.  They made a point of noting that the system was set at reference level, with the dialog at 85 dB, about the same as someone talking in a room.  Then the explosions kicked in at 120 dB! - SS -


Canton / Lexicon / Zenith / Miranda (11th Floor, Room 11243)

It’s been a long time since I have seen a home THX speaker system.  It seems that most companies have steered away from the THX speaker program.  Canton was showing off its new THX Ultra line of speakers.

Driving the Speakers was the Lexicon MC-1 and Lexicon Amplifiers.  The video was being run through a Miranda line doubler feed to a Zenith projector.  The movie being demonstrated was "A Bug's Life".

The audio was the best part of this demonstration, as the video was lacking.  This the second time I have experienced a Miranda video processor.  I have read a lot of hype on various Internet news groups about the Miranda, and I am not sure what they were hyping.  Last month I got to experience a Miranda quadrupler being fed from a Theta David, using a Serial digital connection running to a Hughes/JVC ILA projector.  Again, there was nothing special here. Every other video processor I have seen looked better than both of these Miranda demos.

The clips from "A Bug's Life" looked lifeless.  The picture was soft and lacking any detail.  Seeing "A Bug's Life" on the Dwin HDP-500/TranScanner combo easily blew this away.  I have seen the Zenith projector before and it has looked much better. Keep in mind that it is not easy to set up equipment in a hotel or convention center. Most likely, you will always get better results at home. - SS -


Our Road trip (Orland Park, IL)

During the press luncheon, Scott and I discovered that Meridian, who was not exhibiting at the Hi-Fi show, was demonstrating their new 800 DVD player at a Sight and Sound in Orland Park, Illinois.

Orland Park was a 40-minute drive away, so we rented a car from Avis and picked up a couple of Gold Coast hot dogs for the road trip.  We really were not sure which way to go, exactly.  Our first direction was to take the 90/94 away from Wisconsin.  We quickly found ourselves heading towards Milwaukee and we were stuck in the express lane.  (That was my fault being the navigator and all.)  We lucked out and caught the 294 South and learned just how much toll roads suck.  A few wrong turns and a couple of White Castle sliders later we ended up at Sight and Sound.

Upon entering the store we ran into Andy Regan of Meridian.  Since Bob Stuart was running the demo in the Meridian Digital Theater room, Andy took us into the two-channel room.  Here they had an 800 DVD player set up as a preamp using balanced outputs into power amplifiers and then into a pair of B&W speakers.  The sound was very pleasing, not a trace of background noise.  So many demos, including 24-bit ones, always have lots of background noise.

We next took seats in the demo room.  Earlier Scott and I were talking about a friend of ours who does ISF calibrations.  He calibrated Scott’s Toshiba and I met him a couple of years ago at the ISF dream vacation in Florida.  Sitting there I realized that Ken, the guy we were talking about, was standing in front of us.

The home theater demo consisted of an 800 DVD player feeding an 861 Surround processor running a beta Version of the 2.5 firmware.  (That version is not ready yet, but it will probably be available in a month or so.) [Click here to read a review of the 861.]  The 861 was connected to a pair of DSP6000s for the main left and right, a DSP5000C center channel, and a pair of DSP5000s for the rears.  All of the DSP speakers were the new upgraded 24/96 models.  The video was running from the 800 straight to a Snell & Wilcox Interpolator and then into a Runco DTV-1100 projector.

They showed a scene from "The Fifth Element" that was stunning. Blacks were truly and deeply black!  It was, without a doubt, the best video presentation I witnessed in Chicago.  Bob Stuart also played some 24/96 music, and this was the best 24/96 presentation I have heard to date.  While I have 24/96 DVDs of my own, my DVD player will not pass the bitstream signal, and my 861 will not receive the signal.  There was not a trace of background noise or hiss.  Previous 24/96 presentations, not to mention some $$$ equipment combo’s that I have heard, have been plagued with background noise. Of course, 24/96 does not imply reduced noise, but it they want us to hear the musical improvement, the noise should certainly be low.

After hearing the future of high-end audio, Bob played both a music DVD, the "Best of Sessions at West 54th", and some musical CD pieces.  For both pieces he played them as is, and then he used their new upsampling technology that converts PCM 16/44.1 to 24/88.2.  This cool new feature will be in the 861 2.5 software upgrade!  I can’t wait for that to be released on the web.  To take advantage of the up sampling, or what Meridian calls Meridian High Resolution, you will need the IE16 digital input card and the OE12 if you are using their DSP speakers or the OA02/OA12 if you are using the analog outputs.

Meridian has developed their own encryption technology to allow them to pass the 24/96 data from the 800 to the 861 and from the 861 to the DSP speakers.  This technology is on the IE16 and OE12 input and output cards.  The DSP speaker upgrade already has the ability to receive the encrypted signals. - SS -

I won't comment on Stacey's navigating skills.  It was lots of fun being able to go right to the source, Bob Stuart, to get the scoop on some of the upcoming developments and underlying design decisions for Meridian products.  To see and hear the 800, 861, and DSP6000 all in action and running true 24/96 right to the speaker was a treat indeed.  Meridian has taken the innovative approach of designing the 800 quite like a computer.  The DVD drive reads the data off the disc where it can be processed by the modular functionality of the 800.  The modular approach allows for countless future potential features: 1394 interfaces, MP3 storage and playback, multidisc changers, digital or progressive video output. Only time will tell what Meridian will come up with.  Some of these products seem like they take forever to hit the streets, but Meridian is actually working faster than the music industry, being forced to invent their own proprietary digital connection to support 24/96 rather than wait for copy protection issues to get ironed out.  Hopefully these legal issues and barriers will be removed, allowing Meridian to develop the highest quality functionality for their customers (specifically interoperable digital interfaces and progressive video in the near term).  I hate to see industry committees stifling product development.

The two channel B&W/800 setup sounded very good, but I think I heard someone mutter a description of "fantastically passive," and after hearing the 800 paired with the digital and active DSP6000, I knew exactly what was meant. - SE -


Stacey Spears and Scott Evans

© Copyright 1999 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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