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CEDIA Expo 2005: Home Theater Trends

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The latest developments in home theater technology were on display at CEDIA Expo 2005 in Indianapolis. Michael Miller was there and brought us this report on the newest and most exciting technologies.

The Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) is an organization of and for professional electronics installers. CEDIA has more than 3,000 member companies worldwide, and every September they meet in a huge trade show in Indianapolis. CEDIA Expo 2005 took place September 7-11, and featured new home theater products from hundreds of companies, both big and small.

CEDIA Expo might sound like it would be a small trade show, but it's not. The show filled the entire Indiana Convention Center, part of the adjacent RCA Dome, and even overflowed into several nearby hotels; there were more than 25,000 members in attendance. All the big names in consumer electronics were there, including Denon, Mitsubishi, Onkyo, Panasonic, Pioneer, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, and Yamaha. Also notable were many smaller, more specialized companies, displaying everything from in-wall speakers to whole-house audio/video distribution systems. CEDIA Expo has become the number-two trade show for the home theater industry, behind only the venerable Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held every January in Las Vegas. Many manufacturers used CEDIA Expo as a forum to introduce all manner of new products.

The equipment you find at the CEDIA Expo isn't necessarily the same equipment you find at your local Best Buy or Circuit City, however. That's because the show is geared toward the needs of custom installers, rather than do-it-yourself consumers. When you stroll the aisles of CEDIA Expo, it's a bit like being a kid at a very expensive candy store; while it's fun to drool over the $25,000 front projectors, you know you'll never be able to afford most of this stuff in your own home.

That said, CEDIA Expo is a good venue for observing the latest trends and technologies in the home theater field. Read on to learn what was new and exciting at the show.

Trends in Home Theater Video

The big buzzword in video at CEDIA Expo was 1080p. Several manufacturers showed video displays capable of reproducing high-definition video at the highest resolution specified in the HDTV standard: 1080 x 1920 pixels, progressive scanned.

An obvious question is why would anybody need a 1080p television when current HDTV broadcasts only go up to 1080i—and there aren't enough of them, yet. The answer to that question isn't quite so simple, however.

First of all, there will be some 1080p source material available in just a few months when Sony ships its new PlayStation 3 videogame console. The PS3 is capable of outputting at 1080p, which makes the new 1080p sets desirable for hardcore gamers. (Unfortunately, Xbox 360 only goes up to 1080i—which gives the PS3 a real performance advantage.)

Second, upcoming high-definition DVDs may be capable of 1080p resolution. While it isn't firm in the specs, you can expect 1080p material in both Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD formats. Both of these competing formats have more than enough bandwidth to handle 1080p programming. (Unfortunately, HDTV broadcasters—whether over-the-air, via cable, or via satellite—have bandwidth constraints that make 1080p programming both unfeasible and unlikely for the foreseeable future.)

Finally, just as 480i standard definition DVDs look better when upconverted to 480p on today's TVs, 1080i broadcasts will look even better when upconverted to 1080p on these new displays. No matter how it's accomplished, progressive scanning always looks better than interlaced scanning, at similar resolutions.

Now, on to the new products. It looks as if no particular display technology has a monopoly on these new displays; 1080p sets were shown by almost all manufacturers.

DLP rear projection sets with 1080p resolution were introduced by HP (58” and 65”), Mitsubishi (52”, 62”, and 73”), Samsung (50”, 56”, 61”, 67”, and 71”), and Toshiba (56”, 62”, and 72”) .

LCoS rear projectors with 1080p resolution were shown by Brillian (65”), Hitachi (60” and 70”), JVC (56”, 61”, 70”), LG Electronics (71”), and Sony (50”, 60”, and 70”) .

LCD rear projectors with 1080p resolution were introduced by Epson (55” and 65”). There were also several 1080p LCD direct view displays introduced at the show, including models by Mitsubishi (37”), Sharp (45”), and others.

On the plasma front, Panasonic announced a 65” 1080p model, and Samsung showed a 70” model with the same specs.

Another interesting trend was that of larger LCD direct view displays. LCD displays used to occupy the 40”-and-under space; that's changing, as Samsung showed a 57” LCD display at the show. (You better have a big credit line, however; this puppy costs a cool $20,000.)

It may just have been me, but it seemed as though there were fewer plasma displays shown this year than last. Instead, I saw a few more LCD flat panel displays and a ton more rear projection sets. It certainly seems as if rear projection is the display of choice, whatever projection technology is used.

One other thing that struck me was the profusion of larger-sized rear projection sets. There were several extra-large displays announced at the show, including 70”+ models from JVC, LG Electronics, Mitsubishi, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba. And, when it comes to rear projection technology, DLP still looks to be the market leader. The big development at CEDIA 2005 was a much more significant presence for LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) displays. Last year, JVC was pretty much the only company embracing LCoS; this year, both Hitachi and Sony had several new LCoS sets in their lines, in effect replacing older LCD-based rear projectors at the top of their lines. From a consumer's perspective, LCoS delivers a slightly better picture than LCD projectors, with deeper blacks and a smoother, more cinematic picture—although, for the present, LCoS remains a bit more costly than competing LCD or DLP rear projectors.

Finally, high-definition DVD players were all over the show floor—although all these units were just for show, as no official launches have yet been announced. The format with the largest presence was Blu-ray Disc; the competing HD DVD format had far fewer supporters among the show's manufacturers. Picture quality for both formats is impressive, although Blu-ray will probably win this format war, as it has both a technological (higher storage capacity) and marketing (more supporters) advantage.

Trends in Home Theater Audio

The major audio trend at CEDIA Expo was compatibility with add-on components. That means new audio/video receivers and entertainment systems that work seamlessly with iPods and other portable music players, as well as receivers capable of receiving XM and SIRIUS satellite radio broadcasts.

On the iPod-compatible front, there were several A/V receivers shown with iPod inputs. On all these receivers you plug your iPod into a supplied docking station, and then use the receiver to control playback from your iPod through the receiver; playback information is displayed on your television screen. You can find new iPod-controlling receivers from Denon, Harmon Kardon, Integra, and Pioneer. In addition, several whole-house distributed audio systems from Creston, Niles, and similar companies now come with iPod docks and interfaces. Also interesting was the iPort, an in-wall or stand-alone dock (with optional remote control unit) that connects your iPod to any A/V receiver or music system.

As for satellite radio, there were several new A/V receivers that have built-in XM satellite radio receivers. (XM looks to be very aggressive in pursuing this market, as there was very few SIRIUS-compatible models shown.) All you have to do is connect a satellite radio antenna, sign up for a subscription to the service, and you're ready to go. With all these receivers, the satellite radio is controlled by the receiver's remote control unit, and programming information is displayed on your television screen. XM-ready receivers were shown by Denon, Integra, Onkyo, Pioneer, and Yamaha; models are available at all price points, starting at just $399.

Also new were several future surround sound formats, all designed specifically for high-definition programming. Dolby introduced Dolby Digital Plus, designed for both HDTV broadcasts and high-definition DVDs, which offers 7.1 discrete channels. Dolby also introduced Dolby TrueHD, designed specifically for Blu-ray and HD DVD, which offers high bit-rate lossless encoding for audio fidelity identical to the original source. And, from DTS, we saw DTS HD, new surround format designed for Blu-ray and HD DVD that supports an unlimited number of discrete channels and lossless encoding.

Finally, HDMI input/output has found its way into more affordable A/V receivers. Last year, only a few high-end units had HDMI connectors and switching; this year, many mid-priced units are fully HDMI capable, as are most new video displays. HDMI is clearly the connection of the future for the high-definition world—and will be necessary to reproduce the next-generation digital surround sound formats.

Trends in Home Theater Media Integration

Knowing that CEDIA caters to professionals from the consumer electronics industry, it's still surprising to see how little convergence there is with the personal computer industry. From talking to several manufacturers at the show, there appears to be a lingering fear or lack of knowledge about PCs in the consumer electronics industry, which explains the continuing reliance on propriety solutions that might be better handled by a home theater PC.

Case in point is the profusion of proprietary digital media servers at the show. A media server is nothing more than a computer-like device with a big hard disk, used to store and distribute music and other digital media to a home theater or whole-house audio system. For whatever reason, many installers feel more comfortable installing these manufacturer-specific devices than they do working with a lower-priced PC-based system.

Among the most interesting digital media servers at CEDIA Expo were models by Codex/Novus, Escient, iMuse, ReQuest, Xantech, and Yamaha. All of these units utilize proprietary onscreen interfaces that operate similarly to Windows XP Media Center Edition, and most offer multi-room operation via Ethernet connection. Of special note was the profusion of larger hard disks offered by almost all manufacturers; it wasn't unusual to see units sporting 1TB or more capacity. Most of these units are rather expensive, however, with entry prices of two grand or more.

It was also heartening to see personal computer companies grabbing more of a presence at the show. Several PC manufacturers showed Media Center PCs with the home theater professional in mind; the most notable units came from Alienware, HP, and Niveus Media. I spent some time talking to the Niveus VP of Marketing, and he said their business has shown significant growth in recent months, as more and more home theater installers start to see the light. Expect to see this slow-but-steady convergence continue.

Tip Sheet

Here are the major home theater technology trends evident at the recent CEDIA Expo 2005:

  • True 1080p television displays in almost all configurations
  • Larger DLP displays (up to 73”) and more LCoS rear projection models
  • Anticipation for the launch of Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD high definition DVD formats
  • Audio/video receivers with iPod and XM satellite radio compatibility
  • New Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital TrueHD, and DTS HD surround sound formats for high definition DVDs
  • HDMI connections available on more affordable A/V receivers
  • More proprietary digital media servers for storing and playing digital music and video, most with large (1TB+) hard disks
  • A slow but steady convergence between the consumer electronics and personal computer industries, as evident in an increasing acceptance of Media Center PCs
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