In Home Theater, Installers Trump Lobbyists

In the battle of the electronics trade shows, the custom installers are starting to breathe down the necks of the industry lobbyists.

Each year, in January, the Consumer Electronics Association stages a big shindig in Las Vegas (the finest city in Nevada, except for all the others). CEA is a powerful trade association that fields a formidable team of Washington lobbyists and its annual Consumer Electronics Show is a mind-bogglingly powerful show. In fact, CES has defeated COMDEX as the monster trade show for gizmo hounds.

However, another big exhibition is creeping up on CES. The annual September show staged by CEDIA, the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association, has quietly and steadily become a significant competitor to CES. Is CEDIA more important than CES? In my own areas of expertise, audio and video, the answer is yes.

CEDIA has grown so big that next year it will leave its longtime roost in Indianapolis, where the parent organization itself is located, and decamp to Denver, which has a larger convention center (and thinner air, but you can?t have everything). In that respect CEDIA is following in the footsteps of CES, which started in New York in 1967, but has long since abandoned the frost belt, now meeting exclusively in Vegas, the only city with a large enough convention center to accommodate its six-figure hordes.

With 25,000 attendees at this year?s show, which ran from September 8-11, CEDIA won?t soon catch up with CES, which drew 146,000 last January. However, CEDIA doesn?t admit the general public?it is a trade-only event?and if you don?t know the secret handshake, you can?t get in. This year the registration process was more intimidating than ever because the CEDIA people were worried about the hoi polloi getting into their popular training seminars (some of which are repeated at CES thanks to a deal between the two organizations).

Unlike CES, CEDIA doesn?t concern itself with cell phones or computers, apart from a few HTPC products on display this year. It focuses on the technologies that drive the custom-install industry. That definitely includes audio/video products, especially serious home theater (as opposed to home theater in a box) and whole-house audio (as opposed to traditional two-channel). Since I cover home theater, CEDIA is by far the more significant show for me. It?s also a better place to have a conversation with my contacts longer than the customary ?hi, how are you, bye!? of CES.

What would you have seen if you?d visited the Indy convention center this year? First of all, a whole lot of high-definition flat panels and projectors?easily as many good ones as you?d see at CES. You?d have seen exhibit surfaces relentlessly festooned with in-wall and in-ceiling speakers along with the usual stand-mount and floorstanding models. And you?d have heard the sound of warfare.

Violence, unfortunately, is primo subject matter in audio/video demos?even at CEDIA, which boasts a high quotient of music lovers. Wander into one of those little metal-frame and fabric demo rooms constructed on the floor and you?ll wander into a surround soundfield filled with gunfire, or crashing cars, or exploding spaceships. Now, I like action movies as much as the next man, but when I?m gauging the quality of loudspeakers, I?d prefer to hear the sting of a Stratocaster, the shimmer of a cymbal?or better yet, a naturalistic recording of acoustic instruments in a reverberating space, even if it means listening to the Eagles do ?Hotel California? for the thousandth time.

Music-dominated demos have become thin on the ground at CEDIA. Many manufacturers seem convinced that the road to profit is paved with action-movie buffs and that anyone who still listens to music is using a weeny iPod?there were dozens of iPod-compatible docking devices and mini-systems.

Even companies with true high-end pedigrees could not get by without almost unbearable displays of brute force. Take Meridian. The British high-end audio manufacturer offers some of the most authentically musical powered speakers known to humankind, and thanks to its new alliance with Faroudja, it has image-processing smarts to complement its traditional strength in audio. This year?s CEDIA demo started promisingly with an excerpt from Pink Floyd?s The Wall?something I?d never regarded as an audiophile recording till I heard it through a Meridian system.

Unfortunately, the exploding spaceships were next. I saw one colleague putting his fingers in his ears and I wish I?d done the same. Politeness hurts?I?m not kidding when I say my ears rang for the rest of the day. The chief reason why I became an audio critic was to get closer to music. Knowing what I know now, if I could speak with my younger self, I?d tell him turn back, while there?s still time.

The best sound I heard at the show came from Bohlender-Graebener, which has shortened its name to BG for reasons that are fairly obvious. The company?s new in-wall speakers are quite tall and use a freshly developed flat diaphragm that provides superior imaging. These guys gave us?gulp!?the Eagles singing ?Hole in the World.? The sound quality was so palpably convincing that for the first time in my life I became an Eagles fan?it?s only taken 30 years.

Small manufacturers bulk larger at CEDIA. It costs less to exhibit at CEDIA than at CES, and because the show is smaller, each exhibitor gets a bigger slice of attendees? attention. This year I got to hear the first THX-certified speakers to come out of China. Crystal Acoustics is run by a hardworking Greek guy, with development in the U.K., a warehouse in Baltimore, and manufacturing in the People?s Republic. The product is on its way to a guest slot in my reference system.

The usual big guns of television exhibited at CEDIA. Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, etc. showed great-looking plasmas, LCDs, microdisplay rear-projectors, and other HDTVs. They were joined by high-end front-projector makers like Runco and SIM2, whose products looked better than ever. Thomson, having licensed its RCA TV business to a Chinese partner, showed no RCA TVs anywhere near the convention center?s RCA Dome, though the company did show its Acoustic Research Media Bridge networking technology. The interface is superbly intuitive and will undoubtedly take Thomson into the future.

RCA TVs weren?t the only thing notable by their absence at CEDIA. HD DVD and Blu-ray, the dueling high-definition disc formats, had a surprisingly modest presence. Some prototypes were visible in booths, yet they weren?t hooked up to anything. Sony and Toshiba talked about their formats but didn?t go beyond talk. Since both formats are supposedly going to make a big splash this holiday season, the vacuum of information (and even hype) was remarkable.

Pressure is mounting on the format warriors from several directions and finally it seems to have dawned on them that they?re both about to lose. A Chinese newspaper recently reported that HD DVD was postponing its hardware debut at the behest of its movie-studio supporters, who don?t want a format muddle to interfere with the record profits they are reaping from regular standard-definition DVD. The rumor was quickly denied. Samsung, a Blu-ray supporter, has said it will market a dual-format machine?presumably with two drawers, since Blu-ray and HD DVD read their discs at different depths and are therefore ridiculously incompatible. At least one major chain store has announced that it will refuse to carry either of the two formats until they unify. There?s blood in the water.

Now, many of you probably think that a custom-install-dominated trade show is something you can afford to ignore. If you?re not affluent enough to buy the biggest flat panels and have in-walls throughout the house?let alone pay someone to install them for you?then you probably couldn?t care less about an industry that caters to such people. But sales of traditional component audio gear are declining, and margins in the video industry, even for flat panel sets, are being shaved perilously thin. Custom installation is an oasis where audio/video retailers and manufacturers can still produce a superior product and make money at it. That?s why CEDIA?s annual show is the place to go if you want to see genuinely high-performance audio/video toys in all their flamboyance. This year?s show, despite my quibbles, did not disappoint.

____________________________________________________

Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated Practical Home Theater (http://www.quietriverpress.com/).

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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