Roving CEDIA, the Sane Person?s CES

Every year the audio/video trade converges at CEDIA EXPO, the annual trade show of the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association. I call it the sane person’s Consumer Electronics Show. Though a sprawling event, and ever growing, it’s still fairly manageable for custom installers and the exhibiting manufacturers who love them—unlike CES, which gets more elephantine and dysfunctional every year. And CEDIA doesn’t admit the public, making it a true trade show. That makes it easier for the rest of us to see things and do business.             Perhaps unwisely, the CEDIA people see a future with two EXPOs, the existing fall show and a new one in the spring. Whether the industry will accept another major trade show taking place three months after January CES remains to be seen. Anyway, CEDIA’s first expanded Spring EXPO will be in Dallas, April 29-May 2, having been bumped from the Las Vegas Sands by a competing event. The Fall EXPO, which just took place in Denver, will return there next year, then will move to Atlanta in 2009.             You, of course, have the luxury of following these events in various blogs, which is certainly easier than attending. But being on the show floor makes it easier to spot trends. Here are a few that leaped out at me this year in Denver.   Digital Trends: Video and Audio   There are three major trends in flat-panel television—lower prices, thinner form factors, and better performance. Presumably you know about the price war, which will continue this holiday shopping season.             What’s more interesting, to me anyway, is that LCD HDTVs are literally changing their form with more slender bezels. In other words, the frame around the screen is shrinking, giving sets a more elegant look that fits more easily into tight spaces. Take a look at the new Sharp Aquos line and the new Toshibas. The Sharp bezel is 25 percent thinner. These sets look very cool and the picture really pops out of the skinnier frame.             Of course 1080p, or FullHD, has taken over the larger screen sizes down to about 42 inches, though 720p and 768p are still a better value. Many manufacturers were running split-screen demos showing the benefit of the 120 Hertz refresh rate—in other words, the frame rate is doubled, reducing blurring and motion artifacts. The demos were convincing though I heard more than one videophile openly question whether pre-120Hz product was really as bad as it looked in the split-screen.             Toshiba hyped HD DVD and Sony hyped Blu-ray. Unfortunately not all of the second- and third-generation players support the new lossless surround codecs, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. For instance, of Toshiba’s three new third-gen models, only the top-line HD-A35 passes the new codecs in bitstream form via HDMI 1.3a for decoding in a receiver with on-board TrueHD and DTS-HD support. Am I the only person who finds this disappointing? Some players pass the new codecs instead as high-res PCM, which would still give you some of the benefit.             TrueHD and DTS-HD were also conspicuous in their absence from some new receivers, mostly those from minor players like NAD and Cambridge Audio. In NAD’s case, modular design will eventually facilitate an upgrade. But there were plenty of new receivers that support next-gen surround, including Denon, Integra, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer Elite, Yamaha, etc.—at least in the higher-end models. Scan spec sheets for HDMI 1.3a (as opposed to 1.3) and specific mention of Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD Master Audio, and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio.   Media servers are starting to do DVD. Escient showed servers that rip DVDs and distribute them over a home network. Kaleidescape has long offered such a product and battled the DVD Copy Control Association in court for the right to market it. Its recent legal success will embolden other manufacturers to add video to their audio server products.   Digital Trends: More Audio   Although I don’t review in-wall or in-ceiling speakers—because people who live in 97-year-old landmark buildings don’t poke holes in walls and ceilings—I was struck by the sheer profusion of architectural speakers at CEDIA. Of course, that wasn’t remarkable for a custom install oriented show. But in some demos, notably Paradigm and Wisdom, the quality was sometimes as impressive as the quantity. Some of these products truly sound good.   Some are also ingenious. Monitor Audio showed a speaker with two coaxial drivers, both dome-shaped (woofers are almost always cones). They were mounted in a coaxial array that jutted out of the speaker like a fist and could be swiveled for better positioning. In-ceiling speakers are also being built into enclosures that angle the drivers for better room coverage. I saw this from Definitive Technology, Jamo, Infinity, JBL, and Revel. The latter three brands are under the Harman umbrella and their in-ceilings look the same, though they’re voiced differently, I was told. They also use a new flat diaphragm first unveiled two years ago as part of Infinity’s high-end Cascade line.   Class D digital amplification came into its own, taking over Pioneer’s new top-of-the-line receiver, the Elite SC-09TX, with technology licensed from B&O’s ICEpower subsidiary. When you’re delivering 200 watts times even, it’s a good idea to be energy efficient.   One of the coolest Digital Trends is—well, not digital. It’s the return of the turntable! High-end stalwart McIntosh, better known for amps than turntables, introduced one. So did value-oriented Cambridge Audio. And Pro-Ject showed an inexpensive phono preamp with USB output, which will produce way better MP3s—when harnessed to a decent turntable—than that awful plastic Ion USB turntable that the blogosphere tediously rediscovers about every six months.   Considering the number of steroidal audio demos, it was ironic that both Dolby and THX announced new technologies that improve low-level listening in soon-to-be licensed products. Dolby Volume worked quite well, preventing the background noise from “pumping” in a dialogue-dominated movie scene.   As a footnote, Apple usually unleashes new products around CEDIA time. This year it was the iPod touch, classic, and second-gen nano (but you knew that). Orthodox speakers like Canton and Jamo continue to offer complementary docking systems and virtually every surround receiver can be retrofitted with an accessory dock, though the new iPods are more innovative than were the docking products on display. The docking-system genre needs some new ideas.   But on the whole, CEDIA EXPO 2007 showed the a/v industry in fine form, with evolving products for every taste. A lot of them will reappear at CES. One wonders why anyone bothers going to Vegas anymore.   Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater.

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