Having written about video and audio technology since—gulp!—1980, let me tell you, there have been some mighty dull years. When I started out, big-screen TVs existed, but were based on analog technology and looked awful. The notion of combining video and audio into a single system was so unusual then that I was actually rebuked by my bosses at Video Magazine for writing a long and prominent new-product item about the very first surround receiver. It was a Kenwood with composite video switching, and no surround decoding, because surround sound hadn’t reached the home front. HDTV and the progeny of Dolby and DTS have remade the world and made it better. Now you can enjoy a huge, detailed picture with sound all around you. And just when you think things couldn’t get any better, they’re about to. Again. Here are a few rash predictions for 2007. Telco TV Hits Big: The Republican Congress was about to sweep away—for better or worse—layers of municipal regulation to allow Verizon, AT&T, and other telcos to start delivering video in their service areas with very few strings attached. The November electoral upset might have slowed things down, because the Democrats are concerned about things like net neutrality. But between Christmas and New Year’s, the Republican majority on the Federal Communications decided in a 3-2 party-line vote to do what Congress had been about to do. The acceleration of telco TV will give your cable and satellite providers some healthy new competition, though I doubt it will have as much impact on rates as FCC chair Kevin Martin says. Still, new options are good! Who knows, the telcos might even offer some innovative new services. That’s just what the people at Verizon’s lab were up to when I visited them last summer. Verizon operates in the northeastern and middle Atlantic states. The other main telco-TV overlord is AT&T, which has just absorbed BellSouth, with its newly expanded territory now including the southeast, the midwest, and the west coast. Flat Panels Plateau: Though they certainly won’t go away. According to NPD, a research firm, LCD TVs were the hot ticket of the just concluded holiday shopping rush, outselling digital cameras, notebook PCs, and even iPods. DisplaySearch, another market research firm, says revenue growth from LCDs (components, not finished sets) will slow in 2007, and revenue growth for plasmas will flatline, which probably means the companies marketing them will start looking around for something else. Growing LCD production capacity in the far east will keep prices low, though the people who run those factories have figured that out, and are being investigated for price-fixing. Price pressure will continue resulting in design compromises, so read reviews carefully before you buy, and look for information about video artifacts, color accuracy, and black level. Rear-projection sets, once the kings of the HDTV world, are now an unfashionable commodity-priced product, even with the old cathode ray tube having been replaced by DLP micro-mirror chips and liquid crystal panels. Direct-view TVs are a joke (except for their black-level performance). New technologies—including radically flattened tube and rear-projection displays—may hold surprises. Video Drooler Hype Keeps Pouring Out: In 2006 it was 1080p (1080 by 1920 pixels delivered one frame at a time). Prepare to be shocked: My HDTVs are 720p and 768p and I like them fine. There will be more 1080p displays in 2007, and even some 1080p Blu-ray and HD DVD releases to feed them, but that matters only if you have a really, really, really big screen, sit very close—and have excellent eyesight! The next step will be to upscale 1080p to multiples of 1080, which will be utterly useless. More interesting is the emerging “deep color” standard supported by HDMI 1.3, which may expand the color gamut of HDTV if it’s widely supported by both hardware and software—an emerging issue for 2007. It goes under various names including xvYCC and x.v.Color. It is safe to say the video industry’s ability to come up with off-putting names is a trend that will outlive us all. Hot New Surround Technologies Trickle into the Market: Unfortunately what will initially carry them are the ill-starred Blu-ray and HD DVD formats. However, any big bit bucket will hold them, and they’ll have a better chance to sneak into your system when download technologies mature. That probably won’t happen in 2007, but do visit your neighbor the early adopter and ask him to fire up his HD DVD or Blu-ray player with some movies in lossless Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio, not to mention the improved lossy formats, Dolby Digital Plus or DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. Blu-ray and HD DVD Limit One Another’s Growth: But you knew that. And it’s a shame. Still, LG says it will step forward with a combi player handling both formats. And in an independent announcement that arrived at virtually the same moment, Warner affirmed its previously stated intention to deliver combi discs that will play HDTV in either a Blu-ray player or an HD DVD player. These developments may not affect us much in 2007 but they may make for a much more pleasing 2008. Surround Receivers and Amps Go Green: The new Class D amplifier technology will result in smaller and more energy-efficient surround electronics. The D in Class D doesn’t stand for Digital—it’s just a way of distinguishing these next-generation amps from Class A (used in high-end two-channel gear) and Class AB (which dominates existing surround receivers). Class D dissipates less energy in the form of heat. If you are concerned about global warming but still want your 7.1 channels of joy, this is a trend to watch, especially as some of these products actually start sounding good. Speaker Packages Get Smarter—Though Maybe Not Smart Enough: Now that more people have flat panels, their thoughts will logically move to the other side of the home theater equation. The good news is that compact sat/sub sets sound great if you can bring yourself to pay at least four figures for a quality product. In-wall speakers from the likes of Polk are starting to sound as good as freestanding ones (though avoid the on-wall category). Subs are getting smarter with room equalization to smooth out room-induced bass humps. But the industry, and consumers, probably won’t break a bad habit—the horizontal center speaker, an acoustically compromised fad dating from the increasingly distant days when RPTVs dominated the big-screen market and the speaker had to rest atop the set. My advice is to use identical speakers, at least across the front channels, whether you’re buying satellites or in-walls (dipole surrounds are OK). Arrange them in a straight line below or above the display. That’s enough pontificating for now. What home theater related development would you like to see in 2007? Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater, audio editor of Home Theater Magazine, and tastemaster of happypig100.com.
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