A number of trends in video and audio quickly became apparent to anyone who attended CES 2014. What were they? Read on for our take-aways from the show, with Scott Wilkinson on video and Mark Henninger on audio.
As expected, Ultra HDTVs were in just about every booth, almost to the exclusion of "standard" HD. Clearly, the UHD train has left the station, but it's not carrying a full load. The resolution of UHD is well-defined (3840x2160, or in the case of the 105" 21:9 models at the show, 5120x2160), but other elements, such as higher dynamic range, wider color gamut, and other parameters, have yet to be agreed upon in the content creation, delivery, and display sides of the industry.
Speaking of content, it seems likely that the first UHD delivery system will be online streaming and downloading. Many TV companies announced that their displays will accept UHD streaming from Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, M-Go, YouTube, and others, which will probably require around 15 Mbps of sustained downstream bandwidth for a high-quality image. At that speed, most ISP data caps will be met and exceeded in a hurry!
Samsung, LG, and the big Chinese companies highlighted UHDTVs with curved screens measuring from 55 to 105 inches. Samsung claims it did market research that indicated over 80 percent of respondents preferred curved screens, while we heard LG reps say they do it because the company execs really like them. However, the Japanese companies did not seem to buy into this trend, with no curved screens on display from Sharp, Sony, or Toshiba, which says its customers want flat screens. (Panasonic had no 2014 TVs on display, but it did show a bunch of curved OLEDs strung together in a "wave," which looked cool, but it wasn't a real product.)
If Samsung had conducted its survey on AVS, the results would have been exactly the opposite. It seems that no one here wants curved screens, at least with smaller sizes. In my view, it only makes sense with really large screens, such as the 105" 21:9 models at the show—and Toshiba's version is flat! Even more interestingly, Samsung's new 110" UHDTV is flat as well, even though some of its 55" models are curved.
2014 seems to be the year in which OLED TVs finally hit the big time. Many more were on display at the show than last year, though most were still 55" and curved. LG showed a 77-incher (curved, of course) that should be available later this year, but no pricing was revealed—no doubt OLED TVs will remain super-expensive due to low manufacturing yields.
With UHD's greater resolution, bigger screens definitely have an advantage, a fact that was not lost on the TV manufacturers at CES. LG, Samsung, and Toshiba all showed a 105" 21:9 ultra-wide UHDTV, and Samsung added a 110" 16:9 model (seen here) to its S9 series. LG showed a 98" UHDTV, while Samsung upped the ante to 8K resolution with its prototype 98-incher. Vizio had the largest screen at the show with its 120" Reference Series. I guess bigger really is better!
One of the most important trends this year was the emphasis on high dynamic range (HDR) in flat panels. Vizio and Sharp showed new models using Dolby Vision, which looked spectacular displaying content graded for the extra brightness they could produce. Toshiba and Sony also demonstrated their own HDR systems, but without content created specifically for them, they merely stretch—i.e., distort—the dynamic range of conventional images. Also, most TVs still use 8-bit panels, which isn't enough for HDR, though the Vizio Reference Series, Toshiba L9400U, and most Sharp panels are 10-bit. Dolby is working with the studios to standardize the HDR parameters for content in the future, which is good news.
What a difference a year makes—no plasma TVs were introduced at CES 2014. Of course, Panasonic is out of that business now, but Samsung and LG claimed continuing support, even though no new models were announced. Samsung said it will continue to make the F8500 well into 2014, so at least there's that.
Another important aspect of UHD is the color gamut—the range of colors encoded in the signal and reproducible on the TV. Vizio claimed its Reference Series can reproduce about 80 percent of the Rec.2020 gamut, which is the target many industry watchers are hoping for with UHD and far wider than the current gamut called Rec.709. Sony's Triluminous and Panasonic's Studio Master Color widen the gamut, but without the corresponding information in the signal, these systems only stretch the colors beyond what the content creator intended.
LG was the only company still touting its glasses-based 3D at CES, while Vizio has eliminated 3D from its entire 2014 lineup. Meanwhile, glasses-free 3D from Dolby and StreamTV Networks gained a lot of ground this year, and Samsung showed a prototype of its system (seen here) with 35 viewing zones. Everyone we spoke with about it preferred the Ultra-D system from StreamTV, which has signed up most of the Chinese companies and some Japanese manufacturers as well. Look for glasses-free 3D TVs in retailers very soon.
Some of the biggest booths at CES were built by Chinese companies, such as Hisense, TCL, Haier, Changhong, and Konka, which are driving the price of UHDTVs and other electronics downward at an astonishing rate. Don't be surprised to see these brands in growing numbers at US retailers, with pricing that will blow the Japanese and Korean companies out of the water. In fact, I expect the Chinese to do to the Koreans what the Koreans did to the Japanese.
Hands down, the best picture at CES 2014 was the Vizio Reference Series TVs showing UHD content graded by the studios for high dynamic range and wide color gamut. It used to be said that HDTV was like looking out a window, but this was far more realistic than any HDTV. I can't wait to spend some quality time with this puppy!
Wires are the most annoying part of any audio system. But until now, even the best wireless system I've heard would never suffice for critical listening. However, the Bang & Olufsen WiSA-enabled 5.1 surround system I heard at CES was impeccable. It was difficult to establish any kind of reliable WiFi connection in that environment, yet the demo itself was flawless. WiSA works.
There's a lot of competition in the audio arena. Unlike TVs, where a few manufacturers control most of the market, the world of audio is full of brands that perform well at every price point. In particular, high-quality speakers can be had for much less than in years past, as exemplified by Pioneer's low-cost offerings designed by Andrew Jones and GoldenEar's entire lineup, including the new Triton One towers, which I would have guessed cost two or three times as much as they do. This is a trend I can get behind!
Vinyl continues to be a popular choice among audiophiles and music lovers, but a number of demos I heard at CES used a DAC and a high-resolution digital audio instead. This was in contrast to last spring's New York Audio Show, where vinyl seemed to be the only medium considered acceptable at the high end. In particular, I've noticed a revival in popularity of the DSD (Direct Stream Digital) audio format, the native format of SACD.
As I walked the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center, I couldn't help noticing how many headphones there were. It's impossible to keep track of all the makes and models, but one trend is clear—large, expensive headphones are experiencing a golden era. Ultimately, Beats will be remembered, not for their sound quality, but rather for the market they opened up.
Soundbars are growing to match the ever-increasing size of modern TVs. With 70" flat panels now common, ultra-wide soundbars are starting to appear, and the added width has a positive effect on sound quality by increasing the distance between each channel. GoldenEar supersized its SuperCinema 3D Array for 70"+ TVs, and it won my vote for best-sounding soundbar in the process. Quite a year for GoldenEar.
I admit to not having a clue how much GoldenEar speakers cost when I listened to the Triton Ones—if I had to guess, I would have pegged them at about $12,000 to $15,000/pair. If I had been keenly aware that GoldenEar is all about providing great value, I would have guessed maybe $10,000. As it stands, the $5000/pair Triton One speakers were the best bang-for-the-buck, no-holds-barred speakers I heard at CES 2014—and I can actually afford them! Consider me blown away.
The best sound I heard at the show came from Sony's SS-AR1 speakers powered by two-of-a-kind amplifiers: the Pass Labs 40th Anniversary VFET amps, built by Nelson Pass. Beck's "Already Dead" was entirely enveloping, and the illusion of having a singer in the room was quite tangible—I got goose bumps almost immediately. A switch to opera provided one of the best demonstrations of effortless high-fidelity I've ever heard. The soundstage dropped back 60 feet or so, and I could suddenly visualize the entire stage and orchestra, with every single element in precisely the right place. It was the embodiment of hi-fi.
My experience with the Sony and Pass Labs system was even more surprising considering where I had just come from—listening to Andrew Jones' TAD Reference One speakers as well as a demo of a Krell/YG Acoustics Sonja 1.2 system. Both demos were profoundly great, yet the Sony/Pass Labs system sounded even better. Too bad you can't buy the Pass amps, since the transistors on which they're based are not available at any price. Oh well, at least I was able to spend a few minutes in audio nirvana.