Here's an overview of the entire Home Theater scene (including HD, of course) from Barron's Online.
Sadly, the views of the author are apparently shared by many millions of Americans.
Thursday, May 27, 2004
FIGHTING THE TAPE By HOWARD R. GOLD
A Glimpse of Home Entertainment's Future
OK, IT'S MEMORIAL DAY weekend. You're probably sick of reading about Iraq, terrorism, higher oil prices, when the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates, etc., etc.
So, let's have some fun.
We all have different ideas about what fun is. I indulged some of mine last week when I "covered" the Home Entertainment Show at the New York Hilton.
This formerly annual show, sponsored by publisher Primedia, now has gone biannual and bicoastal: The West Coast edition takes place in November in San Francisco.
I've gone to this show regularly over the last few years, partly because I like gadgets and gizmos but mostly because I love movies and music, and am always looking for new ways to see and hear them better.
Also, with the home theater revolution, so many new formats have exploded on the scene that I feel duty-bound to keep readers informed about the latest developments (and to keep myself amused and entertained, of course).
Many of you have probably either installed home theaters or are thinking of doing so. Others are waiting because of the cost (top-of-the-line systems can be as expensive as a second home; a midpriced system might set you back what you'd pay for a fully loaded Lexus) -- or because you just couldn't care less. But if you're in that category, you've probably stopped reading this column, anyway.
Other consumers who are still on the fence must be flummoxed by the plethora of formats and technologies. We now have digital television, high-definition TV (HDTV), front- and rear-projection TVs, plasma monitors, liquid crystal displays (LCDs), DVDs, DVD recorders, Digital VHS, Super Audio Compact Disk (SACD), DVD-Audio, Dolby 5.1 sound, DTS-ES 7.1 and on the horizon two -- yes, two -- competing high-definition DVD formats, Toshiba's red-laser HD DVD and Sony's blue-laser Blu-ray. Yikes!
Something tells me that the couch potatoes who watch TV the most didn't ask for all these choices. One middle-aged attendee who sat next to me at the HDTV panel perfectly expressed the angst of these beleaguered Everymen.
"The average Joe wants to come home, click on the remote and watch TV," he said plaintively to the panel members.
Couch Potato Joe's cri de coeur evoked much sympathy but little hope of amelioration from the panelists.
"I can't recall a time when there was so much confusion in the consumer electronics business," said Robert W. Hana, president of Runco International, which makes state-of-the-art projection systems.
"This high-definition business has opened up a can of worms. There are millions of reasons not to buy it, and it scares the hell out of me."
In this setting, Hana sounded like Diogenes carrying a taper through the dusky streets of Athens seeking an honest man. But I'll get back to him later.
One of the reasons for all the confusion is -- surprise, surprise -- the government. The Federal Communications Commission has decreed that beginning July 1 all TVs whose screens are 36" or bigger must include receivers that accept digital rather than analog signals. Congress has mandated that stations must broadcast digital signals by the end of 2006.
Digital broadcasting is critical, because its greater bandwidth allows stations to transmit high-definition programs with digital sound. (Remember: All HDTV is digital, but not all digital broadcasting is HDTV).
The big broadcast and cable networks have moved to adopt HDTV at varying paces. CBS and ABC have been leaders, while Fox has lagged: It announced last year it would begin broadcasting in HDTV during its fall 2004 season.
Meanwhile, movie studios, terrified that they might be "Napstered" as HDTV emerges, have been lobbying like there's no tomorrow.
As a result, the FCC ruled unanimously last year that vendors must install special copy-protection mechanisms (called broadcast "flags") in various consumer electronics devices to prevent routine downloading, copying and file sharing beyond "one use only."
Sure, that helps protect the studios' intellectual property, but it doesn't do much for honest consumers who legitimately want to record broadcasts and replay them for friends or family, as people have been doing for years.
Regardless of the conflicting rulings and competing formats, people are buying this stuff like mad and prices are dropping.
Wednesday's Wall Street Journal reported that prices of large screen displays might not fall so fast because of part shortages (see "I Want My Flat TV. Now!1," May 27).
But manufacturers are opening several new factories this year, and two executives I spoke with at the show last week told me they expected to see 42-inch plasma screens going for as little as $1,700-$1,800 by Christmas (they're discounted at $2499 now), while 47- to 53-inch Digital Light Processing (DLP) units could sell for $3,000. Best Buy is advertising a 50-inch Samsung DLP model for $3,499 this week.
It's clear that plasma is fading and DLP, which uses a chip made by Texas Instruments, is hot. Samsung, an early proponent, says they're flying off the shelves.
And to my eyes, a widescreen DLP monitor on display in Samsung's suite at the Hilton was stunning, its picture every bit as sharp and radiant as that of a plasma screen in the same room.
So, what should consumers do now? I approached Bob Hana of Runco after his panel (he's the one who candidly talked of "confusion") and asked him when things would really shake out. In two years? Three years? Five?
"In consumer electronics, you never wait," he told me. "You do just have to jump in."
That's what they all say, and though I asked him the question several times, he wouldn't budge.
So, here's my advice: Wait. Look around, watch the prices fall and the standards solidify, and see which formats win out. Then be prepared to buy -- in about two years.
By late 2006 it should be safe for consumer electronics fans to go back in the water again.
In the meantime, have a safe and happy holiday!
(Howard R. Gold is editor of Barron's Online. Fighting the Tape appears twice a month.)