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Friday, January 16, 2009

Final CES Note - The Audio Hit of the Show

It seems that the big hit of the high-end audio portion of the CES show comes from an unusual source; professional audio. What's the difference between the two, you ask? Pro audio equipment is built for the rigors and abuse of long hours in the studio while hi-end audiophile audio is built for delicate listening at home at lower levels. The hi-end guys are used to selling a few items a year at vastly inflated prices (like a pair of speakers for $125k, a simple power cord for $2k, or an "audiophile" volume knob for $500) mainly to wealthy businessmen who've never heard anything better and have bought the hype.

The audiophiles have always looked down upon the pro guys as some kind of Neanderthals that wouldn't know quality audio if we tripped over it, but we (the pro audio guys) have always known better. Now, some vindication.

It seems from all reports that Allen Side's Oceanway Monitors were the hit of the CES show, at least in the ears of the many dealers and customers there. At a mere $34k (complete with all amplifiers, crossovers, AND installation), the monitors beat by a long shot any so called "audiophile" product at the show in repeated listening test. One Japanese dealer even placed an order for 40 (!!) pair and set numerous end-users scrambling to sell off their $125k white elephants before their value drops to nothing.

Having mixed on early custom version of the monitors at A&M Records Studio back in the early 80's when I first landed in Hollywood, I can say that these speakers are the finest large monitors you'll ever hear. They never sound loud, only big; and you never get ear fatigue either!

$34,000 is a lot to pay for a pair of monitors and realistically out of the price-range of most listeners, even pros. But if you've got the dough, you might as well buy the best! Maybe the audiophile guys should learn to trust the pros that listen for a living more often.

Pay The Writer

This can apply to anything creative these days, but please especially note the following clip if you're in the music business.

It's video of famed writer Harlan Ellison (author of essays, books and TV scripts for Star Trek, The Outer Limits, The New Twilight Zone and Babylon 5) getting very agitated when asked to provide clearance of something he did regarding a past interview.

Ellison has a good argument. At some point the creator has to get paid. The current digital strategy says to give it away to establish the brand, but that only works for so long. Creative people must get paid if they're expected to continue creating.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Music Games On Their Way Down?

We knew it would happen, just not this fast. New figures released by Variety magazine show slower than expected sales for the newly released Guitar Hero: World Tour and Rock Band 2 music games.

World Tour has sold about 1.5 million (about 55% fewer than it's predecessor) in the US while Rock Band 2 sold about 809,000. This is disturbing industry analysts since in the gaming world, sequels usually sell better than the original.

Overall, music games are down by 6% from 2007 but still hold a 16% market share in the gaming genre, making it the top-selling category, according to research group NPD.

It could be a sign of the economic times, or it could just mean that music games have run their course. That being said, figures just released indicate that Guitar Hero II is the biggest selling game ever, with sales just over $1 billion.

The bet here is that this fad is on the slow wind down, only to be accelerated when the next new thing comes to the public's attention.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

CES 09 Overview - Part 4

Now for all the other products at CES, many of which you'd never expect to see at a show of this kind.
  • I stopped by the Microsoft booth and played with a few displays. Everything was running Windows 7 and I must say, as a life-long Mac owner-lover, it was actually pretty nice. I can't say that I ever got deep into the operating system, and most displays were locked into specific routines, but everything ran pretty smoothly.  We'll see.
  • A product called MyView was pretty interesting. Basically stylish video eye glasses that connect to just about any device with a video output, they were a pretty good way to look at any handheld device. There were a lot of different style to choose from too.  Keep an eye on this one.
MyView Video Glasses

  • The big feature with hand-held video cameras this year was 60 to 70X zoom capabilities, although this was on the back of a standard def camera in some cases. Can't figure that.  Why even build an SD camera these days?
  • Digital picture frames were bigger and better than ever, with sizes up to 32 inches and higher resolution than what was previously available.
  • This was a big year for flashlights, for some reason. Flashlights with MP3 players (for those cops with time on their hands, I guess), flashlights with cameras, and even a flashlight with a digital video recorder built into it. I really want one of those emergencies when the cable is out.
Flashlight with DVR
Just what the world needs
  • Universal/NBC had a booth there for some reason, complete with a live broadcast from financial reporter Maria Bartiromo. Sony also had a full Jeopardy stage with about a 250 seat audience section. Wonder if they ever filled it?
Jeopardy At CES 09
Yeah, this will pack them in
  • There were more and more personal therapy products, from CO2 monitors in cameras to electronic pill minders to lots and lots of message chairs. I personally don't know of anyone with a massage chair in their home but by the number of manufacturers on the floor offering them, you'd think this product is a must-have for every living room.
CO2 Monitor In A Camera
For the environmentalist in you

Now to the bit more obscure products for a CE trade show.
  • I saw a 200 watt fuel-cell driven generator, which was nice from a new technology standpoint. It will set you back $15 grand, which is not so nice from a "How do I spend 100X more than I need to" standpoint.
  • There seems to be a comeback of wood cabinetry, with 60's-style long wood consoles abundantly available for your every A/V need. This is a stark contrast to the sleek modern plexiglass look predominant in shows past.
  • Lots of interesting chairs (non-massage) for your living room, from genuine theater seats (traditional or plush) to some really hi-tech gaming chairs complete with motion just like at Disneyland.
Plush Theater Seats
For that intimate gathering in front of your 150 inch TV

Motion Gaming Chair
For when the game alone is not enough
  • There was a section in the Sands with traditional kids toys. The most interesting of these was Mattel's Mind Flex, which allowed you to actually move some very light weight objects with your mind (wouldn't have expected this from Mattel). Wonder what the minimum IQ is to use this?
Mattel Mind Flex
Sorry, bad photo
  • Robots were big again this year. Large, small, mid-size, they were all there and mostly did nothing, except for that one that's a vacuum cleaner. That had a pretty good sized booth by itself so millions of homes I'm sure are being robotically cleaned these days.
6 Legged Robot
What's this thing do besides look like a mechanical spider?
  • And of course a CES show just wouldn't be a CES show without a Schwinn bike display. This year they were showing their electric bike, complete with batteries from Toshiba. Pedal for 4 hours and get 1 for free.
Many of the above products were found in the Sands Convention Center, which has become the center for crappy, me-too products from the also-rans of Asia. Unfortunately we've returned to those days at CES where you could probably skip a great deal of the show and not really miss anything. We've also returned to the days (at least at the Sands) when every other booth has the same version of some kind of phone, appliance or borderline quality CE product that takes up more space than it will ever contribute to anyone's well-being (other than the manufacturer and distributor). It's just like the pre-tech boom days, which is the best reason to now skip this show at least every other year. Don't worry, you won't miss much that will change your life.

That's it. It's a big show and I was only there for one day, but hopefully you've gotten a pretty good overview of the coming trends and non-trends for consumer electronics for 2009.

Next up - The NAMM show is later this week and we'll have some reports from Anaheim, as well as some video.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

CES 09 Overview - Part 3

Let's look at what's new in the audio consumer world, but cover your eyes and ears as this might hurt.
  • First of all, I can't believe how absolutely crappy everything sounded. It seems that most CE manufacturers could care less about how anything actually sounds. Instead they prefer any one of 3 criteria:
Make it look sleek and modern with crappy audio
Make it as small as possible with crappy audio
Make it as loud and bassy as possible, with crappy, distorted, wacked-out audio, of course.
Every booth had a design uglier and more acoustically deprived than the last (the picture below doesn't count. It may be ugly but it's a pretty good - and expensive - speaker system).

B&W Nautlis
Weird design but actually a very high-end speaker.

  • There was some Pro Audio at the show in the form of Ederol/Roland. They had this cute little $400 digital mixer on display.

Ederol Digital Mixer
Not bad for 400 bucks
  • Hello slotMusic, eh, goodbye already?! I can't believe that anyone at the various companies behind these things ever thought this product had the slightest chance. slotMusic is a new format for music delivery. It's a 1 gig micro-SD card that you can slip right into your phone or MP3 player. Are you kidding me? I'm gonna pull my phone apart so I can use this thing? And it's so small that you can loose it in a flash if dropped in, say, a shag rug. Of course, all the major labels are supporting this new delivery format. They must think it's cool, but what does that say about the music industry?

slotMusic - Micro-SD Card Filled With Music
  • And there's more on the slotMusic front. SanDisk (the company behind this rediculous idea) introduced slotRadio, a $99 MP3 player based around the format pre-loaded with 1000 songs from Billboard's charts. Sounds great on the surface until you discover that you can't add, delete, fast-forward, rewind, or even select tracks. They just play back to back as if you're listening to the radio. This is the digital age, guys. The ability to play what we want, when we want is why we like digital music!
  • 7.1 audio wasn't on display as much as I anticipated. It appears that the manufacturers have their wits about them on at least this one item. While on a professional level I endorse 7.1 audio and the addition of the 2 side speakers because it's a more enveloping sound, this is another format with no chance for wide-spread acceptance. If 5.1 never caught on, why do they think that 7.1 will?
  • And speaking of 5.1 surround systems, I had to laugh while walking around the show looking at the home theater displays. The rear surround speakers were usually placed anywhere but in the right direction. I saw speakers facing out towards the walls, facing the back of the room, and one was even placed with the speaker facing towards the stand. That's sure gonna get your dealers want to buy more.
  • Home theater "soundbars" were everywhere. This is a compact stereo speaker (usually) designed to sit directly below the television monitor. Good idea and practical too. Hard to tell what any of them actually sounded like in the din of the show.
  • iPod sound systems were everywhere, just like last year. This year they were a little more sophisticated, with some additional thought given to acoustics. A couple even sounded pretty good from what I could tell.
  • I didn't get too much of a chance to spend any time at the high-end audio exhibits in the hotel rooms over at the Venetian, but the one thing I did notice was that few manufacturers even bothered to acoustically treat their rooms this year. Most of the time the audiphiles care so much about their audio presentation that they temporarily treat as much of the room as they can. This year, no. Prohibitive cost, perhaps? In fact, I didn't see many manufacturers of acoustic treatment at the show at all. This is a prime market for their wares, why'd they stay home?
  • There was an upsurge in table and clock radios this year, with most of them internet connected. A novelty the last few years, this is now a trend that has firmly caught on.

Table Radios Make A Comeback
  • Of course Blu-Ray disc players are all the rage, but rather than stand-alone disc players, there were just as many full on audio systems, complete with speakers. I think this sorta defeats the purpose of hi-def, guys.
  • And the standard evolution of the A/V receiver now comes complete with HDMI inputs and built-in decoding of hi-def codecs like Dolby True-HD and DTS-HD Master Audio (which is another subject for the future).
That's it. Next post comes the fun stuff, from robots to comfy theater chairs.

Monday, January 12, 2009

CES 09 Overview - Part 2

I guess the number one product in terms of consumer electronics industry attention the last few years has been the television and this year was no exception. Aside from sleeping, watching TV is the one thing we consumers spend more time doing at home than anything else. So if you're going to spend that much time with a TV, you might as well get the best one that you can, and CES had plenty to choose from (as always).

As with my other overviews, I'm looking at the broad trends here so I won't necessarily mention specific products unless there's something unusual about them. Let's get started.
  • Last year when it came to TV monitors, the theme was "How big can you get?", but this year it shifted in a different direction to "How thin can you get it?" Just about every major manufacturer at the show exhibited a thin TV that ranged from 1 inch thick, to Panasonic's amazing 1/3 inch ultra-thin plasma (see below). Of course, the big problem here is with a TV that thin, the cables become a problem as they're thicker than the screen itself. Let's see who steps up with a solution for that.

1/3 Inch Plasma TV
The arrow is pointing to the edge of the unit.
  • Panasonic also was the star with the largest TV as well with their giant 150 inch plasma. I know every guy wants to run out and buy one right now but remember that this sucker will barely fit against a the wall of a normal room with a 10 foot ceiling. That being said, the picture looked great. But the fact of the matter is that every manufacturer had a 100+ inch TV available this year, and large size TVs weren't anything particularly special anymore.
150 Inches of Panasonic
The ultimate for the couch potato.
  • Every manufacturer had several models that were able to connect to the internet, and many already had content deals with Netflix, Yahoo, Flickr or YouTube in place. This is one trend I'm really looking forward to.
A Web-Connected Sharp Aquos
It looks like this is TV's future.
  • In general, TV monitor picture quality just seems to be getting better and better, and I thought it was already really good. Contrast ratios climb ever higher, with models as high as 2,000,000 to 1. But the biggest trend here was increased picture refresh rates that went as high as 480Hz. This gives the monitor the ability to eliminate the motion blur that sometimes happens during action shots in HD.
  • 3D TV was around, but not like I thought it would be. It was treated more like a science project by the major manufacturers. Prediction: Next year this will be the big trend. This year, still too early.
  • There were a lot of new players in the television monitor space this year, at least ones that had large exhibits that I'd never heard of like Haier (the official TV of the NBA!!??) and Hisense. From China I presume?

    Anyone ever heard of these guys?
  • LED and LCD were the predominant picture technology formats this year. An interesting new category revealed LCD picture with an LED backlight, resulting in a smaller, more energy efficient model. There were some plasma's around but the percentage was a lot smaller than last year. In a related note, there was not one CRT to be found in the entire show. That technology is now officially dead and buried.
  • An interesting trend that I liked a lot were micro-projectors so small that you could fit one in the palm of your hand, yet they could still produce a 50 inch projection. Several manufacturers had an entry in this category.
  • Another big trend is the "green TV" or "Eco-friendly TV". Again, every manufacturer had some model line built around this theme. Basically what it means is that the TV draws a lot less power when operating, and/or eliminates the traditional stand-by mode so it doesn't draw any power when turned off.
  • Blu-Ray players were everywhere, with many monitors having players built-in. "BD-Live", with the player connected to the internet, was pretty universal this year. That being said, the profile of the technology was not as high as expected.
  • Gaming was also a big feature, with many units designed specifically with gaming in mind. I didn't spend much time looking at these as I was mostly repulsed by the fact that the attendees were playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero.
  • And finally, Sony was back with it's OLED screen technology, which brings the monitor thickness down to the width of 2 or 3 credit cards. They even showed one that was flexible, nearly bent in half and still showing a pretty good picture. The actual screen size is getting larger, but basically OLED is still a science project. Prediction: 2 or 3 years down the line this will be the big technology trend of the show.Sony OLED Monitor
Notice how thin

That's all for now. Next post - audio and home theater overview.


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