|January 4, 2005
In This eNewsletter:
By Thomas J. Norton
Anyone who regularly visits our ultimateAVmag.com Web site, or has read the print magazine, knows that the main shortcomings of all the new video technologies are the richness of their blacks and how they reproduce details in deep shadowstwo characteristics that strongly affect the quality of the picture. For a vivid demonstration of this, you need go no further than the brightness control on your display. Assuming it has been properly adjusted (using a good calibration DVD like Digital Video Essentials), turning it up, often by only a small amount, will result in a washed out, two-dimensional image. Turning it down produces an increasingly muddy-looking picture, as blacks and dark grays all turn into the same muddled, undifferentiated mess.
To date, even the best examples of new display technologiesplasma, LCD, DLP, and LCoS (including D-ILA, HD-ILA, and SXRD, all proprietary variations of LCoS)have been unable to match the best CRTs in the depth of their blacks and the quality of their shadow detail. But a recent new development appears poised to upset this particular applecartor at least shake it up a bit. It's a new type of iris that adjusts automatically, depending on the picture level of the incoming video signal.
As in a camera, an iris in a projector is an adjustable aperture within the lens. Closing it down reduces the light that passes through the lens. In a camera, the iris controls the exposure; in a projector, it controls the amount of light projected onto the screen.
Fixed irises, usually with several user-adjustable settings, have been available in projectors for some time, though not all projectors offer them. A fixed iris reduces the light level across the board, both in the blacks and peak whites. This isn't always a bad thing. Reducing the light output may improve the overall image by reducing the absolute black level. If the setupscreen size and gain, ambient light control and user can tolerate the dimmer overall image, the benefits often outweigh the loss.
But suppose there was an iris that sensed the light level in the source material on a dynamic basis and automatically adjusted its aperture accordingly? We already have such irises, of course, in auto-exposure cameras. But a projector's auto iris must operate in a manner opposite to that in a camera. That is, the projector iris would close down on dark scenes to provide darker blacks, and open up on bright scenes to make optimum use of the projector's light output. This sort of technology would only be useful on displays that use a fixed light source and lens; that is, projectors. Plasmas and flat-panel LCDs need not apply. But video projectorsincluding rear-projection televisionsare a significant slice of the video display market.
To date, two manufacturers, Sony and Panasonic, have introduced a total of three widescreen front projectors that incorporate such irises. Two of these, Panasonic's PT-AE700U ($2999) and Sony's VPL-HS51 ($3500), are relatively affordable LCD designs. The upscale PT-DW7000U ($25,000) from Panasonic is a 3-chip DLP.
For those whose instinctive reaction to such image manipulation is "it's a gimmick," I can assure you that it is not. At least, it's no more so than other techniques that use the inherent limitations of the human eye to make convincing video performance possiblethe color wheel in single-chip DLPs, scan lines or discrete pixels forming pieces of an overall image, interlaced images, narrower color bandwidth than black and white, data compression via MPEG encoding and decoding, and so on.
Very soon, you'll see our reviews of the Sony and Panasonic LCD projectors mentioned earlier. I'll give you this much of a sneak preview: the technology works, producing (at least in the case of the Sony, with which I've personally spent the most time) a depth of clean blacks and a level of effective contrast that knocks the socks off any LCD projector I've reviewed in the past. After several weeks of viewing, I'm still looking for a downside.
While LCD projectors would seem the most likely candidates for the benefits of a variable iris, other technologies could benefit as well. Even the single-chip DLP, which has up to now provided the best blacks of any new display technology in my experience, would seem to be candidate for it. Here the iris could be designed to operate in a relatively modest range; on the theory that "if a little is good, a lot isn't necessarily better," such an iris might well bring worthwhile improvements to an already good technology. In particular, it might allow for greater light output from those single-chip designs without sacrificing black level.
In short, I don't believe that the projectors introduced so far will be the last to use this exciting new development. Keep your irises open, and watch this space for more developments, possibly even as soon as the upcoming 2005 Consumer Electronics Show.
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By Scott Wilkinson and Thomas J. Norton
As 2004 wheezes across the finish line and 2005 lurches from the starting gate, all eyes inevitably turn toward Las Vegas and the annual madness that is the Consumer Electronics Show. You'll be seeing lots of coverage during and after the show on our Web site (www.ultimateAVmag.com), but for now, I thought I'd give you a sneak peek at some of the things I'll be looking at as I wend my way through more than a million square feet of exhibit floors and hotel suites.
Of course, all the usual suspects will be showing off their latest and greatest lines of digital displaysDLP, LCD, LCoS, plasmain ever-larger screen sizes and ever-lower price points, with scads of the latest features such as CableCARD, HDMI, etc. I hear that DTS will actually have a 9-inch CRT projector from Crystal View in their demo room, which should look fabulous thanks to Chris Stevens' careful ministrations (though I wouldn't be surprised if it's the only CRT projector at the entire show). And there'll be plenty of DVD players and recorders, DVRs, AV receivers, speakers, and all the other normal goodies, which you'll read about from UAV editor Tom Norton and contributors John Gannon and Pete Putman.
My beat at the show includes media networking and media center PCs, which are quickly maturing product categories. I've got no less than nine companies on my list that will be highlighting media center PC products, most of which perform DVR duties using the computer's hard disk. I'm eager to talk to these companies about one of my primary concerns about such systems: the importance of installing a separate, dedicated hard disk to store video material. If you record television programs on the same hard disk that holds your operating system, applications, and documents, it will quickly fill up and start acting squirrelly as the data become fragmented with repeated recordings and deletions. I'm hoping these companies intend to help educate consumers about this potential problem.
Media networking and servers represent another huge product category at the show. For example, there's a lot going on in powerline networking (sending network signals over the AC powerlines in a home), with bandwidths now up to 200Mbps. The HomePlug Powerline Alliance will also be introducing Broadband Over Powerline (BOP), which could hasten the widespread adoption of broadband Internet access, especially for those who don't want to string Ethernet cables around their homes or implement a WiFi network for security or performance reasons. Among the many media-networking items I expect to see this week is Motorola's Tao Distributed AV Center and several new high-speed chipsets from makers such as Analog Devices (who will also have an IP set-top box that could be interesting).
Stay tuned to our Web site for all the latest AV news from CES. As always, it promises to be a wild ride!SW
In a recent pre-CES press briefing in New York, Denon announced the new DVD-5910 DVD player ($3500) and AVR-4806 receiver ($3000). The AVR-4806 (7 channels, 130Wpc) incorporates many of the features of the previously announced AVR-5805 flagship receiver, including all current home theater surround formats, video upconversion of composite and S-Video sources to component, HDMI and DVD-D switching, and speaker/room correction using MultEQx technology from Audyssey Labs.
The DVD-5910 is the first DVD player announced that incorporates the Realta HQV chip from Silicon Optix, a video-scaling engine based on the $60,000 Teranex broadcast and post-production platform. (Silicon Optix recently purchased Teranex.) The Realta HQV is used only for the player's DVI-D and HDMI outputs (both are provided). A DVDO scaler serves the component 480p output.
B&W will be showing off its recently introduced 800 Series speakers, successor to the Nautilus 800 Series. While cosmetically similar to their predecessors, the new models are substantially redesigned. Several of the models, from the 800 ($20,000/pair) to the 803 ($8000/pair), feature a new tweeter with a diamond diaphragm, said to be both stiffer and lighter than any other material currently in use. The lineup also includes the new HTM1; at $8000 and 205 pounds, it might just be the most expensive and ambitious dedicated center channel speaker to date.
Marantz will be showing its new flagship receiver, the SR9600 ($3499) featuring HDMI switching. It will be demonstrated in a system including the company's new flagship DV9500 universal DVD player, VP-12S4 DLP projector, and a Mordaunt-Short Performance surround speaker system.
The Carver Digital division of Phoenix Gold International will debut a number of new products, including the new HTP 9.1 home theater processor ($3495) and HTA 5.1 multichannel home theater amplifier ($2995). Boston Acoustics will show their new AVR 7120 and AVR 7100 home theater receivers, a new product category for the Massachusetts speaker manufacturer.
Thiel Audio and others, including Theta Digital, will demonstrate a $500,000 home theater system at the Alexis Park Hotel, the official CES venue for high-end audio manufacturers.
Many manufacturers, operating in their usual top secret, pre-CES, mode, have hinted at big surprises but without specifics. For more new products and news, check out our daily on-the-scene reports from CES at www.ultimateAVmag.com beginning on January 6, 2005.TJN
HDTV @ CES
By Scott Wilkinson
The biggest HDTV event this month is undoubtedly the Consumer Electronics Show during the first week of January. There will be oodles of HDTVs on display, as well as a pitched battle between the Blu-ray and HD DVD high-def optical disc formats. I'll be keeping a close eye on that situation, which has turned into a real horse race now that Disney has endorsed Blu-ray (albeit while leaving the door open for HD DVD). Both camps have scheduled press conferences, and I'm sure there will be late-stage prototype players and recorders on display in various booths.
Among the other interesting HDTV announcements I've received in preparation for the show is a new indoor/outdoor terrestrial antenna from Winegard. When it comes to HDTV, I agree with UAV contributor Pete Putman, who strongly advocates taking advantage of terrestrial reception for several reasons. First, terrestrial broadcasting is becoming more widespread all the time, with multiple stations in many areas of the country. Also, the FCC has mandated a timetable during which new HDTVs must include a terrestrial ATSC tuner, so there's no need for a set-top box any more. Finallyand perhaps most importantlyterrestrial HDTV is completely free of charge; all you need is an HD-capable display, ATSC tuner, and antenna.
Which brings us back to the new Winegard SharpShooter SS-3000, which will be introduced at CES. This indoor/outdoor antenna is based on a technology developed by Dotcast, who also supplies datacasting technology for Disney's MovieBeam movies-on-demand service. The SharpShooter uses Dotcast's "e-field" technology, which senses electric fields produced by terrestrial broadcasts and amplifies the signal without adding lots of noise. The antenna measures only 26 inches wide, but it is said to perform as well as a typical 6-foot YAGI, pulling in stations up to 30 miles away when used indoors and up to 50 miles away when positioned outdoors. It is also said to dramatically reduce interference from nearby buildings and RF sources. Look for a review as soon as we can get our hands on one.
Another interesting pre-CES announcement came from Gefen, a company that makes DVI and HDMI switchers, distribution amps, and extenders. Among other products, they will be introducing a wireless HDTV extender. The DVI output from a source device (tuner, D-VHS deck, DVD player, etc.) connects to a small transmitter, which sends the data up to 40 feet via laser beam to an equally small receiver connected to the display's DVI input. The system is said to be capable of sending resolutions up to 1080p. This is a great idea for flat-panel displays on the wall, which lose some of their appeal with a bunch of cables snaking up to them.
I'm sure there will be lots of HDTV stuff to cover at this year's CES, and you'll read all about it on our Web site (www.ultimateAVmag.com), so log on and tune in!
Press Conference Blues
By Scott Wilkinson
As in years past, my 2005 CES schedule is filled with press conferences on Wednesday (press day) and Thursday (first official day of the show). But unlike many of my esteemed journalistic colleagues, I value these press conferences greatly. I know that most companies will present their most important information in a relatively concise manner, making it easy for me to determine what I need to cover. Also, they provide an excellent opportunity for a little face time with the company reps I work with during the rest of the year; in fact, establishing and maintaining these relationships at CES and other trade shows is at least as important to me as the product information I receive there, which can usually be obtained online.
However, there is a dark side to some press conferences (other than the calories and carbs in the cookies and sodas that are inevitably served). For example, some companies feel it necessary to hold a press conference when they have nothing new to say. Don't they remember that they told us this stuff six months ago? Then there are the companies that strive to entertain us with musicians, acrobats, or actors pretending to be average consumers playing with their new toys. Who can forget that CES press conference a couple of years ago in which BMX freestyle jockeys flung their stunt bikes around the front of the room, nearly knocking over the product display, not to mention the folks in the front row?
One of the most common problems is the insistence of many Japanese companies that their information be delivered by execs with a less-than-adequate command of English pronunciation. A press conference is useless if no one in the audience can understand what the presenter is saying. Shouldn't the primary goal of a press conference be to disseminate information to the press as easily and completely as possible? Don't these companies want the American press to understandand thus write abouttheir products?
Sometimes, an exec will drone on and on about the company's position in the marketplace, flashing endless PowerPoint slides of sales figures and market-share projections. That might be useful information for market analysts, but I (and other members of the "enthusiast" press, I happen to know) don't really care all that much. I am more interested in new products and technologies, including specs, features, ship dates, and MSRPswhich, come to think of it, can be more effectively and efficiently communicated in a press kit.
Speaking of which, there has been a recent trend toward replacing paper press kits with CD-ROMs and even digital documents that can be downloaded from the Web, both of which are good ideas. After all, a CD or URL is a lot easier to lug around the show than all that paper (rolling press bags notwithstandingthanks Toshiba!). But there is one thing that is usually missing from the press kits: a printout or digital copy of the PowerPoint slides shown during the press conference. These slides sometimes contain very useful information that appears nowhere else. I generally take low-res digital photos of the important slides as they are presented just to make sure I get the info without having to furiously scribble notes and possibly miss something important in the process. But it would be a lot better if the slides were copied and distributed to the audience. (Of course, if they contain nothing more than sales figures and market projections, don't bother on my account.)
As we head toward Las Vegas this year, I'd like to ask all the companies who are planning press conferences to consider these comments. You'll get a much better response from the enthusiast press if you actually have something to say, keep it short and simple, focus on products rather than market stats, have someone who speaks English reasonably well present the information, and distribute copies of the PowerPoint slides. You're more likely to get good press coverage because we'll obtain the info we need without having to avoid flying bicycles or endure silly stage shows.
For more hot industry news, features, and product and DVD reviews (check out our review of Troy, available on DVD on January 4, 2005), go to www.ultimateAVmag.com.
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