The last blog detailed the Pioneer BDP-HD1 Blu-ray player's surround properties. What about the Toshiba HD-A2? Dolby's Craig Eggers kindly explained that the player does feature both lossless Dolby TrueHD and lossy Dolby Digital Plus decoding and playback. They are exported through the HDMI jacks as PCM, not as a bitstream, so decoding cannot be done in a surround receiver even if it does have a decoder. But the PCM should still sound good. If you were thinking of using analog jacks to feed surround to an HDMI-less legacy receiver, you're out of luck. The HD-A2 does not have a full set of surround analog outs (just a stereo pair) so it can't export the signal that way. But the translated-to-PCM signal is re-encoded as DTS and sent through the optical output, which also of course handles regular Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. On the DTS side, the news is not as good. The Toshiba site cites "Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD and DTS support for up to 5.1 channels (DTS HD support for DTS core only)." So full 7.1-channel goodness is not available for Dolby's two new babies. And DTS's two new babies are reduced to the resolution of old-style DTS.
Finally peace settles over the rack. I know what my Pioneer BDP-HD1 and Toshiba HD-A2 can and cannot do. Am I satisfied? It's great to know I'll have access to Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus, even converted to high-bit PCM, but irksome to realize that firsthand experience with both forms of DTS-HD at full res will lie in the future. And what about the future? At the recent CEDIA I saw players that move forward into new territory, offering bitstream outputs of the new surround codecs for decoding in a receiver. Pioneer introduced the second-gen BDP-95FD ($1000). Of Toshiba's three new third-gen players, only the HD-A35 ($399) outputs the bitstream, and I'm shocked, shocked! that the other two don't. The HD-A35 is also the only Toshiba with a full set of analog-outs. At CEDIA there were many compatible receivers from Denon, Integra, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer, Yamaha, et al. Got one in the rack already, with another waiting in the wings, but how tantalizing it is to realize that the full surround capability that would transform my work as a reviewer is still two player swaps away--waiting for the next generation of rack attacks. In the meantime, I've never seen a better picture.
My boss Shane Buettner has been taking the heat recently for eliminating our product review rating system. In addition to the comments on his blog of last week, he's also been reading a torrent of opinion in the magazine's regular stream of reader mail. When Shane notes that he dropped the ratings with the "complete support of HT’s staff," that definitely includes me. I had been trying to persuade my editors to kill the ratings long before Shane took over.
Can a brand that has made its biggest mark in television also muster credible music players? Whether or not you've noticed, RCA has been doing that for several years. The 2007 line includes three flavors: the Jet, the Opal, and the Pearl. I got hold of the 1GB version of the Pearl for review. It plays both music and Audible e-books. With its modest size and rounded shape, this is a player you can easily shove in a pocket before getting on with your mobile life.
You've probably heard about Warner's Red2Blu program--Scott Wilkinson covered it in our News section. It enables consumers who bought HD DVDs to upgrade them to Blu-ray versions of the same titles for $4.95 plus shipping charges of $6.95-8.95. What you may not have heard is that the upgrade may result in a standard edition being replaced by a deluxe boxed set. Our colleague (and former convergence editor) Chris Chiarella writes: "If you swap out your Casablanca, you'll actually be upgrading to the crazy-cool Ultimate Collector's Edition. I believe that this fancy boxed set is the only BD version offered in the U.S., and while I was poking around the Warner Red2Blu microsite I clicked on Casablanca and the UCE appeared in my cart specifically, by name." So now you have more than one potential reason to pay the few bucks to go Blu. Sweet deal!
If you're looking to buy an LCD HDTV for an unprecedently low price, 'tis the season to be ecstatic. The 2006 holiday shopping season is the best in history for TV buyers in general--and, thanks to slipping profit margins, one of the worst for retailers. As I'm writing this, Amazon is selling 32-inch models by major names below the psychologically significant $1000 mark. A Panasonic goes for $979 and a Samsung for $939. I won't link to them because these things change from moment to moment, but you get the idea. So why is the Justice Department--and its brethren in Japan and South Korea--investigating LCD manufacturers for price fixing? The problem is not with TVs or other finished products but rather with LCD components. Their makers are accused of cutting output to keep prices high. And eventually that will affect pricing of TVs, laptops, and other LCD-driven products, even if it doesn't seem to be doing so now. Companies under investigation include Samsung, Sharp, NEC, AU Optronics, LG Phillips, and Chi Mei Optoelectronics; Matsushita and Sony have not gotten the fishy eye.
The Recording Industry Association of America, better known as the antichrist, is suing XM Satellite Radio for "massive copyright infringement." XM plays 160,000 different songs a month for its 6.5 million subscribers and the RIAA wants $150,000 for each song copied. In the background is the real story: The music industry has been in negotiations with both major satellite operators over payment of royalties, and while Sirius has cut a deal, XM has not. In its defense, XM says it's already the single biggest payer of royalties to the labels. The Consumer Electronics Association has issued a definitive rebuttal to the suit. Another source of heat is Senate bill 2644, a.k.a. the Perform Act, which would prohibit satellite services from allowing programmed downloading of individual songs, even though songs currently are not digitally transferable from the devices that record them (and any analog output from any device can be recorded anyhow). According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Perform Act would also require webcasters to substitute DRM streaming technology for the MP3 streaming many of them use.
Is it possible for the download wars to get any nastier? Having lost its lawsuit against a single mother who refused to settle, the Recording Industry Antichrist of America is now suing her children. Patti Santangelo's son Robert is 16 years old and his sister Michelle is 20. They were five years younger when, according to RIAA allegations, they infringed copyright law by downloading music. The Associated Press sums up the position of Robert's lawyer: "that he never sent copyrighted music to others, that the recording companies promoted file sharing before turning against it, that average computer users were never warned that it was illegal, that the statute of limitations has passed, and that all the music claimed to have been downloaded was actually owned by his sister on store-bought CDs." Attorney Jordan Glass also asserts that the record companies behind the RIAA "have engaged in a wide-ranging conspiracy to defraud the courts of the United States" by acting as "a cartel collusively in violation of the antitrust laws." Michelle Santangelo has been ordered to pay a default judgment of $30,750 for downloading 41 songs. The RIAA has filed more than 18,000 lawsuits against consumers in recent years. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has undertaken a petition drive: "Copyright law shouldn't make criminals out of more than 60 million Americans--tell Congress that it's time to stop the madness!"
With government cuts in financial aid and sky-high student loans, getting through college isn't easy these days. It just got still harder thanks to the Recording Industry Antichrist of America. The RIAA is now sending courtesy pre-lawsuit notices (you read that right) to a dozen lucky universities. The notices make two demands: that the schools turn over the names of students tied to IP addresses suspected of file sharing, and that they pass on the notices to students. This leaves the schools in a curious position. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act requires them to crack down on the use of technology to violate copyrights. At the same time, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act forbids them to turn over student records to every Tom, Dick, Harry, and Antichrist who wants them. If the universities rat out their kids and pass on the notices, lucky recipients will get to settle out of court for what the RIAA calls a "substantial" (but undisclosed) discount in lieu of the usual average $3000 damages. But only if they call the RIAA or register at p2plawsuits.com. The first round of courtesy notices has gone out to Arizona State, Marshall University, North Carolina State, North Dakota State, Northern Illinois University, Ohio University, Syracuse University, U-Mass Amherst, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, University of South Florida, University of Southern California, University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the University of Texas at Austin. This latest gambit echoes another recent RIAA move: Using ISPs, in lieu of the courts, to demand payouts from their own customers.
You think gas is expensive? Copper, which formerly sold for around 90 cents a pound, has shot up past $3 a pound. Janet Pinkerton sums up the situation succinctly in the August 2006 issue of Custom Retailer (story not on site): "The copper price spiral has been driven by...a 'perfect storm' of economic factors: ravenous demand for copper and other metals from China and secondarily India, a strong construction market in the U.S., an extremely tight copper inventory supply, labor unrest in key copper mines, and the yet-to-be-quantified impact of fund managers and others speculating on copper futures." The labor unrest seems to be centered in Chile but production is also down in China. Skyrocketing copper will affect not only cables but a/v components as well. They're stuffed with copper wire. Some, like Pioneer's Elite receiver line, even use a thick copper chassis. Higher prices will be the inevitable result. For example: The Outlaw Audio site still quotes the price of the RR2150 stereo receiver as $599, but when I was fact-checking an upcoming review, my source bumped it to $649. Place your order now!
Convergence shows many faces to music lovers. If you've got the bucks, you can add a hard-drive-based music server to your system. Or you can pay a custom installer to bring IP-based networking to every room in the house. But if you just want to move music from one PC to one rack, all you need is a simple device and it doesn't have to cost much. One of many possible options is the Roku SoundBridge.
Samsung showed off its first LED-driven DLP model yesterday at a press briefing in New York. The 56-inch HL-S5679W ($4199) replaces the arc lamp and color wheel used in conventional DLP rear-projectors (left) with light-emitting diodes (right). This provides longer lamp life (20,000 hours), more uniform performance over the lifetime of the set, quicker turn-on, quieter operation, no color-wheel "rainbow effect," and as an environmental bonus, toxic mercury has been eliminated from the design. The only catch is that the light engine (optics) are left over from last year's lamp-based sets, and that won't change until the next model-year, though what I saw showed impressive smoothness and uniformity of brightness. Also shown were new plasmas using an anti-glare scheme combining a blue backcoating on the glass with a brown matrix between pixels. The picture was watchable, with what subjectively appeared to be very good black level, even with direct light pouring in the window of the fancy hotel. Finally, would you like your iPod to sing through your TV? You can do just that with LCD-HDTVs in the 92 Series (46, 40, and 32 inches starting at $2199). An RS232 port connects the music player, Apple or Samsung (the iPod requires an optional $40 adapter cable). Then you can navigate music files onscreen through the TV's remote.
Oh so carefully selected reporters swarmed the Samsung Experience store at New York's Time Warner Center to get a first hands-on experience with the BD-P100. The player took one minute to warm up by my pocket watch (vs. a reported three for Toshiba's HD DVD player). Picture quality on a Samsung 61-inch DLP projector was stunning, showing every hair and pore on Guy Pearce's stubbly face in Memento, and maintaining that degree of detail when accompanied by moderate subject or camera motion. Resolution softened when I turned off the projector's DNIe video processing though rapid motion also became smoother. On the whole I found it jolly convincing. Once you've seen 1080p at a high data rate, you'll never want to go back, at least on those releases that are true 1080p (as opposed to line-doubled fakes). Incidentally, there is no truth to the widely blogged (though not here!) rumor that the Samsung player will be delayed to late summer in the U.S.—the delay will be in the U.K.Delays have been confirmed for Sony and Pioneer players but Samsung expects to hit the scheduled June 25 release date.
Last week's announcement of Apple's new iPod line was a historic one. It was the first time a rival maker of music players has made Steve Jobs sweat in public. It was no accident that Jobs introduced a second-generation iPod nano with a capacity of 8GB and a price of $249, essentially doubling the capacity of the old 4GB nano for the same price. SanDisk, number two in the music-player market, has been selling an 8GB, $249.99 nano-killer for months. The Sansa e280 is not nearly as thin as the nano, though it does have a color LCD that's a half-inch taller, and it sounds equally good. I'd love to tell you more, but the blog-review that was slated to appear in this space today has been spirited off to the print magazine where it will appear in the December issue. Say, big spender, isn't it about time for you to finally subscribe? Come on, it's $12.97 a year, just over a buck an issue. It won't kill you.
Having reported the world's biggest TV, I might as well tell you about the smallest one operating at full 1080 by 1920 resolution. This Sanyo Epson prototype LCD is 7.1 inches and is designed for low power consumption. Who knows, you might see it on some enlarged iPod someday, though this is just irresponsible speculation on my part. The press release says Sanyo Epson has its eye on DTV broadcasting and mobile devices, especially One Seg, a just-debuted Japanese service that lets DTV be viewed on the move. The LCD has resolution of 310 pixels per inch, 180-degree viewing angle, and covers more than 100 percent of the NTSC color gamut (ATSC is not mentioned).