"Image Constraint Token." A piquant phrase, yes? Roll it around on your tongue a few times before I tell you what it is. OK, ready? It's the name of the flag that will down-res HDTV in the soon-to-debut Blu-ray and HD DVD formats under the rights management scheme known as AACS (Advanced Access Content System). The restriction will apply only to the player's component video outputs, because they're analog, and therefore give the studios security nightmares. If your HDTV has HDMI, you needn't worry. HDMI is digital, easier to protect, and will work at full resolution. But if you're an early HDTV adopter and component is the only HD input on your set—ouch. The Image Constraint Token will halve resolution from 1920 by 1080 pixels to 960 by 540. It is an option, not a requirement. Studios likely to use it reportedly include Disney, NBC Universal, Paramount, and Warner. Fox has argued against it and Sony hasn't taken a position. The logic behind the ICT is staggeringly faulty: Does anyone really believe that cutting resolution in half will stop pirates in their tracks?
Why are component audio sales lagging portables? "More than 56 percent of potential audio buyers say they have never even heard what they'd consider a great sounding audio system," says a press release from the Consumer Electronics Association. For those of us who have both heard and felt soul-stirring sound, that is nothing short of horrific. "The good news for retailers is that many consumers are leaving the door of opportunity cracked open through their willingness to interact with a sales person and to receive a demonstration of better audio equipment," says Sean Wargo, CEA's director of industry analysis. CEA recently released a training DVD for dealers, "The Specialty Audio/Video Difference," showing how to conduct effective demos and supply good customer service. If you're a consumer, as opposed to a dealer, maybe it's time to walk into an a/v specialty store and say "play me something good!" It just might change your life. To find a store in your area with some real class, click here. (Today's poster boy is Tycho the Wonder Dog, courtesy of www.nomoon.org.)
Eighty percent of home theater buffs value sound quality. Even more, 84 percent, value video quality. And when asked whether they value both, 83 percent say yes—proving that the traditional definition of home theater as the marriage of big-screen television and surround sound is still valid. Those are a few of the highlights of Home Theater Opportunities, a study from the Consumer Electronics Association's CEA Market Research. The study also finds that a third of existing home theater system owners plan to buy at least one component in the coming year, at an average cost of $1700, while home theater newbies plan to spend $1400. More than half of these planned purchases will be video displays; CEA defines an HT-worthy screen as 34 inches or more. Comments Sean Wargo, CEA's director of industry analysis: "The high interest in displays leads many to wonder if there is opportunity left for the other components of a home theater system, such as audio. But the survey results show, when it comes to home theaters, sound and video quality are almost equally important to the majority of consumers. As a result, investments in displays may just be the first round in a larger investment in the home entertainment system." Especially, I think, if display prices continue to drop, leaving more budgetary room for audio purchases. The full study sells for $499 but you can read the press release for nothing.
Don't you just love this bright new Blu-ray world we're living in? To celebrate the great transition, the studios now have hip high-def copyright warnings. This one came from Warner's 10,000 BC. Notice the forceful graphics, the festive colors, the 4:3 aspect ratio. The rounded screen corners that remind me of a 1950s B&W Magnavox--the first TV I remember, delivery medium for countless episodes of Captain Kangaroo. Best of all, it stays onscreen a real long time, and is invulnerable to the track-skip and fast-forward keys, so you have plenty of time to meditate on 5 YEARS IN FEDERAL PRISON before your evening entertainment. That'll stop those bootleggers and analog-hole deviants from stealing our precious bodily fluids! Uh, I mean our intellectual property. Or perhaps the studios are just as tone-deaf as ever, wasting the time of law-abiding Blu-ray renters and purchasers to send a message to other people who are impervious to copyright warnings. For the record, I have no intention of ever bootlegging a Blu-ray disc. But all those moments spent watching dopey copyright warnings add up. Couldn't they be shortened to three seconds, or made skippable, to really celebrate a new age of great HD entertainment? I want my life back.
When you record a program with your DVR, does it matter whether the hard drive lives in your set-top box or on your cable company's network? Yes it does matter, a federal district court has ruled, effectively killing Cablevision's Remote Storage DVR. Soon after Cablevision introduced the innovative device, it was sued by CNN, Fox, NBC, Paramount, and TBS, who claimed the RS-DVR was not merely recording programs, but rebroadcasting them--a violation of copyright law. Cablevision argued in vain that the device was not rebroadcasting because recording and playback were controlled by the consumer. The decision will affect not only Cablevision's three million New York-area subscribers, but also cable consumers nationwide, by preventing other cable operators from introducing their own network-based DVRs. Cable operators like network DVRs because they're less costly to operate than the conventional kind. Cablevision may appeal. If it drags out the fight long enough, and Congress passes the Fair Use Act, the RS-DVR may get a second chance. The proposed law protects devices "capable of substantial, commercially-significant non-infringing use."
Recently I've begun configuring some review systems to eliminate the horizontal center speaker in favor of a matching left/center/right array. The specific weakness of horizontal centers lies in their dual woofers. They bring on an effect called lobing--that is, sum-and-cancellation effects that cause uneven response at the listening position. However, my preference for identically matched speakers across the front is causing consternation to some readers, especially concerning placement.
Did you know that David Gilmour's third solo album is out on LP as well as CD? Amazon.co.uk is listing a vinyl version of On an Island for 15.99 British pounds—a little under 28 U.S. dollars—and it's even coming out today, same date as the CD release. The "voice and guitar of Pink Floyd," as he's billed on his upcoming tour, has been busy lately. Last year he reunited with three other former members of Pink Floyd in the G8 concert series, sold his house in London for 3.6 million pounds (6.3 million dollars), and gave the proceeds to an organization for the homeless, while putting finishing touches on the new album. Judging from the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of his three-year-old In Concert DVD, Gilmour is still in his prime. Hey Dave, got a couple of extra tickets for the sold-out April dates at Radio City Music Hall? Well, I had to try. More on Pink Floyd tomorrow.
The Federal Communications Commission has a new member. Deborah Tate was quietly sworn in by chairperson Kevin Martin on January 3. A native of Tennessee, Tate is a lawyer with Republican credentials, but not necessarily a cookie-cutter political operative. Her varied public service background includes telecommunications, public utilities, senior mental health, and juvenile justice. That breadth of experience may prove valuable over the next few years as the FCC grapples with controversial issues involving obscenity, censorship, media concentration, digital rights management, and its traditional mission of regulating the broadcast spectrum.
Delta Airlines is struggling for survival, negotiating in federal bankruptcy court, and fending off a hostile takeover by US Airways. But whether you go first-class or coach, flying Delta is about to get more entertaining. These bullet points are a verbatim quote from an email Delta frequent flyers received a few weeks ago:
King Crimson's Larks' Tongues in Aspic: The Complete Recordings is a reissue on steroids. This is the only Crim album to have been singled out for a massive box set including 13 CDs, a DVD-Audio disc, and—in a first for indie label DGM—a Blu-ray disc. Like most other releases in the ongoing 40th Anniversary Series, this one features fresh high-res 5.1- and 2.0-channel mixes by Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson—and you can also buy those mixes in a far less costly two-disc DVD-Audio and CD set. But the LP-size monster box of Larks is in a class by itself as it documents the intensely innovative 1972 lineup that featured avant garde percussionist Jamie Muir along with what became the surviving quartet of former Yes drummer Bill Bruford, bassist John Wetton, violinist David Cross, and guitarist Robert Fripp, the only founding member.
Regrets gnaw at record collectors. There's always the one that got away: because I failed to buy it, or could never find a good copy of it, or unwisely loaned it, or stupidly discarded it in the CD era's initial flush of enthusiasm and confusion. Over the years I've whittled down my list of regrets with strategic secondhand buys. But a few regrets have remained, and when they affect my relationship with the Beatles or the Rolling Stones—crucial touchstones for a fiftysomething music lover—they're especially painful. I was never lucky enough to find a pristine pressing of either Abbey Road or Beggar's Banquet. However, a recent turntable purchase and an unspent balance in my PayPal account recently drove me to banish these gnawing regrets once and for all.
This just may be the first in a series of blogs on music that finds its way into demos I'm constantly staging for loudspeaker and a/v receiver reviews. Hence the subtitle: Demos. Music is the reason I became an audio critic in the first place. In fact, I was a published music critic long before I became a technology critic, starting in 1979, writing for Spin and Trouser Press and editing the Trouser Press Collectors' Magazine. Tech criticism turned out to be a better way of earning a living but I still see it as an outgrowth of my identity as a music (and movie) critic. As I note in my book: "We master technology so that art can take precedence over technology."
Whenever I see a bunch of people running in one direction, I run the other way. Let them paw over whatever is enjoying its 15 minutes of fame—I'd rather explore what they've overlooked, at a leisurely pace, in splendid isolation. During the waning days of the LP era, just as the CD's "perfect sound forever" campaign was coming on strong, I refrained from discarding most of my vinyl. Oh, I bought CDs, especially for new releases. But I also haunted the Tower Annex in Lower Manhattan, filling holes in my classical library with used LPs at two or three dollars a pop. For a junior-grade inkstained wretch, vinyl was more affordable than full-priced $15 CDs (in 1980s dollars) though I bought plenty of those too.