Memo to early adopters of HD DVD and Blu-ray: HDMI 1.3 will support every surround codec in the Dolby and DTS stables. How I wish I could leave it at that. However, only DTS-HD Master Audio requires the full monty of HDMI 1.3, which is a good thing, since HDMI 1.3 isn't here yet. Because HD DVD and Blu-ray players have surround decoders, panners, and mixers built in, lowly HDMI 1.1 or 1.2 will transfer decoded signals for Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. In fact, even the player's 7.1-channel analog-outs will support all these new surround goodies at full resolution. Using the old-fashioned digital coaxial or optical outs will down-res the signal to Dolby Digital at 640kbps or DTS at 768kbps. There you go. Knock yourself out. I'll continue milking this thing Monday.
If you hate the vulture's nest of ridiculously expensive cables lurking behind your rack, relief is spelled with four letters: HDMI. Someday signal sources will connect with just one HDMI cable. However, depending on what audio formats you want your system to support, you may have to seek out specific versions of HDMI. Having just nailed this for the next edition of my book (not out yet, to appear on Amazon sometime in the next 30 days) I might as well give you this little cheat sheet:
Have you ever thrown your iPod into the washing machine...on purpose? That's what the folks at ArsTechnica—a website worthy of daily visits—did with the new second-generation nano, following gushes of interest in similar tests inflicted upon the first-gen nano. And guess what? The nano continued to be playable. "Despite many requests to drop the nano into the toilet, boiling water, and cups of beer, I decided to quit with the washing machine," said tester Jacqui Cheng. Before that, it survived being sat upon. It also did well with scratch testing in a bag full of coins, keys, cellphone, camera, and other knickknacks, which left only minor blemishes on the new aluminum finish and none on the screen. Only with the sidewalk-drop test did the unit acquire a serious problem—one impact on concrete was all it took to render the screen useless. Note from our lawyers: Don't try any of these stunts, and if you do, we're not liable.
Ever wondered what's inside an iPod's inscrutably screwless design? There actually are people who pry these things open and look at every part, and some of them work for iSuppli's Teardown Analysis. Apple has reduced the "bill of materials" cost for the second-generation 4GB iPod nano from $89.97 to $72.24, according to iSuppli. Considering that the price has dropped from $249 to $199, that's only fair. Among the changes, the "system on chip" has been changed from a "semi custom" PortalPlayer PP5021 to a Samsung chip. And the latter includes a flash disk controller previously implemented in a separate part. The analysis leaves only one question unanswered: What would happen to the new nano if you put it through a washing machine? Details tomorrow.
When we last discussed Zune, plucky little Microsoft was getting ready to take on mean monolithic Apple with an iPod-really-wannabe but details were scarce. They got less scarce last week with the announcement that the 30GB player, at $249.99, would cost almost exactly the same as the new 30GB iPod video, at $249. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the 80GB iPod video may better serve a large library at just a hundred bucks more. But the iPod doesn't let you wirelessly share tracks with another user. The DRM catch? Three plays for three days, then the play privilege expires unless you pay. Another thing you won't get in the iPod/iTunes ecosystem is an all-you-can-eat monthly subscription like the Zune Pass, $14.99/month. Like some wacky city-state, Microsoft even has its own currency—Microsoft Points—described as "a stored value system that can be redeemed at a growing number of online stores, including the Xbox Live Marketplace." A track costs 79 Microsoft Points, at 80 to the dollar. Zune accessories include home, car, and travel packs at $79-99 with various cables, adapters, and things. Among many single-packaged accessories are the Zune Premium Earphones ($39.99) which, the 'softie site assures us, "produce superior sound." Finally, if you've had your heart set on a brown player, Zune's got one, along with black and white. Actually, it doesn't look bad. For more details, see the press release. Zune's D-Day is November 14. Wish it luck. Or not. Really, it's up to you.
Can a company better known for computer peripherals than for audio products make a great pair of headphones? Don't underestimate Logitech. The company's PC speakers may not keep the high-end audio industry awake at night but some of them do provide surprisingly decent sound for their modest pricetags. With these headphones, however, Logitech courts comparison with serious audio brands. That's because these are full-sized headphones (with real bass response) that enclose the ear (like the audio world's highest-performing headphone models).
Nearly lost amid the details of Apple's latest iPod launch a couple of weeks ago was something that will matter to fans of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and what old folks refer to as "side two" of the Beatles' Abbey Road. These classic-rock chestnuts consist of songs that flow together. But when you rip the CDs, iTunes separates the songs into separate tracks, and the iPod plays them with gaps. The gaps are brief but they interrupt the flow, destroy the mood. The solution? What Apple calls Gapless Playback is supported by iTunes 7 along with second-generation iPod nanos (shown, in new colors) and fifth-generation iPods. It will work with MP3 files as well as the AAC and Apple Lossless file formats. Use of the crossfade feature may interfere with Gapless Playback—see Apple's tutorial for details. Gapless Playback will also be a boon to classical music listeners. When the scherzo of Beethoven's Fifth gives way to the tumultuous final movement, there will be no jarring stop. The iPod has just gotten a little smarter.
The rap against the video iPod is that the screen is too small for movie immersion or even music-video amusement. Well, it was only a matter of time until someone came up with a video docking station, and Viewsonic has done it. The Apple-authorized "made for iPod" ViewDock comes in sizes of 23 and 19 inches, suitable for desktop, dorm, or space-starved studio apartment. Viewsonic's press release does not disclose resolution, though iTunes video downloads max out at standard-def 640 by 480, so a livingroom-worthy high-def ViewDock remains just an aspiration. The ViewDock will hit Europe, Taiwan, and—yesss!—the United States in November (otherwise I wouldn't have bothered to report it). Price is yet to be determined.
The engineers at Warner have been busy lately. Their latest quest: Why can't Blu-ray and HD DVD just get along? According to the NewScientist news service, Alan Bell and Lewis Ostrover have filed a patent for a disc that plays both of the nascent high-def formats as well as standard-def DVD. Getting the existing DVD format onto the disc was a cinch—it's simply the second side of a dual-sided disc. But how did they manage to get Blu-ray and HD DVD together onto the other layer? Two things worked in their favor. First, Blu-ray reads the disc at a relatively shallow 0.1mm, while HD DVD (like regular DVD) reads at a deeper 0.6mm. Second, they found a way to make the shallower Blu-ray layer act as a two-way mirror. It reflects enough light back to the laser to make the Blu-ray layer's data readable, but at the same time, lets through enough light to penetrate to the deeper HD DVD layer. Yet to be determined: How much will this three-format disc cost to manufacture? Will the hardware makers go for it, even assuming that the Blu-ray and HD DVD licensing powers allow them? And finally, and most crucial, will the studios and video retailers go for it? For the latter in particular, this could be the solution to the triple-inventory nightmare that threatens to strangle both Blu-ray and HD DVD.
In the market battle between LCD and plasma displays, conventional wisdom holds that where they overlap, LCD will always cost more, and therefore plasma is the better value. But in July, the average street price of 40- to 44-inch LCDs fell below that of plasma for the first time, according to Pacific Media Associates. The market research firm's Flat Panel Display Tracking Service also found that LCD's market share went up four points, to 46 percent. Says VP Rosemary Abowd: "We've seen this repeatedly in the past. When the price of LCDs match or drop below the prices for plasma HDTVs of the same size, LCDs win. We expect that LCDs will account for the majority of unit sales in the 40- to 44-inch range soon." Plasma still has the advantage in black level and viewing angle, though it's more subject to the screen-door effect, and that big glass sandwich is heavier and thus a little harder to mount.
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.
Polk Audio's acquisition by Directed Electronics is the latest in a series of shifts among the audio industry's rich assortment of stars. Directed—a power in mobile tech products, judging from its website—had already acquired Definitive Technology. In another noteworthy deal, Klipsch bought API, the Canadian giant whose brand names include Mirage, Energy, Athena, and Spherex. Klipsch is also the proud new owner of Jamo, the cool Danish brand. And all this comes on top of last year's sale of Boston Acoustics to D&M Holdings—a stable that already included Denon, Marantz, McIntosh, Snell, Escient, and RePlayTV—and NHT's move from the Rockford Corp. to the Vinci Group. Why are so many potent and prestigious brands changing hands? It feels as though some invisible hand were rearranging the constellations, and declining audio-component sales are the obvious suspect. But historically, major speaker brands (with the notable exception of Bose) have been sold and resold regularly, and all the brand names involved here are valuable ones that deserve fresh and vigorous marketing.
You know the folks at the Consumer Electronics Association are riled up when they send out a press release with a head like "Back to School with Baloney." The low-end luncheon meats in question are being packed into collegiate lunchboxes by the Recording Industry Antichrist of America (I have decided to make this a recurring reference) at campusdownloading.com. CEA, the media-activist group Public Knowledge, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association issued this joint communiqué laced with italic outrage: "The RIAA back to school message is 'Beware of anything free.' Ironically, it applies most aptly to the free 'educational' DVDs that RIAA is peddling to students and to the bogus legal advice on RIAA's 'Campus Downloading' website.... The 'FAQ' posted by the RIAA in support of its campaign dismisses the copyright law's Fair Use doctrine as applying only to productive or scholarly works. It suggests, contrary to explicit Supreme Court precedent, that Fair Use has no application to the home recording of entire works." The statement points out inconsistencies in the RIAA's stance on copying for personal use: "The RIAA's freeDVD...says that it is OK to make a CD copy for yourself, but is criminal to do so for a friend.... Where in the AHRA [Audio Home Recording Act of 1992], or in any court decision, does it say that purely personal recordings are legal, burning or emailing a single song for a friend or family member is criminal?"
David D. Holmes, inventor of what are now known as the SMPTE color bars, died recently at age 80. Holmes got his masters at MIT, worked on the first car transistor radio, and taught at the University of Nebraska before moving on in 1950 to RCA Labs in Princeton, New Jersey. In those days, RCA was not just a Franco-Chinese TV brand but a technology powerhouse. On arriving at RCA Labs, Holmes found "the people were using test signals from scanned slides which were dreadful, full of noise and other junk. Having nothing to do, I went back to my new lab and built an electronic test signal generator, now known as the Color Bar Generator. This was easy for me to do since I had designed and built a complete TV studio at U. of Nebraska and a lot of the stuff in the color bar generator was similar to parts of that. Well, my new device was a great hit; everybody wanted one so when my boss got back from vacation we were having six built in the model shop. They were big things, having fifty tubes and a bunch of adjustments in them." Sharing the 1953 patent with David Larky of RCA, Holmes remained at the lab for 25 years. His son John relates: "The picture above shows the spinnaker he had made for his sailboat. He set me afloat
in a dinghy when I was about 12 to take that shot of the spinnaker flying in Chesapeake Bay." See VideoUniversity.com for Hal Landen's color bar tutorial, obit of Holmes, and followup, with correspondence from both father and son.