Price: $650 At A Glance: A/V receiver, five slim speakers, and powered sub • Slightly rolled-off treble, but pleasing sound • Good remote, lousy supplied cable
Home Theater Comfort Food
On my first trip to London, when I was much younger, my first meal was a mediocre steak in a fifth-rate restaurant full of reveling Australian soccer fans. It was one of the most disappointing meals I’ve ever had. While Britain doesn’t exactly lead the world in cuisine, you can eat well there if you know what you’re doing. The reason I got stuck with a leathery, tasteless, uninspiring piece of meat was that I was jet-lagged and desperately hungry, I didn’t know my way around, and I couldn’t find anything better. HTIBs can be like that. People who might be better served by a higher-quality component system settle for a less fulfilling one because they don’t know their way around the labyrinthine world of A/V receivers and speaker systems. Mixing and matching surround gear can be too steep a hill to climb.
The SS-AR1 floorstander ($27,000/pair) has appeared at various shows in the past and we've seen it before. But CES 2011 marked its real entry into popular consciousness as part of a Sony division that also includes ES receivers and projectors. Ray Kimber of Kimber cable and IsoMike recording fame and Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds lent their credibility to the proceedings. The speaker's blend of woods includes a cabinet of Hokkaido maple that's harvested only in November when it's at the peak of its powers. Drivers are designed by Sony and custom made by ScanSpeak. The piano black finish is done by a company that makes, um, pianos. Demos included a Nat King Cole tune in which the strings were vivid yet unhyped and the voice reproduced so well, it practically burnt a hole in our brain. We're convinced this is a very fine speaker indeed, and not at all surprised, having liked Sony's long-gone SS-series speakers from the 1990s.
Downloads for movie collectors—as opposed to renters—are finally happening in a big way. Warner-owned Movielink, until now just a download-rental service, now offers 300 titles for download-ownership from six major studios. CinemaNow offers another 75 titles worth of ownable bits from three studios. Pricing, unfortunately, is actually higher than Amazon disc purchases, but hey, it's a start. The coolest permutation—alas, for Brits only—is Download to Own from Universal Pictures and Lovefilm. For one price you get two downloads, one for a PC and one for a portable media player—plus a hard-copy disc—all for one admittedly stratospheric price. Even if none of these schemes appeals to you now, it's clear that movie downloads are now a viable option for library builders, and it's only a matter of time before they go high-def. Blu-what?
Do you want your home fed with the highest bandwidth for HDTV, Internet service, and telephone? Then you want this. It's an optical network terminal, it goes with Verizon's fiber-optic FiOS service, and the company has begun installing them in 14 states (seven with video delivery service) as part of a nationwide rollout that will take many years. Not that I'm their publicist or anything—as a matter of fact, I'm a former Verizon customer—but no other company has set itself such an ambitious task. AT&T is Verizon's leading competitor, but that system is a hybrid of copper and fiber, while Verizon brings fiber right up to the wall of your house. Of all the digital pipes that might feed your home, a pure fiber-optic system is the most capacious. This particular wall belongs to a demo house at Verizon's R&D and network facility in Waltham Massachusetts. For more details and plenty of pictures see the Gallery.
I keep up with new surround-receiver features the way a CIA analyst monitors intel from dangerous nations. A lot of these things are just distractions from the fundamentals: dynamics, noise, etc. But I'm in love with the latest wrinkle in connectivity, the front-panel USB jack. At first I thought, yawn, a way to plug in your Windows PlaysForSure music player, as if you had such a thing. But you can also plug in a plain old USB drive. Think of this: You bump your 10 newest favorite songs to a flash drive, plug that sucker into the front panel, and use the remote to get the show rolling. If you have a whole drawer full of those things, each one can become a playlist. Better yet, why not get some use out of the external hard drive you use to protect your download collection from a deadly crash? Or better still, why not buy another external hard drive just for use with the receiver? I just paid $120 for a 500GB Iomega external drive to back up my backups (I'm careful that way). That's much less than the cost of a fancy hard-drive-based audio server. It's also just about what you'd pay for an add-on iPod dock. Kudos to Pioneer, which introduced me to the feature with the VSX-94TXH ($1600), and Integra, maker of the DTR-8.8 ($2400) I'm reviewing at the moment. Let's hope USB trickles down to less costly models.
Teens love vinyl, says a Canadian researcher. A Ph.D. candidate who interviewed them for his dissertation found they love analog sound, respond to the visuals of big LP jackets, get a kick out of older music, and like all collectors, enjoy the thrill of the hunt. Surface noise? ¡No problemo! Their "active involvement in negotiating the pops, skips and crackles endemic to most second-hand records" was cited as part of the experience. And then there's rebellion, of course, something that every generation of kids is good at: "Through their retrogressive tastes and practices, these youth effectively disrupt the music industry's efforts to define and regulate their consumer identities," said the researcher, David Hayes. His findings were published in the Feb. 2006 issue of Popular Music and Society (though the text is not online).