Can the all-in-one soundbar really replace a dedicated home theater system?
The emergence of the soundbar audio genre can be traced to two trends: 1) consumers’ desire to buy slender, space-saving speaker systems to match their slender, space-saving flat-panel HDTVs; and 2) consumers’ hatred of running speaker wire around the room. Studies show that people either leave their surrounds at the front of the room, which wreaks havoc with the soundstage, or they simply don’t hook them up at all, which is just a shame. To address the former, speaker companies began to incorporate the front three channels of a 5.1-channel system into one slender bar you could place above or below your TV. To address the latter, they took it one step further, putting all five channels into a single bar and using acoustic manipulation to create a sense of surround envelopment. It seems like every major speaker manufacturer is now jumping on the soundbar bandwagon, but does the technology really work? Can one speaker honestly re-create a 5.1-channel soundfield, and what kind of sacrifices must be made to do so? To find out, we brought in the latest soundbar models from Philips, Marantz, Yamaha, Denon, and Polk.
A new crop of entry-level projectors makes big-screen 1080p more affordable than ever.
There’s been a lot of fuss over the rapid drop in price of big-screen flat panels, but that ain’t nothing compared with the free-falling MSRPs you’ll find over in the 1080p projection realm. Two years ago, the going rate for one of the first 1080p projectors was about $10,000. Last year, we saw a number of high-quality offerings around the $5,000 mark. This year, companies like Optoma, Sanyo, and Mitsubishi have released 1080p projectors priced under $4,000. These entry-level models feature a nice complement of advanced image-adjustment options and all of the desired video inputs: HDMI 1.3, PC, and component video. But the important question is, how does their performance measure up with pricier competition? You’ll have to read on to find out.
In theory, I’m a big fan of the all-in-one media center, a single device through which you can enjoy all of your digital entertainment: DVDs, music, photos, and video. In practice, though, I’ve been less than impressed by the Media Center PCs I’ve used, of both the Windows XP and Vista varieties. Nothing ever works quite as seamlessly as it should, I don’t want to keep a keyboard and mouse in my living room, and, most importantly, system crashes make me angry.
Tips for selecting and installing a front-projection screen.
What’s keeping you from taking the front-projection plunge? Is it a belief that projection systems are still only for the rich and famous, consisting of $15,000 projectors, movie-theater-sized screens, and elaborate masking systems, controlled by advanced touchpanels? The entry-level projector roundup on page 38 of this issue is proof that there’s a 1080p projector to suit almost any budget, and the same is true for theater screens.
When selecting products to review, I like to tackle new categories. Every new genre I explore provides the opportunity to better understand the industry as a whole. There is, however, one category that I've avoided like the plague: lighting systems. Why? Because my mama taught me never to stick fingers, screwdrivers, or any other conductive material into a wall socket. I have a healthy fear of my mama and an even healthier fear of performing any task that might lead to electrocution, fire, or total protonic reversal.
For my last CES demo of the year, I spent 15 relaxing minutes in Wisdom Audio's suite at the Venetian. The company was showing off its Sage Series of hybrid speakers that use both traditional woofers and thin-film planar magnetic drivers. An outboard system controller handles the electronic crossover between the speaker's different elements, and it performs room correction using Audyssey MultEQ XT technology. The line includes four models ranging from 20 to 75 inches tall, and each speaker is available in a freestanding, in-wall, or on-wall configuration. The demo consisted of various 2- and 5.1-channel music tracks, and the top-of-the-line L75s sounded absolutely fantastic, impressively spacious and dynamic for such thin speakers. After five days of chaos and concepts, this moment served as a tangible reminder of all that we love about home theater.
Universal Electronics has added another model to their successful Nevo line of universal remotes. As the flagship controller in the line, the $1199 NevoS70 combines popular features from the company's previous two models (the NevoSL and NevoQ50) and then further sweetens the deal. Like the SL, the S70 can tap into your 802.11g network and provide navigation and control of movies, music, and photos stored on your PC. Like the Q50, it offers both IR and two-way Z-wave control options, with the addition of the $299 NevoConnect NC-50 base station. Best of all, it adds an IP browser, so you can pull up a TV program guide or get sports scores and weather info without ever having to turn on the TV. It can also talk to and control any device that has a compatible web server, such as a web-based camera or media server. And, like all Nevo models, it comes with a fully customizable color touchscreen and lots of convenient programming features for the custom installer.
We've been waiting for Escient, one of the major names in the music-server market, to offer a true video-server solution. At CEDIA, the company showed off its new Vision Series line of video playback and distribution products, but there was no way to directly import movies from the disc drive to the hard drive. Happily, that issue has now been addressed. Escient is releasing two true video servers/players: The VS-100 sports dual 500GB drivers, and the VS-200 has dual 1TB drives. Then there's big papa, the VX-600 media server, which has four 1TB hard drives. The line also includes the VC-1 networked client, to which you can stream movies, photos, and music stored on the servers over a home network. The Vision Series allows access to the Rhapsody online music service, and the players all have HDMI 1.3 connections and 1080p upconversion. The products certainly aren't cheap -- $3,999 for the VS-100, $5,999 for the VS-200, $7,999 for the VX-600, and $1,999 for the VC-1 -- but they're not as bank-breaking as other video servers on the market. Look for the Vision Series in February.
Alex Thatcher, Senior Product Marketing Manager for HP's Digital TV Solutions Group, shows off the new third-generation MediaSmart 1080p LCD HDTV. The new model has a new look and a noteworthy new feature: a built-in Extender for Windows Media Center, which will make it even easier for users to stream HD video, pictures, and music (wired or wirelessly over 802.11n) from a Vista Premium or Vista Ultimate PC to their HP TV.