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Mix Magazine

This installment of The Bitstream column appeared in the April 2001 issue of Mix Magazine.

The Bitstream

This column discusses the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas…

IP, IP Everywhere

Just after the turn of the new year comes, back to back, the Consumer Electronics Show then MacWorld. Both tell a tale of rampant infatuation with the net (duh) and DVD (double duh). Also evident was an upswing in interest by consumers for quality sound for picture and audio in general.

CES Las Vegas…ignore the porn. To me, the CES is all about distribution. Las Vegas, that’s another matter. Anyway, distribution of content, audio, video, voice, text and data by shiny plastic CE gadgets in every conceivable shape and form. The next big distribution channel for all your hard work is radio. No, not Ye Olde FM approach though that’s not dead yet. It’s satellite radio, a surprisingly groovy way to receive the same continuous programming, from coast to coast. The catch? It’s subscription based. Yup, no free stuff here like the olden days. The content’ll cost you and, to get these new channels, your car stereo will need replacing as well. Kinda like DTV: new content means scrapping the old infrastructure but new business models await, offering revenue greater than the moribund mechanism it replaces. Satellite radio focuses on mobile applications, with roving bands of upper income consumers willing to pay for narrowcast, commercial–free music and talk.

Speaking of rambling Yupsters, DVD has made its way into the dashboard of your ride. DVD-V that is, as car DVD-A players are few and far between. “Dear, take your eyes off Charlize Theron and watch the road or I swear I’ll kill ya!” And you thought cell phones were bad.

Another mobile audio item of note: the new DSP–based CD70 “San Francisco” model CD player/receiver from Blaupunkt incorporates a measuring mic for active EQ and selective loudness only at frequencies that may be masked by acoustic noise in the vehicle. Maybe the next model will incorporate active acoustic noise cancellation as well…

Examples of both DVD-A and SACD made a strong showing, albeit as mains–powered models. Home DVD-Audio players were shown by Onkyo, Matsushita, Pioneer, Denon, JVC and Rotel. Most included progressive scan, component video out so the picture quality approaches that of the audio. Still no “simple” players on the scene though, ones that provide CD’s ease of use. I expected simple portables at the show, but I guess I’m the simple one, since the only DVD-A portable I saw had the obligatory LCD screen for viewing and navigation.

Also concerning navigation, a disturbing trend was the lack in many of the players, of a Group button, either on the front panel or remote. The implication here is that some DVD-Audio content cannot be navigated and accessed without a video display attached to these players. This only highlights, along with the continued absence of simple players, the fact that DVD-A is really a red haired stepchild of DVD-V, at least in the minds of the CE manufacturers.

Parasound had one of the most impressive DVD-A dreadnoughts at the show, a massive pre–production prototype that solves the Group button dilemma in a novel fashion. Thoughtfully appointed and feature–laden (Can you say 1394?), it was my pick hit. Their approach to not having a Group button? A small color LCD on the front lets you see the video content on the disc whether you’re in view of the video monitor or not. How did it sound? Don’t know as very few of the DVD-A offerings were functional displays.

Bright moments came with some manufacturer’s recognition, Onkyo being an example, that audiophile–like individuals might be purchasing their DVD-A player. They provide a button that disables all video circuitry so as not to contaminate the audio with internal spurious emissions.

I don’t know about anyone else, but my CES cohort Ed and I both found this year’s audio portion of the show to be generally superior to last year’s. Better sound all ’round. Some outstanding inexpensive speakers were demonstrated, especially small two ways that would make excellent, budget priced surround playback setups.

Now for the bad news: there were lots of el cheapo, multi-read DVD-V players with MP3 decoding built in. There were also so many portable MP3 devices that I gave up counting. Look, even MP3 sounds OK if the bit rate is high enough. Also encouraging was the increasing support evident for advanced audio codecs. As an example, Ritek’s DataPlay–equipped concept piece claimed to support “AAC, AC3, ACELP, ADPCM, MP3, WAV, WMA, and more.” What more, QDMC? It’s SDMI compliant and has voice recording capabilities, by the way.

In case you skimmed the last paragraph, I will again mention a product that’s been on my radar for a while. The product, and company, is DataPlay and they won TechTV’s Best of CES in the Lifestyle category. They offer an outstanding solution to cheap, convenient delivery of prerecorded content in the form of a 500 MB, 1 1/4" read–only optical disc. In addition, consumers can “bake” up their own discs using write–once versions of the media. What’s the catch, you ask? The current projected price for blank media, a hefty $10 for the double sided, 500 M variety and $5 for a 250 MB, single sided version. Appliances should be around the same price as other members of their category, so it’s the media that will make or break this format.

From “near CD quality,” we now turn to the other extreme — SACD. Players shown included stand–alone models from Sony, Pioneer and Philips with their new, $1000 multichannel SACD1000. More two piece transport/processor combos made a showing, from an update to Sharp’s existing example to Accuphase’s $30K showpiece. Luxman had a non–operational SACD/DVD-E (DVD-Everything) player destined initially for the Japanese domestic market. The Philips team informed me that their sister company, Marantz, will have a less expensive multichannel player later this year. Yes! And how did that Super Audio stuff sound? Lovely, as usual. This year, Sony used mid–priced components in their SACD demo suite, so you can’t cry foul that their rig cost more money than God.

Before I leave the CES cavalcade, I should mention that home networking, home servers, home internet gateways, “internet radios” and internet appliances were all represented in myriad ways at the show. These market sectors point toward an increased public awareness and usage of rich media, streamed or otherwise. NAB attendees and other audio practitioners take note. If you don’t have a fast, simple work flow established for AC-3, MP3, WMA and QuickTime file production, you’d better start thinking seriously about it.

I started out mentioning MacWorld but, I’m gonna string you along utill next month. Gotta get you to read this stuff somehow! So, if I survive my current projects, we’ll talk again in May…

Bio

Oliver Masciarotte lives, works and listens to d23radio in The City By The Bay. Borrowing from Charles Wright’s song book, why don’t you “express yourself!” Send comment, criticisms and lush, tropical fruit to bitstream at seneschal dot net.