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Mix Magazine

This installment of The Bitstream column appeared in the June 2003 issue of Mix Magazine.

The Bitstream

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

Widgets, Widgets Everywhere

I’m coming to you live from beautiful Lost Wages, that city of silliness in the great, pointy state of Nevada. Nothing typifies excess like the faux grandeur of the mid-line hotels here unless, of course, you’re into gadgets and what engineer isn’t? Well, The annual Winter Consumer Electronics Show is the place to go for binging on electronic gewgaws and this month, we’ll take a look at fun gear that sounds good and may just impact your thang in days to come.

Let’s start with a way to put your crusty old Pentium III laptop to good use…Evolution Robotics sells a $499 hardware and software combo kit called the ER1 that uses the laptop as brains for a autonomous personal robot. Looks to me like yet another way to eliminate your second engineer.

Well, USB flash drives have matured and features have proliferated, with capacities up to 1 GB, biometric security, waterproof packaging, Bluetooth and USB2 connectivity and multimedia capabilities such as onboard still/video cameras and MP3 players…but, will they do the dishes? Home networking is also maturing, with vendors offering all sorts of solutions to the nightmare of wiring the crib. These products will, in turn, drive the demand for home consumption of rich media, a good trend for us audio folks.

Lots of spendy DVD-Audio, SACD and universal players were out on the floor from Kenwood, Meridian, MSB Technology and Teac while Denon showed their universal player tentatively priced at $999. But, it was Pioneer who finally delivered the olive branch to both sides in the War of the Formats with their DV-563A. This talented player, with a MSRP of $270, handles MP3 and WMA files on CD-ROM and CD-RW along with DVD-V, DVD-A and multichannel SACD. It even includes a JPEG playback function for those slide shows of the wee ones. Now that’s value!

Pioneer DV-563A Universal Player
Pioneer’s Low Cost DV-563A Universal Player

Some people think that planar magnetic and electrostatic loudspeakers put cone and dome direct radiators to shame and, arguably, one of the best sounding home loudspeakers of all time was the Quad ESL 57, a groundbreaking design. Thought to be long gone, the 57 and later model 63 are now back, thanks to the efforts of Manfred Stein at QUAD Musikwiedergabe GmbH. They’ve purchased the machinery to manufacture the 57 and repair 63s, so audio nostalgia buffs can once again enjoy that incredible transient response and retro look. Make no mistake, Quad Electroacoustic Ltd. in the UK hasn’t been resting on their laurels. Nowadays, the ESL is up to the model 989 and, lordy lord, they’re making cone driver dynamic speakers too! Will wonders never cease…

When I wandered into TriCell Enterprises’ suite, I was surprised and delighted to see what I thought was a set of Juerg Jecklin’s famous open air Floats. As a young adult, I owned a set of Floats and loved the sound. Being electrostats however, I hated the ticking that resulted from the high polarizing voltage arching across the internal air gap. In fact, TriCell was demo’ing Precide SA’s Ergo A.M.T., a next generation headphone utilizing Oskar Heil’s Air Motion Transformer. They also have nice sounding versions with “normal” dynamic transducers in that ultra–comfortable form factor.

In another vein, consider the new speaker enclosure offering from Sonance. To complement their recently introduced SoundHenge III outdoor rock enclosures (they look like rocks), Sonance is shipping the SoundHenge Pedestal, a 30" tall, square cross section stand for potted plants and Venus de Milo knockoffs. The groovy thing about these pedestals is that they’re designed to house any of Sonance’s Mariner line of loudspeakers. Think of them as architectural Auratones; nice to look at and great for checking your mixes in the client lounge!

Sonance Stonhenge Pedestal Enclosure
Sonance’s Stonhenge Pedestal Enclosure

While I’m on the subject of loudspeakers, one of the standout trends at this year’s show was the wide range of quality choices in the Home Theater In A Box (HTIB) category. DVD chieftain Toshiba even announced their first HTIB, the SD-43HT, a $300 package with a 50 W per channel receiver/DVD player combo, a wide range of I/O and DTS decoding. Another example is Mission’s fs1 system. This 5.1 loudspeaker product combines high fidelity reproduction with modern good looks and an incredibly small footprint thanks to clever engineering. At a suggested retail price of $1000, this is a good example of the many manufacturers providing multichannel speaker packages in the $600 to $1500 range, well under the threshold of pain for many households. This means that, with the introduction of very inexpensive DVD and SACD players, many more families will be settling in for some surround audio thrills in the near future.

Mission fs1 HTIB
Mission’s fs1 HTIB

Tannoy was showing a more innovative HTIB design, their FX5.1 model. The two-way satellites provide extended high frequency response via titanium tweeters. The shielded sat.s have provisions for wall mounting and are spec’d as -3 dB at 71 kHz. Way out there, baby! [Got a chance to evaluate the FX5.1: very nice package and fine sound quality, considering the price - OM] Another Brit stalwart, KEF, also preached the wide band gospel. Their new XQ series of down market loudspeakers have additional hypertweeters for extended ultrasonic response. While most engineers poo poo the concept of playback above 20 kHz, I’ve not done any listening tests with ultrawide band speakers. I’ll just say that some folks I know like having that extended upper frequency response. A more concrete advantage, applicable to most complex systems, is that extending the bandwidth provides better linearity and less phase shift within the pass band.

Tannoy FX5.1 HTIB
Tannoy’s FX5.1 HTIB

At the other end of the fidelity scale, Ellula showed their latest inflatable loudspeaker, the HotAir. Yup, I said inflatable as in way portable. This $99, battery powered, active 2.1 system shares something with Mission’s fs1 since they’re both based on NXT’s flat panel transducer technology.

In other consumer electronic news, JVC has something wonderful for all you vidiots out there. Their new GR-HD1 is the first high definition, consumer camcorder. “By utilizing a newly developed 1/3 inch-type 1.18 million pixel progressive scan CCD and JVC proprietary processing, the new camera records and plays back 750/30p (1280x720/30p viewable) digital high-definition and 525p progressive wide images to mini DV tape.” What this announcement means to me is that, for videographers, the quality of a work is no longer tied to the cost of production, just like we’ve seen in audio.

In the Synergy department, Gracenote, overseer of the CDDB, demonstrated a new suite of APIs and middleware, the Gracenote Music Management System, for consumer electronic devices and computer media players. Their stuff currently drives the playlist and track info functionality for software players like WinAmp, iTunes and the RealOne Player. Now, that metadata gold mine will extend to mobile manufacturers including Sony, Pioneer, Fujitsu Ten and Phatnoise as well. In addition, they’re leveraging their expertise in audio to provide the same functionality for DVDs…not sure that this is a good thing though. [For more info on Gracenote and music recognition technology see the upcoming August Bitstream - OM]

As in years past, Sharp was showing the latest generation of their DX-SX1 high end SACD transport and SM-SX1 amplifier ($3000 & $4500 respectively) with a proprietary DSD link. This year at least, they got the styling right. More important is their trend of manufacturing a line of inexpensive hifi packages and components using “64 fs 1-Bit Switching” technology. Sound familiar? It should since this is DSD data. Sharp is doing for hardware what ABKCO is doing for reissues: sneaking quality in under the radar while not scaring consumers with more jargon and obfuscation. I hope we’ll see some end–to–end DSD hardware at commodity prices from these folks in the near future.

Sharp SD-AT1000 HTIB
Sharp’s “1-bit” SD-AT1000 HTIB

Score one for Windows XP…Ignore the hype over Tablet PCs. Instead, check one of the most compelling new features, support for “Smart Displays.” I spent some time with the ViewSonic folks while beating on one of their airpanel V150 wireless displays. Imagine not having some honking big CRT, which creates a bogus acoustic shadow, or a traditional LCD at the mix position, with it’s accompanying acoustic reflections. Instead, your display hangs out away from the sweet spot, and you can pick it off it’s charging cradle, hold it or lay it down, and interact with your CPU as if the darn thing was hardwired. WiFi–connected Smart Displays support stylus input, great for non–roman alphabets like Farsi or Korean, but a major PITA for the rest of us. The ViewSonic critter also has USB ports if you’d rather go with an ordinary hard keyboard instead of a virtual “soft keyboard.”

Speaking of hardware keyboards, another useful but overpriced Windows technology is a new keyboard with electroluminescent backlighting. Auravision’s $100 EluminX full size keyboard lets you type by even the feeble illumination of a LAVA Lamp.

Auravision EluminX Electroluminescent Keyboard
Auravision’s EluminX Electroluminescent Keyboard

For those of you who spend a generous portion of their waking hours in a vehicle, you may have noticed how car interiors force you into a compromised listening position: too left or too right. The folks at Alpine noticed and took matters, or possibly power tools, into their own hands. They started with a Honda Civic Si, gutted the interior and moved the steering column to the center of the vehicle, creating a single seat, center–drive car! They then stuffed it to the gills with the latest mobile audio and video madness. In addition, “each door panel…holds three nitrous oxide bottles which are artfully incorporated into the design scheme.” Humm, is that for the engine or the driver?

With a LAVA Lamp and a can of nitrous, I think I could be happy mixing the next NSYNC record…OK, maybe not. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this month’s peek into the world of consumer gear, the products that ultimately drive our pro audio industry. Until next time, keep on tweekin’!

Bio

OMas got a chance to see one of his client’s ventures make a big splash at CES with what NBC called “…the world's first self-installing, self-adjusting super subwoofer.” Always gratifying when a ton of hard work pays off…This column was written while under the influence of DJ Jonah Jone, who’s first birthday arrived while I was finishing up this coverage.