Home audio preview
Home audio, reloaded
By John P. Falcone
December 15, 2006
In recent years, home audio has played second fiddle to HDTV and the broader home theater category. In other words, while people are perfectly willing to shell out $1,000 to $2,000 for a big-screen TV or $400 to $600 for an HD game console, they seem to hate paying more than a pittance for their audio equivalents, even though a good set of speakers is virtually future-proof and has a lifespan measured in decades. But the home audio industry is betting that once people have already paid the big bucks for their flat-panel TVs and HD video players, they'll finally be ready to replace that $300 home theater in a box with a cutting-edge audio system. With that in mind, look for manufacturers to trot out more evolutionary home audio products at CES 2007 that are designed to perfectly complement your shiny new HDTV. HDMI 1.3
Despite long-standing promises that it will simplify home theater connectivity, the HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) standard has been fraught with problems--namely, compatibility issues and consumer confusion. HDMI 1.3, the latest and greatest iteration, is said to be the upgrade that will finally bring some palpable advantages to the format. While many of the improvements are video-centric, such as more accurate color reproduction, several of the advertised step-ups should accentuate the audio side of the home theater experience as well. Specifically, HDMI 1.3 will allow full support of the latest next-gen lossless audio formats, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. That means HD-DVD and Blu-ray players will be able to send the full-bandwidth lossless audio bitstream to A/V receivers--assuming, of course, that both are similarly equipped with HDMI 1.3 technology. (Currently, you have to toggle your player to output HD soundtracks in "linear PCM" mode; otherwise you must rely on a tangle of six to eight separate analog audio outputs.) HDMI 1.3 products should also include better lip-sync capabilities, so your soundtrack will be perfectly aligned with the action on the screen. Simply put, the industry's message will be that you need HDMI 1.3-enabled receivers in order to fully enjoy the high-def video and audio experience. Better sound from fewer speakers
It's no secret that consumer electronics manufacturers have been emphasizing the style and the sexiness of their devices as a big selling point, with the look and feel of a product often eclipsing its technical offerings. In the home audio and home theater world, that trend has gone even further. Having a 5.1 speaker system, no matter how slick looking, just won't cut it for many fashionistas; the only solution is to opt for fewer speakers--and fewer wires--altogether. So-called virtual surround systems, which simulate a full-on surround effect from just one or two speakers, are becoming the home theater fashion statement of choice. Yes, the purists who argue that you can't get real
surround sound without real speakers are undeniably correct. But the continued interest in products such as the Yamaha YSP-1100 Sound Projector
, the Philips HTS6500
, and the Niro 800
more than prove that many casual viewers and listeners are happy to gain a more aesthetically pleasing living room at the expense of a fully enveloping surround-sound field. Look for more manufacturers to offer an expanded range of virtual surround products at CES 2007. Radio: satellite and HD
XM and Sirius are licking their wounds
after a year that saw them spending big bucks to secure exclusive content--from sports to celebrity DJs--in order to build market share. Rumors of a merger notwithstanding, both companies will be refining their home audio options. Look for Sirius-ready systems from a variety of third-party manufacturers in 2007, offering an alternative to the nearly ubiquitous XM-ready line of home audio products. For its part, XM will be working to expand the number of products that are compatible with its new XM-ready peripheral, the XM Mini-Tuner (previously known as the XM Pass
or XM Passport). Meanwhile, we're likely to start seeing the earthbound digital audio broadcasting format known as HD Radio finally begin to creep into a wider array of products than the handful
of those in which it's currently featured. Network friendly
Only an elite few A/V receivers--the Denon AVR-4306
and the Yamaha RX-N600
, for example--offer Ethernet ports. But with connectivity to digital media--be it streamed from networked PCs or via online music and movie services--is becoming an increasingly important element of the entertainment continuum. Rather than rely on an external digital media receiver, look for more A/V receivers to incorporate this functionality with more extensive file format support and Wi-Fi as well as Ethernet compatibility. Shadow of the iPod
Apple is a no-show at CES, opting instead for its own MacWorld show in San Francisco the same week. It's quite possible that any new iPod--be it an iPhone or a "true" video iPod--will overshadow any of the big news in Vegas. Nevertheless, iPod compatibility will continue to be a must-have value-add for any and all home audio devices. Look for iPod docks and dongles with upgraded features and functionality, including better compatibility with connected devices.
Last year's Best of CES home audio winner was the Denon AVR-2807. In addition to all of the standard niceties we expect in a solid A/V receiver, the AVR-2807 pledged to deliver some key HDMI-friendly features: 1080p passthrough and analog-to-digital video conversion, with de-interlacing.
The AVR-2807 hit the market a few months later, in the spring of 2006. Long story short, it delivered on nearly every count, earning our Editors' Choice award. Nearly a year after its debut, it remains among our top-rated and most highly recommended A/V receivers.