Home audio preview
iPod lifestyle comes home
By John Falcone
December 16, 2005
Following 2005's Consumer Electronics Show, we declared the home-theater offerings disappointing
. As we gear up for CES 2006, the home audio front looks to be a case of déjà vu all over again. The high-end market will see plenty of drool-inducing speakers, preamp/processors, amplifiers, and hand-tooled turntables that cost as much as a BMW. But the overwhelming majority of mainstream home audio and home-theater products will be cheaper, more affordable, and more full-featured versions of what we've seen in 2005. That's not a bad thing--you'll get more and better products for your home audio dollar than ever before--just don't expect a deluge of groundbreaking or radical departures from the current generation of home audio.
Denon's iPod-friendly S-301
Ironically, Apple doesn't have a direct presence at CES. Nevertheless, the white wonder will be a palpable presence throughout Las Vegas. Everyone wants a piece of the iPod action. Look for enhanced iPod compatibility to be touted on everything from speakers, home-theater systems, and A/V receivers--and that's not counting the deluge of portable audio
iPod accessories that will no doubt flood the show. And don't be surprised to see plenty of audio products that ape the iconic white color and rounded edges--even if they're not explicitly iPod compatible. Of course, whatever iPod-related products are a hit at CES, look for them to be upstaged by whatever Steve Jobs announces the following week at Macworld Expo in San Francisco.
Focus on lifestyle design
Yamaha YSP-800: single-speaker surround system
The skyrocketing popularity of HDTV has as much to do with the slick appearance of wall-mountable flat-panel plasma and LCD screens as it does with the improved high-resolution picture quality--the new sets just look much more futuristic than the bulky TV tubes we grew up with. Home audio products have been looking to ride the coattails of that success. Well-received 2005 products such as the Yamaha YSP-800
(a single-unit "virtual surround" speaker), the Sony DAV-X1
(a two-speaker all-in-one home-theater system), and the JVC TH-C6
(an affordable 5.1 surround system with stylish tallboy speakers) all have one thing in common: they're designed to look
just as good as they sound. And with retailers and manufacturers targeting female consumers
more than ever before, expect the focus on so-called lifestyle audio products to intensify. That means more wireless speakers and components that look less black and boxy (think Xbox 360
). In short, we're looking for more home audio gear that will be just as at home in the pages of Dwell
magazine as they are in Sound & Vision.
Radio: Sirius, XM, and HD
Polk Audio's upcoming I-Sonic offers both XM and HD Radio
With the number of satellite radios expected to swell to more than 50 million
in the next five years, look for Sirius and XM to continue to diversify and enhance their offerings at CES 2006. Both will emphasize exclusive programming deals--most notably, Howard Stern's uncensored Sirius show, which will be kicking off on Sirius by mid-January--and it will be interesting to see how they build on the successes of 2005. Productwise, XM seems to be in the lead. The introduction of the company's Connect and Play architecture in 2005 has unleashed a growing number of home audio devices that are XM ready. Plenty of A/V receivers, home-theater-in-a-box systems, and even small tabletop radios and shelf systems from a variety of major manufacturers (including Yamaha, Onkyo, and Pioneer) need only a $50 plug-and-play accessory
and, of course, an XM subscription to pull dozens of commercial-free stations from the sky. Meanwhile, Sirius will likely expand its nascent line of portable digital music devices such as the S50
that split the difference between the Apple iPod and the XM2go players
Back on Earth, radio is going digital as well. HD Radio
made a splash at CES 2005, but compatible home-based products are only now beginning to trickle onto the market. Look for HD Radio as a standard feature on more products, from car radios to A/V receivers, at CES 2006. HD Radio already has one major advantage over satellite: just like AM and FM, you only need a compatible receiver to listen, not a satellite-style paid subscription. The HD Radio industry is gearing up
for a big year, highlighting the rollout of real-time traffic updates and "multicast" stations that broadcast exclusive content not available on analog airwaves. (Some stations will even be commercial-free for an indefinite time.) Those are exactly the sort of features that the service will need to eventually supplant AM and FM on your dial.
DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD
Barring some sort of 11th-hour compromise, 2006 will be the year that HD-DVD and Blu-ray go to battle to determine which format becomes the high-def successor to current-generation DVDs (see the home video preview
for more). On the audio front, though, things are more alike than different. Both next-gen disc formats will support the next iteration of surround formats
from Dolby and DTS. And despite the jockeying for bragging rights from both companies, both surround formats have quite a lot in common, right down to their names: Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD (formerly known as DTS++). Each uses the additional space provided by the higher data capacities of HD-DVD and Blu-ray for lossless coding, delivering eight or more discrete channels of 24-bit/96kHz audio. The result should be a soundtrack that makes today's admittedly great-sounding DVDs play like a tinny MP3 file by comparison--at least to discerning listeners. Those growing weary of planned obsolescence and forced upgrade cycles can rest easy, though; HD-DVD and Blu-ray media are expected to include legacy audio tracks (or downmixes
), so you'll be able to hear a surround track on your standard, current-gen Dolby Digital or DTS-compatible receiver.
Built-in networking and HDMI go mainstream
Robust HDMI options--for less than $800
Building a digital media receiver into an A/V receiver isn't new. The Kenwood VRS-N8100
and the Onkyo TX-NR901
, for instance, both include built-in networking functions so that they can stream MP3s from your home PC. But as home networking starts to become as focused on entertainment as it is on data, look for networking features to become standard on more midlevel home audio products.
HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) was the bleeding-edge connection at last year's CES, and it's been showing up in a trickle of A/V products released this fall. But the digital jack--which can pass multichannel audio and high-definition video over the same single cable--has been poorly implemented in some early products, often preventing its potential and convenience from being fully realized. Look for HDMI to begin appearing in more midprice receivers and HTIBs at CES 2006 that follow the lead of the $800 JVC RX-D702B
, which delivers multiple HDMI inputs and full upconversion from analog A/V sources to a single HDMI output--meaning there's only one wire you'll need to snake to your HDTV.