Pity the audiophile. Home audio was once the centerpiece of the consumer electronics experience, but it's been completely subsumed in recent years, with HDTV squeezing in on one side and the ubiquitous iPod on the other. Even what's left is generally referred to as "home theater," stressing that video is just as important--if not more so--than the audio experience. If they even want surround sound--most seem perfectly happy with their tinny TV speakers--the majority of consumers will opt for a cheap home-theater-in-a-box, grumbling at the $300 price tag even as they gladly shell out five times as much for a flat-screen TV.
OK, maybe it's not quite that bleak. But home audio aficionados (and manufacturers) seem to be constantly lamenting the fact that the number of people who care about--and are willing to pay for--a superior audio experience seems to be an ever-shrinking minority. That discriminating crowd can check out the Alexis Park "high performance audio oasis" and dozens of hotel suites at the Venetian, where mid-, high-, and ultrahigh-end audio companies will be demoing everything from $10,000 speaker setups, monoblock amplifiers, preamp/processors, and luxury turntables. Meanwhile, major audio names such as Denon, Onkyo, and Yamaha have a minimal CES presence, or skip the show altogether, opting instead for the more focused CEDIA show in September.
That leaves the mainstream manufacturers on the CES floor to carry the home audio torch for the masses. Look for these companies--the Sonys, Samsungs, and the Panasonics, as well as hundreds of smaller companies--to continue emphasizing the convenience and aesthetic improvements in the audio realm. In practice that will mean cheaper, more widespread, and more convenient iterations of trends from previous years:
- Wireless audio: In 2007, two big trends that began to show fruit were Bluetooth wireless transmission and wireless speakers. Look for Bluetooth streaming to become much more mainstream as more Bluetooth-enabled audio sources (music phones, portable audio players) continue to appear. And with the exception of the power cord, more and more speakers will be marketed as "wireless" (be it , or something closer to ).
- Virtual surround: Even better than losing the speaker wires criss-crossing your living room is getting rid of those extra speakers altogether. Manufacturers are finally figuring out that consumers want fewer speakers, not more. Whether you call it "virtual surround," "2.1 home theater," or "single-speaker surround sound," look for more brands to offer audio systems composed of just two or one front speakers, and--maybe--a subwoofer.
- Streaming network audio: Whether pulling from your PC, networked hard drive, Internet radio, or a premium online service such as Rhapsody, more consumers are discovering that the long-promised "celestial jukebox" is now a reality--at least in the home. Look for more mainstream products such as AV receivers and home-theater-in-a-box systems to incorporate streaming audio functionality (via Ethernet or Wi-Fi connections) that was previously limited to dedicated, higher-end products such as the .
- High-end features at low-end prices: Once upon a time--as little as eight months ago, in some cases--features like HDMI 1.3, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD, HD Radio, iPod compatibility, and Neural Surround were ultrapremium bullet points only found on audio products costing north of $1,000. Look for these features--plus many of the upgrades listed above--to be standard features in all but the low-end entry-level home theater products this year.
Where are they now?
Virtual surround isn't new for 2008. Not only was the , the first 1.1 (single speaker plus subwoofer) audio system to include a built-in CD/DVD player, it also boasted a minimalist design that was downright striking. When we got a chance to put the SoundBar through its paces later in the year (away from the noise and crushing crowds of the CES show floor), it performed ably, scoring a 7.8 from CNET editors (and an 8.2 from users). The fact that the list price was dropped from $1,000 to $800 was a nice bonus, too. But similar products are now offering --exactly the sort of must-have upgrades we'll be seeing in this category in 2008 and beyond.