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CES 2009: Home audio wrap-up

The 2009 Consumer Electronics Show delivers another evolutionary year in the home audio realm.

Samsung HT-BD7200
With its unique design, built-in BD-Live Blu-ray player, Netflix onboard, and Wi-Fi compatibility, the Samsung HT-BD7200 encapsulated cutting-edge home theater this year. Samsung

The 2009 Consumer Electronics Show is history. As far as the home audio world is concerned, the product lineup and trends were pretty much right in line with our predictions.

Wireless speakers: Panasonic showcased the SC-ZT1, a unique "4.4" speaker system with wireless speakers (except for that pesky power cord, of course). But the bigger trend was wireless subwoofers: Samsung, Philips, and Polk Audio (among others) all showed surround systems with wireless subs, enabling more flexibility when placing them in the room.

Network audio: Whether it was more affordable tabletop Internet radios from the likes of Sanyo and Acoustic Research or impressive streaming audio systems from Linksys or Philips, network audio was on the rise in 2009. If you don't want a dedicated network audio product, that's OK; products like Samsung's Blu-ray home theater systems have Pandora streaming built-in, obviating the need for other hardware. And the pre-CES announcement that Apple's iTunes Store is going DRM-free means that all major music download purchases are now basically free of copy protection, making streaming between multiple devices easier than ever.

iPod- and iPhone-ready: Compatibility for Apple's iPod is essentially ubiquitous, but manufacturers are offering some incremental improvements. LG and Panasonic are including slide-out iPod docks (rather than add-on cabled cradles) on many of their home theater systems, while Pioneer's AV receivers offer improved on-TV screen navigation for attached iPods and iPhones.

Blu-ray compatibility: Samsung and Panasonic offered the first home theater systems with built-in Blu-ray players in 2008, but they were expensive systems that were full of compromises (namely, the older Blu-ray spec). The picture is much improved for 2009: systems from JVC, Panasonic, LG, and Samsung are all Profile 2.0 (BD-Live) compliant, and many offer additional content from the Internet (Netflix and Pandora on Samsung; Netflix, YouTube, and CinemaNow on LG; Amazon and YouTube on Panasonic). Samsung upped the ante with Wi-Fi options available via an add-on dongle.

Single-speaker audio and virtual surround: Another trend that's showing no sign of abating in 2009 is single-speaker and virtual surround systems. Polk Audio, Samsung, Philips, Panasonic, LG, and Sharp were among the manufacturers showing either speakerbars, 2.1, or other configurations that aim to deliver a 5.1- or 7.1-channel experience from one, two, or four speakers. A related trend: more audio systems are being touted as wall-mountable, presumably to sit underneath a wall-mounted flat-panel TV.

The high-end: While we mostly stuck with mainstream brands and products, rest assured that there were plenty of high- and superhigh-end audio products on display at this year's show--everything from $1,400 headphones to stereo systems that cost $300k.

CNET chose the Pioneer VSX-819H AV receiver, the Panasonic SC-ZT1 wireless speaker system, and the Samsung HT-BD7200 Blu-ray home theater system as the finalists in the Best of CES Home Audio category. The Pioneer receiver delivers an impressive feature list (three HDMI inputs, lossless Blu-ray audio decoding, onscreen iPod navigation) for less than $300--one of the best bang for your bucks, and especially compelling given our current economic woes. The Panasonic represented an interesting approach to wireless speakers. And the Samsung (pictured above) was an impressive combination of trends that encapsulated the show: Blu-ray Profile 2.0, virtual surround sound, built-in support for network services (Pandora, Netflix), along with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth compatibility, all wrapped up in a unique-looking design.