A lot has happened in the last five years in the world of home theatre. While the way the stuff that we watch and listen to is produced hasn't changed that much, the way we consume it has.
Digital TV take-up is on the rise, Blu-ray discs have made full HD possible, and the iPod has finally made hi-fi both portable and accessible. Not only is technology getting better all the time, it's also getting cheaper. While this is expected in other areas of consumer technology it's a relatively new thing in our lounge rooms. The venerable CRT lasted 50 years with only minor changes, but the era of the flatscreen has meant that things have changed dramatically in a short space of time.
So what have the changes been? While there may not be the cringe-worthy things that plagued mobile phones and digital cameras, there have been some dramatic headstones dotting the last five years. We're going to cover some of them in the next few pages. As the Mighty Boosh say: "Come with us now on a journey through time and space"...
The first home cinema gadget to receive our Editors' Choice was the venerable Panasonic PT-AE700E, a 720p LCD projector that finally made quality "home cinema" affordable.
Plasma versus LCD versus LED
Despite Pioneer, Hitachi and Fujitsu dropping out of the plasma market and Sony opting for LCD only, people continue to debate the pros and cons of LCD and plasma. While plasma continues to be our personal favourite, it does have drawbacks such as "burn-in" and poor daylight performance. But for pure picture quality, it's the technology to beat. Of course, this year Samsung introduced what appeared to be a new technology: LED TVs. In actual fact they are actually still LCD TVs — just lit differently.
One of the saddest stories for us as television reviewers has been the rise and fall of Pioneer's plasma range. Still regarded as the best sets money can buy, the Pioneer plasma was a round peg in the square hole of the heavily-discounted television market. While people will pay for high-end audio, it seems Pioneer couldn't compete in the high-end plasma market it helped create. While there are still some C509s floating around, stock of all Kuros has pretty much dried up.
The goodness of TV, with the goodness of lasers. Laser TV made a strong entrance in 2006 with promises of being available "in shops in time for Christmas 2007". Of course, this never happened. Laser TV is another form of rear projection, and while Mitsubishi has models available overseas it will likely never make it here. Australia's fascination with LCD has seen to that.
SACD versus DVD-Audio
Now remembered as barely a glitch on the home cinema landscape, in 2004 one of the "biggest" debates was about what was going to supplant CD: DVD-Audio or SACD. Though software is still produced for SACD it's widely viewed as a failure. We find this a shame, as a lot of music is now produced digitally and in much higher fidelity than CD, and it would be great to hear it in the way it was recorded. Oh wait, you can... in lossless form.
It took a long time, but we've seen the iPod go from lo-fi device to "hi-fi" component as high-end manufacturers such as B&W embrace the Apple gadget's ability to play true CD-quality files. Back in 2004, Apple Lossless was quietly introduced and, despite a slow start, is now one of the preferred methods to get "uncompressed" music onto an iPod. Apple also dabbled with media streaming and video-on-demand with the Apple TV, but the iPod is still the preferred method of delivery.
Blu-ray versus HD-DVD
Another hyped battle from the past few years was Blu-ray versus HD-DVD, with the two competing formats creating headaches for anyone looking to buy HD movies. But in the end Blu-ray won out, and as a result a flood of players hit local shores. One of the first Blu-ray players to land in Australia was certainly one of the most costly: at AU$2749 the Panasonic BD10 was, and still is, one of the most expensive players released here.
When we do another one of these in five years we will likely look at the Sony XEL-1 and go "Seven grand for an OLED — what were they thinking?". Samsung is forecasting that 2015 will be the year of the OLED, and having seen the technology in action we can't wait for the large sizes.
Hopefully the government's NBN will also be built by then meaning fast, cheap bandwidth will be available to most people, opening up a world of downloadable content. Of course, this will have the television networks running scared, and will probably see Blu-ray killed off just as DVD killed off laser disc.
But just when you thought things had settled down, and high definition 1080p had been dubbed the "ultimate", you can look forward to further HD formats in the future. The most ludicrous of these is Super Hi-Vision: it has a massive 7680×4320-pixel resolution, and is being tested in Japan and other countries as the next broadcast standard. Good luck with that!
Meanwhile, 4K (or 2K/4K) is another standard, and recently graced our silver screens in the form of the final, final, final (they promise!) Blade Runner print. The movie had a very limited run at cinemas around Australia last year, but helped demonstrate the format that is most likely "next".