Home theater at CES 2014: Sound bars, streaming, and over-the-air TV

Ignore the boring Blu-ray players and clunky home-theater-in-a-box systems. The cool home theater gear at CES 2014 will be sound bars, over-the-air DVRs and new wireless audio products.

Matthew Moskovciak Senior Associate Editor / Reviews - Home theater
Covering home audio and video, Matthew Moskovciak helps CNET readers find the best sights and sounds for their home theaters. E-mail Matthew or follow him on Twitter @cnetmoskovciak.
Matthew Moskovciak
4 min read
What kind of new sound bars will be at CES 2014? Vizio

Home theater is always one of the major stars at the Consumer Electronics Show, with every major company rolling out a full suite of new products promising to make your digital entertainment look and sound better.

Those product lineups tend to include plenty of products that feel pretty stale, such as new Blu-ray players and home-theater-in-a-box systems that won't be much different from what was offered last year. But among all that aging gear will likely be some new stuff worth checking out, including new types of sound bars, more over-the-air recording products and some wireless audio products taking aim at Sonos.

Sound bars begin to morph
Whether audiophiles like it or not, sound bars have officially taken over as the defacto home audio solution. Every major home theater manufacturer will be sure to roll out several new sound bar models at CES 2014, complete with now-standard features like built-in Bluetooth and a wireless subwoofer.

Speakercraft CS3
Expect more pedestal-style sound bars at CES 2014. Sarah Tew/CNET

What will be interesting is what else is on the display. Pedestal-style sound bars seem to be making a comeback, with companies like Onkyo and Boston Acoustics rolling out new products in 2013. Don't be surprised if more companies introduce pedestal models, as they tend to look better than their cylindrical counterparts and avoid many common sound bar problems. What I'd really like to see is a great sound bar that blends the best of both worlds: a pedestal-style sound bar with a wireless subwoofer.

I'm also hoping to see more sound bars offering true surround sound, like last year's Vizio S4251w-B4. With the sound bar market exploding, it wouldn't be surprising to see a couple new takes on the traditional sound bar form factor.

Home audio goes wireless
Wireless whole home audio isn't a new idea, but Sonos has pretty much remained the uncontested champion ever since Squeezebox left the market. That changed this year, with several new competing systems entering the market, including Bose, Samsung, Phorus and Bang & Olufsen. Many of those budding platforms will likely get updates and new products at CES.

Everyone wants to take on Sonos, but can anyone actually succeed? Sarah Tew/CNET

I'm also expecting other manufacturers to jump on the bandwagon and offer competing wireless audio standards, trying to replicate the success of Sonos. While it's frustrating to see so many proprietary, wireless audio standards popping up, I'm hoping one of them will finally give Sonos some competition; I haven't been that impressed with the systems taking on Sonos so far.

And don't forget that other, insanely popular wireless audio standard: Bluetooth. There will no doubt be a massive, overflowing number of Bluetooth speakers at CES 2014, in every shape, size, and color you can imagine. Most of them will be forgettable, but there are always a few new models that are worth checking out.

Over-the-air TV is back
At CES 2012, over-the-air TV suddenly seemed like the next big thing, especially Simple.TV's innovative take on the DVR. But instead of marking the beginning of a new product category, there's been very little interest in over-the-air TV since then, with even Simple.TV's eventual launch receiving only lukewarm interest.

The next-gen Simple.TV hardware
Simple.TV will be showing off its new box at CES 2014. Simple.TV

Fast-forward to the end of 2013 and suddenly over-the-air TV is hip again. Channel Master, Tablo and Simple.TV all announced new over-the-air DVR options and all three of them will be at the show. I also wouldn't be surprised if a new contender shows, possibly one that's even more aggressive about combining over-the-air and streaming content into a single interface.

On the other hand, the big shadow hanging over all these products is Aereo, which offers over-the-air TV recording as an app, without need for an antenna or separate recording hardware. On the other hand, Aereo has its own limitations: it's only offered in 10 cities so far, and it's fending off existential legal challenges from nearly all of the big broadcasters (including CBS, parent company of CNET). But any new "free TV" solution will have to prove why it's worth the comparative hassle of owning separate hardware.

The future of TV is still uncertain Everybody wants to reinvent TV. The Xbox One wants to hijack your cable box. There's been a long-rumored revamped Apple TV that never manages to come out. Intel was working on its own solution, but it never even made it to market.

I'm sure CES 2014 will feature a few new attempts to "revolutionize" how we watch TV, but barring any big surprises, don't get your hopes up. Instead, you can count more incremental improvements, with Dish and DirectTV improving their DVRs, and other cable companies continuing to improve their on-demand content and slowing marching toward true cloud DVR services.