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CES 2009 preview: Home audio

John P. Falcone offers a preview of the home audio offerings at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show.

Polk Audio SurroundBar 360
Polk Audio's SurroundBar 360 was one of CES 2008's top home audio offerings.
Polk Audio

The 2009 Consumer Electronics Show will be the sixth consecutive CES event I've attended. And for most of those, we've had to write up previews of what we're expecting or anticipating at the show as a whole, or in one category. Looking back at those pieces, you can see how far a lot of the technology has come in just half a decade (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008). Indeed, plenty of features, options, and product categories we take for granted today didn't really exist just five years ago. But you can also note how some predictions seem to keep resurfacing year after year--without ever really coming to fruition.

Perhaps the biggest vaporware offering in the home audio realm is wireless speakers. Several vendors have promised wireless surround systems in years past, but to date, mass-market-friendly solutions remain few and far between. We'll no doubt see several companies touting wireless loudspeaker solutions at this year's show, but just remember that true wireless speakers are pretty much a pipe dream--without some sort of battery power, the speakers themselves are still going to need at least one cable--the power cord.

Network audio is another perennial "next big thing" at CES. This one's actually entering the category of a maturing technology at this point. Plenty of standalone products--from the multiroom Sonos, the more affordable Logitech Squeezebox line, and even the Apple TV--have pretty much perfected the network audio experience, and Wi-Fi radios which can tune in online radio stations from around the world are well under $200. In addition to more dedicated network audio products, look for more network-friendly AV devices to incorporate audio streaming as a feature (such as Rhapsody on TiVo and Pandora of the Samsung BD-P2550 Blu-ray player).

Somewhat related is satellite radio. With federal approval of the XM/Sirius merger, the unified company can begin touting its consolidated programming offerings and--perhaps--begin to discuss hardware that can access content from both XM and Sirius satellites. But the fact that the company is now a penny stock will weigh heavily, as will the troubled U.S. auto industry--the sales from which traditionally drove satellite radio subscriber growth.

Being iPod- and iPhone-ready is another feature that went from a major value-added to a default bullet point over the course of the past decade. While nearly every home audio product now has an Apple-compatible dock built-in (or available as an add-on), look for companies to up the ante with tighter integration--such as using on-TV menus to navigate an iPod's video and audio directories, or using the iPod Touch or iPhone as a full-on remote control via Wi-Fi.

Blu-ray compatibility will undoubtedly be a buzzword in 2009. It was only about a year ago (CES 2008, in fact) that Blu-ray dealt a knockout punch to archrival HD DVD, becoming the default high-def disc format of choice. Last year, home theater systems with integrated Blu-ray were the exception to the rule. In 2009, look for it to the be standard in high- and even mid-level home theater systems--with full-on BD-Live functionality to boot.

Look for single-speaker audio and virtual surround products to again dominate the major brands' audio lineups. The '09 products will likely be offered at more accessible prices than ever before--probably starting at the sub-$500 range, instead of closer to $800 or $1,000. (Check out our current virtual surround champs--with with video connectivity and without.)

If you're noticing that nothing there is particularly new compared to previous years, you're absolutely correct. The home audio category remains the red-headed stepchild of the consumer electronics landscape, wedged uncomfortably between eye-popping flat-panel TVs and increasingly indispensable cell phones and portable devices.

I'm of the opinion that most of these product categories have plateaued to a large degree. That's why I'd really like to see the manufacturers get back to the basics. How about an AV receiver that's actually easy to set up and use? Yes, it could still be bristling with inputs and outputs, but give it an onscreen interface like the Apple TV. Or have an onscreen wizard talk you through the steps of connecting the cables, as seen on the Vudu, TiVo, or Sling products. (Sony porting its PS3-style Cross Media Bar interface to its receivers and TVs is a nice start, but I consider that to be the jumping off point.)

A home theater system that was easy to set up, easy to use, and had a menu system that was in plain English instead of technojargonese? That would be an easy pick for Best of CES.

Hey, there's always next year.