It’s hard to say if 2016 is gracefully sliding into home or smacking its face on the dirt – elbows and knees flying in all directions – as it desperately claws to safety. Nevertheless, here we sit, preparing to file away yet another incredible year of home theater tech. Yes, friendly readers, 2016 is preparing to exit stage left, which makes this a great time to glance back at the year that was.
By my calculations, we’ve just experienced our third consecutive year of exciting innovation and growth within the industry. Gut-wrenching tugs of upgradeitis had plenty of reason to turn downright evil over the past 12 months, torturing even the most disciplined of enthusiasts into buyers. After all, 2016 saw the continued maturation of immersive sound, a consumer-friendly reduction in 4K television pricing, OLED’s cementation as the “it” display tech, loads of 4K disc content, and so much more. This all coming on the heels of a year that was equally as exciting, but also leaving much in question. I think it’s safe to say many of those questions were answered.
On a non-tech note, we also witnessed the unfortunate and untimely departures of a shocking number of entertainment icons. Names such as Prince, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Phife Dawg, Glenn Frey, Florence Henderson, Gary Shandling, Alan Thicke, George Michael, and Carrie Fisher are about as iconic as they come.
Several decades ago, I stood behind David Bowie in a greeting line at the President’s home of my alma mater, one day before my college graduation. I didn’t speak with him that day, but definitely took time to study his face and demeanor, hoping to get a sense of Bowie’s realness. It’s crazy (in my mind) that I now stand at the exact age he was on that day. Looking back, I felt so young, and I’m sure he did too. Fast forward to today, and his passing has made mortality feel more real than ever (especially since those 26 years have flown by at a rockets pace).
Alas, we can all be thankful to have shared time on this planet with these talented individuals. I will forever enjoy the incredible tunes Phife Dawg created with A Tribe Called Quest, find insatiable amusement at the hands of Alan Rickman’s stellar performance in Die Hard, and relax to Glenn Frey’s free and easy vibe.
But, I digress. It’s time to get the show on the road and turn back the clock for a look at the AV tech year. So, without further ado, let’s roll back the clock, Year In Review style.
Commercial Cinema Strikes Back
As a hardcore home theater enthusiast, I’ve spent the better part of a decade telling my close friends that commercial cinema is wasted coin. Take your money, I’d say, and build a reference theater of your own. While my advice probably fell on bored and deaf ears, I’m fairly confident that most of you will probably agree that our preferred world of home theater has enjoyed a fantastic run while commercial cinema has stumbled miserably in the rearview mirror. It’s not that commercial cinema is terrible (in fact, it greatly benefits from spaciousness of sound in its large room settings), but, in general, properly tuned home theaters offer the complete package of comfort, convenience, and performance across multiple spectrums.
This year, however, commercial cinema has taken huge steps to get back in the race. It turns out that the fine folks at Dolby and AMC have hit a homerun with their creation called “Dolby Cinema at AMC.” There are currently 36 Dolby Cinemas in the U.S. (and roughly 60 world-wide), with close to a hundred planned for the coming year. All of these locations feature luxury appointments and dynamic environments designed to support cutting-edge laser projection technology and Dolby Atmos sound.
Last week I took my family to see Rogue One at the only Dolby Cinema in the Washington, DC Metro area. During a brief conversation with the ticket taker, he said: “you picked the right theater to see this movie in, you’re in for a treat.” Wow, he was right. The film actually marks one of the first times in recent memory that I was actually glad to have watched a movie outside of the home. The film’s image was fantastically vibrant and loaded with inky blacks. The sound system (despite being slightly loud) was thunderous and dialed-in. Bass performance was stellar. And the pleather multi-function recliner seats were ridiculously comfortable.
It’s great to see commercial cinema re-enter the quality conversation, and it brings great hope for the future of what we’ll eventually see possible in our own homes. After all, it takes one to push the other.
You might recall that 2015 was a year of growing pains for OLED. Every manufacturer (minus LG Electronics) was opting to deploy 4K using LCD tech. And while LG’s OLED models were showing amazing promise, they presented some troubling difficulties with extremely dark image content. Enter 2016 and LG turned the page to a new chapter with several new models devoid of 2015’s performance issues, easily solidifying 2016 as "the year of OLED." LG is simply crushing it (and the competition knows it).
One of the bigger responses to LG’s burgeoning OLED dynasty came from Sony, which popped two big surprises on the display world during 2016. The first came mid-year with the reveal of its Z Series of TVs featuring a new backlight boosting technology called “Backlight Master Drive.” This tech is similar to full-array local dimming (FALD) which groups LED backlights into controllable zones, but ditches the zones to allow each LED to be individually controlled. In addition, Z Series panels have a dense LED structure composed of calibrated LED beams that can better focus light to reduce unwanted diffusion. Early reviews indicate Sony’s Z TVs are great performers.
Sony’s second surprise came late year, when it announced it will release several OLED television models using LG panels in 2017. Yes, this is potentially a huge move for Sony and the industry at large. This marks the first time that potential OLED buyers will have market competition on their side, and one can safely bet that competition will only grow as more manufacturers join Sony and LG. The best part of this news is that Sony’s predicted launch pricing lands close to LG’s generous end of year pricing, making 2017 a great year to plan on purchasing a new OLED TV.
All of this OLED talk isn’t meant to ignore the successes LCD manufacturers have experienced with 4K and High Dynamic Range (HDR). 2016 delivered quite a few excellent LCD sets, and the technology’s incredible peak brightness levels play well in bright rooms and for enthusiasts that love gaming.
4K Continues to Elude Midrange Projectors
2016 proved to be a solid year for projectors, but those enthusiasts looking for affordable 4K HDR options were left in the cold. Yes, both Sony and JVC have released expensive 4K HDR models, but we’ll need to wait a year or two for the tech to trickle down to price points in the $2,000-$7,000 range. For now, budget capped enthusiasts will have to remain content with 1080p and 1080p e-shift options (several of which have the ability to show some decent HDR images).
JVC certainly stole the show (this year) with the announcement of its $35,000 RS4500 4K laser projector. The heart of the RS4500 is JVC’s second generation laser light technology called BLU-Escent. While this is the tech's first entrance into the home market, JVC’s first generation BLU-Escent projectors have seen commercial use in large screen applications (such as flight simulators) for a number of years. The RS-4500 uses BLU-Escent laser light in conjunction with three small 4K D-ILA devices to produce 4096 x 2160 resolution, 3,000 lumens, and color that stretches beyond the DCI color space (roughly 80-percent of BT 2020).
Last week, JVC announced that the RS4500 had received THX’s stamp of approval, making it the world’s first THX Certified 4K projector. Being an unabashed JVC fanboy, I am thrilled to see the company enter the 4K world with such a splash. Trickle down tech (preferably affordable laser performance) can’t happen fast enough!
4K Blu-ray Lands on Its Feet
Just when the physical disc appeared to be knocking on death’s door, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray players arrived on the market. According to the Digital Entertainment Group, 4K disc sales have been solid. In fact, it appears healthy sales and player demands have actually surprised some manufacturers.
2016 saw the release of five 4K Blu-ray players, including Samsung’s UBD-K8500, Philips’s BPD7501, Microsoft’s Xbox One S console, Panasonic’s DMP-UB900, and OPPO’s UDP-203. We already know of at least one player slated to launch early next year (Sony’s UDP-X1000ES), and rumors say that CES 2017 will reveal at least one other new model. In the case of Sony, many were expecting to see 4K Blu-ray compatibility on its late year PS4 launch. In this case, the company completely flipped the rumor mill on its head by forgoing 4K Blu-ray on its console and showing a standalone model at CEDIA.
One of the bigger questions in the coming year involves Dolby Vision support. As of now, every player currently on the market can support HDR10, but only OPPO’s 203 carries the proper hardware for Dolby Vision (look for an early year Dolby Vision firmware update from OPPO). This is a relatively small issue at the moment, as no Dolby Vision discs have been released to date. That should change, however, sometime during the middle of 2017.
Consumer Friendly Options
One of the more interesting side stories of 2016 has been the flood of consumer-friendly AV product releases. Loads of so called “slimline” components hit the market. Products such as Marantz’s NR1607 receiver and HD-CD1 compact disc player, Onkyo’s DSX-3 receiver, and Emotiva’s BasX components all feature ultra-thin profiles. Emotiva also unveiled several modular models that allow consumers to upgrade physical components for better performance. In addition, several speaker manufactures (such as Power Sound Audio and Seaton Sound) offered upgrade packages to owners of specific subwoofers.
Fairly recent history gave us gear capable of receiving firmware updates, allowing companies to tweak products to some degree. But, the notion of offering true physical upgrades (such as Emotiva’s HDMI 2.0 kit for its XMC-1) is absolutely brilliant. I applaud any company offering consumers a pathway to upgrade gear they already own, and it will be interesting to see if other large manufacturers follow suit. Just imagine maintaining the ability to keep a receiver despite massive technology shifts. Sure would be nice...
Obviously, much more happened across the face of this great hobby, including exciting new speaker and subwoofer launches by companies that many of us hold in high regard. Definitely take note of the great years (and gear) delivered by our fantastic sponsors, SVS Sound, Power Sound Audio, and OPPO Digital. And also, check out our unique new sponsor, US Audiolist!
On behalf of the entire HTS staff, I’d like to thank all of our great members and social media followers for continuing to spend time here at HTS. This site simply doesn’t work without each of you staying involved and active. Thank you!
With that, it’s time to look forward to what (I believe) will prove to be a huge year in many respects. Here’s wishing each and every one of you health, happiness, and AV nirvana during the coming New Year!
Image Credits: Todd Anderson/Home Theater Shack, Dolby/AMC, Robert Zohn/Value Electronics, OPPO Digital, Emotiva