The holidays have come and gone and it’s time to put the finishing touches on the final chapter of 2013; what a year it has been for the A/V technology. We’ve witnessed the final gasping breaths of several pillars of the home theater world, the arrival of new and exciting technologies, and indications that the way we acquire and consume content will radically change in the near future. There’s little doubt that the industry experienced a game changing year, as the saying goes, leaving many consumers wondering what lies ahead and how changes will affect the viability of their current racks of expensive equipment.
3D to 4K
My oh my, how quickly the winds change. Just a few short years ago display makers were completely nuts over 3D displays, using the technology to
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/news/21097224_BG1.jpg[/img]push new sales and encourage existing HD display owners to ditch their “old” displays and upgrade to the latest and greatest. That buzz died in 2013 at the hands of a new industry tech creation: 4K UltraHD. The 2013 Consumer Electronics Show rolled out the red carpet for the technology with many of the big players – Toshiba, LG, Sony, and Samsung (to name a few) – climbing over themselves to showoff their shiny 4K displays. If you’ve had a chance to stand within a few feet of a 4K set displaying native content, then you’ve undoubtedly been wowed by the insane levels of detail visible on these displays. It’s certainly hard to deny that they are anything less than stunning. Of course, not everything is rosy with 4K technology. The biggest obstacle to ownership is buy-in cost, with a small, but fairly significant, secondary issue of content (or should we say: lack of content). Many consumers are still spinning silly from the thousands of dollars they invested in their 720p and 1080p displays over the past several years, and they still aren’t seeing true 1080p content squeezed through cable and satellite TV pipelines, making Blu-ray the best source of full-HD material. At the beginning of this year, 4K content didn’t even have a physical media fall back, let alone a good way to deliver it to early adopters. Then there is the issue of necessity? Can the human eye discern between HD and 4K content at normal viewing distances? Science will say no, but one thing is for sure: 4K technology means that screen sizes can be radically increased without incurring a loss of image quality.
As the year progressed two companies stepped-up to the plate and offered stand alone media players to deliver 4K content. The first player, REDRAY, hit the market with a 1TB internal drive and a proprietary RED codec technology with the hefty price tag of $1750 MSRP. RED paired-up with Odemax to offer downloadable 4K films (all of which are indie films). Next came Sony’s 4K Ultra HD Media Player sporting ten pre-loaded 4K films (blockbuster releases) and access to a download video service for more 4K material (at launch they offered 70 movie and television titles). These two players are truly the first seedlings to break ground.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, consumers began to see 4K prices fall. Two Chinese manufacturers, Seiki and Hisense, hit the ground running with aggressively priced sub-$2,000 4K sets. Not surprisingly, major manufacturers such as Sony, Samsung and LG began the process of slashing prices by thousands, lowering some 4K displays below the $4,000 price mark. Those prices have fallen even further, with some non-Chinese brand displays selling at sub $3,000 price points. More is sure to come as manufacturers attempt to pull consumers into a 4K age. Stay tuned.
If you’re still hanging around wondering if 3D will ultimately survive the 4K wave, it may. Unfortunately for fans of the 3D, ESPN delivered a devastating blow to the technology’s broadcast viability by opting to drop its 3D sports channel. But, 3D has remained popular in cinemas and quite a few companies are rumored to be looking into glasses-less 3D televisions.
Plasma is Out, OLED is In?
Plasma has seemingly faced an uphill battle for years. It has long been lauded for it’s ability to produce color rich images, deep blacks, motion without blur, and wide viewing angles, but energy consumption, display weight, and the notion of image retention have been thorns in its side. Its days as a viable technology have seemingly come and gone (or, better said, nearly gone). This fall, Panasonic, the largest manufacturer of the technology (not to mention some of the best reviewed sets), announced it is pulling it’s plasma horse out of the race. Panasonic will cease plasma display production in early 2014. Around the same time, Mitusubishi terminated it’s rear-projection sets, allowing for the market to move closer to LCD domination. Only two other companies currently make plasma displays (LG and Samsung) and the rumor mill suggests that LG might be finished with plasma soon, too. That would leave Samsung holding the bag, and one would have to wonder how aggressively Samsung would pursue further advances with the technology and which market segments it would target.
That brings us to a technology that some view as the golden child: OLED. For those of you unfamiliar with OLED, here’s a quick primer. OLED, or Organic Light Emitting Diode, is made from organic materials that emit light when fed with electricity. The technology allows for pixels to be turned on and off, creating the possibility for an infinite contrast ratio and real blacks. The technology allows displays to be thinner and lighter than anything we’ve seen before. OLED’s biggest enemy remains durability, with questions about ghosting and long term picture quality (sound familiar?).
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/news/lgoled.jpg[/img]2013 marked the arrival of OLED displays to US shores with LG and Samsung releasing 55-inch OLED sets. Interestingly, both of these sets sport a curved screen design. Cost is incredibly high, with both still selling for more than $8,000 (seeing very little movement from their near-$9K price tags at launch). We did see some indication that OLED manufacturing costs might turn south with the announcement that Kateeva (a Silicon Valley manufacturing company) had developed a printer that would improve the OLED manufacturing process making it cheaper, more reliable, and faster; this appeared to be great news for the industry. But many questions and doubts about the technology still burn, recently stoked by a recent story by NIKKEI indicating that an OLED manufacturing partnership between Sony and Panasonic has been terminated. The news outlet says that Sony is opting to focus its attention on 4K technology amid news that LG and Samsung are struggling with OLED sales. NIKKEI reports that NPD DisplaySearch has also downgraded it’s estimates of projected OLED display sales (slashing it’s 2013 estimate from 20 thousand to 5 thousand and it’s 2017 estimate from 9 million to 4 million). Hopefully, this technology will stabilize and catch a ride on the 4K wave...otherwise, it’s looking like LCD based technologies will be king for years to come.
The Arrival of 2.0
Paired with the push for 4K content, 2013 marked the arrival of a new HDMI standard: 2.0. Limited by bandwidth, HDMI’s 1.4 specification was doomed and entirely inadequate for the amount of information contained in UltraHD content. The new 2.0 specification allows for the transfer of true 4K (2160p) material at 50-60 frames per second, a wide angle theatrical 21:9 aspect ratio, 1536kHz audio sampling (high fidelity audio), and supports up to 32 channels of audio and dual video streams. Rest assured, the 2.0 specification doesn’t require new HDMI cables; existing runs of cables will work. Also, the technology is backwards compatible.
A Radical Change in Content Delivery
Of course, with every great arrival – like that of HDMI 2.0 – the A/V world finds balance through a great departure. In this case, it’s the outright death of Blockbuster Video. This past fall, the rental giant announced it was official calling it quits. No more retail locations (a total worldwide shutdown), no more rental kiosks, no more rental by mail. For many of us this marked the end of an era. Blockbuster won the battle with small business rental stores and survived longer than Hollywood Video...but Redbox, Netflix, and a host of other online streaming options had the final say. Call me sentimental, or perhaps a dinosauric lover of physical media, but this appears to the beginning of a sad end to disc-based home theater media. As a fan of the amazing picture and sound quality of Blu-ray, I hope disc based media can survive long enough for streaming/download options to offer the same exact uncompromising audio and video quality. Services are slowly moving in that direction, with DTS partnering with Samsung and CinemaNow to deliver a paired-down version of DTS-HD with streaming content (as one example). Of course, with a push from 1080p to 4K, it’s hard to imagine internet providers offering larger pipelines in the near future.
Speaking of content, the content landscape is ripe for change. Disc based media sales are barely holding on (they were down in Q3 2013, but up 7% for the year as compared to 2013), with industry sales bolstered by electronically delivered content. This year marked the first time that Netflix was able to report a larger subscriber base than Home Box Office (in the United States). That’s a stunning statement. We’ve also watched Google launch its USB-based Chrome Cast, along with rumors about other companies (such as Amazon) developing set-top boxes of their own. What’s more interesting is that streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are developing exclusive, original, content that is popular. It's becoming evident that quality entertainment doesn't need to stand on the platform of bundle-based cable providers or network television. Interestingly, several weeks ago Netflix announced it will produce its popular House of Cards series in 4K, encoding the show using HEVC as opposed to AVC. It will be interesting to see how that plays-out with 4K Smart TV owners.
Around the Corner
What’s the best way to kickoff the new year? How about CES 2014! The industry’s electronic giants will unveil their new product lineups, sure to be brimming with millions upon millions of pixels, curved screens, and other tantalizing new designs. Rumors are abound...everything from the unveiling of Panasonic’s new 4K projector to an LG display running a “webOS” operating system...all of which is certainly exciting for the enthusiast in all of us.
Here’s hoping for a very happy and healthy 2014...full of A/V Tech bliss...to all of Home Theater Shack’s fantastic members!
Image Credit: RED, Netflix, LG