This past weekend the AV world descended upon Dallas, Texas for the 2015 edition of CEDIA’s annual Expo extravaganza. The event touts itself as the “epicenter of the future home experience,” and that might be selling itself a tad bit short. I believe they should take it one step further – a little deeper below the surface – and call the Expo what it really is: the “focus.” For fans of home theater and audio, CEDIA strikes an incredible balance of exhibits and gear, making this one of the best shows for rounded audio/video enthusiasts to attend. Of course, the event takes dead-aim at the custom install business owner, but that plays well for the enthusiast population because a vast volume of new and current gear is on display, anchored by slick demo areas, knowledgeable representatives, and glitz galore. The downside (if looking to nit-pick) is that some audio and video exhibitors have less than ideal conditions to strut their stuff. But, to be honest, that’s really neither here nor there as enough manufacturers have private video and sound rooms to keep most demo seekers happy. So, if you’re new to the show world and have been looking for a balanced Expo to attend, then CEDIA should be at the top of your list.
It just so happens that yours truly (Texan by birth, Marylander and Redskins fan by choice) risked life and limb to infiltrate deep within Cowboys territory to take-in all that CEDIA had to offer. I jest, of course…my time in Texas was fantastic, polished by warm and inviting hospitality. The sheer amount of exhibitors and AV prowess present within the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center in downtown Dallas was certainly invigorating. There was a “buzz in the air” as they like to say. If you’ve read my other show reports, then you’ll know I enjoy picking a few favorite products or companies to highlight and detail; a task that proved difficult this go around. But, the impossible is always possible, and I managed to whittle the pile down to five exhibitors worthy of receiving a Best of CEDIA 2015 Show Award. So, without further adieu, lets take a look at the winners.
Total Eye Candy: LG Electronics' OLED Experience
LG Electronics came to the game ready to play, locked and loaded with OLED television technology. Anchored by a $40,000 98-inch 4K television (98UB9810) and a slightly less expensive 77-inch model (77EG9700), LG’s black-draped display area was dancing with colorful analog images that were simply eye-popping and drool-worthy. It made me realize: if plasma hadn’t died prematurely, then OLED would be actively digging its grave.
If you’ve not experienced OLED, then you’re missing out on the best black levels we’ve ever seen on consumer television panels – period. And because of the significant impact of black level performance on a panel’s perceived image quality, LG has a stable of televisions that are literal world-beaters. OLED’s color saturation and depth is also a strong suit, and LG’s sets showed-off those characteristics as mesmerizing demo video played on its darlings’ screens. Let’s not forget High Dynamic Range material, which was also demoed on those models that are HDR capable.
There are still questions about OLED that linger, including the overall lifespan of the panels (you might remember that Sony’s early OLEDs had an issue with blue pixels aging rapidly) and some possible hiccups with extremely dark material playback (which I didn’t see during demo material this go-around). Also, OLED doesn’t have plasma’s blur-free motion playback or extremely wide viewing angle capabilities (although black level performance as seen from extreme angles stays intact). But, considering LCD’s known deficiencies, OLED is by far the best option – image wise – on the market.
It was great to see larger models with a traditional flat design, as I’m not a huge fan of the curved screen fad. I find a curved screen distracting as it limits the viewing sweet spot and intensifies ambient light reflection. According to an extended conversation with an LG company representative, none of the panels on display had been calibrated to the convention center’s ambient light environment. They were, however, running in a cinema mode without motion interpolation engaged. I didn’t have an opportunity to dig into any of the sets’ picture settings or color management controls, other than a cursory glance to confirm overall picture mode.
LG’s OLEDs all look gorgeous and are priming the company to be the heavyweight favorite at next year’s Value Electronics’ Flat Panel Shootout. It will be fun to compare their performance to Panasonic’s new breed of OLED panels.
Best Audio Sound: GoldenEar Technology
Tucked along the back wall of the convention hall were a series of self-contained sound rooms designed to allow audio manufacturers some quiet privacy for more exacting demo sessions. It was there that I found the first of two Best of Show winners: GoldenEar Technology. GoldenEar really needs little introduction in audio circles. The company and its legendary founder – Sandy Gross – are well known for serious audio prowess and performance. Because of pre-show Twitter plugs, I knew that GoldenEar was invading CEDIA with an Atmos demonstration, but I little idea of how surprising the demonstration would prove to be.
I entered GoldenEar’s dimly lit room in the middle of an Atmos audio session featuring the opening bomber scene from Unbroken. My eyes were drawn to a pair of Triton One towers at the front of the room, several immediately visible ceiling channels, and a gathering of speakers and parts on display in the rear. Taking a center seat, I began to let the Atmos audio onslaught wash over me with a blanket of dynamic sound. I quickly noted the lack of a traditional center channel and surmised that GoldenEar was using the Triton Ones to create a phantom center. Bass was deep, tight, and spot-on. Following the clip, Sandy Gross informed me that the demonstration wasn’t using the Triton Ones, but a 7.1.4. Atmos surround package relying solely on Invisa HTR 7000 in-ceiling speakers ($499-each) and a single Super Sub XXL Dual Plane ($1999). Jaw dropper! I was absolutely floored – and tricked – by the HTR 7000’s ability to create a traditional speaker deployment’s surround effect on an ear level plane, let alone integrate a sense of height offered by a traditional Atmos system.
The second part of the demo involved the Triton Ones (no subwoofer) playing a range of music from Jazz to vocals and drums to rock. The resulting soundstage was simply sublime, layered with pinpoint imaging, dynamic depth, tight controlled bass, and highs that never once hinted the slightest note of harshness. We’re talking a canvas painted with absolutely delicious sonic swirls and total precision. The highlight of the demo was a mesmerizing playback of Pink Floyd’s The Wall that sounded too good to be true, totally captivating a smattering of attendees. At a price of $5,000 per pair, the Triton One is a total steal. If you're in the market for high-end sound, seek out and listen to what GoldenEar has to offer...your ears will thank you.
Show Highlight: Auro-3D
Several sound rooms down from GoldenEar, the European company Auro Tech had setup shop. Here, in the United States, Auro-3D’s immersive layer-based audio system has taken a backseat, marketing- and availability-wise, to the object oriented immersive sound offering from Dolby (and, soon, DTS). According to Filip De Pessmier (Segment Director, Auro Tech), the company knows it has work to do on this side of the pond. Auro-3D, however, is big in Europe, even bigger in Asia, and is gaining traction with higher-end AV manufacturers in the United States. According to De Pessmier, Auro’s presence at CES 2015 planted a seed of boosted interest in the U.S. market, and U.S.-based consumers have been contacting manufacturers to request Auro support on future AV products. I have to admit, until this past weekend, Atmos’ recognizable heritage and large presence in the American market has made me rather dismissive of Auro-3D, despite not having heard a demonstration of the technology. Let’s just say: that has changed.
Auro-3D is dissimilar to its rival immersive sound codecs in that it relies heavily on sound layers produced by ear level (lower layer) and wall-bound height layer channels located in the front, back, and sides of a room. Only one ceiling channel (Voice of God) is used in the home environment and isn’t necessary for every application. The result is a layered formation of sound around a listener that’s different than the objected oriented effect generated by Atmos.
True video-based content for Auro-3D is rather limited in the United States, but isn't completely out of the picture. It quietly made its theatrical debut with George Lucas’ film Red Tails (2012) and is currently implemented in over 550 theaters worldwide. In addition, more than 35 postproduction facilities have installed the Auro-3D Studio System to create content that’s mixed into a standard 5.1 PCM stream found on regular Blu-ray discs; legacy content can be up-mixed using Auro’s proprietary Auro-Matic engine.
At CEDIA, Auro’s sound room was shared by three absolutely wicked PCM front channel speakers, eight surround and height channels, and one Voice of God channel (12 channels total). The demo session involved several clips of audio taken from everyday environments (a pipe organ in a cathedral, a truck passing by on a woodland road, and a helicopter flyover), and it made for the single best natural “surround sound” experience I’ve ever heard; Auro talks about a “sound based hemisphere” of immersion, and it’s insanely cool when you hear it. It took a sense of “being there” and hearing sound as if it were in a real world environment to crazy levels, complete with a dome-like expansiveness that was absolutely beautiful.
My experience with Atmos (both at home and during demo sessions) thus far, is that it creates a sense of height across the front stage while sounding more channel anchored through the rest of the room. It very much has a theatrical feel to its presentation. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an incredible effect and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it in my own home theater, but Auro-3D seems to have sound completely unshackled from channels, creating a 3D airiness and presence that’s a kin to experiencing sound in real life. I did note that Auro’s sound demo room had a fairly high ceiling (roughly 11-feet), which makes me wonder if this helped to aide the system’s effect. Nevertheless, it sounded fantastic and has made me yearn for another demo experience.
Home Theater Anchor: JVC
As detailed in a product preview published last week, JVC landed in Dallas with six new projectors (3 consumer, 3 professional). On the show floor, they featured their Procision models (DLA-X550R, X750R and X950 which retail from $4,000 to $10,000) in three different viewing rooms. I had an opportunity to speak with JVCKENWOOD’s Chris Deutsch (National Product and Training Manager, AV Division) about JVC’s latest gear.
First off, it’s important to note that JVC’s new projectors produce an image that’s tough to beat in this price range. If you’re looking for a natural, unprocessed, cinematic visual appeal, then you should be looking at JVC. In JVC’s primary demo room, they had an uncalibrated X950 projecting a 150-inch image on a Studiotek 100 screen using a low lamp cinema mode. The images were excellent and everything you’d expect from a projector built-upon a lineage that has been responsible for bringing excellent black levels to home theaters for years.
This year (like last) JVC is aiding its D-ILA (Direct Drive Liquid Image Amplifier, LCoS) technology with an automatic iris – which is ironic for a company that spent years touting its non-auto iris capabilities. You can turn the iris off, and most likely should if you’re looking for the best picture performance from a uniformity standpoint. JVC is also relying upon another generation of its proprietary 4K-eshift, so it’s projectors still do not technically image in true 4K, but they do have more pixels than a standard 1080p projector. For my eyes, this isn’t a problem and JVC’s performance capabilities far outshine its lack of true 4K playback.
New to this year is a self cleaning lamp. Details on this feature are a tad sketchy, but apparently projector lamps can build-up electrode residue during use; the new projectors can clean and restore the electrodes at startup. Speaking of lamps, JVC is also introducing a new 265-Watt lamp that produces significantly more light power (life rating: 4,500 hours). According to Chris Deutsch, the lamp can maintain high lumens when professionally calibrated. The units also feature automatic onboard lamp adjustments for native High Dynamic Range material (shown using high lamp mode).
Deutsch showed me a comparison of HDR and non-HDR material (same exact images) and the results were discernable. Gradations and details hidden within a bright sky image were easily revealed by HDR, as were dark and shadowy details of nighttime shots. Mind you, the HDR capabilities of a projector aren’t to the same level of a television panel, but the effect is still significant enough that it’s something to consider when shopping for a new projector (content, of course, is still scarce).
It's great to see JVC is continuing to defend its highly regarded presence in the projector segment, and its nearly assured that its new model line will receive high acclaim.
Favorite Find: Stealth Acoustics
Have you ever dreamed of an outdoor – large screen – movie experience with a killer picture (day or night) and great sound? How about a system that automatically seals itself from exposure to the rain and cold? Well dream no longer, let me introduce you to the Stealth Acoustics’ Stealth Patio Theater (SPT). SPT is a complete turnkey outdoor cinema entertainment system that’s delivered and installed in your yard, patio, or pool area…completely self-contained from the elements using marine grade materials and design. A motorized system raises and lowers a large video screen (standard sizes range from 103-inches to 155-in) made from direct-fire LED panels capable of producing beautiful colors and rich blacks (even in the face of sunlight). Great sounding hermetically sealed outdoor speakers are mounted on the front side of the cabinet (see rectangles in the image above). The brain of the system contains a 1080p processor that can receive content from seven HDMI connections.
At CEDIA, Stealth Acoustics had a 103-in version of the SPT on display, and its video performance (from a reasonable distance of about 20-feet) was excellent, totally dismissive of the convention center’s harsh ceiling lights. Company Vice President, Steve Olszewski, gave me a detailed tour of the system that left me believing Stealth Acoustics truly has the ultimate outdoor entertainment package. What about rain, I asked. “It automatically closes and protects the screen when it senses rain,” he said. How about extremely cold weather, I wondered. “We can supply a heater unit that keeps the electronics protected,” he said.
Stealth Acoustics has left no design element unconsidered. If I had the coin (roughly $130K for their 103-in Expo demo unit), Stealth Acoustics would have another customer in queue. The company’s online video marketing material says “once you see this product in action, outside, next to the pool, in broad daylight…you’ll get it.” Yes, I’d have to agree, you would… and I’d love a chance to prove them wrong.
Image Credits: Todd Anderson