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Frank's Notes New and Interesting at CES 2000

Archived Editorials

When Bill and I got to CES 2000, we were both determined to see and hear as much DVD & related products as we could. We set out to get the information for you. You can read our main CES 2000 coverage by clicking this link. But I wanted to give you my perspectives on the show as well. So let me start out with a brief recap of some of the new DVD products we saw that left an impression...

DVD Highlights at CES

I've got to start off by mentioning some of the excellent multi-disc DVD-Video players from Pioneer, Zenith, Denon and Panasonic. I've been waiting to see more multi-disc players on the market. Recently the options for multi-disc players have been few (including mostly slim offerings from Onkyo, JVC or Sony). One new, up-and-coming multi-disc unit from Panasonic doesn't use carousel or magazine functions, but rather a mechanism similar to an old juke box, where the disc is separated from a collection of trays, then elevated to the playing area.

Pioneer has a very cool new multi-disc DVD player - the DVF-727 - that should be hitting stores anytime now. This 300 + 1 mega-disc model, includes ports for a mouse and a keyboard. Some Pioneer players have labeling, just in case you have a CS that does not include the title information on the disc. Or you can create groups and organize the discs. Some Pioneer players also have a memory feature that allows you to lock out certain titles in your collection from being played by children. I also really liked the Pioneer's DC-302D, a 3-disc DVD player/tuner combination.

Panasonic also has a tuner/amp/DVD player combination on the way for 2000 (the SC-HT80), with broad appeal and features that are very promising. This is an excellent option for those of you that want to a DVD player a surround sound system all in one (for less that you would spend on the gear separately) and create a nice little home theater in your living room.

Panasonic's SC-HT80
Panasonic's SC-HT80

Panasonic introduced the SC-HT80 with a built-in 5-DVD/CD changer, a Dolby Digital decoder, an amp, and an FM/AM tuner. It will also include 6 speakers (front left and right, center, left and right rear and a subwoofer) as well as a remote.

Several prototype players present at CES use flash ROM technology, so that the player can be updated with software to meet future specifications, or to add a new feature. This option is very exciting. Among the players featuring this capability are those using VM Labs' Nuon technology. Raite, Samsung and Toshiba all plan on coming out with DVD players using Nuon line, which adds much more interaction to DVD (click here to see images from the Nuon booth).

There were also a couple of brands of DVD player that surprised me - Raite and Esonic. Raite had several players that offered the ability to play DVD, VCD, SVCD, CD & MP3. Raite also had an "Internet" DVD player, that has an POP3/SMTP e-mail client with address book and a wireless keyboard.

A Raite MP3-capable DVD player...
A Raite MP3-capable DVD player...

...and "Internet" DVD player.
...and "Internet" DVD player.

Esonic had some nice set-top DVD players also, as well as a few portable players. Some of the portables from Esonic and Shinco had TV tuners as well (you can see them at the bottom of this page of our CES coverage). I picked up some spec sheets and product flyers... and was surprised to see a familiar face on Esonic's materials: pop singer Michael Jackson apparently loves his Esonic Video Discbaby.

Do you think MJ knows about this ad?
Do you think MJ knows about this ad?

DVD-Audio at CES

All right, enough fun and games - now on to some meatier bits (no pun intended). There were several players on display that feature DVD-Audio and Video capability. Some of the manufacturers displaying these include Denon, JVC, Marantz, Panasonic, Pioneer, Technics, Thompson (Proscan), Toshiba and Sharp. I was able to find and view all but the Marantz, Sharp and Proscan units. Even better than seeing the players, was actually hearing them as well. I heard demonstrations of DVD-Audio from Toshiba and Technics (courtesy of Dolby). Oh yeah... I also heard an SACD demo from Sony. More on that in a minute.

The demonstration by Toshiba DVD-Video, Audio and DTV was very impressive. The DVD-Audio portion was a classical piece, played in full 5.1 96/24. The sound was absolutely amazing. We also heard a 192-sampling/24 bit sound sample, the quality of which would please any audiophile. Each instrument on the demo was clear and present, with resilience that is usually only captured in "live" settings. The only drawback during the demo was the air conditioner on the roof of the enclosed (and rather large) exhibit booth. It would have been nice to have absolute (or near absolute) silence in which to experience the DVD-Audio demonstration. One other drawback, much more important than my preferences, is that Toshiba was not very helpful in answering questions on their products. The A/V demonstration was completed by an actor from a memorized script. We later proceeded to view the products out of the demo room (in the actual Toshiba exhibit), but there weren't many informative folks to be found. Plenty of staff, but none really there to answer questions on DVD-Audio. There were quite a few distributors in the exhibit, and they seemed to be the first priority of the Toshiba staffers on hand. Oh well…

The Pioneer exhibit included 2 different DVD-Audio/Video players on display (see this page), both of high quality. The top player, the DV-AX10 plays DVD-Audio, Video, CD, CD-R, CD-RW, VCD and SACD too. Plus, it's progressive scan, has the DTS out and premium construction. That means high-density, thick walls on sides, cover, front, rear and under carriage - reducing noise and vibration to nothing. The other model (the DV-08A) did not have the same solid construction, but as an Elite player, it should still be fully-capable. Having the DV-AX10 coming in around $5000 is quite pricey. But its ability to do everything is extremely cool, and very much ahead of the curve. I'm very excited to try out both of these units.

Let me tell you about the Dolby demonstration. The player used was the Technics DVD-A10 (Audio & Video capable). The 5.1 DVD-Audio sample was recorded in April 1999, at the Sumida Triphony Hall in Japan. This demonstration was a piano piece, that had astounding sound quality. The harmonics of the piano were crisp and clear. The pianissimo and fortes were much more dynamic and impressive. The presence of space and depth in the soundfield was very evident. Each chord sustained wonderfully, holding the integrity of each note. The fullness and warmth of the audio made it sound real and tangible. I felt like I was listening to a grand piano in a music hall, hearing each key stroke perfectly, with the music surrounding and enveloping me. Needless to say, this was an extremely impressive demonstration. If this is what we can expect from DVD-Audio, then bring it on!

The Dolby demonstration also included information that DVD-Audio discs can include Dolby Digital encoding as well. When you see a DVD-Audio product with the Dolby logo, then you'll know that you can play that product on your current DVD player in at least 2.0 sound. When you later get a true DVD-Audio player, you'll be able to utilize that higher spec as well. The DD encoding on DVD-Audio products can be played at 96/24 PCM specs.

The other part of the Dolby demonstration was something they called Dolby Headphone. This Dolby technology involves a special chip that process any multichannel sound source (2.0 and up) to a sense of space and acoustics when listening via regular stereo headphones. The result is a wonderful and realistic surround sound effect. The difference is easily noticed, whether listening to music or a movie. Both were demonstrated, with excellent results. This technology is already being made available on Singapore Airlines (and soon Quantas as well), and can be used in any audio device.

This brings me to another exhibit I stopped by - SRS Labs. I've been familiar with SRS for some time. Their Theater 2000 product can allow what they call "TruSurround" using only 2 speakers. The effect is very impressive. The unit pre-mixes up to six channels of digital audio into a two-speaker output, while retaining all the original audio information. The MSRP on the unit is $169.95, and is well worth it if you only have a 2-speaker system and want to add a surround effect for minimal cost.

Theater 2000 from SRS Labs.
Theater 2000 from SRS Labs.

Now if you're wondering about SACD, I did hear a demo. Quite honestly, I was a little disappointed in Sony. The SACD disc I listened to did not have a regular CD track for comparison, even though a CD "layer" is supposed to be present on SACDs. SACD is also still only 2-channel. I asked when 5.1 sound might come down the pike, and was told, "we want to make sure we perfect 2-channel sound before we tackle 6 channels." I also heard SACD through speakers, but the booth was quite noisy and it was definitely not the right environment for listening. That aside, I was not impressed by SACD. The dynamics and quality was just not as dynamic as DVD-Audio. Nor was I impressed with the Sony booth. They could easily have had a prototype 6-channel SACD or a progressive scan DVD player on hand.

At this point, I'm not anticipating a format war, as some fear. I don't really see much comparison at all between SACD and DVD-Audio. And many DVD-Audio capable players will also play SACDs. Phillips even had a DVD-Video player that also played SACDs. Bottom line: I wouldn't recommend buying an SACD-only player. It would be a shame to see it turn into a 60lb paperweight. Did you know that Sony Music is one of the 5 music labels that have pledged to support DVD-Audio? I'm sure you've read that already, but I think it bears mentioning here.

Everyone I spoke to about DVD-Audio indicated release dates ranging from April to end of the summer. But they're all going to wait for CSS-2. Almost all of the players on display will have hardware to update when this new security encryption scheme is finalized. I doubt that any form of audio watermarking will pass muster (and several technicians in some of the exhibits agreed).

Still, after walking through CES 2000, and sitting in on the DVD Entertainment Group reception later that evening, one can certainly see that DVD-Audio will be supported from many angles. Hearing the news about the five music labels dedicated to supporting the format got me all excited again. I don't think that this will be thrown at Joe Average consumers (like me) without giving us options. CD got music into the digital age, and it's time to go the next step. I think that DVD-Audio is so far presented with everything as promised. DVD-Audio sounds awesome, it does a lot, and offers a lot of possibilities. Whether you feel you want to own this type of "high definition" sound product or not, is totally up to you. But I simply can't wait. DVD-Audio is going to have a great start… and I'm hoping it will be soon.

Well, thanks for checking this out. Please feel free to email me anytime.

Frank Ortiz

Frank takes in a demonstration of Super Audio CD at the Sony booth.
Frank takes in a demonstration of Super Audio CD at the Sony booth.

Previous Editorials:

Get to know Frank... and maybe win some free music DVDs too! 1/7/00
DVD-Audio Quality Sound on Your Current Player Today! 10/6/99

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