My long tradition of getting behind with work covering new product launches ahead of the holiday season -- and therefore not finishing my holiday gift guide until the last possible moment -- continues. The guide is up over at techpinions.com.
My long tradition of getting behind with work covering new product launches ahead of the holiday season -- and therefore not finishing my holiday gift guide until the last possible moment -- continues. The guide is up over at techpinions.com.
Sonos sent over a pair of Play:1 speakers for review. In my review of the Sonos PLAYBAR I found too many setup limitations, but I absolutely love the Play:1's. A single Play:1 fills any small or medium sized room with rich, clear sound, and it serves as a perfect entry point to building a full multi-room, multi-source music system. My full report for Current Analysis clients is up; here's an excerpt:
Sonos notes that multi-room audio sales have been rising 80% year-over-year, fueled by streaming music. With most consumer electronics categories losing ground as consumers put more of their money into phones and tablets, this niche has not gone unnoticed: Bose just announced a line of app-driven WiFi/Airplay speakers (albeit without multi-zone capability), and Samsung’s Shape is a direct Sonos clone. No matter: the Play:1 is half the price of either competitor. Sonos sound quality is more than good enough, and its proprietary WiFi-like mesh network works flawlessly, even in difficult wireless environments. The Play:1 should not only help Sonos fend off Samsung and Bose, it will reach down and pull buyers away from high end Bluetooth speakers from Jawbone and Logitech.
Apple’s iTunes now sells more music than any other retail outlet and CD sales are famously in decline, so you’d be forgiven if you thought nobody makes CD players any more – or at least nobody would be foolish to launch new ones. That's why I was somewhat delighted to read this press release: Parasound has just introduced a new CD player, the Zcd. This isn’t a CD player aimed at the mass market, but it isn’t targeting money-is-no-object audiophile snobs, either. It costs $400; mass market CD players start at $17.99 at Target, and audiophile brands can top $4,000. Instead, the Zcd is aimed at the custom installation market (the giveaway is that it is described as being “half rack width”).
Parasound apparently thinks there is a market for a high quality CD player where the home owner wants to insert a single disc and listen to it, as opposed to a hard drive-based music server. In other words, the Zcd is intended to be used for dedicated listening sessions, not strictly background music. In that sense, the Zcd is a throwback to the other physical music format with a focused use case – vinyl (though vinyl is explicitly "old school," and all the limitations of the format are typically celebrated as features). The Zcd has top of the line DACs and does fancy things with the volume control and analog converter power source to give installers something to talk about when justifying its cost. While the Zcd can also play back music from USB or a line in jack, it doesn't support dead music formats like SACD or DVD-Audio that few people today seem to even remember. It's a CD player. It plays CDs. It isn't something you're going to find in Best Buy, but it's nice to see someone thinks there's still a market niche left that calls for a dedicated optical disc player.
Buy.com has the Belkin PureAV PF30 for a great price ($60). I have this unit's big brother (the PF60), and while I can't claim to hear any difference in the filtered electricity, a good quality 8 outlet surge protector usually costs a lot more than $60 (this unit originally retailed for $199).
Note: I get no kickback if you click on the link above. Consider this a public service announcement.
There is no indication of price or availability, so this "announcement" is almost comically vague, but it is interesting nonetheless. For the uninitiated, MHL is a standard that aims to simplify getting content from mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) while keeping the devices charged. The MHL folks were smart enough not to come up with their own unique connector/cable; instead it uses the HDMI or microHDMI connectors, and includes HDMI backwards compatibility. It looks like Onkyo's reciever will pop up windows showing you what content is available on the device, allowing you to easily push that content on to the TV. That doesn't seem like an earth-shattering innovation, but given the dearth of MHL-compliant televisions on the market - let alone installed in homes - it could be useful.
Of course, you'll need an MHL-capable phone as well. Here the news is good; there are only a handful of phones with MHL, but one of them is extremely popular, Samsung's Galaxy SII, and most of HTC's latest phones support it as well, including the EVO 3D at Sprint, Vivid at AT&T, Rezound at Verizon Wireless, and the Sensation at T-Mobile.
My son is here with me today and... he brought up Beats headphones. I was wondering if you’ve seen/have them and your thoughts. He’s sold on how “cool” they are but I’m curious if they’re all hype or not.
I get in a lot of headphones but hadn't gotten extended time on the beats until HP gave me a pair to test with its new TouchPad tablet (the TouchPad has a special Beats Audio mode. I tested it with the mode enabled and disabled, the difference is too subtle for most people to notice, but it’s a nice branding initiative).
The beats are certainly a style icon, and since most people seem to choose them based on looks I was surprised that the sound quality is quite good. The bass is excellent (boosted but still natural – a tough combination to pull off), the midrange and highs are fair, and there is only some lightly audible distortion in the midrange from the noise cancellation (all active noise cancelling headphones have some distortion, as quite literally that’s what noise cancellation is). They are closed over-ear headphones with mandatory noise cancellation – they don’t work without batteries, and there’s no way to turn the cancellation off. The noise cancellation itself is very good, though not as good as Bose's QuietComfort line.
Overall, I still prefer a good pair of passive in-ear headphones from etymotic, Shure, or Ultimate Ears – especially if you can get custom earpieces, though that usually means spending more than the $300 or so that the beats cost (except when it doesn't). Sennheiser makes slightly better sounding headphones at the same price, and Bose has better noise cancellation around the same price. However, the Sennheisers do not have have noise cancellation, and I think most people might still prefer the Beats for bass-heavy music regardless. (Disclaimer: I haven’t gotten in the new Bose QuietComforts for a full review, so I can’t say which has better overall audio, but the noise cancellation on the Bose is the best I’ve heard when I've tried them on at retail and in airports).
Bottom line: while the beats would not be my first recommendation for all types of listening, I can easily recommended them, and they are particularly good if you listen to a lot of hip-hop and dance. If you want the beats' style you can be comfortable that you aren’t throwing away your money on hype, as they do offer quite good sound overall.
It certainly took them long enough, but Roku is finally graduating from online-only sales to retail. It wasn't doing too badly in the old business model - Roku's status as the least expensive and easiest streaming media box allowed it to rack up over a million units sold. Still, Roku always seemed something like a secret that only technically savvy people knew about - and that is not the target demographic for a product designed for simplicity. No, the ideal retail channel ought to be something like Target. Or Best Buy:
Roku XD player is available for purchase at Best Buy stores nationwide and at BestBuy.com. With up to 1080p HD streaming support, integrated 802.11n WiFi and Instant Replay the Roku XD offers unlimited entertainment choices and incredible value to customers. The Roku XD has a list price of $79.99 and is available at Best Buy stores and at BestBuy.com for purchase today. Roku players can also be found at other leading retail stores including BJ’s Wholesale Club, Fry’s Electronics and RadioShack.
Best Buy, Fry's, and the Shack. Well, the good news is that those stores are where a shopper goes if they want an inexpensive box to stream Netflix (or MLB or NBA or any of Roku's other content options). The bad news is that it won't reach consumers who don't know that they want an inexpensive box to stream Netflix (or MLB or NBA or any of Roku's other content options). Hopefully a successful run at Best Buy will get buyers at Target and Walmart interested, because their customers are who Roku should be chasing.
Great article in Dealerscope on how custom audio shops can prepare for the future by focusing more on headphone sales. Money quote:
"There are no new audiophiles entering our community any more," Abplanalp said. "For young people experiencing music, the art of building a stereo has lost its cachet. So selling headphones is a very important part of introducing music lovers to different performance levels..."
The article also notes that Monster's Dr. Dre Beats line is a key sales driver for this demographic, but oddly undersells the ability to properly demo in-ear headphones in-store.
Fred Kaplan is apparently writing for Slate now*, and he correctly points out that digital music often sounds terrible, either due to poor sampling or poor encoding. He recommends using an outboard DAC to correct the problem. It's a great suggestion for people who listen to music in one spot using high end speakers or headphones, but not at all practical for those who are mobile, using an MP3 player or a smartphone as their playback source. Aside from echoing his related note to bump up the encoding rate when you rip music or download higher quality encoded music in the first place, the best suggestion I can make for mobile music listening is to invest in higher quality headphones. My first pair of Shure e535's had an almost magical ability to smooth out ragged MP3s without losing any detail (as well they should for $499). When they broke on me, Shure shipped out a replacement pair, but the new model doesn't sound quite as exceptional to my ears in the MP3-magic area -- it is still a fantastically neutral pair of headphones with exceptionally clean mids and rich bass, but jagged highs due to MP3 encoding faults still sound jagged on my new pair. The drivers are supposed to be identical, so I'm not sure if I got lucky on the first pair or less lucky on the second (or that I am/was hearing things that weren't there. Also a possibility).
I love the Shures, but my headphones of choice these days are etymotic's flagship ER-4's, which are hardly new, but have been transformed by custom earpieces etymotic had made for me. The program, which I called out in my Holiday Gift Guide, is called CUSTOM•FIT, and costs $100 (in addition to the cost of headphones). If you care about comfort and noise isolation, it is worth every penny.
*UPDATE: Fred got in touch to point out that defense and foreign policy are actually his primary coverage areas - and he modestly left out the part where he won a Pulitzer on those subjects. I know him from his sideline as an A/V writer.
First a bit of background: Kaleidescape is a high end media server vendor. They make boxes you have a custom installer put in one spot, which connect over a wired network to smaller boxes your installer connects to each TV and projector in your home. You - or your installer - copies all your DVDs onto the big box, and then you can watch all your movies anywhere in your home. Basically, it's Sonos for movies for rich people. How rich? Kaleidescape was actually the reason I instituted a policy not to review anything I could not reasonably afford. Years ago Kaleidescape offered me a full setup to review; I refused because I didn't want to take out an insurance policy on a loaner, and I didn't want to take out a second mortgage on the chance that I couldn't bear to return it. A full Kaleidescape system in those days easily topped $50,000. Prices have come way down, but most systems will still end up in the $20,000 range with installation.
I had good reason to fear wanting to keep a system. I have used Kaleidescape at trade shows and have been consistently impressed. It is fully babysitter proof and requires no technical knowledge to use whatsoever. As all the movies are ripped to the system's hard drive(s), movies start instantly. However, its one downfall is that until now it only supported DVDs, not Blu-ray discs. As many installations include equally expensive HD projectors, this is a real problem.
Kaleidescape's first stab at the problem was adding Blu-ray support to the M500 player - one of the small boxes you'd have near your TV. That certainly enables you to play a Blu-ray disc (both at that TV or anywhere else in the house), but it still requires physically handling the disc every time you want to watch a movie and it is not all that much better than a regular Blu-ray player from Sony or Samsung. The whole point of Kaleidescape is access to any movie you own instantly thoughout the house.
Kaleidescape is now selling a partial solution to the problem: you can rip Blu-ray discs to the hard drive in the server, and it will play off the server (which means you can include it compilation video playlists). However, to appease the copyright gods, Kaleidescape still has to physically verify that you own the Blu-ray disc before playing any of its sweet 1080p content. To do so, you'll need a media vault ($1500), the ugly box pictured on the right, which can hold up to 100 Blu-ray discs. You can add as many of these as you like, but each needs to be connected to an M-class player (like the M500). In short, Kaleidescape now allows Blu-rays to be treated just like DVDs, only there is a lot more complexity and kludginess involved. It's better than nothing, but it has to seriously pain Kaleidescape's management and engineering staff who have made simplicity and elegance a core part of the product's value proposition.
As if the iPhone/iPod touch/iPad family wasn't already encroaching on distributed audio and home automation control systems, Onkyo announced that its future A/V receivers will come with free iOS remote control apps. This is a good idea for Onkyo on several levels: it allows Onkyo to tap into Apple's marketing momentum, and gives it the ability to market a rich touchscreen remote control without having to add anything to the bill of materials for the receiver.
Of course, using a phone as a remote can be problematic - what happens when someone wants to use the system and you're on the phone or out of the house? Dedicating an iPod touch to remote control duty - especially if you invest in a charging dock so it stays charged and doesn't wander off - solves this problem, and gives retailers who carry both Onkyo and Apple products a nice add-on sale at time of purchase. Consumers may balk at the added price, but the truth is that Apple's component prices are so much lower than specialty A/V vendors that it would probably be cheaper for Onkyo to buy an iPod touch and include it in the box rather than try to build an equivalent product for use as a remote control.
Not sure where I was when this crossed the wire back in April, but I was saddened - but not surprised - to learn that D&M Holdings shut down both Snell and Escient.
Snell was a high end speaker brand without enough brand recognition. Selling $30,000 speakers in a recession is extremely hard. Selling $30,000 speakers from a brand that only involved enthusiasts have heard of is basically impossible, no matter how terrific they measure and sound (Snell was famous for rigorously achieving ridiculously flat frequency measurements).
I suspect that the recession did in Escient, which made well regarded music servers, as well. Sure, some of Escient's functionality made its way into Windows and iTunes over the years, but the general collapse of the custom installation business was the bigger culprit. That and the rise of Sonos, which is dead simple for regular consumers to install, and considerably less expensive than any custom solution.
I was talking with Microsoft about the XBOX 360 earlier this week, and one of the things they said will drive consumers to their console vs. the competition is the integration of multiple features into Live, such as Netflix streaming, gaming, and other content. At Current Analysis our Digital Home service covers game consoles from the perspective of connected services; we treat a PS3, XBOX, or Wii like the fancy set top boxes (that not coincidentally also play games) that they have become. However, I thought we were a bit ahead of the curve - most consumers haven't fully embraced this vision yet. But when FedEx dropped off yet another box here this afternoon, I started thinking: how on Earth am I going to connect this? Is Microsoft right - will consumers buy a game console to access digital services simply because they're out of HDMI inputs on their TV?
Now I know that my situation is not something everyone faces, but how many devices can a consumer reasonably connect to a TV or even a sophisticated A/V receiver? I'm not sure there are enough inputs any more - even on flagship receivers - to connect all the possible devices an early adopter/TV nut might want to. (Some of these offer redundant functionality, but even then there are typically unique functions that could justify their purchase.) Here's a sample list:
I'm trying to integrate about eight or nine of those, and I'm not sure that there is a receiver on the planet that can handle more than about half that list.
A few months back Logitech sent over their PS3 Harmony adapter, and I've had a half-finished review sitting in my Typepad queue ever since (it's the sort of device that you set it up once and then forget about - in a very good way). I'm going to get that done and posted soon so I can move on to today's news: the Harmony 900, which is what you get when you refine the Harmony One and add RF capabilities to control devices behind closed doors (or, in my case, behind a motorized screen). I recommended the Harmony One in last year's Holiday Gift Guide, and I have a Harmony 900 in for review and will post my impressions shortly.
Logitech sent over Z-5 Omnidirectional notebook speakers. They're not going to put my Klipsch THX speakers of business (not by a long shot), but you need to remember that they're powered entirely via USB and don't take up too much desk space. Simplicity is clearly the goal here; the last USB-powered speakers I looked at, Altec Lansing's XT1's were designed with portability in mind. Compared to the XT1's, Logitech's Z-5's play extremely loud and sound extraordinary. They should make a great holiday gift for the notebook user who listens to music through fuzzy notebook speakers.
Logitech also sent over triple.fi 10 pro's from their recent Ultimate Ears acquisition, and I had them on hand at the recent Apple "Let's Rock" event, where I pitted them up against Apple's upcoming $79 in-ear headphones.
You get what you pay for - on both ends of the price spectrum. For $79, the Apple headphones sounded great - easily competitive with the low end of Shure and etymotic's range, and they blow away Bose's in-ear efforts (I can't comment on UE's entry level headphones, as I haven't listened to them). But they couldn't hold a candle - on bass or midrange - with the $399 UE's triple.fi 10 pro's. I was also annoyed that the Apple headphones are not fully compatible with the iPhone, just the iPod touch and new nano. (That new nano needs to be felt to be believed - it is vanishingly thin and the colors are gorgeous. Apple did a really nice job with this one.)
I'm really enjoying the triple.fi headphones, and finally had a chance to do some quick listening tests vs. one of their main competitors: Shure's $499 SE530. For natural, neutral sound quality, the SE530's are incredible, as well they should be at that price. The UE triple.fi 10 pro is a bit less neutral and seems to amp up the body of bass and warmth of the lower midrange - which is often lacking on headphones. Both are equally revealing, but I would describe the sound of the UE's as more "fun. Which is better? It's a matter of taste. While I suspect the Shure's are more accurate, listening to rock and pop with the UE's is more involving.
But my favorite headphones for the iPhone (and any phone with a 3.5mm jack, which includes most new RIM BlackBerries, Nokia's XpressMusic line, and select LG and Samsung phones) are still Shure's SE530's with the Shure iPhone microphone adapter, pictured below. They sound great with the compressed music you have on an iPhone, have the most comfortable shaped foam earplugs in the industry, and the modular design allows you to swap out various cord lengths or accessories.
Blogging is strange. I can't tell you how many times I get asked to provide links or link exchanges or even the occasional "please review our stuff and we'll pay you for placement." Now, if this were about my day job (Research Director for Mobile Devices), it would be somewhat understandable - I am quoted by the press, and it's my job to influence industry decision makers. But Home Theater View? Who reads this? Coverage here basically just influences my brother - my mother doesn't even read this! Perhaps all they're trying to do is up their Google rankings.
So, here is a link to an article I was asked to highlight on home theater seating. I didn't write it, I don't know the people who did, and I couldn't even tell you if they've sat in all the chairs they write about. But the pictures are definitely fun to look at. No money changed hands for my inclusion of this link in this post. Enjoy your link, boys.
Next up, an electronics review site, TestFreaks. They offered to pay me for reviewing the site. I never agreed to anything, but since it makes for an interesting post about home theater blogging, here goes. I don't like the site at all. It aggregates reviews from all over the Internet - sort of a Rotten Tomatoes for A/V gear and gadgets. That part might be useful if you couldn't just Google the product name and get the same information. Where it could still be interesting is if there was some editorial judgement applied to the rankings so you'd see a decent list of speakers or receivers to start a comparison shopping exercise. Nope, it's all automated, and the results appear to be completely random.
Logitech announced today that it is buying high end earbud vendor Ultimate Ears. UE is best known for $1000+ custom headphones for professional musicians, but it also has a line of consumer headphones in the $40 - $400 range. Its business model is incredibly similar to Shure - both come from professional audio (initially microphones in Shure's case) and branched out into the consumer space. In contrast, etymotic's background was in hearing aids, and V-MODA seems to have come from the fashion world.
Without the custom business, Ultimate Ears is just another headset vendor, and its brand differentiation will be difficult for Logitech to maintain. But if Logitech leaves the core custom business alone, it can definitely build up the consumer side - Ultimate Ears could definitely use better distribution and broader consumer awareness; Logitech excels in these areas - just look at what they did with Harmony (speaking of which, I just got in a Harmony One remote control; a review will follow shortly).
In terms of how Ultimate Ears actually sound, I have no idea. I have tested most of the competition - Shure, etymotic, Sennheiser, Sony, v-moda, and Bose, to name a few. I should be getting in some Ultimate Ears product soon for comparison.
Well, the first unit turned on, but didn't do much more than that. The box was attractive and well packed - from a packaging perspective it inspired confidence. But it didn't work. I could force it to manually switch between displays by turning one display off, the other on, and then unplugging/replugging the switch - not exactly what it is supposed to do.
I called monoprice's customer service line and got a live human being within three rings who apologized and sent out a new unit right away. At no point did I reveal any industry/blogging credentials, and this is a company that is selling a product roughly 1/4 the price of the competition, so top notch service is really extraordinary.
The replacement unit worked the first time out of the box. The remote control is ugly and does not have a powerful IR emitter, but it has eight discrete buttons for every switching contingency (Input 1 to Output A, Input 2 to Output A, Input 3 to Output A, Input 4 to Output A, Input 1 to Output B, Input 2 to Output B, Input 3 to Output B, Input 4 to Output B). This makes programming a universal remote child's play, or at least it would have if the Logitech Harmony 880 worked properly with the monoprice codes. After downloading and redownloading and creating my own codes from scratch, I still couldn't get the Harmony to finish the update/synchronization process. Eventually, I gave up and emailed Logitech. Here, too, customer service saved the day: within two days of my email to Logitech's Harmony folks, they figured out and resolved whatever was the problem was and sent me a note to "try it again now." Problem solved.
In three months of use, I have had no significant issues with the second monoprice unit. I have noticed, however, that on its own site, monoprice does seem to have generated a lot of complaints about dead or incompatible HDMI switching units, and this particular swtich has been refreshed several times; it is now up to version "2.5." Some of this is undoubtedly due to the inherent iffyness (a technical term) of HDMI implementations across a wide range of products. Still, custom installers can be forgiven if they choose to steer clear of the monoprice unit and stick with a proven brand like Gefen as their default. For DIY'ers, though, the monoprice unit is an easy recommendation: its price is insanely low, and monoprice is providing quick service should you have any problems. Even if there is an unusually high failure rate for these units out of the box, it is a gamble worth taking.
HDMI was supposed to bring the home theater world from the confusing age of multiple cables for audio and video (and sometimes multiple audio cables and multiple video cables) down to just a single cable from each component to your display. If your display doesn’t have enough HDMI inputs for all your sources, you need an HDMI switcher or a receiver which has an HDMI switcher built in. Then you need an HDMI cable from the each source to the switcher or receiver, but just one from there to the display. Fortunately, even some budget receivers now have HDMI switching built in (starting around $400), and there are good inexpensive HDMI switchers on the market like the XTremeMac HD Switcher I reviewed last year.
But what if you have two displays?
At least in terms of receivers, you’re in a completely different price category – no $400 receivers for you. The least expensive receivers I could find with dual HDMI outputs are from Onkyo and Denon. Onkyo’s TX-NR905 has extremely high end video processing, advanced room correction that smooths the sound at multiple seats, a ridiculous amount of amplifier power with THX Ultra2 certification, the dual HDMI outputs we’re looking for, and a price tag that ranges from $1500 - $2000 (assuming that you can find one in stock. It seems that they’ve been selling quite well). Unfortunately, only one HDMI output works at a time, and to change between the two HDMI outputs, you either must physically press a button on the front panel to cycle through the settings, or adjust a setting in the menu. Neither option is conducive to automation by a universal remote control which is a fairly common way to use a product in this price category. Denon sells the AVR-4308CI, which is also chock full of features, as you might expect for a product that sells in the $1800 - $2400 range. On the Denon, the dual HDMI outputs are driven in parallel; there is no way to select them individually. This is fine for some situations, but it means that whatever the source device is outputting had better be perfect for both displays if they’re both turned on at the same time (only one display gets to handshake with the source device through the receiver and tell the device what display resolution, frame rate, etc. it wants).
There are several HDMI switchers on the market with dual HDMI outputs, and they’re a lot less expensive than buying a new $2000 receiver. Accell has sent cables here in the past, and when I saw them at CES this year they were showing off an entire line of reasonably priced HDMI switchers, topping out at a 4x8 switcher – four sources hooked up to eight displays for those times when you want your rec room to look like a NASA shuttle launch. The Accell UltraAV HDMI 4-2 Audio/Video Switch is far more reasonable (4 sources to 2 displays), and lists for a very reasonable $299 when most similar switches start at $500; I asked them to send one over for review.
It wasn't perfect, but overall I liked it: it does one thing (switches HDMI signals) for a reasonable cost, and it does it pretty well, though with some caveats. It’s quite small and I had no trouble installing it. I didn’t have a high definition test pattern disc to use, but video quality on real-world material appeared unchanged by the switcher – Ratatouille on Blu-ray from a PS3 looked just as ridiculously good direct from the PS3 or routed through the Accell. The PS3 and my Panasonic projector often have minor handshaking dropouts when loading a disc and making its way to the menus; the instance of dropouts did seem to increase after adding the switch in the chain, but if so, the difference was minor and – honest – I may have imagined the increase. The switch automatically changes the input to whichever source device is on. Since my TiVo HD is always on, I couldn’t test that fully, but it did default to that input. Accell claims that the switch mirrors the source on both outputs (like Denon’s scheme above), but I didn’t find that always worked in the real world – I could usually only lock onto the source on one display at a time. It’s possible that there was a problem in the switch, but I’m willing to bet that it’s a glitch in the way my TV and projector handle HDMI signals or the difference in resolution between the displays (a Panasonic 720p plasma and a Panasonic 1080p LCD projector). For my intended purpose – watching either the TV or the projector, but not both at the same time – the Accell switch worked perfectly.
A small infrared remote control is included that has discrete buttons – and discrete IR codes for those who want to copy them into a universal remote control – for each individual input, power on, power off, and a toggle switch for selecting between outputs A and B. In a really nice touch, an infrared receiver cable is also included so that the switcher can be secluded behind a cabinet. The switch contains a signal booster for longer HDMI cable runs up to 82ft; I was not able to test this, as my longest run is 25ft. The switch is designed for HDMI version 1.2. HDMI version 1.3 is the latest and greatest iteration of the standard, and adds things like Deep Color which have not been implemented yet in any source material. For most people, there is little practical difference between HDMI 1.3 and 1.2, but if complete futureproofing is an absolute requirement, this iteration of the 4x2 Switch isn’t for you.
Accell isn’t the only 4x2 HDMI switcher on the market; Gefen makes one for $549 that has some additional functionality, such as splitting out the audio signal to a coax output, that could be extremely useful in certain setups. And budget cable outfit monoprice.com has a budget model with HDMI 1.3a compatibility for just $89 – I’ll be testing that one next. For $89, if it just turns on I’ll be impressed.
Sometimes all you need is a simple product that does one thing, and does it well - at an affordable price. If you have an HDTV with only a single HDMI input and multiple HDMI sources, you need an HDMI switcher. New displays may have multiple inputs, and A/V receivers are beginning to provide HDMI switching as a matter of course, so if you're building a system from scratch, you may be able to consolidate your video switching in your reciever or display rather than buy a separate component. Finally, if you have just a single HDMI component, you won't need this either.
However, if you bought an HDTV in the past few years (or are buying a budget model today) and you don't have enough HDMI inputs, you need one of these. I pointed out Gefen's entry in this space last year; that was an HDMI-to-DVI model that retailed for $300. More recently, XTremeMac sent over their XTremeHD 4 Port HDMI Switcher and it does exactly what it's supposed to do all in HDMI with minimal hassle and at much lower cost ($99). With similar styling to Apple's Mac mini, the Switcher is small and looks nice on the equipment rack. Sources can be switched manually or using the included remote control. You'll want to add its codes to a macro on your universal remote control (Logitech's Harmony system makes this very, very easy) or you'll quickly tire of remembering which input covers what. But this is no fault of the product, which worked without a hitch switching between a TiVo HD and an LG HDTV tuner/DVD player outputting to a JVC LCoS rear projection HDTV.
I could not do a double blind test with/without the Switcher in the signal chain, but I have noticed no degredation of the signal from either source. I do seem to be getting more instances of HDMI handshake failure when I switch back and forth than when I would connect just a single source and leave it connected. (The TV's copy protection circuit gets temporarily confused and puts up a notice saying that the source is not supported; this usually goes away with the next command to the source, but sometimes requires switching the source back and forth again). It seems to be an issue with the TV, not the switch itself. I had a nice chat with an HDMI spokesperson at the CES Preview event in New York last night, and while he admitted it was a common issue, he assures me that newer gear has worked out all the compatibility issues. Of course, newer gear tends to have more HDMI inputs and outputs as well, so anyone who needs a switcher should be aware that their source and display may not like each other as much as they ought to.
The XTremeHD 4 Port Switcher is simply named, performs a complicated task simply, and doesn't cost too much. If you need a basic HDMI switcher, I can easily recommend this one.
Logitech introduced a new "mouse" yesterday, and I put "mouse" in quotation marks because it's an interesting product that blends a PC mouse with a gyroscopic sensor (think Nintendo Wii's controller and you have the right idea) and software that can be used as a remote control for watching media content on a computer.
There have been products like this in the past, notably from Gyration (a company that got bought by Thomson in 2004). A bunch of years back when I was heading home theater research at JupiterResearch I wrote a report where I recommended their Media Center accessory line for inclusion with HTPC's which were just starting to ship. I'm still a big fan of Gyration's Gyrotransport, an ingenious product for the presentation market which combines a gyroscopic mouse, USB transmitter, and Flash storage (for your PPT deck) all in one compact package. However, the market for dedicated HTPCs has proven to be relatively small even as an overwhelming majority of consumers use their PCs for all sorts of media consumption. Logitech addresses the reality that computers are rarely used from 10 feet away on a couch, but that users do often switch between direct manipulation (the 2' experience) and a "lean-back" experience where they may not be right at the PC. Maybe they are on a couch, or just pushed back their chair a bit. The MX Air functions as a normal laser mouse when placed on a flat surface, and switches to air mouse mode when you pick it up.
Like Gyration's Media Center remote, Logitech's MX Air has all sorts of neat air gestures you can make to control volume, skip music tracks or jump to the next movie scene. This is cool and demos well, though hard buttons are at least as efficient. I got a chance to use the MX Air last month, and what I found most impressive is how easy and smooth in-air control is; Gyration uses a different technology, and Logitech's cursor control is easier to use. It also feels nice in the hand and is easy to control as a regular mouse on a desk; lefties may actually prefer it to most ergonomic mice which are clearly designed for right handed users.
What's not so impressive is the price: $149 for what is unquestionably a cool gadget, but one that is not exactly necessary. (Personally, if I was shopping for a premium mouse, I'd spend the money on Logitech's amazing $99 MX Revolution. That has no real added attraction for media viewing, but the scroll wheel shifts from free spin to ratched spin depending on which application you have open, which greatly improves productivity.)
Yes, it's been a long time since the last post here at Home Theater View, but that's not because I haven't been writing. My Last Minute Non-Obvious Holiday Gift Guide has just been posted over at LIVEDigitally.
As I write this, there is only one day left to Chanukah and a couple of shopping days before Christmas. I figure there’s no need for a last minute gift list with obvious entries. Let’s face it, if you didn’t already get an HDTV or MP3 player for your home theater and gadget-loving giftees, you don’t need me to tell you that you could get them a plasma or an iPod. So here is the:
OK, the press release [warning: PDF] is somewhat gratuitous, as the product itself was announced what seems like ages ago. But Flexity's PowerSquid line is such an elegant solution to such an annoying problem that it's worth plugging them again (sorry about the pun). Sure, some home theater components include standard narrow plugs, which fit nicely onto a surge protector, but as the digital/gadget quotient rises in home entertainment, so do the wall warts (those big brick things that you can't fit onto a standard surge protector).
To be completely truthful, I haven't even used the PowerSquid sample Flexity sent over in my home theater at all. At first it was upstairs in my home office, and then migrated from the floor to the desk itself, where it serves as a gadget recharging station. As I write this, its tentacles are connected to a set of Bluetooth headphones, a digital picture frame, an Internet tablet, a WiFi MP3 player, a musicphone, and a subnotebook. The subnotebook is literally the only one of the six devices with a "normal" plug; the MP3 player's brick is a monsterously large rectangle, the digital picture frame's plug looks like an oversized peanut, and the smartphone's cord originates in a giant oval thing. Standard surge protectors - even the ones with extra spacing - can't connect half of those things.
If Flexity is serious about the home theater market, they'll move upscale with versions branded for "home theater," perhaps with power line conditioning. But, as it is, these are product samples the vendor is not getting back.
Our product is actually conditioned for high end Home Theater systems, with the Calamari running our PureStream EMI/RFI filters that protect up to 58dB. While we certainly are not the fanciest home theater option, the PowerSquid is a solid choice that will cost a great deal less than many models from the competition.
That's not quite the same thing as what Richard Gray's Power Company, Monster, or even Belkin is promising, but I'll grant Flexity that the Calamari should be sufficient in many home theaters assuming line conditioning is even needed in the first place. More importantly, a picture of the Calamari [just added, see above right] demonstrates why it should sell well in the Apple stores - it's white!
With the Super Bowl just a couple days away, sales of big screen TVs are probably up a bit - after all, in consumer electronics as well as computing, software (must-see content) drives sales of hardware (televisions, in this case). That's never more true than with sports content, whether football, the Olympics, or the big one, the World Cup (for my U.S. readers, that last one is a big soccer game. Billions watch it. Manufacturers alter their return policies on projectors and TVs so that "football" fans don't buy just to watch and then immediately return the sets).
Other content drives large audiences, but not necessarily pull-through on hardware. Advertisers call the Oscars the "Super Bowl for Women," you don't find Best Buy running specials on plasma TVs ahead of the big awards night. Perhaps they should - women are buying a much higher percentage of consumer electronics gear than in the past.
In the spirit of the big game, Excaliber Electronics sent over the Monday Night Football talking remote control (click on the image to enlarge). This is a remote control embedded in a padded football about the size of a Nerf, not a Wilson. ABC lost Monday Night Football to ESPN, so there may be a new version of this out next season. Still, this would be the perfect gift for the football obsessed couch potato if it wasn't for several flaws.
The Monday Night Football Talking Remote Control should still make a good gag gift (it's available online for just $17.99 at Smarthome), and it's certainly harder to lose among the couch cushions than most universal remote controls. But don't expect it to actually be used much.
Enjoy the game.
The word "lifestyle" in this industry usually refers to speaker systems, designed to be as small and unobtrusive as possible. This often leads to poor sound quality - after all, physics are involved when pushing air, and its harder to do with less volume for the pushing. You can beat physics with unique designs like the tiny subs with huge excursion (from Definitive Technology and Sunfire, among others), or simply tune products to what consumers are looking for (bright and punchy) and forget absolute musical accuracy. Bose saw tremendous success getting way ahead of the lifestyle trend, but with general audio sales down and the flat panel TV market booming, it seems that every manufacturer now has at least one "thin and flat" speaker system.
Proving you can't stop a good trend, Newpoint, a maker of surge protectors, cables, and other A/V accessories, has introduced the argo XP lifestyle antenna. Yes, an OTA HD antenna, with a flat panel main antenna, all in plasma-approved silver. Newpoint makes a big deal out of its HDTV-readiness on the box, and literally calls it the "lifestyle antenna." You can't get more decorator friendly than that. Newpoint was kind enough to send over a review sample.
In my last go around of (completely unscientific) testing, I found that Zenith's futuristic looking thing beat a standard loop antenna for pulling in HDTV for three reasons: the signal stregnth meter generally reads higher on the Zenith than the Jensen, it's easier to adjust the Zenith because it basically can't be adjusted, and the Zenith looks cool (I've included a picture). I have two of the Zeniths - one came with the HDTV tuner card I use in my Media Center XP box upstairs. Since I wrote that review, I've become somewhat disenchanted with the product, because its odd design makes it easy to adjust but difficult to stay put in exactly that spot. It also has a habit of breaking loose from its base and stabbing me in the foot. I hate it when that happens.
Surprisingly, for a "lifestyle" product, the Newpoint got just as good reception as the Zenith. It isn't better than the Zenith. For example, it still won't pull in certain stations like PBS - I suspect I'll need a roof antenna for that. However, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and the WB all come in fine, weather permitting. The key difference is that there are a limited number of adjustments you can make to the argo XL, but the hinge mechanism is fairly tight - once you get it right, it stays put. The base is reasonably well weighted, so a jolt from the subwoofer won't change its position, and it doesn't stick out into the room and launch itself at your feet when you walk by. Finally, it too, looks like it belongs in a modern home theater, despite the rabbit ears on each side of the panel.
I admit to being biased against lifestyle products, but Newpoint's argo XL lifestyle antenna is inexpensive (under $30), looks good, and performs as well as its peers. I can easily recommend it as a first step before spending more on an amplified antenna or something for your roof.
This is the second in a series on experiences using and enhancing Windows XP Media Center for home theater.
To control my Media Center, I have two remote controls: one for the audio system, and one for the Media Center itself. (As mentioned last time, I also use the media control buttons from the Logitech DiNovo media pad as a remote of sorts). While this is an extremely basic setup - no plasma TV, no audio receiver, no light control - it still seemed like two remote controls for one desk was overkill, and I had a Logitech Harmony 680 on hand to consolidate things. The 680 is billed as a Media Center PC remote control, and it has a few buttons dedicated to peculiarly Media Center tasks - a big green button to launch the interface, and an "info" button, for example. Like all Harmony remote controls, the idea is that the remote programs itself based on an online questionnaire you fill out. This limits the market for their remotes somewhat to people who have Internet connections, but that's certainly not an issue for an XP Media Center remote!
In a brilliant move, the Harmony 680 works as a stock XP Media Center remote control straight out of the box - no connection to a PC required, no configuration. You do need to put in the batteries, but, in another nice touch, those are also included in the box.
Connecting to the Internet and programming the remote did not go quite as well. After installing the PC software, and registering and creating an account online, I had trouble getting the site to work properly at all until I noticed that my pop-up blocker seemed to be interfering with key messages the site was sending. Pop-ups enabled, the software tried to upgrade the firmware on the remote, but ran into problems. After bouncing around through the "troubleshooting" option, the culprit was discovered: the version of the PC-based software (which connects the remote to the web site) needed to be upgraded, too. None of this is all that unusual when setting up PC products or interacting with rich web sites, but it is a hazard of combining the two.
That accomplished, the next step was testing the setup. There were two main problems. First, the remote simply didn't work for listening to the radio using the Media Center. It seems that the "Listen To Radio" activity defaults to only three or four buttons programmed, which makes changing stations impossible. This was easy to fix once I found the right menu option in the web setup; all the commands are pre-programmed, they just aren't assigned to the buttons for this particular activity. Odd.
The other problem is the way Harmony tracks the "state" (on, off) of your components. With traditional macros (a memorized string of commands), the whole sequence gets thrown out of whack if your DVD player happened to be on when you initiate the "watch a DVD" macro. The Harmony tries to manage the state of things so that it knows what to turn on, and what not to. If there's something out of whack, Harmony's narrated help button ("Is your DVD player on?") puts things back in order. This is one of Harmony's best qualities for controlling a big, dedicated home theater setup, but on a Media Center PC, it was infuriating. With a Media Center PC, you tend to bounce around a lot between activities, jumping from music listening to recorded TV watching and back. There's really never any need to turn off the "amplifier" (powered speakers, in this case). In fact, for a PC-based system that's also used as a regular PC, shutting things down is counterproductive - when you're finished with a music or movie session, you still want the speakers on for email alerts and other Windows sounds.
Shutting down the 680's urge to shut down was similarly easy to do online, once I figured out where in the menu setup this particular option lay. In fact, that's my primary problem with the Harmony system: initial setup is easy. Tweaking is actually easy, too. It's just hard to navigate - the whole system is like a classic PC branching text adventure game from the early 1980s (yes, I know, I'm dating myself). If you follow the path, you might get where you want. Or not. There's no way to see the list of choices and what options reside in which paths. Logitech needs to spend a little more time working out the user interface kinks of the online site.
With the remote finally set up just the way I wanted, it did indeed replace two separate remote controls, and, thus far, I'm finding it about as easy to use as HP's Media Center remote for basic control. Some of the HP's remote's buttons are easier to find by feel - the Harmony's buttons are arranged nicely, but all have the same glossy pearl feel to them, so until your fingers learn which button is where, you need to look down at the remote before pressing things.
The 680 is clearly overkill for my system. But for a larger system where the Media Center PC is the central hub,or just a small part of the home theater, it may be mandatory. There are few real competitors: most universal remotes don't have the right button and command structure to control a Media Center PC, and touch screen remotes are both more expensive and far more difficult to program. Logitech's online setup system does need a little work to make tweaking systems a bit easier, but the basic approach is sound.
In fact, the Harmony approach allows users to control an XP Media Center without explicit programming - just select the Media Center as a device in the questionnairre, and it will work with the 680, or the 688 (which also has dedicated skip forward buttons for use with a TiVo or ReplayTV) or even the new 880 (with a larger and more flexible programmable color screen). The 880 may be preferred when using a large, widescreen monitor with a Media Center PC, as the soft buttons and screen are used to provide aspect ratio control - another button most universal remote controls lack. (We have a Harmony 880 in from Logitech; a full review is planned.)
At a macro level, it's pretty clear that audio component sales are dropping, while displays - flat panel and DLP rear projection sets in particular - are consuming the bulk of consumer outlays. So what is a company that specializes in selling high end audio components to do? Audio Advisor started out as a catalog retailer of high end audio toys (they're now on the Internet as well), and each catalog used to feature pages after page of amps, preamps, integrated amps, high end CD players, extremely expensive record players for analog lovers, and digital audio doodads that supposedly improved CD audio quality for digital lovers. At the other end of the catalog retailing price range, Crutchfield used to sell dozens of entry level and mid-priced receivers and DVD players.
With sales of these products down, these retailers could try to compete for video dollars and sell plasmas and LCD panels, but going up against big box retailers and PC-based online outlets (such as Dell.com) is a recipe for suicide - without incredible volume, margins on displays can actually be negative.
Crutchfield has instead decided to focus on the auto side of its business. Auto sound has remained strong, and auto displays - for movies or GPS navigation - have absolutely exploded. While local stores still have an advantage in terms of installation, Crutchfield's online store benefits from selection tools and advice wizards that simplify the process of figuring out what you can actually use in your car.
AudioAdvisor never sold auto sound products, so that route would be a significant departure. Instead, the company is turning to furniture and cables. Cables are high margin products that have always been featured in the catalog, but now more than a quarter of the catalog features at least one interconnect, speaker cable, or replacement power cable as part of the layout. The other new gear category is furniture. AudioAdvisor has a 16 full pages (out of 76) dedicated entirely to furniture - mostly stands for the video displays its customers are buying elsewhere instead of upgrading that preamp.
Logitech has done really well with their acquisition of Intrigue Technologies, makers of the Harmony remote control line. With the broadened marketing and distribution muscle behind it, Logitech announced that they have overtaken Philips and Sony as market share leaders for programmable remote controls. This doesn’t surprise me, as most remote controls have a serious drawback – you have to program them. The Harmony essentially programs itself once you walk through a questionnaire online. While it took them a year or so before they had enough codes online to work consistently, I now consider the Harmony the reviewer’s best friend: add a new piece of gear in the rack; add a new piece of gear online to the remote. Done. And, because it’s task-oriented (“watch TV,” “watch DVD”), it’s spouse and babysitter friendly.
I’d heard rumors that a color Harmony was on the way, but they didn’t make much sense – the Harmony just uses its small monochrome LCD for simple status and help messages. Logitech unveiled the Harmony 880 at CES in Las Vegas this past week, and it has a color screen along with a strong rationale for the addition. The new screen is about twice the size of the traditional screen, is not terribly high resolution and is not a touch screen. The notion is that a larger color screen allows the Harmony to display more information and provide after-macro customization options (buttons flank the screen on both sides). Task-oriented remotes are great, but they can’t always deal with complex options. For example, if you have a widescreen TV, once you’ve “watched a DVD,” you may need to adjust the aspect ratio. Or not – depending on the movie. In my home theater, we added a “slowly dim the lights” command every time you pressed “play.” Unfortunately, that meant that any time you paused the movie, it was pitch black in the room, and the lighting controls were buried in a separate menu. With the new 880, you’ll be able to place those commands on the color screen after the main activity has launched. Colorful TV station logos for a favorites menu (part of the canned demo on the prototype units shown at the show) are merely a bonus.
The price point on the unit will be an astonishingly low $249, which is less than the original monochrome unit retailed for when it launched three years ago.
UEI launched the Nevo SL "Pronto killer" touch screen remote control here last night in Las Vegas, and it's got two really interesting features: a better programming interface than Philips offers for the Pronto (not that that's saying much - the Pronto programming environment is terrible), and built in WiFi. WiFi could be used for just about anything - the remote is based on a version of Windows Mobile - but at least initially the idea is to stream media from one PC to another. Now, that may seem a bit ahead of its time, but according to Current Analysis*, 11% of all consumer PCs sold this holiday season were XP Media Centers, so there's beginning to be an installed base for this sort of thing. Store your digital photos on the PC in the bedroom, stream them over to the Media Center in the den - all using the same remote. An adapter will be available to use WiFi to act as an IR blaster; not quite as good as full RF support (coming later in the product life cylce, I'm told) but it should allow installers to hide gear in a cabinet or closet and control it via the Nevo SL.
The Nevo SL isn't as comprehensive as offerings from Crestron, nor does it offer state-sensing add-ons (also coming later in the product life cycle). At $799, it's also nowhere near as expensive as those offerings, and competes directly against the Philips Pronto. UEI's extensive code database is included, but unlike recent versions of the Pronto, no provision for automatic configuration is included. This would be a deadly omission if the product was aimed at consumers, but UEI assures me that the product will be sold through the CEDIA custom install channel. That makes sense, but someone should tell their marketing department: none of their literature, press releases, signage, or press kits breathes a word about custom installers or how this product can benefit them. This isn't just a failure to communicate benefits, it actively works against UEI: if I were a custom installer, I'd be afraid that consumers - enthusiasts, mostly - would think that they could buy this remote themselves, leading to channel conflict. As Home Theater View has advocated in the past, channels need to be considered for their individual needs.
*Note: Avi Greengart is a Principal Analyst for Current Analysis
It's right before CES, and I'm inundated with press releases. Bell'O sent over a preview of their 2005 lineup, and I noticed something that struck a nerve: like all furniture vendors, they claim that their stands are ideal for hot selling rear projection TVs using digital technologies (DLP, LCD, and LCOS). They even go so far as to list a few specific models such as Sony's 60" Grand WEGA LCD TV. Except that the stand doesn't match the TV's depth. None of them do. All the stands are at least 19" deep, and most are 21" - 24", while the new TVs range from 6.75" deep for new DLP sets from RCA and InFocus to 14 - 17" deep sets from nearly everyone else.
This isn't unique to Bell'O - when I went to buy a stand for my shiny new LCOS-based HDTV I couldn't find any stands that were the right depth (I ended up making a short term compromise and just getting something super-cheap at IKEA, but that stand will eventually be replaced).
Consumers are willing to spend more money on shallow non-CRT HDTVs precisely because they don't stick out and dominate the room as much. Why would they want furniture that negates the shallow depth they paid extra for?
The online magazine Secrets of Home Theater is renowned for taking a geeky enthusiast's view of home theater and audio; they're best known for publicizing the DVD chroma bug, an obscure problem in some DVD players that makes bright colors in certain scenes bleed slightly into the next color. (I like to think my reviews and articles for Secrets have been a bit more accessible). Lately, Jason Serinius has been writing glowing reviews of CD demagnetizers and aftermarket power cables for Secrets, and the email and forum backlash has been palpable. It's one thing to get worked up about minor issues that are clearly visible if only you look for it in certain scenes (enthusiasts like to get worked up about that sort of thing). It's another thing entirely to ascribe audible powers to products that arguably cannot possibly produce those effects in any scientifically measurable way (enthusiasts like to argue about that sort of thing).
In a tremendously courageous move, Jason decided to take on the critics directly: he got two groups of volunteers, and, together with the Bay Area Audiophile Society, created a well organized, reasonably scientific double blind test of the expensive power cord he'd reviewed so positively. Before he gets to the test results,
Bottom line: nobody could tell the difference between generic power cords and Nordost's $2,500 Valhalla cables. Nobody even scored above 50%...
RTI makes complicated programmable remote controls, and they've hit upon a winning strategy - focus on their customers. Brilliant! (It should be obvious, right?) Well, there is a twist - one that many CE companies selling to the CEDIA (custom install) channel haven't quite figured out: RTI's customers are not end users, but the custom installers who buy the remotes and program them for the end users.
The whole purpose of a custom programmed remote control is the programming, and this is an area where RTI can stand out (more on this later). Therefore, RTI announced online training earlier this year. Last week they sent me a new press release (curiously absent from their site) that they now have an entire downloable video course for their dealers. I have no idea how good/bad/effective their course is, but it's a great way to reach the small, geographically dispersed custom installation community.
RTI doesn't have much choice - the remote control market is surprisingly competitive. At the low end, there are literally hundreds of offerings sold direct to consumers. At the high end of the consumer market, Philips lucked into the lead with their Pronto line, which are almost infinitely configurable and have generated a devoted cult over at http://www.remotecentral.com despite the convoluted programming interface. Logitech is trying to broaden the consumer market with Harmony remote controls (Logitech bought Intrigue Technologies earlier this year) by providing the flexibility of a custom remote without the programming; users fill out an online questionnaire, and the remote programs itself. So what is left for custom installers?
At the high end, Crestron and others provide expensive solutions suitable for high end home theaters, boardrooms, and whole house automation. For more affordable solutions, custom installers can turn to the high end of the consumer market - where the vendors are focused on the end customer - or RTI - where the vendor is focused on the custom installer. Brilliant!
Convergence is such a loaded word. Often people assume it means that your TV is networked to your TiVo which plays MP3s off your PC. While that vision is well and good (and my 4 year old assumes everyone lives that way), most people adopt point solutions that meet their needs at much lower price points. It’s not just home theater; even in the PC world, this is true. Sneakernet is a prime example: rather than wire up their homes to share files, many people burn a CD or DVD, or put the files on a USB keychain drive and then walk the files over – thus using their sneakers – to the other PC.
SanDisk does a great job of enabling this slightly lower tech, less featured, mainstream-useful form of convergence. Disclaimer: I think SanDisk is a great company for a lot of reasons, not least of all because they send me basically everything they make, sometimes without my having to even ask for it. One of those products showed up the other day, their latest iteration of their Photo Viewer. For $30 – 50, the first version of this product was cheap, ugly, and performed as advertised: plug the unit into your TV, place the memory card from your digital camera into the unit, and your pictures appear on your TV. Simple, useful functionality included a remote control, the ability to rotate the picture, and basic slideshows.
Today’s version is a sleek gray/silver box, about the size of a thick checkbook. Aesthetically, it perfectly matches every gray/silver digital TV on the market. It still sells for under $50. It still has composite video outputs (limiting it to 480i resolution), but the user interface is dramatically better, it now supports xD memory (used in Fuji and Konica-Minolta cameras), it plays back the MPEG movies digital cameras take, and it plays back MP3 files and can use them as background music for slideshows. In a naked push to increase memory card sales (the largest part of SanDisk’s product portfolio), it also has an additional memory card slot in back to allow you to move pictures off your digital camera’s memory and onto the secondary memory. This lets you create a master slide show always available for viewing on your TV, even when the other memory cards are back in their cameras. I actually found this feature quite useful, and could envision this as a perfect “grandma gift” – whenever you come over, you upload the latest pictures to the rear memory card, leaving the memories behind. [audience: awwwwwww.]
At the very high end of the market, Roku has a Digital Media Player that displays high resolution photos from memory cards or off a networked PC. It’s beautiful, and, Roku, if you’re reading this, I want one. But it costs $299, and the SanDisk product is likely “good enough” for most people. Roku should watch out, too – if SanDisk’s next version supports high resolution output, Roku will be limited to the market segment that cares about home theater networking.
There have been several new entrants into the A/V cables market lately.
Accell has been an OEM for others’ products for a while, and has decided to launch their own brand. The packaging isn’t especially eye-catching, but the products are well priced and well constructed. Accell sent over a large box of goodies around the beginning of the year, and I’ve been using them interchangeably with traditional AV brands such as Monster and Acoustic Research with no noticeable performance problems. I haven’t seen them distributed anywhere at retail yet in New York/New Jersey, so that could be a bigger hurdle than anything else. (I wrote a report for JupiterResearch -- where I used to head up home theater research -- on home theater distribution models; it should be published soon.) Secrets of Home Theater – for whom I’m a Staff Writer – has a short review of Accell’s cables as well, faulting them primarily for the unopenable packaging.
Belkin is well known for their computer cables, and you could easily make the case that A/V cables are a logical brand extension for them. While their analog audio cables are nice, I’m particularly impressed with the DVI-to-HDMI breakout cable. It’s long and shrink wrapped in a semi-flexible plastic jacket. The overall construction is top notch, and the moderate stiffness can save the cable’s life by preventing sharp bends. I have nothing on hand to compare it to, but I’m using it to connect an LG HDTV tuner/upsampling DVD player to JVC’s 50” D-ILA (LCOS) HDTV, and there were times during the 720p World Series broadcast that I could tell which direction the player had shaved in. The packaging looks fabulous, the pricing is competitive with Monster, and I’ve started seeing the Pure AV line at retail. If my experience is a guide, it should do well.
Note: Belkin's packaging is semi-openable, as it has a pre-cut “window” in the back. Unfortunately, it doesn’t extend far enough into the rounded box, so you can put your hand in, but can’t get the actual cable out without resorting to a chainsaw.
One of the hottest areas of home theater – consumer electronics in general, actually – is accessories. Accessories have high margins for everyone in the chain, don’t require frequent discounting, and (compared to TVs, anyway) don’t take up much shelf/inventory space. Now, when you think of accessories, you probably think of cables, remotes, and perhaps furniture. There are other interesting opportunities, such as label makers. Yes, label makers, one of the most critical tools in any home theater owner or installer’s toolkit. All those wires look the same when they’re plugged in, so if you don’t label them, you’re asking for trouble. But paper labels rip, and, let’s face it, you can’t read your own handwriting anyway.
Dymo sent over their model LabelPoint 200 over a year ago, and I’ve used it to label both ends of every audio, video, and power cable since then. I still haven’t run out of the original label cartridge, so this appears to be an exception to the razor/blade business model. The handheld shape and soft touch plastic coating make it easy to hold, though the unusual arrangement of the qwerty keys makes typing a hunt-hunt-hunt-and-peck affair.
Recently, Brother sent over a P-Touch 1400, which they promised would perform better than the Dymo. And it does, because it manages a few tricks especially useful for tagging wires: it prints vertically across for short text tags, and it will automatically print horizontal text on either end of a label strip – wrap it around the wire, and you can see the text on either side of the tag. The alphabetical keyboard arrangement is no easier to use than Dymo’s and the unit is physically larger. Either unit is a must, and the Brother is highly recommended.