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.
Gibson is looking to diversify away from musical instruments, and is buying Onkyo USA. Onkyo has been doing reasonably well in the shrinking A/V receiver market - I own an Onkyo NR3007 myself - but I just can't figure out why Gibson decided to invest in the incredibly challenged A/V industry rather than, say, ANYTHING ELSE. Here's the press release:
Gibson Buys Stake in Onkyo Japan and Majority Interest in Onkyo USA
Forms Strategic Alliance to Take Consumer Audio Experience to a New Level
Nashville, TN. January 04, 2012: As part of its continued diversification into the music and audio lifestyle arena, Gibson Guitar Corp., the world’s premier musical instrument manufacturer, today announced a strategic partnership with Onkyo Corporation, a worldwide leader in consumer audio. With a reputation of excellence for high quality audio equipment and home theater systems, Onkyo offers Gibson’s newly-formed Pro Audio Division substantial technology resources. Gibson will provide Onkyo with its marketing resources and expertise. The result will be an ability to deliver a far superior audio experience to the consumer who has become more and more used to hearing only inferior compressed music through inexpensive ear bud headsets.
Through this venture, Gibson will acquire a majority of Onkyo USA (Onkyo’s exclusive distributor for North America and a distributor for Central and South America) and become the second largest shareholder in Onkyo Corporation. Gibson will make a strategic investment in the company, and Gibson Chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz will be given a position on the Onkyo board of directors. Likewise, Onkyo will invest in Gibson, and CEO and President Munenori Otsuki will take a position on the company’s Board of Directors. Together, the two entities will form a Hong Kong-based joint venture focusing on design and development of unparalleled consumer audio products. Through this alliance, Onkyo USA becomes the latest addition to the Gibson Pro Audio division, which already includes KRK, Cerwin-Vega! and Stanton.
“Onkyo makes some of the world’s best audio equipment, and this partnership will give Gibson the ability to bring a deeper and more enhanced audio experience to music lovers around the world,” says Juszkiewicz. “While people may be listening to more music, they are listening to it primarily in a severely compressed format. The aural disparity between a real system and compressed sound is vast, and as a result, they are simply not hearing tremendously rich sounds. With Onkyo, our goal is to bring the same exceptional experience artists demand in the studio to a larger consumer base.”
“This partnership has significant positive implications for Onkyo as we are always seeking ways of creating new value,” says Otsuki. “Gibson is a leading global company with a massive fan base, best-in-class products and superior marketing skills. Coming together in this way opens the door for amazing opportunities for both companies and, more importantly, fans of Onkyo and Gibson.”
All agreements are subject to Japanese regulatory clearance, negotiation of definitive agreements and financing approvals of lenders.
ABOUT GIBSON GUITAR CORP.
Gibson Guitar Corp. is known worldwide for producing classic models in every major style of fretted instrument, including acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins, and banjos. The Gibson Les Paul Guitar is the bestselling guitar of all time and is a tribute to the late, famed musician of the same name. Collectively, the Gibson Robot Guitar, Gibson Dark Fire, Gibson Dusk Tiger and the Gibson Firebird X represent the biggest advances in electric guitar design in more than 75 years. Through the Gibson Foundation, Gibson Guitar Corp. has become equally known for its philanthropic efforts on behalf of music, education, health and human services. Founded in 1894 in Kalamazoo, MI, and headquartered in Nashville, TN, since 1984, Gibson Guitar Corp.’s family of brands includes Epiphone, Cerwin-Vega!, Dobro, Kramer, Onkyo, KRK Systems, Steinberger, Tobias, Echoplex, Electar, Flatiron, Slingerland, Stanton, Valley Arts, Maestro, Oberheim, Baldwin, Sunshine Piano, Take Anywhere Technology, J&C Fischer, Chickering, Hamilton, Wurlitzer and Gibson Pro Audio. Visit Gibson’s website at www.gibson.com. Follow Gibson Guitar at www.facebook.com/gibsonguitar and www.twitter.com/gibsonguitar.
Since 1946 Onkyo has been passionately committed to developing audio products that deliver uncommon performance, quality and value. Bundling proprietary technologies and innovations with other sound-enhancing exclusives, Onkyo continues to created award winning products that are lauded by many of the industry leading audio publications. The company's philosophy is to deliver products that are superbly designed and built to a consistently outstanding standard of excellence. The results can be seen in the obviously high quality of any Onkyo-manufactured product, even before it is turned on. Visit Onkyo’s website at www.onkyousa.com. Follow Onkyo USA at www.facebook.com/OnkyoUSA.
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 Last Minute, Non-Obvious Holiday Gift Guide is now up over at Slashgear.com.
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.
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.
My Last Minute, Non-Obvious Holiday Gift Guide 2010 has been posted over at Slashgear.com and includes a Home Entertainment section.
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.
Looking for some good cheap speakers? Wiredforless.com bought up a cache of unloved (discontinued) "Carver TS-241S Home Theater On-Wall Speaker System" speakers, apparently part of a plasma-friendly HTIB system. A pair is just $69 (original price was $199/pair) plus $5 shipping, a deal good enough to be featured on sellout.woot.
These are slim, curved aluminum cases with a wonderfully simple (and included) mounting bracket. I bought a pair. At 89 db sensitivity they're easy to drive and play a few db louder than my reference speakers, they're a bit bright, and they require a subwoofer (like any speaker this size). Are they the best speakers I've auditioned? Hardly. I'm not even comfortable recommending them as main speakers without using something to tame the harshness (a tube amp would work wonders, but that would sort of defeat the whole budget nature of the deal). However, they are exceptionally clear, they play loud without distortion, and they look great. At this price, you aren't going to find comparable value, and they're absolutely perfect for adding surround, height, or width channels to an existing setup. I may have to buy another pair.
Update: just to clarify, the case is metal, the drivers are not. It has two 4.25" poly mids and a 1" silk dome tweeter per speaker. Also, the speaker terminals are recessed and do NOT accept banana plugs or heavy guage wire.
HomeTheaterREview (no relation) is reporting that high end speaker maker Thiel will stop selling exclusively through independent retailers and begin offering some of its entry level products on amazon.com (story here) and indeed, a quick amazon search for Thiel products shows in-walls from $900, and standalone speakers ranging from $1200 - $3,000. Founder Jim Thiel passed away in September, so I'm sure there are some who are saying that Jim must have said, "not over my dead body" and the company waited until that was literally true before making the move. I never interviewed Mr. Thiel, so I don't know what his attitudes or business plans were. However, the company's basic position is pretty simple: the market for high end speakers has always been limited, but audio enthusiasts are aging, the independent dealer channel is shriveling, the recession is tanking custom installers, and competitors are moving design and production to China to lower costs. It would appear that Thiel is suffering from the same maladies as Snell.
The move to a mainstream, online distribution channel like amazon is definitely risky, especially since Thiel didn't take the obvious step of first segmenting its products into distinct lines for the different channels. Thiel will have to sell enough volume on amazon to offset the fallout from angry independent dealers and custom installers. It's not clear if this is a desperation move -- i.e., Thiel's sales are down enough that anything sold online is a plus -- or if this is an attempt to position the company for growth as traditional channels are expected to continue shrinking over time, and the online channel continues to grow. In any case, simply sticking products from a relatively obscure brand up on amazon will not result in sales; Thiel will need to advertise and promote the products through the new channel. I haven't seen any new Thiel ads or promotions, have you?
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.
The problem with 3DTV - aside from the glasses and the nausea and the total lack of content - is that you need to buy an entirely new equipment chain. It is not enough to replace your TV with a 3D capable set, you will also need a 3D-capable Blu-ray player, and - much to the delight of Monster Cable - you may actually need to upgrade your HDMI cables to handle the increased signal bandwidth. The typical HDMI connection in most devices today is 1.3b, but you'll need to upgrade to HDMI 1.4a for 3D.
This has implications for audio as well. If you want to get the best audio out of your 3D content, you'll need an A/V receiver (or processor and separate amplifier) to process the compressed digital signal, amplify it, and pass it along to your speakers. If your receiver - like nearly all on the market today - does not have HDMI 1.4a inputs, you will need to run a second digital audio cable from your Blu-ray player to the receiver - assuming that your Blu-ray player can simultaneously output video over HDMI and audio over coaxial or Toslink outputs. It probably can. Probably.
There are also an increasing number of 2D devices that connect to your television via HDMI, and most TVs and receivers have a paucity of HDMI inputs of any kind. I have 15 devices with HDMI outputs, including game consoles, digital set top boxes, digital camcorders and several smartphones.
With that background it is entirely unsurprising that electronics manufacturers are rushing to update their lines with new A/V receivers that have multiple HDMI 1.4a inputs. For example, Onkyo just announced three new receivers with 7 HDMI 1.4a inputs a piece, including the 9.2 channel TX-NR1008. Of course, this comes literally three days after I bought Onkyo's current generation receiver with 7 HDMI 1.3 inputs, the TX-NR3007 (pictured). Now, I knew that updated versions were bound to be introduced shortly, and, having sent back all my review units, I needed a new receiver now, not in June ...but I still feel a twinge of regret.
Note: the TX-NR1008 is technically a replacement for the TX-NR1007, not the NR3007 which I purchased. I'm sure the TX-NR3008 will be along shortly, along with a new TX-NR5008 flagship, which is bound to have 8 HDMI 1.4a inputs.
Just a quick note today: Sonos just started shipping a new software update that adds some new Internet radio options, crossfading between songs, some new language support, new alarm settings, and the ability to use two S5's as a stereo pair. None of the features is critical on its own (though the S5 stereo feature is quite cool; when everything is digital, you can do all sorts of neat things) but Sonos already built the best multi-room component system. I sent back my Sonos review system so I can't test this personally. Sigh.
With the Sonos gone, we've been using Logitech's Squeezebox Boom (OK; needs a better remote, the UI is just "OK," and the Sonos is better for multi-room use). The Squeezebox Touch just showed up, and I'll put that to the test once I get some speakers for it.
Assuming that the sound quality is good - I have not heard a unit - the price seems reasonable ($599). Yamaha is probably thinking that this design will help space-challenged apartment dwellers, but there is another market segment worth exploring: parents of small children who don't want their kids stuffing Matchbox cars into a floor-level subwoofer port. I pulled 22 cars out of one of my subs in the playroom - the subs in my home theater all have floor-facing ports. On purpose.
A couple of weeks ago I asked how early adopter (and device analysts) with multiplying digital components could possibly connect them all.
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.
I promise something more substantive in a different post ( <-- that's just a writing flourish. No actual promise is intended or implied), but I wanted to pass this along. I get press releases every day about companies introducing new products, changing management, or using technology. Many of them are incomprehensible - it's as if PR people speak a different language. Here's the headline from one that crossed my inbox this morning:
Leading Architectural Audio and Video Supplier Builds on FST GUI Technology
for New Streaming Media Product Line
Who? What? After reading the press release a couple of times I think I understand what's going on: SpeakerCraft is branching out from crafting speakers and is building a streaming media system (just the sort of thing I focus on in my Digital Home research service), presumably to get audio to their in-wall speakers. OK. But to do so, they needed a way to quickly create a user interface for their gadget, and they turned to FST.
Here's where things get silly. It seems that the folks at FST are either: 12 year old boys, refugees from movie production companies, or high. FST stands for Fluffy Spider Technologies. FST's flagship product is the FancyPants platform and its Ruthlessly Efficient runtime environment. What the hell?
That is all.
NHT (aka Now Hear This) has been a respected mid-tier speaker manufacturer based in the U.S. since 1986, but as the recession hit earlier this year, they chose to shut down product development and manufacturing, take some time off, and approach the market fresh. They weren't bankrupt - at least not yet - they just saw their distribution channel erode as independent dealers and custom installers went out of business, and their price points crept up to the point where they were out of line with economic realities. Some of this was driven by rising commodity prices, some by a disconnect with changing consumer priorities.
Somehow I missed this story. Anyway, after just a few months off, they're back.
They've shrunk their product line nearly in half, and are selling and distributing online-only. If this sounds similar to the Outlaw model, it is, only NHT isn't just selling direct, you can buy from amazon, Audio Advisor, OneCall, and a few others. This eliminates dealer reps, salespeople, and lots of shipping, so prices are down 20% as well. They're killing all print ads because the goal of print ads was to drive prospects to the dealers, though they will do online advertising because they need to drive sales somehow.
As usual, I attended CES 2009 and spent a lot more time talking with mobile devices vendors (my day job) than home theater. This was a good strategy for anyone this year because the Palm pre stole the show, but there were still plenty of thin LCD TVs, 3D TV, mobile TV, and a few speakers and receivers sprinkled throughout the sprawling show floor. I didn't make it to the Hilton, where most of the high end audio was housed, at all. Still, it's hard to avoid home theater when you have to attend press conferences from Sony, Samsung, LG, Toshiba, etc. and walk the show floor.
After talking to the Dolby Mobile folks, I was pressed into sitting through a terrific demo of Dolby IIz, which adds a (derived, not native) height channel. I've been using Yamaha receivers for years that perform the same trick, so I could certainly appreciate the notion - Dolby seems to be going more for sound placement (i.e., making it sound like the helicopter is hovering above you), while Yamaha is intended for room augmentation (i.e., making it sound like your room is bigger). The 9 minute demo certainly sounded great, but if I listened to my own home theater at those volume levels I'd be deaf before the end of the movie.
I also saw the latest generation of DLP in both super-large format (Optoma's HD8200 projector) and small (TI-powered pico projectors for use with cellphones were everywhere). I stopped by the Optoma booth to see the pico projector, and stayed for a short demo of the HD8200 on a 2:35 screen in a completely dark room. They were playing a clip from I Am Legend, a movie I have only seen in projector demos, so I know the clip well. Contrast ratio and black levels were insanely good, but there was weird artifacting that appeared just before fast motion content that drove me crazy. It could be an issue with the setup, the source, or a bug in a preproduction demo unit, but if I had bought that system, I'd be returning it.
Finally, at the Sony press conference the swag was an eco-friendly bamboo fiber bag, which feels like silk and is apparently intended to be used (and reused) for grocery shopping. Or something. When I unpacked it after the show, I noticed that the care tag is unintentionally poetic and hilarious, a sort of bad translation haiku:
Another one from the email bag today:
I've been searching for a great sounding speaker system for computer use (Pc & MacBook Pro in the near future). I mainly want it for music, it will also be used for movies & games since I have a 40" connected to my pc. I've heard a bunch of systems, but nothing stands out of the crowd (I like to hear all sounds in a track as recorded). I ended up deciding on the (Axiom Audio Audiobytes and EPZero Subwoofer) till I read your review of them. What is your choice since I do listen to Trance & Hip Hop and do a little mixing? I noticed you like the Klipsch 2.1. Is that your favorite choice? I don't mind spending around $500 if the system is well worth it.
My preferred PC speakers are the Klipsch ProMedia 5.1, which Klipsch discontinued way back in 2003. I have tested several systems since then, including the Axiom AudiBytes and Logitech’s Z5500 5.1 THX system, and I still prefer the old Klipsch. The Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 system looks similar to the 5.1 in photos, but it is not even close in terms of specifications. The speakers have different frequency response ranges, different maximum output levels, and different materials. The 2.1 subwoofer is much smaller and has a completely different configuration. As soon as I find a speaker system that beats the Klipsch I’ll write about them – and probably ask to buy the review samples – but thus far I haven’t.
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.
CEDIA and IFA news is filling up my inbox, but one press release jumped out at me. I've seen similar features from other manufacturers (Onkyo immediately comes to mind), but the emphasis on digital media features in a new receiver from Yamaha was a big enough shift for me to write about it. Here's the headline:
NEW YAMAHA RX-Z7 7.1 CHANNEL HOME THEATER RECEIVER EXPANDS ON YAMAHA’S HIGHLY ACCLAIMED Z-SERIES, OFFERING SOPHISTICATED HOME ENTERTAINMENT AND BEST-IN-CLASS HD PERFORMANCE
Well that sounds like any other high end super receiver. But wait, here's the subhead:
Following the Lead of the Company’s Flagship RX-Z11; The RX-Z7 Integrates iPod, Bluetooth, HDRadio, Satellite and Internet Radio, and Rhapsody Playback with Pure HD Sound and Picture in a Versatile Multi-Zone Digital Media Hub
If this makes it seem like Yamaha is not trying to differentiate the receiver with amplifier channels or surround sound decoding -- the traditional reasons to buy a receiver -- you'd be right. Here's the third paragraph of the release:
Offering DLNA support and compatibility with Windows Vista, the RX-Z7 can stream music files (WAV, Mp3, WMA, AAC) stored on locally networked PCs and other devices, as well as Internet radio streams (Mp3, WMA). In addition to supporting SIRIUS Internet Radio*, the unit offers full compatibility with Rhapsody, giving users unrestricted, on-demand access to the subscription music service’s enormous selection of content spanning virtually every genre, style and taste. The RX-Z7 also integrates with Yamaha’s MusicCAST system, providing access to as many as 40,000 songs that can be stored on that system. The AV receiver can display album artwork through its GUI to take user engagement to a new level.
That sounds like a PC media extender, not a receiver. The fifth paragraph really takes it above and beyond:
The RX-Z7 is the ultimate AV receiver for iPod users. It easily connects to Apple iPods via the optional iPod docking station (Yamaha YDS-11; MSRP $99.95). Once docked, the iPod can be operated via the receiver’s remote controls. A one cable connection allows users to view the iPod’s operating status (song title, artist, album with cover art), as well as video and pictures on a television monitor. Docked iPods charge automatically, so they’re always ready for a road trip. Giving users even more ways to access their music, the RX-Z7 boasts two USB ports that adhere to the Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) for playback of Mp3, WMA, WAV and AAC audio files from a portable player or USB drive.
For those who keep music stored on their phones or other Bluetooth-enabled devices, the RX-Z7 is compatible with Yamaha’s optional YBA-10 Bluetooth Wireless Audio Receiver (SRP $129.95), which enables wirelessly streaming audio to the AV receiver.
... The RX-Z7 also supports iTunes tagging, so when users hear a favorite song on HD Radio, they can instantly bookmark it to their iTunes account.
XM Radio and HD Radio support are also on board, as are multiple channels of amplification, video scaling, HDMI switching, and multi-room support. Still, the differentiating features are all about managing PC-derived digital media.
High end receivers have always been about offering lots of features and flexibility. But when you emphasize streaming media, Vista support, Bluetooth, and extensive iPod integration, it sure sounds like a PC to me. Why not just put an HDMI switch and amplification unit in a PC? All the digital media management is already on there as is video scaling and surround sound decoding. Yes, the inside of a PC is an electrically noisy place, and putting amps inside would require a different power supply. But these are design issues that can be (and already have been) overcome in other contexts.
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.
Sonos announced several upgrades today to its whole-house audio system (my review of the original system is here).
The receiver modules have shrunk in size, have been upgraded with an upgraded version of Sonos' proprietary wireless mesh networking technology, and the one with an internal amplifier (the ZonePlayer 120) has gotten more power. The software has been upgraded, and it now supports ridiculously large music collections (65,000 songs), OS X Leopard, and NAS devices (networked hard drives, which means you can listen to your own songs without turning on your PC).
What hasn't changed:
A complete Sonos system is incredibly cost effective when compared to custom installed wired multi-room alternatives. But it is still pricey overkill for filling just one or two rooms with sound; two iPods and two iPod docks runs less than half the cost of a Sonos. The direct competition is starting to catch up; Logitech's Squeezebox Duet (pictured here on the right) undercuts Sonos on price and has a similar scroll wheel controller (the Duet costs $399 and includes a receiver; the equivalent Sonos Controller + ZP90 combo costs $748). One major difference is in ease of setup - Sonos wins hands down, in part because Sonos doesn't require a PC or a wireless network. I have tested Logitech's predecessor, the Squeezebox, and found its basic remote and user interface nearly unusable; I plan to test the Duet and future products in Logitech's line shortly.
Axiom has been trying to get me to review a set of speakers from their home theater surround lineup, but I asked to start with something smaller, so they suggested their Audiobytes PC speaker system. I’ve been using what counts as “high end” speaker systems in the PC world on my media center PC for nearly a decade. My primary PC speaker system is a Klipsch THX Pro Media 5.1, which I have pitted against a 5.1 THX setup from Logitech, 2.1 systems from Altec Lansing, and others over the years. Axiom’s Audiobyte system consists of up to four pieces: modest sized left and right speakers and an enormous desktop amplifier/volume control that I struggled to find room for on my desk ($349 for all three); and a subwoofer roughly the same size as a full sized PC desktop case that will almost certainly be placed right next to it ($179). The speakers can be ordered in some fairly exotic enclosure materials (from various types of wood to bold designer colors), which is fairly common in high end audio and home theater, but quite unusual for PC speakers. For review purposes I asked for a set in basic black (pictured to the left; the subwoofer is pictured separately, below).
The system arrived in two large, heavy boxes (large enough that visitors to my office could not believe that they contained a PC speaker system). All the cables required to hook up the system are included. The cables don’t offer the most flexibility in placement, but since most users will just be flanking their computer monitor with the speakers, super-long cables aren’t required. There are small rubber “feet” you can add to the speakers, but no stands. This is a shame, because the speakers will obviously be used on a desk, and in most situations, that will be below ear level; angled stands would be a big help.
The amplifier unit serves all the speakers; the subwoofer does not have its own power supply and amplifier. The amp glows blue around the volume control and never got more than warm after hours of continuous use. The large amp does seem to have an effect on the system’s capabilities, imbuing the Audiobytes with tremendous dynamic range – they can play ridiculously loud without distortion. For example, John Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter goes from quiet to over-the-top brassy; the quiet sections were clear and full, and then – boom, it’s loud! – but without any sibilance on the horns. Some of this power is wasted on a near-field product like a PC system where you have a defined listening position – most listeners will be no more than three feet or so from the speakers at any time. Still, it’s nice to have gobs of power on reserve, even if there’s no way anyone will ever push the amplifier beyond mid-point before going deaf.
The main speakers and amplifier combination is more neutral and analytical than warm. Pianos were rendered realistically, which is quite hard to do and rarely achieved on PC systems. Female vocals were also good, but not great, mostly because the sound is overly localized to the little speaker. Similarly, drum kits were loud and crisp but were still sounded like they emanated from a little box three feet away rather than from a real drum set farther back. In short, they sound better than most PC speakers, but you can’t expect audiophile nirvana for $350.
Still, the system’s clarity is excellent. The mark of a good PC or iPod speaker system – you can easily tell which songs have been recorded at higher bit levels – is achieved here. Better sources sound better. I also found that the added fidelity and ability to raise endlessly raise the volume is useful beyond music when used with a PC – a webcast with poor audio quality was much clearer and easier to follow.
However, despite the big subwoofer, at anything less than ear-bleeding levels, the EPZero generated very little bass. The sub has three setting: “flat,” “half,” and “full.” It badly needs something beyond “full,” say, a “Spinal Tap” setting that takes it to 11. On Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” her vocals were crystal clear and the bass had wonderful tone – there just wasn’t that much of it. I wasn’t sure what was going on here, so I tried the “full” setting and played an even more bass-heavy dance track, “SOS.” On the Klipsch system played at the same volume level, the room shakes. On the Axiom, the bass is extremely tight – ‘bob your head’ tight, not ‘shake your rear’ tight. It worked well enough for classical and indie rock (Jonathan Coulton never sounded better), but the Axiom system isn’t the best system to listen to house, electronic, or hip hop unless you prefer listening at levels loud enough to damage your hearing.
The lack of bass at reasonable volumes really bothers me, and the high price doesn’t help matter, so I had fully expected to end my review on a negative note. But the longer I listened to music on the Audiobytes, the more I enjoyed them. The main speakers have a very neutral, open, non-fatiguing sound. They sound good. Would I spend $350 for them? Probably not. But I’m quite reluctant to let Axiom know that I’ve completed the review and ask for a shipping account number to use to return them.
Against my parents' wishes, all my aunts and uncles got together and bought me a cheap stereo system as a Bar Mitzvah gift. (My parents would have preferred a set of Talmud, a computer, sports equipment - literally anything that wasn't a stereo system I could use to blast horrible rock and roll and annoy my father. Yes, I grew up in the movie Footloose.) It was a thing of beauty: a Fisher record player/tape deck/am/fm radio and a pair of speakers that were at least three feet tall. Oh, those speakers were huge, and the system could play much louder than my parents would like. I was happy.
It didn't take long before I realized that while the speaker cabinets were huge, there was only a single, mid-sized full range driver in each of those big boxes. Similarly, when I unscrewed the 1/8" particleboard side panels from the stereo component box, I discovered there was mostly air inside. When you turned it up an played it loud (genuinely loud, not the "it's too loud! Turn that horrible music off" level that I was restricted to when my parents were home) it distorted quickly. The system looked impressive, but performed about as well as its price point probably dictated.
They probably won't appreciate the comparison, but after a few months living with mStation's 2.1 Stereo Tower, I have concluded that it is the modern incarnation of my old stereo system. It looks great and takes up a lot of space, but its sound quality -- while much better than that old Fisher -- is limited by its price point.
The mStation is without question one of the largest iPod docks of any kind. The top two columns are the main speakers; thanks to some clever engineering they can be screwed on and rotated slightly outward for some directionality. Unfortunately, the speakers are still too close together to get realistic stereo separation. The main cylinder is a "subwoofer" - a 5" bottom facing driver that generates a fair amount of mid-bass. The bass tends to be boomy, and the driver is still too small to reach truly low bass. Plastic inserts are included to customize the dock to a specific model. Other than the shuffle, every iPod I tried fit, including an iPhone, iPod touch, 1G nano, 2G nano, a 4G iPod, and a current iPod classic. Like many such systems, a remote control is included so that you can control the system from across the room (power, volume up/down, play/pause, FF, RW, and controls to adjust the bass and treble). Unlike a desktop dock, the tower will almost never be within arms reach, so the remote control is extremely useful.
At $299, the mStation 2.1 Stereo Tower can play loud enough to fill a mid-size room with undistorted sound, or a large room if the volume is kept to moderate levels. There are plenty of other choices at the same price point that won't dominate your room, but offer better sound. For example, I pitted the mStation against Logitech's AudioStation ($299, but amazon has it for just $129), and found that the Logitech's sound was richer, with considerably tighter bass. Bose also has a $299 desktop iPod speaker dock with the company's signature sound (boosted midrange and clear highs) that also handily beats the mStation. Of course, neither of those systems double as room furniture. With extensive use of aluminum in the columns, the mStation could be easily confused for a product from Bang & Olufsen; I expect set decorators will use it when creating a "bachelor pad" look for CSI Miami. It looks much more expensive than it is, but it sounds more like its price point.
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.
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:
Sonos has built a flash version of its music controller for online demos. It's neat, and was probably worth the investment it took to build because the UI (depicted below) is a key part of the Sonos value proposition.
However, one of the more interesting pieces of feedback I received from my Sonos review was from people who wanted to know why Sonos was worth a price premium over simply sticking an iPod and a speaker dock in each room.
There are good answers to that question, but the experience is different, and that doesn't come across in an answer - or a demo of the UI. The controller isn't the experience. Having easily controlled music throughout your home is the experience, and, that may take an actual physical demonstration at someone's home to generate the a-ha! moment Sonos needs.
JupiterKagan's Michael Gartenberg has a great post about the three elements needed to successfully launch a new consumer media format. He concludes that neither HD-DVD or Blu-Ray measures up.
Full disclosure: I created the diagram that Michael uses to illustrate his point back when I was an analyst at what was then called JupiterResearch and he was my Research Director; it was for a report on next generation audio formats.
I'll admit it up front - one of the key reasons I run Home Theater View is to get early looks at products like the Sonos system. I have been following Sonos since well before it launched. The concept is simple: Sonos takes the music you're already storing and managing on your PC and streams it to multiple locations around your house. The controller looks like an iPod, and, like an iPod, nearly anyone can use it. Each Sonos unit becomes part of a separate wireless mesh network - no WiFi needed, and setup consists of pushing a couple of buttons and letting Sonos do all the work. Sonos can play different music in each room, synchronize music to multiple rooms, or synchronize music to all rooms ("party" mode). Sonos can also accept music from any room and stream that back to any or all of the other units.
Sonos launched with a 2 room $1199 bundle: Sonos supplied a player/amplifier (ZP100) for each room and a controller (CR100), but expected consumers to BYOS (Bring Your Own Speakers). Sonos quickly heard that the BYOS strategy was DOA for a large segement of their target market, and rolled out Sonos-branded speakers for $179, or as part of a $1499 package for two amps, two pair of speakers, and a controller. The most recent update to the system is the ZP80 (pictured at right), which asks consumers to BYOA (Bring Your Own Amplifiers), which makes sense for economically integrating home theater systems and the like, which already have their own amps.
My test setup included a ZP80 along with a pair of ZP100's (pictured at left), a C100, and a pair Sonos Speakers. I have also hooked up a pair of Carver HT5.1 bookshelf speakers to one ZP100 and an Altec Lansing self-powered satellite-subwoofer PC speaker system to the ZP80.
Pricing: It Depends On Your Point Of View
What's unique about the Sonos' pricing is that it is either extremely expensive or a significant bargain, depending on your point of view. The Sonos ZonePlayers are $499 each for the ZP100 (the one with a built-in amplifier) and $349 for a ZP80 (the one without the amplifier). ZoneControllers cost $399 each, speakers are $179, charging docks for the ZoneController are $49, and a spare charger cables is another $19. The least expensive bundle is $999, which will be fine for many users, but expects users to both BYOS and BYOA.
This pricing makes technical early adopters scratch their heads and whine that compared to most streaming audio players, the Sonos is wildly overpriced. The Omnifi Simplefi I've had in the house for a couple of years, along with products from Pinnacle, Roku, Squeezebox, Linksys, and Apple, all cost between $129 and $299. Other options are mating an iPod with an Apple, Klipsch, or Bose audio dock: presto! music wherever you are. Finally, a cheapskate friend pointed out that boomboxes cost $39 at Target and can also put music in your room. If you'd be happy with a boombox - or even an iPod and an Apple HiFi - then the Sonos is clearly too expensive.
At the other extreme, a custom installed system can cost tens of thousands of dollars for a multi-zone setup that would cost $3,000 or $4,000 with a Sonos. In this respect, the Sonos is an incredible bargain.
The problem with the iPod and boombox is that they are single zone solutions - when you leave that room, you leave your music (and the boombox will only be able to play a fraction of your music collection, digitized or not). True, you could put a speaker dock in every room of your house and move the iPod with you, and if you live alone, this is a perfectly valid solution, but even then you need to move the iPod every time you leave the room, and it's hardly sufficient for a party.
The problem with most streaming media players is that they are either single zone (Apple, Linksys), cannot selectively synchronize music among multiple zones (all but the Squeezebox), have no display for selecting music to play (Apple, Linksys), have only a basic user interface (all), require a reasonable level of comfort with technology for setup (all except the Apple), and cannot accept music from remote sources and stream that around (all).
Where the Sonos Shines
In practice, the biggest drawback to most streaming music solutions is that they either need to be hooked up to a display, which limits where you can put them in the house, or they have a one line display and a rudimentary remote control, which makes moving through large music collections annoying. My wife was delighted when she discovered that with the Sonos she could quickly and easily create disposable mini-playlists by selecting songs and albums and putting them into the queue for just the two rooms she was working in that day. The large screen, scroll wheel, straightforward user interface, and multi-zone capabilities on the Sonos makes that scenario possible, and she discovered it without cracking the owner's manual. (Our five year old also likes choosing his music and routing it to zones throughout the house, but, then, he's five. Today's five year olds can master anything.)
Another neat trick the Sonos does is digitize and stream any source you feed one ZonePlayer to any or all of the other zones in your home. In practice, this means you can plug in a friends iPod, programmed with his party mix, and blast the music all over the house. The ZonePlayer accepts analog signals, so a favorite record or tape can be streamed around as well (though a preamplifier may be needed for phonographs to present a loud enough signal to the system). I even plugged in Nokia's latest music phone and a Kurzweil digital piano and used those as sources. The volume needed to be adjusted based on the source, but, other than that it works like magic.
Custom installed multi-zone audio systems can do all these things, too. There are several systems on the market that offer rich user interfaces, tech-free setup because someone else sets it up, and even remote source streaming. The problem here is one of price: to do what a Sonos does, you might have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a sophisticated touch-screen based multi-zone system. A single Crestron controller costs more than a basic Sonos system.
The Sonos' sound quality was excellent across the board. The Sonos system could resolve enough detail that the weak link in the chain was typically the codec used to compress the music, not the Sonos wireless system, amps, or speakers. Having said that, it won't convince hardcore audiophiles to give up turntables, tube amps, and a pair of Vandersteen speakers and settle in for a dedicated listening session. But for the types of uses a Sonos system enables, the Sonos provides all the audio performance that's needed.
The speakers (pictured at right - click to enlarge) are actually quite a bargain. Bass is tight, highs are well resolved, and the midrange is pleasant. In a direct comparison, the Carvers were easily audibly superior with better bass and better presence in the treble, but the Carvers are a bipole design and were part of a system back in the day that retailed for a lot more than $179. I can easily recommend the Sonos speakers at their price point.
Installation and Setup
One key drawback is that a hard wired (Ethernet) connection is required from your PC to the first ZonePlayer unit. After that, Sonos has its own built in mesh network (technically not WiFi) that sets itself up automatically. Like all mesh networks, the more nodes (ZonePlayers and ZoneControllers) on the network, the stronger the network will be. The "first node: wired" restriction is not a problem for users who have Ethernet networks in their homes, but how many people does that cover? Worse, unless you're willing to string that first wire out of the computer room, the first ZonePlayer is redundant, as most PCs have speakers attached to them already, and the Sonos Desktop Controller PC software will happily drive them.
Aside from that limitation, the setup process itself is simple even for non-technical users. You do need a PC, but you don't need a home network. To get each unit to discover the network, you simply press the "mute" and "volume up" buttons found on the front of each unit. There are several companies working to make this type of plug and play wireless networking a reality for WiFi, but for now, Sonos' proprietary solution justifies itself well here. After the initial software installation on your PC, the system will literally updates itself and all the ZonePlayers and ZoneControllers with no user intervention required.
Each ZoneController can control all the zones in the system, but users should keep in mind that as they add zones, they'll need to add expensive ZoneControllers as well. There's nothing more frustrating than a powerful multi-zone system that's playing the wrong music in the zone you're in and the ZoneController is several rooms away. This may offend Puritans everywhere, but let's face it, once the remote control was invented, did you ever get up to change the channel again? Now think about going to the other side of your house to change the channel. This is why you need more than one ZoneController.
Over several months I did experience a handful of times where the ZoneController inexplicably locked up. Judging from the message boards, this does not seem to be a widespread problem, but it did give me the opportunity to test out Sonos' tech support. Using the web "call me" feature, the response was instantaneous and the support rep was knowledgeable. The culprit was diagnosed as wireless interference, but resetting the ZoneController also seemed to trigger a software upgrade (which happened automatically in the background) and there have been no problems since then.
Sonos is narrowly targeted: it doesn't do video. At all. In this respect, more capable systems may be a better investment. Interestingly, the best video storage system I have seen, the Kaleidescape, doesn't do audio. So there's clearly something to be gained in simplicity by restricting functionality to one type of media and doing it right. Still, consumers looking for a complete audio, video, and home automation solution will have to look elsewhere.
Even within audio, Sonos is constrained by DRM. REAL Rhapsody subscribers will be thrilled to discover they can access their entire music subscription library through the Sonos. But tracks purchased from iTunes or other Windows Plays For (Almost) Sure DRM stores won't play at all.
The Sonos may not translate well outside the U.S. It is easiest to justify for larger homes, like the McMansions that dot our suburbs where its multi-zone capabilities will be put to good use. It does not make as much sense for urban apartments or any type of home in space-constrained Japan. The system's flexibility only goes so far: Sonos needs water resistant units for the kitchen and bathroom, and an in-wall version for custom installation would be welcome as well. The system as a whole is a bargain but the accessories are badly overpriced, and at least one dock ought to be included with every controller from the outset. Finally, Sonos needs an all-wireless version, where the first unit is WiFi, and Sonos' mesh network takes over from there.
Sonos has done a good job of creating a system that should sell itself to upscale mainstream users, but as long as distributed PC-based audio is in the early adopter phase of market development, Sonos needs to do a better job in its marketing materials explaining how it differs from the Squeezeboxes and Rokus of the world.
As I finish writing this review, my wife is listening to - and singing along loudly with - The Bangles' "Eternal Flame" in the kitchen and family room, while I have The Strokes on in the office. She says we don't have to buy the review sample, but I'm not so sure...
Design Technica just published Mark Fleischmann's passionate take on Why High-End Audio Matters. I'm not quite as dogmatic as he is -- I'm listening to "background music" off of a Portable Media Center as I write this, and I'm much more likely to be immersed in home theater than two channel audio -- but his basic points are well taken:
I had to temporarily disassemble my primary multimedia PC system last week (it sits in front of a window that was being replaced) and decided it was finally time to provide some thoughts on multimedia surround sound systems. This is long overdue. How long overdue? One of the systems I intended to review, Klipsch's ProMedia 5.1, was discontinued a few years ago and replaced with the ProMedia Ultra 5.1. The other, a Logitech Z-5500 system the company was kind enough to send over last year, is no longer a new model either. Logitech added the Z-5450 to the line, which offers wireless surround speakers, though, unlike ProMedia, at least the Z-5500 is at least still on the market!
Both THX systems are impressive, and can pressurize my small room to over 110 decibels without distortion - true THX reference level, and way too loud for normal listening without causing permanent hearing damage. As a PC peripheral, they're definitely pricey add-ons. Hard core gamers buying $4,000 PCs should be able to set aside a tenth of that for audio, but with a $400 budget PC it may be harder to justify spending nearly the same amount on the speakers as on the whole computer. Still, when considered as home theater speakers, the systems are quite reasonably priced - you simply won't find HTIB speakers under $400 that compete with them.
However, there is a huge caveat: multimedia systems are designed for use with a PC. With XP Media Center systems and large LCD monitor/TVs proliferating, perhaps that's not as unusual a proposition as it was a few years ago, but there are other considerations as well. Multimedia systems are designed for near-field listening: like studio monitors, speaker designers know where you'll be sitting -- right up in front of the speakers, not ten feet away on your couch. Therefore, while the power and THX certification of these systems ensures often spectacular audio performance in a small room with one or two listeners, they simply aren't designed to be cheap replacements for a living room system. But for secondary systems, dorm rooms, gaming, and small rooms, the performance and value a 5.1 multimedia system can provide is impressive.
My initial experience with Logitech's first generation 5.1 speaker systems was not a positive one: the subwoofer was boomy, and the main speakers added a modest amount of unwelcome colorization to the sound. Klipsch has a long history (decades of experience, actually) with the MicroTractix horn drivers used for upper frequencies in the ProMedia system, and the resulting sound was clearly superior to Logotype's first effort. However, with the Z-5500, Logitech upgraded the main drivers to "polished aluminum phase-plug" units that "combine two drivers into one--the clarity of a tweeter with the richness and fullness of a separate mid-range." Despite my usual skepticism about product marketing drivel (in a past life, I was a product marketing manager myself), in this case, the marketing copy basically has it right. The new driver array is a marked improvement. The subwoofer didn't improve nearly as much; it can play louder than before, but is still too boomy for my taste, overemphasizing sounds in the upper bass region (I'd guess in the 70 - 90 Hz range). In comparison, the Klipsch's sub is well controlled down to about 35 - 40 Hz, after which it basically disappears, which is a fair trade-off for a small system. I suspect that consumers - particularly gamers - may actually prefer the Z-5500's boomier sound, but I'm a home theater snob and wish for better accuracy. The Klipsch sub also provides more flexibile placement options than the Logitech, which comes with a prominent warning not to place the rather large unit directly next to a PC - the exact spot I suspect most users intend to use.
One area where the Logitech solidly trounces the Klipsch and edges closer to HTIB territory is the control unit. The Digital SoundTouch Control Center is quite a bit more than just a volume control. As you'd expect, it can accept multi-channel audio from a PC, but it can also do multichannel decoding itself, supports DTS 96/24, and connects to as many as 6 sources simultaneously. For some users, the flexibility and versatility will be a deciding factor; you could hook up a DVD player directly to the Z-5500 and avoid firing up the PC altogether.
Either of these systems provides a fabulous home theater experience for a PC-based system in a den, home office, or dorm room. To my ears, the Klipsch provides better sound thanks to a tighter subwoofer, but gamers who want things to go "boom" along with consumers looking for additional input and decoding flexibility may want to consider the Logitech first.
Correction: the Logitech Z-5450 has wireless rear surround speakers, not the "Z5540," as originally posted.
Yesterday's column on Atlantic Technology's corner sub got me thinking about a beautiful glossy press package I got recently from Sound Advance, makers of completely invisible planar speakers. The idea is that the speaker is mounted in the wall, but the wall surface becomes the speaker - no unsightly grills (see picture). There are definite performance disadvantages to using the transmission line effect (i.e., your entire wall becomes a speaker), along with a more complicated and expensive installation process. But the end result is sound without an obvious source.
Is this really necessary? Nearly every in-wall speaker I've ever come across allows you the grills to be painted, making them nearly invisible and not so unsightly after all. I understand the uses this technology may have for some commercial spaces - especially theme park rides, where having 100% invisible speakers is a plus and broader dispersion of sound may be a benefit, too. But in the home? It seems like far more trouble than its worth.
Editor's note: the original version of this entry contained a typo, erroneously suggesting that Sonos purchased Sound Advance, instead of Sonance. In my defense, Sonos and Sonance do have somewhat similar names, and I have a Sonos system in for review at the moment, so that company is top of mind. Both companies sell distributed home audio systems, but they are otherwise completely unrelated.
I love it when someone creates a product that invokes WDITOT (Why Didn't I Think Of That). Atlantic Technology is not the first to create a triangular subwoofer, and they're not the first to create an unobtrusive subwoofer, and they're not the first to create a subwoofer that is equalized for a specific spot in the room. But the new $899 10 CSB may be the first to combine all three, by marketing the sub as a solution that is designed to be stuck off in a corner.
Corners provide two advantages: they are out of the way, and they're louder. As Atlantic Technology points out in their press release, corners amplify speakers (rooms often have more of an impact on the sound you hear than the speaker quality, and almost always have more of an impact on the sound you hear than the electronics you use. No salesperson will ever tell you this, though, unless they're trying to sell you acoustic room treatments). Corner placement can often cause more problems than it solves, but since Atlantic Technology knew that the 10 CSB will always be placed in a corner, it can account for that in the design. (They don't seem to have included any active room equalization, so my guess is that they simply assumed a certain amount of boominess and tuned the driver and crossover to tone things down somewhat).
The key, though, is that a corner is rarely used space - you won't trip over a corner sub, and you might not even notice it's there - the 10 CSB can be painted to match the walls. Performance plus lifestyle should equal sales.
Part IV of my post-CES scribbles; each of the next few posts includes a quick look back on 2005 trends and a quick discussion of products introduced at CES 2006. This installment: Media Formats
The warring HD disc camps (HD-DVD and Blu-Ray Disc) could not achieve compromise, but did not actually ship anything to the market, either. With nearly no support from content owners, SACD and DVD-Audio essentially died in 2005.
At CES 2006…
Toshiba hyped its first HD-DVD player at the modest price of only $499. In contrast, Pioneer announced a single Pioneer Elite Blu-Ray Disc player for $1800. Sony is still expecting to sell PS3’s with BD playback capability (and a reasonable price point), but no live PS3 units were shown at the show. In general, 2006 does not look like the year of prerecorded HD disc adoption. Pricing is too high, the available content library is too small, and there's the whole format war issue. Worse, the DVD revolution is winding down, and even on an HDTV, many consumers will find that DVD is “good enough” regardless of the outcome of the format war.
Part III of my post-CES rantings; each of the next few posts includes a quick look back on 2005 trends and a quick discussion of products introduced at CES 2006. This installment: Audio
Apple’s iPod ate up whatever audio interest there was left after the purchase of that HDTV. The audiophile approach (ignore it and it will go away) didn’t work, the competitive approach (building servers or portable products that compete with the iPod head on) dramatically didn’t work – though there were a handful of exceptions, and the conciliatory approach (if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em) of building iPod docks and add-ons got very, very crowded. One of the more notable exceptions to the “don’t compete with the iPod” rule was Sonos, which piggybacks on existing PC-based music libraries and distributes audio wirelessly around the house. The key to success here is both the flawless user interface and the premium consumer price point. Typical CE pricing would not support the margins Sonos needs to survive, but the Sonos system is still within reach of many consumers, as opposed to custom installed distributed audio systems which can often cost an order of magnitude more.
At CES 2006...
We saw more of everything. Competing with the iPod were several nano clones, Toshiba’s new (and impressive) GigaBeat Portable Media Center, and several Windows Media Center or set top box whole-house server products for storing your music collection (some piggybacking on Intel's new VIIV campaign). The server efforts were at least partly conciliatory, as most included Apple iPod docking capabilities.
Part II of my post-CES ravings; each of the next few posts includes a quick look back on 2005 trends and a quick discussion of products introduced at CES 2006.
To try to appeal to the flat panel TV crowd, speaker manufacturers at all price points built flat speakers, small speakers, and speakers intended to be mounted on the wall (some with just one cabinet to simplify wiring, or wireless rear speakers). Big brands did well with these offerings, but they tended to pull sales from elsewhere, not grow the category. The other approach was to develop a line of in-wall speakers, some with high end pedigrees and/or THX certification. Unfortunately, it takes time for CEDIA installers to pick up new brands (installers are a conservative bunch, as you don’t ever want to have to service something installed in a wall or built into a cabinet), so the jury is still out on this strategy. To compensate for lower ASPs and margins, most speaker manufacture was moved to Asia.
At CES 2006…
We saw more of the same. What we have not seen yet are Chinese speaker manufacturers selling direct to U.S. consumers under their own brand names, taking the Aperion.com business model and eliminating the middleman (Aperion). That has started in the enthusiast space to a degree with companies like nOrh, but has not moved into the mainstream. Yet.
We also saw one company move decidedly in a different direction: Jamo introduced the 909's, a $15,000 pair of speakers that do not have a rear cabinet. The idea is simple: no enclosure, no possibility for audible colorations of the sound due to the cabinet. From a market perspective, this makes even more sense - audiophile consumers who are willing to have a free standing set of speakers in their room probably want to show them off. Why not let them really show off the guts of the speakers by doing nothing to hide them? If Jamo is smart, it will release lower priced versions of the 909's including a center channel and matching surrounds for home theater (the surrounds will probably need cabinets for wall mounting).
Sonos announced today that Tweeter will be carrying the eponymous product at more than 150 retail locations throughout the U.S. (mostly in the Northeast). Tweeter is now the largest retailer in the country to carry the Sonos Digital Music System, and Sonos claims a "quality over quantity" approach to signing up retail partners. Nonetheless, Sonos is on track to have 500 retail location partners by the end of 2005, the first holiday buying season that Sonos is available.
Tweeter should be a good fit for this mid-tier product: Sonos fits in between the half dozen $200 - $300 streaming music players on the market (none of which have found many buyers) and custom whole house audio systems, which start in the $2000 range with MusicCAST systems from Yamaha, but often end up costing $10,000 - $50,000 for any serious system retrofitted into existing construction by a custom installer. Sonos starts with the premise that you're already storing your digital music on a PC - why would you want to duplicate that? - but rather than simply stream the audio to a single location, Sonos provides a premium distributed listening experience akin to high end whole house audio products.
I had an interesting conversation this week with a Sonos executive. Without downplaying the Tweeter distribution relationship, Sonos is also excited about their presence at Best Buy. Oh, they couldn't get in the front door at Best Buy - and the product requires considerable explanation on the sales floor, and Best Buy's merchandising requirements aren't geared for small startups like Sonos. But Sonos is in Magnolia stores, which Best Buy bought back in 2000, and is now expanding into mini-stores within Best Buy's big box format. This provides Sonos with the best of both worlds - the traffic that a Best Buy generates with the higher sales touch of a specialty retailer. It also helps Sonos maintain its premium brand without diluting it by appearing on the mass market shelf next to a $39 DVD player.
More coping with the death of audio: most speaker manufacturers long ago moved out of the room and into the walls, so where's the next growth area after in-wall speakers? Atlantic Technology is going outside, introducing its first indoor/outdoor speaker, the AW-424. The $399/pair AW-424 is a relatively normal looking speaker - not a fake rock or a planter. Still it does have some features specific to the environment, such as drainage channels in the terminal well to keep water from collecting around the connections.
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.
I've been testing several digital music players and third party headphones - none of them from Apple. It's not that I don't like the iPod, I just haven't gotten one in recently from Apple. My past experiences with iPod suggest that Apple leads the industry with good reason.
I prefer SanDisk's Digital Audio Player to the iPod Shuffle, though I understand the Shuffle's appeal - particularly the tight integration with iTunes for moving music on and off the device. Still, I prefer seeing the title of what I'm listening to, and the SanDisk has both a screen and a remarkably good user interface for such a small thing. SanDisk has just announced a new flash player with removable memory; I have not gotten one in yet.
For most people looking for a hard drive player, the iPod product line has no equal. I've even recommended an iPod mini for my father (he uses it to study Talmud. Really). But what if you aren't most people? What if you want to subscribe to Yahoo!'s new service? What if you've ripped all your CD's in WMA format? Then you'll need to look outside the land of fruit.
I've used three 5GB players recently, but with Virgin's player now off the market, I'll focus here on Dell's Pocket DJ and Olympus' m:robe 100. Both can play WMA files, and the Dell is compatible with Microsoft "Janus" powered music subscription services (Windows Media 10 with Digital Rights Management). Both have excellent fidelity. Both have just slightly more storage space than the 4GB iPod mini, and cost a bit less (the Olympus actually costs more, but can be bought from discounters online).
The Dell DJ gains versatility by giving up software. It uses Microsoft's Windows Media player for all synchronization and music management activities, which turns out is a good thing. Apple's iTunes synchronization is slightly more straightforward (especially for novices), but Microsoft is running a close second here (and MusicMatch a close third - MusicMatch will recognize and sync with the DJ as well). The physical interface on the DJ is a scroll bar, not a touchpad, and it works fine. The user interface is nothing fancy, and does not try to add PDA functionality or FM radio or voice recording - it's a music player.
The Olympus m:robe 100 has gorgeous industrial design. From the white back it looks like an iPod, but the front is a dramatic glassy black slab with no visible buttons. The whole front surface is touch sensitive, and bright red LEDs light up when needed to indicate where the buttons are. A high resolution red LED screen complements the "buttons." It is a striking design and works well in practice, though the sliding lock switch is a necessity with the m:robe, not an option.
However, there are problems with the m:robe. The headphone jack is on the side, which makes it difficult to pocket the device. The Olympus does not support subscription services. And here's the deal breaker: the Olympus demands that you use its proprietary - and terrible - m-trip PC software for synchronization and music management. You can't drag music files to the device directly, you can't use MusicMatch or Microsoft or Apple's to manage music on the device, and the Olympus m-trip software is missing basic functionality such as syncing playlists and the songs that are associated with them. With a 30GB player, you can move all your music to the device and then mostly forget about it. But with a 5GB player, if you have more than 5 GB of music you need to move things on and off the device frequently. I found the m-trip software too painful to use on a regular basis.
I really wanted to like the m:robe - I love holding and playing with it - and I really wanted to dislike the Dell - design-wise, it's just "OK." Neither beats Apple at its own game. But despite the m:robe being prettier than any iPod, the m:trip software it comes with is too painful to use. As a basic device for playing WMA files or tethered music from subscriptions, the Dell is much easier to recommend.
I wrote earlier about Outlaw's new 990 audio processor, and was left with a few questions. They've since posted a FAQ that not only answers my questions, but also provides rare public insight into industry practices for cross-company parts sharing. Audio is a lot like the automobile industry - creating a platform is enormously expensive, and companies often share development to keep costs down. Sure, there are a few boutiques that create everything themselves from scratch, but custom efforts are enormously expensive, limiting the potential market size.
Outlaw uses the three different models shown below for product development, and so do all the other specialty brands to one degree or another, regardless of their distribution model. The selection of which development path to use is determined by the specific product, its cost, complexity and its anticipated volume. Going back to our first offering, the Model 750 amplifier, we have never hidden our relationships with some of the industry's leading manufacturers. Remember that out process is not unique, and only a few of the "major" brands actually design and manufacture their own processors from the ground up. We know of no company in the "internet only" market that totally designs and builds all of their processors on their own.
The FAQ continues to describe which of its products were designed, manufactured, licensed out, or licensed in. Outlaw exclusively sells direct online; I don't know if that completely explains their openness. But they are hardly alone, and got me thinking of some other common business models:
Outlaw just announced a new pre/pro (the surround sound processing portion of a receiver without the amplifier section), the model 990, and its a doozy: a high end version of the company's 950 for only $1099. More surprising than the product itself is Outlaw's secrecy about it - while some analysts (including yours truly) were briefed on this last year, this is the first public indication the company has made that they were even working on a new pre/pro, and it should be shipping within the next month or two. The change in strategy was due to the flack the company took during the oft-delayed development of the 950. Not surprisingly, there has been some grumbling on the forums that not enough notice was given on the 990... damned if you do, damned if you don't. This was the right decision though - publicly slipping announced shipping dates damaged the company's reputation and angered the customer base, while surprising the market only means a few lost sales for customers who bought something else in the meantime.
The standout feature most will notice are fully balanced outputs, to go with a future Outlaw amplifier with balanced inputs. Most people assume that balanced outputs - found on professional and some audiophile gear - are superior to regular RCA jacks. Thus, from a marketing perspective, the 990 has something to crow about. However, the reason why balanced inputs/outputs appear on professional gear is not because it adds a magical element to the sound, but because it allows for very long cable runs without signal degredation. In most home environments, this is irrelevant, and balanced signals at the very least add cost (the cables are more expensive) and may actually have a slight negative impact on the sound.
Even discounting the balanced outputs, the 990 looks like a bargain compared to most pre/pros, which start in the $1500 range and quickly climb from there. Component quality is higher than the 950, though this may be overkill: I was given a chance to review a 950, and found its noise floor to be extremely low and its sound quality to be transparent. The 990 offers tremendous flexibility for bass management for all sources, and has stereo subwoofer outputs. All the usual surround modes are included, along with Dolby Headphone (and a headphone jack). All analog video can be converted to component, and DVI switching is included. The 990's software is upgradeable, and, as an Internet-only retailer, this is something Outlaw is likely to take advantage of down the road. However, there are a few open questions:
We will likely get a 990 in for a full review. My review of Outlaw's LFM-1 subwoofers can be found here (links to JupiterReasearch's Home Theater Watch) and my review of Outlaw's 7700 amplifier is here (links to Secrets of Home Theater).
I seem to have missed this out at CES (and the company is completely quiet on its web site), but AKAI is getting back into surround receivers with a pair of tube receivers. Yes, vacuum tubes. The AVR8500 and AVR8510 are 7-Channel Vacuum Tube Audio/Video Receivers. Both receivers use 7 Dual Triode Vacuum tubes (of “Blue Tube Thermionic” design, whatever that is), one for each amplifier. Tubes actually introduce audible distortion to an audio signal, but the distortion is harmonically pleasing, giving the sound a "warmth" that audiophiles crave.
The AVR8500 is rated at 100-watts x 7, and the AVR8510 is rated at 125-watts x 7 and also throws in a universal remote control. Both units support all current surround sound modes from Dolby and DTS. Somewhat uniquely, both models also include HDMI switching capability, bringing tube warmth to the latest surround sound gear and HDTV.
No word on availability, but pricing is astonishingly low: $899 for the AVR8500, $1199 for the 8510. I actually think this is a mistake: tube gear is often ludicrously expensive, and, at this point, AKAI no longer has a strong brand in the U.S. home theater market. AKAI could easily create a few limited edition versions of the 85x0 series at much higher price points to build buzz and audiophile credibility.
BusinessWeek has an article in this week's issue titled, "The Crisp, Clear Sound of Rising Profits" [registration req'd] on B&O's recent uptick in business. After years of stagnation, the company is rolling out dozens of new initiatives in high end audio systems for exclusive automobiles, yachts, and penthouse suites at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
That's all well and good, but those are relatively small markets with high investment required to enter. In other words, they're brand-building activities, not core products. Bose and Harman are exceptions: they make real money in their auto divisions because they've built the business over the past decade(s) across multiple auto product lines. High end brands like McIntosh and Linn who are offering systems in cars as expensive options (or for cars with limited production runs) is at best a break-even marketing expense. Linn has even admitted as much.
Product innovation is given some ink: a $1,600 PVR is on the way, and the company's BeoLab 5 speakers have been critically well received (I haven't auditioned them) - no word on sales figures, though. The problem here is simple: B&O products have tended to be high priced art pieces. There's nothing wrong with selling art, except when they're supposed to make music, too. The expensive B&O products I've heard have sounded terrible. The new CEO admits as much, calling it "a gap between our image and our performance... the 'pretty-face syndrome.'"
It will take more than a new product or two to change my impression (and the company's home theater loudspeakers appear to be based on older B&O designs). What's worse is that the high end of audio is moving away from spending tens of thousands of dollars on top flight design to spending hundreds of dollars on top flight design ...from Apple. Bose had the right idea when it put together a $300 iPod speaker dock -- as long as they understand that it obviates the need for any of their standalone products. Home theater systems are safe, for now, because their purpose is video, not music. While B&O offers speakers that can be sold for home theater use, it doesn't sell packaged home theater systems in the $2,000 - $3,000 range like Bose does. Custom installers selling higher priced gear are looking for audiophile performance or invisible in-wall options -- not B&O style art pieces.
So where are the profits coming from? Clues come later in the article: lower expenses. Roughly a third of the company's employees were laid off, and dozens of stores were closed. The company is planning to moved some production out of Denmark and over to Eastern Europe.
That's good operations management, but not a strategy. I seriously question B&O's product development priorities. I would expect them to capitalize on what's left of the brand and attack Bose in mid-priced packaged systems, move into custom installation in a big way, or both. Why why why an overpriced PVR? It had better absolutely set the world on fire because it's competing amongst a sea of struggling PVR vendors, not to mention Microsoft and cable operators. In the meantime, the iPod is melting away the design-oriented audio business.