CES 2005: During Press Day The Word is High Definition

CES 2005: The day before the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) show begins is known as Press Day. It is so named because the day is filled by a host of press conferences and announcements for the media at the show that are conducted by the largest Consumer Electronics and TV firms in the industry. Here’s a quick run down on some of the trends and highlights from Press Day at CES 2005.

The Word is High Definition
Last year’s Press Day at CES featured a major focus on TV and video products with flat panel technologies like LCD, Plasma, DLP and LCOS, among others. This year the emphasis was similar – with a refinement. The big companies learned during 2004 that what consumers are really after in the TV market isn’t necessarily flat panel TVs, but rather TVs of all types that include High Definition TV (HDTV) playback. So everything this year – TV and otherwise – was couched as being “High Definition” from several companies (i.e. High Definition TV, High Definition Video, High Definition Audio, etc.)

So Wednesday was filled with announcements of broader product lines of many TV technologies offering High Definition TV playback. Not surprisingly the emphasis in flat panel display types differed by where each company has placed their bets (so to speak) in this area. So we heard Pioneer continue to tout Plasma technology as the way to go for such sets while Sharp was equally vocal about the benefits of LCD TVs (like their best selling Aquos TVs, soon to be available in sizes up to 65″!)
We heard Toshiba claim that their new Surface Conduction Electron Emitter Display (SET) technology sets which will come to market before year’s end will top both Plasma and LCD in consumer interest and market share by 2008. Companies with access to multiple technologies like LG Electronics proved more agnostic championing both LCD and Plasma, along with slimmer editions of traditional CRT based sets as well.

And we even heard about a new type of TV – so called “SDTVs” (Standard Definition TV) which will include ATSC digital chip sets that offer “DVD quality resolution” (read 480i) at very low prices – starting at just under $300 – from firms like Thomson’s RCA brand this Spring.

What About Audio and High Resolution Audio?
But enough about High Definition TV and Video. As was the case last year, we didn’t hear a lot about High Resolution Audio – or Audio at all for that matter in the prepared remarks by the major companies. Of couse, when we did hear about it, the firms dubbed it High Definition Audio and placed the information in their press releases and materials vs. making a major statement about them.

Two New Universal Disc Players From Toshiba
High Fidelity Review readers will recall from last year’s CES Show that Toshiba surprised some in the industry by moving from DVD Audio only players to models that included Super Audio CD playback as well. That approach continues this year. During their presentation at Press Day, Toshiba officials said that “Toshiba will continue to support and release Universal Disc players that offer both Multichannel SACD and DVD-A playback.”

Toshiba backed that pledge with the introduction of two new Universal Disc Players – the SD-6980 and the SD-5980 – during Wednesday’s product announcements. The SD-6980 and SD-5980 both support Multi Channel SACD and DVD-A playback as well as HDMI output with video upconversion to 720p and 1080i for owners of High Definition TV sets.

They also feature a Memory Card slot that supports 10 formats (SD-6980) and 9 formats (SD-5980) as well as Divx playback on the SD-6980. The Toshiba SD-5980 will sell for a list price of $149.99 and be available in March while the SD-6980 will sell for $199.99 starting in July.

Continued Interest in 1 Bit Audio and Universal Players at Sharp
Sharp also indicated its continued interest in both 1 Bit Audio and Universal Disc Players and Systems with its announcements. Sharp officials said we would see new products in these categories during 2005.

Backing that up, Sharp’s press announcements included the new SD-PX2 Home Theater System. It includes five 35 Watt, 1 Bit Sharp Amplifiers and both SACD and DVD-A playback.

Other features on the SD-PX2 include a sealed disc system to protect against dust, Dolby Digital and DTS decoding and sound balance and bass management controls. The SD-PX2 is available today and sells for a suggested retail price of $599.95.

Pioneer’s New Universal Disc Player
Speaking of Universal Disc players, Pioneer also added a new model to its DVD line up. The company’s DV-588A-S will play back DVD Video, Multichannel SACD and DVD-A and Divx encoded discs.

It also plays DVD-R, DVD-RW discs as well as MP3 and JPG formatted files. Other features include Pure Cinema progressive scan DVD Video playback, Dolby Digital and DTS compatibility and 12 bit video processing. The new DV-588A-S will be available in April for a suggested list price of $199.

Super Audio CD Players from Philips and Sony
As with the other major players, we didn’t hear much about audio or SACD during the prepared media presentations from Philips or Sony. However, we did learn that both firms continue to support the SACD format and plan to introduce SACD equipped disc players and Home Theater Systems during 2005.

In the case of Philips, the topic of SACD was raised during the Q and A portion of their media event. Philips officials said that we would see SACD equipped products released during the year. Indications are that the first of these announcements from Philips will come in the Spring or Summer.

The story was similar at Sony with one exception – the announcement of a new high end, statement SACD player. Sony’s media release mentioned 12 new DVD players coming out soon with HDMI outputs to satsify consumer interest in that feature for use with High Definition TV sets. But there was no detail on the models, features and prices of these players.

When I asked Sony officials about that they admitted that details on these players would be formally announced in the Spring. Based on what we saw last year, the introductions will most likely occur during Sony’s annual Spring Product Announcements which usually occur in March or April. But the officials at Sony Electronics did stress that most of the models would feature SACD Surround Sound playback, as was the case last year.

Turning to the Sony booth at CES, Super Audio CD was represented there under the heading of “Ultimate Fidelity Sound” with a playback setup consisting of the company’s XA9000ES Multichannel SACD and CD player and the MDR-SA5000 Stereo Headphones. At the SACD stand, one could listen to selections from Yo Yo Ma’s “Solo” SACD which sounded very nice on the demo station.

The one new SACD product introduction from Sony was their long rumored Qualia series 007 Stereo SACD player and system. I’ll have more on that product later in the week.

A Few Words About HD-DVD and Blu-Ray Disc
Before leaving the Press Day story, I should provide a quick mention about the upcoming HD-DVD and Blu-Ray Disc formats. The competing formats are touted as the “next generation” replacement for today’s DVD Video format and should arrive in the U.S. market in late 2005 and early 2006.

As with DVD, the initial focus will be on each format’s movie playback functionality with data and audio features being highlighted later. At least that is how the major players we heard from on Wednesday see it for the most part.

But it is also clear that neither camp is planning to back down or talk about merging the formats – as we saw just before the introduction of the DVD format when the Toshiba/Warner and Sony/Philips camps took features from each of their Digital Disc proposals and brought their competing formats together to create DVD.

Toshiba and Thomson Talk HD-DVD
HD-DVD or High Definition DVD is backed by Toshiba, Warner, NEC, Thomson and Sanyo along with several movie studios. Toshiba says that HD-DVD is a format that will be cheaper to replicate, earlier to come to market and its disc capacity is adequate for video and movie playback. For larger data storage needs, Toshiba will team the HD-DVD drive with one of their high capacity .8″ hard drives according to their spokesman. Toshiba officials also said that they were “100% confident that HD-DVD will be a suprior format to the Blu-Ray Disc.”

During Press Day, Thomson said that we would see an HD-DVD player from their RCA brand in the U.S. market in December 2004. They then offered a bit of a surprise by indicating that sometime in 2006 that player might be followed by a Blu-Ray Disc player from the firm as well.

Blu-Ray Comments from Pioneer and Sony, Among Others
The competing Blu-Ray camp has a broader array of supporting companies including Pioneer, Sony, Philips, Panasonic, Hewlett Packard, Dell, TDK and a number of others. During Press Day, we heard from several of the firms supporting Blu-Ray including LG Electronics, Panasonic, Pioneer, Sharp, Philips and Sony.

Blu-Ray supporters note that the current Blu-Ray disc format can store 50GB of data or content with a 200GB Blu-Ray disc already in prototype form from Sony. They feel that the larger amount of capacity on a Blu-Ray Disc vs. today’s DVD format and the proposed HD-DVD format makes Blu-Ray more attractive as a data storage device to the computer industry and offers more room for added features and interactivity to the movie and gaming industries. As to image quality, Philips representatives said the quality of movies on a Blu-Ray disc “are astonishing”.

Sony’s Press Day presentation included a mention of the Blu-Ray disc as well as a series scenes from Sony Pictures movie catalog as played on a Blu-Ray demo disc. Sony America CEO and Chairman Howard Stringer endorsed the Blu-Ray format and noted that Sony’s recent acquisition of the MGM and United Artists movie catalogs would help move the format forward when the first Blu-Ray disc players arrive on the market.

Officials at Pioneer were the most forceful fans of the Blu-Ray format at Wednesday’s Press Day event. Andy Parsons, Senior Vice President of New Product Development told the media that he found Blu-Ray’s larger capacity and superior interactive features when compared with the HD-DVD format quite compelling and that the industry and consumers shouldn’t accept a format that only offers an incremental improvement over today’s DVD format.

Parsons even went so far to say that “Packaged media should deliver the best possible HDTV experience. Blu-Ray disc has the highest capacity available for the best quality AV and bonus features. Pioneer believes we should never settle for less that the very best we can achieve.”

Well, the gloves are certainly off on this battle. We’ll be watching the progress of both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray disc with interest in the months ahead. It should be an interesting process, that’s for sure!