CES 2006: CES Press Day Reveals Industry Trends, New SACD and DVD-A Players and The Start of A Format War

CES 2006: The day before the opening of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is known as “Press Day” where the big names in Consumer Electronics hold a series of one hour briefings for the media. This year was no exception with a series of media briefings from firms including Toshiba, Pioneer, Sharp, Philips, LG Electronics, Thomson, Panasonic and Sony. Not only were we treated to each company’s take on where the industry has been and where it’s going, but we also heard about a few new SACD & DVD-A players for the mass market as well as the start of the upcoming format war between two High Definition DVD formats – HD DVD and Blu-Ray Disc. Here are some highlights from this year’s edition of Press Day at CES.

Flat Panel TVs Are Hot
The most common theme we heard today from today’s media presentations by the big firms is that consumers are very interested in Flat Panel TVs. In fact, several firms are predicting that over 50% of all TV sales in the coming year in the U.S. market will be Flat Panel TVs. A pretty amazing statistic when you consider that these sets were cost prohibitive only a few years ago. And the firms also are seeing that the demand rate is increasing more and more rapidly as the price points on these sets drop. So they are betting big by building new factories to ramp up capacity even more in the year ahead.

While there is still some give and take among the vendors over the pros and cons of Plasma and LCD TV Sets, most agree that the consumer market is not only shifting towards Flat Panel TVs but that they are also moving towards LCD sets vs. Plasma units as the size of LCD sets increase and their price levels drop.

Even so, Plasma still has its fans in companies like Pioneer which announced a Plasma set with 35% more pixels and Panasonic which showed an upcoming Plasma set which will be 103 inches in size. On the other side of the line, Sharp showed LCD Flat Panel TVs and Computer Monitors with very fast response times and also promised a show floor display of a prototype LCD Display that has a contrast ratio of not 800:1 or 1600:1 but 1,000,000:1 ! As with their competitors in the Plasma market, Sharp is out to dispel some notions about their favored TV and Monitor technology.

Taking a different route, Toshiba plans to not only play in the Plasma and LCD markets, but they will also be showing their new “SED” (Surface Electron Emitter Display) at the show. It will initially be available in a 36″ screen size and is said to have the best features of CRT (image) and LCD and Plasma (flat panel form factor). We’ll have to stop by that demo and have a look.

Other Items Consumers Want
There was also consensus on several other product categories. The big companies are focusing on products that allow consumers to record, display and share around the house TV, Cable and Direct TV programs. They also understand consumer interest in items that are colorful, stylish, easy to use and mobile. That includes cell phones that play recorded TV programs and video (from DVRs, TIVO and Direct TV to Go) and other products including Car Audio Systems with GPS Navigation. This research should lead to many more interesting products in the year ahead.

HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray Disc – The Start of a Format War
Last year we provided you with a preview of the upcoming format war between the developers of HD-DVD (Toshiba & Warner) and Blu-Ray Disc (Sony & Philips) as part of our coverage of CES 2005. During 2005 there were some efforts to share technologies and royalties and merge the two formats (as these firms did years ago with DVD Video) to avoid a confusing and costly format battle. Unfortunately the efforts failed and everyone in the industry has been anticipating that both formats will come to market, evoking memories of the famed VHS vs. Beta video format war. Today we learned that this is indeed about to happen again.

Thomson and Toshiba Announce First HD-DVD Players In U.S. Market
During this morning’s press briefings, both Thomson and Toshiba announced that they plan to bring consumer priced HD-DVD players to market. Thomson says that their unit, the RCA HDV-5000 will arrive in the U.S. in the Summer of 2006 at a list price of $499. That brings it in at a very attractive price point.

The only damper on the news was Thomson’s announcement that they are shopping their A/V Division and planning to license its products to a third party “partner” in the year ahead. We’ll see if those plans affect the marketing of the planned RCA HD-DVD player this summer.

The HD-DVD news at Toshiba was more interesting and more detailed. Toshiba plans to roll out a pair of HD-DVD players in the U.S. this March. The HD-XA1 will sell for $799 while the HD-A1 will sell for $499. Both players will support a variety of disc types (HD-DVD, DVD Video, DVD-R/-RW, DVD-RAM, CD and CD-R/-RW) as well as current DVD and new HD-DVD “high quality audio” formats including Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby True HD (2 Channel decoder built-in), DTS and DTS-HD as well as Linear PCM. Toshiba says that the difference between the two players is that the $799 unit has “four high performance DSP engines to decode the multi-channel streams of the wide array of audio formats. They will perform the required conversion process as well as on-board Multi-Channel Signal Management including User Selectable Crossovers, Delay Management and Channel Level Management.”

Toshiba also showed a “concept model” of a Qosmio series notebook PC that included a slim line HD-DVD drive. The prototype also included USB 2.0 support, Dolby Home Theater Audio for PC and 1 bit audio technologies. No price or availability date was available yet for this potential unit.

Toshiba will support the March launch with a new HD-DVD web site and a 38 City “road show” at A/V dealers in these cities. They will tout HD-DVD as “The Format of Choice for Next Generation Optical Drives” and are emphasizing the format’s lower priced disc replicating costs, being the first player to market and the iHD interactivity features. Interestingly, Toshiba dropped their earlier emphasis on having the support of more movie studios than the competing Blu-Ray Disc format which we heard from them at last year’s show. We’ll see if being first will be enough to win the format war.

Blu-Ray Disc Players and Products Near The Finish Line
A number of companies talked about Blu-Ray Disc player introductions coming this summer or fall. So while the Blu-Ray camp has more industry support, the claims of the HD-DVD supporters that they will be first to market are clearly the case.

Pioneer has been a key player in the Blu-Ray group and they are one of the most likely companies to bring early Blu-Ray products to market. According to Andy Parsons at Pioneer, their first Blu-Ray product will be the BDR-101A BD-ROM Drive. The product is aimed at the professional market to help companies making Blu-Ray discs burn test BD discs as well as the serious hobbyist. It is a half height drive that will read and write Blu-ray and DVD discs including the BD-ROM/R/RE, DVD-ROM/DVD-R/DVD-RW and +R/+RW disc formats. It supports writing of BD-R/RE discs at 2X speed, DVD-R/+R discs at 8X speed), and DVD-RW/+RW at 4X speed. This Pioneer BD-ROM drive is due out in the First Quarter 2006 (likely March or April) for a price of $995.

Pioneer’s Elite BDP-HD1 Blu-Ray Disc Player will be a high end player aimed at “early adopters” and those seeking very high quality playback. The player also includes IP Home Networking and single wire HDMI output to allow audio and video shared content in the home and 1920 by 1080p resolution. It will be available from Pioneer Elite dealers for $1,800.

LG Electronics announced plans to ship their BD-199 Blu-Ray Disc player in the Second Quarter of 2006. It is said to support the format’s “advanced features” including easy navigation and interactivity, 1080p upsampling of standard resolution discs, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS ++ (now called DTS-HD) as well as feature a “high tech chic design”.

Sharp, Philips and Panasonic also announced plans to ship their initial Blu-Ray Disc players in the Summer of 2006. Pricing and product details were not available at this time.

Sony was the most ambitious in terms of integrating Blu-Ray Disc into their product line with several different products shown at CES. Prototypes of the Playstation 3 unit were being shown “under glass” in the Sony booth. I noted that the units featured 8 connectors on the back including one marked “AV Multi Out” which suggests that the 6 Channel Surround Sound output may appear from this connector rather than one of the HDMI connections on the unit. The prototypes also included an array of 10 logos showing the various technologies in the unit including Blu-Ray Disc, Super Audio CD, DVD Video, DTS and Dolby Digital. It should be quite an interesting unit when it arrives this summer.

Also being shown were a hand held Camcorder using a Blu-Ray Disc for storage, a Blu-Ray Internal Drive and a Blu-Ray External Drive for PC users, a prototype VAIO PC with Blu-Ray Drive that featured a 20″ display/TV called the XL-1 and prototype Blu-Ray players in both black and silver. It will be interesting to see when we hear more on availability dates and pricing on these units. But it does suggest that Sony is definitely planning to be a player in the Blu-Ray space. No doubt about it.

New Super Audio CD and DVD-A Products
After years of hearing about how Super Audio CD and DVD-A are not only high resolution but also high cost products, it’s interesting to see how affordable these features and players have become. The proliferation of IC Chips that support both audio formats have really brought these formats to even mass market priced products.

Philips introduced two new Home Theater In A Box (HTIB) systems at the show which included playback of Surround Sound and Stereo Super Audio CDs as well as Stereo CDs and DVD Video discs. The HTS-9800W is the winner of a 2006 CES Best of Innovations Award and features wall-mountable front speakers and wireless surround channel speakers. It also has HDMI, video upsampling to 720p and 1080i and DivX Ultra support.

The new Philips HTS-6500 HTIB product also supports HDMI, video upsampling, DivX Ultra as well as SACD, CD and DVD Video playback. What makes it different is the unit features the Philips “SonoWave” technology where two speakers with a number of driver elements are aimed at different angles to playback Surround Sound from SACD and DVD Video discs with only the two front speakers and a subwoofer. Both systems will be available from Philips in May 2006 – the HTS-9800W for a list price of $899 and the HTS-6500 for $399.

Pioneer announced the DV-696AV-K Universal Disc player. It supports the playback of CD Audio, DVD Video, Super Audio CD and DVD Audio discs in Stereo and Surround Sound along with DVD-R/DVD-RW and CD-R/CD-RW Playback. Pioneer’s DV-696AV-K will be available in June 2006 at a list price of only $149.

Pioneer also plans to show their recently released DV-79AVi Elite Universal Player. Introduced at the CEDIA Show in September and released in November for a list price of $1,000, this new “audiophile grade” unit supports the playing of Super Audio CD, DVD Video and DVD Audio discs in both Stereo and Surround Sound. It also has a 1394 Firewire interface to selected Pioneer receivers and is said to offer improved audio and video performance due to several features including “a triple layer chassis, separate audio transformer with dedicated power supply, drive transport mounted to the bottom of the chassis, isolated circuitry and a low center of gravity significantly reducing vibrations”.

Some Higher End SACD and DVD-A Players
When the CES show officially opens tomorrow, I’ll be able to tell you about some higher end SACD and DVD-A players and products about to hit the market. As was the case at last year’s show, it’s nice to see that the industry continues to innovate in this area and bring out more player choices for us to ponder.