CES: Press Day at CES & News Off The Show Floor

Wednesday was “press day” at the 2004 edition of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Press Day at CES is an opportunity for major vendors to spend an hour each with the members of the press covering the show to lay out their “vision” for the year ahead.

Turning to Super Audio CD and DVD Audio, there were a couple of new products mentioned during press day. Interestingly, the day’s biggest news item about SACD and DVD-A occurred not at CES but off the show floor. That news involved a report from the U.K. that Warner Music may soon dump their support of the DVD Audio format.

The Big Picture at Press Day
This year, the press day agenda included a number of major vendors including LG Electronics, Pioneer, Panasonic, Thomson, Philips and Sony. Since the goal of the day is to talk about upcoming new products and trends, there isn’t much time spent on products that are now available. That was very evident on Wednesday when most of the talk was not on familiar products like Audio Systems, Home Theater Systems or even DVD Video.

The focus this year was clearly on Flat Panel Television Units, DVD Recorders and In Dash GPS Navigator/Entertainment sets. These are the areas that the Consumer Electronics majors see as contributing to their bottom line in the next year. In fact, there was so much focus on Flat Panel sets that one industry analyst specializing in this area told me he found it hard to believe that this many firms will be able to survive in that market segment. We’ll see if his prediction pans out.

Warner Music to Drop DVD Audio?
An article in the U.K.’s Financial Times by Richard Milne provided the biggest news of the day in the High Resolution Audio arena and talk at CES. In it, Milne highlighted some of the progress the Super Audio CD format has made over the past year with some of their big name releases including the Bob Dylan Remastered Series, Sting’s “Scared Love” album, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, The Police and the Rolling Stones Remastered Series.

He notes that some of the titles, primarily those being released as “single inventory” discs where the Hybrid SACD serves as both the SACD and standard CD release of the album, are selling quite well, with several titles moving over 100,000 units – a target seen as an indicator of strong sales in the industry. The article also quotes officials at Universal Music, Acoustic Sounds, Sony and Philips citing audiophile interest in the format and its high quality audio and copy protection aspects.

However, the section of the article that drew the most attention is Milne’s comment that

“Warner is the only one of the five record majors not producing SACDs and rumours abound that it will soon pull out of DVD-A.”

There has much speculation about where Warner Music will go in the high resolution audio market now that the Music Division is being sold off to the Bronfman Group. AOL Time Warner has owned some Intellectual Property (IP) used in the DVD Audio format and this has given them a strong incentive to remain faithful to the DVD-A format and their DVD-A release plans. If the IP rights remain at AOL Time Warner after the sale of the Music Division is complete, the new owner may not have the same financial incentive to continue in that direction. We will watch and see what develops next.

Wireless Surround Speakers Come To SACD & DVD-A
Moving back to activities at Press Day, the key trend seems to be the addition of Home Theater in a Box units that include wireless speakers. We heard that written press materials from Pioneer, Sony and Pioneer during the day.

In addition, several vendors handed out press announcements for new high resolution audio players but those are for the most part “embargoed” until tomorrow. So we’ll talk about those then. From a brief look, most of the upcoming announcements appear to continue the trend towards “universal players” that put SACD, DVD-A and DVD Video all in one unit.

The exceptions are found here and there along with the sponsors of SACD (Sony and Philips) and DVD-A (Panasonic, Meridian & Toshiba) who continue to focus on players that include their format’s technology only. That’s probably not too surpising given the royalties that each company receives from their respective format.

Sony Announces Dream System With Wireless Rear Speakers
At the Sony event at Press Day, the media was treated to four of the company’s new “Aibo Entertainment Robots” dancing on stage. After that opening, the execs from Sony covered their new products. SACD was given a brief mention as evidence of the company’s expertise in audio.

As for new products, the key new product of interest in the high resolution arena is a Sony Dream System Home Theater In A Box unit that, like the two upcoming products from Pioneer, uses wireless technology for the surround channel rear speakers. The DAV-FR10W includes the new Sony “DIAT” (Digital Infrared Audio Transmission System) technology. Sony says that this technology “transfers digital audio signals without compression or compromise to sound quality. It ensures pure audio reproduction without deterioration that might be present in other wireless transmission methodologies.” The system also supports SACD, CD and DVD Video playback along with Dolby Digital and Pro Logic II, DTS-ES and MP3 formats. The new DAV-FR10W system is scheduled to be available in September for a list price of “about $1,000.”

Wireless Home Theater System from Philips
Philips opened its Press Day event with three video montages with music. One of these featured brief audio clips of artists with Super Audio CD discs on the market including Peter Gabriel, Sting, Bon Jovi, Roger Waters, Diana Krall, The Cardigans, Era, Shaggy, Shania Twain, Norah Jones, Anne Sophie Mutter and Celia Bartoli.

The key new announcement in the high resolution audio arena was a new Home Theater in a Box system, the LX 3950W, which is slated for release in April at a suggested list price of $399. The system features SACD, CD and DVD Video playback along with Dolby Digital and Dolby Pro Logic II for Home Theater. The LX 3950W features color coded connectors and a 3 step set up guide. According to Philips, the unit “provides best-in-class sound, giving the consumer the ultimate listening experience.”

3 New Products from Pioneer
At the Pioneer press event, neither format was mentioned by name. However, Pioneer continues its approach of putting out Universal player and system products. In their CES press kit, they announced 3 new Home Theater In A Box (HTIB) products that include SACD, DVD-A and DVD Video playback.

The HTD-645DV (due in July for $700) and the HTD-540HD (due in May for $600) feature 5 disc changers, SACD, CD and DVD-A playback, Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS and MP3 formats. Of note here is that these two units feature the option of wired or wireless rear channel speakers. The wireless option involves the use of a “transponder” that is placed at the front of the room and sends the rear channel signals to the back of the room wirelessly using the 2.4GHz frequency often used in 802.11 home wireless networks. The units also have a virtual surround circuit for consumers that wish to place all of the speakers in the front of the room.

Also new from Pioneer is the HTZ-940DV Home Theater in a Box system ($1,400 list price, due in May). In addition to supporting SACD, DVD-A, CD and DVD Video playback, this system features NXT’s “Surface Surround” flat panel speakers. Pioneer says the product is significant in that the new flat panel speakers from NXT will match the style of the new flat panel TV units now so popular in the home market.

Panasonic Lowers Entry Price of 2 Channel DVD-A Playback
Panasonic used the show to announce a new line of “multi-format DVD players”. All of the players feature playback of DVD Video, DVD-R, DVD-RAM, CD-R, CD-RW, MP3, Windows Media Audio, JPEG and High Mat formats.

The “top of the line player” in the series, the DVD-S97 ($299.95 list price, due out in April) is a single disc player that also features Multichannel DVD-A playback along with the Farouja DCDi chip for video. It also includes an HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) connection which the company says

“provides high quality, uncompressed digital audio/video signal transmission.”

Moving down the line, the DVD-F87 adds a 5 disc player and Multichannel DVD-A playback to the series ($129.95 list price, due out in April) while two more models – the single disc DVD-S47 ($99.95 list price, available in April) and the DVD-F86 five disc changer ($119.95 list price, due in April) “add 2 Channel DVD Audio to the mix” according to Panasonic.

On to the Show
Well, not a lot of news at the pre-show Press Day on Wednesday, but tomorrow we will be able to start talking about the announcements from the show itself. And there are some interesting new products there. I’m looking forward to that.