Letter from America: CEDIA EXPO 2014 in Review

After an event as broad as the annual CEDIA EXPO, held last month in the Mile High City of Denver, Colorado, there is the temptation to delve into the details of this or that product, this or that trend and all of the other traditional ways of viewing a major trade show.

That is particularly so at a time like this, when we are in the midst of more significant marketplace and technology changes than our industry has seen in many years.

That said, it should come as no surprise to frequent readers of these Letters that I see things a bit differently. Not that I'm confrontational, mind you, but 'format battles' have been part of virtually every advancement the consumer electronics business has seen over the decades - now centuries. Sometimes there is a clear winner and a loser (think VHS vs Beta or Baird's electro-mechanical television system vs. electronic systems from EMI, RCA and others). Sometimes it is a draw, where all sides get a measure of traction in the market with technically different ways of doing the same thing (think LP vs 45RPM records, Dolby Digital vs DTS or ATSC vs DVB-T). Sometimes a good idea has a number of different solutions, and none really makes an impact - in the end none is a success and they are all replaced with something totally different (think DCC vs DAT, with the arrival of CD killing off both analogue and digital cassettes). 

Perhaps most often, particularly in recent years, both sides attract enough proponents such that both survive without one or the other totally dominating the market, as seems to be the case with the likes of ZigBee vs Z-Wave. Indeed, over 130 years ago, the 'Battle of the Currents' started things off as Edison's DC camp vied for market acceptance against Westinghouse and Tesla (the man, not the car!) who promoted AC. That was one of the few things that didn't work out well for Edison, leaving us with the historical lesson that being famous and a big player helps, but doesn't always mean that you win. In addition to that first CE skirmish and those mentioned above, I have seen battles for mind and market share between various video disc formats: Video8 vs VHS-C; USB vs FireWire; plasma vs LCD; NTSC vs PAL vs SECAM and more than a few others. 

As a final reminder, the 'better' technology doesn't always win, as the supporters of Betamax used to remind us way back when. It is wise to keep that in mind while we now look at the contenders in the 'battles' that were in the ring last month in Denver. 

Battle #1: New Audio Formats - Dolby Atmos vs Auro-3D
CEDIA EXPO 2104 was the true public coming out party for the consumer versions of Dolby Atmos and Auro-3D. It was hard to walk from one aisle to another in most parts of the Denver Convention Center without seeing lines of delegates waiting to get into one company's audio demo or another. The demos ranged from the massive JBL Synthesis presentation with more power and speakers than in many cinemas - indeed, the demo used all 'professional' products, including a cinema decoder - to mid-sized demo rooms from companies such as Dolby, to many of the major AVR brands such as Denon, and down to the more modest demo rooms from the likes of Golden Ears. 

All sounded good, and more importantly, most made the case for object-based audio and using either in-ceiling speakers or Dolby's unique 'Dolby Enabled' or 'Elevation' speakers that sit atop floor or shelf-placed speakers and bounce sound off the ceiling to achieve the full dome of total surround. Indeed, many listeners preferred the Elevation speakers to the ceiling- mounted ones, or at least could not tell the difference. Like it or not, the anticipated marketing push from Dolby and its licensees will make this something your clients will be aware of and will ask for. 

Fortunately, the speaker type and installation options of Atmos make it possible to fit it into most room environments. With Atmos in one corner, fighting out of San Francisco, in the other corner, weighing in from Belgium, was Auro-3D. Where Atmos demos and hardware were seemingly everywhere, Auro-3D was limited to its own, admittedly impressive, demo room where another cinema-like presentation with a variety of movie and music content was played. Auro differs from Atmos most distinctly with regard to speaker placement, requiring front and rear 'height' speakers' to add a 'top layer' of sound that may also be augmented by a ceiling centre speaker referred to as the 'VOG' or 'Voice of God'. Auro's approach does not allow for only in-ceiling or 'Elevation' speakers at this time, although time will tell if that works to sonic expectations in real-life installations. The 'layered' soundfield approach taken by Auro along with a more channel- than object-based sound design makes this one of those 'two companies trying to do more or less the same thing in different ways that are kinda-sorta compatible but not really' situations. With that, the natural question is whether it sounded as good as Atmos, better than Atmos or worse than Atmos. 

With the caveat that, beyond a basic quality benchmark that both systems clearly met and surpassed, this quickly becomes a matter of the specific installation, the room acoustics and the demo material. Oh, and the listeners' expectations, biases and perceptions have more than a little influence. To my ears, Auro-3D sounded a bit more 'height-heavy' than Atmos and I preferred the more immersive nature of the demos, but, as the car ads say on this side of the pond, 'Your mileage may vary'. Any winner here? No, not enough data yet, but this is just one of the 'battles' that started at CEDIA which I urge you to watch. 

Battle #2: In-Ceiling Speakers - Origin vs SpeakerCraft (and every other brand)
What happens when the guy behind a major brand leaves the ring along with his team and then returns to do battle with his former company? That is the unspoken but very visible battle we saw at EXPO between Jeremy Burkhardt and his new Origin Acoustics organisation and his old stomping grounds at Core Brands' SpeakerCraft. Origin fired a number of salvos with totally new lines across the board, but with EXPO placing a new focus on in-ceiling speakers thanks to Atmos and Auro3D, that is where most of the shots were taken. 

Trumpeting the broad dispersion characteristics that will benefit both of the new formats, Origin's new lines made that a forefront feature along with requisites such as what I will call 'aimability' and some very clever advances in physical design that will make installation simpler and quicker. Oh, and yes, they did sound good. While not fighting back directly in so many words, SpeakerCraft's new in-ceiling offerings were clearly ready to go to battle and fend off market grabs by the new contender. They, too, promoted ways that their new models were easier to install, had broad dispersion and, of course, they also sounded good. In particular, I was drawn to what can only be described as a 'mini line-array' of tweeters that pivot and rotate for SpeakerCraft's version of aimability. 

Along with these two heavyweights, various advances in this category were all over the exhibition floor, so you are probably asking, 'Who won?' There, the answer on my score card is not any supplier company, but YOU and, by extension, your clients and customers. Competition of this sort can only lead to products that are easier to work with, price-competitive and higher in quality as everyone tries to raise the bar so that they can outdo the other guy. THIS is the kind of battle where, hopefully, no one gets hurt and everyone benefits. Here's to more battles like that! 

Battle #3: Projection Displays - four K vs. faux K, or neither 
With UHD all the rage across the globe, and with Sony's announcement in the CEDIA EXPO keynote address, that its 4K content server will soon be unlocked so that it is compatible with any UHD display with HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2, 4K is poised for continued growth. Given further that it is with large screens that the true benefits of increased resolution are most demonstrable, 4K/UHD projection will increase in importance. Add to that the existing technology battles between transmissive display engines (LCD) and reflective engines (SXRD, LCoS, and others) and the differing technologies for providing the light in projection engines (UHP lamps, LED, lasers and hybrid systems), if this were a literal, rather than figurative fight, there would be blood on the floor and the authorities would be there to break things up. 

Here, however, when it comes to consumer-priced 4K projection, the choices clearly divide into two camps. Sony has SXRD-based models with true 4K projection, ceiling-mounted units with UHP engines and the formal consumer availability announcement of the laser-driven short-throw model I have covered previously. Count the pixels here and you will find the full 3840x2160 complement. 

On the opposing side is what the brands offering it call 'Pixel Shift 4K' where sophisticated image processing and other technologies are used to present a '4K' image without native 4K imagers. To the expressed dismay of one of the brands, I can't resist taking advantage of the alliteration that lets us call it 'Faux K'. Key to this one, is the first 4K-compatible line from projection powerhouse Epson, joining JVC which also uses the pixel shift technology for consumer 4K but did not have any new models this year. Epson's models mark the brand's return to reflective light engines using unique, proprietary 'Liquid Crystal on Quartz' imagers with a dual-laser light source. Proving that competition is good for all, Epson's models will set a new price benchmark with the first model coming in a bit under US$8000. 

A winner here? Again, without the ability to measure and calibrate, viewing any projection system at a trade show is subject to the unit's setup, the fact that it may have been a pre-production model, the demo material used and whether or not the observer's glasses were smudged. When fed 4K material from a RedRay player or upscaled from a Blu-ray disc, the Epson certainly acquitted itself well. It will take more extensive viewing to see if pixel shift will make a dent in the market on the back of its price, as well as quality. 

Curiously, save for the projectors with stratospheric pricing and based on professional and cinema models, my 'winner' was not any of the 4K projectors, but Sony's display of stacked 1080p projectors. The image was crisp, accurate and bright. Would it have been better with native 4K models? Perhaps. However, for the cost was it really good? Definitely. Two things to note about this. First, while enjoying the video, particularly the 'shot in 4K' footage from this spring's FIFA World Cup, after three consecutive Atmos and Auro demos, I missed the totally enveloping sound those formats present. That sold me on what a difference the new audio technologies make more than their own demos. Once you hear it, you expect it. Tied to that is the fact that good sound and good video, regardless of the resolution, may take the win away from something new. Yes, I am a strong proponent of 4K in the right place for the right application. The Sony projection demo, along with others, made a convincing case that good video and sound may sometimes trump one side being great, but not the other. 

Battle #4: High-cost 'Traditional' Automation and Control vs. Low-cost Alternatives 
A quick question: what is one of the main brands that comes to mind when you think of high-end, fully-programmable home control and automation? Yes, there are many, but Crestron will likely be in the mix for that. Second question: which brand comes to mind when you think of app-based control systems not requiring special programming knowledge with the central unit listing for well under US$1000. Until CEDIA EXPO the answer would likely NOT have been Crestron. Post-EXPO, it can be. Thanks to its new Pyng system, Crestron is suiting up to do battle. Some might say that battle is with their own traditional systems, but I see it differently. Pyng, along Elan's G! system, and other similar products at EXPO have a multi-faceted impact on the world of home control and automation.

On one hand, it provides a relatively value-priced proposition that will hopefully extend the market reach for what we do, while at the same time, making it possible to quickly configure all system elements without a PhD in Crestronology. The cost efficiency should help push back against DIY propositions by making it possible to deliver a professional system for not much more than 'bits of kit'. 

On the other hand, rather than kill off higher-priced systems, by making it possible to give consumers an entry point to taste proper integration, it leads them to want the higher-priced spread in their next home or installation upgrade. At the end of the day, this isn't a battle at all, except perhaps to fight back against market slippage to DIY. Rather, it is a win-win for the industry on all fronts. 

Other Battles Yet to be Sorted Out
Space is running out, and while I could go on, my Editor wants her Wires back! Thus, to summarise a few bits more from CEDIA EXPO, the following are some other items that I will cover in coming months: 

• AVRs with HDMI 2.0, full out to 600Mbps/18Gbps but no HDCP 2.2 versus those with HDCP 2.2 but HDMI 2.0 only out to 300MHz/9Gbps. At present, there is no AVR brand that offers BOTH the full set of HDMI 2.0 bandwidth/frequency features AND HDCP 2.2. For the moment you still have to select one aspect of future-proofing or another. Were it me, I would select a product with HDCP 2.2, but the decision is up to you and your client’s requirements. Something to consider, no matter which option you choose, until products with both arrive in volume perhaps in mid-2015. 

• The battle of all the Sonos-like wannabes against, well, Sonos, itself. Some of the new contenders such as Denon's HEOS made very credible pitches at EXPO. The only question is if its sonic quality, wireless performance and other attributes are enough to swim against the strong market position of the product and brand that has come to be an almost generic description for 'wireless whole-house speaker systems'. 

• Curved displays vs 'flat' panels. As the legacy brands fight to maintain market share against the upstart China-based brands, will curved panels be one of their weapons against price erosion, even if there is no great consumer call for them? Are curved screens futility or a weapon of necessity? 

Who Won the BIG Battle?
Brands and technologies aside, the biggest battle of all is the one for consumer mind-share. The battle to make people aware that the products and services our industry provides have value, is a matter of providing lifestyle enjoyment, entertainment, security and all that goes with it. It often isn't the price or technology alone, it is the full value proposition. Harness the ideas and the products that 'win' for your business and its customer base, and along with the training and education provided at events across the globe such as CEDIA EXPO, and by the news coverage and analysis here, the winner should be YOU. 

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires. You can contact Michael by leaving a message below or via theHiddenWires LinkedIn group, or follow him on Twitter @captnvid. 

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