2015 reminds me of 2008 and that is a good thing! I think...
Back in January 2008 I attended my first ever CES show.It turned out to be a momentous event as HD-DVD was finally defeated in the high-def disc format war by Blu-ray. I not only saw the now infamous Pioneer floating ring demo that year, but I also had the chance to see a behind closed doors demo of the 9th generation of the Pioneer Kuro plasma. Obviously January 2008 was full of optimism and promise for the consumer electronics world as we had new audio codecs with near lossless quality to add to Blu-ray discs and high definition plasma TVs with stunning black levels and reference performance. Even a new TV technology called OLED was being mentioned as a possible future product, although at that time it was a small screen offering. What happened that year? The world economy collapsed, Pioneer ended up pulling the plug by year's end and most of the hot new tech on display was either quickly launched, or quietly put on the back-burner.
I think it is accurate to say that even up until last year, when Panasonic finally decided to kill off plasma, there wasn’t a great deal of confidence or even an appetite for new technology launches within the industry. But this year’s CES was different in a number of ways to what has been shown over the last six years, and yet, most of it remains the same. I should point out that my opinion here is very much in the TV & home cinema camp. Not the fast changing tablet and mobile markets that, despite the biggest recession in living memory, still continue to break records. The core interest areas of the typical AVForums member move a little slower than the latest iPhone launch and sometimes that is not a bad thing at all. Yet, reading some of the comments in the CES threads certain members seem to want their cake and eating privileges - NOW!The vast majority of TVs on display at this year’s CES were LED LCD models.OLED was on show and LG announced their largest line-up yet with all the models managing to be 4K resolution. However it was the old school tech of LCD that had all the new buzzwords surrounding it. High Dynamic Range and Quantum Dots were the big news stories. Some of the demos we witnessed on the show floor and behind closed doors were fantastic and there is no denying that this new tech promises to bring a new lease of life to LED LCD.
But at the same time the cynical side of me also sees this as a stop gap by the majority of manufacturers - to give them time to develop OLED further. It’s no secret that LG are still the only game in town for Organic LED TV, so the rest have to look at biding some time and yet still be seen to develop Ultra HD and more. And let’s face it, 4K on its own was always going to be a hard sell to the general public. Since the dawn of 4K for the home AVForums has consistently stated that along with the resolution jump we need a wider colour gamut, preferably DCI which is already used in the cinema, and at the very least any spec should be 10bit. At last, that seems to be happening.
It’s interesting that it was CES 2008 that sprang to mind at the start of my piece, due to the innovation and mood, because around the same period in time I recall seeing my first demonstration of Dolby Vision (HDR) at the Bristol Sound & Vision show. Sim2 had arranged a closed door press event on the Friday of the show, where we saw the first UK outing of Dolby’s technology on a TV. I think it is fair to say that although it impressed with the brightness on offer back then, the rest didn’t really set the pulse racing. So, the recent spate of HDR and Dolby Vision announcements are not entirely fresh or new. But, they are a far cry from the end results seen at Bristol.HDR can look stunning with correctly encoded material.This time around with 4K resolution, efficient LED backlights, fully localised dimming technology and 500-1000nits of brightness, the results with HDR encoded demo material is genuinely jaw dropping. The best demonstration we saw of what is possible was with Samsung, and their showing of Exodus and Life of Pi. When you get the chance to watch properly demonstrated HDR, with properly encoded material, you start to realise the full potential of the technology. It might only be shown on LED LCD sets at the moment, but we see a very bright (pun intended) future for whatever version of HDR the industry alliance picks - be that Dolby or another proprietary flavour.
It is possible for the tech to be clever enough to set your new HDR display up correctly to show the right colours at the correct brightness and intensity (traditional gamma will be a thing of the past). All the end user would need to do is set the brightness and contrast of the TV for the room it is used in. If the final specifications for HDR are for the correct mapping of DCI/P3 then technically you will be seeing a properly mapped cinema colour space and gamma in your living room. As AV enthusiasts this has to be the Holy Grail of TV? With such potential within our grasp we just hope that the recently announced UHD Alliance can persuade the industry that this is the way to go. Fingers crossed.
TV is looking bright and colourful for the next twelve months, but it is not the only part of our hobby that has some new bells and whistles to shout about. 2015 is also shaping up to be the year of immersive sound. CES was my first opportunity to hear a full Dolby Atmos demonstration. It still seems strange that the latest in cinema sound is already heading to the home; before it has even been installed in the majority of UK cinemas. Of course Dolby was not the only show in town as we also had demos from Auro-3D and the new DTS: X.
I won’t go into any great detail about the three formats here; we cover the subject in-depth in this week’s podcast and Steve Withers has also written a piece here.
What I will say though is that all three have great potential and at the end of the day it will be content that decides the winner, if any. As for preferences I thought the DTS: X demo was a little distorted (show floor location doesn’t help) and a little unfocussed in their demo layout as opposed to a traditional theatre layout. The Dolby system is immersive and impressive, but I also felt it was a little hot in the mix, like it was trying too hard for me to hear the ceiling channels and the effects that it could create. I will however also state that the upward firing Atmos speakers did work incredibly well with a flat reflective ceiling and this could be a very good solution for most installations.
The Auro-3D system felt the most planted and assured of the three system demos, but for a first time listener it might also have seemed to be a little too laid back and not as in your face as the Dolby demo. Finally, unlike the days of Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio, the fact that we could possibly have three different speaker layouts might ultimately prove to be the downfall of all these new formats. It will be interesting to see if any compromise can be found on speaker locations to help with the adoption of all the new immersive formats.
This year I left CES feeling like I had seen some interesting and obtainable TV technology, mixed with some exciting developments in the immersive audio world, and a genuinely healthy home cinema industry after what appears to have been so many dull years. Of course I don’t have to tell you that we will be testing everything mentioned here in the very near future in our reviews and articles. So, bring it on!
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