Inside Sony - Houston, We have a Solution

Day 4 of AVForums visit to Sony's head office in Tokyo

by Steve Withers Feb 19, 2012 at 5:20 PM

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    Inside Sony - Houston, We have a Solution
    So far on this trip we have seen how Sony intends to upgrade their Monolithic design and improve their picture and sound quality, now on the final day, we had a chance to see how they planned to improve their internet capability.
    We have often pointed out in our reviews that Sony’s internet platform is too disparate, resulting in features being lost and as such it really needed to be more centralised. Well it would seem they’ve been listening because theSony Entertainment Network does just that. It can be accessed by hitting the SEN button on the remote control and thanks to a well designed and effective user interface, you can directly access all the network features, such as Apps, Video, Music, Favourite, Twitter, Facebook etc.

    There is also a video search function which should prove very effective at searching both the EPG and YouTube for content, collectively displaying the results for easy viewing. There is also the TrackID function, which quickly searches the Gracenote database and identifies music related information heard on TV broadcasts, streaming video and packaged media. There are also mobile apps that allow Android and Apple devices to work with the Sony Entertainment Network and allow for cross-device connectivity. Media Remote allows users to ‘throw’ content from the smartphone or tablet to the TV or ‘catch’ the content from the TV to the smartphone or tablet.

    These enhanced internet features will be available on many 2012 TVs and Blu-ray disc players but there will be no upgrade for older models. Despite the general lack of interest in internet TV, a fact that appears to be supported by Sony’s own survey, Sony are placing a great deal of importance on this technology and there’s no denying that the latest incarnation is both attractive to look at and effectively put together, resulting in a genuinely pleasing experience.

    Sony also demonstrated their new Network Media Player (NSZ-GS7) and Blu-ray Disc Player (NSZ-GP9) both of which are powered by Google TV and offer a effective way of upgrading your existing TV. Users can connect these devices to their TV via HDMI and seamlessly watch TV broadcasts, enjoy apps and browse the internet. This easy and intuitive operation is made possible by the new remote control which is equipped with a touch pad, a full keyboard with back light, microphone for voice search and game compliant three axis motion sensor.

    The interaction was easy thanks to the new remote control and I found the user interface to be very well designed and intuitive to use, as well as incredibly responsive. Along with the video search, TrackID and Media Remote features mentioned previously, these new devices can also simultaneously display websites or apps on the same screen, along with the TV broadcast. In addition, users can enjoy thousands of apps for games, music, sports, news and more on Android Market, including about 150 apps designed and optimized for their TV. In reality, it would seem that anyone with a smartphone can almost do as much with their internet enabled TV, as you can with these Google TV devices but as I mentioned earlier they might prove popular with consumers who want to upgrade their existing TV. Whatever the overall merits of Google TV, one thing is for sure, it will be interesting to see how it performs when it's released in the summer.

    Sony have spent a lot of time and energy in trying to get better sound from small speakers and, as a result, we were given a demonstration of their new magnetic fluid speakers. These speakers use a magnetic fluid that was originally developed by NASA for possible use in space but this version has been refined by Sony, making it more magnetic. A traditional speaker will consist of a coil, a damper and a magnet but the new Magnetic Fluid Speaker uses a magnetic fluid to replace the damper. This approach results in a thinner and lighter construction, which in turn allows for more innovative designs.

    This approach also eliminates the sound pressure generated by the damper and thus offers much reduced distortion. The magnetic fluid speakers certainly sounded great and although they are currently only available as part of the Blu-ray Home Theatre System (BDV-BDV-NX Series) or the Micro Component System (CMT-V50/74), I think it would be safe to assume that this technology will migrate across to TVs in the near future, which might help improve the sound found on them. Still it was interesting to see that technology originally developed for the space programme is now being used to provide a solution to the age old problem of getting good performance from smaller and thinner speakers.

    Sony also had an interesting set of products on show, that had been designed specifically to address how we listen to music these days - with many of us often storing it on multiple devices and listening to the content whilst being engaged in other activities. This new line of wireless speakers can deliver sound from iOS or Android sources, including smartphones or tablets, as well as from a cloud or streaming from other devices. There are three models, the NS310, NS410 and NS510 all of which include 360 degree omni-present sound that means these speakers sound great wherever you're positioned relative to the speaker itself.

    The top of the line version, the NS510, also has a rechargeable battery built-in, thus allowing it to be easily moved around the house. These new speakers certainly sounded good and their flexibility in terms of delivering content and the mobility of the NS510, could make them very interesting to anyone looking for a viable alternative to a Sonos system.

    Along similar lines to the wireless speakers, Sony also had a new iPod docking station on display, complimenting an existing line-up of products that already make Sony the world's largest manufacturer of iPod docks. This latest dock seeks to combine all of the factors that Sony have been concentrating on to date - sound quality, design and flexibility - resulting in a truly excellent product. The dock includes wireless streaming and a smartphone app and the design of the dock and the use of magnetic fluid speakers, is intended to reproduce a far more expansive and less boxy sound than with previous designs.

    This new dock has been treated like a hi-fi product and the sound has been tuned with great tonal balance, good timing and improved bass response. Sony were so confident of their new iPod dock, that the had it set up against a Geneva M Sound iPod dock and in direct comparison, the new SonyiPod dock did provide a much wider sound field that still had tight focusing and good bass integration.

    Finally, we had a chance to get a first listen to Sony's new top of the line STR-DA5700ES AV receiver, which includes all of Sony's latest audio developments. The STR-DA57000ES combines a high speed engine network hub with a parallel DAC architecture. The network hub uses a specially designed circuit board with an independent power source, resulting in minimised distortion from power circuitry and fast and lossless transmission of all major file formats. The parallel DAC architecture results in a signal to noise ratio that has been improved by 3dB, as well as an improved sense of airiness and audibility to instruments.

    There are also the now obligatory smartphone apps and soundfield modes, as well as a sound optimiser that uses a stereo microphone for quick and effective set-up and calibration of the speakers. There is also a loudness control that uses measurements of the viewing environment and sophisticated digital signal processing to adjust how the room affects the sound at different volume levels. This means that even at lower volume levels the audio retains the original mix and thus the soundfield remains which is ideal for listening at night or in a small room.

    To demonstrate this we watched a scene from Spider-man 3 at different volume levels and sure enough the soundfield always remained expansive and immersive. The STR-DA57000ES also includes additional height channels and whilst this isn't new, Yamaha have had height channels for about 15 years, what was unusual was the source content. We were lucky enough to be the first journalists to hear a soundtrack that had been specifically remixed with discrete height channels. The sound engineers at Sony Pictures had taken the film 'Salt' and remixed the original 5.1-channel soundtrack into a new 7.1-channel mix where the two additional channels are the left and right front height channels.

    The results were surprisingly effective but to be honest there are precious few moments in a film where additional height information is really needed or even discernible to the human ear. At the end of the day, this was purely an experiment and as far as I know there is no intention to start remixing a film's soundtrack to include a height channel.

    I would just like to take this opportunity to thank everyone at Sony for what was an absolutely fascinating and highly enlightening trip to Tokyo. The Sony staff from both the UK and Japan were all wonderful and attentive hosts and after living in Tokyo for two years, it was lovely to be offered the chance to return there again. The entire trip was a fantastic experience and offered the ideal circumstances under which to get a first look at what Sony has in store for us this year and even beyond. Having done so, I think it's fair to say that Sony is most definitely back!

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