CEDIA 2004: Picks and Pans

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PC World editors will go anywhere in search of the latest and greatest in consumer electronics and home theaters--even Indianapolis. (We say that with fondness because one of us used to live there.) We met in the Midwest for the recent CEDIA Expo, scouring the floor to find the hottest products and biggest disappointments. Here's a look inside our notebooks.

Big Screens, Bigger Price Tags

Mitsubishi Model WL-82913
Now That's Big: The crème de la crème when it comes to rear-projection TVs here at CEDIA was a spectacular 82-inch display from Mitsubishi. Model WL-82913 claims to be the largest mass-produced rear-projection television. It costs $15,000 and sports 1080-by-1920-pixel resolution. --Tom Spring

The World's Most Expensive DVD Player? Anybody got $27,000 to spare for a DVD player? I'd have to win the lottery to afford Kaleidescape's DVD library playback system. The hardware comes with 1.5 terabytes of storage (enough to store 180 DVDs) and can stream stored DVDs throughout your house. The system allows for fancy sorting and categorizing of DVD titles, and the firm says it has inked a deal with the licensees of the Content Scrambling System (CSS) encryption technology, so you can rip DVDs without violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. --Tom Spring

Panasonic TH-65XVS30U Onyx XVS
Hey, Big Spender: If you've got the money and are looking for the biggest (yet slimmest) televisions money can buy, then Panasonic's new TH-65XVS30U Onyx XVS 65-inch plasma set might be right up your alley. The massive display was unveiled here at CEDIA and features HDMI (High Definition and Multimedia Interface) inputs, and SD Card memory and PCMCIA card slots. The price tag? A mere $20,000. --Tom Spring

TV Altars: If you've spent a fortune on a high-tech HDTV, you can't put it on just any old stand. I spent most of the CEDIA show looking at the technology, but I did stop off for a few minutes at the Bell'o A/V furniture booth, where they were showing some airy Italian designs in glass and steel. The furniture was very light, and included nice tubes and clips in the back to make you believe there are no wires to these setups. Hey, when you've blown the equivalent of the annual food budget for a low-income family of 4 on a television, what's a few more dollars for something to set it on? --Anne B. McDonald

Must-See LCD TV: The largest LCD TV we saw was Mitsubishi's Diamond model 55-inch LT-5560 LCD TV. This boob tube for fat cats includes a high-definition personal video recorder with a 120GB hard drive and 1920-by-1080-pixel resolution. Pricing won't be available until it goes on sale in a couple of months. --Tom Spring

More From the Show Floor

Remember This Name: Gemstar-TV Guide didn't have an official presence here at the show, but several vendors such as Hitachi and Panasonic announced products that incorporate the company's electronic program guide. The free guide service updates the device using either terrestrial TV signals (no wires required) or a Net connection. TiVo, which charges a monthly $13 for guide information, better watch its back. --Tom Spring

Easy on the Arms: LG showed a really small portable DVD player (so small and light that you might actually want to carry it around). The LGDVP7772 has a 7-inch LCD; no word yet on how much it'll cost and how soon it'll ship. --Alan Stafford

That's a New Look: When it comes to consumer electronics, design rules. This year, the major manufacturers are producing lovely living-room components in the traditional favorite colors, black and silver, and--don't get too excited--black and silver together. Radical! So I must say it was refreshing to run across the Scandyna Pod speakers, which look like little aliens and come in yellow, red, carnaby blue, white, racing green, midnight blue, pearlescent white, and, yes, silver or black. On a quick listen, they also sounded good, though it's hard to judge quality on a noisy show floor. --Anne B. McDonald

You're the One That I Want: I was on the lookout for DVD players at CEDIA--specifically, ones that will play DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD discs. I saw plenty of them, but the new Yamaha DVD-S2500 looks like the one I'd want. It's $799, which sounds expensive, but this is the only player I've seen that has analog, digital coaxial, optical, FireWire, and HDMI ports--and it can export high-definition audio (DVD-A and SACD) through its digital ports. The only other player I've heard of that can export high-def audio through any digital ports is a $2000 Onkyo; all the others I saw at the show require you to connect your player to your receiver with analog cables (due to copyright restrictions and the lack of a mysterious processing chip). Of course, as one company rep said, the digital-to-analog converter in your DVD player might be better than the one in your receiver--but I'd like to have the choice. Yamaha says the DVD-S2500 will ship in January. --Alan Stafford

Installers Olympics
Olympics of Destructive Behavior: When someone said there would be an Installers Olympics at CEDIA I thought it had something to do with speedy installations and high-quality craftsmanship. Wrong. It turned out the Installer Olympics was a contest to see who could throw a hulking amplifier the farthest. On Saturday amps were flying, crashing, and smashing in the hallway. --Tom Spring

It's All About the Atmosphere

Vutec ArtScreen
You Won't Find This in a Museum: You'd think that if you dropped $20,000 on one of the hot plasma displays we've seen at CEDIA, that might be enough money spent. But no, you can trick out your giant display! One company, Vutec, takes the high road in this arena, selling an accessory called the ArtScreen. It consists of a painting inside a special hardwood frame. Just use the supplied remote control to raise or lower the ArtScreen over that plasma or projection screen when it's not in use. Wait, another remote? --Anne B. McDonald

All We Need Is Some Nice Curtains: This is my first visit to the CEDIA show, which caters to those folks who install high-end home theater systems, and I'm struck by how different the tone is from the typical computer-oriented trade show. Although the scantily-clad-lady-pointing-at-product syndrome died down with budget cuts, the PC-centric shows still have a higher testosterone quotient. Here at CEDIA, booths featured color images of fresh-faced families enjoying their home theaters together. And many large manufacturers featured not only living-room sets to scatter their products around; they also had well-designed kitchen and bedroom sets to showcase placement of the high-end displays, audio, and home automation equipment. Very Martha Stewart (pre-jail, that is). --Anne B. McDonald

Butt-Ugly: Okay, I'm going to rant now. Along with all the hardware, there were several specialty chairs, designed to keep you comfortable while watching TV on your new plasma, LCD, or microdisplay TV. I'm sorry, but calling it home theater seating doesn't make it good looking. Our parents are spending their retirements embraced by their La-Z-Boy recliners. It looks like we'll be spending ours in similar fashion, only with a drink holder recess in the arms of the thing and IRobot 27 on the screen. As the Who always said, "Hope I die before I get old." --Anne B. McDonald

Less Than Impressed

Totem Acoustics
Over the Tee-Pee Top: High-tech and tee-pees don't mix in my book. Totem Acoustic makes some smokin' loudspeakers and Totem Drum subwoofers. But the blaring DVD of a cheesy action movie projected against what looked like the back side of a buffalo pelt inside a faux tee-pee just didn't make sense. The mix of hi-tech and faux Native American décor went together about as well as George Jetson and Sitting Bull. --Tom Spring

Most Annoying Freebie: Reps from the Consumer Electronics Show were trying to generate some buzz at CEDIA for their upcoming CES mega-trade show in Las Vegas. Part of the promotion included a giveaway of hard rubber balls that, when bounced, would light-up and make high-pitched sounds. It seemed like innocent fun--that is until a malfunctioning ball started sounding off at 3 a.m.--and wouldn't stop--giving this reporter a surprise wake-up call. The solution was to wrap the squawking ball in wet towels and sit it outside my hotel door. --Tom Spring

Motion Sickness Warning: The D-Box Odyssee motion simulator looks like it belongs in a video-game parlor--or better yet, in a bar where you might ride one of those electronic bulls. It consists of two connected chairs that move in sync with your movie; actuators lift and move the seats. An internal 40GB hard drive in an external control box holds a library of F/X Motion Codes (which you can update, because it has a CD-ROM drive, an ethernet connection, and a modem). It's pretty darn expensive, too: The least-expensive model is $14,000, though a single-seat model that only costs $5000 is coming out soon. Actually, it looks like it might be fun with a movie like The French Connection--but I anticipate some unnecessary stimulation with a movie like Lost in Translation. I also wonder if it has codes for Urban Cowboy. --Alan Stafford

Acoustical Art loudspeakers
From the Loudspeaker X-Files: CEDIA had a lot of creative loudspeaker designs on display, but few were more unusual than ones at the Acoustical Art booth. These Flow design loudspeakers were created by artist Harvey Lee. They sounded great for artwork, but as a dog owner I would be concerned my dog might mistake one of these speakers for a fire hydrant. --Tom Spring

Big Screen Blues: In the land of giant TVs, several vendors complained to me that Hollywood pressured them not to show current movies on the show floor, complaining that it was a violation of a movie studio's rights. This was the case even when the TV maker had purchased the video as a way to show off their humongous screens. So, vendors without a Hollywood partnership were left showing lots and lots and lots of nature documentaries. If you've seen a giant insect eat another on a 55-inch screen once, man, that's one time too many. Of course, where a partnership was in place, the video was fantastic. Since Texas Instruments' DLP (digital light processing) technology is in major movie projectors, that booth was allowed to play dynamite clips from the movie IRobot using a projector with TI's latest iteration of the technology. Killer robots--now there's a concept to get behind! -- Anne B. McDonald

What's in a Name? It's getting harder to tell the players from the pretenders: The wide availability of off-the-shelf parts gives any little company the ability to market even the most exotic consumer electronics products. For example, at CEDIA, tons of vendors hawked plasma displays--with their own company names on the front, even though they had contributed zero engineering. Of course, you can't blame these companies: Even older, better-known companies like Marantz use NEC-Mitsubishi plasma panels; the Marantz rep I talked to said Marantz does lots of "tweaking" to make the panel perform better than others. But why is Marantz's tweaking any better than the tweaking done by the company that made it? --Alan Stafford

Truth in Advertising? LG Electronics touted its "DoubleLife" technology, which the company says--no kidding--doubles the life of a plasma panel to 60,000 hours. Double sounded great--until I asked other vendors at the show about it. Turns out other television makers have specified 60,000 hours for quite a while now. LG did have some other technologies that sounded promising, including something that is supposed to alleviate burn-in problems. --Alan Stafford

This story, "CEDIA 2004: Picks and Pans " was originally published by PCWorld.

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