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My Top 3 Surround Demos of CEDIA 2015

One of my “beats” for Residential Systems was immersive, 3D audio. If you’ve followed my writing here for any amount of time you’ll know that I’ve covered Dolby Atmos quite a bit. I walked virtually every inch of the show floor for all three days, and I loved every minute of it.

An Expo by any other name would still be sweet…” – Adapted William Shakespeare

So this was my 17th CEDIA Expo. Though apparently it’s no longer cool to call it the “Expo.” Now it’s the CEDIA Future Home Experience. Until next year. When it’s just called (confusingly) CEDIA. As in, “I am going to the CEDIA.” Or something.

But, really, call it the “Super Funky Installer Jam 3 Day” and I’m going to love it just as much. CEDIA is full of my favorite people, manufacturers, and systems, and I can’t get enough. I walked virtually every inch of the show floor for all three days—not including some bonus time when I snuck onto the floor for a pre-opening demo from GoldenEar Technology—and I loved every minute of it.

The volume knob on the Steinway Lyngdorf’s new P200 processor has one of the smoothest, most glorious feels around.

One of my “beats” for Residential Systems was immersive, 3D audio. If you’ve followed my writing here for any amount of time you’ll know that I’ve covered Dolby Atmos quite a bit. I predicted that Mad Max would be one of the top demo clips of the show following my reviewbut little did I know that Dolby would be producing a new review disc especially for the show. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that you couldn’t really visit a booth even tangentially associated with surround sound without getting an Atmos demo that likely included content from this next demo disc (of which the opening of Mad Max was one of the most played scenes).

I tried to take in all of the surround demos, and three demos really stood out to me at the Ex…I mean Future Home Experience.

The first was by Wisdom Audio. What I loved about this demo was not so much how great it sounded, which, it did. But this demo featured such amazing dynamic range that it transported me back more than 15 years in time to one of the most impressive CEDIA demos I’ve ever received. It was at a joint Polk Audio and Cinepro booth and they were playing a system called the Raptor (if my memory serves). Cinepro’s president, Eric Abraham—who, just a few years later, went in for a routine medical procedure and tragically died—explained before the demo started why his amplifiers had like 1,000 watts per channel, and why that was really necessary to deliver they full dynamics and headroom of the Dolby spec. The hot demo of that show was Air Force One, and many manufacturers were using the clip where the terrorists takeover the plane. So as we were sitting there watching it, everyone in the room knew what was coming, but you could tell from the second that the lead terrorist racked the slide on his weapon that this system was doing something different. The metal-on-metal sound of that action had an organic, lifelike quality that was unlike anything we’d heard at the show. And even though everyone in the room knew the gunshot was coming, when it happened, everyone in the room flinched because it sounded like someone had actually fired off a gun in the room.

The Wisdom Audio demo did that for me using a clip from the movie Drive. I watch a lot of movies and am rarely startled by sudden mayhem, but the calmness of the scene shattered by an unexpected gunblast with immense dynamics—a close-range gunshot that sounded like a gunshot—was enough to make me jump in my seat and remind me what a great speaker and amplifier system can do.

Steinway Lyngdorf is one of those companies I try to visit every year as they generally bring a massive, over-the-top system. Also the volume knob on the company’s new P200 processor has one of the smoothest, most glorious feels around. Seriously. Turning that thing is like winding the impeccably balanced crown on a Patek Philippe. Or so I imagine. SL definitely didn’t disappoint this year with a $160,000 dual 7.2.4 Atmos and 11.2 Auro-3D system. I went to this demo twice, the second time with first-time CEDIA attender, Andrea Miller, CEDIA’s new digital marketing coordinator. We’re surrounded by this stuff so much that sometimes we can forget how awesome the systems we hear really are. Since Andrea had never seen a demo before, I was able to experience it with her in much the same way as our customers take in the new systems we install for them. The presenter at SL did a great job of setting up the demo, explaining what we were about to see and what specific audio cues we should pay attention to.

While the Atmos clip from Gravity and the Auro-3D clip from Turbo both sounded great, the scene that had me just grinning ear-to-ear was the Star Wars Battlefront game clip they played. If you didn’t see the demo, it is a kind of mini-movie cut together from actual multi-player game footage. The game is dynamically encoded in Dolby Atmos and watching this battle scene unfold on Hoth was just awesome. There was a moment when an AT-AT walker stomps right next to you and the SL system produced this concussive wave of sound that felt like an AT-AT was really walking next to you. TIE Fighters screamed overhead, voices and gunshots changed in location in the room as the perspective of the character moved, things blow up all around you. Having watched this demo a few times, what I really noticed was that with Atmos treating everything as an audio object, you could focus on any one thing and pick out the specific sounds of that. Atmos might revitalize the home theater gaming market and that will be an awesome thing.

The final demo that really caught my ears was from GoldenEar Technology. This stood out to me for a couple of reasons: for one, Sandy Gross chose to demo an almost entirely in-ceiling speaker system (the surround back speakers were in-wall and the sub sat on the floor), and two, this was a very real-world-system-priced 7.1.4 speaker package, retailing for less than $6,500. This was another demo that I experienced twice, the first with Residential Systems’ editor-in-chief, Jeremy Glowacki. Dolby has stated that you shouldn’t use all in-ceiling speakers for an Atmos system, as that doesn’t give you the proper space between floor and ceiling plains, but Sandy wanted to show off what his Invisa HTR7000s could do. Sandy played an Atmos clip from Unbroken of a WWII bomber making its approach on a Japanese-occupied island.

GoldenEar’s Invisa HTR7000 in-wall and in-ceiling speakers are part of the company’s very-real-world-system-priced 7.1.4 speaker package demonstrated at the show.

The scene starts off with a ton of airplane vibrations and rattling, and engine noises that come from all points in the room, very distinctly putting you inside the plane. When the bomb hits, there is a couple second delay before you feel the bass wave from the subwoofer, and then Japanese fighter planes streak in, ripping down the sides of the room, whizzing right past your ears and disappearing in the back. It’s a great demo clip. When I saw Sandy’s demo the second time it was immediately following my visit to Steinway Lyngdorf, and I saw the Battlefront clip again and was super impressed at how much the GoldenEar system delivered—at four percent of the price!—compared to the SL system. Yes, the overall volume and dynamics weren’t as impressive, the bass wasn’t quite as tight and didn’t have the same degree of chest-cavity-rattling punch, but all the important details and fun of the experience were there.

If your company hasn’t installed an Atmos system yet, you really need to. Dolby Atmos—along with DTS:X, which shares the same speaker layout and will be available in nearly every Atmos capable receiver—will be the biggest driving force for the home theater market for the foreseeable future, and it delivers a demonstrably better experience at every price point.