by John Sciacca
Well, the fat lady has sung, the curtains have been closed and CES 2012 is officially a few days in the bag. After several days of decompressing and detoxing – there is a LOT of drinking in Vegas – and reflecting, I thought I would share my list of Best, Worst, Coolest, and other superlatives from this year’s biggest party in all of electronics.
Best Demo – The Unforgettable Home Theater Experience
Presented jointly by Digital Projection, Kaleidescape, CinemaTech, Stewart Filmscreen, ADA, Totem Acoustics and D-Box Seating, this demo combined not only amazing audio and video but actually changed my mind about D-Box motion seating. With refinements to their motion algorithms, the seats helped to deliver an amazing extra sensory experience – way better and far less nauseating than say 3D – that made the Empire Strikes Back Hoth battle even more epic!
Most Intense Demo – ioSafe
If you are going to host an event off-site AND plan on calling your event “The Cage of Death” – in Vegas no-less! – then, brother, you had better deliver the goods. Fortunately, ioSafe totally came through. ioSafe is a company that all but promises to safely store and retrieve your data in the event of…well, in the event of just about anything. In fact, to date the company has a 99.9904 percent data recovery rate for clients. And its rugged line of portable drives come with back-ups that sound like a challenge: fireproof to 1550-degrees Fahrenheit, waterproof for up to 3 days at 10-feet in sea or salt water (or diesel or gas), shock/drop rated to 10-feet and crush rated to 2500 pounds. Included with the drives is a 1 year data recovery service (extendable) that includes ioSafe paying to have your drive forensically reconstructed, a process they claim can cost up to $2500. To prove just how bad-ass-tough their drives are, they stage a variety of torture tests at each CES. Past events have included shotgun blasting drives and dropping a 35,000 pound excavator on them. This year they hired the appropriately named Dr. Megavolt to bring his 1-million volt Tesla coil generating maching to zap the living crap out of one of their drives to see if it would survive. (Spoiler: It did!) The results were totally The Awesome. Totally hoping to get a review sample to torture for a bit and then write about!
Best Swag – Tie: DEG Bag, HiFi Man
Be honest, part of the fun of massive tradeshows is comparing the cool giveaways – swag – that you come home with. This year, I had two notable bring-homes.
Every year the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) hosts an event to discuss all the wonderful developments and sales figures of DVDs and Blu-rays over the past year. But the real highlight of the DEG event is the finale when they hand out the swag bag of ALL swag bags; a duffle bag literally STUFFED with Blu-ray discs! I think there were like 30 titles in there. Some of the titles in this year’s bag were: Hangover Pt 2, Harry Potter Deathly Hallows, Super 8, Cowboys and Aliens, Dolphin Tale, Lion King, Lady Gaga, Smurfs, Friends with Benefits, an Xbox 360 dance game, Art of Flight, DTS demo disc, Dexter Season 5, X-Men First Class, Water For Elephants, Pirates of Caribbean: Stranger Tides, and The Way Back.
Second was the duo of audiophile goodies handed out at HiFiMan’s press breakfast. First was the new HM-601 Slim player that uses Burr Brown PCM1704u decoding chips, for decoding high-res FLAC files (at least up to 96/24) while on the go. And what goes better with a high-end portable than some high-end phones, am I right? So HiFiMan also gifted us a pair HE-400 planar, magnetic design over-ear phones. The phones had the wonderful, open, airy mid-range sound characteristic of planar drivers as well as deep bass extension and I look forward to giving them a more thorough listen now that I’m back home.
HiFiMan’s HE-400 planar, magnetic design over-ear phones.
Best Tchotchke – Depends who you ask.
Me: Samsung’s Red Angry Bird;
My 5 year-old daughter: Dish Network’s Hopper and Joey Kangaroos
Here’s a pic of my daughter cuddling both.
Best Celeb Appearance – Justin Timberlake at Panasonic’s Presser
Apparently some mop-haired kid named Bieber was at CES doing something with robots, but since I’m not a teenage girl, that didn’t hold any interest for me. My best celeb moment was JT taking the stage at Panasonic’s event to announce something about a partnership with MySpace (is that even still a thing?). It was his casually dropped references to his SNL Digital Short skits (and putting things in a box) that made him so awesome.
Justin Timberlake at Panasonic’s press event.
Coolest Random Thing – Lamborghini Aventador
I’m not even sure what this company was or why they were at CES, but what I do know is that wandering out of the Convention Center Monday evening, I caught this white beauty out of the corner of my eye and immediately ran over like a girl at a Bieber sighting to drool over its Italian hand-crafted awesomeness.
The Lamborghini Aventador.
Most missing tech at CES – WiFi
While there was no shortage of WiFi at the convention center and the Venetian – opening the Network tab on my iPad nearly choked the poor thing from all of the broadcasting hotspots – nearly all of them were totally locked down or would just randomly cut in and out, usually right in the middle of trying to upload something. Fortunately the Press Room had blistering fast WiFi that almost made up for this shortcoming.
Best “Fantasy” Tech – Tie: Sony’s Crystal LED TV and Sharp’s 8K LCD
The two most impressive bits of tech I saw at the show likely won’t exist for several years – if ever. First was Sony’s Crystal LED TV. The Crystal is a technology statement piece that uses separate red, green and blue LED for every pixel. For you non-math types, at 1920x1080p resolution, that means more than 6 million individual LEDs in the 55-inch set. This set produced the most amazing, eye-popping color, and deep, pure blacks and unbelievably smooth and natural motion of any set that I have yet to see, and if any set can say that it is truly the heir apparent to the Pioneer Elite Kuro throne, it is the Crystal. Also, it proves that you don’t need 4K – or even 8K – to produce stunning video when you do everything else correctly.
Just when you thought 4K was the next HD, Sharp leapfrogged to the next-next of HD sets by going straight to 7680 x 4320, 32 million pixels of 8K resolution! This set offers 16-times the resolution of so-last-year 1080p sets and has pixels SO tiny you can smash your nose up against the 85-inch screen and still not see a single, individual dot. (You know, so I heard.) Some of the demo footage looked a bit washed out, but I think that was more to do with the source material, cause other stuff looks just frickin’ dazzling!
Best “Real” Tech – Samsung 55-inch OLED
What’s nearly as thin as a razor, incredibly bright, super contrasty, has a super cool, brushed metal back panel, over 2-million pixels AND is going to be available to purchase this year? Samsung’s new Super OLED set. (Because OLED on its own is just so-so. You really need to Super-ize it.) This set has no color filter, but has self-emitting RGB sub-pixels laid directly on the display panel…blah-blah. It looks frickin’ amazing, all right? Sure, it’s not the Crystal, but this baby is the real-deal and would be a stunner in any home. LG had a similar set on display, but I preferred Samsung’s set. Maybe it was the Super-ness of their OLED or just the bezel-less design aesthetic that accentuates the full glory which is the OLED display.
Best Reinvention of the Wheel – Dish Network’s Hopper and Joey DVR
We all know and love our DVRs for time-shifting programming to fit our schedules. But inevitably you’ve probably run out of drive space or been forced to make Sophie’s Choice of recording one show and not another because of lack-of-available-tuner. Well, Dish is taking whole-home DVR to the next level by introducing a new system they are calling Hopper (the main unit) and Joey (the clients). This is likely the most advanced HD DVR system in the history of ever, including a 2 Terabyte hard drive for storing up to 2000 hours of recording, the ability to record up to six HD programs simultaneously and a killer new feature called PrimeTime Anytime that captures every primetime network show and storing it for a full week, and the ability to watch and control DVR content in four rooms, all over existing coax cable lines.
Most “Do we really want this?” Tech – Gesture Control
Steve Jobs makes one little comment about having “finally cracked it” and the electronics world as we know it holds it breath and starts running around in circles in a tizzy. Surely, “cracking it” meant that Steve figured out a solution to replace the horrible, completely impossible to master, caveman encumbrance known as the modern remote control. (If you couldn’t sense the sarcasm dripping from that sentence, this is your exposition.) Siri in my phone? Yes. Siri in my TV? No. Of course the biggie video manufacturers took this to mean that they immediately needed to overhaul a system that have served us well and effectively and needed to add things like gesture and voice control. Having witnessed this in action, I can confidently say, “No. No, no, no! I don’t want this!” If you want to sit on your couch waving your arms around like you’re in the throes of a fit or saying, “Hi, TV. Channel up. Channel up. Channel up. Cancel. Bye, TV,” then you go right ahead. I’ll be using my trusty URC remote and enjoying – and changing channels – much faster and in silence thank you very much.
Most Serendipity Discovery – IOGEAR Portable Charger
I happened to be at the IOGEAR booth looking at a wireless HDMI product when I complained about a critically low iPad battery. The folks at IOGEAR told me about its mobile power charger for iPad ($59) and allowed me to “floor-test” (a new review concept I came up with on the spot) this device. It slipped easily into my pants pocket and took my Pad from 20 percent to 70 percent while still being used to film videos, check e-mail and tweet madly throughout the day. In this day of constantly needing power, I can’t recommend this little lifesaver enough. It can also simultaneously charge an iPad and iPhone and holds its power for several weeks. Not a bad device to chuck in your portable go kit!
IOGEAR’s portable iPod charger.
Most Trendiest – Video
As I predicted prior to the show – Ha! I knew I’d be right! – 4K is going to be the new video buzzword. Sony, Samsung, LG, Sharp, Panasonic…yeah, they’ve all got 4K sets a brewin’. Sony even announced a new 4K-upscaling Blu-ray player that should tied us over until the (now totally inevitable) true 4K Blu-rays start appearing. Do we need 4K? Has 1080p proved so inadequate? Is the resolution difference that great? No, no and no. But 4K is coming and so, of course, I want it.
Also trending is glasses-less 3D. There were multiple demos at the show but I only personally laid eyes on Toshiba’s and Sony’s versions. I felt they were both blah and totally unnecessary, but if I had to buy one over the other, the Sony’s version was less offensive. Surely manufacturers will continue to pour money into this until they have either A) mastered it or B) decided that 3D was all a horrible mistake that should just go silently into the night.
Finally, thanks to Texas Instrument’s Pico technology, expect to see more, smaller, brighter and cheaper portable projectors. While they aren’t ready for home theater replacement – yet – they are great for quick presentations or keeping the kids entertained in hotel rooms or even tents. I saw Benq’s new GP2 and was pretty impressed at that little fella.
Benq’s new GP2 projector.
Most Trendiest – Audio
CES isn’t really an audio show any more – well, except for the Venetian, which is essentially ALL about audio – but you If you were to shoot an arrow as far as you could in ANY direction at the convention center, there is like at least a 94 percent chance that – if it didn’t kill one of the 153,000 bodies cramming the showfloor – the arrow would land smack into the middle of a giant pile of some company’s new batch of headphones. Next year, they will probably need to change the name of the show to Consumer Earphone Show. Actually remaining part of the CE industry now almost requires that you release – or are about to release – a new line of “well, ours are really better” headphones. Monster (no longer Monster Cable, just Monster) spent about 45 minutes of its press event talking about headphones. (And nary a single mention of new cables the entire time.) Paradigm, Polk, Velodyne, Ferrari (yes, the car manufacturer), Bell’o, House of Marley, Harman, Philips, and many – MANY – more are all putting their spin on the headphone game. Also biggity-big is getting a celebrity endorsement. Ludacris and 50 Cent, Earth, Wind & Fire’s bassist Verdine White, Xzibit and Pauly-D and Snooki (oh, God, do we actually live in a world where they are really celebs?) were amongst celebs at the show endorsing new lines of phones. So, headphones, they’re pretty much what’s happening in audio.
Most Unique Headphones – Tie: AfterShokz and Sonomax
With all of the headphones in attendance, how do you possibly stand out? By being different. Really and truly different. Two pair that caught my attention were AfterShokz and Sonomax. AfterShokz phones use bone conduction technology, something that has long been popular with Special Forces types. I’d say that these phones free up your hands to do more important things — like peeling potatoes or killing — but then I remembered regular headphones pretty much do that too… These phones don’t go inside or over your ears, but rather press against the area just in front of your ears and use your bones to relay audio into your head. While I imagined this would be an in-head, voice of God-type sound, it was actually quite enjoyable. Because they aren’t in your ears, they are far healthier to use and share and are also WAY more comfortable to wear for extended periods. Another huge benefit is that since there is nothing on/in your ears, you can hear what is going on around you, meaning they are much safer for cyclists and runners. There’s also no fear of any hearing damage, meaning they would be great for young children. (Though my daughter was a little scared of them at first when I approached her holding them out and saying, “They use your bones to make sound!” in a ghoulish voice. Note to After Shokz: That marketing idea does not appeal to the 5 year old demo.) And the phones are also surprisingly affordable, starting around $59. Sound is certainly not audiophile – or maybe it’s just my lame bones – but I totally see the benefits of these for the right application.
AfterShokz headphones use unique bone conduction technology.
Sonomax eers were cool for a different reason. If you’ve ever worn a pair of in-ear models, you’ll know that finding the right fight is not only crucial but often difficult. While there are several high-end models that can be custom fit, this often requires an appointment, added cost, and some waiting. Sonomax is introducing two new models that will allow end-users to custom-fit their own phones in roughly 5 minutes right at home. I’m hoping to get a review sample and I’ll share my experience. Until then, enjoy this video where a Sonomax rep describes the product.
Most Welcome Trend – High-end Support of Soundbars
In this industry we often take a snooty, pooh-pooh attitude towards the humble soundbar. And, with sub $100 offerings with audio practically-as-crappy-as-the-TV-itself becoming more popular, it’s no surprise that many integrators often recoil and grimace at the thought of having to install one. But, like any tool, there is a time and place for these when they are the perfect solution, and it’s good to know that some of audio’s best are finally coming forward with some terrific solutions. Now you’ll be able to spec in a soundbar and know that audio quality was not a second thought. Look for offerings coming soon from Definitive Technology, GoldenEar Tech, MartinLogan, Paradigm, Polk Audio and an H-PAS equipped model from Atlantic Technology.
Biggest Frustration – CES Itself
There are a lot of things that are frustrating about CES. The fact that pretty much anyone who has ever posted a comment on a chat site somewhere is somehow considered a member of the Press. The fact that there is a Press Lunch each day, but that there are only lunches provided for approximately 7% of the actual press in attendance. The fact that you are navigating through hallways crowded to 175% levels of Fire Marshall occupancy ratings. The fact that trying move two feet in any direction can get you touched in ways more intimate than your yearly doctor visit. Yes. All of those things are indeed mega frustrating. But the MOST frustrating thing about CES is that it is SO large, that there is just an absolute certainty that no matter how hard you try, you WILL absolutely, positively miss out on seeing something that someone else will call the bestest, greatest, most awesomest thing they’ve ever seen. At the same time, you likely saw something super-awesome-cool that they missed out on. Hey, it’s Vegas, baby.