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Sciacca’s CEDIA 2012 Superlative Awards

Another CEDIA EXPO is in the bag, and this show marked my 14th in attendance. There have certainly been a lot of changes for my EXPOs over the years; from those wide-eyed days of running around the hallways checking out the HD Garden of Delights, grabbing every piece of literature I could stuff into a backpack and sneaking into parties uninvited to being a member of the press, grabbing every USB drive I can stuff into a backpack and attending “under embargo” meetings to look at product under development and dining with industry big wigs.

Another CEDIA EXPO is in the bag, and this show marked my 14th in attendance. There have certainly been a lot of changes for my EXPOs over the years; from those wide-eyed days of running around the hallways checking out the HD Garden of Delights, grabbing every piece of literature I could stuff into a backpack and sneaking into parties uninvited to being a member of the press, grabbing every USB drive I can stuff into a backpack and attending “under embargo” meetings to look at product under development and dining with industry big wigs.

Despite the changes, I always enjoy the days I spend roaming the EXPO aisles, questing for that next great discovery, rubbing shoulders with fellow installers and spending evenings catching up with friends I only get to see once or twice a year. Only a few days gone, and I’m already thinking ahead to CES in January and EXPO 2013 in Denver.

I’m pretty sure that I walked up and down every aisle at least once, and I eye-balled (and ear, um, lobed) a ton of gear in that time. Here’s my rundown on the Most items from the show.

Most Pleasant Addition: Media Day Preview
This year CEDIA invited manufacturers to set up in a large room and preview products to the press before the show officially began. This is similar to an event at CES called Unveiled that I always enjoy attending. The difference is that at CES the room is SO crowded that you can barely move two-inches in any direction without hitting into a wall of immovable bodies and the volume level is so loud that it’s impossible to carry on a civil conversation. (Also, they usually have a vodka luge at CES…) I thought the Preview event – which drew a reported 62 manufacturers – was a great way to get an amuse-bouche taste to prepare you for the show, and I actually wished that it would have actually lasted another hour. I was able to engage several manufacturers in good conversations and felt I got a lot of ground covered in a short time.

Most Lame Thing About EXPO Showfloor: No WiFi
Oh, there WAS WiFi. In fact, probably enough WiFi broadcasts going on to give you 5 lifetimes worth of brain evolving super powers. It’s just that all of it was totally locked down by manufacturers and unusable. Filing a story – you know, as a member of the press is likely to do at a major tradeshow – meant leaving the floor and walking to the press room, which may (but probably more likely may not) be anywhere near you, which sucked. I wish CEDIA would partner with Pakedge or AccessNetworks or someone to provide a press only WiFi connection on the showfloor. Maybe in Denver…?

Most Impressive Money-No-Object Demo: Tie – Pro Audio Technologies and Steinway Lyngdorf
You want to know the difference between a weak demo, and a demo with strength? It’s that a demo with strength hits you with so much bass, all you can say, is dayum, Dayum, DAY-UM! Part of CEDIA is the bombastic, over-the-top, crazy high-end home theater demos, and these two companies didn’t disappoint. Steinway Lyngdorf demonstrated its new Concert LS $480,000 audio system. These speakers stood almost 9-feet tall, had a gorgeous fit and finish and are capable of blasting an ear-melting 132dB! They said the ultimate challenge is to be able to make it impossible for Steinway execs to differentiate between a live Steinway piano and a recording played back on their speakers, which might lead you to believe these speakers are all prim and proper and meant for only playing civilized classical works and maybe the occasional bit of light jazz. But, no. In fact, the most impressive part of the demo was the final scene from Open Range with pistols, rifles and shotguns playing back at Wild West levels. Equally awesome was the Pro Audio Technologies demo. Where most manufacturers bring their biggest, most bad-ass systems, Pro Audio Tech showed one of their more moderate systems. And thank God! Because this “moderate” system produced bass so massive that I think all in attendance are now kidney stone free for several years to come! You might remember their booth as the one with the taller-than-Sciacca-sized black speaker sitting out front. Their speakers are meant to be heard-but-hidden with designs concealed in a baffle wall behind a screen. They demo’d several film clips, but one of the real standouts was a drum cut from Cream that hit live concert levels. The bass had that special “compressing your lungs and chest cavity” sensation that only that biggest systems can deliver, and if you are building a high-end, large, 20-plus seat theater where giant bass and huge SPLs are the mandate, Pro Audio Tech has gotta be on the short list.

Most Impressive Real-World Demo: Integra
Sure, at prices rivaling a new Lamborghini, you pretty much expect that the sound will be insane. And even when it is, it’s still, “Well, of course it sounds awesome. It’s a half-a-frickin’-million-bucks! Big whoop.” But Integra proved you can still go over-the-top with a budget that won’t require taking out a third mortgage. Integra demonstrated a fully-operational 11.2 channel system featuring front height, width, and surround back speakers on top of the regular 5-channel setup. Using a specially encoded DTS disc with all 11-channels, the result was an incredibly immersive experience with sounds emanating from all parts of the room, and definitely brought another layer of excitement back to the surround demo.

Most Impressive Partnership: Sony/Control4
This is a total, “You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” moment and I honestly can’t decide who I think is going to benefit more from the news. Sony will be embedding Control4 technology into two of its new ES receivers, allowing owners a better control experience out of the box, but also letting them unlock the receiver by contacting a Control4 dealer to get the full automation experience. Will this news cause installers to embrace Sony receivers because of the new value-added feature? Or will all of the newly installed Sony receivers give Control4 a boost by suddenly having lots of systems Trojan Horsed into people’s homes? I think it would be great – and I suggested – that owners of these new receivers should be required to register them, whereby Control4 could proactively contact them about all of the features that a dealer could demonstrate and then unlock for them.

Most Positive Trend: High-End Sound Bars
I know that for many in this industry, “sound bar” has become a four-letter word, but the undeniable truth is that many homeowners just don’t want a full-blown surround system in every room and that a sound bar can be the perfect application solution in some rooms. Look, I love my 9.1 channel audio system in my theater, but a sound bar makes watching in my bedroom tolerable and is a HUGE improvement to the TV’s lame internal speaker. It was great to see that high-end speaker manufacturers were really embracing the sound bar, giving a real performance alternative to the low-end offerings that are found in big box stores. I was most impressed with the models that I heard from Polk Audio, Definitive Technology, GoldenEar Technology and Martin Logan. With these models, dealers have a *real* performance alternative to offer to a traditional 5.1 system. And on that note…

Most Impressive Sound Bar: Definitive Technology Solo Cinema XTR
I heard a prototype of this bar at CES and I politely nodded and showed interest – mm-hmm, yes, wow, sounds great, uh-huh – but it was really a cobbled-together Frankenstein of a model just to have for the show. Now the product is fully baked and offers “200 honest to God watts” of power according to Definitive marketing guru, Paul Dicomo. My listening notes say things like “crazy good width and bass depth,” “Wow!” and “amazingly distinct side imaging.” I was initially skeptical of the product’s $2,000 MSRP. I mean, it’s a sound bar! But with the sonic performance and included 250-watt, wireless, sealed 8-inch sub that produced real bass information, I now see it as a terrific solution for the customer that wants great sound without the hassle of 5-channels and a separate surround receiver (that would probably have cost him close to two grand anyhow). The system is also one of the few bars that will decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD audio, all in a very modern 2-inch thick form factor. 

Most Likely to Piss Off the Neighbors: Sonance SLS High Output
“That’s so much bass, I can feel it in my juice bottle!” – Me at the demo
This new outdoor audio system produced SO much output that the EXPO tried to somehow dampen their flow by surrounding the booth with a black cloth. But you can’t harness the awesome SPL of this system with a cloth! This produced CRAZY loud levels and deep bass from four drivers and a single sub. Also, the system is so easy to setup that I could see it being used for commercial rental purposes in large spaces like outdoor weddings. (I also could see this totally being used in Disney World on the Kali Rapids ride, where they blare the constant sounds of chainsaws chopping trees down and forests burning). If you have one of those projects where the owner has like a $1MM outdoor entertainment area and you’ve thought, “Hmm, how could I possibly cover all of this with enough sound that if Rush should happen to drop by, they wouldn’t even need to set up their own PA?” then this system is for you!

Most Disappointing Demo: Mozaex BluWavs Headphones
I’d been reading about these “first headphones to support Blu-ray 7.1 discrete HD Audio” and was eager to hear some new spin on the headphone category other than, “Hey! We have headphones now too!” The first time that I stopped by the booth, they couldn’t get the demo to work. They were resetting the server and playing with some other stuff. The second time I stopped by I got a turn in the demo seat and…not impressed. First, there was this weird static and feedback in the headphones; squelchy sounds that clearly shouldn’t have been there when NOTHING was playing. (I heard others complain of this as well.) Second, the person running the demo seemed totally confused by the mixer/processor/ BluWav “Blender” Audio Console and the dialog “channel” was turned way down making for an odd experience. Third, the bass – while deep – seemed really rattley. Fourth, I heard the system they were demo’ing was like $1700 which, based on the performance, is REALLY hard to believe. Perhaps the system is still in development or I just came by at a bad time, but this left me very unimpressed.

Most MIA from the EXPO: Video
The EXPO used to be the place where video came to shine. It was like a coming out party for manufacturers to show off the newest technologies. It’s the first place I saw HD. It’s the first place I saw 3D. It’s the first place I saw anamorphic. It’s the first place I saw 4K. But now it seems that the video manufacturers have all but completely abandoned the CEDIA EXPO. Samsung, gone. Sharp, MIA. Toshiba, didn’t see ya. Panasonic, AWOL. Optoma, where were ya? LG was off-site in a private room, giving private demos. Mitsubishi was on the floor, but in a tiny booth. Sony was there but mostly downplaying video (other than the 84-inch OLED set for a wallet-crippling $24,999). It’s clear that CES has laid-claim to the Big Video crown, and this year’s EXPO really demonstrated that that war is fought and over. Fortunately, Runco, Sim2 and JVC are still there showing new projection technologies. As was Digital Projection, with the largest projection presence in typical Go Big DPI fashion with 8 projectors in constant action. Also present were specialty display manufacturers SunBrite and Seura.

Most Surprising Lack Of: 4K News
On the heels of CES and all of the 4K hubbub we’ve been hearing, I thought there would be more news on this front. I mean, it was an entire year ago that Sony announced its 4K front projector and JVC followed up the next day with its e-shift pseudo-4K technology. Surely an entire year would mean tons more on the 4K front, right? Well, JVC – God, bless them – did introduce 7 new projectors that feature an improved version of e-shift2 and Sony did show-off its new 84-inch OLED set, Sim2 did have a 4K projector that was created in partnership with Christie Digital (though – BOO! – only a static display without a working demo) but that was pretty much it.

Most Not Surprised By: HDMI and Wireless Distribution Systems
Many – and I mean MANY – manufacturers were demonstrating HDMI matrix distribution products. Hydra Connect, Gefen, Atlona, Avocation, Leaf, Snap AV and others all showed a variety of HDMI matrix products designed to take audio/video distribution beyond the analog sunset. There was also no shortage of wireless distribution schemes, both audio and HDMI. I also checked out the demo from relatively new organization, the WiSA (Wireless Speaker & Audio) Association, which appears to be doing some interesting work and offering a high-end solution to single room (now) and probably ultimately multi-room.

Most Impressive Inexpensive Item: Pioneer Andrew Jones Designed Loudspeakers
One of my favorite speaker designers is Andrew Jones, and like a swallow returning to Capistrano, I never fail to seek out and attend his TAD speaker demos at CES. His flagship design is $60,000/pair speakers with beryllium drivers (you know, where the manufacturing process can KILL YOU with poisonous gasses!) and cost-no-object cabinet design, connected with speaker cabling so thick it looks like it should carry presidential communications across the Atlantic Ocean and electronics so expensive that they’re probably transported around in Brinks trucks. But at EXPO Jones was demonstrating a new line of speakers he designed for Pioneer, with towers selling for $250…A PAIR! As in $125 EACH! Obviously they don’t sound the same as the TAD models and don’t include anything as awesome as beryllium, but the sound was incredibly impressive and had performance of models that sell at several times the price. I spoke with Jones for a bit – I’m an admitted fanboy – and he says that he was happy that he was able to go back and tweak his original design for Pioneer and was very pleased with the results. Here’s a video of him chatting about the speakers if you want to hear the awesome which is Andrew Jones:

Most Impressive Bookshelf: Martin Logan Motion 15
I’ve been a longtime fan of Martin Logan and their open, airy, effortless sound. Martin speakers don’t so much play as they just breathe beautiful music into the room. The sound from the new Motion 15 bookshelf speakers was divine, with imaging and depth that reached way behind the small speakers and back into the room. They played a cut from Rebecca Pidgeon that I’m very familiar with and you could place Rebecca well back in the room on the stage with the instruments perfectly positioned around her. (Sadly, when I walked back into the room, there was no actual Rebecca Pidgeon, though I do have a Twitter campaign going to bring her to South Carolina.) The little cabinets also produced a surprising amount of bass for their size. I can’t say how these speakers would sound for movies and big rock anthems, but for detailed jazz and female vocals they were outstanding.

Most Surprising Announcement: Attendance Was Up 4 Percent
“Total attendance at the event came in at 16,900, down 4 percent from last year’s attendance of 17,600. This figure is also the lowest recorded attendance since 2001, coming in 1.8 percent under that year’s attendance level of 17,200. The press release from CEDIA claimed that non-exhibitor attendance actually increased 4 percent from last year even though the overall numbers are off and the number of exhibitors increased slightly from 444 last year to 450 this year.”
-Ted Green, The Stratecon Group

Regardless of the numbers or the percentages or how you want to spin them, I know what the show *felt* like, and to me it felt more empty than last year’s show. There was a totally different vibe to the show. Usually when you are at a tradeshow there is a general buzz and energy and electricity in the air. People are excited, they’re talking, and they’re sharing must-see things. At this EXPO, if you asked someone what they saw that was cool you often heard either, “Nothing much” or, “Umm, uh, hmm, let me think about it for a second…” Also, the show now feels like a two-day show. In the past when EXPO was four days, Sunday was the dead day where everyone left. Now that it’s three, Saturday has become Sunday and it feels like a Ghost Town. (Pro Tip: You can cover an amazing amount of ground on Saturday as the booths are mostly empty and exhibitors have almost no one to talk to! I like to call this “John time.”) Come on, people! This is the EXPO! Drop some espresso in your Red Bull and let’s do this!

Most Nominated: Canada
This was my first time attending the CEDIA Awards Banquet (I went to support all-around-nicest-guy, Residential Systems Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jeremy Glowacki, who was being inducted as a CEDIA Fellow. Congrats, Jeremy!) and the thing that I noticed over and over was that a LARGE percentage of the companies being nominated for doing the best work – and we’re talking projects ranging from sub $90k to over $800k – were from the Great White North. Either the economy is really picking up in Canada with people tossing Loonies around like there’s no tomorrow, or the Canadian installers have really got their tuques squared away, or American installers are just too lazy to enter. Either way, good day, Canada! Looks like it’s goin’ pretty good up there, eh?

Most Ingenious: Integra’s iPod Dock with AirPlay
AirPlay is the awesome Apple technology that allows you to wirelessly beam audio from your iTouch/Phone/Pad to a compatible receiver/speaker. If you’ve ever used it, you probably love it. But it is relatively new and if you bought a receiver more than like 1.5 years ago, you’re probably out of luck. But wait! Integra showed the new DMI 40.4 which is an iPod docking station with AirPlay technology…built-in! It will add to any AV receiver via an open analog or digital audio input and allow you to enjoy all of the awesome which is AirPlay. Smart. Very smart!

Overall Most Impressive Product: And the Winner Is…
(Suitably tension raising drum roll please…)

OK. So, what was the *coolest* thing I that I saw at the EXPO? What was the thing that I heard most other attendees talking about? What was the thing that most people told me to go check out? It was the new wireless audio system from NuVo Technologies! This thing is WAY cool and is clearly designed to go after a certain company whose name is a palindrome and rhymes with “onos.” The system has two zone amps, smaller and larger depending on the power needed for that area, and a rackmount model that has three zones built into one. There’s a very slick iOS and Android app control solution and it streams all the popular services – Pandora, Rhapsody, etc. – with more to come. Plus NuVo has historically been easier to integrate with, meaning we can hope that this will play nicely with advanced control systems. I’ve got my name in the queue to get a review sample and I’m really looking forward to spending some time driving this.

John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.