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New and Not-So New at CEDIA EXPO

Emerging Trends and Product Tweaks Dominated the Show Floor in Denver

When you attend a trade show, people inevitably ask you, “What did you see that was new?” When the answer is “not much,” that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That answer might be an indication that the industry is maturing or–though it happens rarely in a technology-driven industry–that things are stable for a product cycle.

At CEDIA EXPO 2007, however, the comments were different. A number of attendees lamented, “There wasn’t anything new!” There isn’t anything wrong with that either, because seeing what is new is only one reason to go to a trade show. Seeing products firsthand helps to define emerging trends, underscores which of the older products are still around or are gaining traction, and most important, shows how the products displayed compare to what is presented at other trade shows, events, and big-box stores and warehouses that cater to a broader audience. That is why CEDIA EXPO is a valuable venue from which to plan an 18- to 36-month view of the custom installation market, while at the same time it provides a survey of the field and any un- or under-served categories.

Both of the currently available HD-DVD/Blu-ray combo-players from Samsung and LG (pictured) were on demonstration. For those installations where you need

For Video Display, Numbers Matter

You don’t need to read the consumer electronics trade press to see what an incredible impact the price drops in video displays has had on the economic health of consumer electronics retailers during the past year. There were new front projection display products shown by Epson, JVC, Runco, Samsung, SIM2, Sony, Vidikron and others in the category, as was emphasized in mid-October at the DisplaySearch HDTV Conference, if you are looking to make any money in large-screen video displays, 1080p is the way to go. To that end, virtually every brand with any display over 40 inches wide had offerings with 1080p.

However, display products at CEDIA EXPO highlighted opportunities to differentiate custom systems from “do it yourself” models. The first important feature of large-screen products is the ability to accept 1080/24p playback paired with a Blu-ray or HD-DVD player that has that output capability. Going end-to-end in 24p is the best way to demonstrate high-quality movie playback, and many sets at CEDIA were able to deliver on this score.

For LCD displays, especially, there is another number to add to the mix: 120Hz. Here, by doubling the refresh rate, image quality is greatly improved to align properly with the level of systems offered in the custom world. Total up 1080, 24p and, where appropriate, 120Hz, to get a winning number that prospects and clients are looking for.

Neutral DVD Player Ground

Taking the opposite end of the signal chain into consideration, some products made their first public appearance at CEDIA EXPO. Both of the currently available HD-DVD/Blu-ray combo-players from Samsung and LG were on demonstration. For those installations where you need to hedge your bets amid the format wars, both of these models are more fully featured than the original LG model.

The show was also the first North America unveiling for the Venturer brand

CEDIA was the first North America unveiling for the Venturer brand HD-DVD player.HD-DVD player, which is scheduled for retail sale at around $249, before the end of this year. With a basic feature set that includes 1080i but not 1080p, and HDMI 1.2a but not HDMI 1.3, it is a player that provides HD-DVD playback and interactive capabilities without high-end features. On the other hand, the publicity that this budget-priced unit will attract when it reaches the shelves in the mass-merchandizing world will attract attention and questions from clients.

Digeo Shows Moxi

Digeo’s Moxi products will appear at retail this year, giving installers another alternative to HD-capable set-top DVRs.Digeo’s Moxi cable-TV DVR, though currently without a “to-market” date, is seeking to differentiate itself from TiVo, the only other cable card-equipped, purpose-built product in the category. The Digeo box will include a built-in DVD player, though only in SD and with no record capability reported at this time. More details about Moxi products will be revealed closer to launch, but it is something to look out for.

Windows Remain Open

Mentioning Moxi and TiVo will inevitably bring comments about Windows-based video and audio server products that have CableCARD capability–something that limited the previous incarnations of this genre of home media servers. Media Center-based units are more than gussied up home computers, and they certainly merit consideration. Are products from companies such as Fuze, Life-ware, Niveus, Moneual, Russound, and others all new? Some were. Regardless, it shows that high-end, PC-based server/control systems remain an interesting option for the custom installer.

HDMI 1.3 Components

In between the source unit and the display, or in HDMI terms, “sink” products have long been hinted at, previewed at press conferences, and talked about in forums, but not available for order and delivery. Here, of course, we’re talking about surround processors and AV receivers with HDMI 1.3 and the full range both lossy (Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD) and lossless (Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio) codecs.

Remember that though the HDMI 1.3 standard was a few months past its first birthday back in September, the number of products other than sources and displays with this latest version were relatively few and far between. Now Denon, Onkyo, and Yamaha have delivered sources that accept the new standard, providing any clients that have been chomping at the bit to finally have these options installed.

HDMI Evolves

Speaking of HDMI, it is fair to say that there was a lot of news about the connection technology everyone loves to hate. There is nothing new from the folks at HDMI, but rather from within the connectivity world. There were more than a few solutions on display at EXPO that make it possible to extend an HDMI connection using Cat-5 or a similar cable or fiber optic links beyond the most optimistic standard HDMI cable run lengths.

HDMI is not something that you want to or could terminate yourself. Combine that with the difficulty of running the rather long and wide HDMI connector heads in walls and conduits in the absence of CL-rated, in-wall HDMI cables, and these alternative links become critical. Once a rare commodity that raised efficacy questions, the widespread availability of these extenders confirms that when HDMI is needed over long distances, they are the way to go. In most cases, however, HDMI is a “within the same room” connection; so other than to run a link up to a ceiling-mounted front projector, in-wall installation is not a major issue.

On the other hand, reasonable run lengths and system performance are still issues, and the segment saw two developments this fall. The Digital Performance Level (DPL) program was designed by the cable technology guru, Jeff Boccaccio, and his InVisions Technology group. Created to fill a perceived void in the HDMI world, the DPL program tests HDMI cables and assigns a numerical rating to mathematically convey how any given cable performs when measured against known parameters. At EXPO some manufacturers and one distributor expressed support of the scheme.

InVisions hopes its testing will be applied to a broad range of HDMI cables, and eventually other products, providing an objective standard for comparison. It remains to be seen if there will be sufficient traction for that to happen. The HDMI 1.3 specification already lays out the standards for HDMI cables as “Category 1” or “Category 2,” with the “Standard/Category 1” cables tested for performance up to 75MHz, while “High Speed/Category 2” cables are tested to handle speeds up to 340MHz so that all current and most future resolution combinations are accommodated. Further, the SimplayHD verification program is also available to manufacturers who wish to offer additional certification for their products.

At the same time, Monster Cable has created its own rating system for HDMI cables. While supporting HDMI specs and sending its cables through the SimplayHD certification and verification process, Monster’s speed-rated cables include designations for Standard, High-Speed, Advanced High-Speed, and Ultra High-Speed. This is worth noting if for no other reason than the attention their market gravitas demands.

Whether your company’s supplier roster includes Monster or any of the forthcoming DPL-rated products, HDMI connectivity is a topic that pops up with increasing frequency in the popular and enthusiast press, so your clients will undoubtedly hear the HDMI buzz.

iPods Accessories Everywhere

The desire on the part of customers to connect portable music players, and in particular Apple iPods, to just about anything and everything in a residence is no secret. Throughout the aisles at the Colorado Convention Center iPod connection products of all sizes and prices to accommodate those requirements were everywhere. Some, such as the high-end home theater brand Meridian, were reasonably new to the iPod game, while most other brands recognized the ubiquity of the portable player with both additional/updated and carry-over products. Bottom line on this: you won’t be able to escape.

Final Thoughts

It stands to reason that seeing new products isn’t necessary for a trade show or other industry event to be an important calibration point for gathering the information that helps you run your business. After all, new isn’t always good. Look beyond that to ask what the absence of new products means in terms of what you currently do, sell, and install. Ask when, how much, what will it do that current products can’t and that I need to offer my customers, and of course, why do I really need it? After all, at the end of the day, those are the things that really count.

New or not, this year’s CEDIA EXPO marked the continuation of some important trends, the emergence of some others that may either clear the air or make things even more confusing, and highlighted the availability of products that will increase the value of custom installation services. How you interpret all of that is now up to you.

Michael Heiss (capnvide[email protected]) is an industry consultant in Los Angeles, California.