CES 2008 - A Floor-Level Perspective
Every year I strive to give you my perspective of what CES was like. Sometimes I have the time to write up a daily report, others, it is just a summary at the end. This year it will be the latter. I would have liked to have done more but we were working very hard under extremely oppressive conditions. More on that later. While I am one of the three "core" Audioholics and the host of AVRant, I'm still a distant asteroid in orbit in the binary solar system that is Gene and Clint so I feel I still have enough of that outsider mentality to offer a unique perspective.
There is a lot to consider when trying to sum up an event as massive as CES. What you find covered in most of the mainstream media is what the manufacturers tell them to report. That's not how we do things around here. We look for those diamonds in the rough that the big news will miss mostly because they don't understand this industry the way we do. Without further ado, let's move on to some the high (and low) lights of the show.
You've got to admit that the big news of the show happened days beforehand with the Warner Bros. announcement to go Blu-ray exclusively. This was borderline cruel and unusual as the affect on HD DVD could only be seen as disastrous. You couldn't help but want to give the staff in the HD DVD booth (which was literally right next to the bursting-at-the-seams Blu-ray booth) a hug as they walked around their ignored displays and near empty booth. Sure they were trying to keep their chins up but you could tell they collectively felt like they had been punched in the gut. While we were at the Toshiba booth, we heard a rumor that Paramount had switched as well (wasn't true… yet) and told the rep we were with. He looked over his shoulder at the HD DVD reps and asked us not to tell them. We didn't if for no other reason than we don't like to see grown men cry.
The big news from Audioholics is that we were online every night (just about) answering questions live on our ustream feed. People asked, we answered. It actually would have been better if our Internet in our hotel didn't suck so bad but it worked out pretty great. Some of our forum members got a chance not only to get their questions asked before we had a chance to write up our coverage but also to make suggestions for coverage. It was a great experience that we hope to duplicate in greater scope at future shows.
HDMI was everywhere in spirit if not in actual cable. Tons of wireless, CAT5, and Coax solutions were present as it has become painfully obvious to just about everyone that HDMI cables are just far too expensive and limited to run for any distance. We've been hearing for a while now that anything over 10 meters of HDMI would require an active solution exponentially increasing the prices of these expensive cables. People are already balking at the prices of HDMI cables and for some longer runs you're looking at higher costs than most receivers. That's crazy. Now that other solutions are presenting themselves, we're looking at considerably lower costs - especially for long runs. The only problem is that the HDMI spec keeps evolving (as of now, the spec delineates enough bandwidth for components and content that doesn't even exist yet). I only hope that these new methods for getting around the dreaded HDMI cable can keep up.
Ultra High Definition displays were on this year. Seemed like everyone had one. Westinghouse, Samsung, Sony… the list goes on. I don't know about my fellow Audioholics, but I had no idea that these were in the works. If you don't know, it is essentially like taking four 1080p displays and shoving them into one box. In this case you need to realize that the smaller the display, the better it is (or at least the more technologically advanced). These displays were so clear that even with your nose on them you could barely pick out a pixel. That's clear. Now, do we need displays like these in our homes? No, I don' think so. Do I want one. Oh yeah.
I remember the first time I attended a show like this I ran from big speaker to big display "oh"ing and "ah"ing. And that's what those big displays are for. To get you in their booth. They're happy if they sell five a year (if that). What is really exciting is when you see something that is not only cool but shipping. TN Games did that for me with their 3rd space vest and helmet. Sure, we see funky gaming peripherals all the time and for the most part they don't come to market. This one was already out! Well, the vest at least. It only works with a couple of PC games currently but I'm seriously praying that they will get this together for next Christmas on the Xbox 360 and PS3. With the barrage of first person shooters out there and a price tag closer to $150 than $200 (currently $169), this would be the geek present of the decade. What does it do? Air bladders inflate and deflate to give you the experience of getting shot. The perfect accessory for that high powered surround sound system as far as I'm concerned.
Pioneer surprised me with their new update to their base line of receivers. Gone is the matte front panel to be replaced with the high-gloss panel previously reserved for the top tier Elite line. The power has been upped to no less than 120 watts per channel with the "top" of the line at 130. The big news? HDMI switching at $249. That's just crazy. Sure it doesn't have all the processing but as we've discussed here many times, you don't need it. As long as you have a player that can do it, you'll be fine (and in some ways better off).
Everyone had super thin displays in their booths but only Hitachi had a wall of super thin LCDs that were actually about to start shipping. At only 1.5 inches, this is by far one of the coolest pieces of gear I saw. Sure, the crazy Kuro plasma was impressive but I may or may not ever see one in the store. The 1.5 line was not some piddly 11" display like the OLEDs over at Sony. No, these were 32" to 42". The Hitachi's will be shipping this year. On top of that, they were also showing a .75" LCD and a 1.5" plasma which you just know is in the works. Want one? Oh yeah, you know you do. While the others are using the super thin displays to get people in their booths, Hitachi is taking pre-orders. That's pretty awesome if you ask me.
We saw two short throw projectors at the show this year and while the Hitachi looked to have the better picture, you couldn't deny that the Sanyo was more exciting. Why? Try needing only 3 inches to throw an 80" picture. THREE INCHES. You have to literally cut a hole in the wall to get the lens that close (the projector housing gets in the way) but that's not the point. We're talking a super big picture from an extremely short distance. Right now this tech is designed primarily for business and commercial use but I can see something like this in Home Theater in the near future. Finally, that huge projection screen will be in the hands of people that don't have the skills or desire to set up a dedication room. Throw in an LED lamp and 1080p resolution and I'm sold. It'll be all the way across the room from me so I don’t even care if the projector is a little loud.
CES is just too big. It's been too big for a while which, in my opinion, until now hasn't been a problem. Now it's a problem. Why? Not because there are too many vendors or too many new products - that I can handle. It's because vendors are moving out of the convention center. Now I've heard a myriad of reasons why (all some variation of money) but as someone that has tons of coverage to obtain and a limited time to obtain it, I can't be expected to run all over town looking for the Denon room. I just don't. Why? It isn't the cost of traveling around or really even the travel time - it's mostly that once you've traveled to some off site location you get stuck there for half the day. It doesn't take half the day to cover one of these manufacturers (it doesn't take half an hour for most) but they've got you trapped in their little world. You have to wait on them, listen to their spiel, eat their snacks… you get the idea. You can't just point to another booth and say that you have to go. When they are on the show floor, they'll take you through their new products quickly because they know they'll have another person along shortly but when they are off site, they have no foot traffic. No foot traffic = bored marketing person. And you know what they say, idle marketing hands makes Tom want to shoot himself in the head.
And while we're on the subject of marketing people, let's vent a little. I'm a reporter (at least when I'm at these shows). I want the news. I don't want the hard line sales pitch (I'm not buying), I don't want the in-depth technical overview (write it down and hand it to me), and I don't want hear you describe everything in your booth. I don't care. My readers don't care. We cover you at every CEDIA and CES. That means I only want the new stuff. NEW. Not newish. Not "I just started working here and everything is new to me" stuff. New. Brand new. Like no one has ever seen it before new. That should (usually) be only a handful of products. Point, describe the highpoints, and move on. But they don't do that do they? No. Either I get someone that does all the stuff I mentioned above or they do none of it. They just point and say, "Oh, I think that is new." Oh you think do you? Are you sure? Have you got medical confirmation that you think because I highly doubt it. Because if you thought you'd have realized that when I asked for a press kit that I was press. Or you would have noticed the word "press" on my badge. Or you would have realized that when I asked what your new products were that I was trying to give you coverage for the low, low price of you showing me around. You know what pointing gets you? NO COVERAGE. Thanks for playing.
Manufacturers have an agenda - they always do. Sure the agenda is to make money but sometimes it is to not waste money. Manufacturers have been playing with this OLED technology for a while now (like ten years) trying to get it to work. And they finally have. Just in time to have Hitachi release a 1.5" LCD with smaller ones on the way. Sure OLED is thinner but who really cares? Everyone apparently because that's all I heard once I got back. "Did you see the OLED displays?" Um… yeah. You mean the displays you'll never buy because they'll always be more expensive than LCDs and plasmas… like exponentially more expensive? The displays that missed the boat 5 years ago because they were too hard to manufacture and now have little hope at life other than on a cell phone or as an overly hyped "high end" display? Yeah, I saw them, why do you care? Oh, you saw it on TV. Well, that's just, in my opinion, the manufacturers trying to drum up demand for a product that they know they just wasted a boat-load of cash on. Sony's OLED is 11" and $2500. Think about that for a second. We're a long way from an affordable OLED. But I saw them. They're pretty.
Probably the biggest disappointment of the show was the Sahara hotel and casino. Feel free to sue me if you want but everything I'm about to say is true. I've seen nicer Motel 6's. I've stayed in nicer hostels in India. I've had better Internet connections in the 90s. I've had better service at the DMV. I wouldn't stay at your hotel again if the world was flooded with radiation and yours was the only building with lead lined walls. I'd rather become a brain-eating zombie than set foot in that disgrace of a hotel ever again. And not the cool 28 Days Later sprinting zombies but the "I can barely move and people walk right past me" zombies of Night of the Living Dead. I'd sooner sell all my equipment for a BLOSE 321 system and a cardboard box with the words "OLED Display" written on the side and a hole in the bottom for hand puppets. Heck, I'd even sit through a full season marathon of Flavor of Love rather than stay at your hotel. Clear? Moving on.
There are plenty of things to scratch your head at while walking the floor at CES - especially when you get to the automotive and import sections. But on the main floor, it is most interesting when you see manufacturers come out with products that just don't make sense. As everyone is announcing new, thinner flat panels, Toshiba's new line looked abnormally large. It was if they were plugging their ears and saying "La la la" every time someone mentioned reducing the depth of the panels. The rep said that those weren't the final cases but we're pretty sure their latest offerings will be at least 4 inches thick if not more. Can you all say catch-up? Because that's what Toshiba's engineers are doing right now I'd be willing to wager.
More confusing than that, however, was Mark Levinson's pairing with LG (not to mention the HTiB pairing). Levinson's name is synonymous with outrageously priced top end amps and components and yet we found his name on LG's new line of speakers. "Tuned by" was the term they used. I'm not exactly sure what that means other than "you would not BELIEVE the money we paid for his name." Associating brands with superstars has generally been a good idea but the crowd that knows Levinson isn't going to be interested in LG and the people interested in LG aren't really going to know Levinson. I don't care whose name they stamp on their speakers, I just don't see those ridiculous systems you see online touting their new LG speakers. If it weren't for the car speaker systems he's done recently for Lexus, I don't think Joe Consumer would have a chance to know him at all. A weird pairing for sure. I'll be curious to see how it works out for them. I wouldn't mind getting a review sample myself.
Did I miss things? Sure. This is a floor-level overview. I was watching the re-runs of the G4 coverage and saw things at booths I was at where I had a person supposedly showing me everything that I never saw. Irritated? You bet. But what do you suspect from marketing drones? Streaming from the hotel room was a great experience that I look forward to doing again. I also look forward to integrating more "on the spot" reporting in the future though what form that will take remains to be seen. One thing is for certain; marketing people will continue to be the gatekeepers of knowledge that they don't comprehend, companies will continue to showcase technology that they know will never see the light of day, and I (and all of Audioholics) will be here to fight the good fight. For you.
I am not a press person (but somewhat of a person in the know, since I get some knowledge from the “internets” and from some good folks here in DFW). It always boggles my mind to see big manufacturers showing off shiny objects that we know probably don't stand a chance to make it to market, or will be obscenely over-priced and will disappear shortly after their ill fated arrival. Even if these companies know they will lose money developing said products, I guess in the long run they can afford these losses if it plants the idea in our brains that their name is associated with cutting edge shiny object making.
It definitely keeps me watching albeit my wallet stays put.
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