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Digital Fires Up Hi-Fi `99

Dueling demonstrations of the rival Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD-Audio formats will be heard at this week’s Hi-Fi ’99, which will also serve as a stage for introducing a small selection of new DTV-ready rear-projection TVs, at least one new DVD changer, and the first DVD-Video player with built-in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 decoders (from Pioneer).

About 190 exhibitors representing 314 brands were signed up as of May 3 to turn out for the Chicago event, which follows early-year sluggishness in factory-level home audio sales. Last year’s show in Los Angeles attracted 219 exhibitors representing more than 353 brands.

Suppliers hope the launch of SACD and DVD-Audio will help restore some growth to the industry. The technologies, NHT marketing manager Matt Garfein predicted, will “raise the bar of what people expect in a five-channel system even if they already have a home theater system.” Many home theater owners, he pointed out, “can live with a lot of coloration in a home theater system.” The DVD-based music formats could also open up potential sales to two-channel music enthusiasts, Garfein added.

Other suppliers noted that the new formats could stimulate sales of electronics and speakers designed to deliver the clarity, resolution, frequency response, and dynamic range of the two formats. In fact, “DVD-Audio-ready” speakers will be demonstrated by Hales and Pioneer, although Pioneer hasn’t decided whether to ship them in the U.S.

In DVD-music developments:

• Sony plans to announce the pricing, ship date and software support for its first SACD player, a two-channel model that ships in Japan in May 21 at 500,000 yen, or about $4,100. Philips said it doesn’t expect to announce its SACD product plans at the show but did say its product will be available sometime after Sony’s and might be marketed in the U.S. solely by its Marantz subsidiary, which previously demonstrated a two-channel model.

• Pioneer will demonstrate its first DVD-Audio player, a prototype multichannel model that will also play DVD-Video discs and will ship under its premium Elite label.

The DVD-08A will feature two built-in 192kHz/24-bit DACs for the left-right channels and three 96/24 DACs for the center and surround channels. It will be based on the Elite DV-09 DVD, which is one-and-a-half years old and retails for a suggested $2,200.

Pioneer, which didn’t disclose DV-09 pricing, said it hopes to ship in Japan by the end of the year. Pioneer’s U.S. timetable hasn’t been revealed, but companies such as Toshiba and Samsung are saying they probably won’t ship DVD-Audio until next year.

• Independent labels Chesky and Classic will feature new 96kHz/24-bit PCM music discs based on DVD-Video’s audio specifications. Classic will feature several new titles that will bring its selection to about two dozen titles. And Chesky will show its recently expanded selection of 11 discs, which include the industry’s first two 96/24 discs with full-motion video: a live concert by Sara K and a Chuck Mangione album, both priced at $29.98.

In DVD-Video developments:

• Pioneer will show its first portable DVD player and four new home models, all with component video outputs and DTS passthrough. The DV-626D adds built-in DD and DTS decoders and a video buffer to smooth out forward and backward scanning.

• Pioneer is scheduled to show its first DVD changer, the DVC-302D with three-disc carousel and built-in Dolby Digital 5.1 decoder.

In DTV developments:

• Pioneer, Samsung and Sharp will demonstrate their first HDTV-ready rear-projection TVs, each intended for use with an optional set-top DTV receiver.

• Seleco will demonstrate its first HDTV-capable front projectors.

• And Dolby Labs will team with EchoStar to demonstrate satellite-delivered HDTV with a 5.1 DD soundtrack.

New home theater and stereo electronics will also be heard at the show, including a $499-suggested-retail add-on Audio Design Associates processor that delivers mono surround-channel information in a 5.1-channel soundtrack to one or two rear-center-channel speakers.

The device, called the ADA 6.1, will enhance the seamlessness of left-right surround-channel panning and, in large home theater rooms, prevent the rear image from collapsing to one side if a viewer is sitting far off to one side.

The processor approximates the effect delivered by the Dolby EX 6.1-channel format that Lucasfilm is launching with its new Star Wars movie. Lucasfilm’s THX Division plans to license the technology for home audio systems, presumably as part of its high-end THX Ultra licensing program.

Dolby EX soundtracks on future DVD-Video discs will be playable on existing 5.1-channel home theater systems but, in that application, won’t yield the Dolby EX enhancement.

The ADA 6.1, due in May, can be plugged between an amp and preamp or plugged into a 5.1-channel A/V receiver with surround-channel preamp outputs. For 5.1-channel receivers lacking preamp outputs, the device can be mated with a $399 AMP four-channel amp with speaker-level inputs.

In other multichannel developments:

• Adcom will show its first preamp/ tuner/processor with Dolby Digital and DTS decoding as standard features. The GTP-750, whose pricing and ship dates were unavailable, will supplement a DD model that could be upgraded with an optional DTS decoder card.

• Cary will enter the home theater market with its first five-channel amp.

• Marantz will show its first DTS-equipped preamp/tuners: the THX-Ultra-certified AV9000 at an undetermined price and the AV550 at a suggested $999.

• Polk will unveil an integrated Dolby Digital home theater system, the $2,699-suggested-retail RMDS-1. It features set-top DD tuner/preamp/processor, subwoofer with six-channel 500-watt amp, and five satellite speakers. It’s due in July and positioned as a plug-and-play solution because consumers don’t have to set speaker balance and because a single 25-pin cable connects the processor and amplifier/subwoofer module.

The system incorporates active crossover networks and active equalization to smooth out the satellite-to-subwoofer transition.

In DTV products, Samsung will unveil its first two HDTV-ready rear-projection TVs to complement a pair of HDTV-equipped rear-projection sets. The new models are due in July in 55- and 65-inch 16:9 screen sizes at suggested retails of $5,599 and $6,999, respectively.

They’ll display 480p, 720p, and 1080i video in native form and upconvert an NTSC signal to 480p. They can be mated with a set-top HDTV receiver that outputs 1080i and 480p signals and is due in July at a suggested $1,499.

Sharp will show its first HDTV-capable rear-projection set to complement a model with built-in HDTV receiver. The new 64-inch 16:9 64LHP4000, due in the spring at a suggested $7,995, features built-in line doubler to upconvert NTSC signals to 480p. It can be mated with a Sharp DTV decoder that upconverts DTV signals to 1080i.

The first Pioneer HDTV rear projector outside the company’s Elite series is the $6,995-suggested-retail 64-inch 16:9 model for use with a planned set-top decoder with 480p and 1080i output at a suggested $2,500. The TV itself upconverts NTSC to 480p.

Seleco’s first HDTV-capable front projectors are the 800HT and 500HT at suggested retails of $14,995 and $9,995, respectively. The latter is available; the former ships in May.

In other introductions:

• Madrigal will demonstrate the first preamp in its Mark Levinson Reference series. The No. 32, at a suggested $15,000, will appear in Dynaudio’s exhibit.

• NHT will demonstrate its new $8,500-suggested-retail VT3 home theater speaker system, due in September. It includes NHT’s first towers with built-in powered subwoofers and a switch intended to create a more diffuse response for home theater use. The switch activates a rear-firing tweeter/ midwoofer combination and boosts bass response at 35Hz by a user-selectable range up to 7.5dB.

• PSB will introduce a new speaker line, the Image series, due in the summer and fall, as well as Alpha-series additions, including a new center channel and two powered subwoofers. The new Alpha speakers are due in the summer.

• Start-up Perceptual Technologies, headed by ex-Audio Alchemy founder Mark Schifter, will demonstrate a DSP-based speaker/room correction system at a suggested $995.