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Sony Adopts Home Sat. Radio, Expands ‘Unobtrusive’ Surround Systems

Las Vegas — Sony entered the home satellite radio market with XM-ready home components and systems here at its annual dealer event, where the company also expanded its selection of surround systems designed to fit unobtrusively in homes.

The unobtrusive surround systems include a big-screen TV stand that incorporates speakers, amplifiers, surround decoders, and virtual surround technology to deliver 5.1-channel surround through the stand’s embedded speakers. A second system consists of a pedestal-mount 32-inch LCD HDTV with motorized sliding front panel incorporating DVD player, surround-sound decoders and virtual surround technology to deliver a 5.1-channel soundfield from the panel’s left-right speakers and from a subwoofer.

The two systems will complement a 2.1-speaker virtual-surround Dream System unveiled last year and re-priced this year to $799 from $999. The virtual surround systems do not require positioning near side walls to bounce the surround channels to the listening position.

In other audio-related developments, the company:

·Entered the high-performance tabletop radio market with a $179 one-piece AM/FM stereo model.

·Launched a small, single-chassis IEEE 802.11b/g wireless speaker system with two-line display to select and playback music files stored on a remote PC, including files downloaded from Apple’s iTunes site. It also streams Internet radio stations through the PC. At $299, it will replace a $249 Ethernet-connected shelf system, which required a wired Ethernet connection to stream PC music.

·Outlined the surround-sound formats that its first Blu-ray player will support. (see story below)

·Added automatic speaker setup for the first time to its mainstream HiFi series A/V receivers and to home theater systems, which offer the feature in all models in all three series: the performance-oriented Dream Systems, feature-oriented Integrated Systems and component-based systems.

·The company will announce new compressed-music headphone stereos in 60 days and new audio components in its top-end ES series in September.

·In satellite radio, three new A/V receivers priced at $299, $399 and $499 incorporate XM’s Connect and Play port, which enables them to control outboard palm-size satellite-tuner/antenna combinations. The ports are also built into two home theater in a box (HTiB) systems in the performance-oriented Dream Systems series at an everyday $599 and $899, in one component-based HTiB, in one $249 minisystem, and in one $199 microsystem. None of the products features an onboard slot to accept XM’s planned Passport tuner, which is the size of a 9-volt battery.

In unobtrusive surround, the company demonstrated the $1,499 RHT-6200 TV stand, large enough to support a 70-inch plasma TV. For consumers who want big screens but don’t have the space for five or more component speakers, the stand incorporates 5.1-channel surround decoder, proprietary virtual-surround technology, amplifiers, multiple speakers and two subwoofers.

The other unobtrusive surround system is the TAV-L1, a pedestal-mounted 32-inch LCD HDTV with music and surround-sound audio system integrated in a motorized front panel. The panel incorporates left-right speakers, FM tuner, Dolby Digital and DTS surround decoders, virtual-surround processor and single-disc CD/SACD/DVD player. The panel slides up to cover the entire screen when a CD or SACD music disc is inserted and slides down when a DVD is inserted. A subwoofer is also included. Sony is targeting end of summer or autumn deliveries at a targeted $4,000.

Here’s a look at the company’s audio plans by product segment:

Component audio: In its five-SKU HiFi series topping out at $499, Sony is adding XM’s Connect and Play port to the $299, $399 and $499 models, adding auto calibration for the first time in the series, and adding portable-audio DSP for the first time to smooth out the lows and highs of compressed-music players connected via front-panel analog input. “No one else is doing auto calibration at $299,” said product manager Michael Smith.

In another change, select HiFi Series receivers get HDMI inputs for the first time to perform video switching, but it wasn’t certain at press time whether they would accept mandatory multichannel audio streams from a connected Sony Blu-ray player unveiled here.

In the HiFi A/V receiver series, video switching via a “passive” HDMI input and output appears in a $399 model, requiring HDMI for video and a separate optical input for audio. An HDMI input and output carrying audio and video starts at $499.

Like last year, 6.1-channel surround starts at $199, and 7.1-channel surround starts at $299.

In speakers, the HiFi audio series got its first on-wall surround-sound speaker system, complementing a high-end $2,000 ES series on-wall speaker system. The HiFi-series system retails for an everyday $399. The system’s charcoal color matches BRAVIA flat-panel displays.

Blu-ray audio: Sony’s $1,000 player will deliver Blu-ray’s mandatory codecs — Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1 and six-channel 192khz/ 24-bit uncompressed PCM through the player’s single-port HDMI 1.1 output and through six analog outputs, the company confirmed. The player, however, doesn’t support Blu-ray’s optional surround codecs, some of which require future HDMI 1.3 outputs not yet ready for production, the company said.

Although some companies have considered modifying the HDMI 1.1 spec to deliver some of the optional codecs to outboard decoders, “Sony will not go off-standard,” said Phil Abram, VP of the home products division.

The optional codecs requiring HDMI 1.3 pipes, according to the HDMI Licensing organization, are  Dolby TruHD and DTS HD Master Audio lossless formats. HDMI Licensing president Leslie Chard said other optional Blu-ray codecs could be transported over today’s HDMI 1.1 inputs and outputs. They are eight-channel 96khz/24-bit PCM, lossy Dolby Digital Plus and lossy DTS HD.

“It would not be possible in a compliant way” to transport DTS HD Master and Dolby TruHD over HDMI 1.1” and would create “interoperability issues” if suppliers modified the 1.1 spec on their own, Chard told TWICE. Connecting compliant and noncompliant 1.1 inputs and outputs would yield “white noise” instead of surround sound, he said. “We’re not going to authorize that option.”

The publication of the HDMI 1.3 spec is tentatively set for June, Chard said.

It was unclear whether suppliers could legally license HDMI 1.1 technology and modify it but not use the HDMI logo.

Home theater Dream Systems: The selection of performance-oriented HTiBs, all with flat wall-mountable speakers and SACD playback, was scaled back slightly in light of the HTiB market’s declining dollar volume. The number of top-end Platinum Dream Systems goes to two from three, as does the mainstream Dream System series.

With the change, all Dream Systems for the first time offer HD/up-scaling HDMI output, available on three of six models in last year’s selection.

New Dream Systems include the $599 DAV-FX500 with XM-ready port, up-scaling HDMI output, five-disc DVD/SACD changer, black and silver finish to match BRAVIA TVs, and portable-audio enhancer to smooth out the lows and highs in compressed-music portables connected via analog input.

The DAV-FX900W at $899 also features XM port and HD/up-scaling HDMI output but adds wireless-infrared surround speakers, which Sony said delivers superior audio performance to RF wireless speakers. That’s due in part because the speakers won’t reproduce RF hiss during times when a soundtrack lacks surround-channel information.

In the Dream System Platinum tier, the company is reducing the number of models with on-wall main chassis to two from one. Last year, the company offered such a chassis at $1,499 and $1,999 and found the step-up model to sell the best, a spokesman said. Like last year, this year’s $1,999 DAV-LF1H tosses all amplification in the subwoofer to deliver a small slim on-wall chassis, which unlike last year’s models features up-scaling HDMI output.

Integrated home theater systems: In light of the HTiB market’s shift to lower price points, the company is expanding its feature-oriented Integrated Systems to two from one. The series starts at $299 for a model with five-disc DVD/SACD changer, auto speaker calibration and portable audio enhancer. Up-scaling HDMI output is available in the series for the first time with the $399 model.

Component-based HTiB: The series now includes an XM-ready model with up-scaling HDMI output at $499 with five-disc DVD/SACD changer.

Shelf systems: The XM-ready minisystem is the $249 GX-570XM, and the XM-ready microsystem is the $199 HPR99XM, both at the top end of their respective lines with five-disc changers.

In this year’s selection, the company will continue to offer a DVD microsystem, a category that Sony entered last year, but the price point will drop to $199 from $229. The number of microsystems capable of playing CDs encoded with MP3 and Sony’s ATRAC-family files grows to two at $179 for the HPR90 and $199 for the XM-ready HPR99XM.

The microsystem selection remains at five, and minisystems SKUs go to five with the addition of the $249 price point.

Component SACD: The number was trimmed to eight from 11, most with DVD-Video playback, among all Sony series.