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Sony’s ’03 Line Illustrates Audio’s Evolution

East Rutherford, N.J.- Anyone looking for clues on how the audio market is evolving should take a look at Sony’s 2003 products. The lineup includes Dolby Digital EX/DTS ES receivers starting at an everyday $299, a minisystem with a wireless link to a PC, fewer two-channel audio systems and fewer CD-recorders.

The lineup, unveiled here at one of two regional dealer shows, also includes the industry’s first SACD/DVD-Video megachanger, a $399-everday 400-disc model that also plays MP3-CDs and recordable DVD discs in the DVD-RW and DVD+RW formats. Recordable-DVD playback modes include DVD-RW’s VR mode, which enables nonlinear editing on a DVD-RW recorder in much the same way that the audio-only MiniDisc format does.

The megachanger also features progressive output, Dolby Digital/DTS passthrough, on-screen GUI, disc-jacket display of discs encoded with a disc-jacket graphics, and front-panel keyboard input for disc labeling. When it ships in September, it will be the company’s first 400-disc DVD changer and the only DVD megachanger in the lineup. Last year, Sony offered a 301-disc model without SACD playback at $499.

DVD megachanger popularity will grow, DVD marketing manager Bruce Tripido said, in part because of the additional discs that people will own now that DVD-recorders are growing in popularity. Nonetheless, he said, right now ‘megachangers are still a niche,’ accounting for only about 100,000 factory-level unit sales in 2002 out of about 18.5 million component and portable DVD players sold. Sony, which sell the majority of DVD megachangers, is setting the foundation for a DVD market that, like the component CD market, will eventually split 50/50 between five-disc models and megachangers, with almost no single-disc activity, he said.

At $399, he noted, the SACD/DVD megachanger will capture some of the CD-only megachanger business, which starts at $199 for a 300-disc model and $299 for a 400-disc model in the Sony line.

Also new: the company’s first five-disc SACD/DVD-Video player, launched at an everyday $249 to replace a five-disc SACD-only changer in the mainstream HiFi series. Sony is eliminating SACD-only players from its HiFi series, leaving them for the more upscale, audiophile-oriented ES series.

Here’s a category-by-category breakdown of Sony’s other audio introductions.

Home theater systems: In its Dream System lineup, Sony will maintain a three-SKU selection of systems built around five-disc DVD receivers, will stick with the $599 and $999 price points, and replace the $399 price point with a $799 system to bolster its step-up selection.

Below those prices, Sony will continue to offer its HT series home-theater-in-a-box (HTiB) systems, whose DVD-receivers look more like traditional receivers than the thinner, sleeker Dream Systems’ DVD-receivers. The company is reserving slim styling, SACD playback and digital amplification for the Dream Systems, due in July.

All Dream and HTiB systems, however, share Dolby Digital, DTS and Pro Logic II 5.1-channel decoding. Select HT series models this year add DVD+/-RW compatibility.

Changes were made to the Dream System’s higher power, and cosmetics were redesigned to include a sloped-back front panel on the DVD-receivers to make it easier to access controls and view the display. All three models, compared to two in last year’s line, feature a slot-loading mechanism that is quieter and reduces chassis height by an inch compared to elevator-style changers. The latter uses five internal trays to transport a disc to the laser transport, whereas the slot-load mechanism grabs each disc and pulls it into place.

The two step-up systems feature adjustable stands for the left-right main speakers, enabling them to be raised or lowered to match the height of a companion TV screen. The left-right pairs in the two step-up systems are also the first in the Dream System series to complement plasma-screen installations. The speakers are tall, narrow, relatively flat and wall-mountable. Additional Dream System details were unavailable.

Receivers: Sony is adding new features to its entry-level and mid-priced HiFi series to increasingly differentiate their electronics from Dream System electronics. The differentiating features include 80MHz HD-capable component video inputs, assignable digital inputs and Dolby Digital EX and DTS ES 6.1-channel decoding. DTS ES and DTS Neo:6 will be available for the first time in HiFi series receivers, previous models having been DTS-ES compatible. Last year, DTS ES was available only in the upscale Sony ES series.

EX/ES receivers will start at $299 with six-channel amplifier rated at 6×100 watts into 1kHz. In the previous line, EX started at $399, and that model incorporated a five-channel amp with pre-out for the back-surround channel. The $299 model’s features include two 80MHz component-video inputs.

The step-up $399 model, available in black or silver, steps up power to 6×110 watts at 20Hz-20kHz and adds jog dial and assignable inputs. The $499 model, also in black or silver, features 7×100-watt amp and dual jog dials.

Also new: a $199 5.1-channel DD/DTS receiver with 5×100 watts. A $149 two-channel receiver will be held over.

All models except for the stereo model feature 80MHz component-video inputs, which weren’t available in the previous HiFi series. Shipments are staggered from March through May.

Audio systems: As it did last year, Sony scaled back its selection: 18 microsystems go to 15, and seven minisystems go to five. One midi system remains in the lineup. CD-R/RW compatibility has been extended to all mini and microsystems for the first time.

The minisystems include two models with 60-disc MP3-CD changers at $249 and $299. The $299 model is Sony’s first mini with built-in 900MHz wireless receiver and included separate transmitter. The wireless feature lets users stream music from a PC up to 125 feet away from the minisystem. The system can’t remotely control the PC, however.

Minisystems continue to offer a game sync function that lets users connect them to a videogame machine to replace a game’s soundtrack with a CD’s music.

The micros start at $99 and includes a $299 model that’s the company’s first micro with S Master digital amplification, also available in all three Dream Systems.

CD-recorders, MiniDisc recorders: Acknowledging the decline in the CD-recorder market, the company scaled back its selection to one SKU from four. It also eliminated its only component-style hard-drive music jukebox, a single-zone model, because the market is strongest for multi-zone models in custom applications, said training manager Michael Smith. In non-custom applications, he noted, people tend to stream music files on their PC’s hard drive to a sound system. A hard-drive-equipped wall-hanging system, however, remains in the line at an everyday $999.

Sony’s sole CD-recorder will be a dual-well model with 4x dubbing speed, Super Bit Mapping technology to deliver 24-bit performance. Sony said it sees Super Bit Mapping a key feature differentiating it from PC-based burners.

For the first time in its dual-deck CD-recorders, Sony makes it possible to duplicate an existing MP3 CD, although it doesn’t create MP3 CDs. In a bow to the music industry, the deck converts an MP3 CD’s files to analog and then back to MP3 before burning the files to the blank disc.

The company dropped a 5+1 CD-recorder and a dual-well model featuring DVD/CD drive.

In component MD recorders, the company will offer two models, both incorporating the MDLP (MiniDisc Long Play) ATRAC3 format for full compatibility with ATRAC3 portable NetMD recorders. Now songs ripped on a PC and transferred to a NetMD disc can be played in a home component system, and discs made on the home component system can be played in the NetMD portables, the company said. The $299 model features built-in CD drive and 4x CD-to-MD dubbing speed. It also transfers music from an MP3 CD to ATRAC3 MiniDiscs, but in doing so, it converts MP3 music to analog before encoding it in the ATRAC3 format. The $149 model is also a single-MD model but lacks CD drive.

Speakers: The company will continue to offer three HiFi series 5.1-channel home-theater speaker packages starting at $299, $399, and $999, the latter a carryover system with digitally amplified subwoofer. Two models feature extended frequency response (50kHz and 70kHz, respectively), up from one model. The powered subs in all three take speaker- and line-level inputs, whereas only one previous model offered the choice.

Component speakers in the HiFi series continue to offer frequency response up to 50kHz. The SKU count and price points are unchanged, with prices ranging from $49 to $279/pair. They feature improved cosmetics and power handling. A Class D digital powered sub is included at $299.

Portables: For Gen-Yers, three new Psyc models are each available in a choice of primary red, blue and yellow with jewel-toned keys. A Psyc CD Walkman, due in March for $50, is the first CD Walkman in the series with skip-free G Protection. Two AA batteries deliver 40 hours of playback time. An $80 CD-cassette boombox and $50 CD clock radio are due in April.