Stereo, Home Theater Audio Reinvent Themselves


In this second installment of a virtual panel of top home audio executives the issue of the effects that Blu-ray and HD DVD may have on the home theater marketplace.

To discuss these trends, senior editor Joseph Palenchar assembled a virtual panel of leading audio suppliers just before International CES who were asked to respond by e-mail to questions posed by TWICE. Here's what they had to say:

TWICE: Will HD DVD and Blu-ray have any impact on sales of home audio electronics and speakers, in terms of sales or product features?

David Bales, Pioneer Electronics: Yes, we are very confident that high-definition packaged optical disc formats will positively impact home audio in both sales and product features. Keys features will be HDMI output, video scaling up to 1,080p for DVD playback and HD audio decoding from both DTS and Dolby Digital, as well as enhanced speaker performance to all take advantage of the improved "bit for bit" audio resolutions.

Paul Bente, Harman Consumer Group: Any new entry into the source components category has the ability to stimulate home audio electronics and loudspeaker sales, especially one that carries the claim of better performance. No doubt, we are upping the ante by including more HDMI and 1,080p compatibility in our audio/video receivers and processors as this technology takes hold.

Andy Mintz, Philips: We expect that the Blu-ray Disc format will have a positive impact on the sales of home audio products over time based on a number of factors, including the emergence of 7.1-channel surround, the adoption of the next version of HDMI 1.3 and the distribution of Blu-ray Disc music titles. Already, major music labels including Sony BMG and Universal Music are part of the Blu-ray Disc Association and support the format. In addition, Blu-ray Disc features special audio-only functionality within its format, meaning that there should be more potential product options for the music industry and consumers, alike.

Paul Wasek, Onkyo: Most certainly. Support of the audio formats associated with these technologies will be key in 2007 and beyond. As with most technology introductions, they will start at the high end and work their way down as time goes on.

TWICE: Will the HD DVD and Blu-ray formats turn into multichannel audiophile music formats, given their ability to store uncompressed multichannel PCM audio in up to 192kHz/24-bit quality?

Bales: After the performance of DVD-Audio and SACD, we don't anticipate that the music industry will be immediately embracing HD-audio only. They will likely be hard at work on the compressed music business relationships with Apple, Microsoft, cellphone companies, etc. However, we do see concert and music videos taking full advantage of HD audio.

Bente: Every time we have asked the end user to sit in the middle of the orchestra or band (unassisted by video), he or she has said, "No thanks." Will history repeat itself this time? Film at 11. We see the real benefits here being higher audio and video resolution and greater storage capacity.

Mintz: While it's still early in the game, there is considerable interest among content providers — studios, music labels and game developers, alike — in tapping into the potential of 7.1-channel surround sound. One of the primary benefits of Blu-ray Disc is that it offers content providers a wide range of options with 50GB of storage capacity.

While it may seem today like multichannel music in the home is, as you suggest, a "small niche," we should also consider the combined impact that the availability of movies, games and music titles all offering 7.1-channel surround can have on the market. Over time, we expect consumer interest in multichannel audio applications to naturally increase as manufacturers launch 7.1 hardware and more content becomes available.

Wasek: The audiophile music formats are still an opportunity waiting to happen and capable of happening. It is possible that the recognition of the benefits of high-definition audio associated with the new hi-definition video formats will stimulate the appetite on the music side of the equation as well.

TWICE: When, or will, decoders for all of the advanced audio codecs in the Blu-ray and HD DVD specs be incorporated into A/V receivers, preamp processors or HTiBs?

Jeff Talmadge, Denon: We expect to incorporate HDMI 1.3 connections along with decoding for the new HD Surround formats in 2007. While all of our current AVRs support 7.1 PCM audio on our HDMI 1.1 inputs, we believe the best sound for the consumer will be via native decoding inside the A/V receiver, especially with Bass Management and Room EQ features that the BD/HD players do not implement.

Bales: We anticipate this will happen in the second quarter of 2007. However, Blu-ray and HD DVD players will transcode all codecs to PCM for transfer over HDMI to A/V receivers and HTiBs for compatibility with existing HDMI 1.1 and 1.2 inputs, as well as to decode Internet-provided DTS-HD and Dolby Digital Plus secondary audio channels.

Bente: Our product plans for the year ahead absolutely include provisions for both the lossy (Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD) and lossless (Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio) codecs that are part of the reasons for interest in the blue-laser, high-definition optical disc formats. However, the introduction date for such products is something that is to a certain extent out of our control, as that will be determined by not only the availability of the technologies from Dolby and DTS, but also their implementation in the DSP engines that will be used in our products. We are enthusiastic about bringing these technologies to the market as soon as possible, but defer to others for precise predictions on the timing

TWICE: Why come out with Blu-ray or HD DVD players if new A/V receivers and DVD players can up-scale video to 1,080p?

Bales: The picture quality doesn't even come close, especially for film-based content where 24 fps and 1,080p native resolutions are matching dot for dot on a connected HDTV. [For DVD], 1,080p will be common in even entry HTiB and component DVD players — they should even have a good year, but packaged HD optical disc will have a clear advantage in video, audio, control and even networking capabilities.

Mintz: Let me first clarify that Blu-ray Disc, with its 50GB capacity, offers picture quality far beyond what can be achieved by up-scaling a standard DVD. Moreover, breakthrough picture quality is only part of the benefit consumers will enjoy with Blu-ray Disc.

The addition of the highly flexible Blu-ray Disc/Java technology enables the creative community to offer completely new and exciting user experiences. Content providers are only just beginning to test the waters with what is possible with this kind of capacity, and the potential will only increase as manufacturers begin introducing next generation players with broadband connections. Already, studios are working on Blu-ray Disc titles that incorporate games, new interactive features and new and easier menu navigation far surpassing anything possible with DVD.

Talmadge: Scaling technology for standard-definition (480i) discs is advancing every year, and in some applications can appear to look nearly as good as current Blu-ray and HD-DVD. But the material on the Blu-ray/HD discs are encoded at 1,080p natively, whether from true HD recordings or up-converted via professional telecine machines. This is a huge advantage over SD-encoded discs. With less processing from the disc material to video output, BD/HD will prove to deliver the best picture.

While the ability of A/V receivers to scale to 1,080p may seem to make a better choice than BD/HD players, this feature was designed to allow other non-HD video sources to be matched to the 1,080p display, most likely giving the user a better picture than allowing the display itself to scale the images.


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