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PC Industry’s Influence In Audio To Grow At CES

The audio industry will embrace PC technologies at CES but won’t turn its back on the traditional products and technologies that continue to drive up home system sales and turned around the home component market after a long string of annual declines.

Retailers at the show will find an expanding selection of hard-drive-based audio servers and jukeboxes, including some of the first models from traditional audio specialty and mainstream CE companies.

Dealers will also find more tabletop and component-style audio products that stream audio from websites without linking up to a PC. Also at CES, at least two companies will unveil devices to link PCs to home audio systems.

Harman Kardon will unveil a device that connects USB PCs to a receiver’s coaxial digital input. It will convert MP3, Windows Media Audio and Wav files to PCM streams for playback through connected receivers. It will also convert WMA and Wav files to MP3 for playback on MP3-decoding audio components such as receivers. Pricing was unavailable.

For its part, Yamaha will unveil a DD/DTS receiver and DD/DTS preamp that link to a PC via a USB connection.

New products lacking PC capabilities will include:

  • An expanded selection of DVD-Audio/Video players, including the first models from Rotel, Yamaha, and at least one other supplier.
  • At least one more multichannel SACD player, complementing a planned Philips model due this month with DVD-Video playback.
  • More DVD-Video players with CD-R/RW compatibility.
  • More home theater receiver/speaker packages bundled with a component DVD player or incorporating a DVD-receiver.
  • CD-recorders from companies entering the market, including Spectra.
  • A growing number of receivers incorporating THX Surround EX (or Dolby Digital Matrix 6.1) and DTS ES Discrete and Matrix.
  • One of the first seven-channel component amps, intended for use with THX EX 7.1-channel processors.
  • And the first receivers incorporating Dolby Pro Logic 2, which derives a 5.1-channel soundfield from Pro Logic sources and derives surround sound from a stereo mix.

Dealers will also find traditional portable and home audio products incorporating MP3 playback capability. More shelf systems, headphone CD players, car CD players and DVD players will play back MP3-encoded CDs, as will some of the first CD boomboxes and component home CD changers.

Here’s a preview of what to expect:

Receivers: The majority of re-ceivers sold at retail during the first three quarters incorporated both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1-channel surround, according to NPD Intelect Market Tracking (see story p. 30). As a result, more companies at CES will turn to 6.1- and 7.1-channel decoding technologies to differentiate their new receivers.

Suppliers will also turn to the new decoding technologies to take advantage of this year’s step-up trend in receiver sales. For the nine months ending September, Consumer Electronics Association statistics show, receiver sales rose 15 percent in units and 20 percent in dollars, compared with full-year 1999 growth of more than 10 percent in units and about 10 percent in dollars.

At CES, at least two more audio suppliers, including Harman Kardon, will unveil their first receivers with DTS ES Discrete and Matrix 6.1-channel decoding. Those receivers will also incorporate either THX Surround EX or Dolby Digital 6.1 Matrix decoding.

Also at the show:

  • At least two companies will show receivers with Pro Logic 2 decoding.
  • At least one A/V company will show its first THX-Ultra-certified THX EX decoding receiver.
  • And at least one more company will show its first THX Select-certified, THX Surround EX-equipped receiver.

In a related THX EX development, Meridian announced that free software downloads would be available before CES to upgrade its 861, 568 and 561 surround processors to include THX Surround EX decoding.

Home theater solutions: Philips will expand its selection of receiver/ speaker packages, and at least two more companies-including Onkyo-will unveil their first DVD-receiver/speaker packages. In addition, at least two more companies will show their first DVD-equipped shelf systems, and another company will expand its selection of DVD-equipped shelf systems to three.

On top of that, at least two companies-including JBL-will unveil their first receiver/speaker packages that include a DVD player, and Yamaha will expand its selection of DVD-equipped receiver/speaker packages to two from one. One non-receiver-based electronics/speaker package from Yamaha will cosmetically match Sony’s DVD-equipped PlayStation2.

Solutions consisting of speakers and a DVD-receiver priced at $599 to $799 have sold exceptionally well in recent months, suppliers said, and Onkyo hopes to tap the step-up customer interested as much in performance as convenience with its first such package, the $1,195-suggested-retail Envision Theater. It features component-video output for high-end TVs and monitors, built-in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1-channel decoding, and automatic system turn-on when the open/close or play buttons are pressed.

Onkyo previously sold a DVD-receiver as a stand-alone product.

MP3 everywhere: NPD Intelect Market Tracking found that unit sales of flash-memory-equipped Internet audio portables took a dramatic upturn during the two months preceding the fourth-quarter selling season, outpacing both CD-R and MD unit volume during those two months (see story above).

To exploit the popularity of MP3, suppliers are incorporating MP3 decoders in more products than ever, and more companies are introducing their first MP3 headphone portables.

I-Jam, Thomson, Philips and Pine, for example, this year launched the first headphone CD players capable of playing back MP3-encoded CDs, but they’ll get competition from multiple companies. Those companies will include Spectra Merchandising (under the Jensen brand), Coby, and data-storage company CMC Magnetics, which will show a $149-suggested model that plays 3-inch CD-ROM and CD-R discs and is due in February.

I-Jam plans to show its second-generation headphone MP3 CD player.

Buyers will also find some of the first CD boomboxes that play back MP3-encoded CDs. They’ll include a trio from Spectra’s Jensen brand and one from a major mainstream A/V supplier.

One mainstream CE company will also add MP3-disc playback to a five-disc CD changer and CD boombox for the first time in its line, joining a headphone CD Player already in the company’s line.

Harman Kardon already markets multiple receivers and DVD players with MP3 decoders, and it will likely expand that feature to more models at CES.

Spectra will also show its first flash-memory based MP3 portables, as will Motorola spin-off First International Digital, whose models will include its first firmware-upgradable models that will support additional codecs.

Meanwhile, DataPlay is expected to demonstrate the first headphone portables using the company’s 500MB write-once recordable discs, which are slightly larger than a quarter. And chipmaker Texas Instruments will demonstrate a layer board that will be used in the industry’s first portable Internet-audio player/recorders, expected to be available sometime in 2001.

DVD-Audio: Rotel, Yamaha and Meridian will show their first models, as will at least one other supplier.

Rotel’s model, expected to ship in the weeks before CES at a suggested $1,499, offers progressive-video outputs and built-in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1-channel decoding.

Yamaha’s model, the DVD-S1200 at a suggested $999, features component output with progressive-scan output and 3-2 pulldown converter, Dolby Digital and DTS passthrough, 10-bit video DACs, and CD-R/RW compatibility.

For its part, Meridian hopes to show the 598 DVD-A/V player, due in the first quarter at an undetermined price.

Meridian already offers two DVD-Video players that can be upgraded to play DVD-Audio discs when an optional DVD-Audio card or a module is added.

A DVD-Audio card for the $15,000 800 DVD player will likely be demonstrated at CES and ship in the first quarter. It can be installed by a dealer or consumer, a spokesman said. A factory-installable DVD-Audio module for the $4,250 596 DVD player, which also plays MP3 CDs, was expected to be available late in the first quarter.

The Rotel and Meridian models will join models available from such companies as Denon, JVC, Kenwood, Panasonic/ Technics, Pioneer and Toshiba at street prices starting as low as $599.

CD-recorders: The product category will expand at CES beyond specialty-audio suppliers and major A/V suppliers to include companies such as importer Spectra, and at least two more companies will offer their first 4x recording speed dual-well models.

Despite strong CD-recorder growth, however, unit MiniDisc sales continued to outsell CD-recorder sales during the first nine months of the year, according to NPD Intelect Market Tracking (see story above).

One A/V supplier bemoaned less-than-expected sales of its first dual-well CD-recorder. “It’s not the superstar we expected,” the supplier said. “When only Philips had it, everyone wanted it.” This supplier contended that consumer awareness of CD-recorders is “still very low,” and another company speculated that recording enthusiasts, mainly young people, are using their PCs to use cheaper data CD-R discs to “roll their own.”