CES 2014: It's a Wrap
In any case, a consumer electronics show by any other name is still a consumer electronics show. And it continues to be the biggest game in Las Vegas every January. Over the years it has outgrown its roots as an audio/video show to encompass all manner of electronic detritus. Computers and gadgets of all sorts now deck the halls. After the show I heard something about a Bluetooth toothbrush, but I missed out on seeing it. My life is now without meaning.
But my beat was HDTVs UHDTVs, plus whatever audio I could fit in, and I’m sticking to video for this wrap-up. You can see more detail on my impressions of the video and audio at the 2014 CES, and those of others on the Sound&Vision staff, in our main show report.
Ultra HD Displays Computers, gadgets, or not, the biggest booths at CES still belong to the TV makers. But calling them booths is like stepping into Dr. Who’s Tardis and ending up in Disneyland. The crowds, particularly on the first day, were crushing. The CEA estimated an attendance of 150,000. Any more and the fire marshal would have. But unlike in New York, there are no signs in Vegas stating that occupancy by more than 150,000 is dangerous and unlawful.
While there were plenty of new 1080p HDTVs at the show, the BIG story was Ultra HD, or as it’s often (inaccurately) called, 4K. UHD sets were everywhere, even in the booths of a number of Chinese companies trying desperately to elbow their way into the U.S. market. If you’re looking for an Ultra HD set this year, be sure that it has HDMI 2.0, the ability to handle the H.265 codec (otherwise known as HEVC, for High Efficiency Video Codec) and HDCP 2.2 (High-bandwidth Digital Copy Protection). Some of those ambitious Chinese models did not yet have these features, which is why many of them were not promising near-term delivery dates.
There’s more to UHD than resolution, of course, which is why expanded color and possibly high dynamic range (more on this below) may soon be part of the UHD equation. But not all early sets will be able to make use of wider color gamuts, higher color bit depth, and higher color sampling. Until the sources have these capabilities, be cautions of sales pitches promising longer, lower, and wider color. If the source doesn’t have enhanced color, any attempt to generate it in the display, while it may look appealing, is simply a distortion. I saw more than one image of super-saturated strawberries that looked nothing like real-world strawberries.
If UHD was the big story, curved UHD screens (yes, even in LCD sets) weren’t far behind, particularly from the Korean companies. Will we have to stop calling them “flat screen” sets? I do know that hanging them on the wall will look awkward. Samsung had an answer to that in its “curve-able LCD that, at the push of a button, can go from curved to flat and back. I suspect this will turn out to be vaporware, since even when it’s flat the depth of the set appeared to be at least a clunky 3-inches. But I have to admit that the 105-inch, curved LCD/LED UHD sets from both Samsung and LG (and a flat version from Toshiba) looked amazing. No prices were given for them, however, nor were prices available for most of the other sets at the show (Vizio was a notable exception). Not surprising, as most of the sets shown won’t be available for months, and in some cases not until late in 2014.
Despite curved sets drawing much of the attention, most of Samsung’s and LG’s sets remain flat. No curved designs were on display from Sharp, Toshiba or Sony. All of Panasonic’s upcoming LCD sets were flat, though they did show curved OLED prototypes (see below).
LG and Samsung continue to market plasmas, but they were very low key at the show. One reason for the plasma collapse is that it may not be technically possible to make a 4K plasma set in the most popular screen sizes. The smallest 1080p plasma set we know of was 42-inches. While it might be possible to reduce the plasma pixel size to accommodate a 65-inch 4K set, the realities of plasma’s market share may simply not allow for the R&D investment required.
OLEDs didn’t make much of a splash at the show. LG was the biggest player, with several new models, including sets larger than last year’s 55-inchers. Samsung carried over its existing OLED set from last year, with no new introductions and no fanfare. The Japanese makers were clearly AWOL on OLED with one exception; Panasonic showed a serpentine group of several curved OLEDs to stunning effect. They were made by the OLED printing technique announced at last year’s CES as under development (together with Sony). Clearly the printing method works, at least for a show, but that doesn’t mean that all the commercial problems with that method are solved. There was no announcement of upcoming printed OLED displays from either Sony or Panasonic.
Panasonic did show a high-end 4K LCD/LED set, comparing it in a darkened room to their now discontinued ZT60 plasma. You do know, of course, that Panasonic is now out of the plasma business. In any case, this LED backlit local dimmer was reminiscent of the now discontinued Sharp Elite, but in 4K and, hopefully, with better off-axis performance.
Most manufacturers also trumpeted their enhanced Smart TV features. Everyone had their own variations on this theme, some better than others, but until we get a chance to live with them, trying to rate them based on show demos would be pointless. In any case, while I know some viewers are into the things that smart TV offers, my “thing” is improved basic performance. And as terrific as many of today’s sets are in picture quality, a lot of music still remains on that score until the fat lady sings.
HD and Ultra HD Sources New Blu-ray players were thin on the ground. This was no surprise, given the current scramble to streaming and downloading movies. But Blu-ray is still the quality HD source of choice in my home theater. As ever, however, there’s a chance that convenience will trump quality. It won’t be the first time.
What everyone wants to know, of course, is when will we see enough true 4K source material. To date, the only significant such material we have exists on a server that Sony currently offers (usable only on Sony sets) and the promise of a similar device from Samsung. There’s also the Redray server, but no buzz there about significant consumer source material to play on it.
Streaming of 4K material generated a little buzz at the show, but more as a promise than as a present-day reality. It will happen in time, but is anyone naïve enough to deny that streamed 4K could become the video equivalent of MP3that is, 4K in name, but likely inferior to, or no better than, the best current 1080p downloads. Even the latter are still short of Blu-ray quality.
For me, the holy grail of video will be Ultra HD on an upgraded Blu-ray. In fact, there appear to be (very) private industry meetings going on with just such a format in mind. The studios don’t want to loose the DVD/Blu-ray revenue that, despite the new revenues promised by streaming and the gradual drop off in sales of such packaged media, currently boosts their bottom lines. A UHD Blu-ray, which could sell for more (but not a LOT more, please, unless they want to kill it off in the launch!) might just be the ticket.
3D Oh, how the mighty have fallen. It was just a few short years ago when 3D was the CES love child. While most manufacturers still offer it, it was virtually unloved this year. Vizio has even taken 3D out of its new, low priced E-series and its M-series sets under 50-inches (though it remains in the M-series sets at 50-inches and larger, and in its Ultra HD sets).
But 3D was not entirely a no-show this year. There were several glasses-free 3D demos. The one I attended, by Dolby, was very impressive. Glasses-free TV clearly works better on a 4K set, and that’s where we’re likely to see it firstunless the market is now so jaded by 3D that it doesn’t give the glasses-free version a chance and abandons home 3D altogether. No specific product announcements were made for the glasses-free 3D format, but perhaps manufacturers are saving it for the next big thing after this year’s Ultra HD and, next year’s…
High Dynamic Range Video While it would be wrong to say that this upcoming feature was everywhere, it was easy to find if you knew where to look. We’re not just talking about brighter pictures here; lord knows that the average picture level in most set’s Vivid mode could kill a moth at three paces. What high dynamic range, or HDR, offers is the capability to replicate as closely as possible the real-world “pop” of bright areas of an image, including such things as the realistic glint of the sun off the shiny silver wings of an airplane or bright streetlamps on an otherwise darkened street. The only way to do this with current technology is with full-array LED backlit local dimming with enough zones to be able to zero in on the details without brightness spillover. It may be possible with OLED, but the jury is still out on that.
Dolby is the big player here, and several manufacturers were demonstrating the technique. Perhaps the closest we saw to a possible marketable product using the Dolby system was the new Reference series from Vizio, but even there we’re probably looking at late 2014 at the earliest.
The Dolby HDR system requires special information (metadata) in the source material. Sony showed a similar high contrast technology, which they call X-tended Dynamic Range PRO or just X-tended Dynamic Range (the PRO uses backlighting; sets without the PRO use edge-lighting, which is unlikely to be as effective). Samsung showed prototypes of its 85-inch 4K set with a similar technology. Neither the Sony nor the Samsung technique requires special coding in the source.
Is That All There Is? A recent article in the Wall Street Journal complained about the lack of true innovation in the new sets shown at CES. I suppose it all depends on what you’re looking for in a new television. There certainly was plenty new to see at CES, and in the coming year we hope to put many of the new models to the test. Only hands-on experience will show whether or not all the 4K, curved screen, glasses free 3D, and high dynamic range hullabaloo will add up to genuine advances in video display technology.