Auld Lang Syne

As we bid a fond farewell to 2008—"fond" in the sense that many are glad to see it depart—it's only natural to take a look back at the year gone by and try to sneak a peek at the year to come. In the realm of home theater, there's a lot to ponder...

Of course, one of the biggest home-theater stories of 2008 was the death of HD DVD and the end of the stupid format war that crippled the introduction of high-def discs. Since then, Blu-ray has gained a lot of ground—nearly 150,000 players sold during Black Friday week, The Dark Knight sold 1.7 million Blu-ray copies worldwide in one week, dedicated player prices fell below $200, the total installed base is approaching 9 million players in the U.S., and over 1000 titles are now available. Granted, these are nowhere near the current DVD stats, but Blu-ray is on par with DVD's progress at the same point in its life cycle.

Another important story from 2008 was the continued rise of streaming and downloadable high-def content, which presents Blu-ray with a format war of a different sort. Netflix, Apple TV, and Vudu all started offering online HD titles, and LG and Samsung both introduced Blu-ray players that can stream HD content from Netflix.

In fact, many predict that online delivery will render Blu-ray a niche format akin to LaserDisc, but I don't buy that—online HD offers nowhere near the picture quality of Blu-ray, there are few if any bonus features in downloaded files, and it takes many hours to download a single HD title, even at broadband speeds. Also, humans are collectors by nature, and the allure of owning a physical disc is irresistible. On the other hand, as MP3 has clearly demonstrated, convenience generally trumps quality and even collectability, so I could be wrong here.

One cannot look back at 2008 without noting the economic collapse that shook the world. This calamity affected—and continues to affect—all segments of society, including entertainment. Circuit City filed for bankruptcy, and most other retailers and manufacturers are struggling as well. This helped to accelerate the decline of prices for home-theater gear, which is good news for consumers—at least, those who can still afford to spend any money on anything other than food, housing, clothes, and medical care.

So what can we expect in 2009? The big story is the DTV transition, which will occur on February 17. On that day, all full-power TV stations are required to shut down all analog broadcasting and switch entirely to digital. Certain low-power stations are exempt, but for most folks who watch an analog TV exclusively via rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna, they'll see nothing but snow on the screen. (Cable and satellite subscribers should not be affected.) There's still time to get a government-subsidized coupon for a converter box that will keep the picture on an analog over-the-air TV, but you need to act fast—go here to request a coupon.

The emphasis on "green" products, including TVs and other consumer electronics, will continue unabated, which is a very good thing in my book. These products are made with fewer toxic substances, they draw less electrical power, and they can be recycled more easily.

In other tech news, we could see larger flat panels based on OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology. This year, Sony introduced the 11-inch XEL-1 OLED TV for a whopping $2500, so a larger model can't be far behind. On the other hand, Samsung recently announced that it's backing out of the OLED business because it's simply too expensive.

I have no doubt that online delivery of HD content will continue to grow by leaps and bounds, though I still prefer the quality of Blu-ray over the convenience of streaming. On the other side of that coin, Denon and Oppo are both introducing truly "universal" players that can handle Blu-ray, DVD, CD, DVD-Audio, and SACD. I think the Oppo has a shot at a rumored price of $500 or $600, but the Denon has a tougher row to hoe at $3800.

Whatever happens, 2009 is sure to be another interesting year. And it all starts at CES next week, where I'll be blogging along with Kim Wilson and Gary Altunian, so be sure to check back here often during the show for our ongoing coverage. Until then, I wish each and every one of you a happy and healthy New Year!

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