CES 2012: Afterthoughts

Sections: 3D, Audio, AV Furniture, Features, Speakers, Video

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Unfortunately, overloaded 3G networks and a complete lack of internet connectivity in my hotel room made much reporting from the show itself next to impossible (although hopefully you were following me @hometechtell for the handful of 140-character observations I could sneak out from time to time). But I’m home now, and after thinking over the past week with no noise to distract me, I’ve come to the conclusion that this was the most surreal Consumer Electronics Show I’ve seen yet in my eleven years of attendance.

Really, you could divide this year’s new products into two categories: “headphones” and “everything else.” Just about everyone at the show had a headphone to tout, from the expected (Monster‘s hour-long press conference included about five minutes on power products, 55 minutes on headphones, and nary a mention of the word “cable” that I remember) to the out-of-left-field (Bell’O, makers of super sexy home theater furniture, debuted a line of ‘phones ranging from $9.99 up to $39.99 at the high end). There were a few standouts in the bunch: unlike the multitude of in-, on-, or over-ear designs at the show, one company — Aftershokz — had a nifty bone-induction headphone on display. Based on the same technology used in Special Ops communication devices, the Aftershokz ‘phones rest in front of your ears and transmit sound through your cheekbones. They had three models on display: a sport model (the most basic, at $59.95), a mobile model with in-line mic for smartphone users ($69.95), and a USB gaming headset ($69.95). While certainly not big winners in the sound-quality department (they sound way better than you’d expect, but hi-fi this isn’t), the effect of listening to music without losing out on any environmental sounds and conversations is kinda hyooge. I can see these being very popular with sporty types, as well as parents who don’t want their kids blocking out the external world and damaging their hearing.

I also managed to find V-Moda‘s suite in the Venetian, despite the fact that they weren’t listed in the show directory, weren’t on any of the official show floors, and benefited from absolutely zero signage. While we were taking a peek at upcoming products, reps from the company touted their ability to make custom headphone plates, and asked if I had any images or logos I might like laser-etched into my own set of Crossfade LP ‘phones. “Can you do Wookiee the Chew?!” I asked, almost joking. Ten minutes later, I had my very own Wookiee the Chew headphones. No joke.

HiFiMan also gave attendees of its breakfast a pair of new HE-400 planar driver headphones, and although I didn’t quite fall in love with them at the show, now that I’m home and have had time to give ’em some serious listening through my home audio system, I’m in lurve. Exceptional detail and clarity. Incredibly balanced sound. Exceptional comfort. And an amazing value, at that. If these headphones don’t take the audiophile market by storm, there’s no justice in this world.

If headphones were 80% of the show, soundbars made up about 19% of the rest. Everyone from MartinLogan to GoldenEar to Paradigm Shift to Definitive Technology had new soundbars on display, and although they all seem to share the same slogan (“everybody’s soundbars suck but ours!”), they all sounded surpisingly great to these ears. The winner in this category definitely goes to GoldenEar, though, whose SuperCinema 3D Array (SC3DA) features crosstalk elimination technology to really take the front soundstage to new widths. Even in stereo mode, it sounded fantastic.

Video also had its day at CES this year, but unlike past years, in which one theme really seemed to unify each company’s video efforts (HD! 1080p! 3D! Glasses free!), this year was sort of schizophrenic in terms of display technologies. OLED made a big comeback, with both LG and Samsung showing 55″ models that should actually make it to market within the next year or so (LG’s display got more attention at the show, but Samsung’s OLED intrigues me just a weensy bit more, if only because it’s a true RGB display instead of relying on color filters. If Sammy has overcome the half-life issue with blue OLEDs, they may be onto something big here). Samsung’s Kinect-like voice and motion controls for its new TVs also caused quite a bit of gasping, and as the LA Times blog opines, this could really be the next big thing.

4K also got a lot of buzz, and LG deserved the attention here, mostly for the fact that its 4K panel uses the extra resolution to do passive 3D without the loss of resolution of current passive 3D flat panels. Sharp also had an 8K (!!!) LCD on the floor, although that seemed to be mostly for bragging rights. To be fair, Sharp admits 8K consumer displays are at least ten years away from the market, but will we need it even then? (If my back-of-the-napkin calculations are right, you’d need to sit five feet away from an 80″ 4K display to fully appreciate its resolution. Is there really any logical reason to go up to 8K? Ever?)

And although Samsung’s OLED definitely got my vote for flat panel display of the show, colleague John Sciacca cast his lot with Sony’s new Crystal LED. What the heck is Crystal LED? I hear you asking Unlike current “LED” displays, which merely use LEDs to backlight a standard LCD panel, Crystal LED actually consists of six million tiny LED pixels. The colors were astounding. The motion was flawless. The brightness was eye-popping. The cost? Who the heck knows? Theoretically, it could be cheaper than OLED in the longrun. It was impressive, nonetheless. But it’s interesting to see Sony, who’s been struggling lately in the display market, opting for a wholly new tech when other companies finally seem to be making OLED a reality. Do they know something the other guys don’t?

Those big new techs aside, video announcements were mostly evolutionary this year. The bezels on Samsung’s plasmas keep shrinking, meaning you’ll get more actual picture for the same advertised screen size. LCDs in general are getting bigger across the board. And both Toshiba and Sony are still trying to make glasses-free 3D work. (Sony’s almost kinda does, but when Sciacca commented that, “Hey, Sony’s glasses-free looks a lot better than Toshiba’s,” my retort was, “Yeah, because it’s barely 3D at all.”)

VIZIO is also still giving its ultra-mega-sooper-widescreen 21:9 TVs the old college try, which I just don’t think is going to catch on with anyone (especially given the less-than-stellar image), but the company did have one exciting new thing on display: its ridiculously sexy laptops and mobile-chipset-based desktop computers are way, way better than I thought they’d be. The laptops are tantalizingly thin, built like tanks, and if the specs I saw on the top-of-the-line demo model are any indication of what production specs should be like (I peeked while our tour guide was distracted), it should boast amazing game performance for a laptop. VIZIO reps also promised that all of their PCs will ship free of crapware, which gives me hope.

Let’s just hope that they don’t do it so right that every other manufacturer feels the need to follow suit, the way earbuds have plagued the show. If OmniMount debuts a laptop at next year’s CES, it may well be my last.

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