CES 2013 Wrap-Up: TVs, Home and Portable Entertainment

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The CES trade show in Las Vegas has grown into an electronics cavalcade, with old industry giants like Sony and Samsung bumping shoulders and vying for our attention with dozens of mid-level manufacturers and startup companies. The point of the show is to wow journalists, buyers, bloggers and spectators with the latest and greatest in consumer electronics, creative gadgets and innovative technology straight out of a science-fiction book.

I’ve spent the last few days following the show online with a few coworkers. While some of the unveilings have been merely ordinary, some have been jaw-dropping spectacles of innovation, ingenuity and size. From 110-inch TVs to bendable touch screens and bone-conduction headphones, there was no shortage of amazing devices this year. This article will examine a variety of new products designed to enhance how we consume entertainment.

Ultra HD TVs, OLED TVs and More

I’ve got an analogy. If TV production were a sports league and the manufacturers were teams, then Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic and Sharp have all been pumping a lot of iron in the off-season. The TVs on display for 2013 are bigger, leaner and more powerful. They’ve literally become “Ultra TVs” with mind-boggling screen sizes and 4K displays.

Although Samsung’s 110-inch 4K behemoth is only a prototype this year, they still amazed crowds with the new UN85S9 floor-standing 85-inch 4K TV. The S9 features an enhanced Smart Hub, a quad-core processor and a truly unique frame. Samsung also teased audiences with a new curved OLED TV concept piece. The curve supposedly allows a more immersive viewing experience, but again it’s not in the cards this year. They are releasing a 55-inch flat OLED TV this year with RGB subpixel-structures instead of white LEDs, which should offer better color accuracy and color gamut, as well as being less power hungry.

Sharp released two Ultra HD 4K TVs for 2013 as well. The flagship Purios is a 60-inch THX-certified Ultra TV with 3840 x 2160 resolution. It’s the first 4K model with THX-certification for picture quality. The second model is under the Aquos brand and it will also feature 4K resolution.

Another impressive unveiling came from LG. They proudly displayed their new 55EM9700 55-inch OLED TV. Amazingly, it’s only 0.16-inches thick, and it features carbon fiber-reinforced plastics in the back of the TV that keeps the weight down to 22 pounds. The 55EM9700 features a white subpixel layer with an RGB filter on top. It will include updated Smart TV integration, passive 3D technology and the new Magic Motion remote control with voice control as well. The Smart TV integration should feature LG’s innovative Finger Gesture functionality, which offers more precise pointing control instead of hand gestures.

Panasonic’s new flagship Plasma TV for 2013 is the ultra-thin ZT60, which is available in 60 or 65 inches.  It doesn’t support 4K resolution, but it does have THX-certification and Voice Interaction. Panasonic also announced new VT60 and ST60 Plasma TV models that are ready to ship. Plus, they revealed a 56-inch OLED 4K Ultra TV prototype with a release date that's still some time away.

Sony unveiled a 56-inch OLED 4K Ultra TV prototype as well, with a release date set for spring 2013. Sony was also the only manufacturer to address the issue of 4K content availability, or lack thereof. Since there’s not much in the way of content yet to warrant a 4K TV purchase, Sony announced a video distribution service that will deliver 4K content right into your home. It comes complete with a 4K Media Player. Plus, Sony also remastered a number of movies in 4K resolution, which will be available on Blu-ray.

Soundbars and Home Theaters

CES reveals the latest trends, and it’s painfully obvious that traditional, clunky and wire-laden home theater systems are out, while the more subtle and sophisticated soundbar is in. Several manufacturers are opting for a single soundbar or wireless soundbar surround sound system instead of a traditional setup for 2013.

Samsung introduced the HW-F750 wireless soundbar, which uses SoundShare wireless technology to connect to your TV. It also features a vacuum-tube amplifier. The soundbar can lie on either its front or side wall, and the display shifts automatically depending on which way you choose. It also has a gyroscope that recognizes the digital speaker’s height, rotation and slope to ensure optimal sound quality. The HW-F750 works with a matching wireless subwoofer and features a modern aesthetic that will match most flat-panel HDTVs.

Panasonic’s new take on the home theater system was unveiled in the form of their multipositional 300 watt SC-HTB770. You can use the system as a soundbar with a subwoofer or as two vertical speakers, a center speaker and a subwoofer. This 3.1-channel home theater system also features flexible connectivity options including HDMI and Bluetooth.

Philips has also been rethinking the soundbar and the home theater system by creating an amalgam of the two. Their HTL9100 is described simply by Philips as the “first soundbar with detachable speakers.” It features a soundbar where the ends of the left and the right side can be removed and used as battery-powered, wireless rear speakers with a 10 hour battery life. Plus, the speakers conveniently recharge as soon as they're reconnected to the middle section of the soundbar.

Wireless Speakers and Innovative Docks

CES isn’t just about innovative technology, it’s also about innovative industrial design. A lot of the products at CES this year offer the same technology that existed in previous models, but it has been repackaged in interesting and exciting new ways. One example of this is the Polk Audio Woodbourne. It’s a wireless speaker designed for tabletop use and it has a beautiful mahogany veneer with a white fabric speaker cover on the front face. The speaker supports AirPlay and aptX Bluetooth wireless connectivity for streaming audio from any compatible device, including Apple and Android mobile devices. It features a USB input, an analog wired input and a digital audio input. The Woodbourne offers 180 watts of power from dual drivers and dual silk dome tweeters.

Samsung introduced the new DA-F60 wireless Bluetooth speaker. One unique feature with this speaker is its support of NFC (near field communication), which allows you to pair compatible smartphones and similar devices with the speaker by touching them together or bringing them into close proximity. This works faster than traditional pairing procedures. The speaker also supports the aptX Bluetooth codec and Samsung’s own SoundShare, which allows you to pair the portable speaker with Samsung TVs. It  features rounded edges as well, which should make carrying the portable device slightly easier.

There were several docking devices announced at CES this year as well, many of which support Apple’s new Lightning connector. JBL revealed two speakers with Lightning connectivity—the OnBeat Mini and the OnBeat Rumble. The Mini is a compact and portable speaker dock with Lightning connectivity and dual full-range transducers that provide good sound for its size. The larger OnBeat Rumble also has a Lightning dock, as well as Bluetooth connectivity and TrueStream technology that make it compatible with most portable audio devices. It features 2 x 11 watts of power output and a built-in, oversized down-firing subwoofer for what JBL calls “room-rattling” sound.

iLuv and iHome unveiled new Lightning speaker docks as well. The iLuv Aud 5 features a Lightning dock and Bluetooth connectivity for streaming audio from compatible Bluetooth devices. The speaker has a passive radiator for powerful bass response and a top panel of touch controls for easy operation of music playback and volume control. iHome’s iDL100 is a more traditional-looking dock, but it does feature dual Lightning docks and a separate USB port for charging three devices simultaneously. It also has an analog audio input and its clock will sync with the clock on your iPhone or iPad automatically.

Another lesser-known manufacturer, Teenage Engineering, unveiled what they call the “world’s first Cloud Speaker.” It’s called the OD-11 Cloud Speaker and was modeled after the original Carlsson OD-11 speaker. It was even designed in collaboration with the Stig Carlsson Foundation. Besides a super-cool floor-standing cube design, it features an integrated 100-watt amplifier, integrated Wi-Fi and a sound processor for enjoying music from the Cloud. It works in conjunction with a unique and ultra-simple wireless remote (sold separately) that supports new Bluetooth 4 Low Energy technology, so it can run for years on a single button battery. The remote has a built-in magnet for attaching it to any magnetic surface including the side of the speaker.

Also rounding out the speakers at CES (pun intended) is Sony’s spherical Mini to Go. This lightweight wireless speaker features 5 hours of portable on-the-go playback and Sony’s 360° circle sound audio diffusion technology.  It can play streaming audio via Bluetooth or NFC (near field communication) technology.

There were dozens of other wireless speakers and speaker docks at CES this year, and since we can’t look at them all, I’ll just list a few other notable arrivals: the Logic 3 Ferrari Cavellino GT1, the Belkin Thunderstorm and the Panasonic SC-NP10.

Other Gadgets and Unique Entertainment Devices

Of the other unique entertainment gadgets, there were many, and it’s been hard deciding what to include and what to leave out. After a little research and a lot of staring at pictures, I’ve found a few more products that stand out, while also falling into the category of home or portable entertainment.

Most people jogging on the street and listening to music don’t want to have all ambient noise blocked out, so they can still hear cars and other hazards approaching. Luckily, Panasonic used military technology in their new headphones to pump your favorite tunes straight into your skull without blocking your ears. The RP-BTGS10 headphones rest on your cheek and use bone-conduction technology to transmit the audio. This allows you to keep your ears free to detect prospective hazards while working out or listening to a coworker at the office.

There’s even a microphone for carrying on conversations while still being able to hear the world around you. The RP-BTGS10 are wireless Bluetooth bone-conductive headphones, with a bone-conductive microphone for making phone calls. They're powered by a single AAA battery, but production models may have a rechargeable power source. It will be interesting to see how well these work and if they catch on.

AfterShokz also released a pair of wireless bone-conduction headphones at CES this year. Their Bluez Bluetooth headphones use the same bone-conduction technology as the Pansonic model. However, the AfterShokz model was awarded a 2013 CES Innovations award for their design.

The ASUS Qube has been one of the most talked about announcements from ASUS at CES this year. It is a Goolge-TV-powered device with a Marvell Armada 1500 chip set, 1GB or RAM and 4GB of flash storage. For connectivity, it supports HDMI in and out, USB, an RJ-45 Ethernet jack and IR-out. It includes a remote control with a QWERTY keyboard, voice command button and motion-sensing feature for use with Google TV v3. You can also control the Qube via a downloadable app on your Nexus 7 tablet or other Android device. For those that don’t know, Google TV is an interactive Smart TV platform that uses the Android operating system and Google Chrome to stream content from the Internet. It also supports the use of Android apps that enhance Google TVs capabilities.

One of the most simple and sensible solutions delivered at CES 2013 was the affordable Plair streaming video adapter from NewDealDesign. It plugs right into your TVs HDMI input and uses Wi-Fi wireless connectivity to play virtually all video from any source right on your TV. It works with Windows and Mac and also features custom apps for Android, iOS and Windows. It’s even housed in an attractive and colorful wedge-shaped shell.

LG unveiled a new laser TV projector called the Hecto, which is bundled with a 100-inch screen. It supports a 100-inch projection size from a short-throw distance of only 22 inches. Plus, the laser has a life of 25,000 hours. It supports Full HD 1080p resolution and features a built-in stereo speaker system. However, a matching subwoofer and soundbar are available as accessories. LG claims a contrast ratio of 10,000,000:1, which means you should be able to use the Hecto in an environment with ambient light and still get rich contrast and color. The laser light source uses less energy and heat for lower power consumption and ownership costs.

Philips unveiled the PPX3610 pico projector. It offers 100 lumens of brightness when it’s plugged in and 60 lumens when it’s operating on battery power, which should provide about three hours per charge. For connectivity, it features HDMI, USB and VGA options, as well as an SD memory card slot and an audio mini-jack for speakers or headphones. It uses an Android interface and it’s equipped with built-in storage, a Web browser and Wi-Fi capabilities for streaming video from the Internet.

Sony didn’t go too crazy announcing new products this CES, but they did release a line of Blu-ray players that includes the BDP-S5100, which features a completely encased optical drive for enhanced dust resistance. The Blu-ray player also features Wi-Fi connectivity for streaming media from Netflix, Pandora, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube and more. It’s also compatible with the Sony TV SideView app for iOS and Android devices. This app lets you stream your personal photos, music and videos through the Blu-ray player and onto your TV screen. Style-wise, the BDP-S5100 is very modern, with a sleek, faceted exterior and non-intrusive display.

Another interesting announcement that caught my attention was Onkyo’s new headphone line. This is their first pair of headphones and they’re physically striking and sonically impressive. The ES-FC300 headphones feature wide-range titanium drivers, an optimized bass sub-chamber and a detachable, tangle-free cable.

This transition for a traditional home audio company into the portable audio market reflects the overall theme of CES 2013. If I had to siphon off all the foam and create a slogan that hit at the heart of this year’s show, I’d say “total connectivity” would be the pervasive theme. Onkyo’s decision got me thinking, more generally, about the inescapable influence of smartphones, tablets and the ever-expanding world of Android / iOS apps on the home entertainment market. Using portable devices to enjoy multimedia content in the home blurs the line between the two forms of entertainment. It’s a reflection of our demand for everything, all at once. But, it also reflects a desire to simplify our lives in an increasingly disorienting world. The devices that can do both will be the real winners in 2013.