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HDTV Audio Challenges Non-Technies

Think it's easy to get 5.1 audio with your HDTV? Think again

NEW YORK

For many consumers, the falling prices of HDTV displays are finally making it possible to build a serious home theater. Yet, for the nontechnical buyer, creating a well -- integrated media room with state -- of-the-art surround sound and simple control can be a daunting challenge.

A typical situation goes like this: The buyer purchases the HDTV set at a consumer electronics retailer, where he or she is assured how easy it will be to set up the TV with a sound system once it's home. Since most HD sets have no internal Dolby 5.1 sound system, the buyer usually gets a seemingly great deal from the store on a third-party surround system that includes a DVD player.

In reality, the dealer usually packages the lowest-cost DVD/surround audio system available in order to keep the overall system price down and to avoid HDTV sticker shock. (Some of these budget systems are now priced as low as $199 or even given away with the HDTV set purchase.)

The surprises start at installation time in the buyer's living room. The digital cable or satellite set-top box now must be connected to the HDTV display. This installation usually includes an outboard VCR and perhaps a standalone DVD player as well. (For this article, we'll overlook the difficulties of the video hookup and focus only on the audio side.)

The first "gotcha" is the bargain surround sound system has no digital input for 5.1 Dolby audio from the cable set-top box. Most are limited to analog audio inputs for outboard devices, even if the internal DVD player processes the full 5.1 surround.

Without a digital input for the set-top box, those HD movies and other premium surround programs will be delivered only in analog sound. Sadly, a large number of consumers-unaware they've been misled-accept the analog sound and never know they are missing one of the most compelling features of the HDTV experience.

CAVEAT EMPTOR!

We encountered this situation directly while helping a novice buyer after the initial sale of an HDTV projection system at a Circuit City retail electronics store in Las Vegas. A department manager argued that since the buyer had not directly specified digital Dolby 5.1 from the cable set-top box, he was not obligated to point out that omission.

After being challenged, he did, however, accept a return on the original sound system, but charged the buyer several hundred dollars more for a modest system that would accept a digital input from the cable box.

Consumers technically astute enough to demand a digital input on the sound system are often confronted with another problem. Since digital connectors are not standardized, the audio system may have a different type connection jack than the cable box. (For example, in New York City, Time Warner's digital cable boxes have a coaxial digital audio output, while Sony's line of "Dream" home theater audio systems use optical inputs.)

Steve Jordan, a New York City photographer, was forced to purchase an $80 adapter that would convert the S/PDIF coaxial digital audio connector on the back of his cable box to the TOSLINK optical connector on the back of his sound system.

Even after getting all the pieces to fit and work together, home theater buyers get another surprise. In Jordan's case, his system must be controlled with four different remote controls, creating a complexity level akin to flying a small airplane.

"After assembling a home theater system with several brands of equipment, I ended up with so many remote controls that sometimes I still can't remember how to do the simplest things," said Jordan.

To solve the problem, he purchased a sophisticated $200 programmable Sony remote control and vowed to create sequences of commands to simplify his system and to combine all functions on a single remote. After months, he still hasn't finished programming it.

"In order get to a simple, single remote control, I've had to navigate through a ridiculous level of complexity," he said.

DICTUM IGNORES AUDIO

Ironically, the much -- publicized plug -- and-play initiative for digital television devices recently endorsed by the FCC will not solve the audio problems many consumers are having with incompatible components. The new FCC -- approved standards are mainly focused on interfacing video components with cable set -- top boxes.

However, an emerging new technical standard could help tame the incompatibility beast. HDMI (for High-Definition Multimedia Interface) is an uncompressed, all-digital audio/video interface that provides an easy connection between any A/V source, such as a set-top box, DVD player, and A/V receiver and an audio and/or video monitor, such as a digital television set.

HDMI supports standard, enhanced, or high-definition video, plus multichannel digital audio on a single cable. It transmits all ATSC HDTV standards and supports eight-channel digital audio, with bandwidth to spare to accommodate future enhancements and requirements.

The new standard is backed by consumer electronics manufacturers such as Hitachi, Matsushita (Panasonic), Philips, Sony, Thomson (RCA), Toshiba and Silicon Image. The first products using the HDMI standard are expected to hit the market this fall.

However, some manufacturers are focusing on integrated home theater control in their current products. A leader in this area is Bose Corp., a company known for products with an emphasis on user-friendly controls. In its Lifestyle 28 ($2,499) and Lifestyle 35 ($2,999) home theater systems, Bose has created simple remote controls that mimic human logic through very sophisticated software.

During installation of one of the new Bose systems, the consumer tells the operating software the brand name of each component used in the home theater. From this point, the Bose remote control applies logic following the pressing of each button, automatically predicting the desire of the user. In most cases, the remote correctly guesses the proper function.

However, Bill Allen, technical marketing manager for Bose's Lifestyle home theater systems, said manufacturers can go only so far in simplifying setup and operation without more advanced interoperability standards between the various brands of equipment. Initiatives like HDMI, he said, could help.

"If everybody used it, we might have a more level playing field," Allen said. "Right now, the challenge is to find somebody to make sense of this stuff until a standard emerges that is encompassing enough. But a standard hasn't succeeded yet, and now there is an alphabet soup of connectors, there are competing formats, and there are manufacturers who want their remotes to be the only one you use."

Another problem is aggressive consumer electronics retailers selling uninformed consumers packaged home theater systems that will not perform as promised.

"You get what you pay for. Often when you try to do things on the cheap, you find there aren't really any bargains," said Allen, who noted that his company doesn't manufacture very low-end systems because their features are inadequate for a good consumer experience.

The path to digital television has been a long and rocky one. But now that the cost of HDTV television sets are falling and HD program sources are increasing, consumers are beginning to sample the product.

The question remains, however, whether a manufacturing community that never quite mastered the art of making a simple timer for the VCR can create a truly plug-and-play home theater as simple to install and operate as a conventional analog TV set.

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.