Audio Innovations From 2015 CES, NAMM

With CES and NAMM behind us we’re successfully through the first couple of industry-related trade shows of 2015.
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Audio products at this year’s CES were really more iteration than innovation, though there were some surprises. It seems as if every manufacturer has a wireless audio product of some kind now, with the main trend being multiroom systems. LG introduced their Music Flow system made up of a Wi-Fi sound bar and three Wi-Fi remote speakers while Samsung added new egg-shaped WAM7500 and WAM 6500 speakers to the Shape multiroom range they introduced last year.

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The S9W television from Samsung and designer Yves Behar rests on a cube-shaped base that is actually a sound cube, proving that it’s possible for the audio system to be just as stylish as the screen. New companies SuperTooth and Nyne Multimedia also entered the multiroom speaker market and Google Cast for Audio, Google’s alternative to Apple AirPlay, made its debut with Sony on-board as an early partner.

As television sets become sleeker and sexier, their built-in audio offerings seem to sound worse, which is where sound bars come in. These systems are now available in a wide range of offerings up to 9.1 channels (somehow), with vacuum tubes and even curved sound bars to match the new curved UHD sets.

The S9W television from Samsung and designer Yves Behar rests on a cube-shaped base that is actually a sound cube, proving that it’s possible for the audio system to be just as stylish as the screen. However, the most intriguing sound bar system I’ve run across to date is the Dimension from pro audio manufacturer Focal. The Dimension addresses many of the shortcomings of standard 5.1 sound bars by having five matching full-range drivers in the box, all aligned on the same plane, with a separate subwoofer, which doubles as a stand for the television.

Networked music players are suddenly a big deal, with the CXN Upsampling Network Music Player from Cambridge Audio and the SU-R1 and ST-C700 Network Audio Control Players from the recently resurrected Technics brand. All of these devices allow the user to listen to audio from just about any source on your network, whether a stream of some sort or a local device, and all are specifically targeted to encourage low-resolution audio sources to sound better through the use of some very sophisticated technology that is likely not present in the source device. Also, although Technics is back, there is no mention so far of any reintroduction of their highly sought-after direct-drive turntables.

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Networked music players were suddenly a big deal this year at CES, including Cambridge Audio’s CXN Upsampling Network Music Player. High Resolution Audio was present in the form of a couple of HR audio players. The long-awaited Pono player has the ability to handle HR files ranging from CD quality 44.1 kHz/16 bit up to 192 kHz/24 bit and formats as varied as FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, unprotected AAC, MP3 and 128 GB storage. However, the surprising HR audio announcement was the Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman, which handles the same files and formats as the Pono, but costs enough to make the Pono player seem cheap. I find myself intrigued by both of these devices, but wonder if the available storage is enough to carry a decent amount of HR audio files.

Auro-3D, Dolby, DTS and Fraunhofer were on hand to make sure people don’t forget about immersive audio, but the interesting news for this technology came from Pioneer, which showcased their Dolby Atmos home products; and from Fraunhofer, which demonstrated MPEG-H, their bid for immersive technology for broadcast. 3D immersive audio for gaming was on display by Oculus Rift in their Crescent Bay and Gear VR headsets using HRTF to modify in-game sound as the player moved their head. This seems like a technology begging for a television adaptation.

ON TO NAMM
The NAMM show usually doesn’t have much impact on television audio, but there were some very interesting announcements this year including an as yet #ff0000 partnership between Sennheiser and Apogee. However, the news most relevant to us was from Avid.

Last year’s revelation of Avid Everywhere and its upcoming subscription models was met with confusion, which only increased after support plans were introduced near the end of 2014.

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The Focal Dimension addresses many of the shortcomings of standard 5.1 sound bars by having five matching full-range drivers in the box, all aligned on the same plane, with a separate subwoofer, which doubles as a stand for the television. Anyone running a version of Pro Tools prior to v11 was expected to sign onto a support plan or lose their ability to upgrade in the future. We now have a slightly clearer picture of what’s coming, now that Avid has announced Pro Tools 12. It will include Cloud Collaboration and the Marketplace, finally bringing Avid Everywhere to Pro Tools, but with no announcement about audio features other than those related to collaboration.

Surprisingly, there is also a free version of Pro Tools called Pro Tools | First, which is a great idea, though users must operate within some built-in limitations. All projects in First are stored in the Avid Cloud rather than the user’s hard drive, and users must be online to save and close the project. Only three projects are included with the software (additional projects will be available for purchase). Only the plugins included by Avid or those purchased in the Avid Marketplace can be used with this version. There is no ability to share Pro Tools sessions with other users, though all new versions of Pro Tools will eventually be able to collaborate with one another through the Avid Cloud.

One positive trend announced with this version is that iLok authorization is not required to run Pro Tools | First or its included plug-ins, though an Avid Cloud account is required in its place. Pro Tools users looking for features outside of collaboration will likely be disappointed by v12, but the move away from iLok authorization is a bright spot for everyone who has ever worried about losing their software dongle. The new subscription model—a source of irritation for many users—will hopefully provide Avid the resources it needs to address bug fixes and feature requests that users have been asking for.

Jay Yeary is a broadcast engineer specializing in audio. He is an AES Fellow and is a member of both SBE and SMPTE. He can be contacted via TV Technology.