The difference a decade makes!
SoundOff takes a look in the rear-view mirror at hits and misses of the past and identifies a seismic shift in the evolution of sound and image technology.
The last 30 years has arguably seen the fastest period of change in the 130-plus year history of recording and reproduction of sound and images. In its own small way, this SoundOff column has played a role in charting those transformative technologies, covering some 80 topics in the last decade-and-a-bit that I have been writing this series. From my perspective, the most obvious trend is how fast the product cycle is now spinning, and I’ve drawn two examples from past columns that illustrate the pluses and the pitfalls of quickdraw innovation. But in the background, I’ve been chronicling another revolution — slower moving, but profound.
Things we really needed
The very first of my columns in 2005 (pictured above) wished for quality wireless speakers, particularly as a way to solve the problem of wiring to surround speakers that might be some distance away from the signal source. I noted that: “mainstream manufacturers… have all launched models based either on RF transmission in the notoriously crowded 2.4GHz band or Infra-red reception. Could this be the next big thing, given how wireless home networks have virtually banished wires when it comes to sharing your internet connection?”
Well, it took a while, but manufacturers gradually worked through the issues of spectrum availability and interoperability, and by 2014 I was able to report on the founding of the Wireless Speaker and Audio Association (WiSA). I had a whinge about their marketing (which made it seem that wireless speakers didn’t even need power wiring) but I did congratulate their focus on quality sound.
“Commendably, the standard is aimed squarely at no-compromise audio performance. Up to eight channels of uncompressed 24-bit audio can be transmitted across WiSA at up to 96kHz sampling rates with claimed robust error recovery and extremely low latency. An audio chain is only as good as its weakest link, so I applaud the adoption of superior standards — well in excess of the CD specification.”
It came full circle at last year’s Sound+Image Awards, which saw the WiSA-standard compliant Klipsch Reference Premiere HD Wireless speaker package named as the Home Cinema Speaker Package of the Year. The judges noted: “the speaker system sounded superb, delivering truly brilliant impact and frankly astonishing surround imaging — with multichannel music as well as movie soundtracks. For such a tech suc-
cess, neatly simplifying surround sound, we had no hesitation in ringing the award gong for this superb package.”
Versus things we don’t
If the growth in wireless technology proved how quickly the product development cycle works, the 3D TV experience proved that the wheel can keep turning and just as swiftly grind that “next big thing” into silicon dust. I started to SoundOff about 3D seven years ago.
“So, what’s the top trend for 2010 and beyond?,” I asked. “O-Led displays? Super thin or wide or borderless panels? Nope — starting this year, the big push will be towards rolling out 3D.”
I was somewhat dubious, observing that... “while the funky red and blue specs are having a resurgence at the cinema, a heck of a lot of stars are going to have to align before this hits our lounge rooms!”
Of course, the constellations did seem to be converging at that point. Major vendors were rolling out LCD and plasma screens using cinema-proven spectacle technology and a raft of new ideas. Blu-ray had hit the scene with ample bandwidth plus the capacity for encoded 3D. Content was also looking good, with plenty of mainstream movies, 3D coverage planned for the biggest sporting events in the world, plus 3D gaming.
But it didn’t take long before people started to doubt whether they should take the plunge. Less than a year later, I attempted to answer the question of the month: “Will the current crop of 3D Televisions be the wave of the future — or will we be waving goodbye to our hard-earned cash on a technology that doesn’t ever become mainstream?”
I did this by looking back at some technology successes and failures in the past to compare 3D using four factors that I reckoned had differentiated the fabulous from the flops, time after time. Is it a quantum leap in quality? Is it convenient to use? Is there plenty of content? Is it versatile?
I assembled a list of audio-visual tech0nologies to compare with 3D TV. One success story — the CD was my stand-out for this role — along with a dead-set dud, my favourite flop, the Elcaset (Sony’s maxi cassette aimed as a reel-to reel killer). And finally, a middle of the road example — S-VHS. It stayed the course, but really only flourished in niche markets.
So in 2011 I rated 3D TV as very much like S-VHS. Improvement in the entertainment experience was marginal, but definitely there. Undeniably though, the trade-off was convenience. The silly spectacles were a turn- off whichever way you looked at them. To me, 3D rated a very mixed scorecard. And as Winston Churchill once said: “We must beware of needless innovation, especially when guided by logic”.
By the end of the next year, I was calling 3D TV technology “dead in the water”.
The current roadblock in 3D technology reminds me of the shipwreck that was Quadraphonic sound back in the 1970s. Despite being a promising step forward with the ability to create a 3D soundfield, fourchannel sound foundered, and the CD-4, QS and SQ formats sank without a trace. Domestic three-dimensional sound wasn’t finished though. It came roaring back a decade later in the form of Dolby Stereo which spawned the 5.1-channel sound revolution and the whole home theatre industry.
Today, you can still buy a 3D TV (most manufacturers have at least one model that’s 3D-enabled) but nobody advertises them anymore. I am certain there will be a breakthrough that brings back truly useable 3D someday — I’ll let you know if I see it.
Vi-Fi: a quality revolution
I started my working life in broadcast television, so I have always valued image quality as highly as sound quality. When Sound+Image first published, it was already possible to have the sound quality of a real cinema in your own home, but video reproduction was nothing like theatrical quality. So, my pick for the technology revolution of the decade is equipment that can reproduce the image quality of the finest cinema as well.
In an early SoundOff , I introduced the concept of ‘hi-fidelity video’. There are many parameters that go into quality video — colour balance, black levels and contrast are the most basic, but many more like dynamics, bandwidth and signal-to-noise performance are just as important in video as in audio. In the mid-1990s, I started using the term ‘ViFi’ in my newspaper column, to suggest that the same concepts that defined high-fidelity in audio should equally be applied to video.
Back then, it was still possible to buy high-quality, CRT-based, digital-tuner TVs with spectacularly refined video quality, whilst the image performance of most early plasma panels was truly appalling. I felt that the discussion about purchasing video displays had degenerated into “never mind the quality, feel the width”. Consumers were fixated on ever wider and thinner panels — not the quality of the moving pictures.
In the background, though, things were changing, with superior colour definition and wider video dynamic range finally headed for centre stage. In mid-2010 we dived into a discussion of colour gamut years before Deep Colour and Wide Colour Gamut would become marketing phrases. A year later, SoundOff took up the cudgels in the cause of ViFi again, this time pushing the barrow for what was to become High Dynamic Range.
Gradually, picture quality started to become an engineering priority, though most marketing continued to be about features rather than the visual reproduction qualities of the panel. Prophetically (as it turned out) I had another go at flying the ViFi flag five years ago when I reported on the release of a no-holds-barred top picture quality display from none other than Dolby.
The Dolby PRM-4200 Professional Reference Monitor was using novel techniques like High Dynamic Range and Wide Colour Gamut that wouldn’t be launched on the consumer scene for a few years yet. Clearly, as I observed, this was not a domestic device. Having this in your lounge room would be more akin to installing a fully-blown CD mastering suite to listen to your music, rather than just investing in exotic amps and speakers. So why did I bother to get excited over what was fundamentally a piece of broadcast kit?
Simply that technology always ‘trickles down’ from the professional arena to domestic users, and no company in the history of hi-fi and home theatre has proven more adept at that process than Dolby. I was excited as I felt sure I’ve caught a glimpse of a new chapter in what would ultimately become the history of Video Fidelity.
And sure enough, it was not long before domestic products using HDR and WCG did trickle down. Just last year we spent time bringing everyone up to date on Ultra HD, which embodied these Wide Colour Gamut and High Dynamic Range features in products that are finally available to consumers. Like hi-fi; ViFi has finally come of age, and true home cinema connoisseurs are now developing golden eyes, as well as golden ears! Thanks for being part of the journey with
Sound+Image and allowing me to SoundOff when I get excited about new technology. I can’t wait to see what the next 30 years might bring! Derek Powell P.S. For those with extensive back issue collections, SoundOff did offer a prediction for the future of home entertainment technology back in Volume 24 Number 7. Maybe it will be good for a laugh in 2047 when Volume 60 comes along!