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.

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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!

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