Bright lights, big city

The battle for tomorrow’s TV market escalated in Las Vegas, with next-generation screens determined to shine. Steve May reports from the show floor

CES may have turned 50 in Las Vegas this January, but it still fizzed with fresh ideas. In fact, visitors were treated to one of the most exciting shows in years. “We celebrate a half century of introducing life-changing products and services, and we have so much more ahead of us,” enthused CTA president Gary Shapiro.

Spectacular TV screens were everywhere, all appearing finally to realise the promise of HDR (High Dynamic Range) UHD.
Lush audio hardware ran the gamut, from upmarket vinyl players to beefed-up Bluetooth headphones. Connected appliances proved equally noteworthy. The feel-good factor was high.

If one TV story dominated the headlines it was OLED, with both Panasonic and Sony jumping on LG’s bandwagon.

On my scorecard, Panasonic edged the honours for best TV picture at the show. Its 65in EZ1000, aka the EZ1002 in the UK, looked gorgeous. The flat screen has been tuned to offer a picture remarkably similar to the professional OLED monitors used in Hollywood authoring suites. A Studio Colour HCX2 processor employs 3D look-up tables (colour values) derived from Panasonic’s professional film-making division.

Samsung QLED TV
Samsung QLED TV

Colourist Dado Valentic (Marco Polo, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Total Recall) was on hand at the screen’s big unveiling. “One of the greatest desires we professionals have is that viewers get to see the same beautiful images we see on our reference screens,” he said. “Until now, that was never the case. But now the professional screen we are going to use in our grading theatre is about to become a consumer device.”

The EZ1002 ships with a Dynamic Blade soundbar boasting 14 speaker units (eight woofers, four midrange and two tweeters, plus a quad passive radiator to boost bass). Teasingly, Panasonic wasn’t letting it be heard – that’s being saved for its upcoming European dealer conference in Frankfurt.

The EZ1002 supports HDR10 and HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma) HDR, expected to be used by the BBC and other broadcasters. But not Dolby Vision.

Panasonic UK ‎marketing director David Preece told ERT that he didn’t feel the lack of Dolby Vision would be an issue at retail. “It’s not clear how many films will be supporting Dolby Vision,” he told ERT. “HDR10 is the industry standard.” Of more concern for buyers, he insisted, is the confusion brewing in nomenclature. “OLED, QLED, ULED – that’s what’s going to be confusing for the customer. Our job will be to simplify that and explain that the technologies are quite different.”

Sony didn’t miss the Dolby boat, though. Its debut OLED TV range, the A1, adds Dolby Vision to HDR10 and HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma).

Sony OLED debut
Sony OLED debut

Available in 77in, 65in and 55in sizes, Sony dubbed the set’s minimalist design a ‘One Slate’ concept – even the Sony Bravia logo has been moved to the back panel. There are no speakers to be seen. Instead, the A1 uses Acoustic Sound technology. The screen itself radiates stereo audio, energised by a pair of transducers on the back panel. Although initially sceptical, I was quickly convinced by a behind-the-scenes demo. Consumers are going to be delighted by this party trick.

The A1 OLED employs Sony’s X1 Extreme image processor, last seen on the ZD9.

‘Chief distinguished engineer’ Toshiyuki Ogura told ERT that the processor had been designed to maximise the performance of both LED LCD and OLED displays. “In addition to the panel driver, our chip has an input signal analyser that knows the characteristics of different display devices,” he explained. “That means it can match the input stream with any panel, and get a higher picture performance.”

Not that LG was giving up its OLED crown without a fight. Its so-called wallpaper (because it’s just 2.57mm thin) W screen looked remarkable. Always one to stay one badge ahead, LG added support for Technicolor’s Advanced HDR format, to its Dolby Vision, HDR10 and HLG HDR roster, as well as its own Active HDR technology, which adds dynamic metadata to HLG and HDR10 content, supposedly to enhance HDR’s performance of the static metadata formats.

Samsung resisted the siren call of OLED, instead choosing to rebrand its Quantum Dot LED TVs as QLED. Using a newly-formulated metal core QD technology, the company has raised the peak luminance of HDR to an industry high of 1,500 to 2,000 nits, as well as improving off-axis viewing.

LG’s TV tunnel

Behind closed doors, Samsung engineers stressed the expanded colour volume they can achieve through QLED, arguing that it gives them a significant performance edge over OLED. Leading Samsung’s QLED line-up are Q9 (flat), Q8 (curved) and Q7 (flat or curved) models.

Interestingly, Samsung promised to offer the same number of curved SKUs as it did in 2016, while other brands binned the bend. For the record, 3D was noticeable only by its absence across all brands.

Samsung also kept a lid on HDR variants, sticking with HDR10 and promising support for the HLG standard.

LG pledged to take QLED head-on, not with OLED, but its own Nano-cell LED technology. It competes on black level and luminance, as well as off-angle viewing (claiming to retain colour up to 60 degrees off axis).

In an interesting aside, Amazon partnered with Tongfang Global, maker of budget TVs, to offer screens with an integrated Amazon OS. Westinghouse, Seiki and Element Electronics will all have TVs that provide Amazon content and Alexa voice-enabled remote control.

Elsewhere, Hisense went gung-ho with no fewer than seven HDR 4K TV ranges, plus its $13,000 4K Laser Cast ultra-short-throw projector, the 100H10D, which comes with a floorstanding screen and multichannel sound system.

AT headphones
AT headphones

Pick of the Hisense TV bunch looked to be the aggressively priced 75in R8 ULED. This Quantum Dot giant has a full array back light and includes support for both Dolby Vision and HDR10. In the US, it comes with a Roku media platform OS. Bargain hunters will also want to audition its two-sub $1,000 65in UHD models, the H8D and H7. Hisense teased the world’s thinnest curved Quantum Dot screen, just 3.9mm thick.

As predicted by ERT, the company also took the wraps off a quartet of soundbars, from budget to mid-range variants.

White goods reclaimed the wow factor at CES. The CTA’s chief economist Shawn DuBravac believes artificial intelligence is on the verge of becoming ubiquitous in the kitchen. “Refrigerators will be able to adjust settings to control their environment,” he predicted.

LG calls this deep learning. Its second-generation InstaView refrigerator can predict family needs based on usage data, and has an intelligent sterilisation system to extend food life when temperature and humidity become an issue.

A 29in touch-screen becomes transparent when you knock on the glass. The panel can be used to order food, play music through a 10W Bluetooth speaker and issue alerts when products have reached their expiry date. It also interacts with Amazon Alexa.

Technics unveiled its new SL-1200GR

Similarly, LG’s smart washers can add additional rinse cycles based on environmental conditions, or detect excess hard water/calcium carbonate in the water supply, raising temperatures to compensate.

Samsung unveiled a successor to its Family Hub double door fridge. The 2.0 edition, still with large touch-screen panel, is now available in four different configurations and has voice control. Users can ask the fridge to read recipes out loud, order online goods or take advantage of a number of apps – The View Inside, Calendar, Memo and Recipe.

Samsung also unveiled a FlexWash washer and FlexDry dryer, which, as the moniker implies, are actually two machines in one. There’s a top-loader on top of a conventional front-loader. The idea is that the laundry-laden consumer can wash and dry two loads independently at the same time. Unlike rival dual washers, which have the second wash space below the main door, there’s no stooping required.

Audio continued to make (sound) waves at CES.

Technics added the Grand Class SU-G700 two-channel digital amplifier, SL-1200GR direct drive turntable and SB-G90 floorstanding loudspeakers, which features a newly-developed Balanced Driver Mounting architecture.

The turntable looks to be significantly cheaper than its SL-1200G predecessor. Cost savings have been made with the platter, build and aluminium arm tube.

Samsung FlexWash and FlexDry
Samsung FlexWash and FlexDry

Demonstrations of the combo were breath-takingly good, even in the far from perfect listening environment of the Venetian Tower (imagine the Bristol Hi-Fi show with slots).

An intriguing addition to the main hall was a Hi-Res Audio Pavilion (not actually a pavilion at all), which included a full-size recording studio. Apparently, US audiophiles now have access to approximately 21,900 albums in a high-res audio format. Of these, around 250 are available in the new MQA format. And there’s a good deal more to come, as Warner preps its catalogue and 7-Digital moves behind the Bob Stuart-developed standard.

Pioneer unveiled a new portable high-res audio player, the Android-powered XDP-300R, which has a 4.7in touch-screen, dual ESS 384kHz/24-bit DACs, and support for all key hi-res formats.

LG’s levitating PJ9 wireless speaker was also a surprise hit – so much so that on day two of the show, barriers had been erected around the exhibit, already in a glass box, to ensure the curious kept their distance. The PJ9 hovers above its Levitation Station, thanks to the magic of magnets. Expect it to attract crowds when you window display it later this year.